Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem by Neal Stephenson opens with:
Note to the Reader
If you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own, skip this Note. Otherwise, know that the scene in which this book is set is not Earth, but a planet called Arbre that is similar to Earth in many ways.
I am accustomed to reading working of speculative fiction (AKA science fiction), but I read the note anyway. Regretfully, the note (which goes on for a few pages) was insufficient to clarify the slow moving story that still spent most of its time introducing the world that is similar to Earth in many ways. In the end, though still at the beginning of this 900 page tome, I was still drowning in the tedium of the complex allegory spanning the history of western civilization.

As I kept falling asleep, I was reminded of the following:
...boredom is a mask frustration wears.
On a more cheery note, I am encouraged for the future of the country when such a book can be so widely read. Our school must be doing something right.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh

Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh is another novel of LAPD. This one set in Hollywood against a background of the movie industry and the seedy residents such as meth addicts and the Russian Mafia. While the story depends heavily on the characters, especially the police officers - men and women - young probationary cops to old should-have-retired-already ones - the various vignette's introduce enough action and to keep the story moving. The author's genius ties everything together and brings the entire chronicle to an exciting and satisfying climax reminiscent of Dickens.

An excellent read and a tender, though dramatized, story of the LAPD.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Catsitters by James Wolcott

Catsitters by James Wolcott is a book of the fashion and feelings genre, unusually written by a male writer. The plot centers around a bachelor Johnny Downs and a single girl friend Darlene Ryder who gives him advice about his unsuccessful love life. I made it about 30% through the book before giving up.

Aside from the lack of compelling characters, the writer seems to have a checklist requiring some silly simile every third page, or even several on the same like a high school composition student.
After my shift, the hours lay like brisks.
When I read, my mind bounced of the page like a fly off a windscreen.
She was like Zorro with those highlighters, zip, zip, zip.
... her words clicking in my ears like dominos.
It was like entering a mineshaft, or an abandoned railroad car.
If you love similes, this is the book for you.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Obama's election predicted in 1971

The Drifters by James Michener chronicles the lives of six teenagers in the late 1960s. This group includes a girl who worked on Eugene McCarthy's presidential bid, a boy who fought in the 6-day war for Israel, a black militant, and a draft dodger from California. The first six chapters (about half the book) introduce these characters and offer an interesting view of the time period. I can highly recommend this part.

It was here that Barack Obama's election is predicted. After a discussion of the various failings of the black community, they are compared to the Irish.
The protestants had all sorts of jokes about the Irish, and they were true, but they were also irrelevant. Because in time the Irish learned. They began to elect honest politicians. And they learned to hire honest clerks. And after a couple of generations, America found itself with Jack Kennedy. The patience paid off.
Once the characters are introduced the tale bogs down into talking heads philosophizing about youth, age, truth, and politics. The first word I considered as I slogged through the second half of the book was "boring," but "silly" also came to mind. The book is also obsessed with Black Muslims.
[Mohamadism] spoke directly to the problems of the black man, in that it was above all else a religion that made revenge respectable.
Within ten years Muslims all over the world will be talking about a holy war to rescue their brothers in America.
These predictions, along with much pompous pontification, make the story seem dated and foolish. The lack of action leaves the reader struggling to stay awake for the second half of the book. However, if you have the discipline to stop reading after the initial character sketches - certainly long enough to be a novel in their own right - the book will be a most enjoyable (re)visit into the 1960s.

LGBT Book Watch: The book discusses that one option to avoid the Vietnam draft is to convince your draft board that you're a homosexual. This is done by taking a photograph of yourself naked kneeling in front of naked man.
"But don't you realize a photograph like that could ruin your life?"
"With whom? ... Maybe years from now a photo like that dated 1970 will be a badge of honor."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The New Year's Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

Do you have fond memories of European agrarian traditions? Are your days occupied reliving your family relationships and those of your parents, grandparents, and siblings? Are you so old that your time is mostly occupied with recollections and reminiscences?

If you are at that quiet time in your life, you'll love The New Year's Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini. The plot line (a conflict between an adult daughter and her elder father on his choice to remarry) takes up so little of the story, it can be completely ignored and just seen as an excuse to wax poetic on quilts, quilting, and life. A charming, sentimental volume.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I found Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert on a list of 100 greatest novels or something of the sort. Another book on the list was Anna Karenia by Leo Tolstoy. While they are both 19th century novels - a century that started with Jane Austen and gave English literature Mark Twain and Charles Dickens - and both tell the story of women who lead miserable lives, I felt Anna Karenina was the far superior novel.

While Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a sympathetic character, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is a vain and self-obsessed. In the end Madame Bovary reads like a cautionary tale warning men about the dangers of love and marriage:
the perennial bogey of respectable families - that ill-defined, baleful female, that siren, that fantastic monster forever lurking in the abysses of love.
Given the choice, I'd recommend Tolstoy, though Jane Austen and the Bonte sisters might be better choices for someone looking for literature with women protagonists.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What can I say about the Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald?

A pleasant short novel about the rich during the roaring 20s. Great literature that doesn't disappoint 80 years after publication.

I didn't realize that F Scott Fitzgerald was from Minnesota or that the book's narrator finally abandons life in New York City to return to the Midwest. If you didn't read it in high school, I'd recommend it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Shooters by W.E.B. Griffin

In The Shooters by W.E.B. Griffin the President of the United States orders Delta Force officer Charley Castillo to rescue a DEA agent kidnapped by drug dealer in South America. In spite of the characters (special forces operatives AKA shooters) and the plot (snatch-and-grab rescue in the jungle), the book was devoid of action. The actual rescue is accomplished in a few pages at the end of the book. The remainder of the tale entailed talking heads, political infighting, conspiracy theories, and macho dialogue.
"What kind of supplies?" Richardson asked.
"The kind that need someplace secure to store them," Castillo said, pointedly avoiding details.
"I wouldn't do that," Sergeant Mullroney said, more than a little righteously. "Junior's my brother-in-law, for Christ sakes. My wife's brother."
"I've always wondered what a brother-in-law was," Castillo said.
However, if you like a world where the President orders macho guys to perform jungle rescues, where the men talk tough and drink, and where the women serve food and look pretty, this is the book for you. However with a 400 page back story leading up to a four page action scene, one of the characters in the story expressed my opinion:
"Can't we get to the point of this?"

