Monday, July 31, 2006

Cover-Up Story

Marian Babson
Fiction, Mystery

This is one of Babson's first novels, and the one in which we are introduced to Perkins & Tate, the publicity firm of Murder At the Cat Show. Their job this time is to handle publicity for a hillbilly country group, a job that seems easy until we actually meet the group. The head of the group is Black Bart - a nickname that is all too apt. He's tyrannical, cruel, narcissistic, and oh, did we mention the paedophilia? As if that wasn't bad enough, he treats his sister and his wife like dirt, there's a stage mom involved, and the illiterate backup band members have a nasty sense of humor.

It's bad enough keeping the bad news - the statutory news - out of the papers while trying to up the positive profile, but then the stage mom is hit by a car and claims she was pushed before she dies. Now Doug Perkins has to figure out who might be a murderer... though he's got a pretty good idea... and stop the killing before somebody else dies.

Like many of Babson's novels, you know that the crooks will get their comeuppance in the end. As an earlier novel, however, this lacks the polish that makes her later efforts truly shine.


Sunday, July 30, 2006

Dragon Prince Trilogy

Dragon Prince
Melanie Rawn
Fiction, Fantasy

This is the perfect antidote to the myriad Tolkien clones running around the fantasy section. Yes, there are dragons, but understandable large creatures with identifiable habits, not forces of nature. Yes, there is magic, but not incantation-laden mysticism. And while there are villains, they are real people with a yen for power, fully realized and intelligent.

The story begins in the Desert, a kingdom set amidst sand and heat. Anyone who has lived in the Southwest understands the climate. The mindset it engenders is even more important, because anyone who has lived in a desert understands how important certain resources are, and how they must be cultivated. The mindset of Prince Rohan of the Desert it at direct odds of that of the High Prince, Roelstra, who comes from a princedom so rich in resources that his conspicuous consumption - and mind games to promote strife - hardly have an impact. The power-hungry nature of Roelstra is the stumbling block to Rohan's grand dreams - dreams he is going to perform subterfuge to get underway.

To make matters more complicated, Roelstra has no male heir, only eighteen daughters. His obvious strategy is to marry one to Rohan, a strategy that might work except for the stumbling block of Sioned, a Sunrunner who is Rohan's true love. In order to get the dreams of peace underway, however, they pretend disinterest so as to make Roelstra think Rohan will marry one of his daughters.

If only it was so simple. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and the subterfuge of a slightly dim prince that Rohan has to maintain starts to strain under the events that take place at the Rialla, the thrice-yearly convocation of princes. The intelligence of Roelstra and the desperate plots of his daughters and mistress make for danger at the celebration, a Rialla that ends in fire.

And that's just the first half.

This book is not for the faint of heart, as it is the typical bricklike size of the fantasy novels that come out these days. If that's your style, however, this is a superb example of the best that modern fantasy has to offer - a unique foray into a fully realized world.


The Star Scroll

This second entry into Rawn's world displays the same level of writing ability that made Dragon Prince so good. It is set roughly eleven years after the events in Dragon Prince, and Prince Pol is being fostered on the island of Graypearl. His seasick reaction to crossing water only confirmed what his parents already knew: Pol is a Sunrunner, and destined to be a ruler with both political and quasi-magical power.

At least, if he comes to power. The plots and machinations of the Rialla from the last book have lasting effects, as a pretender to the High Prince's crown is rumored. Worse, the discovery of an ancient scroll in the ruins of an old Sunrunner temple hint at another kind of power, and the potential for an ancient enemy to emerge. Still worse than that is the fact that Roelstra's three eldest grandsons have that power, and have been trained by those ancient enemies in its ways... and all they want is power for its own sake, even if they have to destroy the continent to get it.


Sunrunner's Fire

This culmination of the Dragon Prince series is on a par with the first two. The sorcerous challenge is underway, as the grandsons of Roelstra make their claim to power. As typical with schemers of high intelligence, they set their plans in motion when they cannot be ignored. And all to soon it is time for Rohan and Sioned to tell their son the truth about his heritage... the truth that makes it possible to go into battle with his full strength.


Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Princess Tales

Gail Carson Levine
Fiction, Fantasy, Children's

This book is a compilation of three familiar fairytales told with a typical Levine twist. In "The Fairy's Mistake," a typical gift of jewels falling from the lips of a kind-hearted girl proves to be far more problematic than the punishment of bugs and snakes for the snide girl. Naturally, it all comes down to greed, and Levine's theory that a "quick and easy" solution has more problems than not.

The second story concerns a very picky girl (who is sweet but necessarily fussy) and a prince whose parents are just as particular. Naturally, they wish to get their son a perfect princess, and set up a number of tests, the last of which, of course, is the pea under thirty mattresses.

The final story, a Sleeping Beauty retelling, has another instance of misplaced fairy gifts. Princess Sonora (Princess Snore?) is gifted with ten times the intelligence of everyone else, which means that not only is she a most startling baby, but she loves to come up with theories - except no one likes to listen to her. "Princess Sonora knows - but don't ask her," becomes a catchphrase in the kingdom. So when the sleep of one hundred years comes upon her, who better to wake her than a prince who always asks "Why?"


