The Magic Flute (Krishnavatara #1)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

My parents got the the full set of Krishnavatara books when I was young, but I’ve never really felt the urge to read them until recently, when I’ve felt more interested in reading up on parts of my heritage. I knew some of what was in this volume from the stories that my parents told me as a child, and others from when the BBC showed a dramatisation of the Mahabharat back in the early ’90s but I enjoyed refreshing my memory of those, and fitting them into a single narrative (even if it was difficult to keep the various relationships straight in my head).

One thing I liked quite a lot is that the young Krishna feels very human. He’s frankly a bit of a git at times, when he steals butter and breaks jars, and the chapter that involved him killing a heron that seemed to just be protecting its children only made any sense when it was revealed that the bird was possessed (a couple of chapters from the end!).

It was also very interesting to read the note preceding the chapter on Radha which admits that she wasn’t part of the ancient texts, the first mentions only appearing in the first few centuries CE and not becoming fixed in the consciousness until the 12th century CE.

On a similar note, but within the text itself is the festival of Gopotsava, in which Krishna persuades his village to abandon a festival of Indra based on fear and, instead, celebrate the herdsmen, cattle and mountain that give them life, effectively elevating the landscape to godhood. I thought that was a fascinating mindset with defiance and grace in one action.

As with all ancient writings, some things don’t fit well to a modern mindset: polygamy is normal, and the idea of a childless wife lying with a man other than her husband (with appropriate rituals) to gain a child is a bit icky, as is the condemnation of women who don’t want children. There’s also a slightly uncomfortable connection between physical health and beauty on the one side and goodness and grace on the other. But all these have to be read in the context of their time.

The stories are full of action and memorable characters, for good or evil; it’s an easy book to read. I’m not sure if it was written in English or if it’s just a very good translation, but it’s very readable (although I’ve never figured out the obsession with appending an unnecessary ‘a’ to the end of many transliterated names: Balarama instead of Balram etc). I’ll definitely pick up the the rest of the series when I get the chance.

Book details

Year of publication: 1966

Beholder’s Eye (Web Shifters, #1)

By Julie E. Czerneda

Rating: 3 stars

Esen-alit-Quar is the youngest member of the Web of Ersh, a shapeshifter who will live for eons, and whose goal is to remember the civilisations and species that will intersect her path in that time. She’s sent on her first solo mission which goes wrong, and she finds herself on the run, yet also drawn into another Web, one of friendship.

I did enjoy this book, but I’m afraid it didn’t grip me enough to make me want to seek out the sequels. I can’t quite pin down what made me go ‘meh’ about it, though. Esen is a likeable protagonist, and Paul also a decent person and fleshed out well enough to be a good character. They get into a number of scrapes and Esen’s shapeshifting abilities are well-defined, as is the mystery behind the Web. Perhaps it’s the antagonist, which, because of its very nature, could never really be much of a character, but I’d have liked to have seen more about it, and perhaps from its point of view. On the other hand, maybe I should just chalk this one down to not being in the right mood when I read it.

The universe is definitely wide in scope and is worthy of exploring further. The human Confederation, the Fringe, not to mention Paul’s old crew are all interesting in their own right. Hmm, maybe I’ve just talked myself into looking out for the sequels after all?

Book details

ISBN: 9780886778187
Publisher: DAW Books
Year of publication: 1998

Worlds Enough & Time: Five Tales of Speculative Fiction

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 3 stars

I mostly enjoyed the stories in this collection. It pulls together five longer stories, more or less of novella length, along with introductions for each one. As I say, the stories are generally quite enjoyable, but the introductions are another matter. They seem to lack the discipline and editing that goes into the stories, feeling bloated and self-indulgent. The exception to this is the introduction to my favourite story in the collection, Orphans of the Helix, a story set in the universe of the Hyperion Cantos. Set some years after the end of Rise of Endymion, it was nice to return to that universe, following a group of colonists of the Amoiete Spectrum Helix, looking for a planet to settle well outside existing human space who encounter a distress signal en-route.

