Monday, April 30, 2007

Great Cat Tales

Great Cat Tales

Lesley O'Mara

Date: 2005-07-21 16:24:19   —   $8.99   —   Book

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Fiction, Short Stories

This is a collection of— you guessed it— stories about cats. These are more in the general fiction mode than fantasy, which cats often end up in. Classics such as Kipling's Just So Story "The Cat Who Walked By Himself" make an appearance, and segments culled from books also appear. I would like to encounter some of those books.

If you like reading stories about cats, well and good.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Twilight Eyes

Twilight Eyes

Dean Koontz

Date: 2005-07-14 23:12:12   —   $7.99   —   Book

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Fiction, Horror

Dean Koontz. Also popcorn.

In this case, it's the tale of someone who can see goblins, those masquerading as humans and who feed on suffering. Since he kills them, but they look human, he is on the run for murder after determining that his step-uncle has killed his beloved cousin.

But what does it really matter? This is popcorn.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pretend You Don't See Her

Pretend You Don't See Her

Mary Higgins Clark

Date: 2005-07-14 23:08:45   —   $7.99   —   Book

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Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Mary Higgins Clark. Popcorn novel.

Okay, it deals with the much-written-about (and probably much more mundane) Witness Protection Program.

Do you really need to know more?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Different Seasons

Different Seasons (Signet)

Stephen King

Date: 2005-07-14 23:04:33   —   $7.99   —   Book

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Three out of four movies agree: This is the King anthology to adapt.

People who think of King as solely a horror writer seem to miss the fact that King's primary motivation is to tell stories, whether horror or otherwise. This anthology of four novellas shows that not only does he excel at doing so, perhaps he is best adapted when the source material is shorter.

The first novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, was adapted into a movie with the same, though shortened, name. The plotline is largely intact in the movie, though the filmmakers added a few extra twists of their own to underscore the irony. (King was simply recounting what could have been a true chronicle, and an examination of determination; the movie gives a few extra smacks to moral hypocrites.)

The second, Apt Pupil, is an examination of hate and how the language and study of hate can degrade the soul. It's not a fun read, nor, I suspect, a fun movie. It may be necessary to read every so often, just as a reminder that such things exist.

The third novella is The Body, made into the movie Stand By Me. It's an examination of friendship and a bit of a coming-of-age story, as the writer protagonist recounts an adventure that he went on with two dumb friends and a third friend who is almost a modern Huckleberry Finn, someone who comes from a bad family but is capable of rising above his origins. That friend very carefully points out the danger of the first two friends, the fear that his talented storyteller friend might waste his potential. It's an interesting social comment.

The final novella, The Breathing Method, is a standard little ghost story, told in a gentlemen's club. It hearkens back to an older era where such clubs were common and those who told mysteries... or science fiction... or fantasy... could easily be set in such a club to tell their tales for us. I don't expect this one to be made into a movie, as it is too simple. It is, however, a nice little finish to a book of tales.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

War For the Oaks

War for the Oaks

Emma Bull

Date: 2005-07-14 22:51:26   —   $11.16   —   Book

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Fiction, Fantasy

This was my first introduction to the concept of "urban fantasy", the taking of classical faerie motifs and juxtaposing them with modern life, in this case in Minnesota. I liked it a lot then but I've read much better since (including from this author.) While it's a good tale, some of the punk bits seem more and more dated as time goes by, and it is perhaps impossible to make good song lyrics that read well without the backing music, especially vaguely punk ones.

Don't let this discourage you from reading it, but in comparison to her other books, or to books by Charles de Lint, this one is a bit weak.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Forest of the Heart

Forests of the Heart (Newford)

Charles de Lint

Date: 2005-07-14 22:46:15   —   $10.17   —   Book

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Fiction, Fantasy

Charles de Lint returns to his fictional city of Newford for this tale which is based, most appropriately, on the sense of misplaced anger that can well up in those who feel grievances, if they focus on those grievances to the exclusion of all else. His primary characters are loosely based on the "hard men" of Ireland, the types who join the IRA and perpetuate hate. These spirits are truly homeless since the local manitou are strong, and yet they cannot go "home" to Ireland since there is no place for them there either.

Naturally enough, they mean to do something about this, and their plans are set into motion at the coldest time of the year in northern Newford. (Though Newford is, potentially, any North American city, its real-life counterpart of Ottawa shows through in the harshness of the weather.) And once again, many of de Lint's protagonists are artists or other counterculture types, in this case including a healer from the Southwest and a group of record-store employees.

It's a good book in dealing with anger, though I don't class it among my favorite de Lint novels.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Book of Athyra

The Book of Athyra

Steven Brust

Date: 2005-07-14 22:35:48   —   $10.50   —   Book

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Fiction, Fantasy

The further adventures of Vlad Taltos in his exile get a new twist; for the first time, they are not told from Vlad's perspective. We get told one book from the perspective of a Dragaeran Teckla, a young man who is nevertheless decades older than the human Vlad. However, development takes different times for different species; Vlad always seems older than Savn, even though he has fewer calendar years.

Not surprisingly, someone is out to kill Vlad, though it isn't the main group of people who are out for his blood. (He has a distinct knack for ticking people off.) In the course of trying to avoid being killed, he expands Savn's horizons in a rather drastic way, causing Savn to think about many things he has always taken for granted. Unfortunately, in this situation, Vlad is in over his head and it takes more than a bit of luck to get out of it.

