I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Mr. Donaldson. I read the first Thomas Covenant books, and they grew on me; I still have to investigate the follow-up, but given my current TBR pile is such I’ll be reading twenty years after I’m dead, that may take a while. Then he did an SF series, that totally turned me off for reasons I won’t go into.
However, I decided I’d renew our “acquaintance” when I had the chance to obtain an advance copy of the first book in his new series from the publisher, and I fear I’m going to be adding more to that TBR pile, willy-nilly.
To compress the story into a nugget that doesn’t begin to do it justice, The Seventh Decimate is essentially a quest novel. Anyone familiar with Mr. Donaldson’s work will hear the unspoken “with multiple nuances.” Prince Bifalt is a man reared to be a warrior, the eldest son of the ruler of Belleger, which has been at war with its neighbor Amika so long no one really remembers what started it. There are stories, of course, and Bifalt has his preference as to which is most likely true, but that’s not the same as really knowing why your country is being destroyed.
The most devastating weapon in this endless war has been magic. Theurgists able to control lightning and earth and pestilence from afar cut down soldiers in horrific ways, and Bifalt hates them even while he uses them.
“Prince Bifalt believed all sorcery was dishonorable; worse than unfair or dishonest. A Magister could conceal himself in perfect safety while he killed…The plight of his people made nagging questions of honor meaningless.”
However, Belleger develops another powerful weapon: rifles. If they can be used to kill Amika’s mages, they may be what’s needed to finally end the slaughter. So, accompanied by the best shots in the Bellegeran army, Bifalt battles his way to within range of where the Amikan Magisters hide…and is killed by lightning.
Except he doesn’t die, and as he falls into darkness a voice in his head demands Are you ready?
Two years later, Belleger is in deep trouble. Manufacturing the rifles requires magic, and suddenly, for no discernible reason, all of its Magisters have lost theirs. Convinced the deed was done by the Amikans, Bifalt swallows his hatred of magic and undertakes a journey into the wilderness in search of a book that will allegedly allow the Bellegerans to do the same.
Bifalt is a soldier. It’s all he’s ever known how to be and do. Defending his father’s kingdom and his people is his life’s work. And, like many people with specialized training, he is hard-pressed to deal with anything that can’t be addressed by force of arms. His view of what’s acceptable is narrow and full of suspicion; he is full of outrage that his people are dying and teeters on the brink of murder every moment. And, of course, he hates magic to the depths of his soul.
So, then, not perhaps the ideal candidate to send on a quest for a book of magic, but doing his duty is a natural to Bifalt as breathing. And as he confronts not just new terrain but an entire world he really had no idea existed, given Belleger’s total isolation by geography and constant warfare, his concept of reality is, step by step, severely challenged.
It isn’t often I enjoy a book so much I can hardly wait for the sequel. The Seventh Decimate is one such book, and I am praying Mr. Donaldson won’t take as long to provide that sequel as George R. R. Martin does. I’m no longer young, and I really, really want to know how this tale ends. As with the Covenant books, his protagonist isn’t all that likeable, and there are times when the reader has the desire to knock him upside the head for being altogether too dense for his own good.
That, of course, it what makes this novel work. Even if one doesn’t like Bifalt, one has to admire him for what he is—devoted, honorable, dedicated to the welfare of his people and willing to do anything, including die, to achieve it. He’s not the least bit noble, which is refreshing given how tiresome noble people can be. He’s a man who does his job well when he can and to the best of his ability when he can’t. There is much to admire in that.
Like a lot of readers in the U. S., I suspect, I first made the acquaintance of the Honorable Miss Phrynne Fisher by way of the Australian TV series The Miss Fisher Mysteries. It was with great delight, then, that I was able to get a copy of #14 in the book series from Poisoned Pen Press. I can now say without reservation the books are even better than the TV series, and the TV series is wonderful.
I mean, really. How can you not expect great things from a book the opening sentence of which is “The elephant was the last straw.”?
Miss Phrynne has been selected as the eponymous Queen of the Flowers in conjunction with the city’s annual Flower Parade. Simple enough? Right?
Not. Recall who we’re talking about. Nothing in which Miss Phrynne becomes involved is ever simple, and this seemingly innocuous event ends up leading to all kinds of nefarious doings. Even so, underneath the sometimes frenetic adventures runs a serious theme that, sadly, applies to the 21st century as much as to the second decade of the 20th.
