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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Month

May 2017

NPCs

NPCs (Spells, Swords & Stealth #1), by Drew Hayes

I can’t really say why, but now and then I pick up a book that tries to turn role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons into a narrative. Most are pretty awful with attempts to bring excitement to a world of rolling strangely shaped dice to control spells, wizardry and combat.

This book takes an interesting twist by focusing not on the main characters but on the non-playing characters (NPCs). If you haven’t played one of these games, these are the characters who you meet on your quest and interact (normally fight) with. “You enter a tavern,” the dungeon master intones. “Near the bar stand a dwarf, a ninja, and a buxom bar wench.”

This book starts out with a narrative close to this but then takes a Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author) twist. As the players imagine they’re traveling on a quest in a new game their characters hit an event that leaves the four of them dead at a tavern table. The narrative then picks up with the passive characters who search the bodies and find papers saying that the four have been invited by the king to take part in a quest. Conveniently the names have been left off the papers and the four characters decide to take up the quest.

As they take up the quest they find out that something odd is happening in their world, with strange adventurers (game players) arriving and killing or dying with little apparent motivation.

Hayes makes the story work with four characters who are all easy to like, even a half-Orc who finds a magical book that allows him to begin experimenting with magic. They work together to fight off evil creatures as well as an elf who guards a magical item that controls the alien adventurers but can’t seem to touch the four citizens of this world who’ve taken on an alien quest.

The four interact in fun ways and the action is clear and well-written. The book comes to a nice end with room for a sequel.

As these books tend to go this one is a welcome change on trying to animate something that can be dull enough in real life without being turned into a novel-length narrative. It even makes some winking commentaries on the idiotic aggressiveness of the human players compared to the NPCs. A fun book for teens and gaming enthusiasts. Interesting if not compelling for pure fantasy fans and other summer readers.

 

 

Bad Dreams and Other Stories

Bad Dreams and Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley

This is a collection of ten short stories by English writer Tessa Hadley. The following stories are included in the book:

The Abduction
The Stain
Deeds Not Words
One Saturday Morning
Experience
Bad Dreams
Delight
Under the Sign of the Moon
Her Share of Sorrow
Silk Brocade

 

I’m a fan of the short story form and get that a short story has limited room to do its work. Still, within its limits, a story can be powerful way to convey a time, place, emotion, or to introduce the reader to unusual characters. I don’t want to summarize all the stories but just give a taste of some of the highs and lows.

Hadley’s editor was right to start with “The Abduction”, as it was the most affecting story in the book for me. Set in the 60s in England it deals with a girl in her teens. She’s back from school in a home where she’s barely noticed by her family when a trio of strange boys pick her up for a drive. They talk her into stealing alcohol and head to the home of one of the boys. It’s an interesting cast of characters in an unusual story in which she’s taken almost as a mascot, feels herself competing for the attention of one of the boys with another girl, and eventually makes her way home with her parents barely noticing she was gone. The story ends in an odd way with a brief “what happened” to summary of the characters later in life.

“The Stain” is an interesting story about a housekeeper whose perspective on her employer takes a sudden turn when she learns more about his past.

“One Saturday Night” tells of a girl who watches from overhead as a friend of the family expresses his passion for the girl’s mother.

The story that gives the book its title, “Bad Dreams”, is brief but shows an interesting event in the night, a woman’s misinterpretation, and how that changes her marriage.

These stories are relatively tight with interesting characters, quirky events, and weave in bits of detail that make them a pleasure to read. Other stories don’t hold up as well.

“Deeds Not Words” and “Silk Brocade” are both period pieces that seem to rely more on sentiment than solid storytelling. The first is set before WWI featuring a suffragette teacher and her trysts with a married man while the second story begins before the second world war and follows a piece of brocade into the 70s. The latter story seems more intent on trying to create a tragic atmosphere than to show any change or transition in the characters.

It’s an uneven collection, sometimes relying a great deal on inner monologue to push the story along. But there are interesting human insights in several of the stories and people who often seem to act against type. With fewer popular magazine outlets for short stories the form has tended to lose its way the past few decades, remaining mostly an artifact of MFA programs. This book has several stories that rise above that to actually communicate something between writer and reader making it a step above a lot of the literary quarterly short fiction still being produced.

The Secrets of Story

The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers, by Matt Bird

Matt Bird has an MFA from Columbia and has been working as a screenplay writer since then. In this book he tries to capsulize what he learned after Columbia as well as some of the things from Columbia he had to reject once he began his career.

This book is filled with interesting advice using real world examples, both from Bird’s own experiences along with some notable and expensive Hollywood failures from a variety of writers. The focus of the book rarely crosses out of film into novels and stories, but there’s a lot to be said for using the condensed limits of a film script as a guide for working in longer and non-visual forms.

