fiction Archives

May 24, 2006

Modesitt - Cadmian's Choice

L.E. Modesitt
Cadmian's Choice

This is book 5 in Modesitt's Cadmian Chronicles.

It felt familiar - we have the talented and smart hero (two of them this time) working wtih life force, order, and power while working against a conspiracy. The heros are variations on his standard hero. The world and magic are variations on his standard world. He is ringing the changes on a theme, which is fine because it is a good theme.

I found myself basically NOT trying to keep track of the conspiracy and actors. I could not remember who was who, who was where, who was allied with whom, and who was betraying whome. There was a serious case of Russian Novel Syndrome going on with the off-stage characters.

Instead I just followed the moment-by-moment decision making of the two heros.

And it was enough.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Spencer - Wolf Who Rules

Wen Spencer
Wolf Who Rules

This is the sequel to Tinker telling what happened next.

I can see why Spencer claims to love writing about Tinker - she is a great character.

Highly entertaining - I lost sleep to finish it.

I was reading it while tired, and much of the book takes place while Tinker is short of sleep and having trouble with people messing with her dreams.

I am not sure if Spencer successfully wrote Tinker into that fatigue-fugue where it is hard to tell dream from reality, or if my own fatigue just took me there.

Good stuff.

I want to re-read it.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 15, 2006

Spencer - Tinker

Wen Spencer
New York : Baen ; Godalming : Melia, 2003

Wen Spencer's Tinker is a joy to read. It is literate, fast-paced, compelling and smart. While there are times when the pace gets a little too fast, those are also the moments where our impatient heroine is getting flustered and, in pop military parlance, has let someone get inside her decision curve.

Tinker lives in the American city of Pittsburgh, which has been transferred to the alien planet of elfhome as a side-effect of a stargate in orbit over China. Well, alien is not quite the right word, alternate reality of elfhome might be better.

Spencer ends up tying together some of the cliches from the urban elf sub-genre with the more traditional tales of sidhe and oni and things that go bump in the night to create a coherent and compelling world.

Within this world we meet Tinker, a young lady who is very smart, very charismatic, not quite emotionally mature, and yet combines all of those traits into a compelling and very real character. She gets horny; she flirts; she invents things; she breaks the heart of one of her friends by accident; she is a highly effective person who is not a perfect person. The combination makes for good reading and a compelling lead character.

I could go on, but that would lead to even more spoilers than I have given here.

Highly recommended, and I am off to read more by Wen Spencer.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 10, 2006

Fallon - Medalon

Jennifer Fallon
New York, Tor Books, 2004

This started out as a fantasy that took the traditional elements and worked some nice changes on them. We start out in a city ruled by a guild of female bureaucrats who have institutionalized state atheism, covered over the magical relics of the past, and are trying to manage a succession crisis when their old mother superior dies. So far, so good.

But from there the execution does not live up to the premise. To make it worse, about half-way through it feels like Fallon ran out of words for her plot outline, and so action on action, double-cross on double cross, decision on decision all pile together to the point where we have no good sense why anyone is acting as they do, believing the statements of the other characters, or even coming up with or accepting basically stupid plans. In fact, that is a good condemnation of the entire book: it starts out as an interesting variation on familiar themes, but dies of stupidity before the story ends.

There was a sequel. I got ten pages in before deciding that the stupid quotient had not improved, and dropped it.

There are better things to read. Skip this one.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 27, 2006

Clancy - Bear and Tiger

Tom Clancy
The Bear and the Tiger

Yet another story in his Jack Ryan v China wish-fulfillment/war story.

I have read it before. I felt the urge to dive back into Clancy-world. I disagree with many of the guys positions, but he can turn a page-turner and, unlike say John Ringo, he hides the fundamental stupidities of his books.

Toddler stirring, so no Clancy-rant today. Lets just say that cardboard characters, systematic partisan mis-readings of the American governmental system, and stereotyped (STUPID) villains get tedious after a while.

Posted by Red Ted at 06:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 31, 2005

O'Nan - The Good Wife

Stewart O'Nan
The Good Wife

O'Nan decided to write a novel about the families of the people who are locked up in America's prisons. He met with officials, toured the system, met with the family members, then assembled a composite, tweaked it for narrative interest, and wrote it up as a novel.

The good part: this is a compelling story of a young woman who raises a son while her husband is a guest of the state. We open with her lying in bed, pregnant and recently married, waiting for him to come home. He never comes. We discover that after a few drinks at a bar with his wife and some friends after a hockey game, she went home and he went out with a buddy for a bit of burglary. It went wrong, an old lady dies, and things progress from there. Nan follows the family through the various stages of the trial and then the incarceration. We see the troubles that she goes through trying to hold things together, trying to make ends meet, trying to stay in touch with her husband during a 28 year absence.

The questionable part: the novel is tightly grounded in space, small-town upstate New York. This is good, for we get a good feel for the people and personalities around our heroine, we follow her as she works on the county road crew, as she holds down some retail jobs, as she goes every weekend to visit her husband in a series of prisons. Nan makes it very clear that most of the people in those prisons, like most of the families coming every weekend to visit with them, are poor, black, and from the Southern part of the state. He made the conscious decision to write his novel about a working, white, working-class family. As a result the novel is very good on the emotions and travails of its heroine, but the heroine is closer to the people reading the book than she is to most of the people who are in that situation in real life. This builds sympathy, a good thing, but it does so in a manner that makes me wonder whether Nan believes that his readers would find a black woman a sympathetic subject.

It might be that O'Nan is a white guy from upstate New York who is writing what he knows - I have no idea where he lives, where he comes from, what voices he is comfortable writing. But I did get a scent of Mississippi Burning in the way that O'Nan structured his novel.

That said, it is a compelling story about emotions, change, and struggle. I liked it. I read it compulsively. I found myself thinking about the book long after I finished reading it. Good stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 30, 2005

Cornwell - Starbuck Vols 1-3

Bernard Cornwell
The Starbuck Chronicles, Vols 1-3
The Rebel
Battle Flag (did not finish)

Cornwell did a very nice job of writing about the Napoleonic British army with his Sharpe series. This is an attempt to write a somewhat similar series about the American Civil War. It might just be that I know more about the ACW than I do about Napoleonics, but I found the first series compelling, the second disturbing.

Both series focus on a difficult young man who is also a very good soldier. Sharpe is a gutter-snipe, raised to be an officer after an act of great valor, then struggling in the class and status-bound world of the British Army. Most of the novels are set in Spain and Portugal, most focus around set-piece descriptions of the major campaigns, and the series as a whole roughly re-tells the military career of Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington, through the eyes of a junior officer. The French are villains, the British officer corps is made up of heroes and slugs (in roughly equal measure), and the British soldiers are presented as drunken, violent, thieving bastards who are also brave and well-trained fighting men.

The big problem that Cornwell faces when he tries to adopt this formula to the American Civil War is not so much military as social. After all, the ACW was in large part a war fought using Napoleonic tactics and mid-century technology. The problem comes with heroes and villains, and with slavery. Much of the market for civil war fiction does not want to read about the evils of slavery - they may not defend it, but they want to read things that make the boys in grey sympathetic. There are several ways to handle this problem, most famously the traditional "lost cause" argument that says that the war had nothing to do with slavery but was about states rights, or tariffs, or modernization, or what have you. Cornwell knows better than that.

Instead he makes his hero the disinherited son of a Boston abolitionist, who ends up fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia. He gets to write about someone who dislikes slavery but who wears the grey and fights for the heroic underdogs, the best of both worlds. The father is right out of Birth of a Nation - I forget but I think he even walks with a cane like the Sumner figure from that movie. Some of the other Southerners are involved with slavery, including the not-so-nice drunk and former slave trader who ends up as Starbuck's commander for a while, but by and large this is a set of novels about people who are not involved in slavery but who are fighting in the Confederate Army. And, to be fair, most of the boys in grey were from non-slaveholding families. Still, I would rather have had an honest Thornwell than this half-assed attempt to create anti-slavery confederates. Of course, then you would face the problem of either making racists into sympathetic characters or making the people your readers want to sympathize with into consistent jerks. The first is the more historically accurate solution, but would make the books much harder to write.

Beyond that, it is a fairly straight-forward recounting of the career of the Army of Northern Virginia through the eyes of these fictitious characters from this fictitious unit from a fictitious Virginia county. However, I found the compromises as to setting, allegiance, and alliances to be to distracting. I read two novels, put the third down half finished, and am highly unlikely to pick up anything more in this series.

I give it a mneah: read it if you like this sort of thing, but Sharpe is a cleaner narrative.

Posted by Red Ted at 05:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 23, 2005

Carey - Banewreaker

Jacqueline Carey
New York : Tor Books, 2004.

I liked Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel trilogy and so I snapped this up the moment I saw it.

Like her first three books, this is a pastiche of common fantasy elements, put together in an unusual mosaic, arranged around plot elements from a romance novel, and then painted with details of b&d. The combination works, at least for me.

What are those elements. There is a family of gods. They quarreled and one was cast out. He is then portrayed as evil, and the peoples of the earth are rallied against him. The novel tells the tale of three of this fallen god's chief servitors, and their actions when it appears that some form of prophecy is about to be fulfilled.

So we have a powerful wizard leading a company of nine on a dark and dangerous quest - including an archer, the last descendent of a line of kings, and a youth carrying a great burden that only he can bear. What makes it interesting is the perspective - the wizard is a manipulating git, the uncrowned king is vain and arrogant (but still heroic), the archer is female, and the burden-carrier is a teenager from a tribe of desert aborigines.

Events progress, tragedies happen, people change and grow, the whole thing is very satisfying. I read this months ago. I just now picked up the second in the trilogy and am looking forward to when it will come to the top of the reading pile.

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

August 16, 2005

Greeley - Emerald Magic

Andrew M. Greeley (ed)
Emerald Magic: Great Tales of Irish Fantasy

I am terribly behind on my writeups, since I remember reading this around St. Patrick's Day!

This is a collection of short stories. Like most collections, it was a little spotty.

On the other hand, it had a lot of authors whose stuff I generally like.

I wish I could say more, but all I can remember is the Irish Tiger from the first (and over the top) story, and that I was generally fond of the collection. Greeley is a good editor.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 13, 2005

Zettel - Usurper's Crown

Sarah Zettel
The Usurper's Crown : a novel of Isavalta
New York : Tor, 2003.
ISBN 0312874421

When I pick up one of Sarah Zettel's books I know that I may or may not like the book, but that the book itself will be good. It will be well written. The characters will have plausible motivations. The world will be fleshed out. There will be no plot holes or other flaws in the construction. The entire work will be, well, stable. It may or may not be compelling, but that is a statement about my reading and not her writing.

