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5 books to start the year

(1) {1962} Cover Her Face by P. D. James - 1 Jan 2010

The first of the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries by P. D. James. England a few years after the Second World War -- the rich are still around living with the maids and everything else. A refuge for unmarried mothers. And a young woman - Sally Jupp - that lived in the latter and went to the first to work. This is how the story begins - or at least that's how it begins before Sally is found dead.

What follows is a standard mystery which reveals a lot not only for the dead but also for everyone in the house and in the village and unearths secrets that had been buried for ages. It's well written and it does make you feel the time but it is very obvious an early work - Dalgliesh sounds just as any other inspector and there is nothing special that makes him such a likable character later on. And something with the things that were happening off the pages was not exactly right - in a few places it sounded almost as if James could not find how to tie the things together without a revelation that should have been mentioned much earlier. But at the same time there are enough clues to lead you through the book.

Overall a good start for the series and I do not sorry for reading it - I had meant to read the series in order for ages and I had never read this one before.

3 and a half stars out of 5 and a good book for starting the year.

(2) {2005} Latte Trouble by Cleo Coyle - 1 Jan 2010

The third in the Coffeehouse mysteries series starts with Clare Cosi getting herself in the middle of another big crisis - this time one of her baristas (Tucker) is accused in poisoning his ex-boyfriend. Clare disagrees of course, Matteo is a better help than usually and Madame is around much more and is being a much better shown character than in the first book. Who is missing is Mike Quinn who is on some type of a leave (although he will show up before the end of the book and the chemistry between him and Clare will still be there. The book is about Fashion this time - an old celebrity designer is back with a line of coffee-inspired jewelery and not surprisingly she picks up the Village Blend coffeehouse for her party.

If you had not read the previous two books, some of the conversations may sound a bit strange but the important things are mentioned again when it is relevant.

In the book someone manages to take a bath in the Hudson river, someone else to reveal that they had been in prison once, two people to get in bed together and a lot of coffee recipes to be shared and explained. Add to this someone being caught with drugs and another character being kidnapped and a very old secret to be revealed after a long string of consequences. And of course there will be more than one corpse and enough red herrings to throw anyone in the wrong direction. And the end will be as surprising as an end can come even if something starts ticking at the back of your mind much earlier even if it makes no real sense.

I am not sure I would drink my coffee in a place where so many murders but I love coffee and the whole series is just delicious. And even if it is not great literature, it is amusing and fun to read. Which is more important than anything else.

3 and a half stars out of 5.

(3) {2009} Градче на име Мендосино by Деян Енев ("A small town named Mendocino" by Dejan Enev ) - 2 Jan 2010

The latest collection by Dejan Enev (published in 2009) contains 18 stories in a total of 87 pages. All of them a small tidbits from the life in nowadays Bulgaria - most of them sound memoir-ish (and definitely sound believable); a few set in the past which can also be memoirs; a few just could not be because the main character is not a male journalist.

I like Enev - he is one of the good new authors and he manages to open a window in the life to show some small pictures that show more about the world and Bulgaria than a full novel can. The stories cover a lot of topics and are very different from each other: a phone call from California which gives the name of the collection, parents getting the clothes of their son from the hospital, an O. Henry-style Christmas story that is very predictable but so sweet that it just works, a few nostalgic stories from the past, the story of an old nun and so on and so on. And as different as they are, they have something in common - they are real, not an attempt to say a story with a strange end or trying to find a way to surprise - just saying the story in the old fashioned way that never becomes obsolete. Maybe it won't work for everyone and maybe a lot of the stories won't even be understood properly if you had not lived here but it just touches something in me.

5 stars out of 5 for the book and another great collection from Enev.

* The translation of the title is a direct translation of the Bulgarian title. The book is not (yet) translated.


(4) {2006} Carnival by Elizabeth Bear - 3 Jan 2010

That's a book that just flew under my radar - I skipped it intentionally when it was published (did not sound interesting enough - no idea why) and I bought it at the last days of December 2008 while searching a 4th book for one of these 4 for 3 books deals in Amazon. And I am so happy that I got it. It's what Science Fiction should be - a lot of ideas, great execution and believable setting.