I could go on and on about the ongoing characters (all wonderfully individual when they could so easily have been placeholders) and the labyrinthine plot (because in reality nothing is ever as simple as too many mysteries make it seem). I can’t compare this latest addition to the earlier books because I haven’t read them yet.
So, I’ll just finish by saying if you’ve seen the TV series, you really need to read the books, because this is one of those rare times when even the adjustments necessary for adaptation haven’t ruined the spirit of the original. If you’ve read the previous books but haven’t gotten to this one yet, you’ll love it because it’s Miss Phrynne at her very best. And if you’ve done neither—well, for heaven’s sake, why are you just sitting there? Get on with it.
These days, as the corporate media and, sadly, a fair share of the independent media are behaving as if the allegations of Russian state interference in the 2016 presidential elections are established fact (they aren’t), suggesting otherwise can earn the lone voice in the propaganda wilderness the label of Trump follower, Russian stooge, conspiracy nut or all of the above. I have literally had people who are shocked that I refuse to accept the word of that great patriotic organization the Central Intelligence Agency.
I was already aware of the CIA’s dirty fingers stirring the literary pot, not to mention journalism, film and TV. What this well-researched history provides is an in-depth review of one aspect of their meddling—their support in the creation of The Paris Review and its sister publications worldwide under the aegis of an agency front called the Congress for Cultural Freedom. They recruited George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, among others, to head the editorial board, guided by investment counselor and dedicated CIA good buddy John Train.
The goal of the Paris Review and its ilk wasn’t overt propaganda. Rather, the idea was to offer carefully selected material that would (a) promote “the American way of life” and (b) do as much as possible to put the Soviet Union in a bad light. In other words, applying standard propaganda procedures in a literary, cultured way.
What follows Mr. Whitney’s description of the Review’s birth is a history of how the CIA manipulated such writers as Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Márquez in the name of anti-Communism. In time, it expanded into Operation Mockingbird, during which at least one CIA operative may have been placed in all the country’s major newsrooms.
Similar operatives worked to undermine the anti-establishment press in the 1960s and 1970s. So, perhaps those of us who are no longer buying what the CIA et al. are selling will be forgiven if we don’t embrace without question the “news” involving the current incarnation of the anti-establishment press. Doubly so, given the news organ that essentially launched it is owned by a man who received a $600 million contract with the CIA not long after he purchased The Washington Post.
A relationship, one notes, that is never mentioned in those “Russia did it!” articles.
There is a belief among us in the United States that the CIA was, until last year, prohibited from acting within the country’s boundaries. Mr. Whitney, however, notes that in fact the act of Congress that established the CIA never actually put that prohibition in writing. It was nothing more than a “gentlemen’s agreement.” Of course, anyone able to apply the term “gentlemen” to the CIA is in serious need of therapy.
Another myth dispelled in these pages is the accepted history that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda evolved from the mujahideen armed and trained by the CIA during the Reagan administration to combat the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. In point of fact, Mr. Whitney reveals, there was a CIA-sponsored cell of “academics” in the country at least by the mid-1960s.
Once one accepts the premise that anything we see or hear in the media or on our screens may have as its underlying agenda the propagation of the message the government—or whichever agency feels the need to tweak the national mindset—wants us to embrace, it’s all but impossible not to see how the sausage is made. Indeed, sometimes, as with the CBS-TV series Salvation, the presentation is so ham-handed any decent writer would refuse to have their name attached.
If you’re tired of being lied to, if you’re exhausted by the stress of being told there are enemies from all over the globe lurking in the shadows ready to pounce, I recommend you read this book. It can be a bit of a slog now and then, as the continuity of the narrative jumps back and forth, and there’s a bit more repetition of the material than necessary. Also, it won’t help much with the stress, but at least you’ll be looking at the right enemy.
(Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Greatest Writers by Joel Whitney; 2016 O/R Books; 978-1-94486-913-7 (hardcover), 978-1-94486-952-6 (trade paperback), ebook also available)
If you haven’t seen this documentary from Vice News about Charlottesville, take the time to do so.
