Fiction Archives

June 09, 2004

Modesitt - Adiamante

L.E. Modesitt, Adiamante

Ooh, look another Modesitt. You would think that Ted found a prolific author he likes and is working through the guy's complete catalogue. You would be right.

This is science fiction, which Modesitt is better at than he is at fantasy, but his science is sufficiently close to magic that it sometimes feels like fantasy anyhow. We have a standard Modesitt hero, grieving for his lost wife, living in a post-post-post apocalypse Earth where they have rebuilt society in stable terms by coming to new understandings of power and authority and responsibility. It is a fascinating society he imagines, and he challenges it by showing how a group of people can fight off a potential (almost certain) invasion when they have a code of ethics that not only prohibits first strikes, but also prohibits threats, demonstrations, or any use of power to coerce another before they take their own violent action.

Light, but entertaining, and some good ideas. Like most good science fiction, I finished the book, put it down, and spent some time thinking about it.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:46 AM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2004

Forsyth - Avenger

Frederick Forsyth, The Avenger

I like Forsyth's thrillers, especially the first batch that he wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is not up to those standards, rattles around a bit, spends rather too much time diving into the background of each character as they are introduced, but worked to keep the pages turning.

The curious thing about it is that this is the first post-9/11 fiction that I have read in which a crucial plot turn involves an attempt to kill Usama Bin Laden. I expect to see the events of 2001 appear in many future thrillers.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:17 AM | Comments (0)

May 26, 2004

Modesitt - Darksong Rising

L.E. Modesitt Darksong Rising

This is book three in his soprano sorceress cycle.

Having read a lot of this stuff lately, I finally am getting a feel for all the countries and people. It was plot driven, it was easy, it was a couple of hours distraction.

I am reminded of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, or of the last year or so of smoking cigarettes. Towards the end of my smoking time I found that I did not particularly want another, nor did I particularly enjoy smoking it - but I couldn't not smoke it. Shortly after noticing that, I went to a doctor and told him to scare me so I would stop smoking; he did and I did. After noticing that with Cornwell I stopped reading the Sharpe book -- really it was one book with the same plot and characters, repeated 20 times; only the setting and title changed.

This bodes ill for the last two books in the Spellsong cycle.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:12 PM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2004

Modesitt - Spellsong War

L.E. Modesitt - The Spellsong War

Book two in the saga of the Soprano Sorceress that I discussed a couple of days ago.

Entertaining, not challenging, not worth reviewing.

I will go ahead and read the third one since it is already waiting for me at the hold desk at the library.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2004

Modesitt - Soprano Sorceress

Modesitt, The Soprano Sorceress
finished it a couple of days ago and returned it - no publishing info handy.

Painters have a term for a work of art that consists of a set of standard design elements combined onto a single canvass, arranged in one of several standard forms, and then finished to suit the artist's taste: a pastiche. The difficulty in such a composition is not in the design but in the execution.

Modesitt's Soprano Sorceress is such a pastiche. The main character's personality is essentially that of his male craftsman-mages from the Recluse series. Her profession and earlier life is drawn heavily from the musician in Archform: Beauty - I am not sure which he wrote first. The world she is in is one where magic works, and working magic is created through a combination of melody and lyrics while it gets its power from accompanyment and performance quality. Our heroine is a musician who was sad in our world and was magically transported to this new world, shades of Alan Dean Foster's Jon-Tom, only unlike JT who was a "heavy metal guitarist" who played an awful lot of Beach Boys covers, Anna is an opera-trained soprano. Modesitt then advances his plot using his standard formula of longer chapters showing the primary character interspersed with short chapters of just a few paragraphs showing the various oppositional figures as they plot against the main character.

But, the test of a pastiche is not the design, but the execution. And Soprano Sorceress is a well-executed pastiche. He has five books set in this world. So far I am on the second one. I expect that I will read them until I get bored, and that I will not get bored until I finish.

I am reading a LOT of Modesitt; I need to be careful that I don't overdose and get sick of his formula and his standard licks.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:17 PM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2004

Bernard Cornwell - Crackdown

Bernard Cornwell is a highly capable author of not very challenging fiction. That sounds like faint praise, but he is really quite good at a deceptively demanding field. Although he is most famous for his Sharpe series, Cornwell is at his best, I think, when he invokes the horror of violence - his gothic Arthurian sequence still gives me nightmares at times and I read it over four years ago.

