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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

All These Worlds

All These Worlds (Bobiverse, Volume 3), by Dennis E. Taylor

Volume 1 of the Bobiverse introduced us to the original Bob. Bob #1. A computer programmer with a term in his will that he be cryogenically preserved is struck by a bus in Las Vegas and wakes up to find himself installed as the artificial intelligence of a spaceship designed to find new places for humans to go after a horrible war.

Bob finds that he can copy his entire mind into other spaceships and copies himself dozens of times. But each new copy offers a unique personality. It’s Bob, but not quite Bob. Each new copy takes on a new name after favorite things in Bob’s life, mostly cartoon characters and science fiction heroes. This continues through Volume 2, where we also see the horrors of The Others, a strange alien race that will find a planet, strip it of all minerals, and eat any living beings whether they are intelligent or not. Because of attacks by the Bobs they have decided to head to earth.

Now in Volume 3, there are hundreds of Bobs, each running his own ship with self-replicators. One of the Bobs has advanced the creation of androids to the point that Bob and his many copies can inhabit these to live with people again, with all the sensory benefits. The original Bob has chosen an android that looks like the first intelligent race he found in Volume 1. This race has one highly intelligent being, who Bob dubs Archimedes, who has the skills to teach his people how to use flints and stone weapons for protection. Bob has disguised himself as one of the race because of his fondness for Archimedes.

Another Bob has taken on human form to romance a beautiful redhead scientist, the one whose husband was killed in an accident in an earlier book. Still another is determined to protect earth from The Others.

Dennis Taylor brings a great deal of humor to his books. This book, however, adds poignancy to the mix. The Bobs have been immortal for a long time. They’ve watched friends age and die. They miss many of the physical parts of being human rather than communicating as the mind of a space ship.

Taylor has produced books with the best features of a space opera — adventure, battles, aliens, vast dimensions — with a very funny and touching trio of books. At times it’s a little dizzying to jump from Bob to Bob to Bob as each part of the plot develops, but in other ways that adds to the excitement. Part of the fun of fiction is the stuff not told between chapters that lead from one scene/act to another. With so many Bobs in the mix the narrative speeds by, with a simple name at the start of each chapter to help track your location in the galaxy.

 

Island of the Lost

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, Joan Druett

In 1864 Thomas Musgrave and  François Raynal set out with a crew of three in a small schooner called Grafton from Australia. Funded by one of Musgrave’s uncles and a partner, both clothiers, they managed to buy Grafton, though provisioning the schooner was mostly a war of need over budget, with the clothiers declining to buy anchor chain that was heavy or long enough.

The goal was to search for a legendary island that was reputed to have an incredible supply of copper. Having made far less than they had hoped in the Australian gold rush Musgrave and Raynal were hoping to make their fortunes by locating, mapping, and claiming the island.

Instead, Grafton was to founder on Aukland Island, 285 miles south of New Zealand. A 20-mile long chunk of rock inhabited by sea lions and a few remnants from settlers who abandoned the island long before.

Joan Druett does a wonderful job of combining stories from conflicting diaries and memoirs of the survivors. What sifts out is an amazing story of heroism and creativity. Though the “silent partners” promised that they would notify rescuers if the schooner failed to return within four months (Musgrave had misgivings about the poor provisions) his uncle ultimately waited over a year before informing anyone that the ship was missing. Musgrave, Rayal, and crew ended up pulling pieces off the ruined Grafton and building a smaller boat to attempt to make it to New Zealand. This included creating a bellows and forge in order to make nails, nearly as miraculous as making their own cement using sand with baked and powdered sea shells to create quicklime.

Odder still, another group was stranded on the other end of the island but was rescued by a Spanish ship. The island was so craggy and mountainous that the two groups never realized they were sharing the same strip of land.

The story of the four survivors creating shelter and finding their way home would stretch the imagination as fiction. For animal lovers, there are some graphic descriptions of hunting seals and seal pups for food, Other than that it’s a great adventure history. Published in 2007 the book is available in print, Kindle, and Audible versions.

 

The Pen and the Sword

The Pen and the Sword (Destiny’s Crucible, Volume 2), by Olan Thorensen

This is the second volume of Olan Thorensen’s Destiny’s Crucible series that began with Cast Under an Alien Sun. In the first book chemist Joe Colsco is flying on an airliner that crashes into an alien vessel. The AI in the alien vessel manages to save and repair Joe, the only survivor, but tells him he can either be placed on a planet with a human civilization or be painlessly ended. In either case he can’t return to earth because of the risk that he’ll disclose their surveillance of the planet.

Joe chooses life and is placed on a planet with a human population that has advanced to around the 17th or 18th century. In the first book he is gradually accepted into the population, learns the language, and becomes a kind of Edison figure, introducing innovations like kerosene lamps and fertilizers.