I found this one compelling.

This is book two of a three-part series about a family of women from Lake Superior who end up crossing between planes to a world of magic. I am sad to say that I let this one sit for a long time before blogging it, and so I forget many of the details, but what I remember I remember fondly.

The narrative involves a princess in the land of magic who has made a terribly bad marriage and whose husband has usurped her power. She tries to get things back, and does so with the help of a loyal wizard and the woman he brings with him from Lake Superior. There are extended meditations on duty and love, and on the relationship between familial expectations and personal action. Both the princess and the American lass face similar tensions, both challenge expectations, but one is more willing than the other to take responsibility. This will have consequences, for as I later learned the princess in the second volume is the old and grasping queen of the first book in the series.

The other interesting twitch is that Zettel leans on the worlds of central European folk myth for the creatures, not gods but powers in this earth, who dominate the space between the worlds. The Vixen is one, Baba Yaga is another. These are familiar yet dreadful creatures, and the characters have to maneuver amidst the plots and counterplots of the supernatural Great Powers.

That's about all I have to say about this one.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 30, 2005

Williams "Green Leopard Plague"

Walter Jon Williams
"The Green Leopard Plague"
Online version, via Asimovs magazine.

This is a Nebula award winning short story. It is a very good short story, with several of Williams' traditional subjects - martial arts, hand signals to supplement spoken language, and so on. It also has a powerful emotional angst.

What bugged me is that one of the crucial plot twists hinges on a scientific mistake that the lead character should not have made. Without giving too much away, one plot point involves a genetically-engineered plague that gives people warts that contain chlorophyl. If infected, you can get an enoughness of food by just standing in the sun.

Williams' hero posits that this will put an end to the economy, for without the need to put food on the table then who will do the low-level scut work that every society demands. Fair enough, but he forgets one of the key things about food. As the economic historians remind us, almost our entire food budget is spent on improving the taste and variety of our diet. Given a sourdough started, 100 lb bags of flour, some salt and some multivitamins you can keep yourself alive for pennies a day. The only difference in his plague is that you don't have to knead and bake the bread.

Still, it was a good story.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 27, 2005

Cornwell - Crackdown

Bernard Cornwell, Crackdown

Bernard Cornwell

Sailing adventure story involving a wounded war hero, a slimy TV producer, and an accident that looked too much like murder.

The pages turned; the emotions thrilled; the Ted stayed up too late that night.

The sad thing is that I now barely remember the book. Adventure fiction can be fun, but it is also often the snack cake of the mind.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:24 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 06, 2005

L.E. Modesitt - Recluse

L.E. Modesitt jr.
The Recluse Series

I read, re-read in some cases, about eight of these last month. They are all remarkably the same, so similar that they blur together.

Our hero is always a crafter of some sort. He has an awareness of order and chaos, usually of order, and he is a mage who can work with order and chaos. The details of that working will vary - some can manipulate the winds, even pulling the jet streams down to earth level to create killing storms, others work with iron, or hook atoms together to make a shield, but they all have similar skills.

They are caught up in hard times, bad government, and war. They travel about, learning by overhearing. Modesitt is very good at writing the snippits of conversation that you hear as you move through a crowd, and all his heros have very good hearing.

All in all they are entertaining, they tackle questions about the nature and purpose of government, and the villains are not so simple nor are the heros so heroic as they might seem. In all of this, though, Modesitt seems to be channelling the old Texas Ranger who warns that there is nothing quite so terrifying as a man who knows he is in the right and just keeps coming. Modesitt's heros are like that mythical Texas Ranger.

After reading a few, I had a powerful urge for spicy lamb in hot brown sauce, served with noodles and sweet brown bread. So I made Vindaloo and molasses bread on successive nights, and was content.

Posted by Red Ted at 04:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 27, 2005

Hobb - The Tawny Man

Robin Hobb
The Tawny Man
Fool's Errand
New York: Bantam Books, 2002
Golden Fool
New York: Bantam Books, 2003
Fool's Fate
New York: Bantam Books, 2004

The Tawny Man is a trilogy of fantasy novels, the third trilogy Hobb has written in the same world, and it shares lead characters with her first trilogy (Farseer), fifth business with the second trilogy (Liveship Traders).

This sequence picks up the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard member of the ruling house, once executed for practicing illegal magic, now living in exile having completed a long and painful quest to save his kingdom after being dug up and reanimated through the use of that same magic. That sounds hokey and staged, but her first trilogy, Farseer (Assasin's Apprentice, Assasin's Quest, Royal Assasin is a work of great psychological power focusing on the nature of love and of belonging.

The Tawny Man picks up our story after Fitz has dumped all of his many pains and anguishes and memories into the body of a stone statue of a dragon. He now exists, without much will or drive, in company with his bond-animal, a wolf. The events of the plot pick him up, giving him the name Tom Badgerlock and sending him back to the Farseer castle to once again protect and serve.

The core question that Hobb tackles in her first and third trilogies is the relationship between memory, even painful memory, and self, with Fitz being less than human without his pain, unable to hurt but also unable to love, and lying to himself about his desire for either.

I don't want to go farther and spoil the events of the various plots, but it does a nice job of tying up the loose ends from the first trilogy and, I suspect, from the second trilogy as well.

I skidded out of the second trilogy: the first book opens with extended Mercedes Lackey Syndrome - a whiny adolescent trying to figure out why the world is not treating her fairly - and I just was not interested. Having read the third trilogy and encountered spoilers from the second, I now want to read the second trilogy and see the full details of those events that were summarized in the later books. J, on the other hand, read the first book of Tawny Man and then, hearing that there were spoilers up ahead, went back and started in on Lifeship Traders.

This is good capable fantasy, in a complex and well thought-out world, tackling serious human questions. It also kept me up late finishing books and chapters. Good stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 18, 2005

Block - Small Town

Lawrence Block
Small Town
New York: Harper Torchbooks, 2003

This is a post 9/11 novel. Literally, the core events of the book are driven by the memory and legacy of the disaster. I won't give too many of those details, as it would spoil the "what in the WORLD is goin on here?" that starts the book, but Block opens with a character looking at the hole in the sky where the towers used to be.

It is also unlike every other Lawrence Block book that I have started: I finished it and read it voraciously. I have opened another half-dozen or so of his novels and never gotten more than a hundred pages into any of them.

The difference is that here is characters are, hmm, not less contrived because several of them are quite contrived, but less of the novel depends on the reader getting into the head of a particular contrived character. Let me try again. Most of Block's novels involve one of three characters: Matthew Scudder, Tanner, or whats-his-name the burglar. They all depend on the reader identifying with or at least careing about the main character. And I can't stand any of those three guys. On the other hand Small Town is more of an ensemble cast: the novelist, the retired police chief, the killer, the half-crazy art gallery owner. Each of these characters is a grotesque, exagerrated to make a point about the small town that is New York City, as are many of the supporting characters, but the grotesque is written from a sympathetic perspective. Block likes these people, and that love of the city and its quirks shows through the book.

The novel itself is a potboiler about how people respond to tragedy. Some work through it, like the housecleaner who opens the story. Others go either a little crazy - the art gallery owner - or a lot crazy. But they are all affected by the tragedy.

I read this in one great gulp. I do not know if it was good or if it was simply to my taste, but I read it.

Oh, and I kept wondering if the author character was Block's Mary Sue, no, not quite a Mary Sue because it is his own world that he has introduced an idealized self into. I was reminded of Hemingway's writer characters, and how Papa wrote about frustrated geniuses drinking heavily every afternoon. The writer in this novel starts out going slowly on a book, but soon gets an idea and goes great gangbusters on a reworking of an older short story into a morally ambiguous novel. He also has a line that stuck with me, and that I want to write about over on the main blog. Talking about spending time teaching writing he says something like: some of them knew how to write, and all they needed was a little structure and encouragement. The rest, well, at least they were writing. The implication is that writing is a binary skill, you either have it or you don't, and if you don't then you will never get it, and if you do then all you need is a little structure. I go back and forth on how I agree and disagree with that statement. More on that later.

Posted by Red Ted at 02:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 05, 2005

Wolfe - The Wizard

Gene Wolfe
The Wizard
New York : Tor Books, 2004.

This is the sequel to The Knight.

What can I say - partway through this I realized that I had no idea what was going on, was having trouble keeping track of the characters and more importantly of the characters motivations, and that the only reason I was turning the pages was the power and beauty of the language.

So, I put it down after about 100 pages and picked up Joyce's Ulysses. I did not finish that either, but I got another couple of chapters in and it was actually an easier read with more sentences that were more compelling. I really like the famous "Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the internal organs of beasts and fowl."

At least I figured out the justification for the stylized simplicity of Wolfe's narrative voice - our hero has spent time in the next plane of existence and only returned from ecstasy to the ordinary recently. As a result his memories are odd, his perceptions are odd, and his narrative voice combines the simplicity of a stylized child with the detailed recollection of a mature mind.

Did not finish, probably will never pick up again.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:05 AM | Comments (0)

Stirling - Nantucket Trilogy

S.M. Stirling
Island in the Sea of Time (1997)
Against the Tide of Years (1998)
On the Oceans of Eternity (2000)

I read these in early January and just now got around to blogging them. I am running several books behind and need to start writing less and posting faster.

This is a trilogy, and each book has a mighty lot of words in it. It is also a romp, combining the fun of historical fiction (Hi famous_person_number_seventeen) with the fun of a rebuilding narrative.

Like Eric Flint's 1632, which was written later but which I read first, Stirling takes a small community, in this case Nantucket Island, and moves it back in time. A LONG WAY back in time - to the early iron age. He sends the Coast Guard's training ship, the U.S.S. Eagle, along with them, and the Eagle's captain and crew become crucial characters and crucial plot points.

One of the officers decides to strike out on his own, steals a shipload of useful goodies, and the rest of the trilogy is about how the townsmen chase down the renegade in the middle of an iron age turned into an industrial revolution.

Most of the book is a romp, and I only had one big thought while reading it, but it is a doozy even if I am having trouble formulating it.

One of the common threads in alternate history books or in rebuild-from-the-ground-up books or in the-technology-goes-away books is that historians matter because we know what happened before. We matter because we know the people and the background events, and can use that knowledge to change things once the past becomes the lived present due to time travel or other plot devices. We also matter because we know how things were done before the current generation of technological change. And, as a corollary to that, history books matter because they tell the details of all the old stuff.

