Book Review – Doctor Who: The Day She Saved The Doctor

  • Title: Doctor Who: The Day She Saved The Doctor
  • Authors: Jacqueline Rayner, Jenny T. Colgan, Susan Calman, Dorothy Koomson
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 12/26/2018

**Spoiler Alert** The Day She Saved the Doctor is a collection of four short stories, well, novelettes. Each story features a female companion and a popular Doctor, and the theme for the four stories is that the companion must “save” or rescue the Doctor. Mind you, in the show the female companions, and even some of the male companions rescued the Doctor all the time. All four stories are also written by female writers and the book designer is also a woman (and from Milwaukee!).

Sarah Jane and the Temple of Eyes
Jacqueline Rayner

The first story, “Sarah Jane and the Temple of Eyes” has the Fourth Doctor (as played on the television series by Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane arriving in Ancient Rome. They no sooner start exploring an ancient marketplace than a woman runs out into the street – her eyes are white and she’s been blinded. But the woman wasn’t always blind and she had been missing a few days. Sarah asks her what happened but she has no idea. Sarah and the Doctor escort her home and discover that four other merchants wives had recently been blinded, under similar circumstances. Sarah smells a story, but she also is convinced that whatever is going on it’s not normal for Imperial Rome.

Sarah and the Doctor split up to interview the other victims, and even the wives of other merchants who are in the same social circle and might know something. But Sarah meets a woman who is the person behind it all and the Doctor gets a warning about the woman but is too late to rescue Sarah. Sarah is taken by Marcia to the temple home of a female-only cult that worships a goddess. There she meets a priestess who is using an alien machine to harvest information from other women. Unfortunately, the machine has the side effect of leaving people blind and Marcia is actually harvesting information to help her husband, also a merchant, in his business dealings.

The Doctor goes to the temple but the guards won’t let him in because he’s a man. He sneaks in but the priestesses get very upset that a man has invaded his temple. They threaten to kill the Doctor by a poisonous snakebite and use the alien machine on Sarah. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to fix the machine and then has Sarah try it. The machine doesn’t blind her and after the priestess experiences Sarah’s memories of the Doctor, the priestess agrees she can’t kill the Doctor because he is a good man. She also sees that Marcia was taking advantage of her. The Doctor and Sarah leave, as they depart in the TARDIS, Sarah wonders if they might have changed history, but the Doctor reminds her that no one really knows anything about that particular female-led Roman religion.

Rose and the Snow Window
by Jenny T. Colgan

The second short story in The Day She Saved the Doctor is Jenny T. Colgan’s “Rose and the Snow Window”. The story starts with the Ninth Doctor and Rose arriving in Toronto in 2005, the Doctor is looking for a time puncture. He sets up a telescope in an apartment in a high rise apartment building. Rose looks through the telescope and sees a candle-lit room opposite. The Doctor and Rose investigate and soon find a connection between Toronto and Russia in 1812.

They travel back to Russia in 1812 where Rose meets the Russian count she had seen in the window in 2005 Toronto. The young man is bereft because he is being forced into a marriage of convenience to save his family. He soon falls for Rose because she is unlike anyone he has ever met. She also falls for the handsome Count. Do to an attack of some sort of robot or alien that recognizes Rose as an “anomaly” Count Nikolai pulls on the red ribbon she wears and the two snap back to 2005 Toronto. Rose introduces the Count to modern conveniences like hot showers, electric lights, and fluffy towels warmed on a radiator. The Count is delighted by each new discovery he makes, and Rose enjoys this immensely.

They return to Russia again with the Doctor, and gradually the Doctor and Rose figure out that the woman Nikolai is supposed to marry is actually an alien who feeds on psychic energy. She essentially bribes Nikolai – offering him money, security for his family, and no children so the timeline will be preserved. Nikolai decides to reluctantly go through with it. Rose interrupts the wedding. The anomalies get worse with a troop of confused Mounties appearing in 19th century Russia. (Mind you, this isn’t wholly accurate. The Mounties have ceremonial duties, which is the only time they wear red serge. Otherwise, in the Western provinces and territories, the Mounties have duties similar to the FBI or State Police in the US.) The Doctor ends up binding with the alien so it can go home. Later, Rose and the Doctor check on Nikolai’s history – knowing that without a rich purse, the only thing for him to do was join the Russian military in 1812.

“Rose and the Snow Window” had a great sense of atmosphere, and the story centers more on Rose than the Doctor but the Doctor is still a strong presence and it’s a good partnership story about the two of them. I quite enjoyed it. It’s also the longest story in the book.

Clara and the Maze of Cui Palta
by Susan Culman

Clara is basically having a bad day at the start of her story in this collection. It’s not terrible, but she’s bored, frustrated, and really needs a vacation. She convinces the Doctor to take her on a “relaxing spa vacation”. I did have some trouble figuring out if Clara was with the Eleventh Doctor or the Twelfth Doctor in this story, but by the end, I’m pretty sure it was the Eleventh Doctor (as played by Matt Smith on the BBC television series). The two arrive on Cui Palta, one of the great resort planets. They explore, as the Doctor raves about all the relaxing things they can do, but gradually Clara becomes uneasy. Clara’s unease and discomfort grow, and she points out the problem – there are no people. The Doctor pooh-poohs this observation. There are also yellow flowers everywhere and the Doctor encourages Clara “to stop and smell the flowers.”

