Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE FIGHTING GROUND by Avi

This remarkable 1984 novel takes place near Trenton, NJ during the American Revolution. It covers just over 24 hours in time, but details events that will change young Jonathan forever. The war has been on for some time, Jonathan’s brother is fighting with Washington, and his father fought and was injured, so has returned home. He and Jonathan are planting spring crops, but all Jonathan can think about is whether he will have a chance to prove himself in battle. When he learns that a militia group is gathering in a tavern nearby, he sneaks away to see if they will have him. Despite the warnings of many, 13-year-old Jonathan joins the motley group of farmers turned soldiers led by a devious Corporal who seems anxious to take the fight to some Hessian soldiers moving through the area. When they do, it’s a disaster, and Jonathan is captured by three Hessians who seem lost. They take refuge with their prisoner in a farmhouse and spend a long, frightening night trying to understand each other, and the child found in the house. The Hessians speak only German, and Jonathan speaks none. When Jonathan escapes at dawn and finds his Colonel, the triumph he hoped to achieve turns to an even worse disaster.

The writing in this book is tense, cinematic and real. Jonathan’s dreams and illusions are shattered as he confronts the truth and horror of war. Recommended.

And Then I Read: IRONTOWN BLUES by John Varley

Cover art by Florian de Gesincourt

I’ve loved Varley’s work since first reading his short stories in the SF digest magazines in the 1970s. I think of him as a “Heinlein school” writer, and the inclination in his work to use the themes and settings of Robert A. Heinlein as stepping-off points or homages has grown over the years. As Heinlein is one of my favorite writers, I have no problem with this, and it’s not like he’s imitating or retreading, he goes his own way, but the love for RAH is evident and strong. This one is reminiscent of “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” taken further down the road, with other Heinlein novel elements in there too.

Chris Bach lives on Earth’s moon, but in his head he’s in 1930s film noir. He lives in an area where that era is recreated lovingly, and he works as a private detective, he and his partner Sherlock, a bloodhound. Sherlock is not an ordinary dog, he’s a CEC, Computer Enhanced Canine, with implanted links to the web and enhanced intelligence. Sherlock is a master of scents, of course, and he co-narrates the book with the help of a CEC communications expert who interprets his non-verbal language and translates it for us readers. Sherlock’s narration is often more interesting than Chris Bach’s.

As is expected for a private detective, Chris has a troubled past that we learn about in the story, he was part of a raid on some off-the-grid inhabitants of the Moon he thought was a simple clean-up operation, but it turned out to be much deadlier and more sinister. He barely survived.

Chris’s new client seems to want to drag him and Sherlock back to the place where it happened, Irontown. Chris is reluctant to go there for good reason. Sherlock wants only to protect Chris. Neither of them are going to get what they want or expect when they finally get to Irontown.

Great book, highly recommended!

And Then I Read: MAKING MONEY by Terry Pratchett

Cover art by Scott McKowan.

This is the second Discworld book by Pratchett featuring Moist Von Lipwig. In the first, “Going Postal,” Lipwig is about to be executed for his life of crime as a con-man and thief when he’s offered another option by Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork: take charge of the city postal system, which is is chaos, and put it right. In this book, after succeeding in that monumental task, Vetinari has a new task for Moist: do the same for the royal bank and mint, equally corrupt and dysfunctional.

While I enjoyed the book, and Moist’s clever and surprising path to success through a series of seemingly impossible obstacles, like the fact that the gold reserves of the bank are not at all what they seem, and the chairman is a small dog, the fact that this one followed a similar path to the first made it a bit less fun somehow. Instead of making stamps, Moist makes paper money, something unknown in Discworld. Problems with difficult employees, even more difficult enemies, death threats, arrest and imprisonment, public humiliation, an army of golems, and much more create situations that Pratchett juggles with skill and humor. Clever ideas, convincing lies and crafty manipulations are Moist’s stock in trade, and even when things look bleak, we can be pretty sure he’ll win through. Perhaps that’s part of my problem with the book. Once you make it a series, some of the potential failures seem less likely.