Friday, July 28, 2006

The Fuzzy Saga

Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Sapiens, Fuzzies and Other People
H. Beam Piper
Fiction, SF

Zarathustra is a Class III planet, inhabitable by human life but unihabited by any native sapient species. At least, it is presumed to be so until a sunstone prospector named Jack Holloway finds a little yeeking biped in his shower and calls him Little Fuzzy. The first of Piper's novels deals with the necessary complications of such a discovery, primarily because of the Chartered Zarathustra Company, which owns the planet outright - unless the status of the planet is changed.

The path to sapience is not quite what you'd expect; it comes in the form of a legal challenge, a murder trial when one of the company researchers kills one of the little bipeds. The pre-trial antics of both sides are fairly typical and have far-reaching side effects; before the trial even begins, the colonial governor is deposed, the police department is in turmoil, and martial law is declared. And of prominence in the story is the definiton of sapience: can one define a being as sapient if one cannot determine that the being talks, or that it does any of those actions previously accepted as rule-of-thumb indicators?

The outcome of the trial is obvious; the path toward it is less so. This is a book which would work very well for the young adult crowd, but adults can enjoy it as well, as the characters are well-drawn and distinct.


The second book in the series begins shortly after the momentous Pendarvis Decision, the court case that declared that Fuzzies were a sapient species. Now the protagonists have to deal with the ramifications of that, with a new Native Affairs group, with protecting the Fuzzies, and with families who want to adopt the adorable (and well-behaved) little bipeds. (Not to mention the hospitals and mental wards that want Fuzzy visitors.)

And then the head of the Charter(less) Zarathustra Company, Victor Grego, finds a Fuzzy curled up on his bed. Not only is this a huge problem - the only way that the Fuzzy could have gotten in is through human intervention - but the little guy indicates that there were five others with him. Those Fuzzies were taken for purposes unknonwn, and probably nefarious, but the best efforts of the police and internal security can find no sign of them.

This book illustrates the problem of unintended consequences. The people who fought to have the Fuzzies' sapience recognized are now having to deal with the questions raised by their win, and also discovering that a principled enemy can become a good friend if the circumstances are right. And the Fuzzies themselves are what the Ewoks should have been; sweet without being cloying, and smart without being unrealistically able to defeat an opponent many times stronger than them.


The third book was discovered long after Piper's death, but was rumored long before then. (Some of his friends had read parts of it, and others had heard the plot outlined.) The novel itself shows few problems for the lack of editorial give-and-take; there are a few concepts and phrases repeated from previous novels, but they feel more like typical conversations (where cool catchphrases are used multiple times) than mistakes.

This novel deals with a legal problem: the veridicator, a standard appliance mandated in all court trials, detects falsification - the substitution of one statement for another. For certain people to be brought to justice, Fuzzies must testify... but they have never been known to lie. Unless the prosecution can prove that a Fuzzy lying will red-light the veridicator, the defense may get the testimony revoked on technical grounds, and the defendants go free.

Worse, there are certain practices in Terran-alien relations that require the use of a veridicator, and without the ability to show that it works on Fuzzies, certain practices such as adoption, and the mining of sunstones on Fuzzy land for Fuzzy benefit, go out the window. (Which would be bad for the Fuzzies as well, since their birthrate is well below replacement, and medicine therapy is needed in the form of food supplements. Which they love.)

And in the midst of this, a tragedy strikes. Little Fuzzy (you remember him) goes missing, and is presumed dead, which nearly incapacitates Jack Holloway (Pappy Jack.) Of course, it all works itself out in the end, and works as a fitting conclusion to Piper's Fuzzy novels. (I have been warned away from one of the sequels penned by another author; I suppose the lack of continuity would keep me away from the other, which is considered far superior.)


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

H. Beam Piper
Fiction, SF

This is the classic culmination of the Paratime stories, composed of three short stories that Piper had published in the 60s dealing with Coporal Calvin Morrison, a Pennsylvania policeman who was accidentally transported from his own Earth (basically ours) to one where the Aryan migration went east from India instead of west. His love of military history and his knack for strategy and tactics propel his meteoric rise in the new Earth; the doomed kingdom he fell into becomes a conquerer instead, in a war against a theocracy based on the magic of gunpowder.

Naturally, he knows the secret formula, and quickly gains the trust of the ruling family. This becomes a bit of a headache to the Paratime Police, because they not only have to cover his disappearance on his own time-line, but have to figure out if he's a threat to the Paratime Secret. And they don't want to kill him... unless they have to, of course. Moreover, the university researchers are fascinated, because they can study the massive impact that one person can have on a time-line, using nearby lines as controls.

And as for Calvin, he's having a blast. He gets to be a hero, he gets to put his beloved military theories into practice, he gets to toss off great lines like "And there was the great god Status, whose symbols were many, and who rode in the chariot Cadillac, which was almost a god in itself," and, of course, there's a beautiful princess in it for him as well, and it doesn't hurt that she can outfight half the kingdom.

This is the ultimate book of wish fulfillment. A somewhat ordinary guy from our world gets transported to the one place where he can be truly great. Despite the clichéd premise, though, this is truly a fun read.


(Note; currently this is published with the Paratime stories below as The Complete Paratime. I preferred the Whelan cover, though.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


H. Beam Piper
Fiction, SF

In this collection of short stories set in a world where First Level inhabitants exploit the resources of four other Levels, each with numerous subsections, Piper constructs police narratives in an otherworldly format. In "He Walked Around the Horses," we find out a possible fate for that Charles Fort favorite, Benjamin Bathurst, a man who disappeared in broad daylight from the knowledge of anyone in this world. The story is told through official correspondence on another Earth, a world where the American Revolution failed, affecting events all over Europe. Naturally, the inhabitants of that world think of the sudden appearance of a British diplomat - and one who has a very strange view of current events - as exceptionally distrubing.