It takes so much luck that he ends up, in the next book, in a hopeless snarl simply because to repay a debt, he has to do one person a favor... a favor that leads to a need for information, which leads to a burglary, which leads to legal documents, which leads to discovering a financial scandal that could ruin the Empire...

It amuses me greatly that in the course of an entertaining novel, Brust has done more toward explaining practical politics and the role of government than many political texts have managed, and he does so in terms that the non-political-science types can grasp. It also give the reader a feel for chaos theory: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost..."

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Book of Taltos

The Book of Taltos

Steven Brust

Date: 2005-07-14 22:23:56   —   $10.20   —   Book

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Fiction, Fantasy

Vlad Taltos— who always puts me in the mind of a private detective, I guess it's just his wisecracking style— is further described in the two novels that make up the omnibus. In the first, you get to see his meeting with the Dragaeran nobles Sethra Lavode and Morrolan, as he gets roped into bringing Aliera out from the Paths of the Dead. It's things like this that give you the sense that Vlad really, really has a knack for getting in over his head... and an amazing ability to get himself out of trouble.

In the second book, set latest in the series to date, Vlad is still trying to cope with his estranged wife and ends up taking a commission that is both dangerous and explosive. You get the sense that Brust doesn't much care for idealistic revolutionaries, even as he lauds their goals; Vlad's confusion over the whole business is wonderfully contrast with his wistful note that he misses his wife's sense of humor, something she has apparently decided is too frivolous. I really don't get his fatalistic acceptance of likely death, however.

Vlad strikes me as the sort of character who will lose everything if he stops; he has to juggle like mad to keep things in the air. He's a snarky guy who always manages to keep talking too long but I like him anyway.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mostly Harmless

Mostly Harmless

Douglas Adams

Date: 2005-07-13 17:58:47   —   $7.99   —   Book

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Fiction, Sciene Fiction/Humor

It's easy to see why people hate this book. After the fairly graceful end of So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, Adams writes this as though he were forced to go back to characters he was through with, and so he writes this so as to definitiveky prevent a sequel. First he dispatches with Fenchurch without a second thought, then he removes the wit and whimsy of the Guide. He brings back the Vogons and generally makes life miserable for his primary characters. There are a few flashes of the typical Adams absurdity, but in general, this book is plodding towards a very final ending.

Which, of course, is very much at odds with the blurbs on the cover that speak wildly of Adams' "zany, nonsenseical mayhem." Perhaps they didn't actually read this book's predecessors.

My advice? Skip it. Read the first four books and call it good, then go on to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which is not nearly so bittter.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

(Originally published on July 17th, 2005.)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)

J.K. Rowling

Date: 2005-07-18 00:16:16   —   $16.99   —   Book

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Fiction, Fantasy

Well, of course I had to pick this up (today) and of course I had to read it.

And just as naturally, most Potter fans would be deeply unhappy were somebody to be providing spoilers at this early point. Not everyone can finish a book in four hours.

So I have some safely generic observations to make:

—This is not a juvenile novel. The dark nature of the previous book is only a lead-in to this one, and I rather suspect the next book will be just as dark.
—Harry has one heck of a temper, though not more than showed up before.
—The Half-Blood Prince was a surprise, though decipherable if you read the clues correctly.
Who is not so much a surprise as how. And, like the previous book, Rowling drops in some near-misses.
—Percy is still a prat.
—Rowling is a sneaky bastard. She knows exactly how her readers are going to react and she plays off of that...
—The end of the novel makes me a lot more interested in what the seventh book is going to be like. It's dangerous to take certain things for granted.

Now that I've managed to obscure the issue a bit, I will say that the way to tell if you are going to like this book is to remember whether you liked the fifth book. The tone of Order of the Phoenix was much darker than even the fourth, and a lot more deliberately disturbing. If you long for the blithe innocence of Sorceror's Stone, go back and read that, and don't sully your memories of Harry young.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones: A Novel

Alice Sebold

Date: 2005-07-13 17:49:03   —   $14.93   —   Book

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This became a bookstore sensation, a book that was barely promoted that became one of the must-read books of 2002. The public hordes came in search of the latest fad book (which did not, incidentally, fit the criteria for a fad book as set out by Connie Willis in Bellwether.)

With good reason. This book is sweet without treading anywhere near schmaltz and somehow deals with a terrifying subject— the rape and murder of a teenaged girl— in a gentle fashion, allowing the reader to witness the terror without being scarred by it. The fact that it is told from the perspective of the murdered girl— after her death— probably helps, and the fact that her heaven is no more than she can handle at one time is also an aid.

The center of the story is about the result of trauma on a family, long after the event. In that, this novel breaks new ground: most stories on the subject deal with the first short period after such an event, ending invariably at the decision of the central character to more-or-less get on with life, which is shallow and untrue. The repurcussions of a traumatic death in the family, especially when they never get all of the details, reverberate for years, and the end result is not always predictable. Susie's family draws together, falls apart, and is affected by her death long after the standard stories end.

This is Alice Sebold's second book, and her first novel. Her other book is a non-fiction recounting of her rape and its effects, and is titled, non-ironically, Lucky. Her own past gives her a handle on the truth of trauma, and her treatment of it shows a remarkably healthy adjustment to life. I, like many others, need to get that other book to observe, at first hand, the strength of a woman who turned prose to gold.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time

Josephine Tey

Date: 2005-07-13 17:33:53   —   $9.00   —   Book

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Fiction, Mystery

This is one of my favorite books of all time. It deals with historical research, and how easy it is to accept something you have been told as truth all of your life— and, more importantly, how many people will fight against examining something they've accepted as true, even with plenty of evidence before them. ("You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into" is how I recently heard it put.)