Monday, November 24, 2008

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Blindness by Jose Saramago (Nobel Prize for Literature 1998) might be great literature, but not for me. It is written in an experimental style (nameless characters, long sentences, no quotation marks - see note below) which made it very difficult for me to read.

The story is about the rapid decline of civilization and civility when everyone suddenly goes blind. The depressing and violent roller coaster steady moves to more depressing and degrading levels until the story ends.

While the characterization and description was everything you might expect from a Nobel Laureate, the resolution seemed flat (to me).

Note on the translation and page layout

The translation is British, but British usage is minimal. The book opens with an observation that the crosswalks are called zebras even though that do not look like zebras.

The odd thing is that the formatting is compressed. It is not unusual for the sole formatting of double page of text to be a single indent. The dialogue is run together without the benefit of quotation marks, indentation, or new lines. I found this very difficult to read and often had to resort to using my bookmark to underline each line in order to maintain my place in reading. The was not helped by the long complex sentences such as:
Until the causes were established, or, to use the appropriate terms, the etiology of the white evil, as, thanks to the inspiration of an imaginative assessor, this unpleasant sounding blindness came to be called, until such time as treatment and a cure might be found, and perhaps a vaccine that might prevent the appearance of any cases in the future, all the people who had turned blind, as well as those who had been in physical contact or in any way close to these patients, should be rounded up and isolated so as to avoid any further cases of contagion, which, once confirmed, would multiply more or less according to what is mathematically referred to as a compound ration.
This is from Wikipedia.
Saramago's experimental style often features long sentences, at times more than a page long. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs match the length of entire chapters by more traditional writers. He uses no quotation marks to delimit dialog; when the speaker changes Saramago capitalizes the first letter of the new speaker's clause. In his novels Blindness and The Cave, Saramago sometimes abandons the use of proper nouns; indeed, the difficulty of naming is a recurring theme in his work.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Supposedly Fun Thing by David Foster Wallace

A Supposedly Fun Thing by David Foster Wallace is a collection of humorous essays of various lengths, up to 100 pages. The opening essay is about playing junior tennis in southern Illinois recounting how his analytical abilities allowed him to succeed with a dearth of actual athletic ability. This advantage failed him as his opponents reached puberty and the play moved to better courts with wind screens and flat surfaces. Regardless, of how that sounds, I found this introspection enjoyable.

The next selection was a rant about culture and TV. It started okay, but the length lead to repetition and ennui. The same was true of the title selection, A supposedly funny thing I'll never do again, about a cruise in the Caribbean. This latter essay was filled with humorous, biting observations, but, alas, it dragged on to long.

The book's style is simultaneously erudite, analytical, and satiric. If that appeals to you, ad nauseam, this might be the book for you. It didn't work for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

What to you imagine when you think of the last months of World War II in Europe? The horrific discoveries at the camps? The carpet bombing of Germany? The victorious troops march towards Berlin? Much has been written and filmed of the soldiers (both sides) and Jews (survivors and victims).

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian centers around a different group of characters. The Emmerichs are minor Prussian aristocrats who welcomed their German liberation from Poland at the beginning of the war, but now that the Russians are moving in from the east, they must escape to the west. Eighteen-year-old Anna, her mother, and young brother travel across Germany in the company of Callum, an Irish POW, and Uri, a Jewish survivor/saboteur masquerading as a German officer.

In a parallel plot, the story also follows a group of Jewish women being driven across Germany, also in advance of the Russians, while being alternately starved and forced to work in whatever factories remain.

Over the course of this odyssey, both the characters and the reader experience brutality and hope. Gradually without realizing it, without denying anyone's humanity, the book climaxes with a powerful case for Zionism.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Critical by Robin Cook

Critical by Robin Cook is reminiscent of several of his other books. The protagonists are two New York City medical examiners (Dr. Laurie Montgomery and Dr. Jack Stapleton) who have appeared in previous books, along with Detective Lou Soldano and the bumbling hood Franco.

Also reprised are the plot elements of mobsters as investors and competing mobsters. As Robin Cook fans have come to expect, the majority of the characters are MDs and the medical vocabulary is over the top.

This book lacks a tie-in to current events and issues in contemporary medical care as the earlier novels did, but the book does explore the question of scientific blindness where smart scientists get trapped in their linear thinking and never consider the right hypothesis. While this is a very interesting aspect of the scientific minds, the book only flits along the surface of the issue.

Guide to Writing for Children by Jane Yolen

Guide to Writing for Children by Jane Yolen provides advice to a prospective children's book author on two levels. On the practical level, she categorizes the different types of children literature from picture books to chapter books; from fantasy to non-fiction; talking animals to educational; with side excursions into counting and alphabet books. On this level she covers the gamut comprehensively, sharing enlightening insights on the various sub-genres of children's literature..

On the level of inspiration, I found the book more off putting. Drawing heavily on her childhood experiences, I felt discouraged that I hadn't read Alice in Wonderland at six as the author had. I was often left with the impression that she was showing off and discouraging mere mortals from attempting to write books for children.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Boys and Girls Together by Willima Saroyan

Boys and Girls Together by William Saroyan is promoted on the jacket as a masterly comedy by this depression era author. He never matched his early success as his writing career (novels and plays) progressed through the post-war years. The same jacket refers most prominently to books written two decades earlier (Human Comedy and My Name is Aram). One can't help but feel that this novel is autobiographical.

The story is about the sad life of an older writer and his young wife. The writer is obsessed with drinking, gambling, his wife and children. He has not been able to write for many years. He has thoughts of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) and the importance of pain and suffering in the life of a writer.

Be warned that this is literary novel with much characterization and introspection and little action.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dirty Blonde by Lisa Scottoline

Dirty Blonde by Lisa Scottoline is a wonderful legal thriller/mystery. The protagonist, Cate Fante, is a newly appointed federal judge. The plot begins with a suit by the creator of a the idea for a successful TV series against the production company. The legal battle seamlessly transitions into a murder/suicide. This becomes a crazy-cop-pursuing-a-innocent-fugitive drama, and then back to the murder mystery and after several suspects are found innocent, a surprise turn reveals the murderer. All of this action is intertwined with Cate's love life.

