Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Harper Hall Trilogy

Anne McCaffrey
Fiction, Science Fiction

These two novels deal with the saga of Menolly, a girl who is extraordinarily talented musically. In her home of Half-Circle Seahold on Pern, the traditional roles are highly defined, and music is not a suitable occupation for a young girl. However, since the position of Harper is highly regarded, they allowed old Petiron to teach her as he wished.

The problems occur shortly after Petiron dies. As a fishing hold, there is no one but Menolly to teach the children (because fishing is hard on the hands, making instrument playing difficult.) Her parents - the Lord and Lady of the hold - allow her to teach but forbid her to "tune", their derogatory term for playing the songs she writes. When her father catches her at it, he beats her and takes away her teaching privileges. And when the new harper arrives, they forbid her to tell him of her work, and even to sing. And then, to make matters worse, she gets an infected cut from gutting fish and all but cripples her left hand.

Hope comes for Menolly when she spots some "mythical" fire lizards and rescues the queen's eggs from the approaching tide. After one too many humiliations she decides to leave her hold and goes to the cave when she stashed the eggs - almost having to outrun the deadly Thread that threatens Pern and burns and consumes organic material. The rest of the tale deals with how she learns to live alone, and after her rescue, how she can learn to get over her fears and finally grasp the happiness that life has in store for her.

Some people may have difficulty in understanding Menolly; most people do not have one thing in their lives that brings their lives meaning. And most of those that do do not have that thing unequivocably denied them. This book is both about growing up - Menolly is only fourteen at the start of the novels - and about overcoming personal fears. When she finally gets to Harper Hall and is told to "tune", she has to get over her fears that her work is inadequate (as she has always been told by her parents). More to the point, she has to get over the feeling that she is inadequate, as she has been surrounded all her life with comments about what women are supposed to do - things she's not particularly good at - and what they should never do, such as music. She also has to deal with a large amount of envy, as her natural talent and years of practice mean that she is musically superior to many of the apprentices at the Hall.

This is a good book for teenagers and has long been considered a "back door" entrance to the Pern series. Menolly is a thoroughly realistic character whose ultimate triumph is well-deserved.


Anne McCaffrey
Fiction, Science Fiction

This is another coming-of-age story, featuring Piemur, the young Harper apprentice with the beautiful soprano voice. Or, in this case, not so beautiful - puberty heralds its appearance with a spectacular voice-cracking episode right in the middle of a rehearsal for the upcoming Spring Festival. Piemur's severe disappointment is lessened by the Masterharper enlisting him for some basic spying, with the first test of discretion being his assignment to the drum heights, to learn the communication patterns that serve as Pern's telegraph system.

However, they can't hide everything, and the other drum apprentices resent Piemur's blessings - he gets picked for interesting assignments, goes to Gathers and Hatchings, and in general gets out of the drumheights far more often than they do. Their pranks on him increase in severity while he doesn't tell anyone, afraid that this is a test of his discretion. However, when events take him to an unexpected Gather, his audacity takes him farther than he'd ever dreamed.

This is a companion book to Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, and the first to feature Piemur as a major player. It didn't grab me the way those first two did because it seems comparatively thin. If you read this, I suggest you follow through with more books featuring Piemur, such as The White Dragon, for a more thorough picture of this engaging young scamp.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

As this book is a satire of Christmas, I normally read it around Christmastime, but I just couldn't resist.

This book deals with the power of belief. When the Auditors, beings who run the universe (and, incidentally, hate all life), hire the Assassins to take out the Hogfather (the Discworld's version of Santa Claus), Death has to step in. Aside from the pure comedy of a skeleton dressed up in red robes and a fake beard (it worked for The Nightmare Before Christmas, after all), the role brings up some questions in Death's all-too-literal mind. Like "why do the rich people get tons of presents, when the poor need them more?" and "why does no one appreciate me at *my* job?"

Early in the delivery route, he comes across his granddaughter Susan, who is working as a governess for a lady who is a bit intimidated by the fact that Susan also happens to be a duchess. Susan is a no-nonsense kind of lady, a bit like Mary Poppins - from the books, not the movie. She keeps the monsters at bay with the fireplace poker and discourages any attempts by her charges to seem excessively cute. And she's very annoyed by her grandfather showing up. But she listens, and ends up going on a quest to find out what exactly has happened to the real Hogfather.

Her search will take her from the fabled Castle of Bones (no one ever said the Hogfather lived somewhere nice) to Unseen University; from Death's little cottage to the land of the Tooth Fairy. It will introduce her to random fairies created by spare belief and to a crazed assassin who thinks differrently than other people. And in the end, it dips into the deep roots of old beliefs (possibly only familiar to folklorists, but well-founded in research.)

And as Death says, it is important for people to believe in the little lies, so that they can learn to believe in the big ones, like justice.

Because if we believe, someday it might be true.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Interesting Times

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

"May you live in interesting times" is an old curse, and nobody knows its horror more than Rincewind. He'd love to be bored. Boring is just fine by him. And yet, he has to take part in adventure after adventure, and now the wizards of Unseen University have roped him into another one, because the Counterweight Continent, er, did NOT send a Pointless Albatross to Vetinari, NOT asking for the "Great Wizzard" to be sent, and the wizards do NOT deem it wise to be in conflict with Vetinari's wishes.

Or something like that.

Anyway, the Auriental Empire (because of the gold) is dealing with a curiously polite rebellion, to whom the Great Wizzard is the key. And Rincewind, with a sinking heart, finds out just why they want him... because he's a ray of hope for a repressed culture, even small and cowardly as he is. Of course, the devious Lord Hong, who arranged for him to come, doesn't realize that there are others who have plans as well.