In this story, Tey's Inspector Grant is laid up in the hospital with nothing to do and a serious case of boredom. A friend brings him pictures to study and the one of Richard III, horrible obscene murdering monster, intrigues him because the man does not strike the inspector as a killer at all. With the assistance of a young researcher, he starts to unravel the tale of how Richard III became a reviled name throughout the centuries.

If Tey's research is correct (which is something I have no way of checking), she builds a good circumstantial case for Richard to not be the murderer of his nephews, right down to tracing the contemporary accusation of their deaths to the regions where a particular enemy of Richard was traveling. More to the point, she builds a good case for his successor, Henry VII, to not only have killed them but to have covered up their deaths, especially as it is well known that Henry VII systematically killed all of the potential rivals to the throne over the course of his reign, some within the legal confines he was allowed, but many on as specious charges as he could come up with.

But the point of this book is not its historical accuracy but the examination of preconceptions. In 1951, history books were often flat-out recitations, phrased in unequivocal terms as to what happened. This era truly followed the dictate "History is written by the victors." Nowadays, schoolchildren under ten may learn of perspective in telling history (if they learn history at all, which is another rant), and such a thought as Richard III not being a monster doesn't get the outrage or disbelief that it did in the fifties.

At any rate, I will be in Ashland next weekend, watching Richard III performed by the second-best Shakespearian company in the world. (The Royal Shakespeare Company in England is widely considered the best, as is proper.) So now I get to see the utter monster version, created for the grandaughter of the man who usurped Richard's throne. (There were, in fact, many people who had a better claim when Richard died— and Henry VII killed them all over time.) This ought to be great fun, Shakespeare's vision of an utterly evil character.

(P.S. Don't get me started on the 'Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare' conspiracies. Hulk SMASH!)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!!

How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!!

Neil Zawacki and James Dignan

Date: 2005-07-13 17:15:55   —   $10.36   —   Book

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This is a gift book, and thus the biggest question is who deserves this. Your favorite master plotter will enjoy the details of how to pick a villanous name (adjectives are very popular, though folks such as Bill Gates prove that your own name, no matter how ordinary, can strike fear into the hearts of your enemies), costume advice (black is classic), where to live, and how to deal with those pesky good guys.

A proper villain will appreciate the classic details that make this book a success: the lovingly rendered insane illustrations, the charts for choosing a master plan, the plusses and minuses of varying evil plots. It should be the #1 choice for the evil person on your list.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Stephen Baxter Slam!

Stephen Baxter has created a future history in several of his books that nest together quite well. His short story collection Vacuum Diagrams is the tie; with several short stories and excerpts from his novels, he relates the next five million years of human history. (For perspective, the dinosaurs were ascendant for hundreds of millions of years, and the big "meteor extinction" was 65 million years ago.) He tells of the war between humans and their varying conquerors, and of humanity striving against the godlike Xeelee, and of the final survivors of that war finally escaping the universe. He also provides a connecting thread that leaves the possibility that the narrator is delusional, an interesting out for those who don't want to contemplate utter human failure.

Ring is likewise set in this universe, dealing with events surrounding Bolder's Ring, a Xeelee artifact that is literally light-years across. A team of humans from shortly after our own era are sent on a relativistic journey to the Ring with a lifeline back to their own era, so that they may report back their findings. As one might expect, however, the journey has its own conflicts and eventually the survivors must find their own future.

Baxter is a scientist, and so his work tends to be considered "hard" science fiction (as opposed to "soft" which is basically technological fantasy, "hard" has a solid grounding in the sciences and tends to be a little denser reading. Ender's Game is more toward the soft than the hard; Kim Stanley Robinson is definitely the latter.) Vacuum Diagrams is a great way to sample his style to find out if you care for it. If you do, there are many books that expand upon the subject matter therein.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Richard Peck Slam!

The Ghost Belonged to Me
Ghosts I Have Been

Alexander Arnsworth and Blossom Culp are the two protagonists of these children's books, set in the early twentieth century. Alexander is from a family of somewhat new money, and the machinations of his mother to get into high society are of great amusement to him. Blossom is from the wrong side of the tracks, but her gypsy mother has the Sight, and she lets Alexander know in no small terms that something big is going to happen. And sure enough, a ghost soon makes her presence known to thirteen-year-old Alexander. Blossom, of course, can't keep herself from getting involved, and this book chronicles the adventures they have in laying the ghost to rest. The adventures, by the way, are on a level that is quite plausible for 1913, but feel adventuresome nonetheless.

In the second book, Blossom comes into power of her own and gets into all manner of trouble thereby. It starts with a Halloween prank that is her way of getting back at Alexander for ignoring her, and ends up with a trip across the Atlantic... but not precisely the one you would expect her to take. Blossom is wry and apt to deliberately engineer trouble, mostly because she has always been at the bottom of the heap and doesn't mind having a little fun.

There is a third book in the series that I didn't much care for when I read it as a child; I'd have to go back and figure out if it were still worth it today, though I think not, since it largely was not set in the early 1900s small-town-America that made the first two so charming.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Children's Book Slam!

There's nothing like children's books for light, easy reading. And if they're by Terry Pratchett, whose idea of writing for children is to add stuff, so much the better. Diggers and Wings, the two later books of the Bromeliad trilogy, can also be read by a discerning adult as satire of the narrow views we sometimes take of our world. The nomes who escaped the destruction of the Store in Truckers now have to deal with life Outside. Grimma stays behind to help protect the quarry from the incursions of humans while Masklin leads an excursion to the airport in order to try to signal their interstellar ship.

