Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Right now I’m reading:

Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson

Just finished:

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

Love Letters to the Dead: A Novel, by Ava Dellaira

Poetry I’m reading:

Selected Poems 1965-1990, by Marilyn Hacker

Featured post

Henry VIII

Henry VIII: The King and His Court, by Alison Weir

Prolific historian/novelist Alison Weir has placed most of her focus on the Tudors in her writing. Henry VIII and his wives have received her particular attention. This book is slightly off from the more salacious spotlight on the marriages. They receive mention but are not the book’s core. This book revolves around the court of Henry VIII: the costs, the entourages and hangers-on, the internecine fights for the king’s attention, and, yes, the wives.

Henry VIII is frequently given a negative perspective by historians and in popular culture. Some of that is earned. He was known for furious outbursts with nearly every courtier was often influenced by those who did not have his best interests at heart. Weir does nothing to dispel that reputation, but she does want the reader to see a more three-dimensional figure. Henry VIII was also a genius who, despite delegating the operation of the kingdom so that he could hunt and dance, was still thoroughly aware of what was happening in his kingdom. He was firm in countermanding decisions by ministers like Thomas Cromwell, corresponded with people both inside and outside England, and read widely. Despite his temper he was also sensitive enough to be known to cry over some events and deaths.

Perhaps what marked his reign as much as anything, however, was his willingness to spend money. He inherited a fortune from his thrifty father as well as regular income from tax collections. Weir does in-depth tallies, with conversions to current figures (such as 40 shillings equaling 600 pounds in today’s currency), on the costs of the meals, the pageants, the jousts, the clothing, the castles, and feeding an entourage of hundreds of ranked individuals along with as many of their servants as they could sneak in. Even costs for flowers to Anne Boleyn are included along with her expenditures on shoes.

Weir is enough of a dramatic writer that the figures never overtake the narrative and there is plenty of time spent on the intrigues and oddities of court, such as the power held by Henry’s “Groom of the Stool” who was to keep Henry company while he sat on the toilet and hand him a flannel cloth so his majesty (Henry was the first to use the term) could cleanse his backside. It was one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom.

The somewhat narrow topic allows Weir to be concise while still covering a reign of over 35 years. From his coronation as a handsome 6′ 2″ youth of 18 to his painful and bloated death in his mid-50s there are dozens of stories small and large that she manages to cover through the narrative.


Theft of Swords

Theft of Swords (Riyria Revelations, Volume 1), Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan has quickly jumped from being totally off my radar to being one of my favorite writers.

Theft of Swords is part of a re-release series from earlier writings. This volume contains two earlier works, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha.

Both center around Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. The characters are professional thieves and mercenaries with mysterious pasts. Royce excels at being a thief while Hadrian is an excellent swordsman and carries three swords.

In the first story they are hired to retrieve a sword from a castle, but while doing the job they find a king’s corpse and realize they’ve been framed for the assassination. In the second they are summoned to a village by a magician they free in the first story. He’s a magician who was held in a prison for nearly a thousand years and whose hands were removed to make him less dangerous. The lack of hands has severely limited his ability to perform magic and he needs their special skills to help in destroying a monster that has been attacking the village.

Through the stories they befriend a princess and a young king, a village girl and her father, and various prostitutes. They also battle an evil dwarf and a flying monster and foil several evil plots. Royce and Hadrian are hilarious together and they both take on their tasks with humor and bravado. There’s lots of action, less bloody than, say, Game of Thrones but just as exciting. Sword scenes are described well and battles are vivid. Two books follow in this series, each with two stories. I’ll be grabbing Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron as soon as I can, mostly to get a Sullivan fix until the follow up to Age of Myth is released this summer.

The books are a fun mix of several genres, with a bit of fantasy, hero myth, and war saga brought together with bright dialogue. The books fly by almost too quickly. It’s been a long time since I read books I was sorry had to end.