The two continue walking, then see an entrance to a garden maze. Clara again has misgivings, but the Doctor says it will be fun to solve the maze. They enter but get hopelessly lost, going around and around in circles. Clara confronts the Doctor with this but again he pooh-poohs and ignores her. This continues and the traps in the maze get more and more dangerous. When they find dead skeletons, the Doctor acknowledges that something is wrong. They continue trying to solve the maze – which now includes moving walls and mirrored corridors. Finally, they reach a courtyard with three doors – only to find that when they open and walk through a door – they return to the courtyard.

It’s in this three-choices section that Clara and the Doctor are separated but they can still communicate by yelling to each other. Clara trips and being close to the ground and sneezing (as she’s been doing throughout the story) she used a hankie the Doctor gave her to cover her nose and mouth. Then she sees things clearly – it’s all an illusion and the Doctor is literally running in circles. She calls out to the Doctor to get low and cover his nose and mouth. He does and the illusion breaks. The two leave the maze and city for the TARDIS and leave the planet. But it begs the question as to how the psychoactive flowers got there in the first place and did they really poison all the people on the planet.

Like the Sarah Jane story, Clara and the Maze of Cui Palta plays up Clara’s personal fears – this time her fear of getting lost. But this is also probably the strongest story in terms of the theme of the Companion saving the Doctor – because in this story it seems like the Doctor never would have figured it out. But he also discounts Clara’s concerns frequently – and she comes off a bit spoiled and a bit of a know-it-all. So although it handles the theme in a direct way, I liked other stories in the collection better.

Bill and the Three Jackets
by Dorothy Koomson

Bill and the Doctor are in the TARDIS, and Bill is trying to convince the Doctor to let her go shopping. The Twelfth Doctor (as played by Peter Capaldi on the British series Doctor Who) tries to convince Bill she can certainly find something to wear for her date in the TARDIS’s wardrobe rooms, he even tells her he probably has an entire room of jackets, but Bill is unconvinced and succeeds in getting him to let her go shopping.

Bill goes into town and finds a shop she never really noticed before. Inside are racks and racks of jackets. The shop clerk, who has a name tag that reads, Ziggy, seems friendly enough and before long Bill’s picked out three jackets to try on. She slips on the first one, an amethyst jacket, and is about to take a selfie when the Ziggy objects, the jackets are exclusive designs and the shop doesn’t allow selfies. Bill thinks this is weird but she puts her phone away. The Ziggy then offers to take pictures with her Polaroid camera. The picture seems to be taking an extraordinary amount of time to develop so the clerk puts it on the counter. Bill tries on a green jacket and a gold leather one with buckles. But she also starts to feel ill and weak. Ziggy had taken pictures of her in each jacket. Ziggy urges Bill to get something to eat and then come back and make her decision.

Bill leaves and walks to a nearby coffee shop. But her coffee and sandwich don’t taste good to her and her stomach ache gets worse. Later the owner of the coffee shop comes out and asks Bill where the girl went, the one who ordered a coffee, chips, and sandwich and didn’t pay. Bill’s confused – that’s her order, but she definitely paid. Yet the coffee shop owner insists she’s someone else and the other girl didn’t pay.

Bill goes to the TARDIS and the Doctor doesn’t recognize her either. Moreover, there’s another Bill in the TARDIS. Bill now knows something is very wrong. She tries to figure out how she can get some help and realizes that there’s a girl she knew at university, someone to whom she always gave extra chips. Bill approaches the girl who’s reading a science fiction novel in the cafeteria. Bill explains her story and then tells her about the extra chips. The girl, being an SF fan, actually believes Bill. The two set off for the shop. They get the photographs and then confront the Doctor and the fake Bill again.

Bill tears up the photos and she starts to appear to be herself, while the fake Bill is obviously an alien shapeshifter. The camera was loaded with psychic paper, and the shapeshifter used it to stabilize her form. But when the Doctor and Bill ask why she did it, they find out she was fleeing a repressive regime on her home planet. Now she just wants to go home. The Doctor explains he must take the shapeshifter to a different time as well as place – if he took her to the planet now it would just be empty space. But he agrees. Bill’s compassion for the shapeshifter is instrumental in the Doctor’s decision to help. Bill also gains respect for the girl she’d flirted with but never really spoken to before.

There are no bad guys in this story. The alien is simply homesick and using its natural abilities and a little psychic paper to get what it wants. Bill’s own insecurities made her a mark in the first place, not that that’s completely fair (everyone is insecure sometimes). Bill learns a lot about herself about a friend and about the alien and the Doctor. And the Doctor is passive in this story – he’s as vulnerable to the alien’s illusion as anyone else who doesn’t know Bill. It’s a good story, with an important point about being comfortable in your own skin rather than trying to be someone else’s idea of perfect.