The next story deals with trying to clean up after a careless First Level inhabitant, one who brought an alien pet to a lower-level timeline, which escaped after the owner died. In this story, we are introduced to Verkan Vall, future head of the Paratime Police, an organization which keeps track of activity in the other levels, and which is dedicated to preserving the Paratime Secret. In this case, that means tracking down and removing the vicious alien pet before it is seen and killed. In other cases, it means discrediting flying saucers (observation discs) and explaining inexplicable disappearances (such as the unfortunate Benjamin Bathurst.)

There is then a story set on the Second Level, in a culture in which reincarnation is a proven fact of life, and "voluntary disincarnation" is common. The trouble starts with a First Level infiltrator who is innocently carrying out research that has huge sociological implications. Her life is, of course, threatened, and Vall must extract her before her involuntary discarnation takes place... because her reincarnation, along with memory recovery, could give the Paratime Secret away.

The story "Time Crime" is the longest in the book, and the slowest as well, as it is mostly procedural. However, readers will sympathize with the all-too-modern fact of having to deal with the media and with politicians while trying to do your job; these passages with attacks from all sides seem all to familiar in an age where every last bit of information is over-analyzed.

I would recommend this book for people looking for classic science fiction in small doses. These stories are well-written and still hold true, even with the anachronisms.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Spin Sisters

How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness --- and Liberalism --- to the Women of America
Myrna Blyth

Nonfiction, Media

There are a number of people who will be put off by the insertion of the word "liberalism" in the title of this book. There are also a number of people who become more interested in the contents of such a book because of what such a word implies.

Such is the power of language.

Blyth's book deals primarily with the insular nature of the world of women's magazines, and how the cycle of reinforcement means that those within that world never truly realize that there are other opinions out there. This is the kind of insularity that leads to comments about the author being invited to a party 'in spite of' the fact that she has occasionally voted for a Republican; this is also the sort of world that led to the infamous comment "I don't know how Nixon won; nobody I know voted for him," after Nixon won 49 states.

Far more important than the political leanings, however, is the drive to be first and most, which has led to extremely fuzzy journalism and an excess of "the fear factor", as Blyth puts it. In order to keep their readers hooked, a columnist can take an isolated incident or scary anecdote and telegraph it into a story about how "it could happen to you." For an example, take the story of those people who blamed vaccination for causing their children's autism. Any decent science major or statistician can tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and recent studies have shown no links between the two, but not before a large anti-vaccine movement got underway. (I think they need to do a "fear factor story" on The Tragedy of the Commons: How Someone Else's Decisions Can Affect Your Child's Health.)

More to the point, in a society where women are freer, healthier, and have more opportunities and free time than any previous generation, these stories are designed to keep women stressed and guilty - not through any ulterior motive to keep women unhappy, mind you, but through the ulterior motive of getting women's attention in a field supersaturated with similar stories. And the reason that they don't do stories in an area that is new and different is twofold: these are the stories that they are interested in, so they can't imagine being interested in something different, and tried and true is the working formula that they don't dare to change.

The book is written in an open style, with endnotes rather than footnotes so as not to break up the flow. Each chapter leads into the next with a little teaser - no doubt learned by the author as she worked for and managed various magazines. There will invariably be a bit of idealogical breakdown between who will read and who won't read this book, but if you are interested in the way that women's magazines present material, and the reasons why, for example, the race to stickdom for models is taking place in their pages, you might give it a try.

Even if you disagree with her, Blyth raises some interesting points.


Monday, July 24, 2006

On a Night Like This

Ellen Sussman

This is a surprisingly gentle novel about death, loss, and love. Blair Clemens, mother of sixteen-year-old Amanda, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Instead of using this as a descent into sorrow, Sussman uses this premise to show how second chances are never too late. The relationship between the mother and daughter is very realistic, including the absolute love broken by sullen silences. Complicating the issue is Luke Bellingham, a high school classmate who tracks down the "lost soul" who inspired his Academy Award-winning screenplay, and whose younger wife has recently left him. (Her actions, when she is drawn into the story, show how truly juvenile she is, and how much growing up she has yet to do.)

Blair and Luke feel an attraction toward one another, an attraction they are afraid to deal with in the face of death and confusion. The novel follows them as they attempt to find a way to have a happy ending, something that they feel is impossible, but which the novel somehow makes plausible.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Tangled Web

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Fiction, Young Adult

The Darks and the Penhallows have intermarried so long that they are all but one clan. That clan has an undisputed leader - Aunt Becky, the crotchety old lady with a sharp tongue and a photographic memory of all the embarrasing moments that the Darks and Penhallows would rather forget. She calls them all together to give away her posessions, including the heirloom everyone longs for, the (truth be told) rather ugly jug of long-dead Helen Dark. Her snarky comments and ability to give each person the object of least desire draws out the tension, until she announces that the jug will not be given away for another year, with a minor member of the clan in charge of the envelope of instructions.

