In which Keith reads some books: Year 2 (2024)

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In which Keith reads some books: Year 2 (2024)

1KeithChaffee
dec 25, 2023, 2:30 pm

(Just copying this first post from the Introductions topic...)

Hello!

Grew up in northern Vermont, went to school in St. Louis and Ann Arbor, now retired in Los Angeles after 31 years with the LA Public Library.

I read a lot of genre fiction, and have particular soft spots for time travel stories and locked room mysteries. My non-genre reading doesn't usually get too literary, but I might pick up one or two "serious" novels a year. In nonfiction, I mostly read about entertainment (film/TV, music, theater), LGBT issues and history, and political/Presidential/Supreme Court history.

But there are very few subjects or genres that I avoid entirely. I don't really do horror, I suppose, and I stay far away from right-wing political tracts.

This is my second year in Club Read, and it already feels like my LT "home." Much of my reading this year, though, will be driven by a different group, the Category Challenge, where I'm attempting to complete 5 different CATs/KITs (Alpha, SFF, Mystery, History, and Calendar) and the BingoDog. That's a total of 99 CAT/KIT/Dog spots to fill, and I read 50-60 books a year, so I have had great fun over the last month scouring through my TBR lists for books that fill multiple spots.

And I hope to squeeze in some reading from my major ongoing never-to-be-finished reading project -- award-nominated short SF. I hope to continue slowly making my way through the SF history, via the various "year's best" volumes and other anthologies. But I'm also going to start hopping around in that history with less strict focus on chronology, most likely by picking up best-of collections from some of the major authors in the field.

I'll have a thread of my own over in Category Challenge where I'll keep track of my progress on those challenges, but my reviews of what I read will live on my thread here in CR.

Happy reading to all!

2WelshBookworm
dec 25, 2023, 2:43 pm

That sounds ambitious, Keith! Anyway, happy retirement and happy reading to you!

3rocketjk
dec 26, 2023, 10:45 am

Good luck with your category challenge and happy reading in 2024.

4markon
dec 26, 2023, 10:52 am

Keith, I'll be especially interested in comments on the short science fiction you read. Hope you have a great reading year.

5labfs39
dec 26, 2023, 12:32 pm

Welcome back to Club Read 2024, Keith! Always nice to have a fellow New Englander in the group. Where in Vermont are you from? I lived in Norwich for a while back in the 1990s.

6KeithChaffee
Redigerat: dec 26, 2023, 1:22 pm

>5 labfs39: I grew up in Albany, which is in the middle of Orleans County. It's not really on the way to anywhere, so the only reason you'd ever find yourself there is if that's specifically where you were going. And since there's nothing touristy there, you were probably never there. As Robert Goolrick said of the small town in one of his novels, it's the kind of town that has only one of everything it has, and lots of things it doesn't even have one of.

7labfs39
dec 26, 2023, 4:40 pm

>6 KeithChaffee: LOL, the same could be said for Limerick, Maine where I grew up, and where I recently moved back. It has grown some over the intervening decades, but still skews more toward the things it doesn't have one of than the things it does.

8cindydavid4
dec 30, 2023, 11:37 am

Happy reading in 2024! looking forward to what books and stories you share

9dchaikin
jan 1, 7:34 pm

Wish you a great reading year, Keith.

10KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jan 8, 3:34 pm



1: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

(BingoDog: re-read a favorite; AlphaKit: Y; CalendarCat: Yu was born in January)

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010, and my thoughts about it haven't changed much since then. So I can't really improve on what I wrote (in another forum) then:

This lovely novel starts off well enough, as a pleasantly smart-alecky story about a time-machine repairman (who also happens to be named Charles Yu); between clients (to the extent that "between" means anything when you live in a time machine), he travels from place/time to place/time searching for his missing father. There are, eventually, the obligatory time travel paradoxes, one of which involves the future Charles handing the present Charles a book and telling him that it contains all the answers. The book, of course, is Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

And if the book were just that, it would be an amusing diversion. But while you're not looking, the novel sneaks up on you and becomes a poignant, melancholy meditation on memory -- which is, after all, its own sort of time machine -- and its cousins, nostalgia and regret.

The writing is a joy to read, and often caught me off guard with the beauty of its insights. I love, for instance, this paragraph:
Hitting the peak of your life's trajectory is not the painful part. The painful day comes earlier, comes before things start going downhill, comes when things are still good, still pretty good, still just fine. It comes when you think you are still on your way up, but you can feel that the velocity isn't there anymore, the push behind you is gone, it's all inertia from here, it's all coasting, it's all momentum, and there will be more, there will be higher days, but for the first time, it's in sight. The top. The best day of your life. There it is. Not as high as you thought it was going to be, and earlier in your life, and also closer to where you are now, startling in its closeness. That there's a ceiling to this, there's a cap, there's a best-case scenario and you are living it right now. To see that look in your parents' faces at the dinner table at ten, and not recognize it, then to see it again at eighteen and recognize it as something to recognize, and then to see it at twenty-five and to recognize it for what it is.

This is a marvelous little jewel of a book.

11dchaikin
jan 2, 1:43 pm

That’s a haunting quote. Sounds like a fun first book.

12cindydavid4
jan 2, 2:00 pm

sounds like a book Id want to read

13stretch
jan 2, 2:36 pm

>10 KeithChaffee: That sounds really interesting. Good luck with your challenges.

14KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jan 8, 3:34 pm



2: The Civil War of Amos Abernathy, Michael Leali

(BingoDog: epistolary; AlphaKit: A; HistoryCat: American Wars and Conflicts)

Juvenile fiction, aimed at middle schoolers.

Amos is a junior volunteer at the Local History Park, doing a variety of late 19th-century re-enactments for park visitors. As the novel opens, he's 12, and dealing with a major crush on Ben, a new volunteer at the park. That leads him to wonder what life would have been like for LGBT+ people in the era of the park.

His research leads him to the story of Albert D. J. Cashier, a Civil War soldier (an actual historical figure, not created for this book) who would probably be identified in modern terms as a trans man. When the park decides to retire one of its older exhibits, Amos decides that Albert's story should be the basis for a new exhibit on the lives of LGBT+ and other overlooked people in the post-Civil War era.

The novel alternates time frames and narrative styles. In one frame, Amos is narrating the events of his 8th-grade year in his journal, in the form of letters that he writes to Albert. It's a turbulent year. There's lots of drama in his relationship with Ben (the course of true crush never did run smooth), a new boyfriend for his widowed mother, a variety of turmoil at the history park, and Amos's increasing awareness of the injustice in the world, both past and present.

Those letters alternate with Amos's first-person narration of the events on the climactic day, the park's annual recreation of the local Civil War battle. We're told throughout these chapters that Amos is planning something big for the end of the day. I could do without the narrative coyness -- never been a fan of authors who keep talking about The Big Important Thing without telling us what The Big Important Thing IS -- but Leali does do a fine job of showing us how important it is to Amos and how nervous he is about it; there's some real tension building in that half of the story.

Leali also excels in creating characters. Amos is immensely likeable, smart for his age without being cloyingly precocious; Ben, despite spending significant parts of the novel offstage, is sharply enough drawn when he does appear that he remains vivid even when he's present only in Amos's thoughts. The supporting characters have enough personality that some of them could carry stories of their own; I'd enjoy a book about Amos's best friend, Chloe, who aspires to be the history park's first Black and first female blacksmith.

And when we get to the Big Important Thing that the novel has been building toward, it works. What Amos and his friends are doing, and the courage it takes to do it, brings real emotional heft to the final pages.

There are big ideas here, presented in a way that will be informative for the book's target audience without feeling medicinally educational or didactic. A fine book, smart and charming.

15FlorenceArt
jan 4, 2:02 pm

Looks like your reading year is off to a good start! Both books sound good, I’m interested in the first one.

16rhian_of_oz
jan 5, 10:40 am

>14 KeithChaffee: This sounds good and my local library has copies, so on to the wishlist it goes.

17chlorine
jan 8, 1:04 pm

I'll be happy to follow your reading again this year, and as >4 markon: particularly interested in the short fiction you read.

18KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jan 8, 3:35 pm



3: Guilty Creatures, edited by Martin Edwards

(BingoDog: fewer than 100 copies in LT libraries; currently 38; MysteryKit: short stories)

Another collection in the British Library Crime Classics series, this one collecting stories involving animals.

Not the strongest collection in the series, but there are a couple of memorable stories. "The Courtyard of the Fly" by Vincent Cornier has a clever solution, and "The Hornet's Nest" by Christianna Brand is an entertaining variation on a classic Agatha Christie idea. "Pit of Screams" by Garnett Radcliffe is more of an anecdote than a story, but it does build an effectively creepy atmosphere.

I was happy to see a wider range of animals than the expected cats and dogs, either of which could probably fill a volume of their own. In addition to flies and hornets, we get stories involving a horse, a monkey, slugs, earthworms, and a variety of birds.

19KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 12, 5:45 pm



4: The Incomplete Enchanter, L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt

(BingoDog: book with an ugly cover; SFFKit: epic fantasy)

The first two in a series of five novellas written by de Camp and Pratt. Titles of the available collections can get complicated, so here's the quick overview (and I'm not even going to try to sort out the correct touchstones for the different volumes):

The Incomplete Enchanter (1941) includes "The Roaring Trumpet" and "The Mathematics of Magic." The Castle of Iron (1950) is a novel-length expansion of a novella originally published in 1941. Those three stories were collected in 1975 as The Compleat Enchanter. The remaining stories, "Wall of Serpents" (1953) and "The Green Magicians" (1954) were collected in 1960 as Wall of Serpents. All five are gathered The Complete Compleat Enchanter (1989).

After Pratt's death in 1956, de Camp was reluctant to continue the series, believing that he could not recreate the collaborative magic on his own. He was eventually persuaded to return to the series in the 1990s, when he wrote two additional stories and allowed several other authors to write stories, some of them based on his outlines. Those stories are gathered in two collections, The Enchanter Reborn (1992) and The Exotic Enchanter (1995). One additional story by Lawrence Watt-Evans appears in a 2005 anthology of stories written in tribute to de Camp. There is no single-volume collection of the entire series.

So what are all of these stories? They are the adventures of Harold Shea, a psychologist journeying into various fictional and mythological worlds of fantasy, where he finds that his logical mind isn't always helpful. In this volume, he travels into the worlds of Norse mythology ("The Roaring Trumpet") and Spenser's The Faerie Queene ("The Mathematics of Magic").

I chose to pick up this particular combination of stories because these are the two stories included in my master list of award-nominated SF stories; both are Retro Hugo nominated novellas. I went in knowing that this sort of fantasy is not my cuppa, and these stories in particular are very much not written for someone who's not into fantasy. De Camp and Pratt do not spend a lot of time on exposition about the worlds to which Harold and his colleagues travel; it is assumed that the reader comes in with a basic knowledge of Norse mythology and Spenser's poem.

I could sort of stumble through the Norse story with my Marvel Comics level of knowledge. I at least know who Odin, Thor, and Loki are, and have some vague sense of Ragnarok as an apocalyptic event. But by the time the third or fourth different set of giants show up, all of them with indistinguishable Nordic names (the letter "j" pops up in so many places where the letter "j" has no business being...), I was floundering. And I know nothing about Spenser, so most of that story was incomprehensible to me.

If you like this sort of thing, though, I think you might enjoy these stories. The prose is a touch old-fashioned, but doesn't have the heavy clumsiness that you often find in SF and fantasy of this era. And in the chapters set in our world, the banter among Harold and his colleagues zips along with a crisp energy that made me understand why some critics refer to these tales as "screwball fantasy."

Even when I was lost about the story in the fantasy worlds, I could tell that certain plot points or bits of dialogue would be funny or poignant or ominous if only I had the knowledge to appreciate them.

So I'm left with a weird critical reaction: I think these are probably good stories, even if I don't have the background to appreciate or enjoy them.

20dchaikin
jan 10, 6:20 pm

>19 KeithChaffee: well, not for me, but i liked reading your history of this and about your experience.

21cindydavid4
jan 10, 6:23 pm

and that is one hell of an ugly cover, chosen wisely

22kjuliff
jan 10, 6:29 pm

>21 cindydavid4: That cover looks like something my daughter would like; she’s all into skulls and eyes falling out. Not my cup of tea.

23baswood
jan 10, 6:53 pm

Enjoyed your review of The Incomplete Enchanter The novella based on the faerie Queen appeals. I usually enjoy books by L Sprague de Camp so I will find a copy of this.

24FlorenceArt
jan 11, 5:48 am

>19 KeithChaffee: Sounds interesting! I have even less knowledge of Norse mythology than you have, but I tend to have a high tolerance to not understanding what’s going on in a book. I’ve never read anything by Sprague de Camp, I think.

25KeithChaffee
jan 18, 2:53 pm



5: The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez

(BingoDog: POC author; RandomKit: Early Birds)

The lives of three people -- a starship captain, an engineer, and a mysterious boy who does not speak -- are gradually woven together in Jimenez's debut novel. And I do mean "gradually;" while the connections between the characters become obvious fairly quickly, they travel in separate plotlines for most of the book.

It's not until the final act that their arcs really converge. And when they do, they clomp their way into a hamfisted "capitalism bad" tale that lacks subtlety; the new technology that the Evil Capitalists introduce is literally driven by the blood of their victim.

Jimenez's pacing is erratic. The climax of the book is abruptly rushed, and it feels even more so after we've slogged through other parts of the story that dragged on well beyond the moment where the point had been made and my attention was wandering.

His supporting characters are unusually thin and poorly developed. I never did understand, for instance, the motives for the villainous act that sets up the third act of the novel, because that character does nothing in the preceding chapters except lurk silently in the background being obviously evil for no particular reason.

On the other hand, some of Jimenez's writing is lovely to read; the first chapter of the novel could stand alone as a fine short story. And I enjoyed the way that music is used as a central part of the plot.

Mixed feelings on this one, but overall, mildly diasppointed.

26dchaikin
jan 18, 3:36 pm

I don’t like the sound of that, but enjoyed review.

27KeithChaffee
jan 18, 4:02 pm

>26 dchaikin: Thanks. It's the hardest kind of book to say anything about, the one that doesn't provoke a strong reaction in either direction. There's always plenty to say about a book you love, and who doesn't love the chance to rummage through the trunk of invective for a precisely calibrated zinger when you hate a book? But the "meh" book, the one that isn't vile but doesn't quite work? That's a challenge.

28labfs39
jan 18, 4:39 pm

>27 KeithChaffee: and who doesn't love the chance to rummage through the trunk of invective for a precisely calibrated zinger when you hate a book?

I love it! Nicely put

29dchaikin
Redigerat: jan 18, 6:47 pm

Yes, loved the zinger line! 🙂 Yeah, it’s tricky sometimes. I don’t like reviewing books written by someone I know. I also hate when i read a great book and can’t quite explain how it works.

30KeithChaffee
jan 18, 6:26 pm

>29 dchaikin: I don't think I've picked up any such books since I've been at LT -- not like I'm hobnobbing with the literati all the time, y'know -- but my standard policy on books by people is that I will note having read them, if only for the sake of having my list be complete, but I don't comment beyond that.

31KeithChaffee
jan 20, 3:02 pm



6: Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, Seanan McGuire

(BingoDog: published in year ending in 24)

When I read the previous volume in this series last year, I commented that it felt like half a book, ending at the point where the main story was just about to start. And that's exactly what was going on, because here's the second half of Antsy's story.

It is, I'm afraid, a somewhat disjointed story, as a large group of students at the Home for Wayward Children go on a drawn-out quest, spending a chapter or two in each of a long series of other worlds, with nothing terribly interesting happening in most of them.

Some of those students reach what seems to be the end of their stories, the cumulative effect of which is to suggest that the series itself is nearing its end. That effect is strengthened by the frequent hints that the next book will finally give us the full story of the school's founder. But all of those little mini-climaxes feel like a distraction from the fact that the ending of Antsy's story wasn't really interesting enough to make a book in its own right.

Had these two books been published as the single novel that they actually are, instead of as two novellas, it would have felt more cohesive and complete than either of the existing books does on its own. But we still would have been left with the fact that what happens to Antsy in this world, the horrific events that lead her to escape through a door in the first place, is by far the most dramatically compelling part of her story. The world to which she travels is the least interesting in the series, and much of what happens to her there is simply a different form of the abuse she suffered in the "real" world.