The novel takes place some 500 years in the future (it's mentioned almost in passing somewhere in the book as being 2500 years after Christ or something like this) but the world has nothing to do with the world that we know. A few waves of assessments had wiped out most of the races on Earth (not just people but whole races - it looks like anyone that is not from the African Diaspora had been wiped out) and the surviving ones keep getting assessed. Which is a nice term for being killed by the ruling machines. Somewhere between all the assessments, a lot of people managed to get off the planet and created colonies... which the coalition that formed on Earth now try to get back into its grasp. So far nothing special - a coalition/empire/foundation and a few states that try to remain independent. It's as old setting as you can imagine one but somehow the novel sounds fresh.

Michelangelo Osiris Leary Kusanagi-Jones and Vincent Katherinessen are two spies/diplomats for the coalition (and the history of those names is just one of the fascinating moments in the book). Additionally they are partners (both in work and romantically) and they had been separated for way too many years. In a way, the novel can be considered their love story. But it is much more than this. Because the world they are sent to this time is New Amazonia - a place where the women and men had switched roles in an attempt to make it a better place. Except that it had not worked - the roles are changed but that's about it. The world is the same - the men behave and are treated as the women in the old world and the women behave as men. It is as believable as possible - that's just the way the human race behave. Add to this some aliens and the picture starts getting complicated.

Most of the book deals with the complicated world they all live into - showing how New Amazonia works and revealing the truth about assessments, what had happened and why things happened. A grim future shown in sparse words and with masterful imagination. But it is also a character-driven story because all that happens can happen only with these people and at this time.

A story of love, future, aliens, AI and something more. One of the most beautiful stories I had read lately. And even though this future is as grim as possible, it also has a hope... through the whole novel, all the way to the last sentence. I just wish Bear had decided to write a prequel/sequel to it - I want more from this world.

A small warning though: if you have any issues with same sex relationship, you might not enjoy the book as much - it relies heavily on such and even has sex scenes between the main characters.

5 stars out of 5. And I suppose I am on the hunt for other novels by Bear. :)

(5) {2006} Cleanskin by Val McDermid - 4 Jan 2010

Cleanskin is written in 2006 as part of the Quick Reads program - short books from popular authors published in an attempt to get the non-reading part of the population in UK to read. I am not quite sure if the goal was achieved (never really checked) but the program created some very nice novellas such as this one.

The whole book is 128 pages but the text is down to 113 or thereabouts, with short chapters, big font and a lot of free space. It is a novella although I am not sure if it is not closer to a long novelette in size than to a short novella. But that's not really important. Because the book works.

A nine-year-old girl dies in a house fire. Her father - Jack Farrell - is one of the criminal bosses in town. And because of this, the DCI that get called to the scene is the resident expert in all things Farrell: Andy Martin. Except that Andy has no idea what happens - not only with the fire but he is left totally amazed of what follows. While the police race in an attempt to find out who killed a child in cold blood, a series of corpses start to appear - some expected, some being a total surprise. And all of them had died gruesome deaths. And in the middle of this nightmare, Andy needs to find some time to deal with his own private life.

The truth is as unexpected as one can come but it never sounds unbelievable or staged; we get the same blow that Andy gets. And McDermid goes on to dig the knife deeper, to remove any hope from the situation and to mark even the honest men with the sign of dishonesty. Because the world cannot be a good place if a child can die.

A couple of warnings here:
- the description on the back cover gives out what happens in the middle of the book... if it was a novel, an action on page 50-60 or thereabouts can be revealed but for a novella, it just shouldn't have been.
- if you cannot read about gruesome murders, you better skip it. The descriptions of all murders are there and even if they are somewhat toned down, the details are in the text.

4 stars out of 5 for the novella (and the missing star is for the oversimplifying of some things... especially in the latest chapters. At least McDermid manages to finish it satisfactorily if a bit rushed - Ian Rankin's novella in the same program almost falls flat at the end).

Undone (Genesis) by Karin Slaughter

I am still trying to figure out why the publishers keep changing books names....  In this case the same book got published as Undone in USA and Genesis everywhere else. Both names kinda work but Genesis is the one that suits better in some ways.

Getting both her series together, Karin Slaughter had moved Sara Linton in Atlanta, where she is trying to survive after the disaster that happened in Grant County. The story is dark and ugly so if you do not like seeing what people can do to other people, just find another book. But in the same book the author managed to add friendship, love and enough feelings to make you believe in good. The first 2/3rd of the book are really good - fast-paced, logical and highly readable. The last 1/3rd is weird - in places it feels rushed, in places it just feels like someone either forgot to write a piece or an editor deleted a piece of an earlier part of the book so the whole thing just comes unexpectedly. But even like this, it's an interesting book.