I am not so sure. I am a 19th century cultural and intellectual historian, so it is not all that surprising that I could not describe for you the differences between ancient Babylonian and ancient Egyptian power structures, or deduce the vocabulary of an iron-age Aryan dialect, or build a steam engine from scratch. And I could, if teamed with a blacksmith or metalworker, probably help them work out the best way to turn a pile of car parts into a wheeled plow with cutting strake and moldboard. But that is not what most historians do, and it is not the level of detail contained in the books in most high school libraries. It is flattering, in a way, to be told by these literary genres that historians know everything and that everything we don't know is tidily contained in your average high school library, but I am not sure that the reality can live up to those expectations.

And so to go read about the civil religion of the founders.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:59 AM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2005

Moon - Trading in Danger / Marque and Reprisal

Catch-up book blogging. I read these in early January.

Elizabeth Moon - Trading in danger
New York : Ballantine Books, 2003.

Elizabeth Moon - Marque and Reprisal
New York : Random House, 2004.

Space opera. Well done. We follow a young officer cadet from a space merchant family as she is busted out of the space academy for mistakenly trusting an inferior, is given command of an old ship on its way to the breakers (with the entire family company fully expecting her to take it away, start trading on her own, and make an entrepeneur of herself), and gets involved in intersteller invasion, piracy, and commercial warfare.

The good - we have a compelling heroine, trying to figure out what her _real_ strong and weak abilities are, basically competent at what she does, and with a good mix of heroic traits and, well, moral weaknesses. She discovers one of her big moral failings towards the end of the first book. I won't spoil it here.

The plotting, especially in the second book, has a few holes - basically we are asked to believe in a space pirate who is both anonymous and capable of casually instilling fear and intimidation over a phone line. Sorry, pick one.

Moon started out writing fantasy, with the spectacular Deed of Paksenarrian, but has since shifted to space opera. She tends to work out a future society, use that to dig into a problem - what would happen if - and then write a series of fun fast-paced space opera while digging around the corners of that question. In her previous space opera featuring Heris Serrano (highly recommended) the question was "how does massive life-extension change a society?" "What happens if it is threatened?"

In her new series she explores the implications of having a computer in your head. Implants are common. People use them to store information, to provide extra calculating capacity, and as we see in the second book, to do more. They can be stolen - these are things that plug into a socket at the back of your neck. They can be hacked, although Moon does not spend much time on that scenario. How does it change things if, for example, the head of a corporation can give the family implant to his successor? What does it do for institutional memory if new hires are given access to, in her case, centuries of "this is how we did it last time"? One thing she points out is that it makes you lazy - if you can look it up, why think? And so she posits that military cadets must be trained to work without an implant - which is useful when her heroine has to do the same out in the reaches of space.

One of science fiction's strengths is its ability to be used as a "what if" tool. If this trend or that trend continues, "if this goes on," then what might happen. It gives an opportunity to isolate one aspect of a changing world and explore the implications of that idea or change. These were quite entertaining. They also got me thinking about some of the barely-anticipated side effects of miniaturization and the internet. Her implants are nowhere near possible. But give me a budget and a couple of engineers and I could build you a pair of eyeglasses, with internal screens, an eye-ball/blinker mouse control, a cell-phone, and an internet connection. They would be ugly heavy things with 2005 tech, but small is just a question of time and money. Would you want to have Google on hand, email on hand, instant messaging on hand, no matter where you were, just by blinking twice?

Moon is at her best when doing a few things - giving an insider's account of a military organization (former Marine captain), writing action sequences, and looking at the social consequences of technological change. I am curious to see if she will have a third book in the series - towards the end of the second she was getting a little Monty Haul (gee, its fun to give toys to the characters. I wonder what they will do with this one?

Posted by Red Ted at 06:27 AM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2004

Gaiman - American Gods

Neil Gaiman
American Gods

This is a big book. It is such a big book that it took me a couple of weeks to think about what I wanted to say about it, and I still don't have anything coherent other than a strong wow and a small and poorly articulated wah.

I had looked at the book a couple of times before reading some rave reviews over on Crooked Timber, and had steered away from it because the cover blurb made it sound like a bad Sandman/Dark Knight ripoff. I was braced for anxty alienated loner with a grudge against the world and a monomaniacal desire for, something - revenge perhaps, or justice, or something compelling.

That is not the story.

Instead we have Shadow, a very sweet somewhat passive and very large man, and his misadventures with Mr Wednesday - a name that when Gaiman finally spelled out its implications I kicked myself for having missed.

The premise is fairly simple: the old gods - gods who immigrated from Europe, Africa, and Asia during the peopling of America - are fading away and being replaced by new gods - the internet, the intangibles on Wall Street - as supernatural beings that shape our lives and must be believed in and supplicated. A Mr. World is organizing the new gods to wipe out the old gods, and Mr. Wednesday is trying to rally the old gods to survive. Things progress from there, but so much you get in the first hundred pages or so.

This is a mind-blowing concept. It reminds us of the great many things in this modern world that we believe in, trust, appeal to, and yet do not fully understand. If a god is a black box that you pour emotions and sacrifice into, and that rewards you by granting or denying your desires, then we have an awful lot of new gods.

I spent a lot of time after reading the ending trying to decide what it all meant. I am still not sure. If I discuss it here, this will become a spoiler and not a review.

Still, let me just say that while we find out where Shadow comes from, I at least was left very unclear about where Shadow was going. In part, that is because Shadow himself ends the book unsure of his own future. I normally like indeterminate endings where you can use your imagination to complete the narrative - one of the way cool things about Walter Jon Williams' City on Fire is the indeterminate ending. Still, in this case I wanted to have done a better job of putting the hints together. I tried to re-read it to see if it worked better the second time, but it was not a book that wanted a rapid re-read.

Still, highly recommended. J listened to it as an audiobook as I read it on paper, and having listened to a few scenes I do think it works better when read aloud than it does when read on the page. The language is that thick, and that powerful, and that smooth.

Note, tweaking the date because I read this in late December. The review was written Jan 9, 2004.

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

December 20, 2004

Butler - Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Sower
New York : Four Walls Eight Windows, c1993.

Octavia Butler is a powerful prose stylist who creats strong and unusual characters. I like this.

Parable of the Sower is set in a dystopia California built around a "if this goes on" scenario of gated communities and the breakdown of law and order.

It is a very good book.

I was not in the mood for a dystopia.

I stopped after some 20 pages. I might read it sometime in the future when I am in a different mood - the book was simply licorice and I was in the mood for orange.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Delderfield - Give us this Day

R. F. (Ronald Frederick) Delderfield
Give us this day
New York, Simon and Schuster [1973]

Delderfield reminds me of Wagner sometimes.

This is not a good thing.

Both produced vast stretches of material that makes you wonder why you are sitting through it, broken by occasional moments of sublimity or bathos, or in Delderfield's case a sort of prosaic sublime bathos, if that makes any sense.

Delderfield wrote a lot about 19th and early 20th century England. Some of it is good. Most of it is long. Much of it is too long for the material.

One of his opuses (opi?) is the story of Swann, a cavalryman who returns from putting down the Sepoy Mutiny in India with a fortune in rubies hidden in his belt, and uses that fortune to set up a business using horses and wagons to "fill in the gaps" between the railroad spurs in the second half of the nineteenth century. The book is long, and has two sequals each even longer than the one before. This is the final sequal, and I could not finish it.

I got a good 500 pages into the book before I finally convinced myself that I was turning the pages just to get to the end so I could say I had read it. That is not really reading a book, so I sent it back without turning the last 200 pages.

The problem is simply that the vast stretches of tedium were not worth the few transcendent moments. He has some good moments - when George Swann (son and business heir of old Adam) uses two early model trucks and a modified horse wagon to lug a six ton battleship turret some hundred-odd miles across England, well, that chapter works. At his best Delderfield is capable of taking the prosaic events of daily life and the large events that punctuate a business or career and turning them into sublime or transcendent moments, paens to the human spirit, and powerful invocations of English nationalism. He does this best of all in his two-volume bit about "The Suburb" but parts of Swann's world also do it.

At his worst, you get bored out of your gourd watching the culture hero wander through life, with adoring wife behind him and large troupe of thinly fleshed out, largely neglected children scattering around them. That is a little unfair - Delderfield does try to give the second generation real personalities in this volume where he had not done so in A Horseman Riding By, but the marriage is the same and the patriarch raising his huge brood through benign neglect and good luck, that is the same. I think that one reason why To Serve Them All my Days works as well as it does is that he manages to limit the offspring to a manageable number, although even there the kids are raised off stage and you get the sense that dad is vaguely aware of some short people living in the house while mom knows all the details. And the book is about dad.

I think I am Delderfielded out. I read too many of his novels in a few months' span.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:16 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 01, 2004

Stowe - Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly
E-Text via University of Virginia Text Center
Multiple editions over the years, orig pub 1852

Uncle Tom's Cabin is the great nineteenth-century American novel. It might be the Great American Novel, but I would rank Faulkner As I Lay Dying and Fitzgerald Great Gatsby over UTC. It clearly beats out Twain's Huckleberry Fin.

And yet, almost no one reads it anymore, which is why I assign it to the U.S. History surveys. (Survey part two gets The Autobiography of Malcolm X) They used to read it - it was the most read and most translated work of fiction of its day, it was read, or seen as a play, or seen as a re-written play, or in a re-re-written minstril show throughout the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Remember that the harem in "The King and I" puts on a play of "the small house of Uncle Thomas" and that Berlin has its OncleTomStrasse (spelling?). Instead, while the names of some of the characters are still widely identifiable today - Uncle Tom, Simon Legree - the book itself has fallen out of circulation.

I can see several reasons for its decline: the drop in melodrama, the racism inherent in Stowe's plot and characters, her moral lecturing, and her insistence that Christianity must serve as a force for moral and civil reform all make the book both preachy and obnoxious. However, I think the biggest reasons are the turn to institutionalized racism in the early 20th century and the response of civil rights and especially black nationalists to the book in the middle of the twentieth century.

During the early twentieth century, say from 1890 the 1920s, the United States created a national re-union across the divisions made by the Civil War, with the nation accepting Northern notions of union and Southern notions of race relations. This was the era of mass disfranchisement, this was the era when both the Federal Government and Major League Baseball were segregated, this was the heyday of the second Ku Klux Klan - with family picnics and social events all over the South and Midwest.