Also in the first book it becomes clear that the militant Narthani are attempting to conquer the island of Caedellium where Joe’s adopted people live. In this book the Narthani plot takes up most of the action of the book. The Narthani have already taken over some of the small states on the island and have been using mercenaries and spies to continue their plan.

Joe, who the locals call Yosef Kolsko, must now use his inventiveness to try to create adequate weapons for defense. The aliens who left him on this planet added nanotechnology to help him in several ways. His memory for things he’s read has been enhanced, he can heal fast, and because of the higher gravity he’s been given some enhanced strength.

Though he’s had to become involved in this new military threat, he would much rather help the people around him advance their knowledge. To do that he’s talked to a local abbot about creating a university where scholars can exchange knowledge to bring out new knowledge. Because his projects in book one were so financially successful he proposes to fund much of this project.

As it stands, he must try to build cannons and other weapons through trial and error, trying to figure out the proper way to forge and cast weapons. Because of his enhanced memory he is also a valuable resource for local leaders because of his knowledge of historic battle strategies.

Also carrying forward is his romance with the daughter of a local leader, a romance that nearly ended with a kiss in book one.

As with the first volume, it’s fun to watch Joe’s ingenuity in solving problems and in helping to work out tactics during battles. He’s not necessarily heroic, but his thinking is so intense that he ends up being in the middle of battles simply because he becomes so focused on solving problems.

This book ends in a climactic battle and, while the book comes to a good conclusion, it’s clear that more will have to be done to foil the Narthani threat.

Fun books with adorable characters. Joe’s unusual personality and his introduction of things like running for pleasure make him a much talked-about person to the locals, but they still enjoy his company, his humor, and his many gifts of new ideas that make their lives better. These are books that fly by and leave the reader sorry they’re over.

 

 

 

Blood, Salt, Water

Blood, Salt, Water: An Alex Morrow Novel, by Denise Mina

Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow has been featured in five books by Denise Mina. This was the last (so far) and was published in 2015. Mina is a diverse writer and her works have included novels, plays, radio plays, comics, and graphic novels.

Alex Morrow is a wonderfully complex character and it has been interesting to follow her progress through all five books. She’s a detective in a smaller city in Scotland. She has an “anger management” problem and an authority issue. By this book she is married, has twin sons, and her half-brother, a gang figure who figured in the earlier books, is now in prison. Alex helped put him there in book four.

The book is written from several different perspectives. It begins with an ex-con named Ian who has killed a woman and helped to dump her body in a lake. This is the first crime that Morrow must help solve. It also tells the story of the owner of a local restaurant who finds himself involved with a woman who has returned to town, but who was familiar with both the restaurant owner and Ian when they were learning sailing in school.

In addition to the murder, Morrow is also following up on the disappearance of a beautiful Italian woman who is suspected of doing money laundering. She has become a subject of particular interest because whichever department can claim jurisdiction on her arrest will benefit from her seized assets, very attractive at a time of budget cuts and closed constabularies.

Another theme running through the book is the separatist vote in Scotland which ultimately failed but was at an emotional peak by the time this book was published.

Mina manages to flesh out the backgrounds of the main characters of interest as she weaves the stories together, finally revealing a plot twist more unusual than even the dense and moody mystery would suggest.

Though part of a series, it’s a fine stand-alone book that needs no catching up to dig into the story. Morrow is a hard and intelligent detective who is fun to follow, and there are other fascinating characters to carry the story along.

 

 

Washington’s Immortals

Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution, by Patrick K. O’Donnell

After one or two books on the American Revolution one gets a sense of most of the great battles and movements of the war. Because of the presence of Washington through the course of the war, most histories tend to concentrate on battles in which he was involved even when, later in the war, most of the action was taking place in the southern states and far away from Washington’s direct control.

Rather than being a broad-strokes history Washington’s Immortals focuses on volunteers from the Maryland Colony who happened to be involved in many of the major battles through the entire revolution. This adds some extra detail to battles in the southern states fought under the likes of Nathaniel Greene and Robert E. Lee’s father “Light Horse Harry” Lee. These were the battles that put pressure on Cornwallis helping to push the British toward surrender. The northern battles rocked the British but the southern battles finally knocked the legs from under them.

Not that the Maryland troops missed the northern battles. The book opens with the story of the Battle of Long Island under Washington’s command, and the death of nearly 250 volunteers. The location of their mass grave in Brooklyn is still a matter of speculation. They were also present at Valley Forge and crossing the Delaware to conquer the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey.