Naturally, both their tasks would be made easier if they knew what they were doing, but what fun would that be? And an anecdote about tiny little frogs leads to this trilogy's name; the Bromeliad is to be read even if you think you're too old for children's books.

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, is one of those children's classics that I missed somehow. It is told in a very traditional fairytale style, which is good if you like that, and leaves a few loose ends to be tied up in later books (which I also haven't read.) Good deal for younger folk, particularly little girls (though little boys might find a role model in Curdie.)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

John Brunner Slam!

John Brunner is best known for his dystopia novels, usually set in an America headed for destruction. (Many people are surprised to discover that Brunner was British; he writes about the US from an insider's perspective, and has the rhythms spot on.) The most famous of these is The Sheep Look Up, which is not one of the books that I am reviewing. My point is that while Brunner often writes dystopias— and given the time period, such fiction is hardly surprising— he also writes books with a great deal of hope.

As an example, The Jagged Orbit is a classic dystopia setup, with a degrading and increasingly polarized society spurred to greater fears and isolation by weapons manufacturers who want a better market. And yet there is a hopeful tone present that is unlike such novels as The Sheep Look Up; Brunner lets you get close to the characters, and allows you to think they might succeed. As a minor spoiler, the do get that chance, because the reasons for the destructive pattern become evident to the point that they are able to turn them around, at least within the limited confines of the novel.

Interstellar Empire is also not particularly dystopic, though its stories are set in the slow collapse of a galactic Empire. Fans of Asimov and his Foundation series will recognize the feel, but these stories are more simply old-fashioned action SF. Quick and easy read.

Quicksand is a bit more depressing. It's not set in an obvious dystopia, but at a calm mental institution, where a strange young woman with seeming aphasia (the inability to understand language) is sent following an altercation. The physician in charge of her treatment becomes more and more obsessed with trying to find out her story as she gradually learns our language, and this affects his personal life deeply. However, the end to this novel must be read carefully as it is vicious and abrupt, and not at all what is expected. This is a good book but not something to read in a bad mood.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Agatha Christie Slam III!

At Bertram's Hotel

Miss Marple presents an impression of a scatterbrained old woman who figures things out. All well and good, but I'm not particularly interested in her. Kind of heartless, but hey.

The Underdog and Other Stories
The Golden Ball and Other Stories
The Regatta Mystery

Agatha Christie is at her best in short stories. (Short story writing and novel writing are two different things, and her novels often feel as though they are long short stories.) Not all of these stories are mysteries; one is merely told of a woman who has trouble finding a job simply because she wishes to take care of her elderly dog. I am particularly fond of one story entitled "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" because it is a marvelously ludicrous tale of the introvert who finally decides to do something he likes. There is also a story that makes for amusingly difficult reading simply because its shy protagonist is entitled James Bond. At any rate, these are the books I like the best out of all of the Christie books I have read, and I highly recommend them for fun in little snippets.

The Boomerang Club

Not any of Christie's previous detectives, and merely focusing on a young couple who by all rights ought to have fallen flat on their faces in their investigation attempts. She's a rich snob and he's a scraper, so of course they'll end up together, after, of course, ending up in all manner of hijinks.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the book well enough, but you can rest assured that my gullibility threshhold was well exceeded.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Agatha Christie Slam II!

Poirot Investigates
Murder In Retrospect
Murder In Three Acts
The Clocks
Hallowe'en Party

Hercule Poirot is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of detective. Unlike Sherlock Holmes (or CSI), he is not big on physical evidence. He instead solves mysteries by speaking with the people involved, and solving crimes almost by psychology. It is probably inevitable that such a detective would appear in the wake of the explosion of psychology and popular theories of the human mind in the first half of the twentieth century; it is to Agatha Christie's credit that Poirot's methods are far subtler than a trendy follower of psychology would make them. If a man kills his employer, it is because that employer made his life hellish for years, not because he was revolting against an authority figure, or because of the collective unconcious, or things like that.

The only real flaw of these novels— and you may not consider that it is a flaw— is that Poirot's reasoning is held close in his head until the final exposition. There's little chance for a reader to figure things out except by lucky guess and by the dictum that the obvious person is never the actual killer.

(They're like popcorn! You just keep munching...)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Agatha Christie Slam!

Secret Adversary
This book introduces us to Tommy and Tuppence, two not-quite-cheerfully-broke young folk in the aftermath of the Great War who are looking for any kind of work. They make a pact to place an ad looking for adventure, and are overheard— finding out that adventure is quite easily available, if you're willing to get into trouble. As amatuer sleuths, they are quite entertaining, especially as the rambunctious Tuppence is apt to get in over her head due to her insatiable curiosity.

Partners in Crime
Tommy and Tuppence, now a bit older, are approached to take over a failing detective agency that might lead England's intelligence agencies to foreign agencies in Britain. The chapters could almost function as short stories, little mysteries to be taken in short gulps.

N or M?
With the advent of a new war, Tommy and Tuppence are feeling a bit left out. The nurses don't want Tuppence and the Army doesn't want Tommy. Moreover, their loving children think their parents are a bit barmy for wanting to help and encourage them to allow the young folk to do all the work. As you can imagine, this is somewhat maddening.