And -- I suppose this might be considered a mild spoiler -- when she does get to return to her fantasy world, it's not to fulfill any desires of her own, it's to serve for the rest of her life as a caretaker and protector of other abused people. That's a noble calling, certainly, but it's a rather glum suggestion that an abused person isn't entitled to a free and fulfilling life of their own; their highest purpose can only be to continue to live a life dominated by the endless cycle of abuse.

Collectively, these two books are a huge letdown from the rest of this series. If the end really is coming, I will be crossing my fingers that it brings a return to form.

32dchaikin
jan 20, 8:39 pm

Too bad Keith. Interesting thoughtful review

33KeithChaffee
jan 21, 2:55 pm

DNF: The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova. A "my year of" book. Konnikova, a psychologist who's never played poker before -- she doesn't even know how many cards are in a deck -- recruits a World Series of Poker champion to teach her the game, with an eye towards playing in the WSOP herself. Not a bad or an unreadable book; just wasn't clicking for me. The psychology/poker balance leaned more heavily towards the psychology than I was interested in.

34kjuliff
Redigerat: jan 21, 3:20 pm

>25 KeithChaffee: Sorry but I can’t help myself - three people -- a starship captain, an engineer, and a mysterious boy walk into a pub …

35rv1988
jan 22, 2:42 am

>31 KeithChaffee: Hi Keith. This is the third Seanan McGuire mention I've seen on Club Read, and it's only January. A sign? It does become difficult to sustain a series over time, perhaps McGuire is running into that particular fatigue.

36KeithChaffee
jan 22, 3:04 am

>35 rv1988: It’s a series with a very devoted following. I’m not surprised that there would be multiple CR folks eager to read the new book as soon as it became available.

The Antsy story is clearly a very personal one for McGuire, and I think the problems I had with the story may just be a matter of the author finding it harder to get sufficient critical distance from this particular piece of work.

37KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jan 27, 6:34 pm



7: The Past Through Tomorrow, Robert A. Heinlein

(BingoDog: book from similar LT library; shared w/parasolofdoom)

Early in his career, Heinlein published a series of about two dozen stories that made up his "Future History," stories drawn from his imagining of how American history might play out over the next two hundred years or so. Those stories are collected in this volume.

It's a solid collection of 1940s SF, and entirely reflective of Heinlein's principal themes. His characters are hyper-competent, with significant emphasis placed throughout on the importance of being able to manage whatever crisis might arise, ideally without relying on others. There is a general wariness of government, religion, and other instutitions; the overall political vibe is a (relatively) sane version of libertarianism.

It is mildly distracting to modern eyes that Heinlein's male characters cannot seem to look at a woman without spending a few moments thinking about how lovely she is (and they are all lovely, just as his men are all manly and good-looking), but that's a problem of the era, and not specific to Heinlein. And his women are allowed to be just as competent as his men, and to rise to levels of significant power and responsibility. (His attitudes about sex and gender relationships wouldn't get really weird until later in his career, when they make some of his late novels very hard to get through.)

Those attitudes aside, Heinlein was a damned good genre writer. His stories are well constructed and efficiently told. His prose is never particularly memorable, but neither is it filled with the overwrought purple prose that often plagues early SF; it's clean, crisp, and functional. His characters lean towards a certain type, but there is enough variety that you wouldn't mistake the leading characters of (for instance) "Requiem," "Misfit," and "Methuselah's Children" for one another.

Half a dozen of these stories were eventually nominated for Retro Hugo awards, five of them from the single year of 1941. Those six can be divided into three pairs. "The Man Who Sold the Moon" and "Requiem" are about the life and death of the businessman who singlehandedly creates a space program to fulfill his childhood fantasies of going to the moon. "If This Goes On--" imagines a rebellion against the theocracy that has taken over American government; "Coventry" focuses on some of the changes the rebels make to government after the theocracy is defeated. "The Roads Must Roll" and "Blowups Happen" aren't quite so neatly tied together, but both are at least partly about the potential of labor disputes to disrupt society.

There aren't many writers of any genre from this era whose work is all still readily available, and still read by modern readers. At the peak of his career, Heinlein dominated the world of SF as few have ever done, and that domination was fully deserved.

38dchaikin
jan 27, 6:08 pm

Never read Heinlein, although reviews pop up here. Certainly sounds like you really enjoyed this. I enjoyed getting your perspective on him.

39valkyrdeath
jan 27, 7:15 pm

I'm still catching up on everyone's threads here and I've enjoyed reading your reviews.

>10 KeithChaffee: I've had the Charles Yu book on my to read list for a while but have never got round to it. Good to see a positive review of it, sounds like it's worthwhile.

>37 KeithChaffee: I used to really like Heinlein's Future History stories. It's been a while since I read anything by him. Sometimes I feel like getting back to his books, but I worry about hitting something like Farnham's Freehold again.

40KeithChaffee
jan 27, 7:35 pm

>39 valkyrdeath: Farnham's Freehold is one of the few Heinlein novels I haven't read (*). I went through a completist phase on him when I was an undergrad, and kept up with him through those dreadful last few novels. That's right, I have read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls; I have read To Sail Beyond the Sunset, people, and lived to tell the tale!

(* -- And after a quick look at the Wikipedia plot summary, I think I will let it remain unread. Good god, that sounds horrifying, and I can imagine exactly how Heinlein would make it even worse.)

I look forward to hearing what you think of the Yu if you get around to it.

41valkyrdeath
jan 27, 9:55 pm

>40 KeithChaffee: I was doing a completionist read through all the Heinlein works I could get hold of myself back then, but that one brought it to a halt for a while. It was horrendous. Aside from the obvious things from the Wikipedia page, the main character was also one of the most repulsive "heroes" of any book I've read, a man who threatens to shoot his own son if he doesn't agree to unquestioningly obey every order he's given.

42labfs39
jan 27, 10:23 pm

Oh, my. I had to investigate Farnham's Freehold after reading your comments; and it seems that the LT reviewer who wrote simply, "A steaming pustule of racism & misogyny masquerading as a novella" just about sums it up. The only Heinlein I've read, Stranger in a Strange Land was decades ago, and I found it interesting.

43cindydavid4
jan 27, 10:27 pm

>38 dchaikin: door into summer is my absolute fav of his

44KeithChaffee
jan 28, 12:36 am

My first Heinlein was Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, which I read when I was 9 or 10. Haven't re-read it in at least 20 years, but I'll always have a soft spot for it.

45rv1988
jan 28, 1:31 am

>37 KeithChaffee: Great review of The Past Through Tomorrow, and I agree with your views on Heinlein's early works vs his later ones.

46ELiz_M
jan 28, 9:15 am

>10 KeithChaffee: I must have overlooked this excellent review in the early flurry of too many Jan. posts. I've heard of it (I love the title), but somehow hadn't realized he also wrote Interior Chinatown which I loved. Onto the wishlist it goes!

47baswood
jan 28, 6:43 pm

> Nice overview of Heinlein's output.

48chlorine
jan 29, 2:15 pm

Your reviews are always interesting and >19 KeithChaffee: that is indeed an ugly cover!

49KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jan 29, 3:04 pm



8: They Died in Vain, Jim Huang, editor

In 2000, the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association published 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century, a reader's guide to mystery novels. The books and authors in that volume were all reasonably well known. For this follow-up volume, published two years later, IMBA members were asked to recommend their favorite "overlooked, underappreciated, and forgotten" books. Huang's only criteria in gathering their responses were that no author would be represented more than once, and no bestsellers were allowed.

(Huang returned to this well at least once more. The 2006 Mystery Muses collects similar recommendations from mystery authors, and it is now on its way to my local branch library.)

This book contains 103 short essays -- one or two pages each -- in which booksellers recommend a favorite book that even mystery fans might have somehow missed. The essays are well written, and as one might expect from booksellers, they do a fine job of teasing the story, placing each book in its proper sub-genre, and in many cases, summarizing the author's career beyond the recommended book.

It is in the nature of a book like this that you may have trouble finding some of these books. Huang notes in his introduction that 53 of the 103 books are out of print, and some of those were only a few years old at the time. (And that was in 2002; one imagines that even more of them are OP by now.) But I am lucky enough to have a large urban public library where I can find a copy of most of these books, and I was pleasantly surprised at how many of them have been reissued as e-books.

Did I need to read this book? No, I did not. With a Libby wishlist that's already several hundred titles long -- far longer than I can ever possibly finish, especially since publishers are so thoughtless as to keep publishing new books instead of letting us get caught up on our TBR piles -- I didn't need to be teased with 103 possible new books to read. But I enjoyed the tease very much, and there are eighteen more books on that wishlist than there were last week.

50labfs39
jan 29, 5:31 pm

>49 KeithChaffee: I had to chuckle at your last paragraph

51cindydavid4
jan 29, 6:12 pm

>50 labfs39: hee really, Im not a mystery reader but I must admit it has me curious. this is what we are discussing on the Avid Reader thread, can I share it with them?

52KeithChaffee
jan 29, 6:18 pm

Sure. That conversation is what led me to the book. Someone mentioned the "Forgotten Books" website, and They Died in Vain is one of the resources listed there.

53cindydavid4
jan 29, 6:33 pm

>52 KeithChaffee: hee so the circle of books continues.....:)

54dchaikin
jan 29, 8:44 pm

>52 KeithChaffee: dangerous place here. Glad you got away with only 18 more.

55dudes22
jan 31, 6:24 am

>49 KeithChaffee: - I can see that as being dangerous, Keith. I think adding only 18 is showing remarkable restraint.

56KeithChaffee
feb 3, 4:12 pm



9: Tinseltown, William J. Mann

(MysteryCat: true unsolved mysteries; CalendarCat: the book's murder happened in February; BingoDog: read a CAT)

William Desmond Taylor was a leading film director of the silent era, with almost 60 films to his credit. He was murdered on February 1, 1922, shot in his home, a crime that remains officially unsolved. Mann lays out the events leading up to the murder, follows its aftermath, and offers his theory as to who committed the murder.

There were a wide range of suspects to choose from, and attention was focused at various times on three young actresses, each resorting to a variety of desperate measures -- some less legal than others -- to keep her career alive, and each with a host of unsavory friends, family members, and criminal associates.

The murder came at a bad time for Hollywood, which was still reeling from a variety of scandals, most notably the ongoing series of trials in the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle case. "Hollywood" had become shorthand among the nation's conservative activists for moral depravity. (The "Moms for Liberty" have always been with us in one form or another.)

The largest of the studios in the young film industry was Famous Players-Lasky, run by Adolph Zukor. Given the size of the studio, it's not surprising that a lot of the scandals involved Famous Players actors and directors, and each new scandal only made Zukor more desperate to hush up the bad news for fear that it would lead the "church ladies" of the era to push for official censorship of the industry. Eventually, that fear led Zukor and his colleagues in the industry to offer Will Hays a position as a sort of internal watchdog; if the industry had to be regulated, went the logic, better that it should be regulated by someone they might have at least some control over.

The Zukor/Hays/studio machinations half of the story was the most interesting part of the book. The actual murder was just a sad, seamy story of desperate, pathetic people struggling to survive in an industry that finds them disposable. And Mann's narration of the events surrounding the murder mixes titillation -- "ooh, look -- sex! drugs! murrrrrrrder!" -- with Puritanical scolding -- "aren't you the naughty one for being so titillated by this horrible tragedy!". That's not an unusual combination in true crime. Mann's style reminded me so much of a typical Dateline NBC story that it was hard to get the voice of Dateline's Keith Morrison out of my head as I read.

To be sure, it's extremely readable. Mann knows how to tell a story, and he keeps his large cast of characters from becoming overwhelming. As he jumps from one bit of the story to another, I was never at a loss to remember who each person was; even the low-level guys who could easily blur into Thug 1, Thug 2, Thug 3... maintain their individual identities.

As for Mann's proposed solution to the murder, it's certainly plausible, but I don't find Mann's evidence nearly as conclusive as he claims it to be.

I am not a big true crime reader, and probably wouldn't have picked this up were it not for the category challenges. But even though I found the smirky titillation offputting, I did enjoy the Hollywood history part of the book, and I admired the skill which which Mann lays out a complex narrative.

57dchaikin
feb 3, 5:22 pm

>56 KeithChaffee: sounds fun. The dateline comment made me smile.

58fuzzi
feb 3, 6:37 pm

>37 KeithChaffee: good review.

>43 cindydavid4: I remember that I liked it.

A few years ago I stumbled upon someone's almost pristine collection of early Heinlein, bought it, and I've read a lot of the books. I really enjoyed Double Star, and Tunnel in the Sky got a solid 4 stars from me. Others that made the better than average list were Time for the Stars, The Menace From Earth, and The Green Hills of Earth.

I loved Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, The Number of the Beast, and Friday as a young adult/adult reader. I managed to get through The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, but by then I was done with Lazarus Long's sexual escapades stories. I have no interest in rereading any of them. I read and despised Job on its initial release, and I wasn't a religious person, it was that bad.

But when I decided to reread Friday I discovered that I still loved the character. The rest of Heinlein's later books don't interest me, but many of his earlier works are worth reading. And I recently reread Friday, again.

59jjmcgaffey
feb 4, 1:38 am

I like several of your favorites, but for some reason, Citizen of the Galaxy has always been my favorite Heinlein. I've never quite figured out why - I like culture clash (and there's several bits), I like competent characters who aren't swell-headed about it - but somehow that particular story just clicked for me, more than I would have expected.

60rv1988
feb 4, 4:38 am

>56 KeithChaffee: Great review. This line in particularly stood out, because it feels very accurate for so much true crime:

Mann's narration of the events surrounding the murder mixes titillation -- "ooh, look -- sex! drugs! murrrrrrrder!" -- with Puritanical scolding -- "aren't you the naughty one for being so titillated by this horrible tragedy!". That's not an unusual combination in true crime.

61KeithChaffee
feb 4, 2:06 pm



10: Mystery Muses, edited by Jim Huang and Austin Lugar

Very much in the mold of Huang's They Died in Vain collection, which I talked about a few posts back, but each of the changes works to make this a less interesting book. This time, 100 authors have been asked for short commentary on the classic mystery that inspired them to be mystery writers.

Shifting from obscure books to classics means that the books covered are more familiar, and the commentary less surprising. Does any mystery reader really need two more pages of thoughts on "The Tell-Tale Heart" or And Then There Were None?

And changing the commenters from booksellers to authors is deadly for two reasons. First, recommending books and making them sound appealing to potential readers is what booksellers do; they have to be good at it. Get the customer to buy the book, and you stay in business. Authors, at least the authors gathered here, haven't spent much time developing that skill.

Second, most of these authors aren't all that interested in talking about the books they're ostensibly talking about. Those books are merely vehicles for them to plug their own books. The book becomes a long series of "if you liked classic novel X, then let me tell me you why you're going to love my books."

I suppose this book might be of some use to a reader looking to take their first steps into the mystery genre. Even if the recommendations aren't all that well written, they'd at least take from it a list of 100 worthwhile books, and maybe get just enough information about each to pick a good starting point.

They Died in Vain is a joyful meeting of a giant book club in which every member can't wait to tell you about their favorite book; Mystery Muses is a droning series of self-promoting commercials.

62dchaikin
feb 5, 9:25 am

>61 KeithChaffee: any books added to your list? I’ll pass on this one.

63KeithChaffee
feb 5, 1:32 pm

>62 dchaikin: No, no additions to Mount TBR this time.

64KeithChaffee
feb 7, 2:06 pm



11: Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow

(SFFKit: critters and creatures; BingoDog: three-word title: SF awards: 2010 Hugo/Nebula/Locus novella nominee, Sturgeon winner)

Goofy alternate history set at the end of WWII. The Germans have surrendered, and the US military is grappling with whether or not to drop nuclear weapons on Japan to end the war for good.

Morrow imagines that in addition to the Manhattan Project, the US has also been working on a second ultimate weapon: giant, fire-breathing, bipedal, killer lizards. Godzillas, for lack of a better word, though several years ahead of the creation of that character.

The threat of nukes hasn't gotten the Japanese to surrender, so, maybe a demonstration of the havoc one of these creatures could wreak on a small coastal city will do the trick. And since you can't very well demonstrate that with a real monster and a real city, the demo will require a scale model of a city and an actor in a lizard suit. But if the demo is to really scare the Japanese, the actor must be able to convince them that he really is a miniature version of the giant killer, and not just a guy in a lizard suit.

And that is where our narrator, Syms Thorley, enters the picture. After years of playing various deformed mutants and horrible creatures in C-level monster movies, no one shambles quite like Syms Thorley, making him the perfect choice to don the lizard suit and destroy the model town.