It probably helps if you had read the previous books but all the needed back story is in the book, in the proper places to make sense so it is not mandatory. Which makes the book even better - before it I had read only one book (from the Grant County series) so I was worried a bit before this one. Turned out not to be a problem. However - if you are planning on reading all the Grant County books and you do not like spoilers, do not read this one first.

It's a crime story - women get killed, women get abducted, the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) is there. But under the surface it is a story for the bad and good in people, for the choices someone makes, for the bad things that can happen and for the lives of people which seem to have lost almost everything. I am not sure which part was better - the actual story that was running or the background with all the strange relationships and fears.

The characters are interesting - Will and Faith make such a partnership that made me smile even in this ugly story; Amanda is just hilarious in most places and effective in the rest; Sara is ... interesting (and I will probably be tracing down more books about her - she seems like a ghost in the better part of the book and the for the rest, she seems to try to make a full appearance). And then there is Angie. I kinda understand the back story and all but I still do not understand her at all. And while Will at least makes a strange but likable character, Angie is just... weird (and I will probably pick up the first two books from the Atlanta series also - hopefully they will give me some idea why everything happens in the way it does with her...)

I will be interested to see where this story goes after this. 3 and a half stars out of 5 for this one and I definitely found a new author to keep an eye on.

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The Unbelievers by Alastair Sim

Welcome in Scotland in 1865.

Inspector Allerdyce is one of the people in the Edinburgh's police force that cares for his work and is more than unhappy when he is pulled from the day-to-day work to search for a missing husband. Of course it is not a John  Doe - it is the Duke of  Dornoch and he is not exactly the faithful husband that everyone believes him to be. And this is how starts this Victorian story. What follows is a mix of murders, schemes and Scotland during the reign of Queen Victoria. The veterans of the wars in India and Crimea are back home, a huge number of families are sent to Canada and not everyone survived this trip and the gap between the poor and the rich is bigger than ever. And this is the background in which the story takes place.

Sim manages to recreate the Scotland of these times although some of the ways to tell the back-stories are almost unbelievable -- it just sounds as too much of a coincidence someone to have been in India, to have lost a brother in Crimea and his father to have died on the ship to Canada. The stories are fascinating, it's just the whole bundling that does not really work for me. The trip that Allerdyce makes out of the city is a nice touch, allowing us to see the same territories which history we already heard about. And the occasional look into the families of the time (both the one of the Inspector and of his sergeant) adds a layer of credibility of the story and of the fascination of the whole world.

The book starts really slow and it takes a while to actually start moving in some normal speed. For most of the book it is an engaging book. Until the very end - the end, the reason for all that is happening just falls flat. I was prepared to believe anything but not this. It does make sense, it just does not fit the story - at least for me. I even would have preferred the last letter to have been skipped entirely and the reasons to have been left to the imagination of the reader.

A few notes for the physical representation of the book: Snowbooks produce a gorgeous cover again. However the first sentence of the description at the back of the book gives up the surprise what happens after about 100 pages in the book. Not that it is so bad but I would have preferred not to know it.

3 stars out of 5 for the book and if the author ever writes another book for the Inspector, I will check it.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Meet Bruce Wayne - a rich man with a dark secret and James Gordon - a troubled cop that tries to always do the correct thing in a world where the truth and justice are forgotten.

Miller's Batman origin story is dark but it does show a Batman in the making - all the mistakes of the new but at the same time all the principles of Batman that had been seen through the years. And shifting the reason for him being Batman from the revenge is a good thing - yes - his parents are there and their death had happened but it is not the only reason for what he becomes... even if it is still a motivator.

The story is following the lives of the two men that will become friends - Gordon and Batman (with a few cameos of Harry Dent) but it's not as easy as someone would expect. And from both stories, I was more interested in Gordon's - his reasons for the things he was doing, his personal tragedy and his attempts to fit in a new place... and to change it. Batman's story served more as a background and this is what made this graphic novel exceptional - not making Batman the main character but making him the  main reason for everything.

The only parts that just did not work for me were probably when Gordon suspected that Bruce was Batman and Bruce's handling of all the questions and the situation as a whole. It sounded like something out of a children's comics... which is not always bad but just did not work here.