Half Brother

Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel

The cover art on this book gives you a hint of what this book is about but not the depth and variety. It’s an interesting if imperfect book around a Canadian family: a professor father, a mother working on her PhD, and son Ben. It’s the 1970s and Ben is just turning 13. His family is moving across country from Toronto to Victoria so that his behavioral psychologist father can take a position at a new university. Ben and his father make the drive between the two cities and this gives some focus to the somewhat distant relationship between the two.

Shortly after they arrive at their new home, while the movers are still putting things away, Ben’s mother arrives with an eight-day-old chimpanzee bundled in her arms. Ben learns that part of the reason the family has moved is so that his father can pursue a research project concerning language and primates. The father will study whether the chimp can learn American Sign Language (ASL). The 1970s setting would make this still innovative. Koko the gorilla, who learned around 1000 ASL signs, was born in 1971. In fact, many of the scientific challenges and milestones in this book are similar to those faced by Koko and her trainers.

Having the chimp in the household is an unpleasant surprise for Ben despite encouragement from his parents that he think of it as a new brother.  As the story continues it describes the growing attachment between Ben and the chimp they end up naming Zan (a shortened version of Tarzan). The father hires assistants from the graduate students at the university and the training begins. But the father begins having problems getting hoped-for grants for much the same reason that some in the scientific community were skeptical of Koko’s accomplishments, preferring to believe it was simply an example of the “Clever Hans” effect. They believe Zan is learning signs simply to get food or attention.

Meanwhile there are story distractions surrounding Ben’s experiences at a new school with new friends, including the sister of a friend with whom he becomes infatuated. I suppose as a YA book this adds some sense of reality but I thought the book would have been cleaner without the two stories running throughout. Eventually Ben becomes the one closest to Zan while his father decides to abandon what was expected to be a 20-year project. What happens to Zan after this and how Ben responds are the key moments of the book.

The book considers quite a few serious topics, including whether we simply anthropomorphize other species or whether they have true consciousness, the treatment of laboratory animals, the dangers of people taking in pets that have so much more strength and unpredictable temperaments, and even the basics of the scientific method and double-blind studies. These made the book unique while the romance made the book just another YA book trying to relate. Still, there are emotional moments between Ben and Zan and the reader is led to root for both characters. The book wasn’t as good as it could have been but an interesting read all the same.


Nebula Awards

(Lilyn G at Sci-Fi & Scary recently posted this on the latest Nebula Awards. I did read the first book listed, and may do a retro-review. Others will be added to my reading list soon for additional reviews.)

“The Nebula Awards® are voted on, and presented by, active members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. Founded as the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1965 by Damon Knight, the organization began with a charter membership of 78 writers; it now has over 1,500 members, among them many of the leading…

via The 2017 Nebula Awards (Sci-Fi & Fantasy) — Sci-Fi & Scary

The Crack in Space

The Crack in Space, by Philip K. Dick

We who love science fiction cherish Philip K. Dick (PKD) but there are things we don’t cherish him for. These would be his writing style, his prescience about technology, or his clarity about human institutions. Those things don’t really exist in his writing. The things he is cherished for are enough, however: his sense of a tenuous attachment to reality, insight into human longing, his willingness to run with near nonsensical ideas to play with them, and his always innovative perspectives on the universe.

The Crack in Space was published in 1966, taken from a magazine novella printed in 1964. It has some elements he used in other books including the Terran Development Company and the Jiffi-scuttler vehicle. It also includes oddities such as “homeopapes” which are a not-completely described way that news is distributed, compared to the television innovation of “news clowns” where newsreaders actually dress in orange wigs and makeup to present the news.

The year is 2080. Racism is still rampant in America with a stark division between the whites and the “cols”. Jim Briskin, a black man and former news clown, is running to become the first black president. The world has become so overcrowded that tens of millions of people have decided to be frozen until some sort of solution can be found for the population issues. These are called “bibs”.

