Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE ALEXANDRITE by Rick Lenz

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The tagline “A Time Travel Noir” suggests the two genres that are combined in this novel, but the science fiction element is minimal. “Time travel” in this case is going back to a specific time through mystical/mental means, much like Richard Matheson’s film script “Somewhere In Time” based on his novel, “Bid Time Return.” There is no time machine per se, though the lead character does make the trip back more than once…sort of. That’s the complicated part.

Jack Cade is an out-of-work actor in 1996 California with a life that’s falling apart and a wife who wants out of their relationship. Someone leaves a very valuable ring with an Alexandrite stone to him anonymously, and that begins Jack’s investigation and strange journey. Before long he’s being hypnotized and sent back in time to Hollywood in the 1950s, specifically into the life and body of Richard Blake, a mineralogist. Blake has a wife, Margaret who drinks too much and seems hostile, and living in their house is her sister Lily, who would today be on the better-functioning end of the autism scale. Jack has stepped into an emotional minefield, and it takes him a while to figure out why and what his true peril is. Meanwhile, Jack has a chance to explore the Hollywood he’s long been fascinated with, and before long he has a chance to meet and even act with Marilyn Monroe, fulfilling his fantasy. That doesn’t go as expected, and soon Richard/Jack’s life is spiraling out of control. An explosive event sends Jack back to 1996 where everything is changed, and mostly for the worse. But Jack has a plan to get back to the past and set things right if he can.

Writer Rick Lenz is a long-time actor who knows the worlds, characters and times he’s writing about. I found this book an excellent read, even if it did confuse me in places when the time-travel starts looping back on itself. Nevertheless, well worth your time and recommended.

And Then I Read: A BOY AND HIS BEAR by Harriet Graham

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Cover illustration © Jean Cassels.

Dickon, a boy in Elizabethan London, has fallen on hard times. He was a promising student until his father died and his family found little money left after debts were paid. Dickon’s mother remarried, but her new husband did not want the boy around and apprenticed him to a tannery, work which he hates. When his master sends him on an errand to London’s notorious Bear Pit, where wild bears are brought to be abused and tortured for the amusement of paying patrons, the boy’s life is changed when a bear cub, newly arrived, turns to Dickon for help. The bear handlers are amazed by the boy’s ability to calm the wild beast, and the two quickly bond. The owner of the Bear Pit strikes a bargain with Dickon: he can return any time he likes if he will train the bear cub to perform tricks. Dickon accepts even though it will put his apprenticeship in jeopardy. Soon enough Dickon’s troubles grow when he is accused of witchcraft by a jealous bear handler, and he and the cub are forced to flee London with the help of friends. Before long they have joined a troupe of traveling gypsy jugglers and acrobats, who bring the boy and the bear home with them to the mountains of France. Dickon can find a new life with them if he can train the bear, but old enemies soon turn up and threaten his new life.

At first I found the cruelty to animals in this book hard to take, but as the story went on I became so invested in the characters that I couldn’t put it down. Excellent storytelling, interesting history, and the author fills out the injustices of the time with insights into the bear’s own mind through brief passages of his thoughts.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE IMPROBABLE WONDERS OF MOOJIE LITTLEMAN by Robin Gregory

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Cover art by Catrin Welz-Stein.