During the Civil Rights movement, which might have re-habilitated the book, black nationalists condemned Tom. Tom willingly sacrifices himself to save others; he chooses to stay with and reform white masters rather than trying to run away; he is moved about the countryside by others; and in the various plays and re-writings of the book he changes from a moral conscience and Christ figure to a goofy, grinning, lackey. No one wants to be associated with that, especially because Tom himself was morally and plot-wise a woman and black nationalism was driven in large part by an attempt to re-define black manhood.

So, we don't read the book. And I think we should.

I like the book for a couple of reasons. The first is that, despite the implausible plot and final reconciliation, despite the digressions into long debates about slavery or the direct exhortations to the reader, the book grabs the reader and drags her along. Stowe manages to create sympathy for her heros, anger at her villains, and in Haley, Legree, and Marie she has three of the better villains in all of literature. They more than make up for the penny-tract nature of Tom and Eva, her two religious prodigies and Christ-figures.

The second, and the reason why I assign it to my students, is that the book hits just about every major concern of the nineteenth century: Slavery? yep; Gender roles? yep; Class identity? yep; The dangers of the commercial market? yep; The duty to be moral in an immoral world? yep; Sentiment? yep; Meditations on the duties that come with power? yep; Debates about free will? yep. It is all there, and that is why I call it the great nineteenth century novel.

In addition it has some of the less attractive parts of the era: racism? yep (compare the black and mulatto characters); classism? yep (her male villains are all lower class, her gentlemen are all kind, or at least not cruel); Triumphalism and bigotry? of course; separate spheres restrictions on women? yep - part of gender roles. Again, it is all there.

I re-read the novel every time I teach it, both to be fair to the kids who are also reading it and because I need to refresh my memory before I talk about the details with them.

The new thing I spotted this time was that there are two characters who are sort of the middle-class wish fulfillment fantasy. Rachel Halliday and Bill the drover both exert authority without appearing to make effort. Rachel Halliday is the more obvious - she is the Quaker woman who shelters Eliza as she runs and brings Eliza back in touch with her husband George Harris, who has also run away. Rachel Halliday is depicted as this tiny, soft-spoken woman who sits in her chair and rocks. She speaks a soft word, and children and husband scurry to obey. Separate Spheres advocates argued that a woman could dominate all around her by being gentle, and good, and kind - and Halliday expresses that ideal. Her male counterpart, the drover, has freed all his slaves but they choose to stay and work for wages; he sends them out on errands and they come back; he is uncouth - we meet him spitting tobacco juice with great abandon - but he is one of Stowe's moral voices and he again personifies effortless authority.

And so to teach.

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November 27, 2004

Weber & Flint - Crown of Slaves

David Weber & Eric Flint
Crown of Slaves
Riverdale, NY : Baen ; New York :
Distributed by Simon & Schuster, c2003.

I read this a few weeks ago, but forgot to blog it at the time. This is space opera in the Honorverse, Weber's multi-volume space opera saga with homage to Horatio Hornblower. Flint has co-author credit, created several of the main characters in earlier short stories set in Weber's Honorverse, and gives his usual left-socialist spin to a genre dominated by military-libertarians. It helps.

I am not sure which of the two came up with the name for the escaped genetic slave, political scientist, and pocket genius who serves crucial plot roles at the beginning and end of the novel, but it is one of the best names in all of fiction. I actually re-read the book because I wanted to re-read his sections. What is this name? Our fugitive slave, when faced with immigration authorities and facing the need to replace his original 14-character alphanumeric with a real name combined his two favorite fighters for freedom to come up with WEB du Havel. The WEB quickly became Web, for it only indirectly signifies William Edward Burghardt. Still, I was greatly amused by the notion that, 800 years into the future, Du Bois and Havel would be the great resounding names.

For the rest, this is a pretty good thriller, with a plot that reminded me of the 1970s Bond movies where James Bond and the Russians combine to fight random evil meanies. Still, Weber and Flint make it work, at least to the extent that, at any given point in the plot, all of the characters have a reasonable reason to act as they do. As a result the plot holes are minimal - something that readers of both authors' fiction have come to expect. The plot ends with (and this is not a spoiler for it is heavily foreshadowed, including in the title) a perfectly reasonable explanation for that plot absurdity so beloved by fantasy authors and George Lucas, a freely chosen teenage queen ruling over an entire planet.

I think this is one of the best of the books in the Honorverse, if only because it moves away from Honor Harrington herself - superwoman can get boring. I certainly liked it much better than War of Honor, the book immediately before it, but then War of Honor is a book devoted to taking the resolved problems of the previous series and re-starting the eternal war so that the readers can get more books and more spaceship battles. War of Honor left me mad at the characters for making bad decisions, and mad at the author for refusing to resolve the old crisis - like a play with an extraneous fourth act, or a D&D campaign where the MaGuffin gets plucked away after months of gaming, or ASOIF when someone who you thought was a main character gets killed, War of Honor left me feeling manipulated and frustrated. So, it was a good book for it induced emotion, but it was not a book I will care to re-read. Crown of Slaves despite having its own complexities is, while not feel-good fiction, still something where you turn the last page and put down the book feeling hopeful about the human condition.

The human condition is perilous yet promising. We should feel cautions but hopeful, for any other route is the road to despair. War of Honor heads on that road, while Crown of Slaves suggests several side-paths that lead to far more promising destinations.

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

November 22, 2004

Heinlein - Door Into Summer

Robert A. Heinlein
"The Door Into Summer"
A Heinlein trio
Garden City, N.Y. : Nelson Doubleday, Inc., c1957.

I actually grabbed this Heinlein collection from the library shelves because I wanted to re-read "Door Into Summer." I last read it many many moons ago, when I was a teenager, and all I remembered was the cat who during bad weather went around to every door or window in the house asking to be let out into summer. Our old orange tabby did the same thing, for surely one of the various doors in the house must let him out where he can do his business without risking local frostbite.

When I re-read the story last week I was surprised, twice over. I had forgotten just how dated the story was - the hero is a 1950s uber-engineer who designs clever things and re-makes the world with a drafting board and a machine shop. The other surprise was that his world-changing inventions are household cleaning robots, mechanizing housework so as to free women from bondage and toil.

Heinlein has been praised as a feminist and condemned for being a sexist, both for the same reason. His female characters are all strong-willed and articulate; they know what they want and they go for it. His female characters, and his male characters in response, define themselves by their sexuality, often doing so to the point where the mind and the will are eclipsed by the body. (Not that that ever happens to us.)

Thus Door's core premise is that women do housework, and that the male engineer will save them from their fate and free them to do more productive things. In addition our hero is betrayed by his fiancee and then devotes himself through a complex plot involving cryogenic storage, time travel, and a willing-ness to help himself out of a jam so that he can finally marry the girl of his dreams -- a woman who is both strong willed and who puts her will to the purpose of supporting our hero. The engineers are all male; Heinlein imagines a world with a gendered division of labor as strong as anything in the 1920s, but the energy and drive that make the inventions into components of social change comes from men and women alike.

The 1950s were an odd time for gender roles, and Heinlein was doing one of the things that science fiction does best - take an aspect of contemporary society out of context and explore the implications of our assumptions. Thus in an era which was both seeing more women re-enter the workforce and seeing housework and parenting extolled as the only acceptable role for women to play, it is not surprising that Heinlein dug into the assumptions about what women should do and how they should do it.

It is a little surprising that he imagines a future 30 years in advance where women are freed from drudgery but women are not professionals, designers, or inventers, but there too we see the paradox of science fiction. When we take a part of our society out, turn it around and dig into its assumptions, we often stop and mount our dissected social segment in a display case that is made up of the rest of the elements of the author's original society. The future is an alien world, more alien than the past, and if we are looking at one or two ideas and telling a pulp story, then that is enough for any one work of speculative fiction.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 18, 2004

Heinlein - Double Star

Robert A. Heinlein
"Double Star"
A Heinlein trio
Garden City, N.Y. : Nelson Doubleday, Inc., c1957.

Double Star is my favorite RAH novella. I grabbed this trilogy because I wanted to re-read it, and because I wanted to re-read "Door Into Summer." As expected, I liked this one better.

The premise is simple, the characters are all capable, and the prose is good by pulp standards. Our hero, the Great Lorenzo, is an incredibly talented actor who is flat broke and out of work. Once we accept that premise, the rest follows. Lorenzo is approached by some spacemen who want him to do a job, he accepts and then discovers that he is to impersonate a politician who MUST be at a certain place at a certain time but who has been abducted to keep him from being there. Lorenzo accepts, and things progress from there. Eventually, Lorenzo ends up taking over for the politician, in the process transforming himself from a purely selfish nebbish to an altruistic and highly effective statesman.

It is an interesting story because it draws on Franklin's notions of self-creation and self-re-invention, a powerful American legend. Lorenzo copies his man so well, studies him so closely, that he begins to write speeches in the man's voice - as he gets better (with the man's edits after he is retrieved but the impersonation goes on) he gets closer and closer to the man's voice.

I was reminded of Sheila O'Malley as I read this - here is the imagined love child of Marlon Brando and Charlie Chaplin, a highly skilled practitioner of the art of acting and stagecraft who works through, effectively, becoming his character. He did that on the stage, he does it to disguise himself in the second scene, and he does it in spades while becoming the statesman.

This is a story of becoming, a bildungsroman about an adult going through a second chrysalis.

Oh, and it is set in a solar system with Martians on Mars, Venusians on Venus, and an interstellar Constitutional Monarchy where government is through an elected parliament while the head of state for the solar system is the head of the House of Orange. You gotta like fiction where Holland rules the solar system.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:03 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 13, 2004

Delderfield - A Horseman Riding By

R. F. (Ronald Frederick)Delderfield
A horseman riding by
New York : Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Delderfield writes great long books about England. In his best work he celebrates the quiet heroism of daily life - as for example in The Avenue where a batch of suburban families get by during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He wrote a lot of stuff, mostly during the middle of the 20th century, and it is all pretty good middlebrow fiction, with dashes of sentimentalism.

A Horseman Rides By takes this approach to the Devon countryside between the Boer War and 1940, with our hero a man with a highly convenient source of outside money who buys a valley and sets him self up as a squire. We meet Paul as he is invalided after being shot in the knee in the Boer War. We leave him watching the coasts in 1940, and in between are almost a thousand pages of conversation, love of the land, and the benevolent squire trying to bring rural agriculture into a meaningful modern era. Delderfield is a conservative in the true Burkean sense - his characters may have radical or even socialist sympathies, but Delderfield himself celebrates tradition and continuity and argues that any meaningful future must respect the past.