Bird presents ideas on getting attention at the start, setting mood, creating realistic dialogue, taking feedback or notes from other writers (or directors/producers if that’s your focus), rewriting, building tension, and, most importantly for Bird, creating characters the reader/viewer will care about and why that’s different from having a character who’s likeable.

With his focus on film he uses examples from film, most of them familiar, as examples for his ideas. If you are a fan of film this makes the book easy to relate to, there were hardly any movies used with which I wasn’t familiar. If you’re not a great moviegoer you might have more trouble seeing things as Bird does.

I can see this book as being a worthwhile guide and inspiration for someone just starting as a writer. I can also see it helping a writer lost in the deep woods with a story, novel, or screenplay to help them sort out why something didn’t click or why a piece isn’t selling. There are plenty of new angles provided for looking at a work, even a 120 item checklist at the end, to review characters, plot, pacing, dialogue, story arc, and writing a satisfying ending.

As of this writing the book is #25 at Amazon in the Kindle writing skills category and in the top 100 for printed books in that category. As a reader and only sometimes writer I can only hope that this means better writing is on the way from those reading the book. I doubt it, but I can remain hopeful. My feeling is that most writers improve by reading more and better writing from others, but even then a book like this can add a lot of clarity on what makes some writing better than others.

 

What is the Bible?

What is the Bible?: How  an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, by Rob Bell

This book is close in spirit to Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, but with an even broader perspective. It’s also one of the few books I’ve run into that reflects a feeling I’ve had about the Bible for some time: That it’s not so much an instruction book as an ongoing history of our understanding of God.

Part of the heart of the book is in a word used in the title. The Bible is an ancient library, a collection of writings over several thousand year, written as the Jewish people collected their traditional stories about their history during the Babylonian exile through the daring redefinition of those writings by Jesus and the continuation of that message by Paul and other writers and apostles.

Bell is willing to say out loud that yes the Bible contradicts itself and in many places, because in some ways it is one generation arguing with another and because writing was rare and precious and some stories passed on orally were modified over time. In addition, the writers had a point of view and selected parts of the story they were telling that most reflected their message to the reader.

What Bell asks a modern reader to do is to confront the Bible with questions while reading. Why was this written? Why was this moment included? What would this have meant to a person in the same time and place as the writer that may be lost on someone living, say, in 21st century Vancouver, BC, far away from deserts, tribes, and near constant war?

More importantly, he urges the reader to read in context, avoiding the tendency to latch onto a verse that may satisfy an inner conviction despite the fact that it may be contradicted or explained in a different light a few verses later. In other words, approaching the writing free of agenda and letting the writing do what it is intended to do.

Bell takes on several examples from the Bible with a fresh point of view including the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Jonah, the good Samaritan, and the woman charged with adultery. In each he gives a greater context for the stories being told.

Bell also describes his own frustrations with those who are afraid that if the Bible isn’t completely true that it risks being completely false. These people, he asserts, are asking the wrong questions about the text as well as arguing for something that doesn’t exist in the Bible itself.

It was an interesting and refreshing book written in a very conversational style with compassion and humor. An excellent book for anyone interested in Bible history, exegesis, or thought starters for sermons and homilies.

 

The Children of Henry VIII

The Children Henry VIII, by Alison Weir

I picked this up as a follow-up to Henry VIII: The King and His Court, also by Weir, for a better understanding of what went into Henry’s succession on the throne.

The key character in the drama turns out to be John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, perhaps the most scheming, greedy, and treacherous figures in either history or literature. It’s really his activity in trying to get the government after Henry to work in his favor that created the imbalance of four successors to Henry within a few years, a minor civil war, and pushing England in its final move toward Protestantism.

Henry left a clear will. After his death the order of succession was to be his only surviving son Edward VI. After that Mary (his daughter by Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (his daughter by Anne Boleyn) were to take the crown in that order. Despite naming himself head of the Church of England and confiscating a great deal of church property Henry also still considered himself a loyal Catholic and left orders in his will that any successor should protect the faith.

Edward was intelligent though not as tenaciously physical as his father. He was leaning to Protestantism by the time he reached the throne and the book contains letters between Edward and his older sister Mary (who was half Spanish) imploring her to convert as well. Northumberland maneuvered to become the major guide of and power behind Edward, filling his pockets from the treasury and influencing him as much as possible.

When it was becoming obvious that Edward was ill (probably tuberculosis) and would die before holding the throne in his own right Northumberland began a deeper plot. He married his young son Guildford to Lady Jane Grey, then 15, because she was a granddaughter of Henry’s sister Mary Tudor. He then encouraged Edward while on his deathbed to overrule Henry’s will with his own, leaving the crown to Lady Jane.