Crackdown is only indirectly gothic. It is a novel about sailboats, and cocaine, and addiction, and fathers and sons. Cornwell digs into his bag of characters and comes up with his stock modern sailor - fit, former British marine, difficult family life, bumming around the Caribbean. He then writes a perfectly reasonable thriller.

Thinking back, he does manage to invoke aspects of the Gothic in this sunlit paradise - largely when one of the cocaine-addicted characters talks about pleasure so intense that it wipes out the brain's capacity to enjoy any pleasure other than the chemically induced rush. There is a horror there, and some of his characters do have their faces burst out in blood in fine Sherlock Holmes style.

That might be where Cornwell is best, at the gothic and at effectively conveying a sense of violence and of the horror that comes along with violence.

In any case, it made a fine light read.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:33 PM | Comments (0)

May 20, 2004

Bruhold - Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold - The Curse of Chalion. 2001 Eon/Harper Collins.

Bujold is a fabulously capable writer. I go back and forth about liking her primary series of novels - I like reading them enough that I want to read them in order, but I never get around to chasing them down in order and so I only read them when I stumble across them.

This is in a new setting, and it is most remarkably good. Bujold joins the somewhat recent trend in fantasy and science fiction of taking faith seriously. I say somewhat recent, perhaps because I spent a lot of time reading Analog and Asimov's in the late 1970s and early 1980s when those magazines were engaged in a neo-enlightenment defense of reason and science against newly militant conservative Christians.

Bujold's main character is interesting because, at age 35, he has an extensive history and this history matters. He is a courtier turned soldier, he has been places and done things, and those past actions shape his present and create both problems and opportunities for the future. Bujold places her hero and his surroundings in a kingdom where religion matters and where the gods do intervene occasionaly in daily affairs, and one where while people recognize divine intervention they are also scared silly by it - and rightly so.

I am not giving away much that the dust jacket does not to say that our hero becomes the unlikely but highly effective tutor of a young princess, that the princess gets caught up in the machinations of an evil counsellor to the king, and that the gods end up intervening which both helps and greatly discomfits our hero. The striking thing, for me, was that Bujold went beyond having a simple tale of a corrupt noble and a weak king to a larger discussion about curses, fate, and the paradoxes of predestination.

Let me just say that, discovering a curse and a prophecy to get out of it, some characters struggle to manipulate the prophecy, others surrender to apathy, and others turn to doing what they think best.

She has another out in this world, with the hero of the second book being a minor character in this first book. I have a hold on number two at the library and am looking forward to reading it.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:46 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2004

Steinbeck - Grapes of Wrath

I once again did not finish John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

I grabbed Grapes and a Heinlein from the library at the same time. I started Steinbeck first and got about five tapes into the sixteen-tape book before I could not handle it any more. The books is wonderfully written, Steinbeck does a nice job alternating chapters, one about the Joad family, one stand-alone vignette, one about the Joad family, another stand-alone vignette, and so on. He writes with power and fluidity, his characters talk like people and not like lectures, and the entire book is just plan sad. No, more than sad, it is a tragedy in progress with the sure knowledge (I have read it before, after all) that worse things are yet to come.

And, while I did not remember all the details of what the Joad family would encounter, I decided that I did not particularly desire to encounter that future tragedy. I read fiction for escape, or to evaluate it for teaching, but rarely because I want to be angered or depressed. So, the Joad family and their jalopy went back to the library just as they were in the process of driving away from Uncle John's farm.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:21 PM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2004

Cornwell - Black Notice

Patricia Cornwell, Black Notice

I have no idea if this is a good book or a bad book. Partway through the first tape I got bored and turned it off, and before I could commute again I had gotten Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath and Heinlein Moon is a Harsh Mistress as additional audiobooks. Cornwell runs a distant third to these two classics, and back to the library it went.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

Flint - Ring of Fire

Eric Flint [ed], Ring of Fire.

I have blogged about Flint before. He is a good thinker and a solid writer, and I do like his stuff. This is a collection of short stories set in his 1632 universe. He did something interesting, unusual, and typical for him with that universe.