It was 700 pages of good reading and 200 pages of plugging along so I could finish.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:35 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 10, 2004

Asaro - Quantum Rose

Catherine Asaro
The Quantum Rose

But it is such a GOOD formula.

Actually, I am being unfair to Asaro. Her books do not follow a plot formula, although they do follow a situation formula. But then, when you combine romance plots, high energy physics, and telepathy you don't really mind the repetitive situations.

Telepath meets telepath, they fall in love, they struggle against the bloody politics of an interstellar war, something good happens, something bad happens, the end. There is a LOT of room for variety in that, both in characters and in actions, and as a result Asaro's books all feel alike but are all distinctive and very readable.

I liked this one. I won't get into the details, other than to say that it moved along and it made me think. I was highly amused by her afterward, however, where she explains her plot and chapter titles in the quantum language of partical interaction, with free radicals disrupting bonded pairs, particles forming attractions for one another, and so on.

Smart chicks are sexy. But you knew that.

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October 12, 2004

Doohan & Stirling: The Rising

James Doohan & S.M. StirlingThe Rising: Flight Engineer v. 1
Riverdale, NY : Baen, 1996.

This is space opera. I like a good space opera. This is the engineer as hero, fixing things and re-routing things so that he can save the day. The engineer-hero is a classic motif in science fiction. This is a story about a fighter jock, with several characters referring to peas and grapefruit to describe our hero. Fighter jock novels can be fun. This is not a serious work. I like light reading.

So, it is a well-crafted space opera, with many of the traits and faults of the genre, and while it does not always remain plausible, it does always remain true to genre. In space opera, what is important is that you remain true to genre, so on those terms this is a very good book indeed.

I liked reading it. I read it in a couple of hours after midnight with a cranky boy in my other arm. I might even read some of the other books in the series. But, I feel no compulsion to read more - this is fiction by the yard, in a fine pattern, but without compelling cut or style.

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October 01, 2004

Asaro - Primary Inversion

Catherine Asaro
Primary Inversion


Let me say that again.


I took a few days to write this one up because I liked it a lot and yet was having trouble figuring out what all to say about it. This is Asaro's first book in her world of the Skolian empire, I think it might be her first published novel. And it is good.

What did I like about it? She creates a plausible interstellar world. Her characters are real and complex, and each has a history and that history matters. We meet Soz as a fighter pilot on leave with her squad, and we see them moving through a neutral city trying not to cause too many waves. Slowly we learn more about her, her onboard cybernetic computer, her co-pilots, and their world.

While on leave she meets a young man from their hereditary enemies, but he does not act correctly for who he is. Things go from there, and soon we have a rollicking space-opera adventure of starfights, captures, rescues and escapes. But, we also have a wonderful drama of love, love lost, and love found again. The characters change, Soz changes a lot, and those changes all grow from inside the characters. At the end, we do indeed have a love story, and a strong one. Asaro combines an action plot, a romance plot, and hard science fiction to create a fully compelling narrative.

Luckily, she has written over a dozen books. I just hope the quality holds up.

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Asaro - Catch the Lightning

Catherine Asaro
Catch the Lightning

This is the second book in Asaro's Skolian empire, and it is not a sequel. Instead it deals with, I think, the nephew of the original heroine. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman on an earth very like our own, an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles trying to survive in a world of gangs and guns, who stumbles across a very lost space pilot. The plot goes from there, but it includes Asaro's trademark mixture of serious physics and serious romance.

Asaro is a working physicist - or was, I think she left the lab to write fiction - and her universe contains real math. More, her hyperspace vision is a plausible one that works within Einsteinian relativity. As a result, the science feels real.

Asaro cares about her characters' emotions. Her novels so far have been love stories, complete with the problems of emotional intimacy, personal privacy, and cathartic release that come with a serious love story.

The combination is powerful. I will be reading more of her work.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:46 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 27, 2004

Chazin - Fourth Angel

Suzanne Chazin
The Fourth Angel

This is Chazin's first book, and I liked it enought that I went out and chased down her second one.

Chazin is married to an official in FDNY and uses her connections and friendships to give a plausible tale of the workings of one of the more interesting civic institutions. Our heroine is a woman firefighter, a single mom, in her seventh year on the job, first year as a fire marshal investigating fires. As Chazin works us through a sequence of fires set by someone with a knowledge of high temperature accellerants and a grudge against the department, she is really telling two tales. It is a procedural, after all, and all procedurals tell two tales at least. The first is the plot, the folks chasing after the McGuffin, or solving the crime, or otherwise engaging in some moment of crisis and, in this genre, thrills. The second is the love story. The third, and the thing that gives much of the interest to a good procedural, is the biography of the institution, with its habits and personalities, customs and rules, and the inner workings of a job that, like all jobs, has its own inherent interest.

Chazin is very good at evoking the position of a woman in a male institution, starting at the very beginning when we see our heroine appearing at the sight of a fire right after drinking a large coffee, and once again facing the fact that there is never anyplace for a woman to pee. Her love story is a good back and forth showing two strong personalities, each lying to the other for purposes of the plot, each enjoying the other for their quirks, and each disliking the other for many of those same quirks. It sounds goofy, but it works. The major premise of the story, the plot, suffers from the usual problem of the rich criminal industrialist (whoops, I gave it away!) - but given the genre anytime you meet a rich philanthropist you can save time by assuming he is a criminal.

I wonder sometimes about the populism of the thriller, a realm populated by violent conspiracies led by rich men who want to get richer, or cover up the crimes that led them to wealth, but where virtue always lies with the guy, gal in this case, who lives off overtime pay. It has become a cliche.

That said, Chazin handles her cliche well enough that we are not quite sure what is going on until late in the book - either that or I read it while tired and forgot to cherchez le millionaire.

Good stuff, good fire procedural, good strong female lead, written shortly before 9/11.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:48 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Card - First Meetings

Orson Scott Card
First Meetings in the Enderverse

This is a collection of four short stories, including the classic novella "Enders' Game." Everything Card writes is competant, but only some of it sings. Enders' Game sings. So too does the first third of his short story "The Polish Boy." The rest is, well, competant and fills in some of the gaps in his Enderverse.

I have to admit that much as I like the novella Enders' Game, I did not like the longer novel Enders' Game and was unable to read the three followup works. I know they are important. But, Card is at his best in the shorter formats. Somehow when he has to compress his tales down to their core, his gift for words and characters, morals and language, comes to the forefront. His longer works have too many words. And unlike a Mozart opera, this is not a good thing.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 24, 2004

Stirling - Dies the Fire

S. M. Stirling
Dies the Fire
New York : New American Library, 2004.

There is a genre of science fiction and fantasy that I refer to as the "re-enactors revenge": because of some plot device our characters are left in a situation where high tech does not work, but low tech does, and a few geeks who study the low tech life as a hobby suddenly become world-changing heros. It is a fine variant of the geeks' revenge that lies behind a lot of alternative fiction. And, like any genre and sub-genre, what matters for any particular book is not that it is geeks' revenge but that it is done well or done poorly; Eric Flint's 1632 was done very well and is one of the first books I recommend to new readers. An aside, some folks file Flint into alternate history, time travel, or Lord Kalvin, all of which sub-genres it also fits into. Any worthwhile piece of writing can be classified several different ways.

One recent set of changes on the geeks' revenge is one that I call The Technology Goes Away, a variant on The Magic Goes Away. Larry Niven's short story of the same name, and his subsequent fiction in the same world, discuss a well thought out society built around working magic which discovers that mana, the source of magic, is a limited resource that is being consumed, and as it is consumed the magical technology that drives their society fails. In The Technology Goes Away, a plot device alters the basic laws of physics in a technological world, society collapses, no high energy devices work, and people re-create the medieval world, but with modern political science and modern low-energy technology.

The earliest example of The Technology Goes Away that I am aware of is John Ringo's There Will be Dragons in which he takes a future nanotech society that does indeed feel like magic, breaks it, and creates a world that looks distressingly like Gary Gygax's work from the 1980s. I found Dragons to be pretty good, his followup The Emerals Sea was a distressingly stupid book. The only other example of The Technology Goes Away that I have found is S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire which I finished reading the other night.

Ringo spends the first quarter of Dragons introducing characters, setting up his war between good and evil, and producing a series of plot devices that will give him his world made of: technological magic; elves, dwarves and dragons; Roman legionaries fighting the orc hordes; and so on. In contrast, Stirling introduces us to the two main characters in the moment where the technology goes away. This is a plot device, and he does not try to give an explanation. Instead we know what the characters know, and all they figure out is that there was a flash of light, high energy explosions don't work - including gunpowder and gasoline - high energy steam becomes low energy steam, and electricity fails utterly. They speculate on the why, but they don't know and Stirling does not tell us.

Stirling wrote some mindless dreck during the 1980s - The High Lifters and David's Sling come to mind - but Over the last decade Stirling has matured as an author, going from someone to avoid to someone to seek out. This is a smart book - like David's Sling - and it is also a well composed and well written book. His characters are uncommon folks - a former Force Recon Marine who became a bush pilot in the Northwest, a folk singer who is high priestess of a high-church Wiccan coven "think of us as Anglicans," and as crucial sidekicks a black Texas rodeo cowboy turned horse trainer and blacksmith and a former British marine turned avid bowhunter who manages to get into a predicament and then be saved by the Wiccan priestess. But, only uncommon folks in a somewhat rural environment are likely to survive the human catastrophe that Stirling posits as communication and food distribution break down, food production breaks down as the farm tractors and powered water pumps all fail, law and order breaks down, and the cities burn.

He places these folks on the edges of the Williamette valley in Oregon, arguing that only on the truck-farming fringes between urban density and rural factory farms are people likely to find enough old infrastructure to make the transition from modern technology to bastard technology: swords beaten out of car springs, horses pulling wagons made out of fiberglass, and so on.

Stirling goes from there, and by about partway through it is clear that he has chosen the classic fantasy structure of the evil overlord expanding his evil empire, blocked by a loose coalition of free states. The interesting thing in all this is that all of the roles are played by modern people who are adapting skills and hobbies that they once knew to modern situations, and who are combining their knowledge of medieval history with modern political science, sociology, and low energy technology. And so we see the Marine leading a group of knights - chainmail, horsebow, sabre, and a support system. The singer leads a Scottish clan - bagpipes, plaids, and a lot of Wiccans following the threefold rule. Other minor groups are the loose coalition of ranchers to the east of the Williamette valley, a university town that organizes itself like, well, a medieval free city or university complete to the town council and militia, and various strongmen who set themselves up as barons or warlords.