However, try to do so with an open mind, which I know is asking a lot under the circumstances. Much is being made of the fact the supremacists came prepared for battle. As much as I detest them and all their works, and stating unequivocally that the terrorist act the left one dead and many injured, in both body and mind, is unacceptable, I also have to note that there are places where I can’t tell one faction from the other.
There is scientific support for the statement that nonviolence is a stronger method of protest and has longer-lasting positive effects than violence. Yes, the neo-Nazis came prepared for battle, but why did those opposing them have to provide it?
Please withhold your outrage for just another moment. That is in no way, shape, or form to be understood as a condemnation of all those brave souls who stood in opposition to the terrorist rally being held in their midst and against their wishes. It’s an expression of my fear, based on what I saw in the ’60s and ’70s, that this movement, too, will be co-opted to violence. If that happens, we’ve lost, and the country we were taught to love for its freedoms and honor will be lost as well.
The fact is, the states that are falling in line to pass open-carry laws are aiding and abetting the thugs and racists, and given most of them are run by the GOP it’s almost impossible not to believe that action is deliberate. They WANT us to react in anger and outrage, and we just can’t give them what they want.
While we were watching the video of the car slamming into protestors, the White House issued an order elevating the US Cybercommand Unit to independent status, and may separate it entirely from the NSA. The purpose of the unit, said Reuters, is “to develop cyber weapons, punish intruders and tackle adversaries.” In the past week, the CEO of Blackwater petitioned the White House to turn most of the military activities in Afghanistan over to private “security” companies. Which have private armies. And private air forces. And the same weapons as our official military.
If you can consider that and not be terrified, then we really have no basis for discussion.
Self-defense requires an actual, physical threat of bodily harm, not the fear of it. The urge to attack when you’ve suffered years and decades and lifetimes of evil is overwhelming, but we live in a culture that is being operated behind the scenes by people much more dangerous than the Wizard of Oz. It’s up to us to decide whether we’ll allow them to pull our strings and use us to further their goal of turning the US into a neo-feudal plutocratic oligarchy by becoming those we hate. It’s up to us to refuse to be turned into those we despise.
Yes, we are at war. We have been for a long time; we just weren’t aware of it because the enemy was using guerilla tactics. If we resort to using their playbook, we’ve already lost, because they already have their private armies in place to put down resistance. All it needs is one order from their employees in DC declaring martial law, and I don’t doubt for a moment they would get it.
There is a new narrative being propagated whenever the request for nonviolence arises, one that’s targeted at young people. It purports to show that nonviolence alone isn’t enough by citing the violence in India that occurred while Gandhi was protesting, and the Black Panthers during Martin Luther King’s. The narrative is carefully constructed to seem sensible, but it takes both those examples and any others it uses out of historical context and ignores facts that counter the message that sometimes you have to fight with the weapons the enemy uses.
No, you don’t.
There are a great many people who are gearing up to prevent the alt-right/white nationalist/neo-Nazi groups from having a forum to spew their rancid bigotry. That, too, is a natural reaction. It’s perhaps even more so given that so few people seem to understand that free speech doesn’t mean “as long as I agree with/like what you say.” Blocking them completely is the last thing we should do. So long as they’re spewing their poison in public, we know who they are and where they stand. We can peacefully speak up to counter their narrative. Silence them, and they will simply crawl into their lairs and distill their poison in the dark.
One of the things I have come to dislike about police procedurals by US authors is the obsession with serial killers. It’s gotten a little better in recent years, but given the unassailable fact most people are killed by someone they know, the whole serial killer schtick has gotten really old.
It’s not a spoiler to say Mr. Giles’s quirky novel set in Cornwall avoids that obsession beautifully, because the joy of this book isn’t solving the problem but watching the characters struggle with puzzles both internal and external.
Briefly, this is about how Detective Harriet Taylor, who has transferred to Cornwall mostly because it’s the farthest she can get from her native Scotland and memories of her cheating late husband, figures out (eventually) who did in three elderly locals. In the process, she meets Alice Green, a local beekeeper whose best friend is the first victim. The second, discovered belatedly, is Alice’s husband Stanley; the third is Stanley’s best mate. If you’re seeing a pattern, you’ll understand why I said mentioning the “killed by someone they know” isn’t really a spoiler. You may also never see hollyhocks the same way again.