But the book is a great introduction to Batman, James Gordon and  the mess called Gotham City.

Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

How would you search for descendants of someone these days? Obviously the answer is to test their DNA. How would a Valkyrie search for people that have the blood of Odin in their veins? Well - according to van Eekhout there is no reason the answer to be different. This is how the book starts - with the Norse Code project which uses the modern science to perform one of the oldest selections -- the search of the soldiers that will participate in the last battle. (Technically it starts with the Odin's ravens but more about them later).

Even though the project name is the name of the book, it's not a story about it. It's a story for two families. No, it's not a cheesy saga of the lives and deaths of a few generations. The patriarch of one of the families is Odin; all members of the other one (the sisters Kathy and Lilly) had died before the story told in the novel. This does not stop the sisters from being the main characters in the book though.

Everyone knows how Ragnarök is supposed to start - Höðr (spelled Höd here) needs to kill Baldr and this would start a long chain of events leading to the end of the worlds. And van Eekhout does not play with this - he just uses the Norse mythology as a nice playground for his story. And then the worlds go through the motions, as predicted, as expected. What all the predictions had not accounted for is a Valkyrie that wants to save her sister from the world of Hel and a son of Odin that does not exactly agree with Ragnarök – nothing to do with the fact that he is not supposed to live after this (or is it?).

The novel is following three different groups of characters which paths lead them to each other and apart from each other.  The first party consists of Hugin and Munin (the already mentioned ravens); the second includes Kathy (which dies and becomes a very upset Valkyrie before the start of the novel and Hermod (one of Odin’s sons), a dog and at least for a while the Valkyrie’s helper; the third one consist of people that do not exactly agree with being shoved into Hel’s world and is led by Lilly – the second dead sister and the main reason for Kathy to be so upset. And of course – there is one of Odin’s sons in it also.

The ravens are used mostly as a way to show the reader things that the rest of the people in the novel could not know or see. Although the parts told from their viewpoint are some of the most original ones – their perspective and understanding of things is strange and interesting. But the real human characters – gods, dead people, Valkyries and so on – are the ones that carry on the story. Because the main question in the story is clear from the very beginning: “Can Ragnarök be stopped after it had started once? “ The answer is surprising and no, it’s not one of those “and everyone lived happy after this” story. But it is not a pessimistic story either – the author had managed to find the middle ground. And the answer that emerges at the end is not to this question but to another one: “Why does Ragnarök have to happen”.

The only problem that I had with the novel was that it was uneven in places – started good, went downhill, then returned up… and then did it a few more times. There were no parts that are unreadable and there were no parts that were really boring – it was just loosing the speed here and there – not the speed of the action itself but the speed of the story telling; it sounded as if the author got tired but needed to finish this sequence and then after getting his coffee, the speed had been picked up very easily.

It is a must read if you are interested in the Norse mythology (although if you do not like authors bending the mythology and its heroes, you better do not touch it – the author does change some features to fit better to the story). But even if you had never heard of any of the Gods, the back stories are in the novel - light enough not to bother someone that knows it; strong enough for someone to understand what is happening.

(Need to do some counting to figure out which number is this novel in my 2009 novels reading).
I do not seem to get the time or in the mood to write the reviews of everything that I read. So I will keep posting longer reviews when I can and when I have what to say but I will also try to post weekly (or so) lists of what I read with a few words about it.

Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress - a science fiction novel that starts as one of the best books I had read lately and then looses its steam and never picks it up again. Ten thousands years before the start of the book (which is in 2020), a race that calls themselves the Atoners had wronged the humanity in a way they do not want to explain. What becomes clear very soon is that they had taken some people from Earth and put them on other planets - 7 pairs of planets. Pairs... so that a blind experiment can be performed - and now they want witnesses to go to these planets and witness something. And this stealing turns out not to be the big thing that they had done. The part of the book that was following one of these witnesses' teams was the most interesting part - Kress manages to build two very different human societies and to show how our own society deals with change. Then  the witnesses come back on Earth and the books goes downhill. It keeps it up for a while but it just drags and drags. It leads to how the Atoners atone for what they had done... except that in the aftermath of what happens, most of the book becomes irrelevant... and some part remain unexplained. Or maybe the first parts put the bar way too high - if it was put just in a few pages, I might have liked the rest a lot more. But I somehow wish the book had kept strong to the end.... (Number in my list of 2009 year novels that I had read this year: 6)

