Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: KA, Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

I became of fan of John Crowley with his novel “Little, Big,” published in 1981 and referred to on this cover. Still probably his best-known work. I found and read his earlier works (the novel “Engine Summer” impressed me the most) and have read many of his later ones.

“KA” is a very long novel, as are many of Crowley’s since “Little, Big,” and a crow, Dar Oakley, is the protagonist. He was born in prehistoric times in Europe in a place where there were not yet any humans, and witnessed their arrival. More than any other animal, Dar became intimately involved with humanity and several particular humans. The first of his human friends, a medicine woman named Fox Cap, taught him to speak and understand her language, and gave him his name (or helped him choose it). Later, he followed her into the spirit world of her people where he gained eternal life of an unusual kind. It’s not that Dar never dies, he does, but is long lived, and after he dies he wakes up again in a later time and gradually regains at least some of the memories of his past lives. Another human friend, a monk that Dar only knows as Brother, leads him on a pilgrimage to the westernmost islands of Ireland, and eventually across the ocean to North America. There, Dar’s lives take him through American history from pioneer times to the civil war and eventually to our own time, where he befriends the author of this book, and tells his life story through him. That friendship forms a framing device that bookends the story.

In addition to human history and time spent in magical realms, there’s also plenty about Dar’s life with other crows: first his own family, later many mates, some more important and memorable than others. The relationship between crows and humans is a common theme that goes through its own evolution.

I enjoyed reading the book, but it does tend to wander, as Crowley books do, and at times I found myself checking to see how far along I’d read, wondering how much more there was to go, which a sign that a book is not fully engaging my interest. I love birds, and I enjoy history and magic, so all the elements suggested I would be fully engaged, but the meandering of the story cooled my interest at times. There’s also an overall melancholy, a focus on death and dying and the possibilities that might happen after, and a feeling that both Dar and John Crowley are in a story that has grown too long for them. There are moments of joy and humor, moments of suspense and action, but they are intermittent.

In all, well worth reading, and recommended, but not for everyone.

And Then I Read: THE CLOCKWORK THREE by Matthew Kirby

Cover art by Brian Despain.

Writer Matthew Kirby’s first book takes the plot-driven story to a new level of complexity while also delivering interesting and equally complex characters.

Giuseppe is an orphaned street musician “owned” by cruel and dangerous master, Mr. Stroop, who gives him food and a place to sleep but takes all the coins he earns each night. When the boy finds a wondrous, magical violin that plays with such beauty it fills his cap in no time, he finally has a hope of escaping his master and returning home to his family in Italy…if he can somehow keep the treasure a secret.

Frederick is an apprentice clockmaker, also an orphan, but with a very kind and generous employer, Master Branch, who allows the boy to work in the basement on his own secret project, a clockwork man that he hopes will win him his own clockmaking mastership, if he can find a way to make it move and think.

Hannah is a maid in the best and grandest hotel in town, trying to keep her family going after their father’s stroke. He had been a wonderful woodworker and carver, but now can barely move. A new guest at the hotel takes Hannah under her wing, but secret information Hannah learns by chance of a hidden treasure threatens end that, and her job.

All three stories are soon entwined artfully, and suspenseful and magical adventures ensue for each child, then each pair, and finally all three together as they try to achieve their goals, escape their enemies, and find the treasure. When the clockwork man comes to life, he is both a great help and another possible danger, and the most powerful man in town is soon drawn into the plot with surprising results.

A fun read with quite a few surprises and delights. Recommended.

And Then I Read: STEEPLE FOLLY by M.E. Atkinson

Cover art by Charlotte Hough.

I’ve written before about the Lockett family books by this author, most recently HERE.

The series began in 1936 with “August Adventure,” and this is the fourteenth and last from 1950. The Lockett family, upper middle class, with parents usually away in India, raised by Aunts and Uncles, and often able to get out on adventures with little or no adult supervision. A sort of vacation fantasy for British children stuck in strict classrooms or kept in by rainy weather. The Locketts are clever, bookish Oliver, idea-provider Jane and athletic Bill, ready for action. Their world is one that was on the way out in the 1930s, and well over by 1950, with servants to provide meals and transportation, for instance. Atkinson was not one of the best writers in this small genre, but I enjoy her books and was a bit sad to read the last of the Locketts.

Some things are different in this last book. In the beginning we finally see them interacting with their parents, home from India for good. While the Locketts have been at school for years, this time they are sweating examinations for university, and Bill has to go for special tutoring, taking him conveniently away from home. The other two soon find a way to join him, and all sorts of mysteries are revealed, which the Locketts, of course try to solve. There’s also a horse riding element to the story, something Atkinson was getting into in her non-Lockett books, and a plotline that pits them against a pair of nasty rich children who feel threatened by the Locketts, and try to stop them from entering a local horse show. This leads to a frightening night for Jane, as she is captured and threatened with bodily harm by the pair, something which rarely happens in the other books, if at all. Sort of a real world moment intruding on the fantasy. Other plots involve possible treasure, a gang led by a scarfaced man that must be investigated, a tower on the moor that may hold secrets, and plenty of other excitement. These books are plot-driven, but the characters are reasonably well developed too, and make for interesting reading. Old friends are enlisted, and new ones made, midnight forays and sleuthing abound. Many meals are consumed, always well described. If you like this sort of book, the Lockett adventures are worth searching for, though they’re long out of print.