A well written, carefully plot, quick moving thriller. A pleasure to read.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chimera by Will Shetterly

Chimera by Will Shetterly is a neat little science fiction mystery. Chase Maxwell is a down and out, ex-military (UNSEC or U.N. Security in this case) private detective with the requisite bad habits (gambling and smoking in this case). He is also a vegetarian. The damsel in distress is Zoe Domingo, the 26th in a litter born on Sunday. Zoe is a Jaguar/Human hybrid (aka Chimera). The murders revolve civil rights for Chimeras and AIs.

The book is packed with science fiction wonders in the areas of both biology and physics and lots of action. Will Shetterly avoid the science fiction tendency for characters to lecture and packs the book with pithy and humorous one-liners.
When you're sure the world's against you, it's hard for the world to prove it doesn't know you exist.
"Most of Gold's work was in artificial intelligence. What does that suggest?"
"That there isn't enough real intelligence to go around."
He collapsed in his chair, slumping forward to strike the table and his plate with his forehead. The plated flipped like a tiddlywnk, strewing spaghetti on top of the gore.
A quick and enjoyable read.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Race by Richard North Paterson

The Race by Richard North Patterson is a example of a book that tries too hard to be a topical bestseller. It makes two mistakes.

First, its topic is a Republican running for president in 2008. While this might have been interesting in 2007 when the book was published, in November 2008, the topiv made trivial and trite by the actual election.

Second, the book has so much commentary on politics, much of it is just talking head, no action; philosophical discussions of people and politics. Nothing happens.

It all adds up to b-o-r-i-n-g.

I read a few chapters and put it away.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott is an historical novel about the time of Robin Hood. It includes the archery tournament where Robin Hood splits the arrow and King Richard The Lion-Hearted's secret return to England and pardon of Robin Hood and his band.

Ivanhoe was a Saxon knight who, like King Richard, returned from the Holy Lands to oppose Prince John and abuse of the Saxons. The action centers around three events: a tournament, abduction, trial.

In the tournament Ivanhoe and the Black Knight (King Richard in disguise) ultimately vanquish the Normans.

In a mix-up reminiscent of Shakespearean comedy, some Norman nobles abduct a Saxon princess so another Norman noble can rescue her and win her affection. Much goes wrong with this plan, including the accidental abduction of the wounded Ivanhoe, a Jewish father and his beautiful daughter. One of the Normans falls in love with the Jewess, and the castle is ultimately burned down when Robin Hood, King Richard (in disguise), and company rescue the various captives.

Finally, the Jewess is accused of being a witch, but she is ultimately defended by Ivanhoe in a trial by combat.

The Jewess and her father have bigger roles in the story than either of the three heros: Ivanhoe, King Richard or Robin Hood.

I found the book very difficult to read. Sir Walter Scott was a contemporary of Jane Austen who wrote in a much more readable style. Here is a not atypical sentence (seven commas!):
Without attempting to conceal her avowed preference of Wilfred of Ivanhoe, she declared that, were that favored knight out of question, she would rather take refuge in a convent than share a throne with Athelstance, whom, having always despised, she now began, on account of the trouble she received on his account, thoroughly to detest.
Interestingly, the book opens with the observation, repeated in many places since, that farm animals have Anglo-Saxon while food have Norman-French names (e.g. Cattle/Beef, Swine/Pork, Sheep/Mutton, Chicken/Poultry).

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul has all the ingredients of a modern thriller: set in Boston, two men Tom Kelly and Father Sebastian who are not who they appear to be, a Catholic school with students locked in the catacomb-like maze beneath the school buildings, a Islamic plot to kill the Pope, and a 16-year boy, Ryan McIntyre, whose father died in Kuwait and whose mother has been almost murdered. It falls to Ryan to save the Pope and unravel the plot.

The book also offers something more: exorcisms, ancient incantations, and evil forces that inhabit, speak to and control people. For anyone with a yen for a mixture of horror and suspense, this is the book.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck chronicles the quest of the Joads from Oklahoma, where they've been evicted from the family farm by the banks and tractors, to find a better life for their family and children. Like so many depression era families they were drawn to California. While they start out dreaming of a white house, a garden, school for the children, new clothes and a car, in the end they can only pray not to starve to death over the wet California winter.

Even seventy years later, it is obvious why John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The writing is emotional and engaging. The book alternates between chapters reporting the broad picture and specific chapters about the Joads, their hopes and dreams, theie efforts and failures.

The book has two main themes. First, the Okies, migrant farm workers, are people and not the dehumanized animals depicted by the land owners, food processors, police and towns people. Second, these people need to organize to address their situation, because no one else will help.

What has happened in the last seventy years? Migrant farm workers are still demonized by their opponents, but thirty-to-forty years after The Grapes of Wrath, the farm workers finally organized and made some progress to improve conditions.

In addition to these broad issues, the book also illustrates some enduring American values.

"He got a gun. He'll use it 'cause he's a deputy. The he either got to kill you or you got to get his gun away an' kill him."
"I tell ya, a one-eye' fella got a hard row..."
"Ya full a crap. Why, I knowed a one-legged whore one time. Think she was taking two-bits in a alley? No, by God! She's getting half a dollar extra. She says, 'How many one-legged women you slept with?'"
"Is mush all we get after workin' til dark?"
"Al, you know we got to git. Take all we got for gas. You know."
"But, God Awmighty, Ma! A fella needs meat if he's gonna work."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Irregulars by Jennet Conant

World War Two spies.

Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, among others).

Ian Flemming, David Ogilvy, LBJ, Noel Coward, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clare Booth Luce, William O. Douglas, Ernest Hemingway.

Sex and Money. Pain and Suffering. Heroes and Villains.