O’Donnell does an excellent job of culling information from diaries, memoirs, pensioner claims, and memories recorded by children of many of the men (and some women) in these battles. The most interesting histories will often give focus to a single event or individual to help the reader track the information as a narrative rather than a jumble of dates and events. O’Donnell mostly succeeds here, though with so many different soldier stories I found myself perking up when there were names I recognized, such was Washington, Hamilton, Greene, Ethan Allen, and others.

O’Donnell does an excellent job of covering the whole experience of war. Going beyond battles he deals with the political infighting among commanders, black volunteers, camp followers, diseases, surgery, and the infamous British prison ships where many captured Americans died and were tossed into the sea. He also covers some of the issues on the “Loyalist” side, those Americans who saw patriotism as supporting England and the king. Having ancestors on both sides it’s nice to see them all treated fairly.

Many of the early battles in the book are familiar territory, but with the added interest of new diary reports and the concentration of some individual campaigns. On the whole, an excellent book for those interested in early American history. It’s an immersive and humane book offering some unique perspectives.

 

The Cold Dish

The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery (#1), by Craig Johnson

This is the first volume in the Walt Longmire series of mysteries, now containing thirteen novels as well as some shorter works. These generated a TV series now in its sixth and final season.

It’s an extremely fine book, which doesn’t always happen with a best seller but is a pleasant surprise when it does. Walt Longmire is the sheriff of a fictional Wyoming county with a small population and attached to a nearby reservation. Longmire is a Vietnam vet and lives alone in a cabin that he stopped working on when his wife died of cancer. The department he runs has a small staff of oddball deputies and one that he is fond of and is afraid of losing to a better opportunity. This is Vic, who came from a law enforcement family in New Jersey, was well-trained in her first job, and has followed her husband to Wyoming for his oil engineering work.

The first signs of the first murder begin on page one, and soon into the book it appears that someone is targeting the perpetrators in one of the toughest crimes Longmire has had to deal with, the rape of a young native woman suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome by four local white teens. The first murder victim is one of the teens. The murders are unusual, seemingly shot at long range by an antique single-shot Sharps.

The town has almost too many potential suspects. The native community was outraged that the teens received light sentences, the father of the girl owns a matching rifle, and Walt even begins suspecting his best friend and fellow vet Henry Standing Bear. It doesn’t help that after four years of being a widower Walt is starting to attract attention from some of the local women, including a wealthy local who Walt knew as a teen and even Vic, who’s having trouble with her husband.

It’s a tightly written mystery with terrific action, wonderful humor, and a prolonged winter rescue that is tense while it manages to have overtones of native mysticism. The final reveal is a tragedy in itself and the last part of the book has Longmire hiding out in his cabin and trying to drink his way back to sanity.

This is one of those series that I came to late and I am looking forward to reading more, though I have to say I wonder whether Johnson has been able to maintain this high quality of writing through the whole series. It’s one of those things a person has to find out a book at a time.

 

The Cosmic Serpent

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origin of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby

Jeremy Narby was doing anthropology field work with a community in the Peruvian Amazon called the Quirishari in the mid-1980s. It was there he had his first experiences with a hallucinogen called ayahuasca. His experiences with the substance, and his talks with others in the community about their experiences, were a major source of many of the speculations found in the latter part of the book.

From Narby’s interviews he realized that there were coincidences in the experience of many of the users of the plant, that these further coincided with what he was taught about native medicine among Amazon people and his further study into DNA.

Narby seems to realize as much as anyone that coincidences do not a medical revolution make, but he hopes his ideas inspire deeper scientific investigations.

Among his observations:

Those who drink the brew made from the ayahuasca experience several visual hallucinations that give them what they believe are deeper understandings of plants for medication found throughout the rainforest. They and users of other plant-based hallucinogens frequently have visions about serpents intertwined. Those he was studying believe that the serpent is the ultimate life principal. Narby also points to several coincidental religious icons featuring similar symbols, down to the medical caduceus which originated with the Greeks. Ayahuasca, by the way, also grows in a serpentine shape.

The Quirishari believe that the plants they harvest often have symbolic shapes to help identify their uses, such as a plant used to counteract snake bites having fang-like structures on the leaves.

DNA is very similar visually to the intertwined serpents. He wonders if this, in some way, is what is being represented in these mystical visions. He then goes on to list some of the more amazing facts about DNA. Each strand of DNA is made up of just four molecules in various regular combinations. A strand is only 10 atoms wide but the strands in a single cell would stretch out to about 3 meters (6 feet) in length. If you could glue these tiny strings end to end from all the cells in your body they would stretch 744 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers).

Narby then extends this idea out further. Every cell and every living organism has DNA, and human cells have some of the same markers found in yeast, one of the oldest organisms. This means somewhere in the seas these four nucleobases were formed, linked together in a way that encoded information, found a way into cells, found a handy enzyme to split the coils into identical halves once in a while to reproduce, and gradually came to inhabit the earth with living descendants.