Like DC Tayler, Alice put up with a cheating husband for years. “As the years went by I soon developed a thick skin. It’s what we do—we women,” she tells Harriet. And then: “You know what, Detective Harriet Taylor? You and I have more in common than either of us realizes.”
What follows is a study in how we human beings, when we have an unhealed wound, can be drawn to trust others who share our experience of pain even absent any other element to support that trust. And how all too often that trust is horribly misplaced.
If you read mysteries and police procedurals solely for the pleasure of solving the crime, you may not find The Beekeeper to your liking. On the other hand, if you avoid this book for that reason, you’ll be missing out on a truly delightful reading experience. Mr. Giles combines the best elements of the genre with a character so superbly eccentric it’s hard to think of her as a cold-blooded killer.
Which is, of course, why instead of worrying about serial murderers, we might put out concern to better use watching out for Uncle Harry.
As an aside, this novel reminded me a great deal of the wonderful Cary Grant film of Arsenic and Old Lace, despite there being few if any actual parallels between the two. I wish I could say why, but there it is. Maybe it’s just the underlying theme that sometimes the deadliest among us are the ones we’d least expect.
In any case, I recommend you both read this book and watch the movie for a double-shot of entertainment.
(REQUIRED DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.)
You will hear from those enamored of the corporate media—the people whose lives are just fine, thanks, and who therefore embrace the “resistance” narrative propagated by the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN with unquestioning enthusiasm—that those sources are the last bastions of responsible journalism. They repeat every bit of the latest “news” with absolute certainty they are in possession of the facts, and anyone who dares disagree is clearly the pawn of right-wing/Russian/conspiracy theorist propaganda.
As the guy in that old TV commercial used to shout, “Bunk! Don’t you believe it!”
As proof of this, I offer the following screenshot, taken the morning of 11 June 2017 after Bernie Sanders spoke at the second annual People’s Summit in Chicago and said essentially that the Democratic Party can either listen to the people or be made redundant. I will just note as an aside that CNN couldn’t even manage to note in its article where Mr. Sanders was speaking. Indeed, it referred to the conference as “an audience of nearly 4,000 mostly dedicated “Berniecrats.” I mention it in case the Times headline doesn’t make the utter disrespect the media have for you and me sufficiently clear.
￼I want you to ponder that headline for just a few moments, and then, for those who haven’t already recognized just how toxically slanted and screamingly ironic it is, I will explain.
Let us begin with the notion the Democratic Party as it now exists is split. As was clearly demonstrated last year, that thesis doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The party establishment was sufficiently of one mind to ensure their anointed candidate, who had been promised the nomination in exchange for allowing Barack Obama to be chosen in 2008, received her due. This was exposed when Wikileaks published the purloined DNC emails, followed shortly thereafter by the ones obtained after John Podesta fell for a standard phishing scheme.
They have since set in place as their party chair a man who is a loyal Clintonite partisan, shunning the one that “base” clearly preferred. A man who, while on the road touring with Bernie Sanders in the name of “unity” was utterly tongue-tied when confronted by those demanding to know what the DNC plans to do about single-payer health care, raising the minimum wage and getting all that dark and corporate money out of elections.
This brings us to the next part: “The Base Wants It All.” Notice how that wording makes “the base” sound like a bunch of greedy toddlers throwing a tantrum? It’s condescending, dismissive, and essentially suggests “the base” is incapable of understanding you can’t have all those nice things because it’s not realistic. Never mind that every other first-world country has those nice things and has had for decades.
And now that last part, which is by far the most hilarious. “The Party Wants to Win.” The implication being, of course, that standing for all those nice things will never get anybody elected because the Democrats need to win over the moderate Republicans who hate Donald Trump as much as they [pretend] to. To achieve that, they must continue their message of neoliberal center-right economics. You know—the policy that has sent half of all the revenue from the so-called “recovery” to the top 1% of the population. Yeah, that one.
They’ve been using that excuse for becoming the GOP-Lite since Clinton the First. In particular, they have used it over and over since Obama was elected. As a result, the Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the majority of state governments. Even where the occasional Democrat has managed to win a governorship, he or she usually has to contend with a Republican-controlled legislature.