This story of a crippled boy with stubborn resilience and unusual abilities takes place in a small mountain community near the coast of California mostly in 1906. Moojie is twice abandoned by parents. First, he’s dropped on a doorstep as an infant and adopted by a local couple. Moojie’s new mother dies a few years later, and when Moojie’s handicap—a leg that won’t function right and a weak arm—become evident, the boy is dumped at the goat farm of his grandfather, Pappy, in the nearby hills, and Moojie’s adoptive father disappears. Pappy is not thrilled to have the boy, and at first threatens to put him in an orphanage, but over time the two form a grudging partnership as Moojie begins to learn how to help with the farm and its animals. Moojie’s real interest, though, is a group of natives hiding out in the nearby hills who show up at the farm periodically when Pappy is not around. Moojie is fascinated by them; their stories, their activities, and their mysterious ways. He longs to join the band, but they are wary.  Moojie longs for a mother like their elder, Ninti, has a crush on the beautiful Babylonia, and is constantly threatened with violence by her boyfriend Sarru’kan. One thing about Moojie that he doesn’t understand greatly impresses the natives, a sort of psychic healing power he can manifest in times of great need, though not on demand. In Moojie’s many adventures with the natives, Pappy, and the townsfolk, he has need of it from time to time, and it always shocks everyone. What will become of this strange boy? Will he be sent off to live with his Irish aunt who he does not like? Will he succeed in joining the native tribe before they are swept up in the holy rapture they feel is coming? Will his father finally return to claim him? This coming of age book, delightfully written, tells the tale beautifully with humor, poetic grace, and surprising characters and situations.

Recommended.

Listening To: THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein

moonharshmistressI listened to this periodically over the last two weeks on Audible.com, through a new partnership with Amazon Prime. Heinlein is a favorite author, and I hadn’t read this one in some time. The audiobook is over 14 hours, unabridged, and read excellently by Lloyd James. I really enjoyed his Russian accent for the narrator, Manny, it brought home the melange of languages Heinlein created for the book, which takes place on our moon in the future, of course, when Earth has been using it as a penal colony and dumping ground for unwanted Earthlings. With inhabitants from many Earth areas and countries, it seems quite sensible that the common language would incorporate slang and words from many languages. Heinlein pulls this off admirably. Anything I didn’t understand was clear from context. James does other accents and makes all the characters reasonable distinctive. The only thing I didn’t care for was his handling of the female voices. Wyoming, the female lead, comes across a lot stronger in my head than in the reading. It would be great to have a woman doing the female voices in a situation like this.

“Moon” is a talky book, pretty late in Heinlein’s career, but the talk is mostly focused on the plot: the inhabitants of the Moon are being treated badly, their resources are being depleted by Earth, and Manny, Wyoming and a sentient computer called Mike come up with a solution: revolution and independence! Heinlein works out every detail beautifully, and it’s no easy task for the characters. Could they have done it without Mike, who has control over all the systems on Luna? Perhaps not, but given that, the logistics of revolution are believable and even exciting once the plan goes into action. Great book, and I enjoyed listening to it. I’m sure I missed details here and there, but much of the dialogue remains with me even now, so the Audible experience was a good one that I will try again.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE BONESHAKER by Kate Milford

boneshakerIllustration by Andrea Offerman.

Place: the small Missouri town of Arcane. Time: 1913. Just outside town is a crossroads where very strange things happen, but strange things are coming to Arcane as well: a traveling show run by Jake Limberleg and his four Paragons of Medicine. Natalie Minks has her own problems including a bicycle she can’t seem to master, but her mother’s illness has her worried, too. When the Medicine Show limps into town with a missing wagon wheel, Jake Limberleg turns to Natalie’s father, Ted, the best woodworker in town, to replace it. Soon Natalie and her friends and family are deeply involved with the sinister goings-on at the show, and around town. There’s a worrying plague in the town where the show came from. Could there be some connection? Why do Jake and others seem to know more about Natalie’s own family history than she does? What’s really in all those improbable medicines and medical machines everyone is turning to for help? Is the Devil involved, as some say,  or are they truly miracle cures that are happening? Midnight expeditions into the heart of the maze-like carnival show bring truly frightening moments, and soon Natalie is faced with a race to get help for her mother and the whole town, but she can only do that if her ornery bicycle can be conquered at last.

This book is a gem of a first novel for younger readers. The characters are fascinating, many with unusual origins and histories that play out through the story. The plot is creative and original, full of thrills and magic, revelations and horrors. At times it reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” but there are plenty of unique ideas here. I will definitely seek out the other books by Milford, including a prequel to this one.

Highly recommended.