The main problem here was that Henry’s will had been already endorsed by Parliament, leaving little legal question about the true heir. But when you’re trying to take over a government and insert your son as king what are some legal niceties to get in the way?

Lady Jane is now remembered mostly as “The nine-day queen.” Mostly against her will she accepted the marriage and the crown. When Edward died Northumberland moved to gather forces to defend the succession. The country, however, was still mostly Catholic and knew their oats when it came to royalty. It also didn’t help that Northumberland had managed to become one of the most disliked peers in England. His plans collapsed, forces loyal to Mary prevailed, and thus began the reign of “Bloody Mary”, who was so ruthless in her revenge on Protestants that even Catholics moved away from her.

Meanwhile Elizabeth, legally considered the bastard child of Henry and Anne Boleyn, grew up in fear of her life from around the age of 8. Having deeply Catholic Mary on the throne did nothing to ease her mind.

While it receives a little mention in the book, it would be interesting to see Weir do a full book on Northumberland. His father was executed by Henry’s father. Northumberland was taken in and raised by another family, became a famous admiral, and worked his way back up to one of the highest ranks in the country. Other than his greed it would be interesting to spend more time considering his motivations for what became the last few years of his life before his and dozens of other heads rolled under Mary I.

Weir weaves all of this and much more together in a book that manages to be sympathetic to all but the most awful acts of the people involved. Especially regarding Jane Grey and the three royal children she paints a fascinating portrait of people who tried to hold true to their beliefs while in a time of dangerous instability. For any history fan or fan of royal intrigue this is a terrific book.

 

 

 

 

Scale

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies, by Geoffrey West

This is an amazing book with a broad perspective on the statistical foundations of how things are born, grow, and die. Beyond just the life of plants and animals it expands its thinking into the life cycles of economies, corporations, and cities (the last of these apparently being the only immortal entity on the list).

Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist and former president of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Ten or fifteen years ago he began to wonder whether the mathematics of his discipline could be applied to other sciences. He found a major gap in the study of biology where there was a great deal of information gathering and identification but few attempts to answer questions out of the information gathered using statistics. West wanted to see if there could be insights into some of the fundamental questions of biology. Why do things die? Why can animals only reach certain sizes, and beyond that how did whales become so big?

In biology he found startling comparisons, that the arterial systems of animals compare in design and scale to plants and trees. He found that arterial systems branch out uniformly to the point that blood stops surging but flows through capillary branches. He found the math almost identical to the way limbs and channels branched off in trees until reaching the constant flow in leaves. He learned that animals have nearly identical systems, from the smallest shrew to the whale, and that once you know, say, the size of kidneys in one you can calculate the same in other animals. More importantly, perhaps, he notes that the increased size of animals creates efficiencies so that an animal that is double the size of another needs far less than double the caloric energy.

This efficiency of scale transfers using the same mathematical constants to non-living entities. West found that cities grow at the same uniform scales, so that knowing the population of a city will allow you to make calculations on statistics such as the number of attorneys, the number of restaurants, the number of residential units, etc., with only small variations on some items that will define the unique personality of a city.

West also found comparisons of scale for corporations, with great similarities among all sizes, and identified a life cycle of birth, growth, and death lasting around half a century for those that survived the first five years.

Because the math used in all the different areas is consistent it’s easy to grasp (even for this liberal arts major) and it’s fascinating to watch these ideas redevelop in areas that seem so widely divergent.

West is a personable writer and includes information about how these discoveries were worked out with researchers in the different fields and even occasional talk about his children, such as calculating quantities of medications for his infant son.

There are also enlightening discussions on logarithmic scales and visualizations to help understand what exponential means and the alarming things it could mean for population growth.

The book moves from topic to topic with just enough time spent on each so the reader feels neither cheated nor overwhelmed in each, with every section building on the last. It’s an excellent book for anyone interested in health, public policy, economics, or management.

 

Some Danger Involved

Some Danger Involved: A Novel (Barker & Llewelyn, Vol. 1), by Will Thomas

This is the first of a series of detective stories set in late 19th Century London originally published in 2004. It introduces two new detectives: Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn.

Barker is an established consulting detective working in London. While some of his background is revealed through the book it’s less clear what his relationship is with Scotland Yard. Thomas Llewelyn was born into poverty in Wales but showed exceptional skills in school and was sponsored through “public school” (English private school) and a start at Oxford. He’s also spent some time in prison, for reasons better revealed by the author at the appropriate time.