Thorley tells the story of the Knickerbocker Project, in which the military pulls out all the stops to make its demonstration a success. Actual Hollywood figures of the era become minor characters --Willis O'Brien on special effects, James Whale as director. The demo even gets its own orchestral score from Franz Waxman.

It's a silly concept, and Morrow dives headlong into the goofiness, milking laughs from Thorley's bungling attempts to keep the project a secret from the film studio where he's currently filming yet another Frankenstein knockoff, his girlfriend's apparent lizard fetish, and the comedy of errors that is the actual demonstration.

A shift in the final pages to a darker, more serious tone doesn't work, bringing the story to an end that's heavier than it can carry. But until those last few pages, this was a loopy lark.

65baswood
feb 7, 5:23 pm

They died in Vain is the one to go for - thanks for that I can't resist those sort of books

66KeithChaffee
Redigerat: feb 10, 7:27 pm



12: Mrs. Jeffries and the Midwinter Murders, Emily Brightwell

(HistoryKit: Georgian/Regency/Victorian Britain; BingoDog: author is 65+; Brightwell was 73 when the book was published)

Fortieth volume in a long-running series.

Mrs. Hepzibah Jeffries is the housekeeper for London police inspector Gerald Witherspoon, and although he doesn't know it, she plays a large part in his unusual success rate at solving murder cases.

When Witherspoon gets a new case, Mrs. Jeffries begins her regular meetings with the household staff (joined by a few friends from the neighborhood), and they use their contacts among other household employees, local shopkeepers, and a few local criminals to gather information. They pass their knowledge on to Constable Barnes, Witherspoon's Watson-esque sidekick, who makes sure that Witherspoon follows up on any promising leads. When Witherspoon returns home each night, it is his custom to talk about the day's work with Mrs. Jeffries over a glass or two of sherry, so she's getting all of the information from the official investigation, helping to shape her own unofficial inquiries.

That's a clever way to structure a mystery, giving us a wide variety of characters at every class level in a very class-conscious society. It also means that at virtually every moment, the reader actually does know more than any individual person working on the investigation. We have the chance, if we are clever enough, to put together what Witherspoon and the police have learned with what Mrs. Jeffries and her friends have learned well before either of those groups get the complete picture.

The mystery in this particular installment involves the death of a wealthy businesswoman, strangled to death in a locked room with the sash of her husband's dressing gown. There's the usual array of suspects -- her two adult stepchildren, who despise her; her best friend, living with them while renovations are done on her own home; and her American nephew, an Episcopal priest doing research at the British Library.

Those characters are nicely drawn, and Brightwell makes good use of the limited number of pages each one gets to flesh them out. While Mrs. Jeffries' large crew of fellow investigators feel a little thinner as characters, I imagine that over the course of the preceding 39 volumes, their backstories have been laid out in bits and pieces; the reader who's been with the series from the beginning probably doesn't need as many details about those characters in any given book.

Similarly, there is a minor subplot in this volume -- something about a disgraced and disliked former police officer whose unexpeced return to the force is expected to cause problems for Witherspoon -- that didn't mean much to me, but it's blended into the story well enough that it was never too distracting when it popped up.

And yet, for all of its obvious strengths, I don't plan to return to this series. It's a nice book, a highly competent book, and I can understand why it would have a devoted enough following to last as long as it has. It didn't push my particular buttons hard enough to push it from "that was pleasant" to "I need more of that," but I can easily imagine plenty of readers who would adore it.

I had never heard of this series or this author until about a week ago, and wound up reading it only because of my decision to dive so deeply into the category challenges this year. A book that I had expected to read this month got knocked off the list at the last minute, which required some scrambling to find books to meet the February challenges that it would have filled. This was the book that kept the literary Jenga tower from collapsing.

67labfs39
feb 10, 6:24 pm

>66 KeithChaffee: This was the book that kept the literary Jenga tower from collapsing.


Great image. The challenges seem to be a nice way to mix up your reading.

68KeithChaffee
feb 11, 1:42 pm

>67 labfs39: They certainly are leading me to books I probably wouldn't otherwise have picked up. The HistoryKit, in particular. I'm already fairly sure I won't repeat the complete challenge immersion again next year, but I'm learning a lot from the experience.

69KeithChaffee
feb 15, 4:11 pm



13: Hid from Our Eyes, Julia Spencer-Fleming

(AlphaKit: E and F)

9th in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series.

One of the interesting things about this series is that it began as contemporary and is slowly becoming a series of period pieces. When the first volume was published in 2002, it was set in roughly the then-present day. As years have passed between books, each of which is set no more than a few months after the last one, the series has slipped out of sync with real time. This book, published in 2020, is set in 2005.

Our principal characters are Clare Fergusson, mililary helicopter pilot turned Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, police chief in Millers Kill, a small town in upstate New York. In this book, they're only recently married, and still learning how to juggle two careers with their infant son.

The central mystery is the death of a young woman, found lying on a remote back road wearing an expensive party dress, with no visible signs of foul play. That triggers painful memories for local law enforcement, because similar young women were found dead in the same spot, wearing similar clothing, in both 1952 and 1972, and neither murder was ever solved.

For Russ, the memories are especially difficult. In 1972, he was just returned from Vietnam when he discovered the body, and he was one of the principal suspects. Charges were never filed, and the police chief at the time was ultimately convinced that he wasn't the killer, but he was never formally cleared. And the prospect that this murder might also go unsolved is troubling because of an upcoming vote that could disband the Millers Kill Police Department and return policing duties for the area to the state police.

Meanwhile, Clare (who takes more of a back seat for most of this installment in the series) is offered an opportunity to take on an intern, a seminary student who will help to reduce her workload while learning about the duties of a priest. Clare's superiors aren't entirely unselfish in offering her this assistance; she's the only priest in the area who's liberal enough to accept a trans woman as an intern.

Spencer-Fleming cuts back and forth among the three murder investigations very effectively, and the lead officers on the earlier cases are sharply drawn characters, especially given the limited number of pages she has to work with for each of them. There are also effective subplots for a couple of the other officers on the (current) Millers Kill police force, one of which leads to the novel's coda, setting up the next volume.

This is one of the best series going, and I am always happy to see a new Spencer-Fleming novel. Don't know how it took me so long to get around to reading this one, but I'm glad I finally got to it; it's a terrific book.

70dchaikin
feb 15, 9:16 pm

I really do enjoy your reviews, even when it’s not my kind of book. Great review

71KeithChaffee
feb 15, 9:47 pm

>70 dchaikin: Thank you!

72KeithChaffee
Redigerat: feb 19, 12:16 am



14: Sleep With Slander, Dolores Hitchens

(RandomKit: rescue/escape; BingoDog: set in a city)

Originally published in 1960, this is the second of Hitchens's two novels featuring Los Angeles private eye Jim Sader.

Sader is hired by Hale Gibbings, a prominent architect, who asks him to find the grandson he forced his unwed daughter to give up for adoption five years ago. Gibbings has recently received an anonymous letter telling him that the boy's adoptive parents have died, and that the child is being badly abused by the people who have taken him in. Gibbings certainly doesn't want to take the child into his own family, because that would be more socially embarrassing than he could handle. But even if it's only to confirm or disprove the abuse, he wants the child found.

The story Hitchens spins from that premise isn't breaking any new ground in private eye novels, even by 1960 standards, but it's entertaining. Suspects and supporting players are given enough depth to be more than merely functional; there's an appropriate level of tension and peril; and Sader is a sturdy enough, albeit somewhat bland, central character.

For those averse to child-in-peril stories, the only scene in the book in which we actually see any abuse is a brief prologue of 2 or 3 pages which focuses more on his terror than on the violence. It's not gratuitous, and given the ambiguity that is a part of private eye stories -- Is the client telling the truth? Is the danger real? -- I think that scene is essential to ground the reader in the fact that there really is a child at risk.

Hitchens published more than 40 novels, under a variety of pseudonyms, between 1938 and 1973. Based solely on this book, I wouldn't argue that she's been unjustly forgotten by history. But it's a modestly entertaining, thoroughly professional book, and I can understand why she was as successful as she was in her time.

73rv1988
feb 18, 9:44 pm

>72 KeithChaffee: Very interesting review. I don't think I've ever heard of Hitchens before. I'll give this a try.

74KeithChaffee
feb 23, 3:46 pm



15: You Only Call When You're in Trouble, Stephen McCauley

We follow three members of a family, each at a moment of crisis.

Dorothy has spent thirty years bouncing from one potential career to another, all of them eventually fizzling out. Now she's tied herself to a self-help author, with whom she plans to open a wellness/retreat center in Woodstock, New York. Yes, that Woodstock, and Dorothy is the sort who can unironically tell people how excited she is to have gotten "back to the garden."

As part of her journey to personal bettermen, Dorothy has decided to finally tell her daughter Cecily the truth about her (Cecily's) father, a bombshell that Cecily may not have time to deal with right now. She's a college professor, currently on leave while she waits for the final report of an investigation into sexual harassment charges brought against her by a student.

As they always have, both Dorothy and Cecily turn for support to Tom, who is Dorothy's brother and Cecily's uncle. He's an architect facing both personal and professional chaos: His boyfriend has just walked out, and a client has cancelled plans to build the project that he hoped would be the climax of his career. That cancellation may push him into an unwanted early retirement.

This sort of family/relationship drama is comfortable territory for McCauley. The tone is lightly comic, filled with wry observations and witty dialogue. Elinor Lipman would be a good comparison, though McCauley's humor is gentler and less rollicking.

This novel feels a bit more aimless than normal for McCauley. The plotlines never quite take off; the coincidental connections among the characters feel more unlikely, more strained than usual. And one major plotline is left dangling at the end, annoyingly unresolved.

So this isn't McCauley at his very best. But his strengths -- the precision of his character sketches, the sharpness of the dialogue, the crisp social observations -- are sufficiently present to make the novel a pleasant read, if not a truly memorable one.

75KeithChaffee
Redigerat: feb 26, 3:14 pm



16: Cocktails with George and Martha, Philip Gefter

(BingoDog: person's name in title)

A "making of" history of the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Gefter begins with a quick bio of playwright Edward Albee and a summary of his pre-Woolf career, and moves on to the play's Broadway success before diving into the heart of the book, the film version.

The central characters, and frequent antagonists, are director Mike Nichols and screenwriter/producer Ernest Lehman. Nichols was an unexpected choice; at this point in his career, he was known as a comic performer and a stage director of light comedy. He'd never directed a movie, and he'd never tackled material as serious or as demanding as Woolf.

But he knew what he wanted, and fought Lehman on the issues that mattered most to him -- making the movie in black and white; sticking as closely to Albee's words as possible, which meant cutting away anything Lehman had added and not cutting the oaths and obscenities.

He was working with his good friends Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles. Like everyone else, he worried that Taylor was too young to play Martha, and might not be up to the challenge. (Casting Taylor, he complained, was "like asking a chocolate milkshake to do the work of a double martini.") It was by far the most demanding role she's ever attempted, and even a more accomplished dramatic actress of her age would find it difficult to understand the disillusionment and frustration that can come after decades of marriage.

Gefter's history of the movie is entertaining. Much of it has been covered elsewhere (I would point you to Mark Harris's superb biography of Mike Nichols), but it's useful to have all of the different perspectives in one place.

I am always particularly fascinated by might-have-been casting details, so I enjoyed learning that Albee's producers hoped for Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda for the original Broadway production, and that Albee's dream pairing for the film was Bette Davis and James Mason. (Hepburn turned down the play, saying that she wasn't a good enough actress. Fonda's agent never even sent him script, thinking it was too vulgar for him; Fonda was furious when he found out, and later said that never getting to play George was one of the major disappointments of his career. Davis was apparently told, or at least believed, that she was going to make the movie, and was crushed when it went to Taylor.)

Gefter is on less solid ground in his commentary on the play as a commentary on the challenges and meaning of marriage in general. It's rarely a good idea to attempt to use an author's work as a psychoanalytic tool, and Gefter is working far too hard to find connections and correspondences between Albee's play and Albee's life.

Skim the psycho-commentary; enjoy the tick-tock.

76dchaikin
feb 27, 9:51 pm

Fantastic and fascinating review. I wonder, does one to have read Woolf to enjoy the show?

77KeithChaffee
Redigerat: feb 27, 10:17 pm

>76 dchaikin: No. The play has nothing to do with Virginia Woolf or her work, though Albee did obtain permission from Leonard Woolf, Virginia's widower, to use her name in the title. I don't think Leonard would have had any grounds to stop Albee from using the name even if he'd wanted to, but Albee wanted to extend the courtesy of asking, and Leonard had no objection. One of the plays's characters sings the words "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" (because "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" would have been too expensive to use); the phrase becomes a metaphorical reference to the unknown terrors of the world and of life itself.

The play really is brilliant, and Nichols's film is a fine representation of it. He managed to keep the screenplay very close to Albee's play script. The film is set in one room; the movie leaves that room for a visit to a local tavern, and Albee once joked that Lehman's contribution to the script was limited to the stage directions "they go to the roadhouse" and "they return from the roadhouse."

And as worried as everyone was about Liz Taylor, through a combination of her own hard work and Nichols's genius as a director, she gave a magnificent performance (as did the rest of the cast -- Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis), and her Academy Award was genuinely deserved. The movie's definitely worth seeing.

78cindydavid4
feb 27, 10:39 pm

>77 KeithChaffee: I did not realize that Hepburn and Fomda were considered for those roles. Hepburn would have been great, despite what she said (would have been fun for her to play it with Peter O'toole, after the Lion in Winter) but Taylor and Burton were wonderful

I remember seeing the movie when I was really young and it scared me seeing these adults so angry. Was a while before I was able to relate to it..

79dchaikin
feb 27, 10:45 pm

>77 KeithChaffee: thanks! Hopefully I will hunt this down and find time to watch it.

80KeithChaffee
feb 28, 1:25 pm

As part of my odyssey through award-nominated short SF, I'll be reading a variety of individual stories from anthologies and collections that I probably won't read all of, so I'm borrowing rocketjk's useful notion of "between books" reading to report periodically on those. For this year, at last, these will probably be end-of-the-month reading, once I've finished reading the books that will complete my various category challenges for the month. I picked up five stories this month, all from the early 2000s:

"Mom and Dad at the Home Front," Sherwood Smith -- 2002 Nebula short story nominee
"Five British Dinosaurs," Michael Swanwick -- 2003 BSFA short fiction nominee
"The Best Christmas Ever," James Patrick Kelly -- 2005 Hugo short story nominee
"The Voluntary State," Christopher Rowe -- 2005 Hugo/Nebula novelette nominee; Sturgeon nominee
"The Lost Pilgrim," Gene Wolfe -- 2005 Sturgeon nominee

I liked the shorter works the best. Smith's is a sweet variation on the portal fantasy, in which a group of siblings pay visits to a magical kingdom, looking at the story from the parents' point of view. (A distant cousin to, and possible tiny influence on, Seanan Maguire's Wayward Children stories?)

Swanwick gives us five brief vignettes, tinged with absurdism, of encounters between Brits and dinosaurs. Kelly's story is about the robots who desperately try to provide a life worth living for the last man on Earth.

I confess to floundering a bit through the two longer stories. That's not unusual for Wolfe, who is somewhat notorious for being on the complex and obscure end of the scale; this one seems to be about a time traveler who is aiming for the Pilgrims and winds up instead among the ancient Greeks.

Rowe's story is part of a longer series, and might be a bit clearer if I'd read more of them. (Though perhaps not; it is the first story in the series, so I'm not missing any essential background.) It's an alternate history?/distant future? in which a small group of Kentucky guerrillas attempt to free their Tennessee neighbors from the robot overlord/governor who is controlling their thoughts.

81labfs39
feb 28, 4:56 pm

>80 KeithChaffee: I have tried various ways to add in short stories to my reading diet, but none of the methods (Serial Reader, between books, nighttime reading) seem to last long enough to become habit. I need to keep at it.

82KeithChaffee
feb 28, 5:25 pm

>81 labfs39: I think one of the psychological barriers for me is that if I'm not reading an entire collection or anthology, it almost doesn't feel like reading because I can't add anything to the list of books completed. So doing it in chunks of five or six or ten, even if they're all coming from different volumes, and reporting them as a batch of "between" reading, at least gives me a way to report/record the reading, even if it doesn't tick the book counter up a notch.