A technician doing repairs in the basement of a Jiffi-scuttler dealership discovers that a malfunctioning scuttler has a growing crack in it that reveals a gateway to another world. At first it’s thought that this might be a new world to which people could migrate to eliminate overpopulation. But the first explorers learn that it’s an alternative universe in which Homo Sapiens failed and Peking Man is the dominant species. The discovery and subsequent problems become part of the turmoil in the presidential campaigns.

Like many other books by PKD this one has its share of bizarreness, including an alternate universe race of tiny people who write in Hebrew, and twins whose bodies share a single head. There is that sense of longing, here with a couple wanting to take a pregnancy to term despite reproduction laws and nearly mandated abortions. This says nothing of Peking Man population, which believes mining is evil so they build intricate machines from wood and have magical powers to cause satellites to explode.

The weakness of the book is the political race tying the story together. Dick’s sense of how governments and politics worked tended toward paranoia and it’s a rare government or political character that doesn’t feel plastic and unreal under his pen. Making them the leading characters in this book muddles the story quite a bit, from their odd motivations to unrealistic approaches to problems.

The Crack in Space is an interesting PKD artifact that came out with a few other books between better-loved Dr. Bloodmoney and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It does push perspectives on population and race though he also wanders into some deep weeds here and there. But there are definitely enough odd characters and unique ideas to keep the book entertaining for any PKD fan.




Kizumonogatari: Wound Tale, by Nisiosin

This was a kind of fun and unusual experience. This was an Audible adaptation of a Japanese graphic novel. It used several different voices and included background music during some parts. I like graphic novels though I’m not a huge fan of anime or Japanese graphic novels.

The main character is Koyomi Araragi, a not terribly bright or experienced 17-year-old student. He has a crush on Tsubasa Hanekawa, the class president and brightest student at their school. To give a sense of the kind of humor the book has, much of chapter two is devoted to Araragi seeing Hanekawa’s underwear when a breeze lifts her skirt over her head. It’s light, silly, juvenile humor and it’s the kind of thing that continues throughout the book as Hanekawa keeps popping up in the story, for some reason willing to sacrifice herself for the greatest underachiever of her school.

The two talk about the rumors that a vampire has appeared in their remote town, blonde haired and pale-skinned. Some time later Araragi sees a figure under street light. A woman, a torso really with no legs or arms, who casts no shadow. This, he later learns, is the “iron-blooded, hot-blooded, yet cold-blooded” vampire Heart Under Blade. Her limbs have been severed and she’s near death. She begs him to save her, which would require draining all his blood. After his experience with Hanekawa he’s feeling suicidal and agrees to allow her to drink.

Instead of dying he wakes up, now her thrall, unable to walk into sunlight without bursting into flame. In order to become human again he must confront the three vampire hunters who cut off her arms and legs and return the limbs to her.

It’s fun, with lots of twists and turns with some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny. It was a nice change from novels and nonfiction or more serious YA books. The characters are all off kilter in an enjoyable way. Not having read the actual graphic novel I can’t compare quality, but the price difference between the two is about $2.00 (the audio version is priced higher), and the audio book was part of one of Audible’s 2-for-1 sales.

The Hatching

The Hatching: A Novel (The Hatching Series), by Ezekiel Boone

I zoomed along with this book, enjoying the story and the writing, until the last few dozen pages where it irritated the hell out of me.

Trilogies and series books have become a publishing necessity these days. With thousands of books published each year book buyers have become naturally skittish about trying out new authors. Once an author develops a hit it’s a different story. Good books are referred by friends, librarians, reviews, and other means and a book will take on its own momentum. Meanwhile, once an author finds a mojo publishers love nothing more than encouraging that author to produce more in the same theme or with the same characters. Among mystery writers the first I remember noticing was Sue Grafton starting with A is for Alibi. She’s now up to Y and who knows what she does after Z. Maybe she’ll take on diacritics. Janet Evanovich is one of many following that tradition with her numbered Stephanie Plum books. And to be fair, the tradition goes back further than Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. A loveable character or theme can be a gold mine for authors and publishers.