Those others being Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde, barbarians who are very good at surviving. So good, in fact, that there's not a one of them under eighty. And they've come to the Aurient for a theft of massive proportions...

This novel is very well-rounded, with many well-developed characters. Rincewind is more interestingly pathetic than before - he's not incompetent, but he has a knack for trouble that has a big effect on his personal philosophy. The Silver Horde is amusing in its varying levels of deafness and decrepitude, but you have to remember to never be on the wrong end of fights involving them. (As in, be on their side or be dead.) And even the gods have cameos, when you get a sense of why Rincewind has survived as long as he has.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Small Gods

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

This is my favorite of all the Discworld novels, and one that stands alone. It involves the theocracy of Omnia, and touches on true belief, prophecy, the terrors of freedom, and yes, moralilty. True morality, as a matter of fact. Brutha is one of the most moral characters to ever come out of the Discworld universe, and in this book he journeys from being an unlettered novice to someone with a very good grasp of human nature - and its capabilities.

In a world where gods are created and sustained by belief, what happens when people begin to believe in the structure - with all its attendant nastiness - instead of the god? Well, in this case, you get a god who intended to incarnate as a bull and ends up trapped in a tortoise instead. And Brutha - the aforementioned novice - is the only one that can hear him, the only true believer left. Whereas Vorbis, the head of the Inquisition, is well on his way to being the next prophet of Om... and it seems that he truly believes he hears the voice of his god, when in fact it is only the echo of his own thoughts.

Vorbis is a fascinating character (he even has an audio format named after him!) His biggest triumph is that he gets other people to act like him - that is to say, he is exceedingly good at extending his murderous viewpoint. What's worse is that he truly believes this is something he needs to do to make the world holy. Such men are dangerous. Brutha - who has perfect memory - is extremely useful to him and his plans to dominate neighboring countries. He's also obedient, at least until he starts having thoughts of his own... thoughts which could lead to Brutha's ascendency to prophethood, or, if things go the way they're planned, to his death.

As far as Discworld novels go, this one stands alone. And the ending is the perfect capstone to a story of how even gods need to be moral.


Sunday, August 27, 2006


Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

This is the shortest of all the Discworld novels, and perhaps the least impressive. I have heard that it was originally a lavishly illustrated novel with art by Josh Kirby (not Jack Kirby of comics fame), but that edition was never made available in the US. Nevertheless, the story by itself was published, and therein lies the problem.

Because Pratchett is a master of writing about the human condition, and this novel does not focus on the human characters, but instead on some Hell-dwelling demons who are little more than ciphers. Worse, Pratchett breaks the flow of the novel by continually making overt references to Earth, which disrupts the flow of the novel. And though the novel is ostensibly a method of getting Rincewind out of the Dungeon Demons he was trapped in at the end of Sourcery, it is never truly explained how it was that he got from the Dungeon Dimensions into Hell, which are two distinct places.

I would like the opportunity to see the illustrated version, because if it's anything like The Last Hero (with Paul Kidby), the illustrations add to the jokes and potentially raise the overall humor of the book. As it is, however, this is the one Discworld novel I encourage you to skip.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

Soul Music

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

Interesting. This book isn't listed on Amazon - not even as "out of print." I have no idea why.

Susan Sto-Helit is the daughter of Mort, Death's apprentice, and Yvelle, Death's adopted daughter. Apparently, there's more to heredity than DNA, because when Death gets depressed and takes a break, Susan gets the job. Which she thinks is extremely silly, since her parents brought her up to be sensible. It puts her in a good position, however, to witness the breakout of Music With Rocks In, a wild music set free by an enchanted guitar.

The book is full of underhanded cultural references, such as a joke that makes reference to Thelonius Monk, or the dwarf band "We're Certainly Dwarves." While these are not necessary to appreciate the book, they add a lot. Of course, there's certainly enough hijinks to keep you otherwise amused.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Feet of Clay

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

Murder in Ankh-Morpork! Okay, that's actually not that surprising, but the victims in this case show little signs of having been dealt with by Assassins (very conscientious; they will always endeavor to clean up after themselves.) The victims are also old men, fairly harmless; there seems to be no motive. And worse, someone's poisoning the Patrician; the attempts to determine the means are driving Commander Vimes around the bend. And everyone's getting worked up about the golems in their midst: silent clay people who will do whatever they're told, and yet people fear them...

This is an interesting commentary on the worth of people, one that resonates. The Guild of Heraldry, with its multilingual puns, discovers that Nobby Nobbs is an Earl; Vimes has to deal with the increasingly multi-ethnic Watch (we're talking non-humans here); and through it all are the golems, who always work and never complain. And as always, Pratchett gives us characters who are able to demonstrate that they truly know the worth of some of their fellow residents in Ankh-Morpork. (Sometimes that worth is very small indeed.)

"That's blasphemy."
"That's what people say when the voiceless speak."


Thursday, August 24, 2006


Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

The number eight is important to wizards. It is the number of magic in the Discworld; an eighth son of an eighth son is destined to be a wizard.

Wizards are not allowed to have kids. Part of the reason is that an eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son - and eighth son cubed - is destined to become a sourcerer, a source of magic. Which is a bit of a problem, honestly, because a new source of magic in a stressed out world is highly dangerous. Especially because wizards start getting ideas about who should really be in charge. (Hint: the answer's not only not you, it certainly isn't that wizard over there.)