Finally, though, Tommy is approached to help flush out a spy in England, or possibly two, ones who might be poised to sneak enemy Germans into the country. And Tuppence can't help getting involved either...

By the Pricking of my Thumbs
While visiting an elderly relative in a nursing home, Tommy and Tuppence stumble on a new mystery to solve. It's a picture of a place that Tuppence has seen, and in tracking down the location, she little knows that the sense of menace she feels will lead her to new intrigue, and great personal danger. You'd think that tracking down one old lady would be a safe occupation...

Posthern of Fate
I read this one first, and was thoroughly unimpressed. Yes, Tommy and Tuppence find a new mystery to solve in their retirement years. But the entire time I was wondering why anybody cared; it was simply a very cold case of murder, and most of the so-called action took place at home. Tepid, certainly, at best.

One final note on Tommy and Tuppence: As many times as they get hit on the head in these novels, it's a wonder they aren't permanently damaged.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Charles de Lint Slam!

Dreams Underfoot and Moonlight and Vines— Charles deLint

These are two fat collections of deLint's short stories, written over a period of well over a decade. They are roughly chronological and mostly set in Newford, deLint's fictional town based loosely on Ottawa, and they speak to the themes deLint likes to address: the family we choose (when the broken families we leave let us down), the sense of wonder, and the danger of modern life. As deLint writes fantasy, that danger is expressed in fantasy terms such as the Unseelie Court and dark manitou.

In deLint's fantasy, it is all too easy to end up in trouble whether you believe or not, but sometimes it is evident that those who choose to lose their sense of wonder are doing themselves an injury.

The Little Country— Charles deLint

This novel was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and it's easy to see why: the tale of Janey Little and a mysterious book by a friend of her grandfather's is good reading. Parallel to the tale of Janey is the story she is reading, where the Widow Pender can charm you into another body and steal part of your soul to sew upon her cloak, but the tale of Jodi's problems in the book is nothing to the real-life problems that start in Janey's life when she starts reading— because somebody wants the book, badly enough to ruin lives in the process.

The parallel tensions of the story and Janey's life hold the key, and, amusingly enough, a postscript to the book is designed to make you wonder which story was, in fact, the story in the book— or if they're supposed to be equally real. It is interesting that, even in a designated fantasy, we are apt to treat one of a set of tales as more real than the other.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sheri S. Tepper Slam!

King's Blood Four and Necromancer Nine— Sheri S. Tepper
First and second in series of three

In the lands of the True Game, you may have a talent. This talent defines who you are, and how you play: a King has enormous charisma, a Necromancer may raise the dead. When people play the True Game, there is often death, whether it is a game player or a pawn, one without talent. Schooltown is a haven for young gamers, a place where they may learn the rules of the game without having to play it themselves.

Peter, one of the foundling children of Schooltown, ends up badly wounded in the aftermath of somebody else's game. For his protection, he is sent elsewhere, but soon discovers that he is sought after for reasons he does not understand, and for talents he might yet possess. Tepper has an interesting manner of dealing with Peter and his adolescent difficulties, though the near-catatonia he sometimes goes into following his injury is somewhat alarming. Mostly, though, while he's clueless it seems reasonable for a fifteen-year-old.

Jinian Footseer and Jinian Star-Eye— Sheri S. Tepper
First and last in series of three

I really hate that these are out of print and hard to find. Yes, I have read the entire nine-book series featured on this page, but that was years ago.

Continuing with the story told in the Peter books, this is the tale from Jinian's point of view. Jinian is a Wizard, which is not precisely a talent in the manner of the True Game. This becomes important as it becomes increasingly evident that the world they live on is dying. Talents fall apart as the planet dies. As the people of the True Game wonder and die themselves, Jinian and those she loves have to discover why the land is dying, and how to possibly save it.

Sheri Tepper introduces the concept of bao, which may have a distinct meaning from the religions that use it here. (I know I've seen that term associated with some religion but I don't know how they view it.) Bao is somewhere in between a soul and a conscience; people do not have it at birth but those who have the talent of Midwifery can see if they will gain it in the future. Those who don't are, in a sense, amoral; they are incapable of learning. One might use the example of Ted Bundy, charming, social, and a friend to many, but a sociopath who killed for fun. Those without bao are not always that bad but they are incapable of relating to other people or of seeing them as real.

In this world, the merciful thing to do someone without bao is to kill them quickly and without suffering since they will suffer without learning. It's an interesting philosophical point that is a little too intricate to go into here (to begin with, a person who lacks bao may still be part of another's bao, so there is a careful line to tread) but is worth a look-through.

The Song of Mavin Manyshaped and The Flight of Mavin Manyshaped— Sheri S. Tepper
First and second in series of three

Going back in time a generation, we learn of Mavin Manyshaped, the famous Shifter of the lands of the True Game. Mavin is, in many senses, Tepper's most moral character of the series, but not in an uptight way. Mavin understands right and wrong at a deep, physical level, and is not afraid to act on her perceptions. When she discovers the life of torment that is her sister's (and will be hers when her talent is revealed), she deals with the tormenters is an exactingly appropriate manner. When she discovers that a town would rather see a human predator go free to keep killing their daughters rather than be thought cruel, she sets a trap for the predator— then destroys the town, after placing their children elsewhere, and forces the townsfolk to seek a new home.