83rocketjk
feb 28, 10:27 pm

>82 KeithChaffee: "So doing it in chunks of five or six or ten, even if they're all coming from different volumes, and reporting them as a batch of "between" reading, at least gives me a way to report/record the reading, even if it doesn't tick the book counter up a notch."

This is what I do, too, as most of you know. I enjoy the slow progression through the volumes, keeping track to myself when I finish a story how many more there are to go before I can add a "Finished!" next to the entry when I post a "between books" notation.

84KeithChaffee
mar 3, 2:05 pm



17: Ice, Amy Brady

(BingoDog: features water; HistoryCat: science and medicine)

Brady hopscotches her way through the history of ice in the United States, from the earliest attempts to deliver ice to the tropics to current research into making more energy-efficient refrigerators. The book is divided into four broad thematic sections -- early history, food & drink, sports, and the future.

The obvious topics are here -- quick histories of ice cream, figure skating, and ice sculpting; Zambonis and curling; iced tea and the first man-made ice maker. But you'll also get a report on the possible use of ice as a cancer treatment, and a marvelous chapter on Frederick Tudor, the "Ice King" who turned ice into a business at the beginning of the 19th century.

The style is breezy and accessible, in the vein of Mary Roach though lacking Roach's whimsy and humor. Like Roach, Brady has a knack for finding the telling anecdote or the strangely unanswerable question (we still can't really explain, for instance, why ice is slippery), and she's skilled at using researchers to put human faces on potentially abstract topics.

85dianeham
mar 3, 4:36 pm

Interesting 🤔 my feet got colder just reading your review.

86cindydavid4
mar 3, 6:05 pm

have you read frozen thames? If not, highly recommended (series of short stories about the people on the ice when the river freeze)

87dchaikin
mar 4, 10:55 am

“we still can't really explain, for instance, why ice is slippery” - wait, really?

88KeithChaffee
Redigerat: mar 4, 11:35 am

>87 dchaikin: Really. There are problems and gaps with all of the attempted explanations we’ve tried. Some of the answers that seem to make sense at near-freezing temps fall apart when it gets really cold.

89dchaikin
mar 4, 12:19 pm

>88 KeithChaffee: how, well, unexpected. (My 1st thought was, it must melt a little. But then (ok, as I processed through all those fail videos i watch on fb or whatnot) it did occur to that it probably doesn’t always melt a little…)

90KeithChaffee
mar 4, 1:54 pm

>89 dchaikin: That’s some of the explanation, at least some of the time. But figure skaters, hockey players, etc. are moving fast enough that the ice doesn’t have time to melt beneath them (at least, not enough to explain slipperiness) before they’re gone from that spot.

91KeithChaffee
Redigerat: mar 9, 3:20 pm



18: A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine

(SFFKit: space opera)

This is a top-notch political thriller, all the more remarkable for being a first novel.

When a small mining station receives an urgent request from the Teixcalaanli Empire to send a new ambassador, they send Mahit Dzmare. Mahit is less well prepared for the job than she should be. It's been fifteen years since her predecessor updated his imago -- a brain implant containing his consciousness -- and she hasn't been given enough time to fully integrate his memories and personality into her own psyche.

Upon arrival, she finds that the previous ambassador is dead, and though no one will say so officially, probably murdered. That shock snaps her already tenuous imago connection to his memories, and Mahit is left to make her way through Teixcalaan on her own. She's been assigned a Teixcalaanli liaison to help her acclimate to her new postion, but how much trust can she place in one of the Empire's bureaucrats, especially in a moment of political instability?

Martine gives us an exciting story, vivid characters, and a fascinating world. Teixcalaan is a society in which politics and literature are inseparable; political statements are made in poetry, packed with symbolic references and allusions to the great political poetry of the past. A Teixcalaanli diplomat practically needs a degree in literature.

It's a world so fully developed that even the background details raise intriguing questions that you want to see addressed in another book, and you know that Martine has already thought about them and has answers to all of those questions.

One of the nice things about coming to the book a few years behind everyone else is that I don't have to wait two years to read the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace. Both books won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and were nominated for the Nebula Award. Now I just have to figure out when I can squeeze it into my reading calendar.

92cindydavid4
mar 9, 3:16 pm

oh our rl book group read that and I loveedit. I have not read the sequel, and I think theres actually a number 3 at this point, eventually Ill get to it

93KeithChaffee
mar 9, 3:39 pm

I don't see a third one yet. Martine published a novella in 2023 (Rose/House), but it's not part of the Teixcalaan series.

94cindydavid4
mar 9, 8:57 pm

ok thanks

95rv1988
mar 10, 10:58 pm

>91 KeithChaffee: Lovely review. I've been meaning to try his work, this might finally push me to start.

96KeithChaffee
mar 11, 1:13 am

>95 rv1988: I look forward to hearing what you think. (Martine is a “she.”)

97KeithChaffee
mar 12, 2:11 pm



19: The Midnight Hour, Elly Griffiths

(AlphaDog: H; MysteryKit: historical mystery)

#6 in the Brighton Mysteries series.

I don't often dive into a mystery series midway through, and I think this one was particularly ill suited to mid-series entry. It's a sprawling series, ranging from 1950 in the first volume to 1965 in this one, with a large and growing cast of characters. The two protagonists from the first books are supporting players here, and a dense history of relationships has built up among the characters. While I could follow the basic mystery plot easily enough, I was missing a lot of character details and backstory that would have made the background part of the novel more interesting.

The series is set in Brighton, England, where Emma Holmes and Samantha Collins have recently opened a private detective agency. Emma is a former police officer, now married to Brighton police superintendent (and her former boss) Edgar Stephens. Edgar consults occasionally with his friend, Max, an actor and former magician; the two of them served during WWII as part of a team using magic and stagecraft to conduct special operations.

And at the Brighton police department, we also follow the investigation of WDC Meg Connolly. That's "Woman Detective Constable," female officers being such a novelty in 1965 that it needed to be called out in their job title.

The case they're all investigating is the murder of Bert Billington, a faded actor from the 30s/40s "variety circuit" -- roughly equivalent to American vaudeville shows -- who has become a moderately successful producer/impresario. He's been poisoned, and the principal suspect is his wife, Verity Malone, who was once a popular singer.

There are plenty of other suspects. Bert and Verity have three sons, one of whom is a heartthrob movie idol currently filming a Dracula picture with Max; there's a former housekeeper to be questioned; and Bert has a long list of disappointed showbiz rivals, jilted mistresses, and illegitimate children who might have motive.

The parallel investigations into the murder by the team of Holmes and Collins and by the Brighton police get rather muddy. It's hard to keep track of who knows what and which information has been shared with whom. (By contrast, see the Emily Brightwell novel I read last month for a demonstration of how to do this well.) With the exception of Verity, the suspects and supporting characters feel unusually flat and lifeless. And when the culprit is finally nabbed, the reveal feels entirely out of left field, mostly because a crucial piece of evidence that leads to their identification hadn't been shared with the reader.

I'm sure I'd have enjoyed this book more if I'd read previous volumes and was more at home with the characters and their history. But even that would not have made up for the blandness of the characters and the drab, mechanical way that Griffiths moves them through the story.

98rv1988
mar 12, 10:54 pm

>96 KeithChaffee: Oops! Thanks for the correction.

>97 KeithChaffee: Great review. I see what you mean about jumping into a series midway. Have you read her other series (Ruth Galloway)? I had the same feeling as you did. It started off interesting enough, but the characters were, as you said, bland and lifeless.

99KeithChaffee
mar 13, 12:25 am

>98 rv1988: No, this is the first of her books I've read. I gather that the early volumes in the series focus mostly on the "Magic Men" who use stagecraft and magic to solve crimes, which interested me. The reason I chose this volume is that I needed an H for this month's AlphaDog letters.

100valkyrdeath
mar 13, 12:10 pm

>97 KeithChaffee: While your review leads me to think it'll probably not be very good, the magic aspect still makes me tempted to check out the first book of the series out of curiosity.

101KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 12, 6:04 pm



20: Win Some, Lose Some, Mike Resnick

(AlphaKit: R; CalendarCat: author's birthday; BingoDog: short stories; award-nominated short SF: 30 stories)

From 1989 to 2012, there were only three years in which Resnick didn't have a piece of short fiction on the Hugo ballot. All 30 of his nominated stories -- more fiction nominations than any other author (*) -- are collected here, each with a pair of introductory comments from Resnick and one of his fellow SF authors, an all-star roster that begins with Gardner Dozois, Nancy Kress, Harry Turtledove, and Connie Willis.

(* -- Resnick had seven additional nominations in the categories of Best Editor and Best Related Work, a category for non-fiction about SF -- criticism, history, biography, etc. There are a few editors with more total nominations, but Resnick is the most-nominated author.)

The first half of the book is dominated by Resnick's interest in African history and culture. We get ten of the stories from his Kirinyaga series, set on a terraformed colony world planned as a Utopian society adhering strictly to the traditional customs and lifestyle of Kenya's Kikuyu people. The stories are narrated by the tribe's mundumugu -- witch doctor -- and collectively, they tell the story of his gradual understanding that no utopia can be sustained for very long.

Africa also pops up in two of Resnick's alternate history stories, "Bully!", in which Teddy Roosevelt attempts to decolonize (sort of) the Belgian Congo, and "Mwalimu in the Squared Circle," set during the 1970s Uganda-Tanzania war. (Teddy makes a second appearance in this book, solving the Jack the Ripper case in "Redchapel.")

In the second half of the book, Resnick's focus turns towards domestic relationships, with several stories featuring sad men with dead or dying wives.

A few quick words on each of the five stories that won the awards for which they were nominated:

"Kirinyaga" -- the first story in this series, in which Koriba's adherence to Kikuyu customs draws unwanted attention from the organization that manages the group of colonies of which Kirinyaga is a part.

"The Manamouki" -- Koriba is challenged by a new colonist, a young woman from Earth who objects to the colony's old-fashioned gender roles.

"Seven Years of Olduvai Gorge" -- for my money, the story most likely to endure. A look at the past and (possible) future of humanity, as seen by a group of alien archaeologists .

"The 43 Antarean Dynasties" -- A tour guide longs for his world's glorious past as he copes with ignorant human tourists; "the ugly American" on an intergalactic scale.

"Travels with My Cats" -- A man's fascination with an obscure old book leads to an unlikely romance.

That story is a good example of Resnick's skill for finding new twists on familiar SF themes. You've read stories about magic shops that seem to vanish and reappear at random, and stories about Frankenstein and his monster, but "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders" and "The Bride of Frankenstein" revitalize those ideas.

I would single out three other stories that I particularly liked. "For I Have Touched the Sky" is my favorite of the Kirinyaga stories; as is common in the series, it's a story in which Koriba's rigid adherence to tradition has disastrous results. "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" is an ending-world-famine story that keeps zigzagging into unexpected territory; "Down Memory Lane" is the best of the ailing-wife stories, a look at how far one man will go to avoid losing his wife to dementia.

Two of his five award-winning stories feature non-human protagonists, a bit unexpected because on the whole, Resnick is relatively uninterested in the alien. His focus is on people, and his stories are more emotional than most in the genre. If you are at all prone to tears or misty eyes, this collection is likely to take you there at least once.

I suspect that were he beginning his career today, Resnick's interest in Africa would be dismissed as cultural appropriation. I have no particular expertise, but Resnick seems to me in these stories to be always respectful, and to have done his homework; even where Korabi's values and traditions differ most dramatically from contemporary America, Resnick's presentation of those traditions is never unkind or condescending.

Resnick's prose is never flashy, but always well crafted and a pleasure to read. Characters are given depth and personality, even in the shortest stories; plots are clever and thoughtful. He comfortably handles a wide range of style and tone, from the safari adventure story "Hunting the Snark" to the rom-com-ish "Distant Replay."

There's nothing experimental or avant-garde here. Resnick wrote straight-down-the-middle mainstream SF, and wrote it as well as anyone of his generation. A fine collection of his best work.

102cindydavid4
mar 21, 7:29 pm

>101 KeithChaffee: ok I have not heard of him at all, very interested in his interest in African culture. "If you are at all prone to tears or misty eyes, this collection is likely to take you there at least once." Looks good!

103KeithChaffee
mar 21, 7:56 pm

>102 cindydavid4: If the Africa stuff particularly interests you, and you're not sure you want to dive into a 600-page collection, you might start with Kirinyaga, which collects just the stories from that series.

104FlorenceArt
mar 22, 3:54 am

>101 KeithChaffee: I hadn’t heard of this writer either. The collection is available as part of my Kobo subscription, so I have added it to my books.

105jjmcgaffey
mar 22, 12:17 pm

I've read some Resnick, not recently - I've gotten the collection from the library, should be interesting.

106KeithChaffee
Redigerat: mar 31, 6:47 pm



21: American Hippo, Sarah Gailey

(RandomKit: World Wildlife Day)

In the early twentieth century, the Congress of our great nation debated a glorious plan to resolve a meat shortage in America. The idea was this: import hippos and raise them in Louisiana's bayous. The hippos would eat the ruinously invasive water hyacinth; the American people would eat the hippos; everyone would go home happy. Well, except the hippos. They'd go home eaten.

...

Reader, this is an actual, literal thing that almost happened.

That's from Gailey's prologue, and from this actual, literal thing, she has spun an alternate history story that's half Western, half heist/caper movie.

Gailey has pushed the events back in time by about half a century; her timeline appendix explains that President Buchanan signed the Hippo Bill in 1857, and the first ranches were opened later that year. Alas, in 1858, about 90 hippos escaped from a ranch, and for years after that, the area surrounding the lower Mississipi River was plagued by feral killer hippos.

The events of these two linked novellas aren't precisely dated, but it's long enough after the hippo escape that the government is ready to take drastic action to solve the feral hippo problem. The action they take is to hire Winslow Remington Houndstooth (yes, really -- Winslow Remington Houndstooth!) to assemble a team -- in modern heist parlance, we could even call it a crew -- to rid the Mississippi of its feral hippos. "River of Teeth" (a 2018 Hugo-nominated novella) tells the story of that mission; "Taste of Marrow" follows the characters through its aftermath.

Taken strictly as a goofy Western heist, this isn't bad. The action set pieces are effective, and the feral hippos are a sufficiently menacing threat; Winslow's crew are a lively bunch, and they deliver reasonably well on the banter. But the social milieu in which this book takes place is so very much NOT late 19th-century Louisiana that it's hard to focus on the actual story.

It's never entirely clear, for instance, whether the Civil War took place in this version of the US; Gailey suggests that it did in her timeline, sort of. She mentions that Lincoln's 1861 inaugural includes a promise to solve the hippo problem, but "unfortunately, some things came up."

The lack of racial tension from every character in the book would argue otherwise. Winslow's crew is multiracial and multi-gender, and no one -- even the obvious villains -- bats an eye at the Black and Latina members of the group.

Even more glaring, everyone is completely comfortable with the sexual diversity of the team. Winslow is bisexual. Con artist Archie is a woman who occasionally dresses and makes herself up as a man -- not only when it's necessary for a con, but sometimes just for the sheer recreational pleasure of it. Explosives expert Hero is Black and non-binary, and everyone refers to them using they/them pronouns as if that were a routine thing. In the late 19th century. In the deep South.

Certainly, bisexual and cross-dressing and non-binary people existed in that era, as they always have. But they weren't so casually visible, because being visible would have meant violence, ostracism, and in most cases, death. And if you're going to give me a version of America that's close enough to ours to have Presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, and Johnson, then you are obliged to explain a difference of this magnitude.

Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of an American society that's completely over its sexual/racial hysteria. But we don't have that society now, and we certainly didn't have it 150 years ago. And Gailey's choice to write as if we did is incredibly distracting, constantly pulling the reader out of her historical era. Maybe these characters would be able to have these relationships, with this level of openness and comfort, in 2170. They couldn't have in 1870, and the la-di-dah glibness with which Gailey ignores that fact ruined the story for me.

107baswood
mar 25, 3:01 pm

>106 KeithChaffee: Yes it can be extremely off putting when an author gets the culture and social setting so wrong, even if the book is meant to be a comical send up.

However what I want to know: is Hippo meat good to eat?

108KeithChaffee
mar 25, 4:00 pm

>107 baswood: Apparently, yes. It is said to be closest to beef in taste and texture, and not particularly gamy. There are African tribes for whom hippo was once a regular part of the diet. But it is currently illegal in all of the countries where they live to hunt hippos.