The Witnesses Are Gone by Joel Lane is a horror novella which is based on a short story by an unknown author. Martin moves in an old house and finds some video cassettes. And decides to watch one of them (haven't he ever watched a horror movie?). It turns out to be from a French director - Jean Rien. And this guy turns out to be the mystery of the century - he is mentioned in some movie magazines and his films are rumors about but it looks like anyone involved with them disappears or worse and most people prefer not even to believe that he exists. And Martin starts on a crusade for searching the films and the director that lead him around the world, almost shatters his life and finally manages to shatter it... Maybe it had been a coincidence, maybe not. The title of the novella is the title of a film which a lot of people had heard about but noone had seen. And at the same time a warning for what will happen if someone tries to find the secret. Or is all this the same thing? It was a nice story about a man finding the meaning of life... and at the same time something just did not work for me - it was following the genre standards so closely that it was clear where everything will lead... if not the details on how. 

Turn Coat by Jim Butcher is the 11th book in the Fantasy series The Dresden Files. Somehow this series remains strong even after so many volumes. Which is not a bad thing considering that this is one of my favorite series. But back to the book. Harry manages to get himself in the middle of the biggest possible mess (again) when Morgan (yes, the same Morgan that was always around to chop Harry's head if he missteps) shows up on his door, hiding from he White Council. In case you had not read the novels or cannot make the connection - Morgan IS the White Council in some ways. But this time he is convicted for killing another member of the White Council  - and not just any one of them but a Senior member. And Harry decides to help (which is not surprising - this is Harry after all). The White Court shows up a lot, working with Harry for a change and almost everyone tries to figure out who had framed Morgan. the rest just want to find and execute him. By the end of the book, the Black Council is still a secret (and most of the big guys still claim that there is no such thing as a Black Council... so some other ones start thinking about a Grey one...), a major character in the book dies, another one is so changed that in some ways is better to be dead and the Blue Beetle is still up and running - even if it spends most of the book towed by the police. So now starts the big waiting for the next book.... (Number in my list of 2009 year novels that I had read this year: 7)

Started Hand of Isis by Jo Graham in Sunday and so far the book keeps my attention. It is a well-known story - Cleopatra's story had been told way too many times. But the narrator and the author's style makes the book more than readable. More about it when I finish it but so far  I have the feeling that I might have found a new author I want to keep my eyes on.

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente is one of those strange novels that we just need a new genre for. It is somewhere between poetry and prose, between fantasy and dreams. Palimpsest is a city where you can go only if you make sex with someone that had been already there and the city marks its people by putting a tattoo on their bodies. And these tattoos are controlling what you can see from the city - you need to be in contact with someone that have a part of the city on their skin in order to be able to go to this place. And the city is real and unreal at the same time - people see their dreams coming true there but at the same time anything that happens there remains valid even after they leave the city and come back to the real world. And the internal logic of the city allows everyone that wants to move permanently in the city - as long as they find the rest of their group (the first time you go to the city, you get connected to 3 more people that had entered almost at the same time and you feel anything that happens to them in this dreamy town) and convince them to emigrate. The novel is the story of one such quarter and their struggle to understand what happens to them and how to remain in Palimpsest forever.

Sei is from Japan, obsessed with trains and the city manifests itself as a non-stop journey in a train which is not exactly train; in a world where trains are alive; November is a Californian girl that deals with bees... and it's not a surprise that the city will show her the other woman, in the other reality that deals with insects; Oleg is a locksmith from New York who had lost his sister before even being born and regardless of it, he still sees her ghost; Ludovico is an Italian master of books binding. Some of them meet unknown people, some of them just go to bed with their halves. But the result is the same - they receive Palimpsest's tattoos and enter the city. Every one of them had lost something - a parent, a sister or a wife and every one of them have their own lives and dreams. And in the world of Palimpsest some of those dreams come true.

Each part of the book contains 4 chapters - going through the life of each of the characters - in the real and in the dreamy world. Even when they get together, this structure is not changed. And every part becomes shorter and shorter and the suspense just builds on. And the city is cruel and alive.

The language in the novel is so poetic that the sex descriptions and the cruel things have their own ring to them - in the same way Dante's creations sound poetic and scary at the same time.