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant has something for everyone.
Alice's illicit affair with Lyndon Johnson continued for years. While her marriage to Marsh seemed halfhearted at best and encompassed many partners.
Then there was Evalyn Walsh McLean, the flamboyant hostess ... [who] never received her guests without the enormous 92 1/2-carat Hope diamond dangling from a gleaming chain around her neck.
[Roald Dahl] never made it. Lost and low on fuel, he made what the RAF squadron report termed "an unsuccessful forced landing" and crashed headlong into the desert floor.
Unfortunately, a single book can not be history, biography, kiss-and-tell, and cloak-and-dagger. This promising material, in the hand of a journalist, is weighed down with footnotes, end notes, bibliographies, inline references and annotations, and indexes - you can almost see the ghost of the fact checker on each page. Just as Roald Dahl rescued the official history of BSC, British Security Coordination (England's covert wartime activities in the Western Hemisphere), someone needs to rescue this material.
[Stephenson, head of BSC] wanted the acclaimed young writer [Dahl] to apply his storytelling skills to render the material a little more palatable than ... dry, academic text.
Regardless, the book includes many interesting tidbits.

LGBT Book Watch: For no particular reason, this book resurrects the story of blackmailing homosexuals. Whether this happened often or rarely, its place in popular mythology provided a convenient excuse for many homophobic practices, and does need to be uncritically repeated in the 21st century.

The only other LGBT mention is a homophobic aside about the bisexual movie star Tyrone Power.
He was trying to escape a stalled career and rocky marriage, strained by his more than passing interest in male companionship.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates opens with Ariah's honeymoon to Niagara Falls and her husband's suicide while she sleeps off her wedding night hangover, an event that sets to tone for the remainder of the narrative. Ariah, doomed victim, and The Falls, murderous force, thread their way through the next 28 years in a novel pulled together from related vignettes or novellas (several acknowledged as previous published).

First is Ariah's second marriage, to Dirk Burnaby, a well-connected lawyer from a wealthy family, and the birth of their three children (Chandler, Royall, and Juliet).
Ariah confide in [Dirk], "Now we're safe, darling! Even if one is taken from us, we'd have two left. If you leave me" - she laughed her low throaty laugh, mocking her own dread - "I'd have the three of them."
Next comes Dirk failed Love Canal case and his murder. Time passes and the children grow up. Chandler, an assistant pilot of a tourist boat, is engaged to be married at nineteen, but after a mysterious Lady in Black seduces him in a graveyard, the married is put off. Chandler, a middle school science teacher, volunteers as a hostage negotiator. Juliet, an introverted high school girl, falls in love with a silent, sullen boy from a family of tough cops.

The talent of Joyce Carol Oates embroiders this patchwork of tales, stitched together from disparate parts, and finally revealed to be a coherent work of art. A beautifully written story of human struggle and hope.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Reserve by Russell Banks EXPLICIT


The Reserve by Russell Banks is a book of setting and characters. Though, the book jacket advertises part murder mystery, the accidental death doesn't occur until two-thirds through the book and is only imagined to possibly be a murder in the disturbed minds of the characters.


The setting is upstate New York. I grew up on Long Island, so for me upstate includes everything north of the Bronx. This story in way upstate, north of the Catskills, north of the Erie Canal, in the Adirondacks, geographically closer to Canada and culturally closer to Vermont and New Hampshire than to New York City. The time is 1937. The descriptions of the rustic environment and culture are lyrical and evocative.


The plots centers around the beautiful, adopted heiress Vanessa. Her parents come from old-money families, but they are are also the troubled characters expected in novels.
[Vanessa] almost remembered being naked and lifted high in the air by a big man and placed up on the fireplace mantel with a scary hot fire burning below, the big man turning into her father, who disappeared suddenly behind his camera box ... she was being lifted again by a big man and carried to a sofa that was hard and scratchy on her bare bottom and back, where she was placed just so, her naked legs and arms arranged just so, her head turned just so.
"In the very beginning, when [your father and I] first tried to make love, it went ... badly, let's say. The fact is, on our honeymoon he found out that I wasn't a virgin, and he rejected me for a time. Later on, months later, when we tried to make love, he couldn't. And then ... well, he wouldn't. We were both pretty shy about it, about sex, and it was just simpler not to do it at all, and he never complained about it, and neither did I."
This book employs an interesting device. Between chapters there are short (two page) scenes that I first assumed to be flashbacks, but I eventually figured out that they were more like preemptive epilogues - scenes set in the future. For the most part, the characters and dates of these scenes are not disclosed. It was an interesting puzzle, but I thought it detracted from the story.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Magic Street by Orson Scott Card

What do you do after after an initial success? Physicist and mathematicians famously do their greatest work before they're thirty and spend the rest of their lives waiting for recognition from the Nobel committee. Joseph Heller made a big splash with Catch-22 and struggled to match this initial brilliance for the rest of his writing career. Another example is Orson Scott Card who wrote Ender's Game (published in 1985 and still one of the top 2000 best-selling books on Amazon!).

Fame and fortune puts enormous pressure on creative people like scientists and artists. Orson Scoot Card's recent Magic Street is an ambitious project. First it is an attempt by a conservative, white author and English professor from the suburbs to write of the African-American experience in Los Angeles. Second he gave significant roles to Oberon, Titania and Puck from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to add "a whole new layer of meaning."

The result is a book that follows the worst traditions of science fiction and fantasy where pontificating talking heads weight down the narrative and the story telling gets lost. Considering Orson Scott Card might be one of the greatest living story tellers, this is a soporific disappointment.

From the man who gave us the wonderful story in Ender's Game, we now get:
"That's what humans never understand," said Titania. "They're seduced by the material world, they think that's what's real. But for all the things they touch and see and measure, they're just - wishes come true. The reality is the wishes. The desire. The only things they are real are being who wish. And their wishes become the causes of things. Wishes flow like rivers ..."
"That's his mistake," said Yo Yo. "That's our secret weapon. He thinks you're weak because he always managed to hide his kind heart under a mask of jokery and rages and malice. But it was there, and kept him from utterly destroying people. ... Without you in his heart, he turned himself into the devil."