109cindydavid4
mar 25, 6:51 pm

Then there's the time the military decided to import camels to be in the south west. It did not go well. inlands feature them in its story

110jjmcgaffey
mar 26, 1:33 pm

I just read Hi, Jolly! by Jim Kjelgaard about the camels, from the POV of one of the Arab men (Hajj Ali) who came to escort and care for them. He had some complications, both before and after...but it's a good story and interesting info on the camels and how and why they weren't accepted. It's also a kid's story, about an amazingly good camel and the boy/man who partnered it - reminds me of King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry.

111cindydavid4
mar 26, 3:45 pm

oh yeah thats another one I read but couldnt remember the title

112KeithChaffee
Redigerat: mar 31, 6:47 pm



22: Swords and Deviltry, Fritz Leiber

Between 1939 and 1988, Leiber wrote about three dozen stories and a novel featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a barbarian and a thief who travel together through the sword-and-sorcery world of Newhon. Those stories were eventually collected in the 7-volume "Swords" series, of which this is the first.

It opens with a brief introductory vignette, and this is how Leiber first presents his characters:
In Lankhmar on one murky night, if we can believe the runic books of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, there met for the first time those two dubious heroes and whimsical scoundrels, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Fafhrd's origins were easy to perceive in his near seven-foot height and limber-looking ranginess, his hammered ornaments and huge longsword: he was clearly a barbarian from the Cold Waste north even of the Eight Cities and the Trollstep Mountains. The Mouser's antecedents were more cryptic and hardly to be deduced from his childlike stature, gray garb, mouseskin hood shadowing flat swart face, and deceptively dainty rapier; but somewhere about him was the suggestion of cities and the south, the dark streets and also the sun-drenched spaces. As the twain eyed each other challengingly through the murky fog lit indirectly by distant torches, they were already dimly aware that they were two long-sundered, matching fragments of a greater hero and that each had found a comrade who would outlast a thousand quests and a lifetime -- or a hundred lifetimes -- of adventuring.

Clearly, we are not in the Asimovian world of invisible narrators and transparent prose; that is a lot of style. I think of this kind of writing as "cheesecake language;" a small slice of it can be absolutely delightful, but if you take in too much in a single sitting, you're going to get a little queasy.

Beyond that brief vignette, this book contains three stories, one to introduce us to each character and one to tell the story of their first meeting. "The Snow Women" is set in Fafhrd's northern village; he is a 17-year-old caught up in a passionate romance with a visiting actress, and longing desperately to see the "civilized" world to the south. "The Unholy Grail" (1963 Hugo short story nominee) introduces the Mouser as he rescues a fair damsel from her cruel father, the Duke. And they meet in "Ill Met in Lankhmar" (1970 Hugo/Nebula novella winner) when they independently attempt to re-steal the same newly stolen goods from members of the Thieves' Guild.

"Lankhmar" is by far the best of the three, a lively comic heist caper. While it's written relatively late in the series, it makes a fine introduction to the characters. They come vividly to life as individuals, and the relationship between them is instantly understood.

There is a plot turn that I feel obliged to mention, even though it's a bit of a spoiler. The women the two men meet in their opening solo tales both die in "Lankhmar." It's impossible, of course, to know what Leiber was thinking when he made this choice, but coming to the story a half-century later, it feels a bit defensive. If you're going to spend fifty years writing a series about two male best friends who travel the world together, then by god you'd better give each of them a tragic love story to explain why neither of them ever shows much interest in settling down to romance and family, or people might think they're (gasp!) homosexual!

A few more of the Fafhrd/Mouser stories will pop up on my SF awards journey. This sort of fantasy isn't generally my cup of tea, and I wouldn't want to read another full book of this prose all at once, but as an occasional story or two, I can imagine enjoying more of this quite a lot.

113baswood
mar 31, 6:28 pm

>112 KeithChaffee: I recently read his 1951 novel Gather, Darkness which was a mixture of sword and sorcery and science fiction. I am not sure I would want to venture into the world of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser too often.

114KeithChaffee
mar 31, 6:39 pm

The March "between books" report is a short one, with just two stories:

"Red as Blood," Tanith Lee -- 1980 Nebula short story nominee
"Slow Communication," Dominique Dickey -- 2023 Sturgeon nominee

"Red as Blood" is a Snow White riff with a layer of explicit religion thrown in; the stepmother/witch (they're the same woman in this version) believes the Snow White character to be a demon. Prose is far too florid for my taste, but it does create a very precise mood.

"Slow Communication" is one of about 20 stories from my SF awards list that I can most easily access as a podcast episode, so I listened to it instead of reading it. I am decidedly not an audiobook person -- even as a child, as soon as I could read for myself, I didn't want to be read to -- so this is not my favorite way of taking in fiction, but we completists must suffer for our devotion! It's an OK story, though I wouldn't have thought it particularly deserving of awards. The main character is 17-year-old Darla, who's preparing to take part in a centuries-old family ritual, and without giving too much away, today turned out to be a particularly appropriate day to listen to this one.

On to the April challenges!

115rv1988
mar 31, 11:19 pm

>106 KeithChaffee: You had me at "feral killer hippos". This sounds like so much fun, even keeping in mind your reservations about the author's worldbuilding.
>112 KeithChaffee: This sounds very interesting. I've never read the author before. On my list!

116KeithChaffee
Redigerat: apr 1, 3:58 pm

>115 rv1988: There are certainly a lot of options, and genres, to explore with Leiber, and he was highly regarded in most of them. He received the Lifetime Achievement awards from both the World Fantasy Convention and the Horror Writers Association, and was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. His most enduring novels are Conjure Wife, The Big Time, and Our Lady of Darkness, which are horror, SF, and fantasy, respectively.

117KeithChaffee
Redigerat: apr 5, 5:09 pm



23: The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, Manuel Gonzales

(AlphaKit: O and U; BingoDog: warriors or mercenaries)

Somewhere in New York, in an underground lair beneath a highly exclusive travel agency that serves as its cover, there is an organization known as The Regional Office. Most of the travel agency employees don't know it's there, and certainly don't know what their employer's real business is.

But if you happen to make your way from the Morrison World Travel Concern to a particular elevator, you will be taken nearly a mile underground, and when the elevator doors open, you will see written on the wall:
The Regional Office: uniquely positioned to Empower and Strengthen otherwise troubled or at-risk Young Women to act as a Barrier of last resort between the survival of the Planet and the amassing Forces of Darkness that Threaten, at nearly every turn, to Destroy It.
Yes, it's another top-secret organization of secret agents, all of them female, devoted to saving the world from an array of horrifying (and, it is suggested, probably supernatural) threats. And it is at the Regional Office that Gonzales begins his story, very much in medias res, as a team of agents -- again, all women -- prepares to attack and (they hope) to destroy the Office.

It's a structurally complicated book. We begin with two central characters. Rose is heading the assault team, and Sarah is forced to rally her co-workers in defense, a task for which she is only partially prepared. Not only do we alternate between those two points of view, but we are also alternating for each of them between the day of the attack and flashback chapters which fill in their backstories.

And the first third of the book, when the focus is on the attack itself, is terrific stuff. Rose and Sarah are vivid characters, and Gonzales writes action scenes that mix thrills and comedy in unexpected ways. An "interlude" chapter called "The Hostage Situation" is a particular delight, following a half-dozen of the men who work in the travel agency and have somehow gotten caught up in a battle they cannot begin to make sense of.

But as the book goes on, Gonzales keeps piling on characters and backstories and complications -- as if all of the flashbacks weren't enough, there's eventually a flashforward to ten years later -- and it all begins to crumble under its own weight.

Gonzales has done a thorough and complex job of world-building. He hints at characters and story lines which could make marvelous books in their own right. I would happily read a novel about Oyemi and Mr. Niles founding the Regional Office, or about Henry's work as the head of recruitment, or a collection of stories about the Office's great operatives and their most daring missions.

The problem is that Gonzales has tried to stuff all of those stories into one book, which gives none of them the room they need to breathe. Everything feels rushed and incomplete; things that ought to be entire chapters are crammed into single sentences.

And with insufficient time to tell any of the stories he wants to tell within his particular fictional corner of the world, Gonzales can't pay any attention at all to the world outside the Regional Office. Does the greater world know of all the threats from which the Office's operatives have saved it? Who was fighting off those threats before the Office? What connection, if any, does the Office have to the world's governments? Without a broader context, the Regional Office feels too hermetically sealed and insulated from reality, and that winds up reducing the stakes. Who's going to know about, or care about, whether the attack on the Office succeeds or fails? How is the world going to be changed by the result?

To be sure, there are worse authorial sins than too much ambition. Better a writer should attempt too much than be content to lazily coast on formulaic tropes and formulas. And even as the storytelling and plotting get more and more convoluted, Gonzales's prose is always fun to read. I will be curious to see what he does next, and I hope that he will learn a bit of restraint to go along with his unbridled energy and creativity.

118RidgewayGirl
apr 5, 5:05 pm

>117 KeithChaffee: I'd wondered about that book. I really enjoyed his book of short stories and it sounds like he might be better just tackling one great idea at a time.

119KeithChaffee
apr 6, 3:51 pm

At the beginning of this reading year, I decided to attempt a massive dive into the Category Challenges. At the beginning of my thread in that group, I said this:
It remains to be seen whether I'll find this an entertaining way to structure my reading, or whether I'll be frustrated by May over all of the other books I'd like to read and haven't gotten to because they don't fit any category. But it will be an interesting experiment.
And it turns out it only took until April for the frustration to kick in.

So, I'm backing off a bit from the mega-dive into the Cats and Kits. I'm leaving CalendarCat, HistoryCat, and RandomKit behind; I will continue to work on AlphaKit, MysteryKit, SFFKit, and BingoDog.

The mega-dive meant that more than half of my monthly reading was stuff that I was reading to fill a challenge slot, and some of that was being read ONLY to fill a challenge, not because I was terribly interested in it. Cutting back means that even the challenge books will be books that I want to read, and I'll have time each month to read two or three books that don't fit any challenge at all.

I'm on the calendar to host a month in both CalendarCat and HistoryCat, and of course, I plan to keep to those commitments. But I have found that I need a little bit more room for spontaneity and random pleasure in my reading.

It was, indeed, an interesting experiment, and I've learned something about myself in the process. And who could want more from any experiment than that?

120cindydavid4
apr 6, 4:08 pm

>119 KeithChaffee: the 'spontaneity and random pleasure ' is what has kept me from those challenges, I did do the classic one last year but that was enough. With RRT and RG and nonfiction and monthy authors I have enough challenges and in those I can pick and chose my invovlment so theres room for something I read for me

121labfs39
apr 7, 10:37 am

>119 KeithChaffee: I did the Asia Challenge two years ago and the Africa Challenge last year. They had different country challenges for each month. Although I'm glad I participated as I learned a LOT, I am very much enjoying my serendipitous reading this year.

122dchaikin
apr 9, 9:24 pm

>112 KeithChaffee: i was very charmed by the introduction of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

As much as structure my reading, I can’t take reading challenges. Something about following some external structure bothers me a lot.

123labfs39
apr 10, 7:12 am

>122 dchaikin: And yet you are the most structured reader I know!

124cindydavid4
apr 10, 10:11 am

Hee really! but his reads are not like our challenges here; they are his own, which works much better

125Julie_in_the_Library
apr 11, 8:06 am

>106 KeithChaffee: I can see why that didn't work for you. I would probably have trouble with the absence of bigotries in that setting, as well, but I can see why some queer people might appreciate being able to read a book like this without having to deal with or encounter it.

I've read one book by Sarah Gailey - Magic for Liars - and I quite enjoyed it. It's set in the modern day, and I don't remember encountering any of the issues that you described, though it's been a while.

126KeithChaffee
apr 15, 4:50 pm



24: Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties, Foster Hirsch

(BingoDog: only the title and author's name on the cover)

In a way, this is a nonfiction parallel to the Gonzales novel I just read. Both are attempting to do too many things, none of which can be fully developed in the limited space available.

The five sections of Hirsch's book are devoted to:

  1. A quick history of each major studio during the 1950s.
  2. The major changes facing the industry, both in technology (wide screen formats, 3-D) and in the types of movies being made (foreign and arthouse cinema, exploitation films, movies about race).
  3. The McCarthy committee and the blacklist.
  4. The winding down of careers for the stars of earlier decades and the rise of a new generation of actors.
  5. A quick overview of each major film genre, whether on the decline (film noir, ancient-world epics) or on the rise (science fiction).

Any one of those could be the subject of a large book; most of them already have been. Heck, any of the chapters on individual studios could easily be expanded to book length. And all of them feel cramped here, even in a 640-page book.

Hirsch is at his best when he's talking about the movies themselves. He is remembering his own childhood at the cinema, and his youthful enthusiasm for some movies occasionally overwhelms his more maturely developed critical sense. But he is sharply aware of the ways in which the world has changed since the 1950s, and does a fine job of balancing awareness of (and cautionary notes about) the aspects of some movies that seem unenlightened by modern standards, with an insistence that we still have to be able to appreciate the technical and artistic merits of those movies. He argues that while we should certainly be aware of the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. (and etc. and etc. and etc.) of older movies, we should not overly punish them for failing to live up to standards that did not apply when they were made.

As far as which movies get discussed, Hirsch is content mostly to skim the surface, focusing mostly on the acknowledged classics and only occasionally digging deeper in search of the unjustly forgotten or undervalued titles. That's a shame, because the few passages in which he does bring an obscurity to light are among the book's highlights, and I would have enjoyed more of them.

Ultimately, I can't recommend this one. There are better books available on virtually every subject Hirsch deals with, and you'd be better served by those longer and more focused examinations than by Hirsch's rapid-fire scattershot approach.

127KeithChaffee
Redigerat: apr 17, 7:23 pm



25: A Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh

(MysteryKit: series)

First volume of 32 in Marsh's series about Scotland Yard's Roderick Alleyn. Originally published in 1934; the series ran until 1982.

Our setting is Frantock, the country estate of Sir Hubert Handesley, who is well known for his delightful week-end parties. Yes, "week-end;" that's how long ago the book was written. This time, he's invited a half-dozen guests to play the trendy new game of Murders, in which one guest is secretly chosen as the "murderer," who must "kill" another guest, with everyone else tasked to solve the "crime."

But when the lights go out and the gong is sounded to signal that the victim has been chosen and the game is afoot, the guests are horrified to discover that one of them has been killed for real. Enter Chief Inspector-Detective Alleyn, who sets about solving the murder with efficient charm and a dry sense of humor.

The prose is somewhat formal, but not at all stiff or stilted; if you didn't know it was 90 years old, it could pass pretty well for contemporary. The novel is relatively free of the era's toxic social attitudes. One of the female characters is very much a Fragile Flower, but others dead with the stress just as well as the men do, so her frailty comes across as an individual character choice rather than as a grand statement about gender roles writ large. If any particular group comes off poorly, it's Russians, but the book's Russian characters are, after all, involved in organized crime, and one doesn't expect members of such groups to be portrayed with much sympathy.

The plot gets a bit overstuffed in the final chapters, and Alleyn seems unusually willing to turn some of his suspects into assistant crime-solvers, giving them large and intricate roles in the denouement. But my goodness, this was a fun read, and I can easily understand why Marsh remains popular after all of these years. (I read this book in a 2011 edition from Felony & Mayhem Press, who reprinted the entire series.) I will certainly return to this series.

128KeithChaffee
apr 19, 5:36 pm

Another batch of between-book stories from the SF awards lists:

"The Piper's Son," Lewis Padgett -- 1946 Hugo novelette nominee
"Goldfish Bowl," Anson MacDonald (pseudonym of Robert A. Heinlein) -- 1943 Hugo novelette nominee
"First Contact," Murray Leinster -- 1946 Hugo novelette winner
"Killdozer!," Theodore Sturgeon -- 1945 Hugo novella winner

Sturgeon's story has a rather silly premise -- a small group of construction workers are trapped on a small island with a killer bulldozer -- but he justifies it as well as anyone can justify such a thing, and the story does a fine job of building tension.

The MacDonald/Heinlein story is minor Heinlein, asking "What if the aliens are so far advanced that they don't even see us as worth their bother?" with a ham-fisted goldfish metaphor.

Leinster's story holds up quite well. It's a particularly paranoid take on first contact, in which human and alien spaceship crews both fear that the other will take military advantage of whatever knowledge they might gain from the meeting, and the solution to that problem is clever.