The next year is filled with hilarious undergoings, as people change their habits in order to compete for the jug, a competition for which no one knows the rules. Long-term bachelors decide to get married; foul-mouthed men swear off swearing; engagements are made, broken, and stolen - and all because of the jug. And, of course, in trrue Montgomery fashion, those who deserve happiness end up with it and those who do not are left out in the cold. And you, too, will be waiting to hear the fate of the jug.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Last Place

Laura Lippman
Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

What would you do with a pedophile? Pretend to be underage, meet him in a bar, slip him his own date-rape drug, then use a depilatory cream to remove all the hair from his body? That's what Tess Monaghan did... and now she's in anger-management counseling after the jerk pressed charges. So when her friend Whitney gives her a research job - investigating domestic killings - she jumps at the chance to be active instead of sitting and brooding.

But the five cases don't seem to be related. In fact, one of the "victims" is still alive. But as Tess starts investigating the reasons these cases were given to her, she finds out that they are related more closely than she thought... and there could be a serial killer on the loose. One who has her picked out to be next.

Lippman's prose is engaging, and quickly draws you in. The moments spent in the mind of the stalker seem so reasonable that one can imagine the justifications that such a killer makes in his own mind. Tess comes across as principled and yes, a little angry, but who wouldn't want to see people get what they deserve? All in all, this is an entertaining read.


Friday, July 21, 2006

A Faint Cold Fear

Karin Slaughter
Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Let me begin by saying what a great name "Slaughter" is for a mystery writer. This book all but lives up to the name, as character after character gets killed, usually in highly graphic fashion.

Sara Linton is a medical doctor and coroner, and she gets called to the scene of an apparent suicide while on an outing with her pregnant sister. During her examination of the body, her sister is stabbed, leading her to believe that the suicide could be faked. As more and more people die (and the university president scrambles to cover up the deaths), Sara and her ex, Jeffrey, scramble to put together the clues needed to stop the killer.

This is apparently the third book in the series, and we have been introduced to the characters before. Nevertheless, there is plenty to draw in a new reader, especially one who is apt to watch CSI or other fairly graphic material.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Age of Gold

The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream
H.W. Brands

Nonfiction, History

Any California schoolchild learns about the Gold Rush in class. Marshall finds gold in the American River in Coloma at the mill he is building for Sutter, Sam Brannan publicizes the claim, and thousands of would-be millionaires make the journey to the fledgling state.

But there are a lot of things that grade school skips over. The Gold Rush not only affected California; it affected the rest of the U.S. and the world. The rush to make California a state delayed and amplified the Civil War; the hope of suddenly striking it rich superceded the dream of one day owning a farm. The gold injected into the economy fueled America's growth into an economic superpower, a title it has not relinquished in the more than a century since.

This eminently readable history from H.W. Brands goes into great detail about many things that the simplified history skips over, not the least of which is the international component of the Gold Rush. (One Australian argonaut, Edward Hargraves, spent several years in California, and eventually realized that the terrain of the gold fields was identical to some he'd grown up in. He announced to everyone that he was going to find gold in Australia, was laughed at, and was, in fact, successful in finding gold and starting Australia's Gold Rush.) The international argonauts had to not only deal with the difficulties of finding gold, but the unfettered racism of the time.

California's rise to statehood took place in a very short period of time, and the mechanisms were not in place to deal with that. So the Californians created their own constitution - an anti-slavery one - that led to impassioned debate in Congress, deepening divisions that eventually led to the fracturing of the Whig party and the rise of the anti-slavery Republican party.

Any mildly interested student of history will recognize many of the names that pepper this narrative, from the somewhat wild explorer John Frémont, who became the first Republican presidential candidate (Abraham Lincoln was the second), to Mariano Vallejo (whose city still lies at the place of its founding), to William Sherman, who is not referred to by his full name - William Tecumseh Sherman - until the middle of the narrative, to Sam Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain, to Leland Stanford and George Hearst (father of William Randolph), names that would acquire significance in the decades following the rush.

Similarly, several places gain resonance as a result of the Gold Rush. A group of emigrants who swung too far south named Death Valley, the lowest place in the U.S. Another exploration almost reached the Grand Canyon but turned around because of a local's description of the hazards of trying to follow the river. Donner Pass had already earned its name and fateful history, yet thousands still used that route. And in the years immediately following, that distance became shorter and shorter as first stagecoaches and then trains crossed the deserts.

This is a history book for those who find history boring. The book itself, while rather daunting, is broken into accessible chunks, and adequately makes its argument that the California Gold Rush changed everything.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

To Catch a Cat

Marian Babson
Fiction, Mystery

You know the drill. In an effort to win favor with the local kids in a new town, our eleven-year-old has to perform some stunt in order to 'join the gang.' This stunt is usually designed to be scary to the person in question, so he has to climb a tree (he's afraid of heights) and break into a house in order to steal (for a day or two) a particular cat. And of course, the owners are home.

However, in this case, the man has a literally murderous temper, and our protagonist Robin, while grabbing the cat, hears and sees a few things he shouldn't, and is spied in return. He runs away, and because he is nervous about the relatives he is staying with, says nothing, leaving the murder to be blamed on an "intruder." The rest of the novel is an exercise in suspense to see who will be discovered first, Robin or the murderous husband.

As with many of Marian Babson's "mysteries", there is no real mystery to be solved. She just ups the tension in little notches, setting up near misses and misconceptions and interior monologues of the murderer until you realize that there's no way the two cannot meet, and one can only hope that there are police at the scene when the final meeting does occur.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Murder At the Cat Show

Marian Babson
Fiction, Mystery

Marian Babson is a master of the genteel English murder. Not that the deaths in question are quiet - in this novel, the victim is clubbed over the head and shoved into the tigers' cage - but the novels themselves are more about the people than the victim. Often, there is no mystery to the identity of the murderer, or the protagonist is not the one who solves the case, but the novels are interesting in spite of - or because of - that.