So when a renegade wizard (eighth son squared) has an eighth son of his own, you just know there's going to be trouble. Add in a possessed staff, an ArchChancellor's hat with its own ghosts, a barbarian hairdresser, a wanna-be barbarian, and an inept poet of a Caliph (with necessary attendant evil Vizier), and you know there's going to be disaster. Someone really heroic is needed to salvage the situation, which is sad since they've only got Rincewind.

If Rincewind were in a movie, he'd be played by someone like Steve Buscemi (all hail Buscemi!) He's a wizard - at least his hat says "Wizzard" - and perhaps the greatest talent in the Discworld at surviving, mostly because he's very good at running away. And, strangely enough, in this book he has the chance to do the right thing, and somehow, he's better suited to the task than anyone else. Maybe because once sourcery gets started, there's nowhere to run away to...

This is the fifth Discworld novel, and one in which Pratchett has a general housecleaning. Sourcery paves the way for ArchChancellor Ridcully, someone who is also very good at surviving, so that the problem of a revolving wizardry cast (through assassination for advancement) is hereby solved. Some characters are still developing, but overall, the humanity of Pratchett's prose shines, and underscores how important personal choice is.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

We Have Always Lived In the Castle

Shirley Jackson

From the beginning, it is evident that there is something dark and ugly between the Blackwoods and the village below. The children make taunting rhymes about the sisters Mary Kate and Constance. The adults are more direct in their spite. They blame the Blackwoods for shutting off their property, and for not developing it. They jeer and spit at "Merricat" when she comes into town for supplies. And, oh yes, they blame Constance for the death of her family by poisoning.

Merricat, in an attempt to protect her sister, has weird talismanic rites that she invokes to weave a web of protection. As it is, there are only a few people who come to visit the sisters and their infirm Uncle Julian, the only survivor of the poisoning and one who is obsessed with the day. But that all changes when their cousin Charles comes for a visit, attempting to get Constance to come out of her shell - and incidentally, to get his hands on the Blackwood fortune. Merricat's efforts to get him to leave become increasingly bizarre, leading to an event when all the villagers get to vent their spite.

This is a fascinating novel, because although the narration is from Merricat's perspective, so her view colors everything, she is proven to be fairly justified in her loathings, as the villagers and cousin Charles act in fairly monstrous fashion. Yet Merricat herself is far from admirable; her weird, symbioitic relationship with her sister makes me wonder what mental illness her mother brought to the family, and her rituals of protection are those of a child, not a young woman of eighteen. And, of course, the sisters themselves become a strange sort of talisman to the village; strange figures to be given gifts, and to avoid.

This is a little bit of dark normalcy, a gothic novel that draws you in.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lords and Ladies

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

Here we are, back in the Discworld. The witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat have returned from an eight month trip abroad, and Magrat is somewhat surprised to find that her wedding to the King of Lancre is proceeding apace. The surprise is due to the fact that he didn't bother to ask her - apparently, as king, he doesn't. Magrat is sensible enough to clamp down on her outrage - she does like him, after all - and prepare to learn the business of queening, which appears to be mostly tapestry and sitting around.

But it's circle time, with the boundaries between worlds growing thin, and the euphemistically-termed Lords and Ladies (because if you say what they really are, you'll get the wrong idea) are attempting to break through to Lancre. And because Lancre is where Shakespearian parodies go to die, much of the novel borrows from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Though Shakespeare could never have come up with the Stick and Bucket Dance.

This is a strong novel in the series, reiterating how perception can affect reality, and about finding the strength to do what is necessary.


Monday, August 21, 2006


Connie Willis
Fiction, Satire

This is a book about fads: what starts them, who starts them, and why they start. Sandra Foster, a researcher at HiTek Corporation, is attempting to find the answers to these questions despite the horrible corporate culture in which she's immersed, the constant seminars that Management is exposed to (always leading to more and longer funding forms), and the horribly apathetic and snarky interdepartmental office assistant, Flip. Of course, she's getting nowhere. And of course, everything is going to predictably go crazy.

As a fad researcher in terminally hip Boulder (okay, HiTek isn't in Boulder, but it's near enough that Boulder is always a good source for material), Sandra is always noticing the trends around her. She's bewildered by the herd instinct that goes along with fads, an instinct that she notices among her colleagues as well. Of course, what book about fads would be complete without sheep? The sheep - who are taking part in an experiment in information diffusion - bring in the concept of the bellwether, the sheep who leads without leading.

What amused me most about the reaction to this book is that Willis classified the extreme level of anti-smoking as a typical "aversion fad" - and several Amazon commenters gave this book bad reviews precisely because they felt she defended a person's right to smoke, something apparently indefensible, thereby displaying exactly the behavior she was illustrating. But her real point is one she has Sandra make in the novel - she wants to find the trigger for fads so she can turn it off, because the next fad could be the one where we all go off the cliff.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Witches Abroad

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

This foray into the Discworld starts off sounding like a travelogue, where the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and poor, put-upon Magrat do the typical touristy thing. The latter half, however, is full of the observations of human nature that make Pratchett so worthwhile.

For example, there's the note that happiness can't be imposed from the outside, with a fairytale city where the streets are too clean and the people too cowed. The fact that this city is imposed on the Discworld's version of New Orleans gives it that twist that sparks the interest, including a full-flavored Mardi Gras, alligator sandwiches ("and be quick about it!") and marvelous gumbo. And even a version of Baron Samendi (and a reference to the voudon god Red-Eyed Erzulie.)

