Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: FLASHMAN by George MacDonald Fraser

FlashmanI’ve long been curious about the “Flashman” series by Fraser, and finally decided to read this first one, published in 1969. Harry Flashman was a minor character in an early British school-boys novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days,” which I liked. There he was a bully and a villain. In this book he’s no better. Worse, if anything, though as he narrates the story in his old age, at least Harry Flashman is honest about his own character failings and bad deeds. The other thing that interested me is the way the author has woven Flashman’s story into many aspects of true history. Here it’s the British army in India and Pakistan in 1839. Flashman’s role is made up, but the history is accurate, and the monumental mis-management and huge blunders made by the British was fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way. While I can’t say I liked Harry at all, he’s put through so many battles and tortures both mental and physical that by the end I had some grudging respect for his ability to survive against such high odds. If you like historical fiction with elements of bawdy adventure and sly commentary on the failings of humanity, this series may be for you. I’m not sure if I will read more, but I’m tempted.

Recommended

And Then I Read: GOING POSTAL by Terry Pratchett

GoingPostalThe leader of the Discword city of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari, has an interesting method of hiring high-ranking government officials. He appoints condemned criminals. Moist von Lipwig is one, a clever con-man whose career of crime has brought him to a dead end, literally. Or, he can become the new Postmaster General of Ankh-Morpork. Seems like an easy choice, but as Moist soon finds out, the postal service is not only defunct, the very building he’s supposed to run is crumbling, rotting, and filled to the rafters with undelivered mail. Moist tries to run for it, but Lord Vetinari has appointed a tenacious warden — a very strong and unkillable golem named Pump. Wisely, Moist decides to make the best of it.

The decline of the mail service is due to a new and much faster system of sending messages called Clacks, a complex system of visual semaphore sent from tower to tower across the country. That system also has it’s problems, due to mismanagement and failing equipment, and Moist sees a chance to gain traction by challenging the Clacks and their owner, promoting the mail as a much cheaper and (somehow) faster service. Moist is at home with the kind of scam this seems to be, or is it? With help from his very aged employees, Pump and his golem friends, and other unexpected allies, Moist actually might make a go of this mail thing. And the invention of the postage stamp is just the kind of racket he knows well — it’s as good as printing money, especially when people start collecting the stamps instead of using them. But Reacher Gilt, the pirate in control of the Clacks, has other ideas…

Great read, not only clever and insightful, but often very funny. The characters are more than punchlines, though, and their struggles against bureaucracy and human nature are epic. As a former stamp collector, this book delighted me, but I think it would appeal to almost anyone. Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: MISTER MAX, THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by Cynthia Voigt

MisterMaxLostThingsCover art by Iacopo Bruno

Max Starling is the son of William and Mary Starling, owners of the Starling Theater where their popular theater company performs in the Old City part of Queensbridge. One day an extraordinary offer appears by mail, accompanied by lavish gifts. The offer is to perform exclusively, and at excellent pay, in a distant country. The Starlings have a fine life, but William and Mary find the adventure tempting, and agree. Max is told he will go with them, but on the day they are to leave by steamship, Max arrives at the harbor to find his parents have disappeared, leaving only a cryptic note. Max’s only remaining family is his grandmother, who fortunately lives in the house next to his, and Max concocts a plan to continue living at home in secret. The theater is closed, and all Max’s friends believe he’s gone with his parents, except for Max’s art teacher.

Meanwhile, Max and his grandmother begin investigating the disappearance of Max’s parents, and Max finds other opportunities coming his way to be a sort of private detective. He discovers he’s pretty good at it (except for the case of his parents), and with the help of a few new friends, Max becomes what he calls a “solutioneer,” a solver of problems and finder of lost things. This gives him enough income to survive, and the hope that he will eventually be able to find out what happened to his parents.

This book is charming and well written, the characters are believable and entertaining. The setting is sort of English Victorian, but kept vague, and the town of Queensbridge is nicely mapped so we can follow Max’s exploits from one end of it to the other, and beyond. Max’s new “assistant” Pia is a very talkative girl who can be quite annoying, but also resourceful and helpful. Max’s cases run from small ones like a lost dog to large ones like an extremely valuable silver serving spoon carved by a master silversmith. Hovering over Max at all times is the danger of being discovered as a parentless child living alone in his home, not going to school, and not under the care of anyone official. That makes the many disguises Max has borrowed from his parents’ theater props all the more important.

Great fun, and the first of a trilogy. I’ve already read the second book, and am looking forward to the third, which is out this fall. Cynthia Voigt has had a long career as a writer of children’s novels, and a Newbery award for her book “Dicey’s Song.” This series is lighter than some of her other books, but even more to my liking.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: COMIC BOOK PEOPLE 2 by Jackie Estrada

CBP2Image © Jackie Estrada.

I supported this handsome 9 by 12 inch hardcover on Kickstarter, and was able to pick up my advance copy at the San Diego Con from Jackie. It’s just as terrific as her first book covering the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve been in comics for a long time and met tons of the people in it, but there are plenty of folks in both books I’ve never met or seen in person. Jackie was lucky enough to be at the right place and time, and with good camera equipment and skills, and she was also savvy enough to believe pictures of the creators and other comics industry individuals would be a valuable resource. These books prove her right. I can tell you from my own comics history research how difficult it can be to find good pictures of people in our field and related businesses, especially ones from before 2000 when the internet was not such a ready resource. Just recently I sent someone who needed a photo of a golden age comics editor but couldn’t find one to Jackie, and she had just what he needed. Most of the photos are in black and white, but there’s a nice color section too. And hey, even I’m in here, so what’s not to like?

Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: STORMS AT SEA by Mark Schultz

StormsAtSeaImage © Mark Schultz

This is not a comic, it’s a novella with full-page illustrations similar to the one on the cover on every left-hand page, and text on the others. Mark Schultz excels at both writing and art, and this 80-page 11 by 9 inch hardcover is a fine example of that. I just got it at the San Diego Con, and enjoyed reading it a great deal.

The feel is pulp and noir, with elements of science fiction and monster films like “King Kong” and “The Lost World.” The setting is a near future when energy stores are depleted, and our civilization is failing. Ex-scientist and tough guy Griff is summoned to the laboratory of Arthel Vermund by his daughter Asha, and is soon hearing an almost unbelievable story about who Arthel and Asha really are, and the secret new energy source Arthel was working on. Asha is sure Arthel’s death was no accident, and the story reveals why — a powerful, hidden group of puppet masters for the entire human race called the First Order don’t want Arthel’s discoveries to become known. They’re based on an energy source from a mysterious South Seas island called Pushkara, where the First Order are based, an island with all sorts of monstrous creatures as well as the energy source, itself of biological origin. As Arthel’s body lies on his laboratory floor, Asha reads his notes to Griff, and is herself amazed by parts of them even she didn’t know. Meanwhile, tension builds as we wait for someone else to discover what’s happened, or perhaps to come and finish the job.

This book reads like an introduction to a series, with most of the content a history and explanation of the First Order, and action coming just at the end. Despite that, I was thoroughly drawn into the world Mark Schultz has created, and found both the story and the art very entertaining and satisfying. Hope he gets the chance to do more.

Recommended