In this novel, Doug Perkins has been hired to do publicity for a cat show. He doesn't care for cats, which as any cat lover can tell you means that the proper cat will find him before the novel's end. The show has bickering 'stage mom' cat owners, a pair of barely-tame tigers, and an emerald-eyed golden statue... a perfect setup for murder. Which, of course, happens to one of the most obnoxious members of the show - and the owner of the cat who has attached herself to Doug.

As with most of Babson's books, this one is under 200 pages and a quick read. If you like cats, give it a go, and if you loathe cats, the antics of the show members could be fairly amusing.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

Adventures of a Curious Character
Richard Feynman


This book consists of a number of talks, both in public and in private, given by the physicist Feynman. As such, it tends to jump around in time, but it retains a more complete sense of theme than if this had been written down in chronological format. The various chapters deal with his love of solving problems and for getting into trouble - usually because he wasn't content to accept conventional wisdom.

There was his time at Los Alamos, working on the atom bomb while his wife was dying of tuberculosis, where they passed letters back and forth with an eye toward delilberately annoying the censors. There were his safecracking efforts at the same time as he tried to show how ineffectual security at the plant truly was. There was the time he was an exchange professor down in Brazil, and how he determined that there was no real learning going on at the university, only rote memorization. (And because he wasn't afraid to stand up and say so, he might very well have effected a change in the whole system!) There were his adventures in bars, samba bands, and fraternities, and his meetings with prominent physicists and even the 'down side to the Nobel prize.'

You don't need to know anything about physics to appreciate this book. You only need to have the love of a great story, and the knowledge that a smart mouth can get you into (and out of) all manner of trouble.

Go buy it already!


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Chronicles of Avonlea

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Fiction, Children's

L.M. Montgomery's stories are all about finding happiness. These, of course, are no exception, and include stories such as an old lady, poor but proud, discovering love in the shape of the daughter of a man she once loved, two people who haven't spoken in fifteen years finally making up, and a man-hater and a woman-hater finding out that they're perfect for one another. There's no real surprises in this kind of compilation, but that's not what these books are for. If you like Montgomery's writing, these little stories are perfect for quick reads.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

On the Way Home

The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Memoir, Children's

Unlike her Little House on the Prairie books, On the Way Home is a copy of the diary that Laura Ingalls Wilder kept during their journey from the Dakota Territory to Missouri. There is a short frame provided by her daughter, Rose, but other than that this is unedited. It is interesting for two reasons: Laura was a farmer's daughter, and this shows in her extensive descriptions of the crops she sees along the way, and there are some delightfully snarky comments here and there. ("There were a number of children and pigs. One could scarcely tell them apart.")

Rose Wilder Lane's comments at the beginning and the end provide some much-needed context for the diary. There had been drought on the prairies for seven years. There were "panics" - what we would call recessions and depressions, complete with bank failures that happened in the days before federally guaranteed funds. There were mobs of people commandeering railroad cars, with the result that railroad shipping and traveling were unpredictable. And lots of people were scrambling to move somewhere - anywhere - where they could make a living.

When they lost the farm, Laura sewed to make money, and Almanzo took odd jobs. When they got a hundred dollars together, they hid the bill in Laura's writing desk and took the wagon to Missouri. (During the trip, the bill slipped into a crack, which is an incident Rose records because Laura hated to think of the terror they felt when they couldn't find it.) Laura's observations are more in the line of primary source documents than a story, but it is worth a look if you are interested in the time period or in Laura's life after the Little House books.


Friday, July 14, 2006

Seven Seasons of Buffy

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Show
Various Authors

Nonfiction, TV

This book is a collection of various articles relating to the seven-year television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you haven't seen Buffy, a good thing to note is that the writers of the show spent a lot of time developing internally consistent characters, and that such writing enables such things as psychological evaluations of a particular character, speculations as to a character's possible future path, and debates as to the moral levels of various characters.

Essays in this book run from the silly (a demon's test answer as to the greatest force for good in Sunnydale) to the extremely thoughtful (a comparison of the rites of Initiation (formally defined) for Buffy and for Willow, and how the lack of such rites for the latter leads to her breakdown in the sixth season.) Some of the authors are unhappy at the turn of the seventh season (which is virtually unwatchable as individual episodes, but far better when seen as a whole), and some make comments about their favorite characters. Most of the essays have a sense of humor to them ("The Search For Spike's Balls") and all of them have the sense that when a show is well-written, such exegesis is not only possible, but fun.

If you're a Buffy fan, or if you go in for literary criticism, this is worth a read. If you think that vampires, werewolves, and demons are silly, give it a pass.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Blue Castle

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Fiction, Young Adult

Valancy Stirling, known for some reason as "Doss" to her family, is a cowed and miserable twenty-nine at the beginning of this book. All her life she has done as she has told, foregoing pleasure and happiness in order to be bossed around by her domineering mother and hypochondriac aunt. She's always been put down and bossed around, but she has one little bit of her soul left to herself, and that little bit allows her to sneak off to see a doctor - of her choice, not her family's - when she is feeling chest pain. And then she gets a letter from him telling her she has only a short while left to live.

