Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: WYRD SISTERS by Terry Pratchett

The sixth book of Terry Pratchett’s epic fantasy series Discworld features the return of Granny Weatherwax from “Equal Rites,” teamed with two other witches in a small coven. They are Nanny Ogg, head of a large clan in the mountain kingdom of Lancre, and junior witch Magrat Garlick, who also lives in Lancre, not far from Granny’s home in the forest. There’s trouble in Lancre when the king is murdered by his ambitious cousin, and the king’s only son Tomjon is smuggled away anonymously and adopted by traveling players who are returning to their headquarters in Ankh-Morpork. The new king and his wife treat the people of Lancre and even the land itself badly, until the magic-filled country itself begins to rebel. The three witches realize they must do something to right the wrong before everyone is destroyed. Magrat becomes friends with the king’s fool, who helps them from inside the palace and who plays an important part in thwarting the evil king and queen. Granny Weatherwax’s plan to turn events to a better course involves a terribly difficult spell that will jump Lancre ahead in time fifteen years, but can the coven manage it while also being persecuted by the king and the townsfolk?

A typically fun Pratchett romp with funny, creative ideas and engaging characters. Fans of Shakespeare and American comedy film stars will find references to enjoy. Recommended.

Rereading: TUNNEL IN THE SKY By Robert A. Heinlein

First Edition cover

I loved this book as a kid, and enjoyed rereading it recently. Rod Walker is a teenager on a future Earth burdened with massive overpopulation, but a new technology that creates gateways to other worlds around our galaxy has provided an outlet: colonists leave for promising undeveloped new worlds on a regular basis. Rod enjoys watching their wagon trains head out for distant planets at the transport center on his way home from school. Rod is taking a survival course, and graduation from it means a field test. He and other students will be dropped off on a planet with only what they can carry. The goal is to survive until they are recalled, up to ten days later.

Rod wants to take the test, though his instructor is not sure he has what it takes to get through. Not everyone does. Once dropped, it’s survival of the fittest against any and every threat, including the most dangerous one of all, other humans from his and a few other classes dropped at the same time. Rod’s sister, a soldier, backs his plan, but his parents are against it. Rod sticks to his decision, and shows up for the drop with his pack of supplies but no weapons other than two knives, on the advice of his sister.

Rod spends a frightening first night in a tree haunted by horrible sounds from some unknown animal, and after escaping a ground predator. As he begins to get used to the new environment, Rod is knocked out from behind. He wakes with a headache and stripped of all his gear except one knife he had hidden. How will he survive until recall? Soon he meets and joins another test person from a different school and they decide to team up, but the recall never comes. Something has gone wrong, and they’re stuck in this hostile jungle with no idea if they’ll ever be rescued.

A great action-filled story until the last third when it becomes more about politics than survival at times, and a little heavy on lecturing, but still a fine read. Recommended.

And Then I Read: PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC by Mark Twain

First edition cover

This is the last full-length novel by Twain, and he considered it his best work. It’s his longest novel, and certainly the most serious and well-researched. I had not read anything about this historic person before, but I knew something of her story through other references. I certainly knew of her tragic end, and that she led an army in France, but little more.

Twain presents his book as if told by Joan’s childhood friend, war companion, and secretary at her trial, Sieur Louis de Conte in three sections: her childhood, her wartime role, and her lengthy trial for witchcraft. Much of the research comes from transcripts of her trials that came to light in the late nineteenth century, affording Twain the chance to use them. Joan claimed that angels appeared to her in visions, telling what her remarkable role would be in helping free France from many years of war with England (the Hundred Years War). These saintly angels brought her the word of God, and though she was fearful and doubting at first, she came to accept what they told her. She was a simple country girl, religious, caring of animals, and not afraid to speak up for her friends, but the idea that she could lead an army, a young woman with no training who could not even read or write, seemed impossible. With the guidance of her spiritual mentors, she made it happen. Each step along the way was fraught with difficulties and she was treated with derision and scorn, but her simple sincerity and uncanny knowledge of events that would happen came to convince those around her and eventually even the uncrowned king of France that she could prevail.

It’s a remarkable book. There’s some humor, especially among Joan’s friends and comrades, but most of the story is told seriously and well. The middle section on Joan’s battles is thrilling and exciting. The final section about her trial by French clerics on the side of England is equally remarkable, as Joan was a match for them through many days and many tough questions. Her tragedy is heart-wrenching: betrayed by the king, and subject to emotional and physical torture, she never gives up even though she can’t win.

This is a difficult read at times, but certainly one that’s worthwhile. Recommended.

And Then I Read: PIECES AND PLAYERS by Blue Balliett

Cover and illustrations by Brett Helquist

This is the fourth book in the “Chasing Vermeer” series by Balliett, each of which includes a mystery involving fine art. In the first three, a particular artist was the focus: Vermeer, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alexander Calder. This time the mystery is about thirteen pieces of art stolen from a small private museum in the Chicago suburb where three returning children live; Calder and Petra, featured in the three previous books, and Tommy, included in the second and third. Joining them are two more children who were featured in other books by Balliett that I haven’t read yet; Early and Zoomy. Tommy, Calder and Petra’s friend Mrs. Sharpe is a trustee of the small museum, and she and the other trustees are characters and sometimes suspects in the story as the children investigate what might have happened to the missing art. Mrs. Sharpe’s son Eagle is also introduced and plays a mysterious part, sometimes helping the children, sometimes considered a suspect. Episodes inside the museum are key to the story, as the children seem to be receiving messages about the theft from the other art there, and from the ghost of the museum’s founder. When they decide to sneak into the museum secretly at night, things get dangerous. And who are the “black jackets,” older kids who seem to be following them everywhere?

I enjoyed this, but not as much as the previous books. There’s such a large cast that the book seems less focused, and the mystery is harder to understand both for the children and the reader. The new children are interesting, but it’s harder to give them all moments to shine in this busy plot. Still, recommended.

Rereading: BETWEEN PLANETS by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Cllifford Geary

The fifth book in Robert Heinlein’s science fiction series for young readers is different from the ones before it in that it’s written as a suspenseful thriller rather than a typical boys’ adventure. Don Harvey attends a private school in New Mexico where riding is a feature activity while his parents are on Mars doing scientific research. He’s surprised when they suddenly send word and a rocket ship ticket to join them on Mars, but talk of war between Venus and Earth as been growing, and his school is happy to see him leave. Don was born in space and claims dual citizenship from Earth and Venus. Don’s parents have told him to contact their old friend Dr. Jefferson in Chicago the night before his ship leaves, and Don and the doctor attend a nightclub show where the power goes off suddenly. Dr. Jefferson is worried, and they return to his home, but security officers are waiting for them there and Don is interrogated before being released at his hotel. Before this happened, Dr. Jefferson had sent Don a package and impressed on him the contents must urgently travel with Don to his parents on Mars. When the package arrives, it holds only a cheap plastic ring, which Don decides to wear. Another police interrogation examines the ring but deems it harmless. Before boarding his ship to the orbiting space station where he will transfer to a Mars rocket, Don meets a Venusian, a dragon-like creature with the English name Sir Isaac Newton. They become friends, and when trouble erupts on the space station, that friendship helps him. Venusian freedom fighters have taken over the station, and plan to destroy it. The only options for Don are to return to Earth or join the rebels and travel to Venus, which he agrees to do. Throughout the book, Don is constantly thrown from one kind of trouble to another, and his eventful time on Venus is no different as war erupts.

This is an exciting story and I enjoyed reading it again. Recommended.