My favorite of this bunch, though, is Padgett's post-nuclear-war story. Humanity wasn't wiped out by the bombs, but the mutations caused by the fallout have created a new race of telepaths, most of whom are trying very hard to blend in and not cause trouble with the large mass of non-telepaths, who fear and distrust them. It's a cautionary tale about the apparent inevitability of tribalism and resentment when people are divided into groups.

129KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 12, 6:13 pm



26: The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF, edited by Mike Ashley

(SFFKit: time travel)

2013 collection of 25 time travel stories. In his introduction, Ashley says that his focus was on recent fiction, mostly from within the last twenty years, and that he chose to focus on stories that had not been widely reprinted elsewhere. (If the "SF" in the title feels redundant to you, it's there to distinguish this from The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Romance.)

It's a strong batch of stories, and Ashley has done a smart job of gathering a variety of different approaches to the topic. You've got time loops, paradoxes, romances both happy and tragic, "protect the timeline" warriors, changes to historical timelines -- you name the time travel trope, and it's in here somewhere.

To pick out a few of my favorites:

"Time Gypsy," Ellen Klages -- a post-doctoral student is sent back forty years to find a lost research paper that will advance her field of study.

"Real Time," Lawrence Watt-Evans -- a taut, noir-ish "protect the timeline" miniature (only 5 pages long) with a beautifully sharp ending.

"In the Beginning, Nothing Lasts...," Mike Strahan -- living life in reverse does strange things to our idea of memory; a wrenching story involving abusive relationships.

"Palely Loitering," Christopher Priest -- set in the future, but the prose style is somewhat retro, vaguely Victorian, maybe? One of those Heinlein-esque stories in which the protagonist looks around at seven other people, only one of whom isn't himself, but this time it's a romance.

"Red Letter Day," Kristine Kathryn Rusch -- receiving a message from your future self is going to be an emotional event. NOT receiving one might be even harder.

The Klages and Priest stories are two of the nine SF award nominees in this book, and while I would never mistake award status for an infallible sign of quality, it at least suggests that these were stories that had a significant impact on the genre.

If you're going to read only one time travel anthology, this shouldn't be your first stop; that would be The Time Traveler's Almanac, edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer. But this is a fine supplemental volume if you find yourself wanting more, and the two volumes share only four stories (the Klages and Rusch stories; Robert Silverberg's excellent romantic triangle "Needle in a Timestack," and David I. Masson's "Traveler's Rest," a time-war story that I thought was one of the few clunkers in either book).

130KeithChaffee
Redigerat: apr 26, 1:39 pm

Det här meddelandet har tagits bort av dess författare.

131cindydavid4
Redigerat: apr 26, 9:01 pm

I have read Vandemeers worked and liked it. Glad to hear there were just a few repeats in this one. Definitely worth seeking out ETA $2 on kindler. Im on it!

132cindydavid4
apr 27, 3:19 pm

now reading the truth about weena which Im really liking it

133KeithChaffee
apr 27, 3:31 pm

Glad you're enjoying it! I look forward to hearing which stories you enjoyed most.

134cindydavid4
apr 28, 10:53 pm

well I liked it, but was surprised the ending wasnt darker. Not that Im complaining about a happy ending, and it was interesting neverthe less

Ive read another take on time machine time shipsthat I thought very good; goes back to the dinosaurs and out to the far stretches of the universe.

I wonder if Try and Change the Past was the basis to one of my fave time travel novels this is how you lose the time wars as well as one day all this will be yours

thought scream quietly was good, and Darwins Suitcase unsettling; if there was time travel, those with agendas would be out after those they hate, hopefully the past really cannot be changed in time travel

more to come

135KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 6, 6:42 pm

>134 cindydavid4: "I wonder if Try and Change the Past was the basis to one of my fave time travel novels this is how you lose the time wars as well as one day all this will be yours"

There's probably at least an indirect connection. Leiber's Change War series in the 1950s was one of the earliest set of time-war stories. In a sense, that entire subgenre derives from, or is at least inspired by, Leiber's work.

136cindydavid4
Redigerat: apr 29, 11:14 am

Have you read the series? if so what did you think of it?

137KeithChaffee
apr 29, 12:59 pm

No, I haven’t.

138cindydavid4
apr 29, 6:12 pm

ok, I may give it a shot

139KeithChaffee
maj 2, 1:25 pm

DNF: Raw Dog, Jamie Loftus.

I was expecting/hoping for a history of the hot dog and its place in American culture, and there was some of that here. (A chapter on the Nathan's 4th of July hot dog eating contest is the highlight of what I got through.) But mostly, this is a cross-country road trip, as Loftus and her unnamed boyfriend stop at every hot dog stand they can find.

Now, I like hot dogs, but they are not the most exciting food. It would take a gifted food writer to present 50 variations on "and then I ate another hot dog" and make them interesting. Loftus is not that food writer.

In fact, she's not a food writer at all. She's a TV writer and a stand-up comic, and this book is written with those rhythms, which are wearying at this length. There's a reason that the average stand-up set isn't 300 pages long.

140labfs39
maj 2, 2:40 pm

>139 KeithChaffee: Ha, had to laugh at your review.

141cindydavid4
maj 4, 3:26 pm

women on the brink of a catacysm was quite a wild ride and funny to boot. Looks like the author has her own collection of time travel stories bad timing I may try it

142KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 4, 4:17 pm



27: Crochet Stitch Dictionary, Sarah Hazell

(Bingo: area of specific knowledge)

Hazell presents 200 pattern stitches, organized in broad groups -- fans and shells, puffs and bobbles, spikes, etc. Each has a color photo of a swatch worked in that stitch and instructions, both in text and in symbol charts, with closeup photos of hands, hook, and yarn working key steps in the stitch. Where appropriate, she also includes advice on which types or colors of yarn are most suitable ("best in lighter colors in order not to lose stitch definition"), and the sort of projects the stitch is best suited for ("drapes well; would be effective for garments"). I have only two small problems with the book: The text is quite small and faint, and it's nearly impossible to make the book lie open so that you can easily refer to the pattern you're working. As a practical matter, probably easier to make a photocopy of the page you need and work from that.

As for "specific knowledge," I've been crocheting for nearly 50 years now, and I like to think I've gotten pretty good at it. As I have more time to crochet in retirement, I'm slowly beginning to be interested in designing, even if on a very basic level. Can I make myself a decent sweater that fits, for instance? So as I look through this collection of stitches, I find myself thinking, "that would make a pretty scarf" or "too lacy for me, but could be an interesting sweater for someone else." And I am now very curious about tackling beaded crochet, which I've never done. (Hmmm... I've been trying to figure out a way to translate the temperature blanket idea into a sweater; maybe a selection of lightweight beads in a range of colors would work?)

I feel slightly silly counting this as "reading a book." It's more of a reference source, heavy on photos and illustrations with limited text. But what the heck, it's a bunch of pages between covers and it's got an ISBN: it's a book.

143labfs39
maj 4, 5:17 pm

>142 KeithChaffee: It's definitely a book. I never learned to crochet, although I can knit and cross-stitch, and tried quilting. There is something soothing about making something with my hands. I recently made a matching scarf set for my four year old niece and her stuffed lamb and a hat for my seven year old niece. It was the first time I had made anything in a long time.

144cindydavid4
maj 4, 10:10 pm

used to embroider quite a bit, till my eyes got worse and it just got too hard. My aunt taught me how to knit when I was a kid, and I ended up making a very crooked itchy scarf so that ended that , and yeah a reference book is a book, count it!

145FlorenceArt
maj 5, 5:31 am

>142 KeithChaffee: Of course it’s a book. Whenever I get interested in something, be it practical or intellectual, I have to read at least one book on the subject. Usually several. Even if these days, most of the information can be found on the net.

146KeithChaffee
maj 5, 3:45 pm

In a rare occurrence, I happen to be caught up with all of my regular podcasts, so my listening for today's walk around the neighborhood was a "between books" SF story in podcast form. Chaz Brenchley's "Terminal" (2008 BSFA nominee) isn't much of a story, really. It's more an exercise in world-building, the creation of a background against which an interesting story might be told. But as such, it held my interest well enough.

147KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 6, 3:21 pm



28: Death from a Top Hat, Clayton Rawson

(MysteryKit: Golden Age mysteries)

The first of four novels Rawson wrote between 1938 and 1942 featuring the amateur detective The Great Merlini, a stage magician who runs a magic shop in New York. He returned to the character for a dozen short stories over the next thirty years, most of them published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, many of them originally published without the solution as a contest for the readers.

The Merlini mysteries are usually built around some aspect of magic, and most of them are locked-room mysteries. In this one, the police turn to Merlini for advice when a magician is found strangled inside his locked apartment, hoping that he might explain how the killer could have left the room. Because magicians tend to hang out with other magicians -- can't talk shop and trade secrets with civilians, after all -- the field of suspects is made up of other magicians (with the odd mentalist and ventriloquist thrown in for good measure), and Merlini knows them all reasonably well.

I enjoyed this book a lot. The suspects are a colorful group; the relationship among Merlini, the policeman leading the investigation, and the reporter who stumbles across the body (and narrates the story) is entertaining; and the solution is clever. I have reservations about one specific aspect of the solution, which relies on an aspect of stagecraft that I think is largely hokum, and (even viewed in the most generous light) is far too unreliable for a would-be murderer to rely on, but that's a small objection.

And it is worth noting that this novel is significantly less plagued by awkward social attitudes and bigotry than many from this era. There aren't more than a half dozen moments in the book that are uncomfortable by modern standards, and even those are relatively mild. They are phrases that we wouldn't feel comfortable using today, but they aren't used with hostile or derogatory intent.

Almost all of Rawson's writing is in print today, including a separate series of stories about Don Diavolo, another magician, originally published under the name "Stuart Towne." I look forward to reading more of his work.

148valkyrdeath
maj 6, 6:24 pm

>129 KeithChaffee: I've just finished The Time Traveler's Almanac and Time Gypsy and Red Letter Day were two of the standout stories for me from that book too. I might consider tis for the future but I think I need a break from time travel for a while now.

>147 KeithChaffee: Noting this one, I'm always up for a mystery featuring a magician, especially a golden age one.

149KeithChaffee
maj 11, 4:10 pm



29: The Engines of God, Jack McDevitt

(SFFKit: archaeology)

First of eight novels featuring spaceship pilot Priscilla Hutchins, who usually winds up flying people to and from the exploration of various space artifacts.

This story is built largely around The Monuments, a group of about a dozen large carvings and statues found scattered throughout the galaxy. They are tens of thousands of years old, and we know practically nothing about who created them or why.

A group of archaeologists exploring the relics of the now-extinct civilization on the planet Quraqua are surprised to discover evidence that Quraqua may be connected to the making of the monuments. Investigating the newly uncovered sites could take years.

But they don't have years, because humanity, desperate to find a possible new home now that Earth is on the verge of being climate-changed to death (*), is about to start terraforming Quraqua, which will destroy the archeaological sites, and the companies responsible for that terraforming refuse to delay.

(* -- This novel was published in 1994, and is set in the early 23rd century; things have deteriorated so badly in only thirty years that McDevitt now looks wildly optimistic about how much time we'd have left before we completely trashed the planet.)

That conflict between archaeologists and terraformers could easily provide enough material for an entire novel. Here, it's only the beginning, as McDevitt spins the fallout into a much vaster story that takes place on and around multiple planets. The mystery of the Monuments is solved (at least partially) in a way that raises new questions and potential plotlines for later novels in the series.

If anything, the book is perhaps too overstuffed. Some of the action feels rushed -- the last act of the book is another "this could be a whole novel" sequence -- and McDevitt is so busy cramming plot into the book that the characters don't always get enough room to breathe.

I didn't enjoy this as much as McDevitt's other space archaeology series, featuring Alex Benedict, finder and seller of rare artifacts. But I liked it enough that I will eventually pick up the next Hutchins book to see where things go.

150jjmcgaffey
maj 12, 2:41 pm

Huh. I didn't know there was one, let alone two, space archaeology series. I'll have to look for them.

151KeithChaffee
maj 12, 5:22 pm



30: Dictionary of Fine Distinctions, Eli Burnstein

There are a lot of almost-synonyms in English, words that are easily confused for one another. Presume and assume; venomous and poisonous; gully, gulch, and canyon; proverb, adage, and maxim -- Burnstein offers about 100 sets of such words and attempts to explain the precise differences between them.

Each entry is accompanied by what we will generously call "illustrations" by New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck, who appears to have outsourced the job to a talented 10-year-old. They take up a large amount of the pages, which are already pretty well padded with large type and generous margins. The result is a 208-page book that could be usefully condensed to a six-page appendix at the end of a more complete usage/grammar guide.

Not recommended.

152KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 31, 1:26 pm



31: Burn, Patrick Ness

(AlphaKit: N and P)

Alternate history/fantasy at the highest level.

Our setting is rural Washington in a 1957 very much like our own, where high-schooler Sarah Dewhurst is waiting with her father in a parking lot to meet the laborer he is hiring to clear some fields -- a dragon.

And that's the big "not our world" difference. Dragons and humanity co-exist, and they've been at peace for 200 years or so. It's a somewhat uneasy peace, and neither species much trusts the other, but there's not a recorded case of a dragon killing a human in centuries. (For a human to kill a dragon would require so precise a blow that it's not thought of as a practical possibility.)

Ness quickly sets up multiple plotlines, hopping from one POV character to another. Sarah's father warns her to stay away from the dragon, who he says cannot be trusted. At school and in their small village, she's dealing with racism -- her late mother was African-American, and her best friend is a Japanese-American boy who spent his early childhood in an internment camp -- especially from a viciously bigoted deputy sheriff.

Meanwhile, north of the Canadian border, a teenaged assassin is making his way to Sarah's town. He's being sent by the Believers, a dragon-worshipping cult; they believe that a great war is about to begin. It's not quite clear who Malcolm is meant to kill, or whether he thinks that killing will start the war or prevent it. He's being pursued by American Federal agents, one of them a former Believer, who are working in Canada without the knowledge of permission of the Canadian government.

The story takes a sharp detour midway through, adding even more characters and dialing the already apocalyptic stakes up a few notches. It's a wild narrative choice, and I spent most of the second half of the novel frantically turning the pages while thinking "how on earth is he making this work?"

Because he does make this work. The story is clever and thrilling, the characters are vivid and well-rounded (*), the mythology and backstory he creates for his dragons feels plausible, and it's all just great fun to read. Ness is realistic about the bigotry his diverse cast would face -- if anything, he's maybe downplaying it -- without turning the novel into OppressionFest '57.

(* -- The biggest exception in this regard is that deputy sheriff, who never quite rises above the level of cartoon bigot. He's a third-tier supporting player, so it's not a major problem, but he is noticably the weakest character in the book.)

Dragon fantasy is very much not my thing, so I went into this one with muted expectations, even though Ness is one of my favorite authors. I needn't have worried; this is some of his best work. Like most of Ness's novels, this is written for a YA audience, but there is enough depth and complexity to the story to keep adult readers entertained.

Ooh, I loved this book.

153labfs39
maj 16, 6:11 pm

>152 KeithChaffee: You make this sound so interesting. I might have to check it out.

154KeithChaffee
Redigerat: maj 27, 4:19 pm

DNF: The Fragile Threads of Power, V. E. Schwab. This one is being marketed as the first volume in a spin-off from the Shades of Magic trilogy, which published its third volume in 2017. But it's not so much spin-off as it is direct sequel. And after 7 years, I don't remember the complex ins and outs and political scheming that was going on in the last book well enough to pick up the new book, which Schwab writes as if we've all just finished reading the last one. I'd have to re-read the earlier trilogy before I could dive into this one, and while I liked those books, I didn't like them that much. So partly my fault for not remembering all the details, and partly Schwab's fault for not bothering to do a better job of laying the necessary backstory details into the opening chapter of the new book.

155cindydavid4
maj 18, 12:02 pm

I have read that trilogy and liked them well enough. Pity about this one tho,Id have the same issue that you did, and I would have wanted to read it.

156KeithChaffee
maj 21, 1:57 pm



32: The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein, Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein didn't venture into fantasy very often, and if the eight stories gathered here are any indication, that's a good thing. Only a couple of these stories work very well, and they are the ones that are closer to the SF side of the genre divide. Despite my misgivings, I should note that the three longest stories were all Retro Hugo nominees, including one winner.