What follows is a fairly plausible blooming of someone who has discovered that she has nothing left to fear. She allows herself to say the sarcastic (and often very funny things) she has thought about her stuffy family to their faces, because she no longer fears getting cut out of the will. She goes off to nurse a dying young woman, whom her family scorns for her out-of-wedlock child, because she no longer fears having to endure her mother's hurt silences. And she finds herself drawn to a man of whom her family strongly disapproves - because they don't know his past, they assume he is criminal - and does not fear her family's censure. There is only one fear left to her, that she should "die before she lived." Of course, she takes care of the 'living' part quite well.

Since this is a L.M. Montgomery book, the reader can of course assume that all will turn out for the best without knowing exactly how. Likewise, the typical Montgomery theme of a repressed individual who finds happiness is well developed. Montogmery only has a few themes, but in this book they are well-developed and worth a look.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Magic For Marigold

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Fiction, Children's

Those fans of Anne of Green Gables will find much to recognize in this book. There is an imaginative, vibrant girl in a household with stern (though loving) adults; she gets into and out of trouble; her imagination worries her elders. However, there is less vigor than in the Anne books. Magic For Marigold is a vignette novel; there seems to be no clear direction or story arc, and a reader who expects great revelations or character development will be disappointed.

Montogmery's descriptive powers are still going strong with this book, so it should be enjoyable for those who think the process of reading is as necessary as the destination of a concrete plot.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Custom of the Sea

A Shocking True Tale of Shipwreck, Murder, and the Last Taboo
Neil Hanson

Nonfiction, History, Nautical

In 1884, yacht captain Tom Dudley was hired to sail a newly-purchased (but not new) yacht from England to Australia. His route was planned to travel to the west of Africa, round the cape, and sail east to Australia. But he, and the three crew he had hired for the journey, never made it that far. A nasty tropical storm and freak waves sank the yacht and the four endured three weeks in an open rowboat without provisions. Then the "custom of the sea" was invoked.

You're familiar with this custom. It is prevalent enough that, even today, it can be used in a Far Side cartoon and be understood. (Apparently Mr. Larson is vigilant about protecting his copyright; therefore I'll just have to remind you that it involves a groups of sailors - and a dog - looking over at the guy who drew the short straw.) It is, simply, this: When at sea, and for survival, groups can choose by lots who is to die to provide the others with nourishment so that some may survive.

Richard Parker, the seventeen-year-old cabin boy, had been drinking seawater and was delerious and near death. The captain proposed that they kill him - rather than wait for him to die - so that his blood would not congeal, as thirst was their main enemy. They did kill the young man, and survived a few days more until they were picked up. Tom Dudley did not deny his actions and reported them truthfully, knowing that he had done what was then accepted to be right. He was unaware, however, that Britain was looking for a case by which they could rule the custom of the sea illegal.

There are a number of interesting points in this book, not the least of which is that Richard Parker's elder brother, who loved him dearly, held the captain blameless for what had occurred. Likewise, most of the folk of the coastal towns considered Dudley a sort of hero for managing to survive - they blamed him only for not holding to the custom of drawing lots. However, the climate of the English courts was different; they felt that it would be better for the men to "cast the bodies into the ocean, lest they be tempted" - in other words, to die before becoming cannibals. And as you can guess, the courts held the power, and in a series of somewhat irregular trials found Dudley (and one - but not both - of his remaining crew) guilty of murder.

The subject matter is fascinating, and the author does it justice. Dudley comes across as not only reasonable, but kind - which portrait is in keeping with the contemporary material available about his personality. Because of his attitude, the point of the story is more forcefully driven home; who is not to say that, in similar circumstances, they would not behave in a similar fashion? And Dudley gets the last word when he states that the verdict would not stop the custom of the sea but only put an end to the honest reporting of its practice... because there have been instances since of people long adrift who may have had cannibalism as their only means of survival. But they aren't telling.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Something From the Oven

Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America
Laura Shapiro

Nonfiction, Food Writing

If one were to believe the ad copy and the magazine articles from the 50s - not to mention The Gallery of Regrettable Food - American housewives were embracing the new (and improved!) prepackaged foods, turning to TV dinners, using cake mixes at unprecedented rates, and generally celebrating their release from the kitchen.

Well, not exactly. The average American housewife actually considered those women who used these shortcuts to be cheats, not to mention unthrifty and foolish. (Hmm. I just baked some brownies from - horrors! - a mix. Boy, they smell good.) The main reason for this is that prepackaged foods have come a long way from their humble beginnings, and sometimes they still taste metallic. Moreover, there was an overt sense that "women's dishes" were those horrible things of gelatin and whipped cream, or that tuna/mushroom soup/potato chip casserole (which I grew up with, BTW), while the serious cooking was left to men... but American palates had been raised on the bland and the processed and didn't know how to get better.

Shapiro gives an overview of everything - the early adopters of prepackaged foods, and their detractors, the icons that came into their own, and the people who pulled us out of the malaise, particularly Julia Child, a woman who didn't know how to cook but had a husband who loved good food, and so learned the process with a dedication that enabled her to teach others for decades. The whole book is full of good information and gives many reasons why, despite everything, people love to cook more than ever.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Devil Himself

The Mutiny of 1800
Dudley Pope

Nonfiction, History, Nautical

This history describes the mutiny that took the Danae, an English ship that had formerly been a French ship, but which had been captured and reconfigured, then crewed by men who were mostly "pressed" - that is to say, forcibly removed from shore or from merchant ships. Five of the primary movers in the mutiny had been grabbed from a French merchantman, but claimed to be American, though later evidence suggests that they may have been more in sympathy with the French than the English.