But most importantly, the book centers on a discussion of what it means to be good, which, as Granny Weatherwax puts it, is "giving people what they need, instead of what they think they want." And because of this, she has to fight the story that wants to happen, the rural myth that the beautiful girl goes to the ball and marries the prince. And she has to fight the woman who set the whole thing in motion, someone Esme Weatherwax knows from long ago.

Hopefully, the pumpkins will come in handy.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Wyrd Sisters

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

You know this story. A faithful retainer, egged on by his murderous wife, kills his king. There's three witches, of course, and ghosts, and some good old-fashioned Shakespearian verse.

Of course, this time we're in the Discworld, so things get a wee bit twisted...

For example, there's Nanny Ogg, a witch of many marriages, absolutely no morals, and a fondness for drink. And her hedgehog song. Then there's Magrat Garlick, a dreamy New-Age type witch who believes in the sovreign power of herbs and romantic eyeshadow. And there's always Granny Weatherwax, who "can't be having with that sort of thing." Add in a Fool, a band of traveling players, a disguised heir, a land that cares if the king cares for it, and some interesting godmother gifts, and you have a recipe for Discworld havoc.

Which is all to the good, of course.

Pratchett had really hit his stride by this point in the series. This one feels like full-fledged Discworld, right down to the phrasing ("Magrat wore a startilingly green dress that would have been revealing and clinging if Magrat had anything to reveal or cling to.") Not a bad place to start in a series where you can start in the middle and work out toward both ends.


Friday, August 18, 2006

Carpe Jugulum

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

I have to be honest here; this is one of the few later Pratchett novels I cannot be enthusiastic about. It displays his inimitable style well. The humor level is right up there with his best. The characters are very well-drawn and interesting, particularly Mightily Oats, a young Omnian preacher who displays a lot of good sense under his dithering exterior. And, of course, the message of the book is very well done.

The problem is that Pratchett already wrote this book, and it's called Lords and Ladies. You have the kingdom of Lancre, check, a threat to the country's young reigning couple, check, a threat by supernatural forces who see other races as lesser, specifically prey, check, stood up to by the inventiveness of the witches, particularly Granny Weatherwax, check. This isn't nearly as bad as it is with, say, Tolkien clones; Carpe Jugulum is indeed different enough to qualify as a different story. And the message— that people are not things and should not be treated as such— is something that, sadly, needs to be reiterated constantly.

But somehow, I kept feeling as though I'd been told this before. Somehow, this book may be different from Lords and Ladies, but it just isn't different enough.


Thursday, August 17, 2006


Robin McKinley
Fiction, Fantasy

She was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms...

This is a fairytale. This is also, most emphatically, not for kids.

This is the tale of Princess Lissla Lissar, the daughter of a fairytale couple, the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms and the lucky prince who went to the ends of the world to find a leaf plucked and unfallen from the tree of sorrow, and an apple plucked and unfallen from the tree of joy. As a commenter on Amazon put it, the price of such a powerful love is a codependent relationship that warps the whole kingdom. The people cheer for the king and queen, and barely remember that they have a daughter. Her very nursemaid got the position because it was something she could do for the queen.

Of course, this sickness of the kingdom is not immediately evident. We are introduced to the land through the viewpoint of the princess, who has never known anything different, and it is only through accumulation of hints that one can realize just how wrong this situation is. And when the queen gets sick - and perhaps loses the will to live when she believes her beauty might be diminished - the cancer at the heart of the kingdom begins to become evident. Painters are sought for, so that the queen might have a portrait painted of her in her full beauty. The painter chosen, perhaps sensitive to the feel of the kingdom, calls for light as he constructs from memory a perfect woman, one more beautiful than the queen ever was. The queen extracts a promise from her husband to never marry unless the girl is as beautiful as she is.

And then Lissla Lissar grows up to look like her mother.

This is a dark tale, based on a fairytale that is not often reprinted in modern anthologies. McKinley takes the dark heart of the tale and follows it to its logical conclusion - and adds to the nightmare by having the court blame the victim. They cannot believe that their king - their perfect king - could possibly be at fault for desiring his daughter, and so any support she might have evaporates. The hardest part of the book to read is an insight into true terror, far more real than any demons could be. And then Lissar escapes, to leave the kingdom and to try to build a new life for herself.

Many negative reviews have been written about this book, for the dark tone, for the "unbelievable" transformation of the king from a perfect fairytale figure to a nightmare, for the shock, trauma, and amnesia that the princess goes through, and for the ending which is not unequivocably happy. However, I saw nothing but positive reviews from those who had experienced such trauma themselves, and at least one therapist has written of the healing power of this book. Though healing can take time, and the payoff is not perfect - certainly not a fairytale ending - people who have been hurt can try to trust again, and to believe that they can deserve happiness.

Do not read this book if you are expecting the style of McKinley's other novels, or if you want your fantasies to be escapism. Do read this book if the story of a woman who survives horror and finds herself through adversity can tell you something important, which I submit it can.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Truth

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

Terry Pratchett spent many years as a journalist, so it inevitable that newspapers would make their way into Discworld eventually. The focus in this novel is on the spread of movable type, which has been banned before, but far be it for Lord Vetinari to stand in the way of a tsunami. William deWorde, estranged scion of a noble family, quickly turns his monthly notice to several people of esteem (engraved, of course) to a daily paper to the masses. He has difficulties when a tabloidish competitor pops up, though, because he really believes there is a Truth.

And when Lord Vetinari is accused of attempted murder, he will not stop until he gets to the bottom of it, even though it might mean his life.