This was a fun collection and I enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

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Book Review – Vox

  • Title: Vox
  • Author: Christina Dalcher
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 12/17/2018

**Spoiler Alert** Imagine if armed storm troopers of a new Conservative Christian government came into your place of work and removed all the women there – at gunpoint. Imagine if you were a tenured professor of neurolinguistics – and suddenly, you were simply a wife and mother with all your previous earnings and property transferred to your husband. Imagine having your passport taken from you and your daughter denied her first one? Imagine having to wear a gadget on your wrist that counts every word you say, and if you go over 100 – you get an electric shock. Imagine your daughter going to an indoctrination school where she’s taught sewing, cooking, and gardening – and a little math, but it’s illegal for her to learn to read or even to have books, and your son goes to a purity school where the Bible is used to teach him how men are better than women, men have the right to control women, women are meant to be submissive to men, and it’s women’s fault that men had to come along and shut them up.

This is the world that Dr. Jean McClellan wakes up it. For a novel that seems like the natural successor to The Handmaid’s Tale, Christina Dalcher’s Vox actually has a surprisingly bubbly narrator. Despite the story being set in Washington DC, Jean sounds like a California blonde. But she is a brilliant neurolinguist and before losing her job at gunpoint, her research specialty was Wernicke’s aphasia. She and her team, consisting of another woman, Dr. Lin the chairperson of the department, and an Italian research fellow named Dr. Rossi were researching a cure for Wernicke’s aphasia, which is an acquired disorder in which people use the wrong words when trying to communicate.

Jean experiences daily horrors – her son, Steven, coming home to announce he’s joined the Purity Movement (basically the Hitler Youth). Later he announces he will marry the girl next door before he turns 18 because then he will get a $10,000 bonus for marrying before 18 and $10,000 for each kid he and his wife have. A few days later, Steven cries that he “did something awful”. That night, an armored car pulls up to the house next door – and the girl, Julia, is dragged away. Her hair is cut, she’s paraded on TV in a grey dress, and she’s shamed for having premarital sex – which is now a crime. She will be sent to a work camp, with a counter on her wrist set to zero instead of one hundred. She’ll spend the rest of her days as a mute slave.

Steven tells his mother that he and all the other boys were made to swear and say “dirty things” at the TV in school when Julia was put on display and that the teachers gave them sheets of paper filled with words they had to use in letters to Julia. Late that night, an ambulance arrives next door. Olivia King, Julia’s mother, queen of the local neighborhood Purity Wives, has electrocuted herself with her own counter. She recorded twenty words into a recorder. Set it close enough to her wrist counter for the voice to be picked-up but far enough away that she couldn’t move it or stop it and put the recorder on a loop. She’s taken from the house unconscious, her hand burnt to a crisp. We can guess she’s dead, though it’s not crystal clear in the novel what happened.

In another vignette, Sonia, Jean’s daughter has a nightmare and screams out in her sleep. Both Jean and her husband rush to the bedroom and her husband clamps his hand over his daughter’s mouth to stop her from talking and getting shocked to death. Jean has used all her words for the day and can say and do nothing to comfort her daughter.

The next day, Sonia gets an award of ice cream at school. Jean checks her counter and realizes her daughter hasn’t spoken a word – all day.

In between the vignettes of terror, Vox also tells the story of Jean and her college roommate – an African American Lesbian named Jackie. Jackie is always joining causes and handing out political leaflets and trying to get Jean to help her. But Jean is too busy to care about politics. In the new regime, Jean knows that Jackie has also been sent away to a work farm to live with a gay man for a bedroom mate in the “conversion” camps – and to do heavy unpaid labor. Jean at times seems to think Jackie was “silly” with all her campaigns, but she also knows that ignoring a steadily declining situation is what lead to this new regime.

The novel flips between describing the daily horrors of Jean’s new life, and memories of her old one. Then government men show up at her door. They take off her counter and tell her the president’s brother had a skiing accident and has brain damage – in the Wernicke’s aphasia area. They try to talk her into joining a government team to come up with a cure. Jean’s given 24 hours to think about it. Jean tells them “no”. She’s then fitted with a new counter, one that decreases her daily word count by 10 every time she swears. And she’s given a sheet of “daily affirmations” she must say every day. They all describe the superiority of men over women and how God wants it that way. It’s nearly too much for Jean.

The next day, she’s given a chance to join the team. Jean asks for and gets a few concessions that weren’t offered the last time – her daughter’s counter in removed. She’s allowed to take her daughter out of school and teach her at home on the days she’s not working. She signs a contract and gets a decent salary, but of course, it goes in her husband’s bank account.

Jean goes to her new job. Lin and Dr. Rossi are waiting for her. The lab is very well equipped – and there’s no way it was pulled together in a few days. This is clue number one. It also turns out that Jean, Dr. Lin, and Dr. Rossi had already discovered a cure for Wernicke’s aphasia – a cure Jean hid when she lost her university job. There are enemies all around the three, but gradually as they go through the motions of research, allies seem to appear. But one of the prime enemies is Morgan, a “scientist” who had attempted to get a job in Jean’s department – he’s not intelligent, incapable of doing hard research, and difficult to work with as well. It’s not stated outright, but he’s the type of man with no talent of his own who blames women for his “not getting a good position” – never mind that the women in question have three times the experience he does, and four times better research skills. Morgan is of course highly placed in the new regime. When Jean’s a few minutes late on a Saturday because her babysitter, Olivia King has died and she needs a new one on short notice – Morgan tells her, “See, … this is why the old way didn’t work. There’s always something. Always some sick kid or a school play or menstrual cramps or maternity leave. Always a problem.” Jean’s just seen her next-door neighbor commit suicide – and found out she herself is pregnant. (Her greatest fear is that it’s a girl.) That’s Morgan in a nutshell.