The book centers around the murder of a Jewish man found crucified on a telegraph pole. Barker and his new assistant are hired by a leading rabbi of the Jewish community (conveniently related to Baron Rothschild) to get to the root of the murder. Because of the expanding population of Jewish refugees from the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe there have been increasing incidents of anti-Jewish actions and speeches in London. Not unlike refugee infusions in other times and places the newly arrived Jews are accused of taking jobs away from native English.

 

Hill gives both detectives interesting histories. Barker is the son of missionaries who traveled to and died in China, leaving Barker to fend for himself at age 11. Some of his struggle to survive are told through the book, other things are a bit more mysterious, such as who might have taught him to throw an English penny with deadly accuracy. He clearly has other martial arts skills. Despite his coming across as somewhat surly in the book he’s open minded and unprejudiced about his Jewish clients and still speaks Mandarin like a native, allowing him access to the Chinese community in Limehouse as well.

Barker also keeps an interesting cook and butler in his employ, a French chef who met Barker in China and a clearly gay butler who is quick to back up his employer with a shotgun when needed. There are other interesting side characters woven through the book that are rarely treated as just props but rather seem to have actual lives beyond the story.

It’s not the greatest detective story written but it’s entertaining. Some things in the book seemed a little anachronistic but the discord between Jewish and Christian factions adds some interest. I can’t say the reveal was effective or interesting, and the action during the reveal seemed a little muddled, but not bad enough that I’d be put off looking into another book in the series.

 

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins Mystery), by Walter Mosley

This is a book written in 1990, the first book published by Walter Mosley. It features a detective main character named Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins who Mosley would return to in several more books. The book was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington in the Rawlins role in 1995.

The book is set in 1948 and Rawlins is a WWII veteran who, during the war, was able to break out of the Army jobs reserved for blacks at the start of the war by volunteering to be part of the Normandy invasion. The war altered his perspective at deep levels. After the war he escaped his native Houston and settled in Watts to find work that paid well in the still-booming Los Angeles area. There he’s the proud owner of a small house.

After refusing to work overtime Rawlins is now out of work and while at a bar, after a recommendation by the bartender, he’s hired by a white detective to help look for a woman named Daphne Monet. She’s white and the detective says she likes hanging out in black bars and nightclubs, areas where the white detective wouldn’t be welcome.

Mosley started writing in his mid-thirties, a fan of the noir detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The book echoes that hard-boiled era of crime fiction. But as much as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe had challenges with the LAPD Rawlins has to face them as an individual who has no rights in the eyes of the law.

A key witness to Monet’s whereabouts ends up dead and Rawlins is a key suspect. The rest of the book is Rawlin’s search for Monet while trying to stay clear of the police, work out the mystery behind Monet’s leaving a very wealthy “patron” who wants her back, and trying to work with the white detective who has an agenda of his own.

It’s a highly polished work, on some lists (including Mystery Writers of America) as one of the top 100 mysteries of the last century. Rawlins has earned and demands respect from the white community he has to navigate and, from his perspective, he had to kill white people in the war and doing it again is not unthinkable. It gives him an interesting edge as a main character who sometimes has to argue just to enter a building in white neighborhoods. A lot of writers have tried to copy or honor Chandler but few have matched his complexity and intensity. Mosley has.

 

 

 

Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians

Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson

This is the first of what has now become a five book series by Brandon Sanderson, who is as fun to read as he is prolific.

In the book Alcatraz Smedry is just turning 13 and has lived most of his life going from one foster family to another. On this day he receives a box in the mail containing a gift from his missing parents. The gift is a box of sand.

Angry and upset he starts a fire in the kitchen of his current foster parents. This nearly gets him moved to yet another foster home but just before this happens his grandfather, Leavenworth Smedry, appears. This starts him on an adventure when he learns that he is from a renowned family of Smedrys (so renowned that prisons are named after them) who battle evil librarians who alter the histories and atlases in their libraries to keep their deeds from an unknowing public. He also lets Alcatraz know that the sand he received is very important but they find that it’s been stolen. The remainder of the book is their quest to recover the missing sand. This is done with the help of some warriors, including a girl his age.

It’s a book filled with fun asides and mind-bending assertions, such as the idea that because the book will be found in the fiction section it just proves that the evil librarians are still distorting reality. Sanderson writes with a light touch but also creates wonderful action scenes that keep the book moving at a fast pace.

Alcatraz is the narrator and speaks directly to the reader throughout the book with lots of bright comments on how writers bend time and promise things that may happen but don’t. That near magical part of reading, in which something ends and picks up at the start of a new chapter with “The next week ….” and time is chopped up to serve the narrative, is something that goes without much notice but can puzzle pre-teen writers and readers. (I know it did for me. The hardest part of writing was knowing what to leave out and how.) I think the book would be treat for anyone 10 and above.

 

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