Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: ARTHUR, THE SEEING STONE by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Generally I steer away from retellings of the Arthurian legends because I so love the version by T.H. White that others pale by comparison. This book, the first of a trilogy, seemed a different enough approach to be worth a try, and I enjoyed it.

The Arthur of this story is Arthur de Caldicot, living with his family in their manor house/castle on the English side of the Welsh border in 1199. Arthur’s father is the lord of the small village and nearby territory. One of the members of his village is an old man named Merlin who is revered for his wisdom, but in many ways seems no more than an old man. Arthur’s life is troubled by the jealousy of his older brother, and the treatment of some of the lower class people in his village. He longs to become a Knight like his father, but in fact shows little aptitude for it.

All that changes when Merlin secretly gives him a shiny black stone that in time becomes a window into the past. A window into the time of another Arthur who is the one we know of in the legends. This story’s Arthur sees many parallels in that Arthur’s life to his own, and as mystery of the seeing stone reveals ever more of the past, the Arthur of 1199 finds his secret knowledge gives him insights into those around him he never had before. Soon secrets in his own life begin to unravel, opening up new possibilities for the boy, all against a well-researched backdrop of mediaeval life of the time.

Well done, I will look for the rest of the trilogy. Recommended.

And Then I Read: LOST AMONG THE STARS by Paul Di Filippo

While I grew up reading lots of science fiction and fantasy short stories in magazines and anthologies, I rarely read them now. Somehow I’m more drawn to novels, where you spend more time in one created space. This collection by my friend Paul Di Filippo was a nice change, and brought me back to the pleasures of short stories, which must work with economy to grab the reader and get him involved quickly. If anything, as Paul says, it’s harder to write short than long, and he does it well.

“City of Beauty, City of Scars” tells of a city where social status is architectural and human flaws are unforgivable. As the girl narrating rises in society and in the levels of the city, her beauty must remain perfect, leaving no room for emotion. Her ambition must leave everyone, even her family behind, and will the reward be worth the price?

“The Kings of Mount Golden” is a story of rivalry between two men, one an inventor, the other his rich patron, over the woman they both love, and then her son, Brannock, who is raised by the patron, but fascinated by his real father, the inventor. Brannock tracks down his father, only to find himself poorly used for a machine that can swap the shapes of two people, his father’s latest invention.

In “Adventures in Cognitive Homogamy,” a scientist is seduced and abducted, but finds his skills used in ways he never expected, and his outlook changing.

“Desperados of the Badlands” imagines a future where technological skins enhance the senses and abilities of those who can afford them, or have jobs that provide them, like Ruy Lambeth, sent to capture vandals in Alberta, Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. These vandals have skills equal to his own, though, and a secret weapon that might bring dinosaurs to life.

Those are a few of the fine stories in this anthology, which I enjoyed a great deal, and recommend.

And Then I Read: HER MAJESTY, GRACE JONES by Jane Langton

Cover illustration by Emily Arnold McCully.

This is not about the singer, it’s a delightful novel for children written in 1961, but taking place in America in the 1930s. Grace and her family have moved from Boston to Ohio because Grace’s father was promised a factory job there, but when they arrive, that position has been put on hold. Grace, Will and their parents have a new home on a hill overlooking their new town, but almost no money. Everyone is angry with the factory owner, who keeps promising he will be in touch as soon as he can reopen that position, but meanwhile they must gradually sell off their belongings to get by.

Grace is full of imagination, and has decided that she’s secretly a child of the current King of England, and glories in her private royalty. She even writes the King a letter to see if he might help her family out in their hard times. Meanwhile, she and Will and their friends get into all kinds of trouble and adventures, always trying to think of ways to get a little extra money for the family.

When Petunia, the family car, has to be sold, Grace rebels by hiding out in the rumble seat and confronting the new owners angrily when they get the car home. This works out in the end, as the new owners are understanding, and agree to help out the family by taking them on errands in their former car. Other friends are found along the way, as everyone in the country is in much the same situation, waiting for better times to arrive. Grace haunts the mailbox waiting for the King’s reply. Will it ever come?