LGBT Book Watch: While Orson Scott Card has been called homophobic, this book is basically neutral on the topic with no LGBT characters and just a single neutral reference to gay marriage.
"But we're not asking for a legally binding marriage. More like those ceremonies they do for gay couples. No legal force, but all the same words as a church marriage."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris

The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris is the poetic sequel to Chocolat, probably best known in its movie version. This books combines the ancient cultures of witches and Aztec blood sacrifices with the modern crime of identity theft. The story of Christmas in Paris is told from the point of view of Anouk, a girl coming of age, her mother, Yanne, who is running away from her past, and Zozie who joins the family intent on stealing someone life.

With a female protagonists, and a plot drizzled with chocolate (truffles, fudge, cordials, cake, hot chocolate), you might expect a food, fashion and feelings story, but no. This is a much more lyrical story of loss and longing and smells, especially smells.
[Anouk's clothes] smell of the outside, and of the incense smoke frome Zozie's room, and the malt-biscuity scent of her sweat.
... the sweet and somewhat horsy scent of freshly cut wood.
... the patchouli-machine-oil scent of him.
My only complaint is that Yanne and Zozie, the good witch and the wicked witch, are so similar that I kept getting lost. Was I reading Yanne's story or Zozie's story? As if to confess to this weakness, each chapter is headed with a little picture to identify the chapter's viewpoint character.

LGBT Book Watch: The book includes one gay couple (street artists) with a minor role - window dressing.
Even our handsome Jean-Louis and Paulpaul, who work the Place du Tertre with such expertise, seducing the ladies into parting with their money with swashbuckling compliments and broad innuendo. You'd think as least they were what they seemed. But neither one has ever set foot in a gallery, or been to art school, and for all their masculine appeal, both of them are quietly [gay].

Monday, October 6, 2008

Skakespeare by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson is a fact-filled, short biography of William Shakespeare. Bill Bryson's books are all fact-filled and quick reads for anyone with a penchant for reading non-fiction. His books are always filled for interesting details and anecdotes that are fun to bring up at parties. I would recommend them for any teacher (kindergarten through college) looking for material to enliven their lessons.

My personal favorite Bill Bryson book is The Mother Tongue. This book offers a wonderful history of the the English language explaining the mysteries of its enormous lexicon (the largest of all languages) and truly bizarre spellings. I keep this one in my library and reread it it regularly.

I recommend all of Bill Bryson's book.

LGBT Book Watch: While no biography of William Shakespeare could ignore the controversy surrounding his sexuality, this book does its best to downplay and debunk the possibility that the bard might have been bisexual (he had a wife and two children in the country while he lived in the city). The book lends more support the the prevalence of sodomy in 16th century London than the chance Shakespeare might have wavered from the narrow heterosexual path - in spite of the evidence (sonnets, dedications, living arrangements, etc.) presented in the book.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Shelter by Susan Palwick

Shelter by Susan Palwick the story of a constellation of troubled adults drawn to a troubled child named Nicholas.
"Everyone loved Nicholas. His parents and his grandparents and his friends. We're all together now. It's wonderful, isn't it?"
"Wonderful. Two of us are dead, and one of us is brainwiped. One of us is mutilated. One of us is on probation. Three of us have been in exile. ... We're just one big happy family."
One of the extraordinary things about this book is that it is Science Fiction. While there is plenty of science fiction - smart houses, AIs, people resurrected as AIs, pandemics, brainwipes to solve crime and mental illness, lots of bots, and citizenship for AIs. In spite of all this science and technology, the characters play the leading role.
She cried after he left, her losses hemming her in. She cried because she had nothing that had belonged to her own mother, and because her listening to Nicholas had done him no good, and because she couldn't give a piece of jewelry to Fred, whose willingness to listen had helped both her and Nicholas as much, it seemed to her, as anyone could have helped them at all. She cried over losing Doe, who had been willing to listen to her pains, but not to her joys; she even cried over losing Zephyr ...
This book, published by one of the premier SF imprints (Tor), might herald a new golden age for SF, except ...

Shelter is such a ambitious work that it's weighed down by its enormous breadth and its lack of focus. The telling clue is the Reading Group Guide at the end. What are the topics thought to be raised in this tome?

The symbolism of stormy weather; the criminalization of mental illness; the role of race in cultural conflicts; the ethics of people ressurected as AIs; the nature of AI; the politics of pandemics; injury and forgiveness; the role of the media; privacy; religion; and memory.

If your head is spinning after reading this list, you might want to skip this book, but if you think about all these issues before breakfast, perhaps you've been up all night, this is the book for you.

P.S. The book is not without some SF humor:
... She had lost faith in the Tooth Fairy, the Vernal Rabbit, and the Summer Solstice Sloth.

How to Write ... by Orson Scott Card

Are you interested in reading a couple of the very best books on writing fiction, as in telling stories? If you are, you must first overcome considerable obstacles.

The first is the Science Fiction obstacle. One of these books has Science Fiction and Fantasy in the title and both are written by a famous Science Fiction writer - winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

The second obstacle is political. The author, a professor at a Mormon college in Virginia, is a support of President Bush's policies and an opponent of same-sex marriage.

Regardless, Orson Scott Card, has written two excellent books of the art of story telling: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Elements of Writing Fiction - Characters & Viewpoint.

While the books do focus somewhat on SF, politics are completely absent, and the writing principles are universal and presented clearly. Each day you read one of these books you will learn something to improve your writing.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Light of the Moon by Luanne Rice

Saint Sarah is not a Catholic saint, but a saint of the Romani, the Gypsies. Light of the Moon by Luann Rice is a romance centered around the shrine of Saint Sarah in Saintes-Maries de la Mer in the Camargue region of France - salt marshes on the Mediterranean coast..

Susannah is a 42-year-old professor of Cultural Anthropology on the verge of realizing that the man who has be pursuing her for years needs to be sent away. Many years ago Grey married Maria, against the wishes of how Romani clan. Five years ago, Maria deserted Grey and their daughter Sari, to perform riding a circus horse in Las Vegas. Now Grey and Sari have retreated to their horse ranch outside of Saintes-Maries de la Mer.

Only a Saint Sarah miracle of love can bring happiness to these rejected souls.

Luann Rice braids a poetic tale of Romani matriarchs, universal sisterhood, and femine intuition spanning generations and continents. In the dramatic conclusion love overcomes all obstacles and everyone find their true, eternal love.