Of the other stories, I probably enjoyed On K2 with Kanakaredes the most, about a small group of mountain climbers who climb the world’s second-highest mountain with an alien, even if a lot of the actual mountain-climbing bits left me cold. I felt there was lots of context in The Ninth of Av that I wasn’t getting. It’s a story about the end of the world, as the post-humans get ready to put the remaining old-fashioned humans into suspended animation while they clean up the Earth. Or possibly it’s about genocide of the Jews. I think there were hints in the text, but possibly ones you need to be familiar with Judeo-Christian mythology to understand.

Looking for Kelly Dahl was interesting, about a suicidal former school teacher who has to track down one of his former pupils. And finally, The End of Gravity was possibly the least interesting to me. You know that cliché about Lit Fic being all about 50-something straight white writers who have affairs with young, pretty women? This felt sort of like that. The protagonist is an older straight white male writer, and there’s an attraction to a younger woman, and possibly some sort of metaphor involving the International Space Station that I didn’t really get. I think I found the protagonist too irritating to really pay that much attention to his internal monologue.

So a decent hit rate with stories that have a bit more room to breathe than your normal shorts. But I would mostly skip the introductions (although YMMV, as always).

Book details

ISBN: 9780060506049
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Year of publication: 2002

Rivers of London Volume 6: Water Weed

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 3 stars

I don’t think that I’ve got much comment to make on the 6th Rivers of London graphic novel. This one concerns a cannabis operation, one that has worrying vestigia attached to the final product. It’s practically a Peter one-hander; Nightingale is in some scenes, but doesn’t do much, Beverley and her two younger sisters get a bit more screen time, but poor Molly gets practically nothing, and Guleed doesn’t appear at all.

The art is consistent, and has been since the start of the graphic novel series. This is the first one that I’ve seen with Aaronovitch credited only as ‘creator’ while Andrew Cartmel is the sole writer. I don’t think it made a difference, I always find Peter’s narrative voice somewhat muted in the graphic novels anyway.

So a fun, if short, read that’s enjoyable but doesn’t offer any more insight into the characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785865459
Publisher: Titan Comics
Year of publication: 2018

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #2)

By Theodora Goss

Rating: 3 stars

In the second of the Athena Club’s intrepid adventures, they receive a message from a Miss Van Helsing asking for help as her father, a member of the Society of Alchemists, has been experimenting on her and her mother.

I don’t think this book was quite as engaging as The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. It’s a big book and I don’t think it was as tight as its predecessor. Some scenes could have been cut with minimal effort and, I think, to the benefit of the overall story.

We encounter many more fictional characters in this book, as well as the return of several from the previous. The most notable new characters are the cast of Dracula, although in very different roles to what Stoker’s book portrays with Abraham Van Helsing very much cast as chief villain. Some other characters, especially in the hook for the next in the series, were pretty obscure. I had to google the Raymonds (apparently from a novella I’ve never heard of called The Great God Pan) and that will be important to the next one. I missed Holmes in this one, and kept expecting minor characters who turn up to be him in disguise, and disappointed when they weren’t.

I found the interjections from the various members of the club into the book somewhat more irritating this time around. Nearer the start, it was quite frequent and distracting from the story. Later on, the frequency of the interjections dropped and they became enjoyable again – sometimes interjecting with snarky comments and sometimes dropping in some exposition in without being too clunky. But at the start, they are overused and irritating (and the repeated ‘adverts’ for the previous book soon become wearing, after the first couple of times).

That all feels a bit negative, so it’s important to be clear that I still enjoyed this book a lot and will look forward to the next volume. The members of the Athena Club are all really interesting and fun characters, whose distinct personalities all shine. I very definitely care about all of them (yes, even Diana).

Book details

ISBN: 9781534437258
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year of publication: 2018

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)

By Tom Toner

Rating: 3 stars

In the far-distant future, Humanity has splintered into a Prism of related species, with the Amaranthine at the top of the pyramid: a small number of immortals who rule ever more precariously, keeping their power by playing the various Prism races against each other. Sotiris, one of the Amaranthine, must travel to Earth (the ‘Old World’) following the death of his sister. Meanwhile, Lycaste is a mortal, living on the Old World, who’s fallen in love with Pentas, but who doesn’t love him back. The arrival of an outsider into their small community changes Lycaste’s life forever.