Recommended. (Previously titled “The Majesty of Grace.”)

Listening To: THE END OF ETERNITY by Isaac Asimov

Amazon Prime recently added some “free” Audible content, and this is the second classic science fiction novel I’ve listened to from there, the first being Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.” It’s read by Paul Boehmer, an unabridged version, 8 hours and 11 minutes long. I listened to it periodically over the last month.

The first thing that I noticed was the contrast in writing style and approach to characters with the Heinlein. Asimov’s world, at least in this book (and others, from what I remember) is filled with scientists and other logical thinkers, and his characters seem cold, emotionless and generally less appealing than Heinlein’s. That does change some later in the book, and is even explained at the end, but while both writers are focused on big ideas, Heinlein doesn’t lose sight of human nature and his characters are more flawed but more appealing. His authorial voice is warmer, at times even funny. None of that in Asimov.

Andrew Harlan is an Eternal, part of a vast network of scientists, engineers and their support staff that exist in a place outside time. Time travel using time machines is discovered in our future and the Eternals set out to control events by making small changes to reality they believe will improve life in general and help mankind as a whole. The vast majority of people have no idea this is happening, and they can’t see the changes, only the Eternals can. Changes are carefully examined and debated, and some have only minor effects on the path of future history, while others are large: avoiding nuclear war, for instance. The downside is, some lives are greatly changed or removed from reality completely.

Harlan is a proficient Eternal agent, but a new assignment partners him with a beautiful and charming non-Eternal woman, Noys, who he falls in love with. Breaking Eternal rules, Harlan discovers the change he is assigned to make in her time will remove Noys from history completely. Unable to let that happen, Harlan secretly brings Noys to a far-future time and hides her there.

Back at his Eternal job, Harlan finds himself training a man who will later make possible the entire Eternal program, so that he can be sent back in time before the first time machine, to set the process in motion. But Harlan suspects his secret has been discovered and he’s being tested. Will he risk removing the entire Eternal project to save Noys, and will he even be allowed to try?

A good story, well-conceived time travel ideas, but not many appealing characters, and a generally claustrophobic cold-war atmosphere. I probably didn’t notice that when I first read this as a young man. Still, well worth reading or listening to.

 

And Then I Read: I SHALL WEAR MIDNIGHT by Terry Pratchett

This is the fourth book about Tiffany Aching, a resident witch in the chalk hill country of what appears to be England, but is actually part of the author’s made-up place Discworld. It’s a very old rural England part of Discworld, anyway, and Tiffany, despite her young age, has worked hard to make a place for herself and her magic in the district she grew up in. Helping her are a band of tiny but very powerful creatures, the Nac Mac Feegles, who consider Tiffany to be under their protection, whether she likes it or not, and sometimes she doesn’t.

Being a witch in this time and place is very hard work, combining elements of herbalist, doctor, midwife, undertaker, psychiatrist, elder caretaker, magic advisor, and many other things. She has special powers over fire, and a broomstick to fly on, as well as other magic, but hardly has a chance to enjoy it. As we meet Tiffany in this book, she is running herself ragged trying to handle all the problems brought to her, and bigger threats are waiting off-stage to pounce. As problems mount, it seems like everyone is against the girl except her family and the Feegles, even those who had been good friends. Advice is gained in a trip to the big city, but more trouble emerges there as well.

The first half of this book is what I call a “piling-on” plot, where new difficulties keep being added onto the shoulders of the protagonist until it seems she’ll never overcome them. Not my favorite kind of story. Fortunately, in the second half Tiffany begins to find new friends and allies that can help her, and Tiffany’s own cleverness begins to win out over steep odds, leading to a very satisfying resolution.

I’ve enjoyed all the Tiffany Aching books, and there’s one more to go, completed not long before Pratchett’s death, I think. And lots of other Discworld books I haven’t read yet. I’m looking forward to more. Recommended.