The basic premise is simple - a town in West Virginia is transported to Germany in 1632, in the middle of the 30 Year's War, by a cosmic plot device. The inhabitants then adapt to their new surroundings, transforming them along the way, and the most powerful new technology that came back through time was basic civics.

The premise is simple enough that people began to wonder what they would do if they were in that situation, or what the people in that situation might logically start to do, and almost immediatly Flint's fan bulletin board flooded with people who wanted to talk about the universe. He set up a new bulletin board solely for them and, like a good Science Fiction author, turned to the fan base for ideas and technical help. Someone at a Worldcon once commented that you can discover anything if you just ask fans, and she was right.

While picking through this material he realized that his fans were already writing stories and creating characters in his new universe. So, he opened it up to a shared worlds book, and did so while he was still working on 1633, the second novel in that world and the start of a transition from stand-alone to series. Some of the fan ideas made it into that novel, more made it into this collection of short stories.

As Flint comments in his introduction, history is not just the deeds and actions of a handful of major characters, even though the narrative conventions of both fiction and biography require the author to focus on a few people over an extended period of time. (Exception, Harry Turtledove's unreadable wrecks of alternate history, where he focuses on lots of people over a short period of time and does so badly.) Real history is a lot of stories all going on at once, and by encouraging the shared world folks to publish early, he hopes to capture some of the diversity of real life.

Anyhow, the stories are mixed. Some are quite good - Dave Freer's "Between the Armies" was to my taste. Others are quite clunky, with characters who engage in tedious exposition framed in dialogue that no living human would speak as conversation. Several of them take on the conflict between religious freedom and state churches, with Freer being the most emphatic in making Lyman Beecher's argument that it is only under a voluntary religious regime that truly pious people can act according to the dictates of their faith rather than the pressures of power politics. Not surprisingly, Freer and Flint have co-authored a novel about a transplanted American priest who takes the modern catechism and Bible to the Vatican in an attempt to reform the counter-Reformation Catholic Church. I look forward to reading
1634: The Galileo Affair and have asked the local library to buy a copy.

I like Flint, I like this Grantville universe, I am glad I read the book.

I wish I had slept instead, but I was tired and not sleepy last night, and so I finished the book.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:24 AM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2004

Modesitt - Archform: Beauty

I have been reading a lot of Modesitt. His Archform: Beauty is quite good. Based on two science fiction novels and half a dozen fantasy novels, I have decided that the man is a spectacular science fiction author and a pretty good fantasy author.

Archform: Beauty is set in a future of about three centuries hence. The language is clipped, the world includes nannites and information technology, the narrative cuts between half a dozen main characters, and all the main characters take pleasure in the beauty inherent in their work.

Like much light fantasy, the characters are all essentially capable people even if they are sometimes placed in situations that they do not care for and do not see an escape from. I like that in a fictional character - if I wanted to be depressed I would read the correct subset of history.

Modesitt frames the future as a place where the aesthetic and the practical conflict, and writes some future sociology about the limitations of a purely rational world view and suggesting that a world without aesthetic appreciation is a world doomed to progressively become less intelligent and, along the way, far far less interesting. It is, at one level, a reply to the folks who would trim the budgets for art and art education, and at another level a reminder that the beauty in life comes not just in the "high culture" of art but also in human relations - the Senator loves the beauty in politics as deals are made, positions are taken, alliances offered and rejected, and constituents coddled. And that makes him just as sympathetic a character as the adjunct professor of voice or the beleaguered researcher who writes poetry in the brief seconds between complicated fact-finding assignments for the news station.

It is a good book, both in itself and because the ending pushed my romantic buttons. After finishing the book, I went and found and smooched J., for she is also a lovely lady who sings.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:49 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2004

Francis - Flying Finish

Dick Francis Flying Finish is a perfectly reasonable Francis by the numbers. He writes what he knows - in this case horses and flying airplanes - and combines them into a perfectly reasonable thriller.

So, I ate another potato chip. I think I have caught up with Dick Francis, so it is now time to find a new source of disposable light fiction to read during meals.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:12 PM | Comments (0)

Francis - Field of Thirteen

I started but did not finish Dick Francis' collection of short stories, Field of Thirteen last week. I have read it before, short stories depend in part on the twist at the end, and I had no real desire to re-read the last two thirds of the book.