This leads to other speculations on the source of DNA … chance or an otherworldly hand? But beyond these speculations Narby hopes for deeper research into the hallucinogens at a chemical level as well as the interactions with other living beings, and also hopes that these speculations will also lead to greater advances in pharmacology and medicine.

This is the kind of book almost designed to start arguments among scientists, and I’m sure those have happened over the past 18 years since the first publication. Many of the questions about DNA had already been asked, though not always answered. In some ways a new speculation in science gets an immediate dismissal from some but will sometimes gain a foothold for overall acceptance. Pangea made sense to every school child who’d studied a globe but took most of a century to become accepted science. It was a similar process when a Catholic priest first suggested the “big bang” as first cause of the universe.  In Narby’s case Materialism may be the ultimate winner, but that doesn’t keep it from getting a challenge now and then. When it is challenged it’s fun to watch and ponder.

 

A Thread of Grace

A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell became one of my favorite writers after I read her only two books that fall into the science fiction genre: The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God, both of which rank high on my list of favorite books.

A Roman Catholic, Russell’s books frequently involve religious, and particularly Catholic, figures. Even her books on Doc Holliday feature Catholic missionaries. With this comes a Catholic sensibility regarding sin, redemption, grace, and, because it is what it is, the politics within the church itself.

Italy had generally lived in peace with its Jewish population following the revolution of 1848, and even under early Fascism generally ignored German demands to begin deporting Jews to the concentration camps. It wasn’t until 1943, when Allied troops began invading, that Jews were put on trains for deportation. Even today in major Italian cities there are monuments highlighting this national shame.

Though the government cooperated there was growing resistance among citizens, often led either by priests and other religious or by leftist partisans.

Russell outlines this epic underground resistance in this book. Introducing scores of characters, with dozens in major roles in the narrative, she describes the struggle to hide and protect Jewish families. Some of those are fellow Italians, some exiled from France and Spain, and still others still trying to make their way by foot over the Alps hoping for sanctuary in Italy.

It’s also the story, to a lesser degree, of Germans and a few sympathetic Italians still trying to gather Jews to deport them to death camps even as the Reich begins to collapse. The Germans, who had largely left Italy to Mussolini up to this point, also begin to take a larger role in managing Italian police and border guards, and of retaliations against deaths of German officers and soldiers by killing random citizens at a ratio of 50 to 1 or more.

Because only limited groups were allowed to travel after curfew, including priests and doctors, they became instrumental in supplying money, food, and false identification to those Italians harboring Jews. The book also focuses a great deal on Jewish children given false names and Christian identities so they could hide in Catholic convent schools.

The book has a broad arc, focusing on a handful of people to tell the story, but surrounding them with an incredible variety of other faces and voices, from children to ancient old Italian women living in small farm villages throughout northern Italy. Russell manages to bring them to life in just a few words giving the reader an immersive experience from start to finish. It’s filled with heroism and horror appropriate for the time and place yet still takes time to allow the characters time for self-examination.

It’s a phenomenal book and, now that I’ve finished the complete Russell canon, puts me in a position of either having to re-read them all or hope she comes out with another book. This could be a wait, as she only publishes every three to four years.

 

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

At sixteen Starr Carter straddles two worlds. There’s the poor neighborhood where she was raised and where her father operates a local store, and then there’s the prep school where her parents send her and her two brothers. For her parents this offers some protection from drive-by shootings, one of which has already taken one of Starr’s friends. But it also places her slightly apart in both worlds.

This begins to accelerate out of control when Kahlil, a friend from age three, drives her home from a party. On the way they’re pulled over for a traffic stop during which Kahlil is shot three times by a policeman. The shocking event puts Starr in conflict with almost everyone around her: her policeman uncle, local gangs, police investigators, friends at school, and her own family. As the investigation and grand jury inquiry continue the neighborhood where she lives becomes more restless and outraged. Starr must make a decision whether to stay an anonymous witness to what she knows is a murder or to take part in activism.

It’s a stunning and carefully written book that gives a rare black perspective to something that, with nearly everyone carrying a handheld camera, has received greater focus and attention. Thomas has filled the book with a wide variety of characters including a white friend from school who manages to sprinkle talk with racially charged comments, a white boyfriend who tries to fit into and understand her life, and a gang lord married to her half-brother’s mother.

Starr makes a wonderful transition from fear to courage in the book, supported by a father who has raised his children with ideas from the Black Panthers’ 10-Point Program and sayings from generations of black civil rights leaders.

It’s a moving and sometimes painful book which, though intended for a young adult audience, could have a powerful impact on a reader from any age or any race. It’s insightful and loving with a main character worth emulating.

 

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