"Magic, Inc." is probably the best of those; it's set in a (then) contemporary American city in which magic is real, and an important part of most small businesses. Heinlein imagines how the annoyances of running a business -- protection rackets, lobbying against stupid legislation -- would play out in a magical world. It's a pleasant story, marred by brief passages of sexism and racism that are uncharacteristic for Heinlein.

In "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag," a married pair of private detectives are hired by Mr. Hoag, who cannot remember what he does during the day, and fears that his amnesia might be caused by the stress of having done horrible things. Their attempts to tail Hoag lead the detectives to discover the creepy, surreal powers who really run the world. The climax of the story, in which we finally learn what Mr. Hoag's profession is, is a joke that falls terribly flat.

The title character in "Waldo" -- that's the Hugo-winning story -- is a mechanical/scientific genius who's called on to solve a crisis with the world's energy source. He must do so remotely, because he lives in space, where zero gravity makes his neuromuscular disability easier to manage. Heinlein's treatment of Waldo's disability is meant to be respectful, and probably is by 1942 standards, but there are definitely some uncomfortable moments for today's reader. The story is notable as the source of the engineering term "waldo," a tool that allows people to manipulate objects remotely.

The two stories that hold up the best are both significantly shorter, each under twenty pages. "And He Built a Crooked House" explores four-dimensional space, with an architect accidentally building a home in the form of a tesseract. (In the same way that a cube is a three-dimensional extension of a two-dimensional square, a tesseract is a four-dimensional extension of a three-dimensional cube.) "All You Zombies" distills a particular type of time travel paradox down to the bare bones, ringing every possible variation on its theme in 12 pages; it's a classic.

Ah well, even the greats can't be good at everything, I suppose.

157Julie_in_the_Library
maj 22, 8:13 am

>151 KeithChaffee: It's a shame that it wasn't better executed, because it's a great premise for a themed dictionary/book about words.

158SassyLassy
maj 22, 11:18 am

>151 KeithChaffee: Oh dear, I had hopes for this when I read the title, but will stick with reference books for the present!

159KeithChaffee
maj 22, 3:46 pm

>157 Julie_in_the_Library: I don't think the problem was so much poor execution (though the project certainly was poorly executed) as it was that there just wasn't enough material for a whole book.

160KeithChaffee
maj 23, 3:37 pm



33: Mona of the Manor, Armistead Maupin

(BingoDog: friendship)

Tenth in the Tales of the City series.

Maupin has announced at least twice that this series was finished, including after the previous book, The Days of Anna Madrigal. (The jacket flap copy identifies this one, too, as the "final episode.") And perhaps this time he really doesn't mean to carry his characters beyond where Days of Anna ended, because this volume is a flashback, filling in a piece of the story from earlier years.

It's set in the early 1990s, during the years that Mona Ramsey lived in England after marrying Lord Teddy Raughton. As we begin, Lord Teddy has died, and while he left her a lovely country manor, there wasn't much money. So Mona and her adopted son, Wilfrid, have turned Easley House into a glorified B&B, leaning heavily on the "stay at the home of an actual British Lady" angle.

We follow Mona and Wilfrid through several weeks at Easley House. They host a vacationing couple from North Carolina, and prepare for their annual Midsummer Festival open house/party. And this year, some of Mona's old friends from Barbaby Lane will be coming to visit for Midsummer.

These novels are comfort food for me. I enjoy the way Maupin combines deep, thoughtful consideration of emotional relationships with melodramatic, occasionally absurd plot twists. (As Mona reminds us in passing in this volume, this is a series in which one character spent several years artificially darkening her skin in order to pass for Black because "exotic" fashion models were in style at the time.)

Maupin is, I think, a more skilled writer than he generally gets credit for. He's often dismissed as a writer of pleasant fluff. But look at how quickly the first chapter of this book establishes the relationship between the arriving guests from North Carolina, or the precision of the dialogue in a conversation that exposes a deep divide in attitudes between Mona and her on-again, off-again girlfriend. Light entertainment is harder to pull off than it might seem, and very few do it as well as Maupin.

161kjuliff
maj 27, 11:55 am

>134 cindydavid4: There’s an interesting Japanese book about a coffee shop that allows patrons to travel back in time to meet someone they’ve always wanted to meet. But there are rules -
- You cannot do anything that will change the future
- The person you wish to meet must have at some stage, to have visited the coffee shop.
- You can only visit the past in the time it takes for the coffee to get cold.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold

I haven’t read it but am tempted.

162KeithChaffee
maj 27, 2:07 pm



34: Light Years from Home, Mike Chen

(BingoDog: twins)

The setup puts us in familiar enough territory (and this really is all setup; we learn this within the first twenty pages or so): Fifteen years ago, the Shao family was on a camping trip when college senior Jakob disappeared, and he hasn't been seen or heard from since. Jakob's father, Arnold, and younger sister Evie believed that he had been kidnapped and was not responsible for his disappearance; mother Sofia and Jakob's twin sister Kassie thought he was being typically irresponsible and that he was most likely dead, having overdosed on some drug or other.

Arnold died not too long after Jakob's disappearance, and the family rift grew to the point that Evie hasn't spoken to her mother or sister in several years. So Kass gets quite a shock when Evie shows up on her doorstep followed a few minutes later by the arrival of (mirabile dictu!) Jakob.

And we think we know what to expect from that premise. We're in for buried resentments and trauma coming to the surface, siblings who've been out of touch since youth trying to figure out what their adult relationships might look like, new appreciation of one another's skills and gifts. And that is pretty much what we get.

But.

The reason for Jakob's disappearance -- and again, this is all chapter one stuff, so not remotely spoilery -- is that he was abducted by aliens, and has spent the last fifteen years helping the Seven Bells army fight the voracious Awakened empire. His return to Earth is only temporary, and should he fail in his mission, Earth is likely to be the next planet to be destroyed by the Awakened. And the divisions in the Shao family stem from the fact that Evie was the only one who believed Arnold when he told them that Jakob had been taken by aliens.

It's not that unusual to see "literary" authors downplaying the fact that they've written a science fiction or fantasy novel, running from the label as fast as they can, insisting that their book isn't part of that vaguely childish and disreputable genre nonsense. Genre fiction gets hidden beneath the respectable cloak of literature all the time. But we don't often see the process work the other way around as it does here. Chen has written a fairly mainstream family drama, and is hiding it under the cloak of SF.

I'm not saying that SF readers will be (or have been) disappointed by this book. Chen has been quite successful -- he's published six novels now (plus a few sharecropping books in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises) -- working variations on this idea, and he's good at it. But the tones and genres don't always blend well, and every time we cut from the sisters arguing about the future care of their aging mother to Jakob's attempts to turn on the broken brain transmitter that will tell his alien comrades where he is -- well, it's a bit jarring.

Chen is published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin that they use for non-romance fiction. I would love to know how much of his readership is SF readers who came for the "I joined an alien army" story, and how much is "literary" readers who came for the family dynamics. It's an odd niche that Chen has carved out for himself. I don't always find his books entirely successful, but he's attempting something distinctive, and the attempt is interesting enough that I keep coming back to his work.

163cindydavid4
maj 27, 3:02 pm

>152 KeithChaffee: ok, Ill take that BB!

BTW did you ever read when women were dragons takes place in the same time period It might be too much for you if you aren t into dragons but I thought it was very well done The author has written some excellent YA books that read for adults my fav is the girl who drank the moon This is her first Adult book.

164KeithChaffee
maj 27, 3:45 pm

>163 cindydavid4: Yes, I loved When Women Were Dragons. Maybe I like dragons better than I thought I did...

165rv1988
maj 28, 8:48 am

>160 KeithChaffee: I enjoyed your review. I'm looking forward to reading this. Like you said, these novels are comfort food, and Maupin is very good at writing them.

166KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jun 1, 2:22 pm



35: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 4 (1942), Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg, eds.

Been a few months since I picked up one of these "year's best" volumes, and this one was a bit of a slog. The year's best stories, at least as selected here, were dominated by a whole lot of dense info dumping as authors dove heavily into the "science" half of "science fiction."

Whether it's Lester del Rey detailing the medical consequences of a nuclear accident ("Nerves"), Hal Clement describing the lifeforms that might live on the sun ("Proof"), or Anthony Boucher laying out how time travel might work ("Barrier"), authors in 1942 were more interested in proving that their most fantastic ideas could be justified than they were in good storytelling.

That's perhaps a little harsh, particularly to del Rey, who does manage in between the long paragraphs of medical and nuclear speculation to build a great deal of tension, and to capture the stress of being a medical team coping with horrific disaster. But there were a lot of "eyes glaze over" moments in this book, and a lot of passages that I sort of skimmed through searching for the spot where the story picked up again.

The stories I liked best were the lighter ones. Fredric Brown's "The Star Mouse" sends a mouse to space and back, a trip that changes him in unexpected ways. "The Twonky" by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for the married writers Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) plops a bit of alien technology into the middle of 40s domestic life. And Donald A. Wollheim's "Mimic," though it never quite becomes an actual story, is a striking idea, and at only 6 pages, it doesn't outstay its welcome.

Also knocked off my award-nominated short SF list by this volume: two more stories by the insufferable A. E. van Vogt ("Asylum" and "The Weapon Shop," the latter of which is as close to an interesting story as he's ever come), and the first story of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series (here under its original title, "Foundation;" it would be renamed "The Encyclopedists" when gathered into Foundation, the first book in the series).

167KeithChaffee
jun 3, 1:44 pm

DNF: Nine Black Robes, Joan Biskupic. Biskupic reports on the Supreme Court during the Trump presidency -- the confirmation battles, the major cases, and the sharp shift to the right. She's been covering the Court for thirty years, she's written biographies of four of the justices, and she's a CNN regular when the Court makes news. She certainly knows her stuff. But it turns out that I follow Court news closely enough as it is that nothing here was new to me, and though Biskupic is a solid writer, she's not so good that I need to read her specific take on familiar material. Setting this one aside, but no shade whatsoever on Biskupic, and I'm sure the book would be useful for those who aren't news junkies.

168KeithChaffee
jun 8, 1:48 pm



36: Still Life, Louise Penny

(MysteryKit: an author new to you)

This was published in 2005, and Penny has added a new novel to the series almost every year since, with the 19th novel due in October. This month's MysteryKit challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally find out what all of the fuss was about. And I have to confess that I am baffled by her success.

Our setting is Three Pines, a small village in southern Quebec, and our series detective is Chief Inspector Amand Gamache of the Quebec provincial police force. The mystery to be solved in this volume is the death of Jane Neal, a retired schoolteacher who seemed to be loved by everyone in town. She's been killed by bow and arrow in what might have been a hunting accident.

I hated this book. The characters are thin caricatures (does the town's gay couple need to run the restaurant, the B&B, AND the antique shop?); the murder is solved in a wildly implausible manner; and Gamache himself is an insufferably pompous ass. He prides himself on being a skilled instructor of younger officers, yet when faced with a new team member, his response to her inexperienced mistakes is to kick her off the team. To be sure, she has a lot to learn, but she is also making a significant number of the deductions and insights that lead to the murderer being caught.

Simply at the level of competent and attractive prose, Penny's writing is a disaster. There's a sentence or two in every chapter that is so graceless and ugly that I was stopped in my tracks, stunned that a professional editor had allowed it to stand.

And there's a terribly offensive resolution to one subplot, in which the gay couple is the victim of vandalism by a group of boys. One of those boys turns out to be gay himself, and the two men arrange for him to be sentenced to community service working at their restaurant. They describe their motivation as wanting to expose the boy to positive role models of gay men to help him get past his internalized homophobia, but Penny makes it look a lot more like a setup for grooming of a vulnerable kid by predatory men. That's a dangerous stereotype which all by itself is sufficient reason to never pick up another book by this author.

169KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jun 9, 1:13 pm



37: Anything's Pastable, Dan Pashman

(BingoDog: a book about food)

Pashman is a food writer and podcast host. He had a moment in the pop culture spotlight a few years back with a series of podcast episodes about his quest to invent and bring to market a new pasta shape. The result was cascatelli (Italian for "waterfalls"), and while it's still not broadly available from multiple pasta companies, it has been fairly successful.

When people started to ask him how they should use cascatelli, Pashman realized that we had fallen into a pasta rut, sticking to the same relative handful of sauces and recipes. This is his attempt to break us out of that rut, offering 81 recipes that focus on unusual sauces and types of pastas. There is, if you ask me, something of an over-reliance on cascatelli, but I suppose Pashman can be forgiven for plugging his favorite child, and he offers alternate pasta shapes for each recipe.

I am a notoriously fussy eater, and only a moderately competent cook, so I never come away from a cookbook with long lists of recipes that I plan to make. But I found two recipes here that sound tasty and easy enough that I might be able to tackle them -- a Thai curry mac'n'cheese; and a tagliatelle with prosciutto, nutmeg, and parmesan.

That Thai curry recipe points to one of Pashman's major themes. He's got no hesitation about mixing ingredients and flavors from other cultures -- Chili Crisp Tahini Pasta, Kimchi Carbonara, Keema Bolognese, Shakshuka and Shells. He's also fond of unusual pasta shapes, and includes a "rant" of a few pages on which sauces go with which shapes (and why spaghetti is the most overrated pasta). You'll find recipes using casarecce, quattrotini, creste di gallo, busiate, mezze maniche, and other novel pastas; as noted above, there are always options provided, so you can always fall back on something easier to find.

Pashman acknowledges that he is not a cookbook writer, and that these recipes were developed with a team of recipe developers. Each recipe credits the developer who was principally responsible. The instructions look clear and easy to follow, and Pashman promises that he has been more realistic than cookbooks often are in his "total time" estimates. The introductory chapters and mini-essays that come between the chapters are informative and entertaining.

170RidgewayGirl
jun 8, 10:10 pm

>168 KeithChaffee: I know they are very popular, but I read one chapter and realized that this series was not for me. Glad I didn't go any further.

171FlorenceArt
jun 9, 7:04 am

>168 KeithChaffee: So happy to read your review. I didn’t notice everything you did, but after reading about her books being so human and warm… WTF?!

Ever since I read the first one, I’ve been wondering if she got better with time and if I should try a later book in the series.

172Julie_in_the_Library
jun 10, 8:11 am

>168 KeithChaffee: >171 FlorenceArt: I quite liked it when I read it in 2017, and rated it 4 out of 5 stars, though I didn't post any review, so I can't get into specifics. I read and enjoyed a lot of the series. I did eventually stop reading them - from memory, I think they got a bit repetitive eventually. I do see how they wouldn't be for everyone, though.

>169 KeithChaffee: that sounds like a fun food read. Added to my TBR. Great review, too!

173KeithChaffee
jun 13, 2:14 pm



38: Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, Alfred Bester

(AlphaKit: B)

This hardback edition was simultaneously published (in 1976) in paperback as two smaller volumes, The Light Fantastic and Star Light, Star Bright.

Bester is best remembered for two major novels written in the 1950s, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. He began publishing in the late 1930s, and his career lasted for about 50 years, with a couple of long gaps when he was working outside the genre. For most of the 1940s, Bester wrote for radio drama and for early comic books; he spent most of the 1960s writing and editing for Holiday, an upscale travel magazine. And his output slowed dramatically after this book was published, because of serious vision problems in his final decade.

This volume is a good representation of his best short fiction, none of which rises to the level of the two great novels. I can't offer much more than faint praise for most of it. It's mildly entertaining and well written, but there's almost never the excitement, the shock, or the sense of discovery that comes with the very best science fiction.

There are a few exceptions. "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954) tells the story of a homicidal robot in an experimental style that anticipates the formal innovations of 1960s SF. "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" (1958, and boy, could you not get away with that title today!) presents a novel approach to the "murdering Hitler's parents" story.

"Men Who Murdered" is one of a few stories which Bester explicitly describes in his short introductions as his attempt to write a good story in a sub-genre that he thinks has gotten stale. "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To" (1963) is a last man and woman on Earth story; "Of Time and Third Avenue" (1951) is a "this knowledge from the future will make me rich" tale.

Bester has been an influential figure in the genre, and reflections of that influence continue to pop up in odd places. You might remember, for instance, that the villainous Psi-Cop played by Walter Koenig in the TV series Babylon 5 is named Alfred Bester. But it's not his short fiction for which he'll be remembered; it feels milder and more dated than the work of many of his peers.

174rv1988
jun 15, 5:17 am

>168 KeithChaffee: I read the first few books in this series and didn't care for them at all. I think your review is very good and correctly identifies all the reasons why it isn't worth going on with the rest of her books.