Still, there are some good bits in there.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:10 PM | Comments (0)

Robinson - Callahan's Legacy

Last week I read Spider Robinson Callahan's Legacy

It was, well, horrible.

I have Robinson's first three collections of Callahan's stories in a box in storage. I sort of liked them. If I find that box before I forget this book, I will throw the older books away for they will be tainted with the memory of this foulness, just like fresh chicken left out over a long weekend can put you off poultry for a month.

I really like some of Robinson's work - "God is an Iron" is one of my favorite short stories - but too much of his stuff is literary hackwork or a moment in which he obsesses over telepathy. Not having an overriding desire to become telepathic, I have trouble accepting some of his formulations and assumptions. Most of his fiction is licorice.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:08 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2004

Kipling - Captains Courageous

Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous, Audiobook.

This is a classic YA and still one of my favorites. Kipling was visiting the US, got interested in the New England nautical world, and spent a summer down in Boston and Gloucester Harbours talking to everyone in sight. He then took that mess of information, combined it with a coming-of-age tale and mediation on masculinity, and wrote it as a YA novel.

The book is interesting on several levels: what was it like to go fishing for cod in the 1890s? what model of masculine adulthood is Kipling presenting, and why does the schooner We're Here sometimes remind me of an English public school? How does Kipling's use of racial terms shape his notion of masculinity?

That first of these is the obvious draw of the book, and Kipling takes us through the fog in a small dory, shows how to bait a hook and land a cod or halibut, and how to dress down the fish and pack it in salt for the trip home.

The second is Kipling's underlying purpose to the book. Harvey, our protagonist, starts as an obnoxious kid; he finishes as a good kid and has a coda as a very sharp young man. Kipling preaches hard work, responsibility, and the way that men among men will do their best, own up to their mistakes, help one another out, and work as a team to accomplish collective goals - for Kipling a ship is the model for the larger world.

The third was the most jarring, and the reason why I would not want to hand the book to a kid in 2004 without pausing for a moment. It is not just that Kipling casually refers to niggers a few times, or has a character praise another's good deed as being "mighty white" - these are turns of phrase, part of the normative world of a man born in colonial India and writing for an audience looking for "scientific" new methods of race relations. It is that the black cook, MacPherson - a "coal black gaelic speaker" from Novia Scotia, has the second sight, is double close to nature as a black man and a gael, and resolves at the end of the book to give up his own life and spend the rest of his days caring for Harvey's every need - the spiritual black man willingly devotes himself to life as a body servant, and this choice then validates Harvey's manhood and move to take up his inherited family wealth and power. The structure is jarring, for racial norms and character-defining norms have changed a great deal since the 1890s.

I might sometime want to team-teach something on novels for young adults, and their social and cultural contexts. Certainly Captains Courageous works well as a snapshot of late nineteenth century assumptions about class, work, race, and wealth.

I do like the book.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:57 AM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2004

Francis - The Danger

Dick Francis The Danger

Dick Francis novels are like peanuts - you can't read just one.

I went to pick up something summoned for me, and discovered that the library had sent it to a different branch. So, to fill in the idle hours I grabbed a couple more DF novels.

This was below his usual standard but still a perfectly fine page-turning thriller.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:06 PM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2004

Griffin - Retreat Hell

William E Butterworth is a hack. He freely admits it.

He is also a hack who has stumbled onto a gold mine of high quality hack fiction material. The guy has been cranking out a couple of books a year for thirty years under one name or another. He wrote a set of novels - basically a multivolume version of one long complicated story - about a batch of Army officers who meet during the 1950s and then serve in Vietnam. Along the way he writes about the U.S. Army's attempt to field a rocket-armed helicopter in the 1950s and 1960s, a project that he worked on during his own service time.

The books worked, and he wrote more.

The gold mine is in the response that he got from the retired military community - he had always stayed in touch with them and he lives Southern Alabama in retired US military heartland. What happened was that folks at the Armor Association, or his neighbors, or folks who read his novels and liked them, all began to tell him stories. He took those stories, wrapped them around his standard plot about rich dilettantes who get drunk, misbehave, and have sex with beautiful women while serving their nation, often heroically. It is a good formula, and only folks who read too many of them (like me) and remember what they read (like me) will be bothered by the repetition of the same stock encounters and stock plot sequences.

There is something to be said for being a good hack.