This book is invaluable for the picture it presents of how journalism works. Near the end, William thinks of the press as a huge vampire, needing to be fed stories on a daily basis, and as an almost-accident occurs and he reports on it instead of offering to help, he realizes the hold that journalism has on him. Anyone who has ever worked in the news understands; the notebook (or the camera) creates its own reality, a detachment that is hard to shake. (I had at least one professor speak of leaving a news program because the detachment she developed scared her.)

There are also observations about the difference between power and prestige, and of family ties that bind and strangle. William deWorde believes in the Truth that his father taught him, even though his father believes the Truth is too precious for mere peons, and, in fact, should be actively subverted when necessary. William's pursuit of journalism finally allows him to break his father's grip on him, an important lesson to all those laboring in the shadow of an overbearing past.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Fifth Elephant

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

This book is set mostly in the region of Überwald, land of dwarves, vampires, and oh yes, werewolves. This is also the land where premium fat mining takes place, and is therefore of prime importance to Ankh-Morpork. The crowning of the dwarven Low King is about to take place, and Vetinari decides to send, as ambassador, newly-made Duke Vimes. Who is less than happy with the situation (though Lady Sybil is thrilled.)

To complicate matters, the Scone of Stone (necessary for the investiture) has been stolen, as has a plaster replica; Angua's brother, also a werewolf, has started a movement to take over Überwald; some dwarves are very unhappy about the "licentious" behavior of Ankh-Morpork dwarves, particularly the fact of females dressing up as females (all dwarves are bearded and most think the very concept of female should be private); and here comes undiplomatic Vimes, with a troll and obviously feminine dwarf in tow. Which, of course, could be exactly what is needed to get to the bottom of the mystery.

I felt that this book was a little less focused than some of his previous efforts. He does, however, set the mood exceedingly well; I think that you could read this book on a sunny day and become convinced that it was overcast outside.


Monday, August 14, 2006


Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

This is another novel set in Ankh-Morpork, but also one in which Klatch, a vaguely Middle-Eastern nomadic country, is a featured player. When an island rises out of the sea in between the two countries, naturally tensions arise, leading up to an ultimately useless war, attendant with all the necessary racism and idiotic assumptions. Likewise, a JFK-like shooting leads Vimes, the commander of the Watch, to believe that somebody is doing the best they can to exacerbate the tensions... and he'd really like to find out why.

While this book may seem to be mostly about war, it is, in fact, more about the people who believe in the lies of war as glory, rather than war as a nasty thing which is not quite as nasty as the alternative. There's a firebombing of a restaurant owned by Klatchian immigrants that owes all too much to a racist movement in Britain that attacks families of Indian or Pakistani heritage. There's the riff on the superiority of "white officers" which pays homage to the mindset of Britain's empire. Of course, the officers in question are obvious morons. There's the people of Ankh-Morpork getting caught up in jingoism, with a few notable exceptions (surprisingly, one who notices the contradictions is Nobby Nobbs, supposedly not one of your brighter characters.) And, of course, there is Lord Vetinari, whose solution to the problem is as adept and understated as always.

This is classic Pratchett, with beautiful understated gags and one heck of a conscience.


Sunday, August 13, 2006


Eleanor Estes
Fiction, Children's

The Moffats - their widowed mother, teenaged Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and little Rufus - live in a little yellow house in the curve of New Dollar street. From that house, and only that house, one can see both ends of the street. But that might change, as the gentleman who owns the house has posted a sign to say the house is for sale.

This book, published as the US was in the midst of the first World War, illustrates a slice of life for children in an age before videogames, television, or even universal electricity. The Moffats build a Halloween ghost to frighten an obnoxious neighbor, get a surprisingly interesting trolley ride, take the wrong shortcut while driving someone else's horse, and suffer through a quarantine for scarlet fever. All the while, though it is hard to make ends meet ("Times are hard" is a recurring phrase), it is obvious that they are not suffering because of it.

Much as the book Betsy-Tacy illustrated turn-of-the-century Minnesota, these books do an excellent job of illustrating Depression-era Connecticut. Moreover, they illustrate how something simple can charm and captivate - a handy antidote to the fast pace that everyone seems to be beholden to today.


The Middle Moffat
Rufus M.
The Moffat Museum
Eleanor Estes
Fiction, Children's

In The Middle Moffat, the follow-up to The Moffats, the focus is on Jane, the third child. In the Moffats' new home, she decides to get an identity for herself as the Mysterioius Middle Moffat, and introduces herself to Cranbury's Oldest Inhabitant as such, to her great mortification. However, the 99-year-old gentleman is very congenial, and a great friendship develops between the two. Her strategems for making sure the Oldest Inhabitant makes it to his hundreth birthday are amusing, as are the tales of family hijinks such as the organ recital with surprise moths.

Rufus M. features the youngest of the Moffats, off on his own expeditions. His quest to get a library card is a saga of overcome difficulties, with the side note of his teachers' attempts to break him of left-handedness. He also takes part in his sister Jane's baseball team, with the eternal hopes of cookies, and wonders about one neighbor's invisible piano player. His badly-knit washcloth takes center stage when a train of departing soldiers goes through town, and at the end of the book, the armistice is declared - twice.

The last book, The Moffat Museum, was written forty years after Rufus M. However, it is of a piece with the previous novels, and one would hardly guess that half a lifetime separated the two. (The pictures, though, are utterly horrible.) Peace has been declared, and times are looking up, when Jane decides that their collection of "artifacts" in the shed is worthy of being a museum. Word, of course, spreads quickly, and they soon get a group of visitors with the school superintendent. So the artifacts go on display, including Rufus with wax on his face playing a waxwork boy. Also featured in the book are tales of growing older, such as eldest Sylvie's wedding, and Joe's working papers, so he can get a job.