>

175KeithChaffee
jun 18, 1:34 pm



39: The Hanging Judge, Michael Ponsor

(AlphaKit: J)

First of (so far) three volumes in a courtroom procedural series. The protagonist, somewhat unusually, is the judge.

David Norcross is a federal judge in western Massachusetts. He's only held that seat for about two years, and still feels a bit unsure of himself.

Norcross is currently preparing for the case of Clarence "Moon" Hudson, charged with two counts of murder in a gang-related drive-by shooting. Norcross has never been involved in a capitol case before, and is feeling the pressure, wary of making any mistake that could disrupt the trial or leave room for any complaints of judicial error.

The case is one that would usually wind up in state court. But the current government in Washington leans to the right, and is determined to bring death penalty charges in federal court when state law doesn't allow the option of a death sentence. So the murder charges against Hudson have been bumped up to RICO charges, allowing the case to be moved to federal court.

I had mixed feelings about this one. The story is a good one, and I liked Ponsor's characters. While Norcross is the protagonist, the narrative shifts among multiple characters, and we get perspectives from all sides of the case.

But Ponsor has the odd habit of cutting away from scenes a beat too early. We're building up to an important ruling, the discovery of a new clue, a major moment in a personal relationship, and Ponsor cuts away just before that thing happens, leaving us to find out about it in the background narrative a few chapters later.

And the last quarter of the book is plagued by a series of over-the-top plot twists, any one of which Ponsor might have gotten away with in isolation, but the cumulative effect of which is a massive eye-rolling "Oh, come on, now!" A surprise witness is allowed to be called at the last possible moment, even though the judge and the lawyers on both sides have no idea what that witness's testimony will be; a minor supporting character suddenly becomes violent in a way that nothing has prepared us for; a major character is abruptly removed entirely from the action, which only exacerbates Ponsor's tendency to tell us about plot points after the fact instead of letting us see them as they happen. What had been a plausibly realistic story gets a little bit silly.

Had the ending been at the same level as the rest of the book, I'd have happily picked up the next volume in the series. But the increasingly absurd "duhn duhn DUHHHHHHHHNNN!" moments of the final chapters overwhelmed everything, and I was left with a sour taste in my mouth.

176KeithChaffee
jun 19, 2:55 pm



40: Untethered Sky, Fonda Lee

(SFFKit: monsters; SF awards: 2024 Nebula novella nominee)

Rocs and manticores are at the center of this one, which is plenty monster-y enough for me.

Manticores are the plague of the land, and with the right training, rocs are the best weapon people have against them. Rocs are trained from birth to hunt and kill manticores; each roc has a devoted hunting partner/trainer/companion, called a rukher. Ester is one of the King's rukhers, driven by revenge after a manticore kills her mother and young brother. This novella gives us a look at her career.

"Novella," I think, is not quite the right word here; that would imply more of a plot or a throughline than Lee has given us. What we get is instead a series of scenes and vignettes; it's almost more of a story collection, but there's not really enough plot in any of the scenes to think of them as a story. Call it a photo collection, perhaps, a gathering of images from Ester's life -- the training montage, the first kill, and so on.

Lee does a good job of developing character in these short moments, and her prose is pleasant to read. But as a whole, this felt cramped to me, as if it were notes for a novel that she wasn't able to finish. There is enough good here that I'd happily pick up more of Lee's work if something interesting crossed my path. But I suspect this may not be the best introduction to her work.

177KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jun 30, 6:29 pm



41: 50 Crochet Cable Stitches, Manuela Laitenberger

I am finding in retirement that I have more time to crochet, and fewer projects that I need to make each year. And the extra time has led me to take tiny steps into the world of designing my own patterns. For now, that means making small modifications to existing patterns, or experimenting with different stitches and textures.

I'm currently planning to make a sweater that has a single panel of cable stitches running up the front, over the shoulder, and down the back. But I don't like the cable pattern in the original pattern, so I bought this book with the idea that I could swap in a more appealing pattern of roughly the same width/number of stitches. (That may sound like a tiny thing, but a few years ago, I would never have had the audacity to change someone else's pattern in such a way!)

The book is self-published, which is often a danger sign, but the quality here is quite good. There's a photograph of each cable pattern, in a color that makes the cables clearly visible. Patterns are given in both text and diagrams; both are clearly written. The cable designs are attractive and varied. A nice addition to my small crochet library1

178kjuliff
jun 19, 8:32 pm

>177 KeithChaffee: I had no idea one could cable in crochet. I’ve had to give up both knitting and crocheting and I miss both.
I look forward to hearing how you go with what, to me, looks like a major project. I’m imressed!

179chlorine
jun 21, 2:51 pm

>177 KeithChaffee: >178 kjuliff: I had no idea that it was possible to do cables in crochet as well! I immediately went and watched a video. I don't know if what I watched is a standard technique but it seemed to me almost simpler than in knitting because you don't need to place stitches on a cable needle.

Your sweater project is really exciting!

>152 KeithChaffee: I read The knife of never letting go this winter and was rather disappointed with it. Have you read it and did you feel that Burn was better or worse than it?

180KeithChaffee
jun 21, 3:14 pm

>179 chlorine: Yes, I've read The Knife of Never Letting Go. The three books of that trilogy came out more-or-less simulataneously with the three books of the Hunger Games trilogy, and I prefer the Ness books. I think they get better from book to book, where Collins' books get weaker and more repetitious as they go. I liked Burn even more than I like that trilogy.

And yes, cable stitches are so much simpler in crochet than they are in knitting!

181chlorine
jun 21, 3:23 pm

>180 KeithChaffee: I'll consider Burn then! I have such poor memory about the books I read that I already cannot remember correctly what my main gripe with The knife of letting go was, even though I took notes while reading the book! I think it was that it felt artificial that the great reveal of why Todd had to leave Prentisstown felt really artificially delayed.

182labfs39
jun 22, 7:51 am

>177 KeithChaffee: I tried my first cable knitting this past winter on a hat. Moving stitches was a pain, although I've seen some people do it just by sliding them off the needle then picking them up again. I was afraid I would pull them out.

183KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jun 30, 6:29 pm



42: Everyone On This Train Is a Suspect, Benjamin Stevenson

The first volume in this series, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, found narrator Ernest Cunningham and his family snowed in at a ski resort as a serial killer closed in. As this volume opens, the success of that book has gotten Ern an invitation to be one of six guest authors at the Australian Mystery Writers' Conference.

It's the 50th anniversary of the conference, and to celebrate, it's being held on board a luxury passenger train as it makes a 4-day journey across the continent, from Darwin in the north to Adelade in the south. That makes the train an ideal isolated location for Ernest to get caught up in another murder case.

And with multiple mystery writers among the suspects, potential victims, and would-be amateur detectives, Stevenson gets even more meta than he did in the first book, with lots of commentary about the rules of writing a fair mystery story, the specific requirements of each guest panelist's subgenre, and Ern's own anxieties about having to come up with a second book.

Stevenson is particularly good at characterization. There are a dozen or so significant characters to keep track of, and even the minor players have enough personality that they don't feel like mere cogs in the machine.

Comic mystery is harder than it looks. Murder, after all, does not naturally lend itself to bouncy banter and sly wit, and it's a challenge to put your detective in genuine peril while keeping the tone light. Stevenson pulls it off remarkably well. It's a well-plotted mystery that plays fair with the reader. Highly recommended, and you might as well start with the first book, which is just as good.

184kjuliff
jun 22, 1:43 pm

>183 KeithChaffee: Oh I am so glad someone in CR has read and reviewed this book. I almost bought it a couple of times, but I didn’t like the narrator’s accent. I don’t like hearing some versions of the Aussie accent in book readings. But I was intrigued with the plot and wanted to know more of The Ghan train trip.

Your review has encouraged me. I’ll give it a go.

185jjmcgaffey
jun 23, 5:04 pm

>183 KeithChaffee: Double book bullet - I was mildly interested in the first one, your review of this one made it sound even better, and kjuliff's comment that it's on the Ghan tipped me over the edge. Got both from my libraries.

186KeithChaffee
jun 23, 6:53 pm

>184 kjuliff: >185 jjmcgaffey: There isn't all that much about the train itself. It's not much more than a setting for the story, a way to get a group of suspects into a closed space that is not quickly accessible to the authorities.

187jjmcgaffey
jun 25, 4:04 am

Yeah but cool anyway. I grew up in Afghanistan, and when my parents went to Australia and discovered the train was the Ghan because of Afghan camels and cameleers making the trail, it became a Neat Thing in my mind. As I said, the story sounded interesting itself, the Ghan was just the last straw (in a good sense).

188KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jun 30, 6:29 pm



43: Tidal Creatures, Seanan McGuire

#3 in the Alchemical Journeys series, and most definitely not the place to jump in mid-stream. Characters from the earlier volumes arrive here with only minimal exposition to explain who they are, and they play important roles in the second half of the novel. You probably could follow the story without having read the earlier volumes, but you'd be missing a lot.

McGuire has built a highly detailed fantasy world in this series. The major forces of our world -- those ideas and objects which control our existence, and which we might be said to worship (in the broadest possible sense of the word) -- can become embodied in human form. In this volume, those characters are primarily Lunars, embodiments of The Moon as represented by a variety of moon gods. Several characters, while they are still human, are simultaneously representations of Diana, Artemis, Chang'e, or the many other moon gods of the world.

And in Berkeley, the local community of Lunars realizes that several of their comrades have been murdered by a particularly violent group of alchemists. In McGuire's universe, alchemists are mad scientists of a sort, who believe that if they can control enough of the major forces of the world, either by capturing the people who embody those forces or by creating new embodiments from scratch, they can gain ultimate power over the universe and everything in it.

We focus on three Lunars, incarnations of Artemis, Chang'e, and Mani (Greek, Chinese, and Norse moon gods, respectively) as they attempt to solve the murders. They aren't getting much help from the local Diana, who is theoretically the leader of the Berkeley Lunar community, but seems to be increasingly disconnected, dumping most of her administrative duties onto Chang'e.

I love this series. It's a mix of SF and fantasy, tinged with a bit of horror. The characters are vivid, the good-vs-evil battles have stakes enough to be meaningful, and McGuire builds up suspense in a thrilling way. (Though I must say, if I have a complaint about this specific installment, the climactic battle feels rushed and ends too abruptly.) The backstory of alchemy, especially the power struggles between its major figures and how they continue to play out today, is fascinating.

Superb books, and if you have any interest in McGuire and haven't already read them, you should begin at the beginning with Middlegame.

189chlorine
jun 28, 1:51 pm

>188 KeithChaffee: I was unware of this series and yet the cover of Middlegame seemed familiar to me: for some reason I have it on my ebook reader. I must have gotten it as a freebie at some point.

It's quite longer than her novellas! :) Thanks for your review, I'm keeping it in store for a rainy day. :)

190FlorenceArt
jun 28, 2:59 pm

>188 KeithChaffee: Egad, how many series does she keep running? So far I haven’t had any luck with them apart from October Daye, but I wasn't aware of this one, I might give it a try.

191jjmcgaffey
Redigerat: jun 28, 3:24 pm

It's weirder than Toby's story (which is saying something! though it's a McGuire, they're all weird to some degree), but has something of the same flavor - at least, through Middlegame, which is all I've read. I have Seasonal Fears (#2) but haven't read it yet - also this one. Maybe I'll manage it on my upcoming trip.

ETA There's also a linked (sort of) series, at least three books at this point (actually four, I checked) - throughout Middlegame, they talk about A Deborah Baker's The Up and Under books, children's books that are variously important to the story. So of course Seanan wrote them, too...Over the Woodward Wall is the first. Haven't read any of those yet.

192KeithChaffee
jun 28, 3:44 pm

I did pick up Over the Woodward Wall when it came out, because of its connection to the Alchemical series, but it was a DNF for me. The Baker books are children's portal fantasies, supposedly written in about 1900, and they come across as second-rate L. Frank Baum.

In their context, that's an impressive achievement on McGuire's part, because sub-Baum is exactly what they are meant to be. Feel free to skip this bit of explanation, which is buried in the backstory of the Alchemical books: A. Deborah Baker was a powerful alchemist in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and the Up-and-Under books were written as a way to put important alchemical ideas into the public consciousness without actually talking about alchemy as such. The more broadly and powerfully held an idea is, after all, the more powerful the human embodiment of that idea can become, so Baker's books were meant to strengthen ideas that were important to her faction of alchemists. L. Frank Baum is (in McGuire's version of history) a rival alchemist who writes the Oz books in an attempt to displace Baker's books in the marketplace, which they mostly do.

There is some lovely writing in McGuire's Baker books, but I'm not such a big fan of Oz that I needed to wade through multiple volumes of deliberately weaker faux-Oz.

As it happens, though, Tidal Creatures uses several long passages from Baker's books as epigraphs at the beginning of each section, and I did love this paragraph from Into the Windwracked Wilds:
There is a commonality to beginnings. We meet people; we learn their names and the sketches of their stories; we see the situation beginning to unfold in front of them; we either decide we're interested enough to follow them over the woodward wall or down the road of glistening nacre, of impossible things, or we turn back and let them be. Not every story is for every person, you see, and if a tale baits its hook and dangles it in front of us and we feel no temptation to bite, there is no shame in walking away. There are many fish in the seas. There are many hooks as well.

193KeithChaffee
Redigerat: jun 28, 4:34 pm

>190 FlorenceArt: Egad, how many series does she keep running?

The many series of Seanan McGuire:
October Daye -- the adventures of a half-fae private investigator; 18 novels and several dozen shorter stories
InCryptid -- monster-hunting; 13 novels (a 14th is due in 2025) and several dozen shorter stories
Ghost Roads -- novelized urban legends -- 3 novels, set in the InCryptid universe
Velveteen -- a superhero universe; about 60 short works
Indexing -- the agency responsible for keeping fairy tale characters from crossing into our world -- 2 books of stories
Wayward Children -- set at a school for children who've been to other worlds; 9 novellas, with a 10th due in January
Alchemical Journeys -- see above; 3 novels, with at least 2 more planned
Fighting Pumpkins -- a monster-fighting cheerleading squad -- 10 short stories

under the name Mira Grant:
Newsflesh -- zombies; 4 novels and several shorter stories
Rolling in the Deep -- mermaids; a novella and a sequel novel

under the name A. Deborah Baker:
Up-and-Under -- portal fantasies tied to the Alchemical Journeys series; 4 novels

194FlorenceArt
jun 28, 4:14 pm

>193 KeithChaffee: Wow. Thanks for the recap. I knew about three of them before reading your thread.

195rhian_of_oz
jun 28, 11:42 pm

>179 chlorine:, >180 KeithChaffee:, >181 chlorine:
I'm reading The Knife of Never Letting Go at the moment and it's exhausting (so! much! drama!) and I was wondering whether to bother with the rest of the trilogy so it's good to hear it gets better.

196KeithChaffee
jun 28, 11:56 pm

>195 rhian_of_oz: Well, it is YA fiction. Drama sort of comes with the territory -- all those raging hormones and heightened emotions and what not.

197rhian_of_oz
jun 29, 12:32 am

>196 KeithChaffee: True dat. I think maybe I just need to ration my reading of it.

198chlorine
jun 29, 3:19 am

>193 KeithChaffee: Wow I had no idea Seanan McGuire and Mira Grant were the same author!

199KeithChaffee
jun 30, 6:05 pm

Some between-books reading at the end of the month -- four SF award stories from old issues of Asimov's Science Fiction.

"Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters," Henry Lien -- 2014 Nebula novelette nominee
"To Live and Die in Gibbontown," Derek Künsken -- 2012 Aurora nominee
"The Man Who Bridged the Mist," Kij Johnson -- 2012 Hugo/Nebula novella winner
"Bloom," Gregory Norman Bossert -- 2014 Sturgeon nominee

Johnson's story is the best of this crop, a lovely tale of an engineer building the first bridge across a wide span of mysterious toxic mist and the ferry driver who takes him through the mist from one side of the river to the other. Lien gives us a private boarding school/military academy for rebellious young women, who study a martial art built around ice skating, and Künsken tells the story of a not particularly competent macaque assassin in a post-human society of intelligent apes and monkeys; both stories have a nice comic touch. Bossert's was the least interesting; three explorers wait for rescue on an alien planet, knowing that at any moment, the alien life form into whose territory they have stumbled might take notice of, and kill, them; a bit too slow and cryptic for my taste.
Den här diskussionen fortsatte här: In which Keith reads some books 2024: Thread 2 (Jul-Dec)