Lin disappears from the team. Jean tries to find out what happened but doesn’t until close to the end of the book. Jean and Dr. Lorenzo Rossi are also secret lovers, picking up their affair from when they both worked at the University – and he’s the father of her child. As an Italian, he’s able to get her a fake passport and keep trying to get her to leave with him. She doesn’t want to leave her remaining children (Steven runs away from home after Julia is taken away to “find her”.)

Jean and Rossi try to find out what’s going on – they know there are three teams – White, Red, and Gold. they know they are the White team. Slowly they realize that the regime isn’t simply after a cure to Wernicke’s aphasia – they want a way to cause it, and a way to make the Wernicke’s Project water soluble. Jean realizes they want a bioweapon. And she realizes just how dangerous it could be if the Conservative Regime could take away the power of speech completely from anyone they want to take it from. Imagine for example if an airline pilot suddenly couldn’t communicate with air traffic control.

This is when Jean also begins to discover there is an underground. It starts with her mailman of all people – and his wife. His wife and daughters have fake counters, live on a farm, and the wife becomes Sonia’s babysitter while Jean works. One of the guards at the government building where she works is also in the Resistance.

Deadlines are pushed up and a human subject, an old woman, is prepared. Jean’s cure works. And Morgan escorts her and Rossi out of the building. They are about to leave the building in Jean’s Honda with some samples strategically hidden on her body when Poe, a creepy quiet guy calls her back in. Jean’s been suspicious of quiet Poe the entire time.

Jean and Rossi are brought to a lower level – the Gold team. Everyone is male and wears a wedding band. They are working on a way to cause Wernicke’s aphasia. Jean thinks of refusing and she discovers to her horror why it’s called “the Gold team” – in a small room, Lin and her lover and Jean’s old college roommate are being held captive, all with zero counter bands on their wrists.
She and Rossi start to formulate a plan.

The novel rushes to its conclusion like a freight train, but it turns out that Poe is a double agent and working for the Resistance – and so is Jean’s husband. With Jean and Rossi’s help and their Wernicke’s aphasia-causing agent, they take down the president and his cabinet, leaving the Director of Health and Human Services as the temporary president. Jean’s husband loses his life in the battle. Jean heads to Italy with her lover, Dr. Lorenzo Rossi, and to have her child there. But the appalling revelation that the Regime was going to permanently silence women, LGBTQA+ people, and anyone the Regime felt opposed their views becomes public and there is backlash against the Purity Movement and a dismantling of what it’s done – in a single year, a year after an African American president was succeeded by President Myers of the Purity Movement.

Again, Vox is a surprisingly bubbly read. It moves fast and many of the chapters are very short. It balances scenes of total horror: Olivia’s death, Julia being dragged away and publically shamed on television, Steven explaining to his mother who has a Ph.D. that it’s her “job” to buy milk; with a fast-paced story of political intrigue. But the best part of the novel is seeing women, well, women and the men in the Resistance, getting their revenge.

And that is the intriguing thing about this novel. It isn’t a story of female heroes breaking an unjust system. It’s a story of a woman discovering the men who have realized that the Purity Movement and its Conservative Regime have gone too far. The solder at the government building joins because his baby daughter isn’t learning how to talk because of her counter. Del and his wife join, well, one gets the feeling they were always a bit “out there” but they also fear for their kids and the inevitable “ride to imprisonment or death” in a black van. Jean’s husband, whom she constantly describes as weak and a bit of a “pussy” is in the dangerous position of being a double agent – and probably pushed to have Jean on the project in the first place hoping she’d have a way to stop it. And we know little of Poe – but he’s also in the dangerous position of being a double agent.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a very fast read. It’s not the depressing dystopian near-future fiction you might expect, but more affirming. And get your friends to read it too. Plus the linguistics aspect is fascinating.

Book Review – A Wizard of Earthsea

  • Title: A Wizard of Earthsea
  • Author: Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 11/25/2018

I finished this over Thanksgiving Weekend, but with one thing or another, this is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit down and review it. The first paragraph promises a story of Sparrowhawk famous Archmage and dragonlord before he was famous, and this volume (the first of three) is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Ged lives on a small island located in the Archipelago of Earthsea, there isn’t much to do on his island but herd goats or fish in the sea. One day, Ged overhears a woman use a command to control her herd of goats – he tries it and all the goats move to him when he repeats the command the goats move in closer. An old woman witnesses this and prevents Ged from being crushed. She informs him he has magic and he could be a talented wizard. She takes Ged under her wing and begins training him. Ged does well. A few years later, as Ged realizes he’s close to learning everything he can from his local witch, a sorcerer comes to visit his village. the sorcerer offers to train Ged, now called Sparrowhawk, further if he follows him. Ged agrees and abandons his home island.