That was the first novel by Catherynne M. Valente that I had read and I liked it. I am not sure that the novel needed the descriptions of the sex that lead to going to Palimpsest, as poetic and matter-of-factly it was and the novel would not have lost anything by not having it. But that's the author choice... and I will probably read some more novels by her - I loved the language and the imagination.

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Number in my list of 2009 year novels that I had read this year: 5

“Paths of Glory” by Jeffrey Archer

If you like Archer because of his portrayal of the contemporary politics and society or because of his mostly fast moving plots, this book will disappoint you. If you like the way he builds his stories and his way with words, you will probably love it. If you had never read anything by him - do not start with this book if you want to use it as a sample of Archer's writing.

Paths of Glory is a novelized biography of George Mallory – one of the most popular British mountaineers of the 1920s and one of the first people to attempt to climb Mount Everest. It had never been proved one way or another if he managed to step on the summit -- and I had never understood why people think that pursuing the truth for Mallory’s attempt jeopardize or is a disrespect to what Tenzing and Hillary achieved in 1953. Even if Mallory and/or Irvine managed to step on the summit, they never returned and it cannot be counted as the first real climb to the top of the world. And even if it can be counted as the first person on the summit – how exactly searching the truth can be a problem? Anyway – back to the book.

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Number in my list of 2009 year novels that I had read this year: 4

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"A Mosque Among the Stars" is a themed anthology which idea is to collect stories that portray Islam or Muslim characters in a friendly light. The goal is a good one but there was a chance the editors to fall into selecting stories that either make no sense to anyone outside the religion or that are trying to push the message too hard and forgetting that this is supposed to be SF anthology. Well - neither happened. The anthology contains 12 stories and their involvement with the topic varies from stories that cannot work without the Islam elements to stories where it seems like one of the characters is made a Muslim just so that the story can fit the anthology. But the overall quality of all stories is pretty good.

The anthology opens with the previously published "A Walk Through the Garden" by Lucius Shepard. The story is set in Iraq, during the war and the main characters are American soldiers which end up in something that looks like the Muslim hell on Earth. The author provides kind-of-explanation for how this had been possible which keeps the story in the science fiction realm, at least the part of it that allows for hell and heaven to exist. I am not sure I liked the beginning and I almost gave up on the story but the things started working at one point and I finished it. And the 10 things at the end were almost hilarious -- especially considering the much darker tone of the story.

And while the first story was set in nowadays Iraq, the next one - "Squat" by Donna McMahon - is set in the future and out of the planet. Mike is a guard/crew on a off-planet jail facility where a young boy is just about to be executed. Except that the boy's guilt is not really proven so Mike decides to try to save him. What follows is a heart-breaking and at times surprising account of how these men that are used to seeing anything need to make their choice between following the laws of men and following the laws of humanity.  The Muslim character here is one of the other men on the station - the only one that carries on all executions. And because of it he is generally ignored by the rest of the crew (even though he also seems to be the only Muslim so maybe at the beginning of the stories there are two reasons for him being ignored). It is one of the stories that would have worked regardless of the religion or race of the story - any good guy would have suited the story in the same way - and I would have loved the story in any way.

And after the two longish starting stories, the third one - "Organic Geometry" by Andrew Ferguson - is the shortest one in the whole anthology. What is the connection between cricket and weapons? Interested? Read the story if you want to find out the answer - it is short enough and saying anything else will spoil the story. I have never been interested in cricket so I was happy that the story was short enough and did not have so many sports references. It was again one of the stories where it was not that important what the religion of the main character is although it did add an  additional meaning of the story. But still - the message would have been there regardless of the religion and race.

The next story - "Synchronicity" by Ahmed A. Khan - confused me a bit. I generally do not like stories where things happen by accident - or as if someone from above guides some people. In most stories it sounds as a sloppy writing and an easy way for an author to build a story. I did feel the same here for most of the story but when I finished it, it somehow worked. It was so unrealistic (if you see a friend pour a glass of water over their head, would you call a doctor (friend or not) or will you just ask the friend what is wrong with them)? The story is built as a bunch of separate interrelated stories from the past and the present that get connected to the end. Definitely not my type of story even if it was masterfully built. But at the same time it was the only story where the faith (and not the religion or anything from the sacred books) was playing a major role (invisible in most of the story but felt in a lot of actions and occurrences) so it fitted the anthology perfectly and complemented it.