There is a huge amount of world-building going on here, especially in the early chapters of this book. It throws you right into the middle of things, with explanations only coming later. It makes for a difficult first half or so. It didn’t help that this was the first book that I read after getting an e-reader for the first time, and although there’s a search function, flipping around to reread something the context of what I’ve just read was much more difficult than it would be on paper.

However, even once I got past that and was into the main body of the story, I found it difficult. I didn’t really care an awful lot about Lycaste for most of the book. I found him pampered, whiny and irritating. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that he goes through a lot in the course of the book and develops as a character, but he’s still not really fun to hang around with. Sotiris, our other main PoV character, doesn’t really work for me for a different reason. He’s an immortal, over twelve thousand years old. To him, the mortals are mayflies, and although he tries to protect Lycaste, his motives aren’t pure. And I felt he remained a cipher for the duration of the book (although to be fair, it must be really difficult to write the mind-state of people that old).

The nominal adversary, Aaron, someone who lays claim to the throne of the Amaranthine by virtue of claiming to be older than anyone else, is mostly a shadow figure, only gaining any solid definition in the final pages of the book. But his motivations remain opaque.

Although the pace picked up a lot towards the end of the book, I’m afraid I just don’t feel invested enough to read the rest of the series.

(I got a copy of this book for free from NetGalley[1] in exchange for an honest review)

[1] The author messaged me on GoodReads, *goes to check* good grief, two years ago, and asked if I’d like to review the book. Many apologies for how long it’s to read and review it!

Book details

ISBN: 9781597805902
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Year of publication: 2013


By Roald Dahl

Rating: 3 stars

This collection is part of a themed series put out by Penguin to showcase Dahl’s adult short fiction. The clue to the theme is in the title, with trickery and deceit being the order of the day. Some of the stories fit the theme by a thread (such as the first story, The Wish about a boy who imagines his carpet to be full of monsters), but most are good fits. I hadn’t known that one of my favourite Dahl books as a youngster, Danny, the Champion of the World, was based on a short story, but it was, and it’s in this collection. The plot is much the same (but with adult protagonists) but with fewer words, there’s less space for characterisation.

The longest story in the collection is one of Dahl’s ‘Uncle Oswald’ stories, and it’s nice to see the licentious old man get the wool pulled over his eyes. Other highlights for me included The Surgeon about a surgeon who is given an astounding gift; and Beware of the Dog about an RAF pilot who comes down and finds himself in hospital.

While some of these have lost their sting over the years, many others still retain their bite and sense of “oof” that comes with the twist. It’s a fun collection, if quite short, and a decent introduction to Dahl’s adult short fiction.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405933230
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2017

For the Love of Radio 4 An Unofficial Companion

By Caroline Hodgson

Rating: 3 stars

This is a fairly lightweight fluff piece of a book. The most interesting part for me was probably the early sections that talked about the history and antecedents of Radio 4. The sections discussing individual programmes won’t contain much that long-term fans of the station won’t already know, but it’s pleasant enough.

My main problem is that I’ve slightly gone off Radio 4, especially the Today programme, over the last few years, since B*exit, since I felt it was biased and drifting ever more to the right. And since it was always Today which anchored me to the station, I’ve drifted away from R4 as well. I listen to a lot more podcasts these days, and when I do listen to the radio, it’s as often the World Service as R4.

Going back to the book, it’s split into thematic sections, covering news and current affairs, drama, arts, etc. Mainstays of the schedule get their own subsection, covering the programme’s history, previous presenters and any controversy that it’s had. Light and fluffy, it reminded me of many of the things I do still love about Radio 4 and might bring me back to some degree (although I think Today has lost me for good).