This new wizard reminds me of Yoda. He says little but expects Ged to learn by listening and observing. Sparrowhawk begins to learn a bit about controlling the natural world, such as influencing and even calling to himself animals and birds (he’s especially good with birds of prey, thus his name) and influencing the weather (which he’s less successful at). He meets a young girl, but the wizard training him warns Sparrowhawk off her because she’s “dark” (meaning “dark side” or evil). The girl gets Sparrowhawk to go through the wizard’s library and open and read one of his forbidden tombs. Sparrowhawk does this and is attacked by a dark shadow. The wizard arrives to beat it off – but gives Sparrowhawk an ultimatum – go to the wizard university to study, or stay and keep his nose out of forbidden books. Despite warnings of dire consequences, Sparrowhawk chooses to go to the wizard university.

The first test at the wizard university is to successfully find the door and enter. It takes Sparrowhawk a few tries but he succeeds. He’s introduced around by an assigned an older student as a mentor. Sparrowhawk immediately dislikes the student who’s meant to show him around and help him adjust to life at the school. It was extremely unclear to me why Sparrowhawk thought Jasper was out to get him. Jasper seems perfectly kind and polite. Jasper is no bully and neither is he the type of spoiled “top boy” who can be irritating because he is so perfect. But Sparrowhawk chooses to dislike the boy who is meant to help him out. Sparrowhawk also makes a friend, Vetch. So he remains at the school, doing well in his studies.

But one day, Jasper does challenge Sparrowhawk (or vice versa) and in the ensuing fight, Sparrowhawk remembers the dark spell he learned from his second teacher, the quiet wizard. He tries to cast the spell, and it backfires spectacularly – Sparrowhawk and Jasper are injured and knocked out, and the Archmage of the school who attempted to contain the evil is killed. After he recovers from his physical hurts – Sparrowhawk is greatly humbled and finds learning magic less instinctive and very difficult. But he continues.

Eventually, Sparrowhawk does graduate, and he’s sent to a small fishing island to the far East of Earthsea. He becomes close friends with one of the fishermen and his family and learns that a dragon with nine children lives on a nearby island and is considered a threat. When Sparrowhawk fails to save the fisherman’s terminally-ill son, he has to prove himself, and he goes after the dragons. Sparrowhawk does well, killing or maiming many of the dragons, and driving off the biggest momma dragon. But the dragon warns him of the shadow hanging over him.

Sparrowhawk tries to return to the island that is home to the wizard university but is defeated by the spell that protects the island from evil. Sparrowhawk realizes that the shadow that attacked when he used the evil spell against Jasper never really left him, and he goes on a very long Quest to destroy this shadow. Vetch joins him on the quest. He eventually succeeds and Sparrowhawk’s discoveries during his quest will lead to the next book.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I liked the setting of the semi-independent islands in Earthsea (all of which are direly poor thanks to the lack of central authority, and land). And I liked the Buddhist/Japanese background for the mythology and themes of the story. It reminded me a lot of Star Wars and the Force (all the Wizards who know what they are doing keep telling Shadowhawk about “balance” and how important it is). But on the negative side, the author seems to feel that one Should Not Use “Big Words” in a children’s book (this is a young adult novel, something I didn’t realize when I started it) – a tendency I find really irritating. The language in the book, despite being simplistic, also has a strange structure – almost as if English isn’t the author’s first language (and it is – I looked up the author). There’s a lot of oddly strung-together descriptions that are both long and just strange, much to the book’s detriment. Overall, I give it three out of 5 stars, and I’m not sure when I’ll read the next volume.

Book Review – Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil

  • Title: Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil
  • Author: James Runcie
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 10/25/2018

**Spoiler Alert** Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil is a collection of four short stories. Set in the early 1960s, Sidney and his wife, Hildegard are now expecting their first child. The first story, “The Problem of Evil”, concerns a series of murders of ecclesiastical figures in Grantchester and surrounding areas. Because of the nature of the crimes, Sidney and his professional acquaintances spend more time discussing the dogma and doctrine and even popular “heresies” explaining why evil exists than working on the case or their own work. This is unusual for this series, where Sidney’s job as an Anglican priest is often treated as just that, a job – just as a lawyer, firefighter, teacher, or police officer might bring his work home and discuss it with his wife and friends – so does Sidney. Yet, the first story spends considerable time discussing an unsolvable “problem” with no answers, which was a bit off-putting. The case was also actually too easy to figure out and it made Sidney seem a bit slow on the uptake.

The second story involves an unusual art theft and was more similar to what we usually see in this series. It was also a case of someone committing a crime for reasons other than personal gain.