Despite being part of a series these books have something in common: A beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. Even with Tolkien each LOTR book can be read and enjoyed as a piece. Each volume in the trilogy stands on its own. This experience is what Ezekiel Boone and his publisher cheat us out of with The Hatching (to which, as nearly every book seems to add for gravitas, they added :A Novel) by creating a book with an intentionally squishy ending.

It’s all the more irritating as it’s a good book. It reminded me a bit of Michael Crichton or Stephen King, stitching together episodic moments from a variety of characters. The main plot is that an ancient and blood-thirsty variety of spiders has managed to hatch again after nearly 10,000 years of dormancy. Among the characters we meet are an FBI agent who finds one of the spiders after a plane from South America crashes near a school, an entomologist who specializes in spiders and who also (luckily) is the ex-wife of the Chief of Staff for the first female president, and a female Marine sergeant tasked with helping keep a city under quarantine. They’re good characters with more-than-average depth. The story is interesting and the science stretched but credible. The pace is nice and the spiders are icky and interesting. Then the book closes with a “tune in next episode” feeling without really coming to a catharsis on anything, instead leaving a series of epilogues with all the characters as if it were the close of the Batman TV series.

The brain needs harmony. When I was taking music classes in college I would watch musicians cringe when a teacher would stop a group a few bars before returning to the root note. If the music was in C you could hear students quietly humming a C while the teacher talked just to get that sense of resolution. The same is true in a book. You’ve invested time in a set of characters, lived with them through their problems and adventures, and expect a sense of resolution at the end. It doesn’t have to be 100%. We know Stephanie Plum will never choose between her two love interests. A continuing thread is different from a cliff-hanger. I doubt I’ll spend money on the next book to find out if Boone has cleaned up his act.


The Call

The Call, by Peadar O’Guilin

This offbeat YA fantasy set in Ireland has a Hunger Games feel but is more firmly in the fantasy genre. Ireland is suffering revenge from leprechaun-like creatures called the Sidhe (pronounced like Sheba but with a d) who have begun taking revenge on Ireland for a 1000-year-old dispute. For the last 25 years teens have begun disappearing for 3 minutes 4 seconds in what is now known as “The Call”. As if it were the rapture their clothes remain behind. Time is apparently compressed during that time and the victims of the call arrive in the land of the Sidhe where they are hunted and tortured. Some survive. Most don’t.

The nation has developed a system of survival colleges where teens are put through intense training to help them survive the call. Their trainers are themselves survivors. It’s into this atmosphere that Nessa, the main character and also a polio survivor, is dropped.

Because the object of the survival colleges is to toughen the students so that they can live to the age where they can have their own children the environment within the colleges is nearly as violent as what the Sidhe dole out. Cliques develop and often the most violent and semi-sociopathic rise to leadership.

Nessa, as a heroine, is interesting. Despite being post-polio she manages to get by on upper body strength. During training she’s not allowed crutches, having to improvise things during training because when called she’ll be naked and alone.

The Sidhe are bizarre little sociopaths themselves who can remold bodies with a touch. Dead or alive those called return with strange changes to their bodies or faces. The survivors are also scarred emotionally.

The story begins to turn around one character in the school, Connor, who believes he is the greatest of the students and is upset because Nessa isn’t attracted to him. While the action of the book is maintained the motivations start to get weird. Maybe it’s something teens could relate to. For me I found myself thinking “Really, that’s the secret under all of this?”

It’s an action-filled book, motivation or no, with enough weird sadism from humans and Sidhe alike to make the book memorably squirm-worthy. The end has a reasonably good feel to it though it’s clear that more books are considered, as the closing leaves lots of openings for more. It may be a tough push uphill given the few interesting additional characters beyond Nessa.

I don’t think this book will have the general appeal for adults that Hunger Games did. Nessa is no Katniss and the premise is even weirder. But for teens, and adults with a taste for Irish lore, it will be a fun adventure book.

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