Tepper is sometimes strident in her feminism, but the Mavin books (and the rest of the True Game books) are not strident in the least, and their fantasy settings allow her to play out certain philosophies in an interesting manner. Mavin's decisions have real weight at the same time as being almost like a fairy tale. She is a figure of certainty, with the irony that as a shapeshifter, her physicality is the last thing to be certain.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Reviews Quick & Dirty

Rebecca— Daphne duMaurier

In this suspenseful novel, a young wife finds that she is overshadowed by her husband's vivacious first wife, who drowned a year before. Uncertain of her ability to fill Rebecca's shoes, she tries to overcome her nervousness about the first wife. Fittingly, we never learn this young woman's first name, only that of Rebecca; all we know of our narrator's name is that it is lovely and unusual and often misspelled. This is considered a classic with good cause; it is difficult to pinpoint the reason for unease.

Moonheart and Spiritwalk— Charles deLint

Charles deLint is one of a group of writers who deals with "urban fantasy." Urban fantasy is not necessarily set in a city but is fantasy basically set into modern life. Moonheart and Spiritwalk are two books set in Ottowa, in a rambling structure called Tamson House. The first begins when Sarah Kendrell, the niece of the owner of Tamson House, finds a pouch filled with strange objects, including a bone oracular disc and a gold ring. The ring acts as a catalyst for all manner of danger, coinciding with a police investigation into paranormal activity. It's a good book but deLint has done better since.

Spiritwalk suffers from an episodic setup; while there is a continuing narrative throught the book, it feels as though it is a sequence of short stories instead of a single tale. Again, he's done better work since then.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Eric Russell Bitz

The Mindwarpers— Eric Frank Russell
Sentinels From Space— Eric Frank Russell

capsule review: They're both good old-fashioned science fiction tales. The first is definitely from the Cold War and involves high-level scientists leaving their job in droves for no reason the authorities can find. One of the leaving scientists stumbles onto a big plot and the rest of the novel is playing this notion out. It's a little book— took me about an hour to read. The second is an interesting tale about paranormals— telepaths and the like— and a character who is preventing a war but doesn't seem to be reacting quite the correct way. A neat twist on the typical alien contact story.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Cascade Point

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Timothy Zahn

Date: 01 March, 1986   —   Book

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Fiction, Science Fiction, Short Stories

What can I say? If you like Zahn, here's a bunch of short stories to keep you occupied, including the title story, a winner of the Hugo Award. They're good, so go read.

Thursday, April 05, 2007



Timothy Zahn

Date: 01 August, 1987   —   Book

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Triplet is a world that is actually three worlds; one must pass through the tunnels to get to the other worlds, and only people can pass, not their clothes, not their weapons, and especially not their detecting instruments. For within the worlds of Triplet, technology is advanced to the point where it seems to be magic— and in the innermost world, one summons demons and imps directly to do one's bidding.

Humanity has lots of questions about Triplet. Most especially, they wonder why the race that built it tried to destroy the outermost world, almost as if they were trying to cut off the interior worlds. But, naturally, researcher Dana is about to find out. For her jaunt into the interior worlds reveals a secret about Triplet that the demons will kill to keep.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Icarus Hunt

The Icarus Hunt

Timothy Zahn

Date: 25 February, 2000   —   Book

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Jordan McKell is the pilot of a struggling trader line, shut out by the Patth monopoly on fast space travel. So, naturally, he jumps at the chance to pilot a ship— even if the cargo is suspect and the circumstances suspicious. But when accidents start happening aboard and the entire galaxy is out to get them, Jordan has to figure out what is up before he ends up dead— or before the secret cargo of the ship ends up in Patth hands.

This is a fun read, and I simply can't tell you much about it without giving things away. Zahn managed to catch me off guard with a couple of revelations because some of the secrets are fairly obvious... which of course means that they're red herrings designed to delude you.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings (Leatherette Collector's Edition)

J.R.R. Tolkien

Date: 01 November, 1974   —   $47.25   —   Book

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More notes on Lord of the Rings

The Council of the Wise

Under the Ainur were the Maiar, angels to the Ainur archangels. Please bear in mind that the classical vision of the angel was scary and powerful, not cute and fluffy like the modern conception often comes out. (Even cherub is a corrupted word; modern readers would not recognize the traditional description of cherubim as chubby little babies with wings.) The Maiar could be similarly incarnated to walk on Middle Earth, and were bound and limited by their forms.

The Istari, or wizards, were not humans but basically incarnated Maiar, not as powerful as the Valar but still pretty potent. They came to Middle Earth about a thousand years after the War against Sauron, which puts Gandalf at a neat two thousand at the time of LOTR. They "were never young, and aged only slowly." There was probably some reason for this.

I believe that there are a grand total of five Istari. Saruman the White was the head of the Council. As a Maiar (Maia?), his dominion was knowledge, and thus was put in charge. He brought along an assistant, a Brown wizard whose name and dominion I do not know. There was also a Yellow (I think), but there we're getting into stuff I know only vaguely. Gandalf's dominion, interestingly, was compassion, and he brought along Radagast the Brown as an assistant.

I have also heard it said that Gandalf got the job of going to Middle Earth by "being late to the meeting." I really need to get the Book of Lost Tales.

The Nature of Sauron

Sauron was, interestingly enough, also a Maiar, in service to Morgoth. His incarnation was a bit more flexible, and he helped bring about the fall of Númenor by sowing dissent. When that land was destroyed in the manner of Atlantic, he was severely damaged, and lost the ability to appear in a pleasing shape. (On the extra material for the Return of the King EE DVD, Peter Jackson mentioned that they had thought of bringing a beautiful Sauron to the screen. They decided against it for other reasons, for which Tolkien geeks are deeply grateful.)