What I found impressive was that, even after I figured out that Stirling was moving towards the evil overlord v. the coalition of the free, each of the individual decisions and actions was relatively plausible.

What I also found impressive was that magic works - or psychology works and the people find that it feels like magic. Lets just say that the Wiccan singer is very lucky, that when she loses her temper and calls up a battle frenzy people get a battle frenzy, and when she leads a religious ritual we see it from her perspective and she experiences something. Stirling is making a point - he has some control over the characters after all - but he does so in the same manner that, say, Richard Bushman discusses the visions of Joseph Smith or that David D. Hall discusses the visions
seen by seventeenth-century Puritans. We have no idea whether this person was contacted by the Divine, but we can be pretty sure that they "thought" they had been contacted by the divine, and that they changed their actions after this moment of contact. The rest is speculation and can be resolved at a later date, as Franklin said of life after death.

It was a good book, although I was ready for it to end 50 pages before it ended. It was a smart book, smarter than Ringo's The Emerald Sea. It was written with an eye to a sequel - branding and series are the way to go these days - and I do hope that it sells well enough that we will see the rest of them.

Good stuff.

EDIT - Spelling and grammar, corrected misattributions, added links to Bushman and Hall. 10/2/04

Posted by Red Ted at 07:08 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 21, 2004

Heinlein - To Sail Beyond Sunset

Robert A. Heinlein
To Sail Beyond Sunset

This is one of RAH's old age books. And, like a lot of his later work, it has a distinctive set of flaws that make it very different from his earlier work. The best way to describe this thing is that it is three books in one.

The first, the best, and the most interesting, is the fictional narrative of Maureen Johnson Smith - familiar to RAH fans as the mother of Woodrow Wilson Smith aka Lazarus Long. Heinlein tells her tale of growing up in the 1880s, marrying, and raising a family in St. Louis Missouri in the early 20th century - a tale close in time and place to RAH's own biography, and so it shares some of the wonder and exploration of the era.

The second, and the most jarring, is Maureen's channelling of Heinlein's particular package of cranky complaints about the modern world. Some of these will be familiar - Heinlein does not care for the Dr. Spock approach to child care, thinks that the baby boomers and their ilk destroyed the republic through permissiveness and lax laws, and wishes for a world with a higher level of personal responsibility and interpersonal respect. While riding this hobby horse he says some things that are powerful and true - respect for others and for one's self - and some things that are just silly - historians must both tell the truth, stick to the facts, and tell their audience that what their nation does is always good. (More on that on the main blog soon.)

The third, and least interesting part of the pastiche, is Maureen's second career in cloud-cuckoo-land. During the 1980s Heinlein took his future society from the worlds of Lazarus Long, combined it with some time-travel notions, and then used this to meld together all of his various time-lines, all of his various characters, and a few things stolen from Frank L. Baum. He created some sort of a future where everyone is rejuvenated, married, has sex and makes babies, engages in complex lineal marriages, has long conversations in which I really can not tell the various speakers and personalities apart, and sometimes goes back in time to adjust one or another of the various time-lines in his alternate histories of the Earth. Of course, at this point the characters become interchangeable, the plot a bit of wish fulfillment, and we are left with a pretty good guess of what Heinlein's notion of heaven is, and a weak story. Paradise is always less compelling than Hell, and while Heinlein's paradise was reasonably interesting the first time I read it, it quickly became tedious after appearing in most of his later work.

And yet, I turned the pages and finished the book. Maureen is a compelling, if sometimes frustratingly self-righteous character.

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September 17, 2004

Scottoline - Legal Tender

Scottoline, Lisa.
Legal tender
New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

This is a perfectly readable thriller. Our heroine is a tall, athletic, lawyer in Philadelphia. Her ex-boyfriend and current law partner is murdered, she is framed for his murder, and she goes on the run while trying to figure out who really did it.

The plot is a fairly straightrforward running detective. The fun part, for me, was the local color and her picture of life in a big legal firm. Scottoline worked in Philadelphia for a while and has written a mess of Grisham-lite novels set in her home town. I think I have found a new source of light reading.

As for this one - it kept me reading. I read late night, while working with insomnia, and I think I need to check the conclusion because I have forgotten exactly what motive she gave the final killer - I think I was distracted by the improbable final confrontation. Other than the conclusion, which was silly, the body of the book is a perfectly reasonable light read. I had a fun hour or so flipping pages.

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Card - Tales of Alvin Maker

Orson Scott Card
Seventh Son - 1987
Red Prophet - 1988
Prentice Alvin - 1989
Journeyman Alvin - 1995
Heartfire - 1998
The Crystal City - 2003
TBA - future publication

Card has started an extensive series of stories about an alternate Joseph Smith living in an alternate United States. I don't normally like to read fiction set within my time period - the nagging inconsistencies bother me. I liked these, both because it is sufficiently fantasy-based to be different, and because Card is relying on a good set of historical sources as he draws his characters and personalities.

He has written six of his seven books so far. I have read Richard Bushman's very good biography of Joseph Smith, so I know what will happen in the seventh volume.

What I found fun about these was the twists and turns that Card makes with the historical record. What I found impressive, especially for a historical fiction, was that Card's versions of the founders and the second generation are pretty close to my take on the guys. Card introduces Franklin, William Blake (exported from England for this tale), John Adams, Andrew Jackson and others to his alternate history. Each of these is reasonably recognizable as the historical figure. They appear in cameos, so we don't expect much depth, and Card takes one aspect or facet of this historical person's character and presents it fairy clearly. His John Adams is stubborn, principled, and difficult. His Abe Lincoln is an idealized verion of the affable (failed) storekeeper, before he starts his second career as a railroad lawyer. His Calhoun, who lives in the Stuart kingdom that occupies what would be the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, is cranky because he wants to be king but never will be.

The other neat thing about these books is his notion of a knack. Magic works in this world. White men organize their natural talent into knacks - the ability to do something easily, effectively, and with little effort. Some knacks involve other people - a knack for seeing who is lying, a knack for showing people the side of themselves they like to see - other knacks involve the physical world - a knack for fitting things together, or finding water with a dowsing stick, or handling horses. Indians, in Card's vision, organize themselves around a greenway of communion with nature, blacks build fetishes and dolls, but all have the same innate magical talents. In fact, Indians in his Iroquois Confederacy, who take over early industrialization from his New England, are all bound up in iron and steam, and have knacks like the white men.

I liked this in part because his notion of a knack matches up with the early 19th century notion of a genius. These days we think of genius as a state of general brilliance. Folks at the time thought of genius as a particular talent for acting or thinking. John Quincy Adams spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the nature of his genius - he never quite figured it out. It also matches with the avocation, that which we like to do, and reminds us that one secret to success and happines is to find your avocation and make it your vocation - work at what you like and at what you do well. (An aside, I like history but am not all that good at doing it. Am I following my avocation?)

These are a nice read. I am writing them up as a block because I read them as a block. They are all parts of a single long tale. And, I suspect that the telling will be far more interesting than the conclusoin. By the end of Crystal City we can see Card already setting up his version of Nauvoo, complete with violation of state and national laws, aggressive local militia, and angry neighbors.

If you like these novels, read Bushman's biography.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 15, 2004

Kent Haruf - Plainsong

Kent Haruf.
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Recorded Books Performance by Tom Stechschulte.

This is another book that reads like it wanted to be one of Oprah's picks. There is nothing wrong with that - I finished the book after all - but it is most definitely chick lit despite being written by a guy.

Haruf tells an interwoven story of Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher who is separating from his wife, his two boys, Victoria Rubedoux (spelling - audiobooks you know) a pregnant high school student, and the McFerrin brothers, two old ranchers who are friends of Tom and who take in Victoria to live on their cattle farm.

I liked the book because I did like most of the characters, because I was curious to see what would happen, and because I liked Haruf's little vignettes of rural life. I disliked it for two reasons, one the fault of Haruf and the other the fault of Stechschulte who did the reading.

Haruf jumps and skips across time: each chapter is a brief look at a few hours in the day of one of his focus characters, and we cover most of a year by skipping like a rock over a pond. Towards the end I got quite frustrated because I wanted to see more of the space between rock bounces, and instead Haruf left that space, and the ripples spread by each contact, as an exercise for the reader. Perhaps I have gotten used to non-fiction writing that goes out of its way to spell out why each chapter matters, but I found it frustrating to have to speculate about what happened in and around Haruf's little vignettes.

Stechschulte has a wonderful gravelly bass-baritone. He did a fine job with the laconic Tom Guthrie, with the McFerrin brothers, with the two boys, with Maggie Jones - another teacher and the Fifth Business in the plot - and with scene setting. His other women were all weak, plaintive and passive. And, while Victoria is supposed to be a passive character, he over-emphasized that aspect of her nature. Worse, he used the same voice for Guthrie's estranged and clinically depressed wife. Stechschulte has a similar problem with angry voices. He has one voice for angry, and he used it for the violent high school boy, for the boy's nasty parents, for Victoria's boyfriend when he lost his temper, for a simply testy shopkeeper explaining to Victoria how to do a job, for some minor characters who lose their tempers at various points, in short, every scene that was not flat description or dialogue involving one of the main characters was in just a couple of voices, and the one angry voice Stechschulte uses can not display the varieties and meanings of all the characters who are other than perfectly polite. It distracted me from the book and almost made me halt before finishing - I was listening to the book despite the narrator rather than because of the narrator.

Finally, I discovered that I had to stop the book every time someone got angry, because Haruf has all of his angry characters use potty language. There is nothing wrong with that, people tend to curse when expressing strong emotions, but it meant that if I had the kids with me I had to stop the tape. The toddler is old enough to repeat words, but not old enough to understand the discussion about potty language. I can't insist that the world be made g-rated for my convenience, but just as I lose respect for people who can not express themselves without using potty language, I also have less respect for writers who can only display an angry character by having them speak potty language.

It was an adequate book - good enough that I finished it, not so good that I will be looking for more by the same author.

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September 02, 2004

Waugh - Vile Bodies

Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies

One of the weblogs I frequent was praising this as Waugh's funniest book - it might be the basis for a forthcoming moving picture.

So, I summoned it and tried it.