The writing in these books is anything but action-packed, though its accurate description of early-20th-century life is entertaining in itself. They are well worth a read.


Saturday, August 12, 2006

Night Watch

Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy/Satire

Have you ever overheard someone talking about a book you haven't read yet, and they give away a major plot element? Then when you read it, you spend most of the time wondering how the author is going to treat that twist, how the death of a central character or a personality change is going to affect the narrative.

And then there's the times when the person you overheard was ON CRACK, and said plot element never happens, so you get to the end and are both glad that it never happened and royally ticked because someone still managed to ruin the read for you by making you dread the moment.

Herm. Anyway. As the title suggests, this book is part of the Discworld cycle dealing with the Night Watch, and, more particularly, Captain Vimes and his idea of what it means to be a keeper of the peace. Vimes is a keen study of human nature, and though he thinks of himself in less than glowing terms, he has a finely developed sense of morality, and, more importantly, a sense of what is right. When chasing down an unrepentant murderer (utterly classic sociopath, and a charismatic one), a thaumic incident sends them both back in time, where the murderer kills John Keel, a very important personage in terms of his effect on Vimes' life. In order for there to be a future for Vimes to go back to, he has to assume Keel's role... in part, so that he doesn't turn out to be someone he doesn't want to be.

This novel is shot through with examinations of responsibililty. Vimes has to be true to himself, which means doing the right thing even when the wrong thing would be far more expedient and possibly smarter. Of course, he's also having to provide an example to his younger self, and he doesn't dare provide a bad one; there's already far too many of those around.

As with most of Pratchett's work, there are plenty of good lessons in character slipped into the narrative. In this particular book, the comedy is perhaps darker than in previous novels, but the people therein are worth emulating. Except for Nobby Nobbs. Don't even think about emulating him.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Children of the Night

Dan Simmons
Fiction, Horror

Romania is one of those former Communist Block countries whose regime all but destroyed the country and its people. This novel begins just after the fall of the last leader, when the USSR began to splinter in 1989. Part of the legacy of the deposed dictator was orphanages, overflowing with neglected, starving, sick children... many of them with AIDS, spread by the use of dirty needles.

Humanitarian aid is, of course, forthcoming, and one of the medical specialists, Kate Neuman, notices a strange case where the infant thrives when given a transfusion - including healing of weeks-old bruises. She adopts the child and takes him back to the US, where tests begin to isolate a strange version of a recessive disease, a blood condition that could hold the key to curing cancer and AIDS.

But there's more going on than she realizes. And when baby Joshua is taken away from her, she has to go back to Romania, to unravel the roots of a century-old family, perhaps the inspiration for vampires, whose progenitor is none other than Vlad Tepes, the original Dracula...

Simmons describes Romania with all the gritty realism that makes the story all the more terrifying, as one can imagine such stories being all too true. The blood disease is all too common a side effect of inbred populations and gives an underpinning of plausibility to the narrative. And, as is appropriate, much of the story takes place in the dark.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Half Magic

Edward Eager
Fiction, Children's

This is the story of four children - very much wanting to be like the four children of E. Nesbit's novels - who discover a magic talisman that grants wishes. Halfway, that is. If you wish to be home, you'd end up halfway there. A wish for an animal to be able to talk produces almost-language - or a cat that can do nothing but talk or be silent, in alternating bursts. And don't even ask what happens if you wish that you "aren't there."

Of course, the children involved quickly figure out a solution - math can be your friend - but that doesn't mean that their wishes are wish or safe. And the amount of trouble they get in is barely justified by the happy ending. However, their troubles make for entertaining reading, and remind you to be careful what you wish for.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Darwin's Blade

Dan Simmons
Fiction, Suspense

From reading the Amazon customer reviews, this is a love-it or hate-it kind of book. This is only natural, as Simmons writes in such a huge variety of genres that people looking for "more of the same" will invariably be disappointed. I fall into the former camp for several reasons.

First of all, though many of the "accidents" in the story are well-known urban legends, the craft lies in how they are reconstructed. When confronted with the detritus of the infamous JATO car story, it would not be immediately obvioius to a bystander what happened or why. Dr. Darwin Minor has to figure the sequence of events out from a deep knowledge of physics and such things as tire marks. Far more interesting are the "real" accidents that are reconstructed; apparently, Simmons has a brother in the business and therefore has reconstructions of great accuracy.

Secondly, though some people have complained that Dar Minor appears to be good at everything (with the implication that such things are unrealistic), it is far more likely for one person with drive to be good at multiple things than to be good at just one. (I know people like that. I'm guessing that those people who complained do not.)

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Simmons' writing is transparent. You are aware of the events, not of the wordplay constructing them. While that style of writing is against everything "literature writers" hold dear, it is especially useful in the suspense genre, where the action and not the writing becomes center stage.

This novel is about insurance fraud, of all things. It is to Simmons' credit that such a potentially boring concept is elevated to high drama, with car chases, aerial shootouts, sniper shootouts, and, of course, lots of accidents ridiculous and sublime. If you are interested in an enjoyable little thriller, this will do you good; if you're looking for another Hyperion, think of this book as being by a different writer entirely.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bath Tangle

Georgette Heyer
Fiction, Romance

This particular novel centers on the tempestuous and inaptly named Serena, whose father has just died - and tied up her ineritance by having it administered by a cranky gentleman to whom she was once engaged, with the stipulation that she receives it when she marries to his satisfaction. It's obvioius that they're perfect for one another. However, Serena's younger stepmother, who is shy and in awe of Serena, is of a retiring disposition and suggests a trip to Bath, basically treated as a backwater of a town. While there, Serena happens across an old romantic acquaintance and their engagement is soon underway... though it quickly becomes obvious that this handsome military man is far better suited to young Fanny, the stepmother.