The third story I found really interesting by pure coincidence. I happened to be re-watching the television series based on Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter series, including The Nine Tailors when I was also reading Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil. The third story features a film production company coming to Grantchester to film a production of “The Nine Tailors”. Sidney’s even talked into playing a small part in the film, and Dickens is cast as his character’s dog. When a horrible accident occurs during filming resulting in the death of one of the actors, Sidney investigates the case. He also gets quite frustrated with his temporary part-time acting job because it’s just not the right job for him. Anyway, Sidney teases out the various relationships, and ultimately, as always solves the case. Sadly, though, Sidney’s Labrador Retriever, Dickens, who is now twelve, caught a bad case of pneumonia jumping into a river in Winter. And sadly, with the dog in pain and not eating, Sidney and Hildegard decide to have Dickens put down.

The last story is a bit of a Christmas story. As mentioned before, Hildegard is pregnant. Sidney’s friend Amanda also gets him a new Labrador puppy, named “Byron”. One of Sidney’s parishioners has her baby, without complications, but then the baby is snatched from the hospital. As Sidney and Geordie rush to find the missing child, Sidney also prepares for Christmas, his own new child, and his new puppy. In other words, he has a lot on his plate. But he also does the rounds interviewing everyone – nurses at the hospital, anyone who may have reason to kidnap a child, etc. This case has the best resolution of the four in the book because it’s based on character and redemption. Sidney has a conversation with one of the nurses and discovers she’s had three miscarriages. He also notices things about the woman’s home – such as it being warmer than it should be. Sidney tells her that if the child is returned, unharmed, even dropped off at the church or police station, all will be well. There are no unfair accusations or punishments against the nurse who kidnapped the child. The baby is dropped off at the mother’s parents house. Mother and child are reunited and checked out at the hospital but both are fine. Although Hildegard has to undergo a Cesarean section to safely deliver her child, everything is fine and she and Sidney have a healthy baby girl. Sidney also brings home his new puppy, Bryon, and all ends happily.

I’d say the last story was definitely the best of the bunch in this collection. The art theft story was OK but felt a little flat. The Nine Tailors story was interesting but it also has a lot of stereotypes about actors and the behind the scenes workers in the film and television industry that seemed to be a bit unfair. And the first story just didn’t work for me: I’d pretty much figured it out much too early. I actually don’t like that – if, as a reader, one figures out the solution too early in a detective story, it makes the detective seem dumb and unprofessional, plus the story becomes boring since you’re just waiting for the pieces to fall into place for the detective. However, I will say that I like Sidney, Hildegard, Geordie, and the other regular characters in the Grantchester novels. The books have diverged from the television series significantly, and that is OK in my book. Recommended with reservations.

Book Review – The Poppy War

  • Title: The Poppy War
  • Author: R.F. Kuang
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/26/2018

**Spoiler Alert** The Poppy War is an engrossing first novel, that was hard to put down at times. Most fantasy novels have a Medieval European background to them – the technology, clothing, weapons, armor, use of animals or other transportation, etc. is all based on a Medieval European background and then other magical forces are added into that based on how the author wants magic to work in their world. Even more modern fantasy novels are set in the Western world, most of the time. The Poppy War is the first fantasy novel I’ve read personally set in China – with Chinese history, technology, and mythology at its heart. Now, the author gives original names to her fantasy country and it’s enemies and allies, but even in the map – it’s China. That makes this a unique novel. Going beyond the background this is also a good story and it’s hard to put down at times.

Fang Runin is a war orphan. By order of the Empress, after the Second Poppy War, all families with less than three children were ordered to take in one of the many war orphans in the Nikara Empire. Runin, who goes by Rin, thus is raised by shopkeepers in Rooster Province. Rooster Province is one of the poorer and more rural provinces of Nikara. At fourteen, her foster mother informs her she’s made a match for Rin – and older, wealthy man that if they form an alliance will increase her foster family’s drug smuggling profits by making it easier to access the nearby port. Rin does not want to marry – and really doesn’t want to marry the disgusting older man her family has picked for her. So she makes a bargain and manages to talk her foster mother into letting her wait and study for the Keju Empire-wide test for admission into one of the Empire’s academies. No one believes Rin will be able to do well on the test so her foster mother agrees to the two-year delay. Rin then finds a tutor to help her study for the test – paying him in stolen drugs from her family’s business since she has no money of her own.

The novel opens with Test Day for the Keju, where a great deal of emphasis is placed on stopping cheating. A few days after taking the test, Rin gets the news – she passed. And not only did she pass, but she got the highest score in Rooster Province, securing her a place at the exclusive Sinegard Military Academy. A place at Sinegard is exactly what Rin wanted – it gets her away from her arranged marriage, it gets her out of Rooster Province, and it will secure her a good job after college (so to speak). She’s frightened but excited and she and her tutor set off for the capital city and Sinegard.

Rin’s first year at Sinegard proves to be extremely difficult – she’s bullied by other students and teachers alike. She learns that because she has dark skin and comes from the rural Southern part of Nikara, she has to prove herself over and over. She is actually attacked by a bully in her Combat class, and sees her bully suspended from class for a week – only to have her Combat instructor who had berated her with racist comments throughout class – kick her out of class entirely. Not only is she prevented from attending a required class, but she’s barred from training with other students, using the training room, or obtaining her combat training in any other way.