Certainly, the mutiny took place off the French coast and the mutineers delivered the ship into a French port, and greeted the boats in French. But then, as this book makes clear, "American" was almost a term of convenience at the time; as the country had only been around for a short while, and there were no birth certificates, it was virtually impossible to tell a Brit from an American.

The mutiny itself has none of the fire you would tend to think of in conjunction with the word "mutiny"; the mutineers, through a combination of planning and good luck, were able to take the ship without loss of life. Even the aftermath seems almost polite; the captain is swapped for French prisoners of war, there is a court martial (basically an inquest), some mutineers are caught and hanged, and the captain is assigned to the tropics where he catches a disease and dies. Nothing is lingered over and little seems to set this apart from other nautical books.

I'd say that if you are fond of the Master and Commander series, the Horatio Hornblower series, or Pope's own Ramage novels, you will probably be interested in this. However, as a reader who is not particularly interested in naval procedure, and as someone who wants to know why anyone would think that "larboard foretopmast studding sail boom" is immediately obvious as to its intent and purpose, I have to say that I found this book pretty dull.


Saturday, July 08, 2006

The First Four Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memoir, Children's

My mother did not own a copy of this book along with the rest of the Little House series. "It's too sad," she said, and while that is a justification for not owning it, the real justification is that it was unfinished, a manuscript found in Laura's papers after her death.

In this book, which opens with a reiteration of the events of the last part of the previous book, the trials that Laura and her husband Almanzo ("Manly") had to face are laid out, and they are harsh. Hail, grasshoppers, debt, fire, and the death of their second child all seem to make their lives harsh and unwelcoming. Worse, the storytelling is almost an outline, a sparse recounting of events that lack the descriptive flourishes that make her previous novels so beloved. One gets the sense that Laura would have fleshed out the book had she a chance, and perhaps extended it to the bitter end of their time in the Dakotas, when they lost everything and moved to the Ozarks.

One could also hope that she would have then continued the story from Rocky Ridge Farm, where they lived for the rest of their lives, but she was over ninety by then, so we should be grateful that she wrote as many books as she had. Skip this book and confine yourself to the earlier ones; her biographies do a better job of explaining the rest of her life.


Friday, July 07, 2006

These Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memoir, Children's

This book has a particularly apt name. While it starts with Laura going off to teach school twelve miles away from home in the wintertime, and she has to lodge with a miserable household, she gains some measure of success, and gets a ride home every weekend with Almanzo Wilder. As spring comes and her term ends, she finds all manner of new delights at home, and gets to help with Almanzo's horses.

One gets the feeling that Laura was very happy during this time of her life, and only cut the length of the book down in fears of being repetetive. She describes the simple pleasures of home in glowing terms, and it is sad that at least one Amazon reviewer found her happy family improbable. Even the perils of Dakota life seem less pressing than before - while there are blizzards and tornados where people are killed, tragedy seems to pass the Ingalls by, and they are able to send Mary to college and start adding rooms to their house, even adding an organ. (For some reason, I always remember this as a piano. Maybe it's because the concept of a frontier family purchasing a pipe organ - used - just seems strange.)

This volume ends with Laura's marriage, and the reader gets a sense that the little girl from the Big Woods has finally grown up.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memoir, Children's

Seven months of blizzards. Seven months of imprisoning cold, with barely a day's breaks between storms.

Seven months of waiting in the dark for your food to run out.

In many ways, this is a hard book to read. While it is obvious that the author survived, there is no guarantee that the lengthy cold will not take some other toll on the town of De Smet. The trains stop running, so there is no food coming into town, and no coal or even wood to burn. Laura's family takes to twisting hay tightly together so that it will burn like wood instead of flaming and dying. They run out of kerosene, so they make a tiny lamp with button and grease. They run out of flour, so they grind wheat in a coffee mill. And then they run out of wheat, and two men make a dangerous run for a rumored settler to buy his seed wheat so that the town will not starve.

And yet there's a stubborness in this book, a refusal to give up in spite of the circumstances, and one senses that even with the cold-imposed isolation, there is hope. And finally, finally, spring does come.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On the Shores of Silver Lake

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memoir, Children's

On the Shores of Silver Lake starts with an odd jump. The characters are all a few years older, and they appear to have had a hard time in the interim. There's a new baby, Grace, but older sister Mary is now blind, from scarlet fever, we are told. (Apparently, her blindness was in fact due to the long term results of other illnesses, and she had a stroke, but the scarlet fever was a convenient excuse.) In truth, Laura was unwilling to relate the years in between On the Banks of Plum Creek and this book, as they had to move to Iowa, where Ma fell very ill, and where a baby brother was born and died. The gloss is not immediately evident, certainly not to its intended audience, but it is interesting to note that while they'd moved to Iowa, they moved back to the same town in Minnesota as before, where this story begins.

Pa is offered a good job and a chance to start new in the Dakotas. The family, still exhausted from illness, will follow behind on the train, a new experience for them all. In this book, we find out one side effect from Mary's blindness: Laura has to be her "eyes", and the descriptive qualities she develops we know will stand her in good stead later in life when she becomes a writer. It is interesting to note that when the railroad building moves on, and the Ingalls are left behind, while they are alone on the prairie they never seem to be lonely.