What follows is the typical list of machinations that one encounters in a Heyer novel. A number of Heyer fans list this one as among their favorites, yet it never grabbed me the way it did them. Firey temperaments, however, might find much to enjoy in this novel.


Monday, August 07, 2006

The Masqueraders

Georgette Heyer
Fiction, Romance

Heyer is a master of the period romance, tales that revolve around society, entanglements that usually consist of someone being engaged to the wrong person (a very serious matter when an engagement was a verbal contract), and well-defined characters that were often a little more spirited than custom of the time properly allowed. In The Masqueraders, she introduces us to Prudence and Robin, two siblings who are dressed as the opposite gender, with the taller Prudence becoming Peter, and the diminutive Robin known as Kate. Naturally, they both fall in love while in their adopted roles, and just as naturally, their somewhat checkered past means that revealing their true identities is out of the question.

Compounding their distress is the fact that their father, the architect of many of the wild schemes they've taken part in, has come to town with proof that he is a long-lost lord... and they have no idea of how much trouble such a claim could be. The machinations spin out of control (his presumptive lordship claims it is because his children don't follow his instructions exactly), leading, inevitably, to happiness and engagements all around at the end. This is, after all, a romance, and they tend to end most felicitously.

This is an entertaining tale, and one that is no more romantically inclined than many of the "regular fiction" bestsellers of today. Given its publication date of 1928, one can also admit that any book still in publication more than seventy years after its debut obviously has many things going for it. If you don't mind a somewhat wild premise - that two siblings can so convincingly pose as the other gender that they can not only fool the town once, but again as they later appear with their real identities - this book is surely worth your time.


Sunday, August 06, 2006


Terry Pratchett
Fiction, Fantasy / Satire

This Discworld novel is loosely based on the very popular Phantom of the Opera, in that there is an opera house with resident Ghost, enormous flooded basements, divas in training and curious incidents, sometimes deadly ones. However, as with all of Pratchett's novels, the plotline is an excuse to examine the human condition and examine how people behave.

Agness Nitt of Lancre has come to the city of Ankh-Morpork in order to become something other than what she is. She tries out for the Opera House - under the name Perdita - and is hired on account of her incredible voice. Alas, Agnes is fat, and so plum parts go to Christine, a sqeaky-voiced skinny girl who happens to be related to one of the major funders for the opera. Agnes is to stand behind Christine and "ghost" her voice.

That is not the only ghost, of course, and accidents and murder start happening, making everyone very nervous. The arrival of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, two witches from Lancre, doesn't make anyone less nervous, particularly when they start cutting to the heart of the mystery and making sure that people can't fall back on their comfortable preconceptions. Add some jewels, some singers who turn out to be other than they pretend, and a few pornographic recipes from Nanny Ogg's wildly successful Joye of Snacks, and you're in for a spectacle that goes in all manner of unexpected directions.

And, alas, a few all too expected ones, such as the fact that Agnes will never get the recognition she deserves because, well, she's fat. And Christine is not.


Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Golden Key

Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliot
Fiction, Fantasy

Through art, one can live forever.

This book, set it a vaguely Medditeranean locale named Tira Verte (I felt it most like Italy, but others have cited Spanish and Portugese references), is centered on the actions of Sario Grijalva, a member of a family of talented painters who are shunned by most of the families for having chi'patro - bastard - children in their ancestry. In fact, the animosity goes so far as to accusations of dark magics, magics which turn out to, in fact, exist.

Sario is a painter of ambition. He wants to be Lord Limner - the official ducal painter who paints treaties, which are in symbolic paintings rather than the written word. At the start of the novel, that position is held by a Serrano, a member of the family that most wants to bring the Grijalvas down. (Two other prominent Serranos are the duke's mistress and the Premia Sancta, the female head of the local religion. Because of her influence, the Grijalvas have been banned from public worship.) His biggest fear, however, is not these outside influences, but the family itself, because though they have powerful magic, they also have means of controlling those who do not bend to their wishes.

Even worse is the fact that those with the Gift - the magic - die young, often barely reaching forty. They are also sterile, a sin in the local religion based on fertility. He only has a few years in which to make his influence known... until he meets an old man of the Tz'ab, the tribe that stole and raped his ancestors. The magic Sario learns from him, coupled with the training for his Gift, is enough for his to avoid his family's control and start on a path of treachery whose effects last for centuries.

The rich detailing of this novel is particularly interesting when compared to our art history; one can easily see the parallels to our own world. And in the end, as in all good tales, it is hubris that brings Sario down, the belief that he and he alone is worthy of fame, of art, and of reverence.


Friday, August 04, 2006

The Dragon Star Trilogy

The Dragon Token
Melanie Rawn
Fiction, Fantasy

I have chosen to review these books together because they form a cohesive narrative, the story of an unexpected war from an unknown foe. Whereas the first trilogy set in this world took place over years (and each individual book took months or years in itself), this entire trilogy takes place in a matter of months - less than a year all told.

The series begins with portents and preparations. Andry, Lord of Goddess Keep, has been drilling the Sunrunners in preparations to combat the war that visions have shown him is coming; more troubling is his refining of the scriptures of faith, particularly those which are based on his belief that sorcerers are, by definition, evil - unless they are trained to obedience by Sunrunners. The Isulki natives of the desert have their own portents, but none are as troubling as the message from a dragon that he has seen dragons as ships - an assertion he is very angry to have contradicted.