Book details

ISBN: 9781849536424
Publisher: Summersdale Publishers
Year of publication: 2014

Tales of India: Folk Tales from Bengal, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu

By Svabhu Kohli

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve felt my lack of knowledge of the Indian side of my heritage over the years, so it was interesting to read this book, and compare it to the folk- and fairy-tales that I’m familiar with. In some ways, the stories were different, as reflecting their background, with kings with multiple (sometimes mutually jealous) wives, and very different animals. But in other ways, tropes that I was familiar with did pop up, such as the hero with his friends who all had their own power and who helped him at the opportune time (Prince Lionheart and His Three Friends), or the battle of wits between two friends/rivals (Eesara and Caneesara).

The illustrations in this edition were absolutely delightful. Stylised and distinct, the illustrators (the only ones credited with working on this book, by the way, no mention of the editor) have a style that really fits with the stories. The stories themselves are divided into three sections: animal tales; outwitting and outwitted; live and death; although, of course, there’s quite a lot of overlap between the sections.

These aren’t stories that I grew up with, but the tone is similar enough to something like Grimm that they have the feel that they could have been. It’s an interesting book and if these stories were old friends, then I would treasure it, but as it is, I’m content to have just read it and move on.

Book details

ISBN: 9781452165912
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Year of publication: 2018

Endymion (Hyperion, #3)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 3 stars

Picking up the story a couple of hundred years after the end of Fall of Hyperion, this book immediately cuts through the hope that the previous book ended with. A new Pax, enforced by a resurgent Catholic church that has embraced the immortality granted by the cruciform parasite, has spread across the worlds of the old Hegemony, and any hope for unity with the Ousters against the machinations of the TechnoCore was soon shattered, as the Pax continues a war against it. Our protagonist is a young man, Raul Endymion, sentenced to death, who awakes after his execution, in the home of the old poet Martin Silenus. Silenus charges Raul to go to the Time Tombs, get past the elite warriors of the Pax, retrieve the girl who will step out of the Sphinx and flee with her to the stars, to let her develop into the Messiah, The One Who Teaches.

The book is structured effectively as a travelogue, with Raul and the girl (Aenea), along with the android, A. Bettik, who accompanies them, travelling the worlds of the former Web looking for something, something that Aenea will recognise only when she sees it; all the while being pursued by agents of the Church.

For those, like myself, who had forgotten all but the broad brush strokes from the previous two books, there is a handy plot device in the form of a (forbidden, of course) poem, written by Silenus, that Raul has handily read and memorised, which summarises the entire first two books. So when we need to be reminded of something, a character will conveniently pipe up, saying that it was in the Cantos and provide a summary. Some people might find it a slightly clumsy device, but it’s definitely useful.

The Church doesn’t come out of the book well, especially Father Lenar Hoyt from the first book. It’s shown as reactionary and intolerant of any deviations from its own point of view, so the Ousters, and their worldview of adapting themselves to space, rather than the other way around, are seen as heretical. It also bans literature (such as Silenus’ Cantos) which has a different historical perspective than officially sanctioned history. It’s not really a surprise when we discover that Hoyt, now Pope Julius, and who has been for several hundred years, through the immortality of the cruciform, has become a tool of the TechnoCore, who are using him, and the Church, for their own ends, to try and capture and kill Aenea.

I don’t know if Simmons had children at the point that he wrote this novel, but the character of Aenea really doesn’t read like a child. She’s supposed to be eleven years old at this point, and even for a future messiah, she sounds too adult to me. And the relationship between her and Raul is slightly disturbing as well. Aenea’s dreams of the future tell us that they will become lovers at some point, which might be eyebrow-raising, but (just about) acceptable in a decade, but now mentions of that just feel icky.

The Shrike also makes appearances in this novel, and from very early on I made the comparison in my head with the T800 between The Terminator and Terminator 2. While it is never exactly friendly, it does now protect Aenea rather than try and kill everything indiscriminately. There’s no equivalent of the prologue to T2 to explain the change in its behaviour though (although I’m hoping that the final book in the Cantos might explain that).

So a decent addition to the Hyperion Cantos, but not as good as the original two books. I’ll still definitely read the final book in the series to finish the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9780747238263
Publisher: Feature
Year of publication: 1996

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