Here are my thoughts on four more books I read and greatly enjoyed in the first six months of 2020.
First, books by writers from Australia, which seems to be a beehive of creativity in the 21st century.
The Old Woman & the Mad Horse – Case File for: The Big Three Mining Investigation by Cage Dunn and Rose Brimson
The tension starts on the first page and doesn’t let up until nearly the end. Hella Solaris is an investigator for a shadowy organization opposing a mega-corporation’s efforts to gain technological domination of the earth’s population. Her intent to step back from active service in a small rural community is thwarted, first by the presence of an angry horse, and then by a criminal element who wants to drive her away, and finally, by discoveries and developments that entangle the personal with the professional.
This is a thriller of sorts, but much of the action is internal. Hella gathers information, processes information, formulates theories, has “aha” moments and “oh shit” moments, weighs priorities and calculates risks. The point of view is close third person. Very close; for most of the book the reader is inside Hella’s head, seeing what she sees—often on the screens of various electronic devices—following her thoughts, experiencing her emotions. The pace is dizzying and there are opportunities to lose the thread, especially when tech-related acronyms and initialisms abound. I ended up reading the book twice, to make sure I picked up on all the crucial details.
Hella is an interesting character, for a number of reasons. I can’t say she’s entirely likable, mainly because of her conscious and deliberate use of manipulative techniques in relating to others. She does have good reasons for this, and the two characters she ends up working with—Cam the cop and his daughter Cella—are totally relatable. There are lengthy scenes in which the three test one another’s capabilities and work on trust issues.
The climax scenes involve a showdown of sorts, full of revelations and twists. I have to say, a few points seemed a bit implausible to me, but on the whole, the book comes to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion.
Two other books by Cage Dunn worth checking out are: Diaballein and Herja, Devastation (co-authored with poet Frank Prem).
Cage Dunn’s blog may be found here
A.C. Flory is another talented Australian writer whose books I have enjoyed greatly.
Vokhtah (The Suns of Vokhtah #1) is remarkable for the imagined world on which it’s set. Vokhtah has two suns. Its dominant life forms are the Vokh, creatures I visualized as similar to pterodactyls, and their smaller cousins and supporters, the iVokh. Most of the story is about the latter. These creatures are not human. Humans do not exist on this world, but human readers can relate to the thoughts, dilemmas, and emotions of the iVokh who are the primary actors.
The Vokh reign like feudal lords over their eyries, which are managed and maintained by the iVokh, who are divided into a variety of physical types with different abilities, including (in the case of a few) telepathy and mind control. Traders are a clan who distribute goods among the eyries, and Healers are a guild with skills and knowledge to maintain life, and end it when necessary. The interactions of the groups are governed by iron-bound protocols and traditions, complicated by secrets and enmities. Sex, especially for the Vokh, is a brutal, violent business, but outside of mating occurrences, there is no gender. The only personal pronoun is “it.”
This is not a quick, easy read. I re-read the first half of the book before writing this review to make sure I understood some of the details. The characters, even the sympathetic ones, don’t actually have names. They are designated by ranks and titles, some of which change over the course of the story. The reader is plunged into this alien world on the first page and has to figure out how things work while following the action. Some might give up in confusion, but the dilemma of the Drudge who is the first character encountered is eminently relatable. By the time that’s resolved, I was thoroughly engaged in the world and the story, keen to find out more about the strangely fascinating creatures with two hearts and inflatable wings.
The book features a constructed language (conlang), but it does not appear frequently enough to be daunting. There is a helpful glossary at the end, which also explains how the creatures vocalize. Otherwise, the prose is clear and straightforward, with description kept direct and businesslike. There is no hyperbole. Dialogue is minimal, even though the iVokh have a characteristic (and curiously attractive) way of expressing themselves.
Setting aside the alien aspects, the theme of this book is change and difference. Individual characters, and the groups to which they belong, must come up with ways to cope with situations they find unacceptable or challenging. Both the physical environment and the social structure are harsh and unforgiving. Transgressions come with a high price.
It appears this is the first book in a series, and indeed much remains unresolved at the end. I was delighted to read in the author’s blog that a second volume is forthcoming.
Flory’s Innerscape trilogy offers another fascinating reading experience. It’s set in a 22nd century world where artificial intelligence and virtual reality tech are used to create a kind of paradise. But it’s not without trouble.
Next, a book set in British Columbia.
Slow Curve on the Coquihalla (A Hunter Rayne Highway Mystery #1) by R.E. Donald.
I like a mystery with more to it than just the whodunit. This one delivers. The main characters are fully developed and memorable, each one with quirks and distinctive characteristics, especially tough El Watson and biker dude Dan “Sorry” Sorenson. A variety of shifty, shady types add a bit of grit. There’s a lot (but not too much) info about the trucking business. And it’s set in a place I happen to know well — British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and southern interior. The changing scenery and weather are sketched in to give the reader a picture of this scenic region.
Hunter Rayne is no longer in the RCMP so must conduct his investigation into a fellow trucker’s death unofficially, calling on former colleagues for help. Sometimes his efforts take a back seat to his regrets and worries about his relationship with his daughters, who have grown up without much of his presence in their lives. Many miles are logged while he figures things out, and many encounters in bars and roadside eateries. Something I found a bit excessive was descriptions of characters’ clothing in almost every scene. On the other hand, typos and errors were not an issue, and the ebook formatting was excellent. All in all, I enjoyed riding along with Hunter.
R.E. Donald’s Goodreads page here.
For the final book this time around, we head down the west coast…
Occasional Soulmates by Kevin Brennan.
From the book description: When the thirty-eight-year-old San Francisco doctor meets her new patient, a handsome British expat with the unlikely name of Dylan Cakebread (and an uncanny resemblance to Jude Law), she’s convinced it’s the start of her own relationship novel.
My review: The most striking thing about this book is that its author is a guy. Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men. I appreciated the development of Sarah’s relationship with Dylan, anticipating some aspects and being surprised by others. I really liked the presentation of San Francisco and environs as a setting — scenery, streetscape, restaurants, food, wine. Lots of food and wine. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was Sarah stepping out of the story to present it as a “relationship novel.” It didn’t spoil the story for me, but didn’t really add anything useful either. In fact, seeing that term in the first sentence sort of told me how the book would end. Not the actual ending, of course, just the nature of it. But it was still an engaging, entertaining, and ultimately compelling read.
Kevin Brennan’s blog is called WHAT THE HELL
That’s it — eight of the 30 or so books I’ve read so far in 2020. All my Goodreads reviews may be found here.