And then the dragon-carved ships land in a simultaneous razing of keeps; several major towns are burned to the ground in a single night, with princes and commoners alike fleeing.

The setting for this event is critical; without High Prince Rohan's endeavors to bring peace to the princedoms, the horrors of this war would not have such an impact. At first the enemy is merely an unknown bringer of horrors with no discernable motivation, well-planned horrors that threaten to cripple the response. While isolated pockets of resistance crop up, the overall strategy still has to be determined. Prince Pol is critical of his father's efforts; as several major keeps are lost, he finds his father's tactics lacking.

The buildup in the war is long and brutal; several sympathetic characters are killed or wounded, entire families are wiped out, and even our "good guys" are not always admirable. Moreover, the animosity between Pol and Andry has grown no less in the interim between the last series and this; they both realize that cooperation is needed to defeat the foe and they still can't get along. The issues spiral beyond the war, touching on faith, fear, freedom, and what it truly means to have power. There are many narratives to keep track of, and yet each one draws the reader further into the story, presenting an overall picture that shows a multifaceted portrait of what war truly can be.

My one note on the trilogy is that it has a plethora of similar names, due to the world's practice of naming children after admired people. Therefore, you have Sioned's namesakes Sionell, Siona, and Sioneva; Rohan's namesakes Rohannon and Rihani (and a close cognate, certainly not named after him, Rinhoel); and characters named Sorin and Saumer, who are not the same people as those in the last trilogy. While it is not nearly as bad as a Russian novel (Ivan Ivanovich, called Peter), the similarity of names might cause some confusion on the first reading.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Under the Banner of Heaven

A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer

Nonfiction, History/Faith

The author of Into Thin Air here takes on the roots of a horrible murder in the Utah backwater, a murder undertaken by relatives of the deceased. He examines the founding of the Mormon faith, and how its unique properties lend themselves to the dangerous kinds of fundamentalist sects that lead followers towards violence. (This is primarily due to the decentralized nature of the faith and not any specific tenets, BTW.) But mostly, Krakauer delves into the history that the leadership of the LDS church would rather keep private - the unsavory occurrences of the Latter-Day-Saints' early years, and the notion that it was okay to lie, cheat, and steal from outsiders - non-Mormons.

Krakauer recounts the early history of the church, from its inception to the present day, in a tale interwoven with the lives of the murderers. The doctrine of personal revelation - the concept that God speaks individually to each person, if they wish to hear it - has led to splinter sects, those who believe that the mainstream church's renunciation of pologamy is wrong, and that it is each man's duty to wed multiple times, to many young women. (One such believer abducted a girl who would become nationally famous - Elizabeth Smart.) Further, many of these sects have their own doctrines and beliefs, separate from the main church, and any who do not follow those doctrines are shunned.

When one family turned toward polygamy, one wife had the courage to speak up, and assist her sisters-in-law who wished to escape the suddenly oppressive marriages. This angered two of the brothers, who later believed that it had been revealed to them that the woman should die, along with her infant daughter. Even now, decades later, the one who actually wielded the knife believes that God approves of his actions, and that he did the right thing.

Krakauer does not have any easy answers, though he suggests several reasons why the brothers may have believed as they did. However, this compelling narrative is not about reasons, but about a history of an American faith, a history few know.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Steve Almond
Nonfiction, Food

Candyfreak is the story of one man's obsession with the goodness that is known as candy, ruminations on the exact palate keys that make a candy a favorite, and an ode to those candies that no longer exist or are being driven into the underground because they are unable to pay the slotting fees that would bring the candy to your local supermarket. (These are often upwards of $20,000 - pennies for Mars or Hershey but death to candymakers who average in the hundreds of pieces a day rather than thousands or millions.) Almond speaks of the specific nature of taste that allows a person to tell the difference between their favorite brand and a knock-off, the joy of discovering a new, perfect, confection, and of the hoarding that takes place when a favorite goes off the market.

I didn't know that Mars bars were gone. Instead, we have "Snickers Almond", an attempt to play off the recognition of the nation's most popular candy bar.

In the book, Almond gets to visit the factories of small producers of iconic candies such as Valomilk and Idaho Spud. This is partly because the big manufacturers do not allow tours - due to industry spying - but also gives Almond the chance to understand the candymaking process at a hands-on level, as well as getting fresh-off-the-line samples. Along the way he is both hopeful and pessimistic about small candymakers' futures... hopeful because they are so enthusiastic, and pessimistic because they seem doomed to inevitable squashing beneath the big players' heels.

Almond rhapsodizes about candy memories, inserts the odd bit of liberal guilt (I found the political ruminations odd, but they were obviously tied up with his candy interactions), and eventually shows us the truth that candy is the bit of home that is all that some of us allow ourselves.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Tourists Are For Trapping

Marian Babson
Fiction, Mystery

It's back to the firm of Perkins & Tate for this third book in the series. The clients this time are a tour group whose European trip turned into disaster when one of the members died unexpectedly. To make matters worse, the lady committed suicide... but the group is acting more as though they believe it was murder. Doug Perkins has to do everything in his power to soothe the group, eventually resorting to such tricks as pub crawls and bringing his cat along. And then a second member turns out to be missing - not just visiting relatives - and he seriously has to consider that one of the group might be a killer.

Like most of Babson's mysteries, this is a quick read, simple and entertainng.