Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: FRENCH LESSONS by Peter Mayle

Cover illustration by Ruth Marten.

Like the other two Mayle books I’ve read recently, this is a collection of essays on a theme. The theme here is food and drink, and the connecting thread is the author’s treks around France to various festivals, activities and events celebrating some of the more unusual items on the French menu. Accompanied by French gourmet friends, and occasionally his wife, Mayle investigates frogs and their edible legs, chickens with blue feet, very smelly cheese, snails, French Riviera bistros, a marathon through wine vineyards, an intoxicating wine auction in Burgundy, a gourmet health spa and more. All the adventures are told in Mayle’s very entertaining and witty style with plenty of humor directed at himself as well as those he meets. I have now decided that Mayle’s writing will please and delight me no matter what topic he tackles, as in a few here that normally I would not want to read about! I will look for more Mayle books at future book sales.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTROUS GENTLEWOMAN by Theodora Goss

Cover illustration © Kate Forrester.

A sequel to “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter,” which I thoroughly enjoyed, this one is just out recently. The premise is somewhat similar to that of Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” but with mainly female protagonists. The cast of the first book includes the main viewpoint character, Mary Jekyll, her young sister Diana Hyde (daughters of the two aspects of the Stevenson character), Catherine, the panther woman from Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Beatrice Rappaccini, the poisonous daughter from the Hawthorne story, and Justine Frankenstein, the “bride” created for Frankenstein’s monster. Catherine is the writer of the book as we read it and she tells it, and the story is often interrupted by ¬†comments from the other characters, adding details or disagreeing with Catherine’s narrative, an unusual narrative idea that occasionally gets in the way of the story, but usually adds to it. New characters this time are Irene Adler (Sherlock Holmes’ female counterpart), Mina (Harker) Murray and Count Dracula from the Stoker novel, and Lucinda Van Helsing taking off from the same book. Another important character makes a late appearance, which I won’t spoil.

As the title suggests, the Athena Club, as the women call themselves, are summoned to Europe initially to find and save Lucinda Van Helsing, who is being experimented on by her father. (All the women have been victims of similar treatment.) Mary, Diana and Beatrice lead off, and are followed separately by Catherine and Justine once the first three disappear. It’s a long book with many twists and turns, plenty of thrilling adventures, and exotic locales from Paris to Vienna, the Carpathian mountains to Budapest, all well researched. Other literary and historic figures make appearances, and each character has moments to shine, and moments to fail and be helped by her companions.

A work of fiction requires one to suspend disbelief. The characters must seem real. That’s even harder when the characters have pasts in other books. The one area in this one where I felt the author took a wrong turn was in the handling of Count Dracula. All the characters and their back-stories differ at times from their creator’s versions, but Dracula differs too much, in my opinion, and I could not accept the role he plays in this story completely. I kept waiting for the “real” Dracula to be revealed, and it didn’t happen.

In all, though, it’s a wonderful read, just the kind of thing fantasy and horror fans are likely to enjoy. By all means start with the first book, then read this one. I’m on board for the next one whenever the author can produce it!

And Then I Read: THE BURNING CITY by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Cover illustration by Darrell K. Sweet.

Whandall Placehold lives in Tep’s Town, also known as the Burning City because beneath it is a fire-god, Yagen-Atep. Periodically that god awakes, enters the minds of some of the men of Tep’s Town, and sends them on a rampage of setting fires and causing destruction. Tep’s town is ruled by gangs, and Serpent’s Walk is the gang of the Placehold family. The gangs, called Lordkins, spend most of their time trying to steal from each other and from the “kinless,” people outside the gangs. Ruling over Tep’s Town are the Lords, who have their own gated stronghold outside Tep’s Town, and who are assisted by the Lordsmen. As the book progresses, young Whandall explores every part of his world, even making friends with an Atlantean Sorcerer, Morth, who is reported to have killed Whandall’s father. He also infiltrates Lord’s Town and is befriended by the young daughter of a Lord. Then a Burning comes, and Whandall is taken over by the fire god, participating in the fires and other evil deeds. This convinces him he needs to escape Tep’s Town, something that few Lordkins have been able to do. With the help of some kinless friends, he succeeds, and finds a new life in a wider world outside Tep’s Town, eventually becoming a successful trader and a family man. Yet, Tep’s Town continues to call him, and eventually he must return and face what waits him there.

I tend to think of Niven and Pournelle as hardcore science fiction writers, but Niven’s early work included fantasy stories beginning with “The Magic Goes Away.” This book is connected to those. Despite the many fantasy elements, I kept looking for scientific explanations, and trying to figure out the setting. It certainly seemed like California, and Tep’s Town suggested a prehistoric Los Angeles, complete with an area similar to the La Brea Tar Pits. I enjoyed the book, but the uneasy mixture of fantasy and reality pulled me out of the story at times. Still, it’s an epic tale with lots of adventure and action, including an amazing set piece at the end that forces a battle between two gods.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: TOUJOURS PROVENCE by Peter Mayle

Cover illustration by Ruth Marten.

Continuing from the very popular “A Year in Provence,” Peter Mayle’s follow up has more delightful adventures of he and his wife living in the south of France. While the first book was more structured, about a chapter a month over a year in which they were renovating the old house they bought and adjusting to French customs and culture, this one is more episodic, but no less entertaining. Some of the adventures are culinary, some involve the friends they’ve made: neighbors, workmen, townsfolk, all of whom are quirky and unusual in one or more ways. There are more encounters with tourists, both British acquaintances who insist on being houseguests and those who merely come to Provence from Paris or elsewhere because it’s the thing to do. There are animal stories, a drought, a dog show, and lots more to keep you laughing, as the author pokes as much fun at himself as he does at those he meets. Another relaxing summer read and recommended.

And Then I Read: A CHOICE OF GODS by Clifford D. Simak

If there is such a thing as pastoral science fiction, Simak takes the lead in it. His work is calm, thoughtful, introspective, clever. It often takes place in rural or wilderness settings in his home state of Wisconsin. It’s seldom violent, and sometimes, as here, tackles religious subject matter among other things. It makes for relaxing and enjoyable reading.

This book takes place in a future Earth where nearly all of humanity has vanished. Remaining are two elderly people, Jason and Martha Whitney, last dwellers in the Whitney home. The rest of their extended family have discovered mental space travel, and have spread out to distant planets, though they come home occasionally. There are other small groups. We meet members of a native American tribe led by Red Cloud. They have recaptured the ancient ways of their people, living off the land, migrating regularly along the river valley near the Whitney home. Then there are the robots. Some are family servants of the Whitneys, some have occupied a former church and monastery, and are investigating the holy scriptures they found there, and doing their best to understand and worship God. Further away is a large colony of robots who shun humans, and have build a giant machine that they live in and tend to, the purpose of which is revealed in the book.

The rest of humanity was spirited away by forces unknown to a distant unknown place, but one of the Whitney family has found them, and returned to tell the remaining Earthlings that those long-missing humans have rediscovered Earth and are sending an exploratory space ship to it to find out if Earth can be returned to and reclaimed.

This is not good news to any of those who remain on Earth. They fear the return of masses of people will once more destroy Earth’s environment (which has largely recovered to a pristine state) and destroy all their ways of life.

A fine book with an unexpected ending. Recommended.