Still well worth reading, and at some point I will read the third Moist Von Lipwig book. Recommended.

And Then I Read: BLACK WATERS by Julia Jones

Cover illustration by Claudia Myatt

This is the fifth book in the “Strong Winds” series, which began as a trilogy and has continued, I expect, because readers like and buy them. I feel just the same. I was originally drawn to the series because of comparisons to the books about children and sailing by Arthur Ransome from the 1940s-50s era, which I love. They are comparable, but Jones’ books are written for today’s young readers, full of contemporary references, technology and problems. It took me a while to get used to that, but they are well-written suspense stories, mystery stories, and character stories. At times I felt there was not enough sailing, but in this book, that’s not the case. Sailing is a strong plot element throughout, and vital to the story.

Xanthe Ribiero is a character we’ve seen before, a young black girl who has learned to sail, and can do it so well that she has she has dreams of being an Olympic competitor. Those dreams seem to be dashed when she goes to a sailing training camp and becomes the target of racist harrassment that forces her to leave the camp. Instead, she agrees to become a sailing instructor for a group of kids staying on a former lightship a bit further up the eastern coast of England, but when she arrives at that job, she finds herself again the target for racism by her landlady and others, and has a hard time negotiating her role in the small town where she has been placed. All kinds of mysterious things are going on there, and before long Xanthe has made new friends and is uncovering the truth behind some of the mysteries and unjustices around her. The children she was hired to teach are fearful and lonely, cut off from their families, essentially living in a sort of witness protection program. Xanthe begins to pull them out of their shells with her sailing lessons, and that becomes her first success, but it also brings her to the notice of dangerous and hateful forces.

Highly recommended, but you might want to start with the first book in the series, “The Salt-Stained Book.” I think there is already a sixth book, which I look forward to reading.

Rereading: AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND by George MacDonald

Cover and interior illustrations for this 1919 edition by Jessie Willcox Smith.

This is a difficult one to write about because rereading it was a mixture of a comforting revisit to a childhood favorite and a disappointment for a jaded old guy.

Diamond is the son of a carriage driver in the employ of a well-to-do London family in the 19th century. He lives with his parents in the carriage house over the horse stalls, and right below him is the other Diamond, the carriage horse his father uses. His family is poor, but gets by on their income when Diamond’s father is able to work, which is not always the case. In Diamond’s bedroom is a hole in the wall through which a woman’s voice talks to him, and he soon discovers it’s The North Wind in the form of a woman. She takes young Diamond with her on adventures around London and around England, some of which are frightening, some exhilarating. Diamond is a very sweet child who wants to love everyone, even the poorest homeless people he meets, and some think he is not right in the head. This doesn’t bother Diamond, he goes on trying to help those he can. At last the North Wind brings him to the country at her back, which is a strange and wonderful place, but in the real world Diamond has fallen ill and his parents are in deep despair over him. He comes back, more sweet than ever, and learns to drive Big Diamond and the carriage when his father is ill, and has lost his position, so they must work as cabbies. Even then Diamond is trying to help a poor sweep girl when she falls sick, and turns to a wealthy man he has met in his cab for help. Though some of the book is about the sad situation of London’s poor, there are fantasy episodes from dreams, from Diamond’s travels by night with North Wind, and a long fairy tale about Princess Daylight that has been pulled out as a separate book or story in some collections. After many trials and struggles, Diamond and his family finally seem to have found a generous patron and a good home, but Diamond’s health has suffered, and he may not be long able to enjoy it.

The fantasy elements are what I like best about this book. Reading it now, Diamond is too perfect a Victorian child, and hard to accept as a real. Many of the situations are fraught with melodrama or too long, and don’t work so well for me now. My favorite part of the book is the story of Princess Daylight, which is similar to other MacDonald fairy tales, and feels both more classic and more modern than the rest. I never liked the ending of this book, and I still don’t, but there are moments in it where I can slip back into my childhood, and that’s comforting.

Not an ideal read, but worth a try and recommended.