The reason Saruman mistakenly thought he might supplant Sauron is that they were, at one point, roughly equivalent. Saruman, unfortunately, forgot to factor in the millenia of hatred and drawing on the strength of Morgoth that gave Sauron a decided advantage. He also did not reckon with the hobbits as a force. When Saruman dies in the Scouring of the Shire, a sort of ghost looks longingly toward the West and then is dispersed. By going to the wrong side, he gave up his chance to ever return to the Middle Earth equivalent of Heaven.

The Balrog

Yet another incarnate Maiar on the side of Morgoth. When Gandalf dies after the battle with the Balrog, he gave up his incarnation; the creator basically had a talk with him and reincarnated him. Gandalf the White is, in fact, qualitatively different from Gandalf the Grey; his confusion on meeting his old companions is genuine because, from his perspective, it has not been a few weeks but a literally timeless interval of infinity.

Cirith Ungol

Shelob's lair has a bad reputation; in fact, its bad reputation predates Shelob herself. Cirith Ungol is named for Ungoliant, also a giant spider, but nasty and from somewhere even the Valar don't know about. Ungoliant is basically hunger, and scares even Morgoth. Shelob is Ungoliant's last remaining daughter (or possibly granddaughter); the spiders of Mirkwood are Shelob's descendants.

Actually, the use of the light of Eärendil to scare off Shelob is rather interesting. Back before the sun and moon were created, the Valar created two trees. Basically, one was the sun tree and one was the moon tree, and they gave off light according to days and nights. The value of the Simarils is that they stored the light from the Trees. Morgoth had plotted with Ungoliant to destroy the trees and steal the Simarils. So basically, Shelob is cowering away from the light of the Trees, a light her ancestor tried to destroy. (Ungoliant did kill the Trees.)

The Eagles

The Eagles are, literally, the last hope, a deus ex machina of the purest type. In other words, they were created to interfere at the last minute. This is a partial answer to the question, "Why can't they just send Frodo on an Eagle to Mount Doom?" The other part is that they do not have the strength to stand up to Sauron, and such a gambit would give away their intentions immediately.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky...

Galadriel has Nenya, the Ring of Adamant (water), and because of this she is able to bind the light of Eärendil's star to the flask she gives Frodo. Since the "star" is the light of a Simaril, and the Simarils were filled with the light of the two Trees that predated the sun and moon in the West, Valinor, the flask that Frodo carries is only two steps removed from the equivalent of divine grace.

Elrond has Vilya, the strongest of the Three, with which he was able to protect Rivendell.

Gandalf has Narya, the Ring of Fire, given to him when he first arrived in Middle Earth— and not to Saruman. Possibly that is what enabled him to finally defeat the Balrog.

What happens to the Fellowship

Did Frodo die?
Despite what a lot of people say about allegory and all that, in the world of Middle Earth, the West is a tangible location that can only be reached by Elves or the grace of the Valar. As a Ring-bearer, Frodo gets to go see an earthly paradise. However, since death is still "The Gift of Man", he will still die of old age or injury. It is debateable about whether that death will be delayed.

What about Sam?
Sam's daughter, Elanor, relates that Sam left for the Grey Havens and that, as a Ring-bearer himself, had the right to pass to the West, taking the last boat. Perhaps he even got to see Frodo again.

Merry and Pippin?
These two discharged their duties as both warleaders in their own lands and vassals of Gondor and Edoras. They eventually died and were laid to rest in Gondor.

Legolas and Gimli
They fulfilled their promises to one another (Gimli touring Fangorn and Legolas touring the beautiful caves behind Helm's Deep.) Gimli eventually brought dwarves to the Caverns, where they worked to bring out the natural beauty of the place, and after the death of Aragorn, Legolas built a ship at the Grey Havens and went West, taking Gimli with him. (Tradition says that Galadriel asked for a special dispensation to allow a dwarf in Valinor.)

So What Were Their Names Again?

Tolkien was, first and foremost, a linguist. Middle Earth was developed entirely from his longing to create a language, and all of his backstory— the Simarillion, the Lost Tales, and all of his notes— was purely to explain how the languages of the leves branched and changed and were adopted by men, corrupted by orcs, and meandered through the ages. Naturally, his appendices dwell on such things. So he casually mentions that he's gone and Anglicized all of the hobbit names.

Come again?

It's not Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Peregrin Took; it is instead Froda (-a is a masculine ending) /a last name similar to Baggins/, Banazîr (Ban) Galspi, Kalimac Brandagamba, and /a word equivalent to peregrin*/ Tûk. "Meriadoc" was picked because "Kali" is the equivalent of "Merry". He also mentions that "Samwise" was picked because its old meaning of "halfwit" or "dullard" was the same as Banazîr. Poor Sam.

*Peregrin as in peregrine falcon.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings (50th Anniversary Edition)

J.R.R. Tolkien

  —   $63.00   —   Book

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Fiction, Fantasy

There is little to be said about this book that has not already been said extensively, and in fact the movies give you a pretty good overview of the books (minus, of course, Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire, as well as the adjustments made because those elements were missing.) So instead, I will make a few notes of extra knowledge that comes from the reading of the Appendices and of the Simarillion, and of notes I've been given from people who've read other bits of Tolkien's extensive Middle Earth writings (most incomplete and edited together by his son Christopher Tolkien.)