What follows is the first story set in the past of our own world - "Cultural Clashes in Cadiz" by Jetse De Vries. This is also one of the stories that relied on the Muslim setting using it exactly as it had been without trying to present it in a good light. What it does is to give the standard facts (or parts of them) but without the bias that is so often found in the works about the Moorish-Christian wars. We see the story from two different view points - the Moorish rulers and the Castile and Leon king and that is what makes it interesting. Add a few time-travelers (that on top of this see their own younger selves from another storyline), a few inventions that have no place in this era and this continent and a guy called Leonard that the travelers try to stop. The name threw me off and I was sure I know who this guy is - I never actually thought that there will be a second Islam connection after the fact that the story was practically set in the Islam culture. So the real reason for the actions of Leonard caught me by surprise and I loved it. It is probably one of the best stories.

And if you think that this anthology will not have a fantasy story, you will be wrong. "Servant of Iblis" by Howard Jones is the only one that is pure fantasy and this one is set even more into the Muslim culture (and it is the only one that tackles something from the mythology and not from the sacred texts. It is a detective story and the protagonists are hired to try to figure out an efreet occurrence (I cheated and googled the word -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ifrit). It is crucial for the story to understand the Islamic mythology if you want to figure it out before the detective but even without having an idea, some of the things were obvious and the rest were explained pretty well. The story had some English sense to it -  where most of the story is used to explain what is happening and how normal it is and the real mystery turns out to be part of real life. It was an enjoyable story and as it seems it is not the only one for this detective so I might try to find out some more of it.

And after these stories set it the Islamic world came one more where the religion did not really matter - a good guy would have played the part regardless of the religion in "The Weight of Space and Metal" by Camille Alexa. Making Jabril Muslim and having the story in this anthology allowed the author not to tell us some of his good characteristics but this is pretty much where the religion plays any part. This and the fact that this gives Jabril a good reason to be in a special room. The story itself is about the crew of a mission to Mars that carries the first woman and how having her and a generally good guy on board influences the other two crew-members. It's a story about what people would do when they do not understand the other and it does explore some of the worse parts of the human conscience quite masterfully.

And after the somewhat cruel space story, comes the lyrical "Miss Lonelygene’s Secret" by C. June Wolf. Set in the future of Earth when people can find their significant others using the science and their genes, And Miss Lonelygene is the person that makes this possible. But not everyone uses her services - the Muslim world is as closed as it had always been. And she falls in love with someone from this world - in the old fashioned way. And this is what the story is about - how someone that had made so many people happy can be happy herself. It was a beautiful story. But I am not sure how it fits in this anthology -- although the Muslims seem to accept some of the technology advances, they still seem to live in their own world. And did I mention that the story has something like a ghost also?

And after the Moors in Iberia, we see one of the other popular premises set in the past -  the slaves story "Recompense" by Pamela Kenza Taylor. A young sailor, Jeremy Hawkins, decides to become part of he crew of a slave ship so he can win some money so he can marry. But he finds out that he does not really have the stomach for it - and then a strange ship shows up - and things start getting really strange for the crew. Because this new ship captain believes in the old "eye for an eye" and at the same time believes that the good people deserve happiness - after they prove to be worthy of it. It is a nice story again but is "eye for an eye" the principle in the Islam? Yes - they were good to Jeremy but only because he was good. If the idea was to show that if you do good, you receive good - it worked. But the other part was kinda strange in this anthology. But then it sounded real. So I guess this is why it is here.

And then almost at the end of the book are two very short (not shorter than the cricket story though) stories. The first one - "A Straight Path Through the Stars" by Kevin James Miller - is about a first contact with a very strange civilization -- and is the world ready for such a contact. The story fits into the anthology beautifully - but if I explain how, I will ruin the surprise. And no, it is not the main characters even if one of them is Muslim even if he and his actions and words also add a lot to the overall spirit of the story.

The second one - "Emissary" by G.W. Thomas - is the funny piece in the anthology. It is first contact story again but very different from the previous one. There is no choice here - the aliens are landing and are sending a message that seems to be saying that they are not making a first contact now. And everyone struggles to find out what they mean so that they can decide if they should evaporate the ship or congratulate whatever shows up there. The Muslims here are just the good guys, could have been anyone else. As long as someone has knowledge in the history of SF. I did not crack the code although it was really clear once it was spelled (and it was an easy one). Nice and funny story.