At the end, Jane declares that her horrible night has cured her of wanting adventures. “I shan’t mind if I don’t have another one ever, ever again.” is how the book ends. And as far as we know, she didn’t.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER by Theodora Goss

Cover illustration © Kate Forrester.

Victorian metafiction gathering figures from 19th century science fiction, horror and fantasy in London to solve mysteries and fight crime. Sound familiar? One can certainly suspect the inspiration was Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, but this book takes the idea in a different direction, uses mostly different characters, and is quite well written, capturing an authentic period feel, bringing the characters to life admirably, and keeping the plot exciting and the suspense high. There’s another main difference: the team is all women. One more unique element to the telling: though we meet the main characters one by one, we learn early on that one of them is writing the story, while the others make running comments throughout the book, often telling the author how she got it wrong. This is a bit confusing at first, but once you get it, the conceit adds the flavor of other viewpoints.

We begin with Mary Jekyll, daughter of a title character from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde.” Mary has just buried her mother, and discovered that she is nearly penniless, and must lay off most of her staff, and find some kind of paying work, for which she has no training. Only her housekeeper, Mrs. Poole stays on to help Mary, even with little or no pay. Papers left by her mother lead Mary to consult with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, whose adventures she’s read about, concerning her father’s death and the mysterious Mr. Hyde. Before long she’s swept into an investigation of the Whitechapel murders that we know as the work of Jack the Ripper, but in this story they may have a different origin. Part of the investigation leads Mary to a girl named Diana Hyde, who claims to be her sister, and before she can object, Diana is put in Mary’s care and sent home with her.

Further investigations and adventures add to the household Catherine Moreau, the “daughter” of Dr. Moreau in the H.G. Wells novel (actually his most successful creation), Beatrice Rappaccini, from Hawthorne’s story of a poisonous girl, and Justine, the woman created by Victor Frankenstein to be his creature’s mate. Together they unravel the connections between all their forebears, a secret society devoted to experimenting on and with women. Opposing them are several more familiar fictional characters, including the madman Renfield from Stoker’s “Dracula.”

This was an excellent read, and did not feel at all derivative of LOEG except in the bare concept. The author even plays with this a bit by introducing Mina Murray at the end of the book through a letter. I understand a sequel is coming, and I will be delighted to read it!

Highly recommended. Thanks to Mike Mignola for pointing the way to this fine book.

Rereading: THE ROLLING STONES by Robert A. Heinlein

The top image above is the edition of this book I wish I owned, the original hardcover with excellent cover art and illustrations by Clifford Geary. The one below is the actual paperback I own with cover art by Steele Savage.

The “Heinlein Juveniles” are a series of twelve novels for children written by Heinlein and published by Scribners from 1947 to 1958. A thirteenth book was rejected and published elsewhere as an adult novel, “Starship Troopers.” I like all of them and love some of them. This is one of the latter.

The Stone family are residents of Luna City on Earth’s moon. We first meet twin teenage brothers Castor and Pollux as they consider how they might buy their own spaceship and use it to begin an interplanetary trade business. The fact that they are young and still in school does not deter them, but the prices of used ships does. Back home, they try to sell the rest of the family on the idea, and we meet their father, Roger Stone, their mother Dr.Edith Stone, their older sister Meade, their baby brother Buster, and their grandmother Hazel Stone. One of the best parts of this book are the family dynamics and snappy dialogue in scenes like this, where everyone is angling for what they want and what they can get from their patriarch Roger. These are all very smart, and very manipulative people, and everyone has a particular technique. It’s also quite funny. In the end, Roger Stone decides that buying a spaceship for a family travel adventure is not such a bad idea, and after a lot of preparation and training, he does so and the family heads for Mars.

That’s just the beginning of this epic journey that also takes them to the asteroid belt. Along the way, they must find a solution for Buster’s severe space-sickness, Dr. Stone is needed to treat an epidemic on another ship that puts her in quarantine there, The twins’ trade cargo for Mars is first jettisoned, then recovered, then landed on Mars, then found to be nearly worthless…or is it? Later, the lives of grandmother Hazel and young Buster are in danger as their small transit craft goes way off course.

Perhaps the best section of the book involves Flat Cats, creatures native to Mars that resemble furry pancakes. They love body heat, purr appealingly,and will eat almost anything. Buster wants one for a pet, and brings it on their trip to the asteroid belt. It turns out that if fed well, Flat Cats are very reproductive, and soon the ship is full of them. If any of this reminds you of Star Trek’s Tribbles, it should. I’m sure Flat Cats were the inspiration for them.

One other note for Heinlein fans, Hazel Stone appears as a teenager herself in the later Heinlein novel, “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.” It’s not necessary to have read that to enjoy this book, or vice versa, but if you read them both there are some interesting connections.

A fun read, and a great introduction to real science fiction for young readers, even if some of the science is now outdated. (No personal computers for instance, and calculations are done with a slide rule, if you know what that is…)

Highly recommended.