The Ainur

Tolkien's mythology was deeply based in the mythology of our world, and there are many parallels. There is a creator figure, Eru, Ilúvatar, and under him are the Ainur, which equate to the archangels of Christian tradition (Michael, Gabriel, etc.) Melkor is the most powerful among them, and is the equivalent of Samael— more commonly known as Lucifer, the Lightbringer, and he holds a similar role.

When Ilúvatar created Middle Earth, many of the Ainur became incarnate upon it, including Melkor. When such a creature becomes incarnate, it is bound to that form and no more powerful than that form can handle. In other words, though the incarnate Ainur are extremely powerful, they are not as powerful when they become Valar, and they do not have a direct connection to the creator figure or his purposes.

It is important to note that the Valar are real figures on Middle Earth; they don't interfere much, but some of the Elves know them well and have spoken personally with them.

Melkor created many difficulties on Middle Earth and earned the name Morgoth from the Elves. He was eventually bound by the power of the other Valar in such a fashion that he cannot interfere until the end of time. Sauron was his lieutenant— in other words, there's something much worse than Sauron waiting out there.

The Nature of the Elves

The Elves are the oldest race created on Middle Earth, and they are immortal. Specifically, this immortality not only means that, barring accident, they live forever, but they are tied to Middle Earth. When they die, it is as though their souls were placed in cold storage, waiting for the end of the world; they get no Heaven, no Hell, and no Limbo.

When they awoke on Middle Earth, there was no sun or moon, only the stars, and Tolkien's elves love the stars the best. Before the Valar left for the West (so as to not destroy Middle Earth in their struggles with Morgoth), they offered the elves a chance to come with them. Some were suspicious and some never heard; those stayed behind. Legolas is the descendant of such a tribe. Others went to the West and then later returned; those are called the High Elves. Galadriel is one, and Elrond is counted as one as well, though he was born in Middle Earth and has not been to the West.

Galadriel, in fact, was one of the high princesses of the elves at the beginning of the Simarillion; she has personally lived with the incarnate archangels of Middle Earth. That's what immortality is like.

As explained in the movies, orcs started out as corrupted elves, twisted and broken by the hand of Morgoth. Orcs are the dark reflection of the elves, as goblins are the dark reflections of Men; however, crossbreeding and the equivalent of genetic engineering have pushed the nature of goblins and orcs together and to one side, so one cannot assume that orcs are immortal and goblins are not, or that the two terms have any practical difference at the time of LOTR.

The Nature of Men

Death is referred to as The Gift of Men; basically, after they die they go on to something that not even the Valar understand. Elves don't get why dying upsets mankind so much since they think it's an amazing thing.

The Nature of Dwarves

In the time before men and elves, the Valar got a little worried about this whole plan of the creator's, and one, Aulë, got a little impatient. Drawing on what little he could remember from Ilúvatar's template, he created the Dwarves. Since Morgoth was in ascendance at the time, they are hardier than men or elves, strong and secretive and very self-interested with a strong survival instinct. Aulë did not, unfortunately, think through the process of continuation very thoroughly, and so the women of the the Dwarves are few and far between.

The creator was, in fact, a little upset by this change in plans but he pardoned Aulë and merely put the Dwarves to sleep to wake after the Men and Elves were in place.

The Nature of Hobbits

Despite the ears and the hobbits' love of elves, they are, in fact, descended from mankind, and thus are subject to true death.

The Nature of Ents

One of the Valar loved the growing things of the world, and was sad to think that they might be unprotected. The Ents are, as they say, the shepherds of trees, and were created in response to this need.

As orcs are mockeries of Elves, so trolls are mockeries of Ents.

Half-Elven and Arwen's Choice

Beren, a mortal, and Lúthien, an elf, fell in love. For her love and her hand, Beren did many great deeds. Beren died but did not leave the world, going instead to the halls of Mandos (the Valar in charge of the souls of the elves.) There Lúthien went and begged for him, and was given a choice: immortality without Beren, or true mortality with him. She chose the second, and so is mourned by the elves because she has gone where they cannot follow.

The second elf-human pairing was Idril Celebrindal and Tuor, whose son was Eärendil. That son married Elwing, the daughter of Beren and Lúthien. Eärendil eventually ended up sailing the skies with a Simaril, as "the Star of Eärendil." Eärendil's descendants, and to that line alone, were given the choice of an immortal life as an elf or a mortal life as a human. Elrond was Eärendil's son, who became Elrond Half-Elven, and his brother Elros chose to become mortal, and founded the line of Númenor, of which Aragorn is a direct descendant. (Aragorn only lives a little past two centuries; Elros lived much longer than that. The ultimate reason that Númenor fell is the pursuit of immortality by those desperately afraid of death.)

Arwen's choice of mortality is triggered by her staying behind; once Elrond leaves Middle Earth, if his children stay behind they become mortal. After Aragorn dies (by more or less lying back and saying, I'm getting old and feeble, better die before I make a real hash of it), she goes to the forest that had been Lothlórien, now decaying since the elves have left, walks around for a bit, then lies down and dies herself.

More notes tomorrow.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Man in the Queue

The Man in the Queue

Josephine Tey

Date: 1953   —   $9.60   —   Book

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Fiction, Mystery

Inspector Grant has been called to unravel the mystery behind a man who was stabbed in a huge crowd of people, but who, due to the confusion, nobody seems to have seen or remembered. From a smattering of clues, he has to find out who the dead man was and the movements of his last hours, a collection of clues that comes together a little too rapidly, and the Inspector has to find out if, in this case, the wrong person is being hunted for murder.