Any sensible person would take note of that and say “Hmm, maybe we should try something different. What if we, you know, listened to the progressives and did a 180? What if we started supporting candidates running on platforms of helping the majority instead of the top 10 percent?” Not our good friends at the DNC. Nope. They poured $6 million into the campaign of Jon Osseff in Georgia, who is running ahead of his GOP opponent on that platform that’s lost them all those earlier elections. However, they couldn’t manage to find $20,000 for a progressive in Kansas who also had a good shot at beating the Republican; and the $60,000 they finally agreed to send to the progressive in Montana was too little too late.
Need we say it’s a given that if Mr. Osseff wins, the Democratic Party establishment will have a big mutual back-patting circle and shout for all the world to hear that see—they were right. That’s how you win.
Except when it isn’t. The dismal record of all the Osseff-like candidates who ran in 2014 on that same corporate-friendly “pragmatic” platform far outweighs one success. And he’s running in an upscale district full of more than a few of those 10-percenters and likely a slew of 25-percenters. In other words, not the kind of voters who got behind Jim Thompson in Kansas and Rob Quist in Montana.
I noted on implication in that headline. Here’s another one: the Democratic Party has become so self-satisfied and arrogant those running it seem to be under the mistaken belief that, in the end, that “base” they have no respect for will vote for whatever candidate is offered. The fact that so many members of that base stayed home last November because they were fed up with being told they have to vote for someone because that someone isn’t as bad as the other guy is lost on them.
And in that single headline, the New York Times—all unwittingly, one suspects, because its editorial board is as self-satisfied and arrogant as the Democrats—makes it clear just how little respect We the People get from our public servants and those who are supposed to represent us in choosing the ones we have to vote for. We exist, so far as they’re concerned, to do their bidding and settle for whatever crumbs we manage to glean from their table once the election is over.
I don’t know about you, but I hate crumbs. And I’m tired of being told I have to eat them while the people telling me to do so are schmoozing with bankers and billionaires at $5000-a-plate dinners. As for the Democrats, if they truly do “want to win,” I suggest they listen to General George S. Patton.
“Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way.”
I’ll begin with two points. First, this review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the publisher. Second, although I have tried mightily to enjoy what’s referred to as “literary fiction” for most of my reading life, I rarely succeed. I’ll explain why as we proceed.
Ms. Schmidt has opted to do a take on one of the most notorious dysfunctional families in US history, one that is the source of a mystery that can still initiate heated discussions among those fascinated by it.
On a hot August afternoon in 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, local businessman Andrew Jackson Borden and his second wife, Abby, had their heads staved in with an axe or some similar implement. Several days later, his younger daughter Lizzie was arrested for murder. Twenty months after that, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of all charges by an all-male jury, that being the only sort there was in those days.
Ms. Schmidt has opted to have us view those events from the perspective of four characters—three of them actual people, the fourth a fictional character. One of the first three is, of course, Lizzie Borden herself. The other two are her older sister Emma and the family’s Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan. The fourth character is a raging psychopath named Benjamin, who is hired by the sisters’ uncle John Morse to “have words” with Andrew Borden regarding how he treated his daughters.
All of which is fine, and could make for an interesting exploration of another alternative to the whodunit that is the Lizzie Borden story. Unfortunately, the things about literary fiction that make its fans shiver with delight are the very ones that, in the end, usually put me off what might be an otherwise excellent story.
The most egregious element of too much literary fiction, for me, is what those who enjoy it consider “wordsmithing.” That is, the author manipulates the language in ways that are unique and colorful. That’s fine, unless their manipulation is so intrusive I end up being thrown out of the tale. That happened quite a bit in the first two-thirds of this novel. I’m as fond of clever use of the language as anyone, but not when I find myself thinking “Wow, that was clever.”
There is, that gripe notwithstanding, a lot to like in this novel, although there’s a thread that’s left dangling. I’d have preferred that not have happened. Others’ mileage may vary. Ms. Schmidt does an excellent job of making us understand the inner workings of someone like Lizzie Borden once she gets down to business, and one early on becomes more than empathetic toward poor Emma. This being one of those stories so often told everyone knows the details, her choice to keep us in the thoughts of those involved instead is a good one.
I can, therefore, recommend this book to those who enjoy literary fiction, and to those who are fascinated by the entire Borden saga with the caveats noted. I will also warn you that you may never want to eat pears again by the time you’re finished.