However, Rin is determined to succeed, so she goes to the library and starts studying martial arts books. She eventually borrows some texts forbidden to First Years and tries to teach herself martial arts (not her best idea). She also has a class called “Lore” but the teacher never arrives for class and by the time Rin is kicked out of Combat class, the rest of the students have given up on even pretending to show up for Lore class. Since the outdoor or indoor (depending on the season and weather) classroom for Lore is empty, Rin uses it for training. She catches the eye of the Lore instructor who sees something special in Rin and begins to train her. Rin also slowly but surely becomes adept at Strategy and catches the attention of her Strategy teacher in a good way.

After several more months, Rin gets used to life at Sinegard, starts to learn Lore, is given an insane exercise program (consisting of running up and down a mountainside carrying a piglet on her back. The pig, of course, grows heavier and bigger, until it’s time for it to be slaughtered for food. As crazy as it sounds – as an exercise program, it works.) Rin is also taught martial arts by her Lore instructor and gradually does better in her other classes, especially Strategy.

At the end of the year, all the students have to take finals. If they pass their finals they will be invited by their instructors to be apprentices in a particular track (Strategy, Medicine, Combat, etc). Lucky students may even be able to pick a specialty from multiple offers. Those who fail a test will be kicked out of Sinegard. The Combat final includes a series of bracketed fights or matches. Students do not have to be the best or number one standing to continue at Sinegard, but they must do well enough. And Rin has missed most of her first-year Combat class. However, between the power in her now muscular body, her self-taught footwork, and the martial arts taught to her by her master, Rin does well in her fights – even against one of the boys who bullied her. She gets into the final, and is forced to fight someone much bigger and more powerful than her. The two really beat each other, and when it seems Rin will lose she erupts in fiery power. She runs to the Lore Master for help, and he knocks her out with cold power. She wakes up tied down in the school basement, having no idea what happened.

Rin gradually puts things together, with help from a few friends. She is given two offers: Lore and Strategy – and even though the Combat Master wants her kicked out, she’s allowed to stay at Sinegard. Rin chooses to pledge Lore.

For the next two years, Rin is apprenticed to her Lore Master, while continuing to take other required classes at Sinegard. The students also know tensions are rising between the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen. Mugen had fought Nikara in the First and Second Poppy War. Nikara lost the First Poppy War to Mugen, and barely won the second one thanks to intervention by a Western power called Hesperia. These Wars had left behind large numbers of war orphans like Rin, an Empress who forbid all dealings in narcotics (that is, poppy flower products), and a political policy of isolation. Yet Nikara and Mugen are again rattling the sabre. Border skirmishes and minor attacks continue through Rin’s second and third year. Sinegard being a military academy, these skirmishes are the daily talk of the students and everyone expects a new war to happen soon. The summer of Rin’s fourth year – it does and open war is declared. Mugen attacks the city where Sinegard is located and the military academy itself. The attack looks extremely bad for Sinegard, when the students get involved in the middle of the battle. During a particularly intense battle – Rin again calls fire powers. She manages to kill the leader of the attack but also hurt one of her fellow students. Once she’s recovered, she is sent to the Cike – elite soldiers, assassins, and shamans.

The Cike, having just lost their own leader in mysterious circumstances are now being led by Altan, an older student from Sinegard. They are assigned to protect a port town. They have an early win – but it makes Altan over-confident and doesn’t help with the other provincial warlords assigned to protect the port. The Federation pulls a very sneaky attack, which kills a lot of civilians, and then the port gets stuck in a very long siege. Even the arrival of another warlord and his troops doesn’t help matters much.

After a very long stalemate, the Cike get some new information. They thought they were protecting the Port to prevent Mugen from getting a beachhead and advancing to the wartime capital to the South. Unfortunately, the Federation has found another way to get to the other city and attack it.

The sequence of the warriors from Cike heading into the Southern capital city is one of the most horrific in the book. They go by boat because it’s faster than marching or even on horseback – and the boats encounter a river of blood and corpses. They get to the city, and it’s all over – everyone is dead. The city is a city of corpses – often laid out in grotesque ways meant to intimidate whoever finds it. Even women, children, and babies suffer and are killed by the Federation. This disgusts and angers the Cike. They eventually find a handful of soldiers who hid under corpses or deep within buildings. The soldiers confirm what they know and they try to figure out what to do.

Altan gets the brilliant idea to go to the stone mountain to release insane shamen to continue to fight the war. It’s a bad idea. They release Rin’s master who had released his god, but he pleads to be encased in stone again. They release an old friend of Altan’s – but he goes mad and escapes as the wind god. And to make things worse: Altan and Rin are attacked by the Federation and taken to a lab to be studied and dissected. Altan had been in a lab before and is freaked out. He uses his fire powers to get out and destroy the lab – but ultimately has to destroy himself. Rin escapes into the water and swims to Speer – Altan’s home, and home to the people massacred in the Second Poppy War. There Rin again contacts the Fire Goddess or Pheonix and uses it to strike out at Mugen. She learns just how dangerous calling a god can be – but is also oddly calmed by what she does. She’s rescued by her fellows in the Cike. She’s informed that Altan named her his successor before they even left on their final mission together. The last two paragraphs suggest there will be a sequel.