As much as I like a love story (I cry at the end of all romantic comedies), the kissing seemed a bit too much for me.
Her eyes drank him in, as if searching for an explanation. But then she cupped the back of his head in her hand, softly kissed him again, their eyes still open, as if they couldn't bear to let go or look away. They floated together, unanchored in the ancient space, as though they were suspended in time.
She'd been kissed before, but never like this, even by him. She felt the primal power of the wetland, and the fierce strength of the man she'd fallen in love with, and his lips were hot and his chest hotter, and both of them were soaking wet and slick, and she had absolutely no idea where she ended and he began.
I just can't help imagining the author laughing as she writes this. (Sorry.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

What a great book! Sue Grafton creates a truly evil villain - a sociopath who preys on old people. And unlike some writers with more literary pretension, soundly defeats and destroys the bad guy (a lady in this case) at the end. Good overcomes evil in a thoroughly captivating story, that does double service as a cautionary tale for anyone responsible for the care of elder friends or relatives.

The book, a pleasant mixture of the food, fashion and feeling genre and a detective mystery, succeeds where others have failed. Sue Grafton hits just the right balance between cooking and clothing critiques, and investigations and jeopardy. The protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, can go on at length about her cravings for QPs (McDonald's Quarter Pounders) or how she discovered the loctaion of a photographer from the angle of a single picture.

On a more serious note, the story involves sexual predators and elder abuse. If you have parents too far away to visit regularly or expect to get old yourself, this is truly a frightening book.

T is for Trespassby Sue Grafton is certainly one of the best books this month.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Keeper of the Keys by Perri O'Shaughnessy

Keeper of the Keysby Perri O'Shaughnessy is yet another of the food, fashion and feelings genre. The triangle is Ray Jackson, a successful Los Angeles architect, Kat Tinsley, a real estate appraiser (before the housing crash, of course), and Leigh Hubbel Jackson who is missing. Leigh is Ray's wife who left after a fight about her affair with Ray's partner. When she met Ray, she broke up with Kat's bother (the sensitive actor); Tom committed suicide. Leigh and Kat were BFF from before high school until the suicide. Other characters include various parents and grandparents, all interested in either discovering the whereabouts of Leigh or accusing someone of murdering her.

This story tries for a more serious note than other food, fashion and feelings novels: A Book for Today: Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett and A Book for Today: Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett, but misses as a successful novel because the both main characters (Tom and Kat) are low energy and flat affect. They float through the story with little emotional involvement or commitment (see Asperger Syndrome). Of course, novels do not have to be about characters with Type-A Personalities (consider Anna in Anna Karenina, and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment). However, this is very difficult, and this book doesn't have enough in it to involve the reader once it becomes clear that main characters don't give a damn.

In addition to the disappearence of Leigh (wife, lover, daughter, best friend of various characters), the book delivers a fascinating and intriguing study of Los Angeles architectural history and emotional connections to childhood houses. This is the most engaging part of the book. I imagine this was the the seed idea. Anyone who has spent decades in Los Angeles can enjoy the book for the real estate analysis and history alone.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett

Daisy O'Neil has it all: good grades, a close relationship with her mother, a nerdy boyfriend, and a part in a TV sitcom. She's also friends with Tiffany Dante, an anorexic, spoiled teenage party girl who is regularly featured on those covers stacked up at the supermarkets checkouts. The day before Daisy's TV debut, she disappears.

Savannah Reid, retired/fired police detective, and her friend Dirk Coulter, still employed by the police, race against the clock to find Daisy, regularly reminding themselves that children not found in the first 24 hours are rarely found (alive). Further complications include adultery and murder.

While this might sound like traditional detective novel, it is not. Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett, much like War and Peas by Jill Churchill from August, is Chick Lit - heavy on food, fashion and feelings. Well written, with plenty of comic relief, and fast paced, this is a fun book to read and I'd recommend it over the Jill Churchill series.

The story of kidnapping and murder is lightened by Savannah Ried's Granny who is constantly saying things like:
Twasn't a very windy day when that apple fell from the tree.
Sanannah and Detective Coulter banter back and forth:
"Coulter, there isn't one single solitary group of people under the sun you trust, respect, or like"
"That isn't true."
"Is, too."
"Is not. I like dogs."
The cats don't fare much better as demonstrated by Savannah's observation:
Cats were, after all, fickle creatures who loved you more than anything in the world ... except food, pets, and sunshine.
A very relaxing enjoyable read.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Appeal by John Grisham

Forget Playing for Pizzaand A Painted House, The Appeal is exactly the page turning, legal thriller John Grisham's fans expect and love. Even though I'm still a slow reader (see my profile), I finished the 358 pages in two days.

However, the book breaks some new ground and offers a few surprises. For starters, as the title promises, the story opens at the end of the trial. I doubt John Grisham has ever presented such a black and white case.

The plaintiffs are poor folks from a small Mississippi town where a large pesticide company illegally dumped pesticides into the aquifer until the city pipes delivered a "stream of grayish water" and the city "prohibited the drinking of its own water." When they put in sprinklers at the city park, "the grass turned brown and died."

The plaintiff lawyers were a local husband and wife team, with small children, who cared for these poor people, many of whom were dead and over a hundred still suffered with cancer and might die soon. They lawyers sold everything they had and more to finance the trial.

The defendent, a large chemical company owed by an egotistical billionaire, had cut corners, lied, bought off the regulators, and ultimately moved the entire operation to Mexico when the regulators could not be stopped any longer.

As I said, black and white. As expected the jury found for the plaintiffs with damages and punitive penalties. Here we are at page 12!

The thriller revolves around a effort by the defendants to elect a friendly judge to replace one of the nine Supreme Court judges, and thus guarantee the appeal will be found in their favor. As might expected, the campaign is anything but friendly.

Without spoiling the ending, Grisham's many fans and new readers alike will find the ending to be a real surprise. One of the hallmarks of many Grisham novels has been the ambiguous endings. He seems to be saying that legal cases are never black and white, and the job of great lawyers and judges is to find the compromise that recognizes the issues on both sides. This ambiguity and ability to bring both sides to the table has been one of the thing that separated Grisham for other authors of thrillers. That, and his excellent characters.