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

On the Banks of Plum Creek

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memoir, Children's

On the Banks of Plum Creek details the Ingalls' move to Minnesota, where they purchase land from an honest to goodness Minnewegian (and live among more.) Their first home is in a dugout, but they (too rapidly) move to a new board house when the wheat begins to grow. That wheat crop is eaten by grasshoppers, and the trials of living with an uncertain future, with drought and blizzards to boot, are detailed in this charming story.

However, there are also tales of going to school for the first time, as well as learning to swim, "fishing" under a waterfall, and all manner of games and stories included. While this is aimed at children, adults can also glean some of the details of learning to live on the frontier.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Little Town On the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memoir, Children's

For the first time in this series, you really get a sense of living close to other people. For once, the Ingalls have neighbors, and lots of them, within miles, instead of one or two neighbors within a few miles and then forty miles to the nearest town. That changes the tenor of the book; instead of a litany of how each task is done for solitary survival, the books contain all of the social things that happened in frontier towns. Everybody bored with winter? Have a spelling bee, or a "waxworks" display of famous people, or a minstrel show, yes, using blackface and all that implies. (Modern children, reading this laudatory description, may wonder why minstrel shows are considered so offensive.) Or have a church "sociable" or dinner, and at Christmas have a town tree.

Laura also gets to experience a birthday party for the first time, as well as a job. She makes friends in school and works hard on her studies so that she can become a teacher and send Mary off to college for the blind. The farm is plagued by pests, both rodent and avian; the family gets a cat, a proud hunter who does her part. And most of all, Laura gets a suitor, a gentleman who "sees her home" from public gatherings.

This is one of my favorite books in the series.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Farmer Boy

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Memoir, Children's, Historical

This book is usually listed under the fiction section even though it, like all of the 'Little House' series, is based on the life of a real person, with real events. The fictional nature of the books comes into play with the anecdotal nature of the stories relayed, and with the fact that the uncertain memories of the participants are glossed and conflated into stories that, while true to life, are not strictly historical.

I read these stories as a child and loved them. I think that the best way to read them as an adult is to be visiting family in an old farmhouse, and to be sleeping in a tiny little room with low ceilings and little nooks, and antiques all around. While the farmhouse in question is a good fifty years too young to fit the subject of the book, the function shapes the form, and one can imagine nine-year-old Almanzo Wilder snuggling into a similar bed in a similar room after a long day of chores and play.

The books themselves contain laundry lists of duties and activities. One could be amazed at the number of things that a young boy was expected to do on a typical day, but then one could also look at the number of things a young boy does today and it would probably be similarly amazing. And the food - in a culture which treats a bowl of cereal as breakfast, stacks of pancakes, donuts, eggs, sausage, and apple pie (!) seem to create a meal inedible in its immensity, but the food was needed to fuel the incredible range of physical activity a farmer's family needed to perform on a daily basis.

This book is geared toward readers the age of the protagonist, and the amount of detail involved is sure to give the reader a sense of being there, and a feel for how life was in the latter half of the nineteenth century. (I just realized that biographical notes on Almanzo Wilder set his birth date in 1857. This book is set, literally, at the ending of the Civil War. The Civil War is not alluded to within this book.)


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Fool's Fate

Robin Hobb
Fiction, Fantasy
3rd in series of 3; also last in series of 9

The Tawny Man trilogy, the third that Robin Hobb has set in this particular world, has a different feel than the two previous trilogies. First of all, it takes place in a much shorter period of time; the total action of the three books takes place in a matter of months rather than years. This has two effects - it allows for more in-depth development of the action that does take place, and it makes the books feel shorter. Secondly, much of the world-shaking urgency is gone, because unlike the previous series, there is no large-scale war developing. Everything is on a smaller, more personal scale.

The Farseer (Assassin) series, the first, was Hobb's 'bastard prince' trilogy, where we are introduced to FitzChivalry. Her second, the Liveship trilogy (and her 'swashbuckling pirate series'), was set much further south and was seemingly unrelated at first. And I feel very, very stupid that I did not realize the significance of one particular character until it was all but spelled out for me. This trilogy ties the two previous ones together firmly.

Why am I spending so much time talking about the leadup to this book? Because you shouldn't read it without reading the others first, of course. This book is a culmination of the previous eight, and much of what happens loses its significance without the larger context. The climax actually happens fairly early, because the author needed time to tie up the series. I saw a lot of complaints on Amazon about the "happy ending" from people who don't believe that life is like that; Hobb has been giving us loose ends and hard endings for eight books, so I believe that the happy ending is finally justified. (I also feel that the vast majority of people in life end up with "happy endings", but that is a subject for another post.)

I found that certain occurrences in the novel were inevitable, given the fact that FitzChivalry is finally growing up (and about time; he's nearly forty.) There were certain consequences of actions taken years ago that I hadn't considered, however, and Hobb exploits them to good advantage. Mostly, I find this book very satisfying on a deep level, and that's probably because I finally don't feel like I want to slap some sense into the protagonist. Hobb has tied up the series in such a way as to make the reader feel that they don't need more, a 'happily ever after' ending that makes sure that any further books would feel like an intrusion.

If you've made it this far, you deserve this book. If you've never heard of Robin Hobb, you deserve to check her out. But start with the first.