Retreat Hell is the latest in his saga of the US Marine Corps. It has the usual suspects: the dangerous intelligence man, the drunken lightweight flyboy who is his best friend, the career officer who is dismayed by the caravan of drunks and fools, and the politically connected troubleshooter who reports to the President. This advances the saga of the Korean War from the Inchon landing to the Chinese intervention. It was gripping enough that I finished it, long enough that it took a couple of days, and generic enough that I had little trouble putting it down after meals, can reading, or other short study breaks with a book.

The interesting part is that much of the book drew on a set of conversations with retired General Almond of the USMC, who was a crucial commander during that advance and who appears as a character in the novel. Butterworth writes his friends into his novels, or perhaps he writes novels around his friends, and in the process he gets a compelling rhythm underneath the hack plot and sometimes clunky exposition.

They are good books; I do hope he keeps writing them.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:28 PM | Comments (0)

April 08, 2004

Modestitt - Towers of Sunset

E.L. Modestitt, The Towers of the Sunset.

This is another book in Modestitt's Recluse series. It is the second written, the third that I have read.

I did not like it as much as the first two, largely because I really liked the Lerris character and did not care as much for the protagonist of this one. Perhaps I have read too much in this world already, for I am getting a little tired of amazingly powerful magicians who have no idea of their capabilities and act like fools because of it.

Then again, I was dreaming about black oak, white oak, and the relationship between wood and magic last night, so there is something in Modestitt's ideas that sticks with me.

I summoned the next in the series, but I will turn my fiction reading elsewhere until it arrives.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:00 PM | Comments (0)

April 06, 2004

Mystic River

Did not finsih Mystic River by Dennis Leary, on audio tape. It is a sad book full of tragedy impending, I listen to tapes while commuting too and from school, and I am in the middle of teaching the Great War and the Russian Revolution with the tragedy of the Second World War impending in the very near future.

I could not take so much sadness, even if it is well written and well crafted. The book has too much potty language for me to play it with the toddler in the car, and so it went back.

I can see why Sheila O'Malley loved the book, and I might try it again this summer.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:00 PM | Comments (0)

Modestitt - Magic of Recluse

L.E. Modestitt jr, The Magic of Recluse

This 1991 novel made a big splash at the time, but I missed it entirely. It is yet another saga of the young magician making his way through an unfriendly world. It is better than most largely because Lerris, the same character I so enjoyed in Death of Chaos is here as a young man. Lerris is confused, honest, and more powerful than he suspects. He also talks to his pony and has the pony talk back to him. Well, lots of whinneying and chuffing but Lerris considers it conversation.

It works well, is written more clearly than some of Modestitt's other stuff. I liked it enough to move on to the second book in the world of Recluse, The Towers of Sunset which is far more obscure and confusing.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:51 PM | Comments (0)

April 02, 2004

Saberhagen - Golden Fleece

I just finished Fred Saberhagen's The Golden Fleece.

I do not know why I finished it. I don't much care for the story of Jason and the Argonauts; I don't much care for the current trend in hack speculative fiction in which folks re-write the same few stories from history and mythology; I despise bad writing.

But, I did end up turning the pages. For the first half I was curious what Saberhagen was doing with his Proteus character, for the second half I was curious to see if the ending was going to be as terribly sad as in the original myth.

I won't be reading more of this series. I don't mind reading YA books from time to time, but this was so simple as to be stupid.

Posted by Red Ted at 02:21 PM | Comments (0)

March 31, 2004

Modestitt - Death of Chaos

E.L. Modestitt, The Death of Chaos

The last in Modestitt's Recluse series, I picked this up for 50 cents at the library discard table. I started reading Modestitt because I really liked one of his science fiction novels. This is not nearly as well written but Lerris, the main character, is compelling and so I finished it.

I have summoned more Recluse books from the library.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:17 AM | Comments (0)

March 24, 2004

Francis - Rat Race

Another Dick Francis, pesky gut bugs.

Dick Francis, Rat Race

Not as good as most. I had not known that Francis was a pilot and once owned an air taxi business, but knowing that explains a couple of his other novels.

I do like the part of his standard formula where he explains to the reader how a business works, and makes it interesting.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:51 PM | Comments (0)

Francis - 10 Lb Penalty

Read for fun, mostly on the can.

Typical, solid, reliable Francis.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)