This book breaks that trend. This book has an opinion. As the book jacket says
The Appeal ... will leave readers unable to think about our electoral process or judicial system in quite the same way ever again.
In this important election year, this is a good book to read as you observe the 21st century election process.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover

The year is 1598. Abraham is a young Jew from the ghetto of Venice sent by his uncle to Pegu to trade for jewels. Mya is a young bride from a small village many days from Pegu sent by her father to marry. Through his letters to his cousin Joseph interspersed with her retelling of her story to (no spoiler here), the reader follows the adventures of these two outsiders in what is both a tender love story and a commentary on the lives of outsiders in the 15th century and time immorial before and after.

In one sense this is an historical novel with its details of 16th century antisemitism and of life in the famous Venetian ghetto - the word ghetto derives from this original ghetto - the old ghetto (Ghetto Vecchio) can still be visited in Venice today. The politics and daily life in Pegu offer a similarly vivid picture of life in south east Asia.

Another facet of the story is the conflicts and agreements among Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Much (perhaps too much for someone looking for more action) of the story focusses on Abraham's self-examination of his Judaism compared to Mya's Buddhism. In the end Abraham makes a personal commitment against prejudgment (aka prejudice) summing up the novel's theme.
I have dropped "I was told" from my vocabulary. Until I had traveled from from the narrow streets and small squares of [Venice], I hadn't noticed ... how much we take on faith from ... those who have neither seen nor heard what they claim to know. Their opinions are cold dishes served distant from the kitchen where others have prepared them.
The Jewel Trader of Pegu, though a bit cerebral and pedantic at times, unfolds an historical picture of 16th Venice and the world of its traders tied up the timeless story of "star-crossed lovers."


Godown: In India and East Asia, a warehouse, especially one at a dockside.

Mitzvoth (Plural of Mitzvah): A worthy deed.

Pegu: A town and former capital of Lower Myanmar (Burma), giving its name to a district and a division.

Tzaddik: A righteous man.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

If you are a fan of the Discworld novels, you have no reason to read this review, you've already read the book.

If you have not heard of Discworld (36 published novels (plus or minus) as of 2008), you are missing something. In Making Money - humorous fiction reminiscent of Douglas Adams or Monty Python - Moist von Lipwig, a reformed confidence man, jumps from his success as Postmaster General reforming the Central Post Office to be chairman of the Royal Mint of Ankh-Moorpork. Well, not actually chairman. The chairman is Mr. Fusspot, a small dog that carries in its mouth something that's definitely not an old rubber bone, but rather something that escaped from a "museum of inventive erotica." Mr. Fusspot owns 51% of the stock and Moist is just the guardian.

This is how Adora Belle Dearheart, LipWig's fiancee sums it up: "So ... a mad old lady - all right, a very astute mad old lady - died and gave you her dog, which sort of wears this bank on its collar, and you've told everyone that gold is worth less than potatoes, and you broke a dastardly criminal out of your actual death row, he's in the cellar designing "bank notes" for you, you've upset the nastiest family in the city, people are queuing to join the bank because you make them laugh ... what am I missing?"

She missed the the Golem Trust and the 4,000 golems she recent excavated, the Department of Postmortem Communications at the Unseen University, Commander Vimes and the Watch peopled by werewolves and trolls, and the economic model of Anhk-Moorpork built of glass tubes and water.

The smartest character in the book is a mad scientist's (an Economist in this case) assistant, an Igor who speaks with the traditional lisp, unless he gets excited and forgets.
"You're putting lightning right into his head!" said Moist. "That's barbaric!"
"No, thur. Barbarianth don't have the capabilitieth," said Igor smoothly.
If you missed the Discworld novels and you're not a barbarian, this is as good a place to start as any.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mongolian Folktales and Legends

How far to you need to travel to find a book without an ISBN?

I found mine at the bookshop of the National Museum of Mongolian History in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Mongolian Folktales and Legends, translated by D Altangerel and illustrated by D Boldgarav, is an mixture of pourquoi stories, stories of clever people, and other folktales and legends.

Whenever I travel, I look for local legends. This collection had some old favorites retold and a selection of new ones.

Why the Bat Lives in the Dark

A long time ago a terrible war broke out between the birds and the beasts of the land. When the birds seemed to be winning the bats joined them, saying "I am a bird too!" But when the tide turned and the beasts of the land seemed to be winning the bats joined them, saying "I am a mouse!" When the fighting ended no one trusted the bats and they had to live alone in the dark.

The Fox, the Lion and the Old Lady

Two variants of the this story were included. The old lady fooled the lion that she is stronger and would eat him. This was accomplished by the trick of squeezing a white stone until water came out of it. (The old lady used an egg instead of a stone.) Eventually the fox showed up to take advantage of the situation. He explained how the old lady fooled the lion and enlisted the lion's aid to eat the old lady. However, when the old lady saw the fox approach with the lion, she said, "Good work fox, I see you've brought me another lion to eat."

Did the Khan Have a Head?

When Khan (king) died, the servants couldn't find his head. They interviewed everyone asking, "Did the Khan have a head?" But no one had ever seen his head. The palace servants remembered a crown with a big ruby, but never dared look at his face. His wife remembered his mustache, but never dared to open her eyes when she kissed him. The story ends with, "What do you think?"

What do you think?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Geology Field Guides

Have you ever found yourself visiting the sand dunes in the Gobi desert or Machu Picchu in the Andes mountains, or even just driving I-5 in San Diego county or up the Pacific Coast Highway, and wondering about the origin and composition of the mountains, hills, canyons or arroyos?

I have.

I've found two books that are small enough to carry traveling and detailed enough to answer most geology questions on the road: The Field Guide to Geology(by David Lambert) and A Field Manual for the Amateur Geologist(by Alan M Cvancara).

If you haven't studied Geology, The Field Guide to Geology is the one for you. It is profusely illustrated and starting from the basics covers a wide range of topics, including a great chapter (The Last 540 Million Years) on plate tectonics and geologic history. For world travelers, it also includes global geological highlights from Algeria to Zimbabwe. This could be an international checklist for the serious geological tourist.