And at the very end of the anthology came the longest story - "For a Little Price" by Tom Ligon. It was also the third story that I really loved in this anthology (together with De Vries's and McMahon's stories). It is one of those strange stories that start with the end - we understand from the very first page that a Muslim guy had tried to hijack a space ship. In the same way the terrorist take planes these days (and the story is written before 2001). We have two different viewpoints - one of them highly technical - one of the people in the crew of the ship, and the other one - the voice of one of the terrorists. Not the sweet "I was trying to be part of the bad team so I can sabotage it" but the real story of a boy that had been brainwashed in the name of something that has nothing to do with the real religion. A grown-up man that understands how wrong all had been but also knows that he had lived with these ideas. The author builds a believable story - which is also chilling - because if in the future people can brainwash other highly educated people in the name of something, will this world survive?

A nice anthology even though I would have preferred to see more stories set in the Muslim culture than ones that had been using the religious guys as good guys and not using the whole culture that comes with it. But as a whole, it was worth the reading.

Hub 76 - 80

"Montgolfier Winter" by Alasdair Stuart [Hub 76 - 22 Feb 2009] is one of the rarely seen science fiction stories in Hub. The story is set in the far future - Fountain had been bought by the Church and then sold to the Alexandria Institute when the Church had figured out that this world is much better organized than Earth and what they had always thought as the best God's creation is much worse than the ecology of this new planet. The story starts when the Institute decides to give up on the planet also and to shut down the colony. Fountain is a strange world - the winter is a month long and during it the whole surface does not receive even one beam of sunlight. The gigantic trees are covering most of the surface and every one of them produces a seed - the bigger the tree, the bigger the seed. When the winter comes these seeds cut their tethers and fly above the ground and in the atmosphere, blocking the sun and helping the dark that covers the planet for a month. The local birds feed from the seeds, the local animals feed with the local birds and the ecosystem seems to be working in every logical way. Dr Matt Curran has a theory of his own but is not ready to tell anyone. So he decides to prove it... and this is where the story really begins (although the rest of the people on the planet have no idea why he is doing it). And through a few episodes from the past, we get a lot of back story of the worlds and the relationships between the main characters. The end of the story proves that this planet is even more fascinating than anyone though.

It is a nice world, the ecosystem is interesting and I would love to see more stories set there. I was a bit annoyed from some facts being thrown in the story without any previous hint that were the main reason for what was happening. But other from this - I liked the story.

And from a planet somewhere far away from there and a time set in the deep future, "Hidden Underneath" by Malin Larsson [Hub 77 - 01 Mar 2009] returns to the mundane New York with a very short story where a cab driver is getting more and more annoyed from his customers. But this mundane setting is just the setting for the story - the real story is less than 5 lines long and is at the very end and it is a creative one. Had you ever wondered where the urban legends for the alligators in the sewers of New York had come from? Larsson has an explanation in these last lines. And it makes sense in a strange way.

And while the previous two stories were set in a specific place, "Gravestones" by Mari Ness [Hub 78 - 08 Mar 2009] could be happening anywhere - as long as there is a graveyard. It's a very short piece, about something talking and singing in the graveyard. And the children that hear them are terrified. But not from what you would expect. I laughed at the end of this story - it was so unexpected and ridiculous that it made it a really good humorous story.

"SBIR Proposal" by Richard K. Lyon [Hub 79 - 15 Mar 2009] is a letter from the government to a lawyer that had just started to handle his late brother's cases. As it turns out, a proposal had been sent by the brother from the name of a strange corporation and now the government sends their answer, making sure they explain everything so that the answer does not seem like something written by a mad man. Because this corporation does not have even one human in their drafts. And no - there are not aliens in this story, nor there are any robots.I was smiling while I was reading about all the extra points the proposal had won because of some of the laws. And the last sentence in the letter, the PS. put the whole story in a whole different perspective.

And "Hush a Bye" by Beverley Allen [Hub 80 - 22 Mar 2009] is a short tale about what a woman can do so she can sleep when her husband does not want to go see a doctor for his snoring and is it really a good idea to trust what you read on a website. Well - she does not kill him just to stop him snoring... but what she does is in some ways worse.