This was a truly different novel. The mythology and history are different than one is used to in European Medieval based fantasy novels. Rin is a very strong character, and the novel is completely in her point of view, if Rin falls sick or is knocked out – we don’t know what is going on until she wakes up. If Rin is confused – so is the reader, but in a good way. There is one brief bit not in Rin’s point of view, and it honestly seems to be there so the reader realises than when something is revealed to the Cike later, the reader understands it and believes it – rather than thinking like some of the Cike it can’t be true. This seems to be setting up a book two. I liked this book – Rin is a badass, and her fellow students and later fellow warriors in the Cike are interesting, well-rounded characters. Plus it was just fun to read a different type of fantasy novel. I highly recommend this novel.

Note: This novel is not for young readers – there is swearing, rough language, and some very intense descriptions of warfare. Overall, I’d give it a PG-13 though, rather than an R rating.

Book Review – Still Life

  • Title: Still Life
  • Author: Louise Penny
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/05/2018

Still Life is an intriguing mystery novel set in a small Anglophone (English-speaking) village in Quebec. It features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec, the Quebec Provincial Police, and his associates. When Jane, a retired schoolteacher, is found dead in the woods near the remote village of Three Pines in November, everyone assumes it is a tragic hunting accident, especially as she was killed by an arrow. However, things are not always what they seem, especially in quaint artistic villages.

On the Friday before her death, Jane Neal, who had painted for years but never shown anyone her art, submitted a painting for the nearby village juried art show. The painting is quite a surprise to the committee but Clara, Jane’s friend, who also is a struggling artist, sees the brilliance of the piece – and convinces the jury to submit the painting to the art show. Two days later, on Sunday, Jane is killed.

Gamache and his crew investigate – assuming the killing was accidental, but trying to find the person who did it. Three Pines holds quite a number of secrets – as well as being populated by people who had found success and given it up to do what they always wanted to do by moving to the village (eg. becoming artists like Clara and her husband Peter; or owning her own bookstore, like the former counselor). Gamache also has a new trainee, Yvette Nichol. One of the brilliant aspects of Still Life is how the character of Nichol is written and treated. In general, the book is third person omniscient – letting you discover what the Inspector and townspeople are doing. But scenes with Yvette also change to her point of view and way of thinking. Yvette always, always, manages to get it wrong, no matter what she does. Gamache tries to take her under his wing and train her – but she bristles under any orders or suggestions he gives her. When she manages to give a good suggestion on the case, she assumes she’s solved it – and demands the credit. I found myself wondering just what was wrong with Yvette. At times she seems almost Autistic – completely unaware of how to connect with people.

The story is extremely well-written and the description of people and places really bring them to mind – without being so full of trivial details as to be irritating. The book also is not so breezy and lacking detail as to be bland and superficial either. It’s a perfect balance.

The story really is about perspective. The perspective Jane puts into her painting – and all her art. The way that Gamache perceives his new trainee – and the way she, in turn, perceives herself and her new position. The way the townspeople perceive each other. Just what, one perceives as success. The painting becomes a metaphor for all of this and more. The artistic backdrop is not simply a background for a cozy mystery – it is integral to the plot and who these characters are. Still Life is a brilliant novel – that is also a well-written mystery.

I highly recommend this novel.

Book Review – A Long Day in Lychford

  • Title: A Long Day in Lychford
  • Author: Paul Cornell
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/22/2018

**Spoiler Alert** The third volume in Paul Cornell’s Lychford series starts out as a discussion of Brexit, and ends with our three female heroes renewing their friendship and purpose by going through adversity. So Brexit happens, and Autumn feels very alone and threatened. It turns out Autumn is a Person of Color, and as such, Brexit is a direct threat to her and her shop. Autumn is now subjected to open racism and is verbally assaulted one night at the pub. When she leaves to avoid more trouble, Rory Holt follows her and continues to yell obscenities at her because of the color of her skin. Autumn unconsciously uses her powers to push him back and stumbles home, only to be woken by PC Shaun who is asking her some very pointed questions, since Rory’s gone missing.

But that’s not the only bothersome occurrence in Autumn’s life – she and Judith are feuding, especially since the Vote. And Lizzie very busy with church business and not able to bring balance between Judith and Autumn.
But Rory isn’t the only one to go missing – a Polish truck driver has also disappeared. And mysterious rave music from the woods underlies everything.

But Autumn, Lizzie, and Judith manage to unite anyway, they look into Lychford’s borders – which are knotted up, and they walk the borders. The three are quickly separated, and each much in her own way, do what they can to solve the supernatural mystery and bring back the Status Quo.

Lizzie finds the Rave, trapped in a moment in time – she’s able to get the young people free. Autumn finds the Polish truck driver, trapped in his flipped over vehicle. She gets him out of the truck, and they manage to find Judith and Rory, and with Lizzie’s help – they all get free and do what they can to fix the borders so supernatural entities cannot enter the world.

I liked this story – the three women are all strong in their own ways, and they are stronger together than apart. A Long Day in Lychford, in particular, speaks to how the three must unite in order to protect their town as well as the other realms. The novelette also seems to suggest there will be a sequel, but I don’t think there is one. Recommended.