This is social satire aimed at a people and a society. It failed, at least for me. I see no reason to read a book in which all of the characters are detestable and the world they live in is both banal and brutal. Waugh did make fun of his characters, and he projected his world into a near future dystopie, but I got no pleasure in reading about people I did not like being made fun of. It was an exercise in being mean. And mean for its own sake is boring. So I stopped reading it.

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Francis - Hot Money

Dick Francis
Hot Money
Audiobook performed by Simon Prebble

Dick Francis is the perfect middlebrow author. That might be why I like his stuff so much. His characters are all essentially capable people, a mark of popular fiction, but they are also flawed, aware of their flaws, and working within the realm of human strengths and weaknesses, a mark of literature. He writes like a duck: the prose moves along so smoothly that you don't realize how hard he must have paddled to create the illusion of effortless motion. He is not a swan, it is not elegant prose, but it is clear and at times quite powerful, and that is enough. More than enough at times.

Hot Money is a novel about dysfunctional families and the corrosive and yet healing roles of memory. Our hero is a middle son of a rich, effective father who has had 5 wives and a great pack of kids. Three were divorced, one died in a car crash, the 5th was murdered before the book begins. The book is about our hero's attempts to save his father from a series of murder attempts while deducing which of the people in this great big unhappy family is trying to do in the pater familias for the hunks and hunks of inheritance.

It might be that I am exploring my own midlife crisis, but I found the most compelling parts of the book to be those where Ian, our narrator, speculates on paths taken and not taken, on how easy it is to become a drone, and how rare it is to find something that one really loves to do. His ethos is that of the striving middling class - happiness consists in finding an avocation and working at it. Again, this is part of why he is a comforting novelist for someone like myself who is hopelessly middle class, and who is struggling to achieve an avocation against my own inner drone.

Finally, in this as in his other works, Francis has a pure joy in finding things out and sharing them with his readers. People who comment about what makes a blog fly generally mention that the thing that makes a blog compelling is that the author cares about her subject. The same is true in class, I will come to some aspect of history that I care about and I can feel the intensity in my voice rise, my body language shift, my speech tempo increase, and the kids respond - they sit up, the eyes open, and they perceive that this is something that matters to me. They may ignore me, that happens, but just like the a dance floor will give a collective shimmy when the bagpipes kick in, so too do the students react when I get onto one of my rolls.

Dick Francis shares an excitement about the world, that is his most attractive trait as a novelist. In his early novels this excitement was the joy of horse racing, or of flying, and his books are procedurals explaining what people do in these exotic occupations and sharing with the reader why Francis had so much fun when he was riding or flying. In his later novels, Francis turns this joy in life to a joy of finding about other things and sharing those with his readers. It might be the alcohol industry (Proof) or finance (Banker) or anything. In Hot Money it is not so much high finance as the basic procedurals. At one point Ian lectures his father on how to file a will with the English national registry so as to avoid probate difficulties, and while Dick Francis is using his fiction to impart a lesson in using the machinery of the state he is also sharing a certain fascination with the people and procedures that make a civil society work. Francis writes procedurals; he is fascinated with all the little things that people do when making their lives and their jobs work; and that fascination comes through the printed page.

It is why I like his novels.

Oh, and Francis' plain style and Prebble's very good reading combine to make this a very good audiobook indeed. I have read all of Dick Francis in paper; I think I shall start dropping his audiobooks into the car rotation.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 23, 2004

Moriarty -- Center of Everything

Laura Moriarty
The Center of Everything
New York : Hyperion, c2003.
ISBN 1401300316

I started this as an audiobook and got perhaps a quarter of the way through in 3 weeks before having it recalled. I then summoned it in hardback and finished it as a book book. It was better the second way.

Audiobooks emphasize the language. They also move at the speed of the narrrator. This can be a good thing in a book with a lot of dialogue and soliloquies. It is not so good in a book with a lot of description or action. Moriarty comes out of the writing schools, and her novel has many of the characteristics of taught fiction. Every sentence and every paragraph is good, well crafted and a pleasure to read. But because it is all so tightly written, the effect when read out loud is a surfeit of perfection; what is good on the page become precious on cd. When you add to this the fact that the book has a certain Stella Dallas aspect to it -- it is full of tragic moments and you never know what will wrench the characters next but you know it will be hard for them -- well, you are left with a precious moment of impending doom. The first thing I did with the hardback was flip to the end and check to see if one of the foreshadowed bad things happened. After that I could finish the book.

As a book book, this is a surprisingly good book. The back cover blurb calls it a Catcher in the Rye for the modern era, written from a female perspective. Someone at the publishing house got paid good money to come up with that. It is a shame that it is not quite accurate.

This is the story of Evelyn and her mother Tina, and Travis who lives in the next apartment building, all taking place in Kerrville Kansas - the center of everything. This is a story of families on the edge, poorly educated, struggling to get by, but with bright and talented students who are trying to get out by using their brains. Moriarty tackles class in Reagans America; she tackles midwestern millenial Christianity; she constantly returns to sexuality and morality. We open with Tina and Evelyn watching Ronald Reagon on TV in 1980; we end with Evelyn leaving Kerrville and Tina exploring a possible new future; between it is all struggle, romance, and wrong turns.

Several of the teenage characters have sex. Tina herself got pregnant with Evelyn while in high school and dropped out to have the baby; the father vanished. To her conservative and religious parents, this makes Tina a bad person. Especially once she starts having an affair with another man. And yet, we also see Tina as a caring mother, spending the last half of the book being successfully obsessive about a child. Elsewhere the members of these anti-Darwin, "if you hear a trumpet grab the wheel" churches provide crucial assistance to Tina and Evelyn. It is not a simple tale, and none of her characters are perfect, but all of her characters are trying to do the right thing - if only they could figure out what that is.

I would not have picked it out of the bookshelves, but it was the best looking audiobook on the short shelf that day and so it followed me home. Sometimes I like to read chick lit; I am generally fond of coming of age stories; I am intrigued by religion and public policy; and this has it all.

It was a hard book to read, but a book that I liked much better in retrospect. I look forward to Moriarty's second novel and will read that when it comes out.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 18, 2004

Sedgwick - New England Tale

Catherine Sedgwick
A New-England Tale
University of Virginia eText center

I am assigning bits of this to the kids this semester, and skimmed through it to see what to give them. I think they are getting three chapters, about 15,000 words, but that might be a bit much.

This is Sedgwick's breakthrough novel - I think it is her first - and it is very much in the mode of the religious politics of 1820s New England. I had encountered it before only in secondary sources: a contemporary book review castigating it for making a mockery of conversion religion, and Ann Douglass' work on the feminization of American culture where she uses it as a case study in changing literary and social mores.

Suffice it to say that Sedgwick: does not agree with the Trinitarian establishment; accuses the bastions of small town morality of being hypocrites; makes sure that all the heros are religious outsiders, all the villains from the elite, and writes the whole thing in a language that draws on the Bible to condemn organized religion.

It is a pretty good little melodrama, and a very easy read.

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

August 16, 2004

Zettel - Camelot's Shadow

Sarah Zettel
In Camelot's shadow
New York, NY : LUNA, c2004.

Zettel is a smart, literate, and compelling author. I like most of her stuff. I especially liked Fool's Game and this is also quite good.

She is working in well-trodden territory here, but she does nice things with the standard elements. It is an Arthur story. Magic works. Arthur is fighting against Saxon invaders. Many of the individual elements are familiar from Mallory.

Zettel focuses on Risa, a young woman whose father made a very bad deal at her birth - saving the mother's life at the cost of promising the child to a sorcerer when she comes of age. The action starts with Risa upset about her betrothal prospects, but she soon runs away, confronts the sorcerer, meets up with a nicely drawn Gawaine, and the story progresses from there.

I like the character. I also like the fact that Zettel brings in one of my two favorite Arthurian Knights (Gareth is the other) as well as my favorite tale from the Arthurian legend. It is giving little away to say that we meet the Green Man in a bit of foreshadowing early on, and once you have Gawaine and the Green Man in the same story you can guess that Gawaine and the Green Knight will follow at some point. It does. It is well integrated into the story. Even the villains are believable, plausible, and smart. The heros win, for a while, but not without consequences.

Highly recommended.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Ringo - The Emerald Sea

John Ringo
The Emerald Sea

This is another stupid book. But I finished it.

One way to make sense of science fiction and fantasy is to break it down into people who take a technology and build a story around it and people who want to tell a story or achieve an effect and then make up a technology that will create their desired end state. The first is the tradition of classic hard science fiction - the heroic engineer exploring some aspect of orbital mechanics, for example - although it also applies to the "if this goes on" school of social science fiction. The second is more commonly associated with space opera. The author decides what social or mechanical roles the technology should serve, then works backwards to achieve it. So Pournelle and Niven wanted their Mote in God's Eye to be set in a galactic empire in a world that approximated the 19th century in the days after steam and before radio (or telegraph cables.) The fastest way to move information is by manned vessel, manned vessels have short legs because they need to refuel constantly, and the story moves from there.

Ringo falls into the latter school. He comes up with a setting or situation that he wants to write about, then jury-rigs his science so he can get there. In The Emerald Sea he appears to have the notion for a neo-medieval world, with science taking over as magic, in the context of a war between good and evil. So, he came up with psuedo-scientific rationales leading to a re-creation of many of the critters and dynamics of a really good D&D campaign from high school.

His basic mechanism for all this is that the future is a place of almost limitless resources. It is a world of nano-technology and genetic manipulation. It is a world where individuals can "transform" into other shapes - with the little-realized cost of freezing their emotional development at the age they were at when they first changed. So far, so good. But he then insists that, for example, dozens of sociopaths all transformed themselves into the same goofy ray-fish shape before being recruited by the bad guys after utopia falls apart.

That part challenges the reader's suspension of disbelief. I will buy the transforms - it is a core part of his story. I do not buy the sociology of the transformations. And so he loses me and I declare his book stupid.

It is stupid for other reasons as well. After spending two thirds of the book getting heros and villains to the neutral group both are trying to recruit, he lets the villains win the diplomatic exchange in a scant dozen pages of dialogue. The villains then cleverly followup on their diplomatic coup by attacking this same group of neutrals - a clearly obvious maneuver. Yep. This lets Ringo write up his fight sequences; it lets his heros be heroic; it leaves the reader wondering why and how things got this far.