However, if you have studied Geology, A Field Guide for the Amateur Geologist might be more to your liking. With fewer pictures and less introductory material, this book is packed with a detailed section on the identification of landforms (over 100 page ) and another on the identification of rocks (almost 100 pages). This is the book to settle arguments and answer the hard questions.

Both books are available as small-format paperbacks for convenient packing and will fit nicely in your knapsack and day pack.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

What do you imagine has been the most important advance in health and medicine?

The microscope? The theory of germs? Vaccinations? The discovery of DNA and genetics? Antiseptics? Anesthesia? Prenatal care? Birth control? Health insurance?

No, all of these are (pardon the expression) mice nuts. The bat balls award (Bat testes be 8.5 percent of body mass) in the health game goes to clean water. Life expectancy around the globe has be boosted more by clean water than any other contribution to public health. Clean water started in London in 1854.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson narrates the story of how a Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead solved the mystery of the Cholera epidemic in Soho, London in August 1854. This is Victorian England, the time of Dickens and Engels. The dominant theories of disease are bad air (miasma in Greek, malaria in Italian), weak constitutions, poor housekeeping, and loose morals. When disease struck a poor neighborhood, or a poor country (Cholera originated in India), the good citizens of Victorian London took this as an indicator of the superiority of English breeding and society.

Steven Johnson intertwines the biographies of the principal characters, 18th century politics, and the evolution of cities and science into a fascinating and informative narrative. The story line follows the the critical week from the first Cholera death to the climatic removal of the handle from the fatal public water pump a week later.

The book is fulled with details about the origins of epidemiology (The London Epidemiology Society was founded in 1850), anesthesiology (Dr. Snow administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of her 8th child using protocols and equipment he designed and developed), and mapping (the maps of the Cholera outbreak were cartographic milestones). This mixture of detail, narrative, and history makes The Ghost Map a great read.

Following the mystery, the author appends a Conclusion, Epilogue, Author's Note, Acknowledgments, Notes on Further Reading, Page by Page Notes (Footnotes), Bibliography, and Index. Unfortunately, halfway through the "conclusion," the story is completely abandoned and the author moves to his pulpit to editorialize and pontificate on human nature, the future of technology, and anything that strikes his fancy. I recommend the first 200 pages - the remaining 90 can easily be ignored.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his thrid mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off his arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of phone books.
This paragraphs opens Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson's novel about computers, viruses, and the rise and fall of civilization over the last 5,000 years. The Deliverator is Hiro Protagonist, half-Nipponese and half-Black, "last of the freelance hackers, [and] greatest sword fighter in the world." Together with Y. T., a 15-year-old teenage girl and thrasher Kourier, they combat L. Bob Rife and his evil plan to take over the world. Hiro, of course, is armed with his twin Japanese swords: a Katana and a Wakizashi. Y. T. sports a collection of high-tech self-defense devices.

In a intricately constructed, near-future, dystopic world, the action jumps back and forth between Reality and the Metaverse, a virtual reality world. The enemies are armed with neurolinguistic viruses that infect the minds of religious converts and hackers.
This Snow Crash thing - is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?
What's the difference?
The story unfolds and enfolds along the west coast of the United States with a collection of strange characters and organizations, such a Raven, a deadly, scary Aleut, the Mafia (employer of the Deliverator mentioned above), and Sushi K, a Nipponese rapper.

All together, the plot, setting and characters combine to a deliver an stimulating and exciting read, ... except for a few chapters in the middle where the author feel obligated to present his research on ancient civilizations, Sumerians, Babel, the Bible, and western religions, complete with citations. Slogging through this lecture is worth the effort as the story picks up on the other side and comes to an excellent finish.

Snow Crash Acronyms

Each acronym is defined exactly once, but if you miss any, the most important ones are here.

BIOS Built-in Operating System
Bathroom Tissue Distribution Unit
Central Intelligence Corporation
Executive Branch General Operational Command
FOQNE Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entity
Suspected Perpetrator Apprehension Code
STDs Severe Tire Damage devices
TMAWH The Mews at Windsor Heights
TROKK Temporary Republic of Kenai and Kodiak

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E Feist

A fantasy epic this time.

Magician: Apprentice is the first of the Riftwar novels by Raymond Feist.

When it was first published 1982 under the title of Pug and Tomas, I doubt anyone realized the scale of the invasion that would pour into the world of fantasy. This story (sort of a SF/Fantasy hybrid) chronicles an alien invasion (through a rift between worlds) against Midkemia, a world populated by humans, dwarf in mines, elves in trees, and the barbaric Brotherhood living in the dark forest. This modest beginning spawned so many sequels that Raymond Feist resorted to employing co-authors.

What made this series so successful?

While its scope and characters are reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, the style is very different. I've often heard Lord of the Ring referred to as a travelogue with its long descriptions of places, the Magician: Apprentice is more of an action/adventure story. Raymond Feist is a master of economy and action. Everything transitional and ordinary is left out; only the active and extraordinary is told.

Chapter two climaxes with Pug being selected to be the Magician's apprentice. Other authors might feel obligated to say something of the life of the new apprentice, the changes, cares, concerns and crises, but not Fiest. Chapter three skips what can easily be imagined by the reader and jumps to
Since he (Pug) had taken on the position of Kulgan's apprentice fourteen months ago, everything he had done seem to go wrong.
Thus, the book jumps from crisis to crisis, from action to action. The reader never has a chance to stop and admire the scenery, but is on the go all the time.

This is not to say that Fiest doesn't paint a picture of Midkemia. The description is there, but intimatly intertwined with the action. The reader sees the beauty and complexity of the dwarves' mines while Tomas is being chased through them, fighting for his life, and the design of the castle while defending it from alien attacks.

Fiest is particularly adept with swordplay and the book features several sword fights and training sessions.

The main characters are Pug, the talented, but complicated magician's apprentice, Tomas, his best friend and an apprentice warrior, and Carline, the haughty, immature, spoiled princess.

One warning: As the first novel of an epic series, little is resolved at the end of the first book. Regardless, the adventure alone is worth the read.