So, I finished it. I doubt that I will ever spend real money for a Ringo book. I will probably look through the next in the series when it hits the library, but I might decide that I would be better served watching Gilligan's Island reruns.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Ringo & Evans - Road to Damascus

John Ringo and Linda Evans
Road to Damscus

Ringo has some strengths. Writing a novel revolving around politics and elections is not one of them. I stopped reading about a third of the way through, when the villain turned out to be a politician, no the caricature of a politician, in the worst tradition of right wing science fiction.

The book reads like Ringo, so I will refer to the authors as Ringo - not sure how they divided up the writing tasks.

Ringo has an odd habit, very visible in this book, of combining libertarian and classical liberal politics emphasizing the role of the state as a machine to protect and serve individual citizens and a constant recurrence to fascist-style language evaluating the worth of those individual citizens primarily in military terms - are they fit to serve the state. It leads to an odd sort of cognitive dissonance when I read it, and while this dissonance is less visible in Ringo's more purely military novels, it undermines and cripples this political morality tale.

I did not finish it. I will not finish it. Having started this I am now less likely to read more Ringo. But see above for comments on Emerald Sea.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 23, 2004

Webb - The Emperor's General

James Webb
The Emperor's General.
New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
ISBN 0767900766

Does this count as a read or as a did-not-read? I read the first half, skipped to the end and read the last 12 pages. I had the book for over two months, and if I had it for another month I still probably would not have gotten through the rest of it.

The good - Webb has developped a mature prose style that is both powerful and mauve (not quite purple). He has created an interesting character, both capable and flawed, in his narrator. The demon lover - both corrupting and empowering - is Douglas Macarthur, another interesting character. The story tells of our hero's cooption and corruption by Macarthur, the whole set against the beginning days of Macarthur's occupation of Japan.

The bad - I found myself deciding that I did not care about the characters enough to turn the pages. The introduction of the book told us the basic path of the tragedy, the love forsaken, the honorable man murdered, the enabler fleeing. The rest of the book explains how we got there. That structure has some advantages, your foreshadowing does not get much stronger. It also loses much of the suspense. Instead of asking "what will happen" I found myself asking "how will it happen." And, well, that by itself was not compelling enough to keep me turning pages.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bujold - Paladin of Souls

Lois McMaster Bujold
Paladin of Souls
New York : EOS, c2003.

This is the second book in the same world as her Curse of Chalion, taking a minor character from the first book and making her the focus of the second.

Like all of her stuff, it is well written.

Like Chalion it is a well thought out world.

Like many of the books that I have been very much enjoying, it is a love story involving fully mature characters. The coming of age story is a standard trope in fantasy. Modern culture has been terribly focused on kids, and for a long time fantasy has been "kids lit". Now that the boomers are aging, we are seeing more mature love stories.

Anyhow, I had a cold, the toddler was home with pink-eye, and I read a novel during his nap. It was a good novel. Yum.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 20, 2004

Zelazny - Chronicles of Amber

Roger Zelazny
Chronicles of Amber

Nine Princes in Amber, 1970
The Guns of Avalon, 1972
The Sign of the Unicorn, 1975
The Hand of Oberon, 1976
The Courts of Chaos, 1978
This is a re-read. Yep. I like these and I have read them many a time before. I felt the urge, and since my copies are still in boxes I nipped them from the library for a quick speed through.

For some reason the encounter between Corwin and "laughing boy" in the first book, Nine Princes in Amber sticks with me.

The thought for this read through was that the first volume was written in 1970. The next couple were also written in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, the female characters are largely decorative in the first couple of books, much more involved in the later books. I love watching authors evolve over time, and because science fiction is such a fun-house-mirror view of the world, some of the changes are more obvious than others.

But that was not the point I was intending to make. The first book was written in the Age of Nixon, in the height of the Vietnam war, in an era when people were seriously worried that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. And yet, those concerns are only indirectly reflected in the novel. This is a tale of brotherly intrigue with the killer hook that the solipsists are right, the world is all a thing that we imagine, and that the great men theorists were also right, for only a few special individuals have the power to imagine their own world. As such the books can be read as an exercise in adolescent wish fulfillment within the constraint of other, similarly powered, wish fulfillers. But, other than wishing the world away, or being aware that there is a lack of center at the center of the universe and that the events at the center are always reflected across all the shadow earths, it does not directly discuss the world in which it was written.

As such the books are very unlike, say, Robert Anton Wilson's illuminatti trilogy - also focusing on a cabal of superpowered beings, also written in the 1970s, but inextricably tied to the paranoia and tension of the Nixon years. Not surprisingly, Zelazny's world aged better and he was able to write interesting things in the Amber universe after the Age of Nixon ended. Wilson, by contrast, returns to his conspiracy world and the whole thing feels like an awkward exercise from sophomore creative lit.

Finally, of course, Zelazny was a brilliant prose stylist. I find his prose strongest in the first book - the underwater sword fight with blood billowing through the water like something Van Gogh would have painted - but the whole thing rings with his phrasing, imagery, and verve. The Amber Chronicles are not his best books - I am partial to Lord of Light - but they are his most popular books for good reason.

Posted by Red Ted at 05:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 19, 2004

Shaara - The Killer Angels

Shaara, Michael - The killer angels : a novel
Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p1991.
ISBN 0788739808 :
"Originally published in 1974 by David McKay Co., Inc., New York"

I read Killer Angels a few years back when the movie Gettysburg came out, and I grabbed this on CD as a car reading.

I did not finish it, got about halfway through and then no longer wanted to listen. I made it as far as the afternoon on the second day, with Longstreet preparing his assault late in the day, getting off slowly, and then discovering Sickles in the peach orchard.

The following comment will upset both fans of the Confederate Army and people who care about the Holocaust, but I find reading about Gettysburg to be distressingly like reading about Hitler in his bunker in 1945. In both cases I am very glad that the right people won the war. And, in both cases I have trouble reading the accounts of the losers -- they are making bad decisions that will have bad consequences for themselves, their nation, and the people whose lives depend on those decisions. So I am left torn, wishing that Lee had listened to Longstreed and moved to the right behind Meade, or that Longstreet and turned Hood loose to swing around behind the round tops into the Union baggage train; wishing that Hitler had issued moving retreat orders rather than stand and die orders, or that he remembered enough from his own wartime service to know that the icons on the map no longer represented large, powerful, military units. And yet, at the same time that I wish that Lee and Hitler had been more effective and made better decisions, I am also glad that they did make the wrong decisions.

I think that these mixed emotions are a reflection of the way that I read. I read for pleasure. My work reading is about people who try to accomplish things and generally fail, or generate unexpected consequences, or blind themselves to the bad outcomes that come with their desired goals. History, as a discipline, spends a lot of time looking at the warts, if only to explain the mistakes of the past. So, when I read for fun, I want to read about sucess, not failure. At that level fiction is a form of adolescent wish-fulfillment for me.

And, yet, if a piece of fiction is too easy, too obvious, I put it down unfinished. So when I read something like David Weber's Honor Harrington Series I get frustrated in the second quarter of the series because the villains are so stupid. There is as little vicarious pleasure in reading about a fictional character trouncing a stupid enemy as there is in reading, oh, yet another theory-driven screed ripping through selected aspects of the past in order to make an argument that can be countered by basic logic or basic awareness of the rest of the evidence.

I don't know if this makes sense. Time to go back to the real work.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Williams - The Sundering

Walter Jon Williams - Dread Empire's Fall: The Sundering
New York : Harpertorch, 2004. ISBN 0380820218 (pbk.)

This is the second volume in the WJW trilogy, and the book I finished last night.

More than the first, this is a book that I enjoyed reading but do not expect to re-read.

The interesting thing about this one is that Williams is wrestling with how to keep the careers of two highly capable people interesting for the reader - how can he cause complications that do not appear to be either MaGuffins or author-imposed plot twists? His answer comes in the form of story - the characters act according to their nature and their fears, and as a result things do not go as well for them as they might. One of the things that separates Williams from other space opera or light science fiction authors is that he really does believe in Aristote's notion of characters who strength is their weakness. All his people have tragic flaws, all have attractive qualities, all have their own compelling story. This is a very good thing.

Alas, other than the love triangle and an interesting plot twist at the end, the book left me a little flat. A good book grabs me and I can not put it down. This one was nibbled to death over about six weeks.

I am increasingly intrigued by the juxtaposition of Ajah from his Metropolitan and City of Fire and Sula from these two. Both are powerful and compelling characters. Oddly, two of his three most compelling characters are women, the third is the KKK sheriff from The Rift - his attempt to make some retirement money by writing a big blockbuster disaster novel. Hmm, well, maybe the sherrif from Days of Atonement also qualifies - I wonder why Williams is best at writing about strong willed but morally ambiguous women, and charismatic, ambitious, lawmen?

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

Williams - The Praxis

Walter Jon Williams - Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis
New York : Harpertorch, 2003. ISBN 038082020X

This is the first in a science-fiction trilogy by WJW.

As usual for Williams, the world is well thought out, the characters attractive but morally ambiguous (one hero murdered two people to get out of poverty and is now impersonating one of her victims - and doing far more for her society than the drunken drone she replaced would have done), and yet I don't expect to re-read the book very often. For some reason, while I really like WJW and own almost all his books, I don't re-read him more than twice. The exception is his wonderful Metropolitan and City on Fire, although there as well I know the books well enough that I do not have to re-read them, they are so powerful that they remain imprinted in memory.

The Praxis is not up to that standard, few works are. Instead it is what it appears to be: a perfectly reasonable space opera about the civil war that follows the death of the last member of the species that had welded the known universe into a single totalitarian empire where the most important rule was that things must not change. And now things are changing, not for the better.

Posted by Red Ted at 02:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 07, 2004

Weber - Honor Harrington

I really should make 14 entries here, because I read over some 14 books last month.

All were e-books - Baen books has been putting out parts of their backlist on the web, and more of it on CD-rom on selected new hardbacks. So, I have all of Weber's Honor Harrington books sitting on my hard drive where it is easy to re-read them as long as I don't mind being at the computer.

The first few are wonderful space opera. The latest, _Crown of Slaves_ is a pretty good future political history and has one of the BEST character names of all time: an escaped slave and political scientist who renamed himself WEB du Havel.

That last book was co-written by Eric Flint, and it is sort of fun watching Flint's labor sensitivies interact with Weber's world where the Crown Loyalists are the heros while the liberals and the reactionaries are all stupid villains.

Anyhow, I made it into War of Honor and bogged down.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 AM | 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 - 10 Lb Penalty

Read for fun, mostly on the can.

Typical, solid, reliable Francis.

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

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 AM | Comments (0)