“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for the ‘What I’ve Read’ Category

Review: The Seventh Decimate by Stephen R. Donaldson

 

SeventhDecimate_Cover-ArtI 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.

Review: Queen of the Flowers by Kerry Greenwood

Original Edition

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.

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.

Review: Finks by Joel Whitney

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)

Review: The Beekeeper by Stewart Giles

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.)

Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

SeeWhatIHaveDone

See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
Release date: Aug 01,

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.

Review: Chasing Embers by James Bennett

Let me preface this by noting that Jim and I have known each other for more than a decade, and I have, in fact, published his superb psychological thriller, written as James Nightingale, Unrequited. So, thChasing-Embersose who wish to ignore my glowing review on that basis are free to do so.

That revealed, I was very much looking forward to this book, and it didn’t disappoint. If you love dragons (Does anyone not?), be prepared for a whole new take on the species and a protagonist you’ll probably want to knock upside the head now and again. Which, as we know, is exactly what the best writers manage to do—get us so involved we feel as if we’re watching a friend—in this case a slightly dysfunctional one—stagger through success and failure knowing we have to let them do it their own way.

This being the first in a series, there are the requisite loose ends, but the rich tapestry of mythology and fantasy Jim has woven is going to have you waiting as eagerly as I am for the next installment. Yet despite the clearly broad research he has to have done to build his world, that knowledge never intrudes. I encourage you to grab a copy of Chasing Embers at the earliest opportunity because in the world of fantasy fiction, it definitely meets the Monty Python criterion—”And now for something completely different.”

Review: The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank

The corporate media would have the US citizenry believe Donald Trump and his regime of destruction are an anomaly in the history of our government. Thomas Frank knows otWrecking Crewherwise—Trump is merely the perhaps inevitable culmination of decades of conservative politics. That he is also a perfect stalking horse to keep the public distracted while the neoliberals in both parties gut the republic is serendipity at its finest.

“Believing effective government to be somewhere between impossible and undesirable, conservatism takes steps to ensure its impotence,” Franks writes on page 130. In other words, conservatives want government jobs held by people whose politics are right rather than by people who are competent and committed to doing those jobs well. By that standard, Donald Trump’s lack of experience in government is a feature for his GOP colleagues, not a bug. Nor should anyone be surprised that the first three months of the current administration has resulted in the elimination of many, many experienced people from all levels of government.

“Putting federal operations under the direction of people who are hostile to those operations’ existence is the second main tactic of conservative governance…Since the parts of government that conservatism most despises are often supported by the public, this strategy avoids the tactlessness of repealing or abolishing agencies while achieving the same result.” (p.156)

Of course, when Frank wrote that, there were still checks and balances in effect; those vanished with the wholesale takeover of all three branches of government by one party. And make no mistake, they and their real constituency—the plutocrats and corporations—have done just that.

If you didn’t know better, you would think (or like to think might be more to the point) that Frank’s analysis of how conservatism and neoliberalism are turning the US federal republic into a neo-feudal plutocratic oligarchy is dystopian fiction. That you do know better, reading it is the stuff of nightmares, especially given it seems they have achieved their goal. If you want to see what our new overlords have in mind for us, be sure to read chapter 9 carefully.

The first step in understanding libertarian conservatism, as with most things, is to learn the vocabulary.

“In 1990 [libertarian pundit Doug Bandow] published an entire book on the subject [of corruption], The Politics of Plunder, in which he attacked ‘legalized larceny’ (farm programs), ‘mass transit robbery’ (public transportation), and ‘consumer fraud’ (the FTC and FDA).”

One of my personal favorite favorites is when fossil fuel corporations demand the right to poison us on the grounds they are “creating jobs and contributing to the American economy.” That’s conservative-speak for “there are millions of dollars’-worth of X in the ground, and we don’t care who we kill to get it.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for the looming apocalypse we as a nation are facing, not least that we the voters have turned blind eyes and deaf ears to decades of corruption because (a) it didn’t really affect us and (b) we were busy with other, more important stuff. We also became brainwashed by media who kept telling us to trust them while they covered up the fact we were being sold down the river by those who were supposed to be working on our behalf. Anyone wishing to change that direction can definitely benefit from reading this book, because in addition to tracking the history we were all ignoring it makes clear just how badly we have been bamboozled.

I commented on a friend’s Facebook Timeline recently, based on this book and many of the others I’ve been reading and reviewing, that the goal of those currently running the US government is to replace the US Constitution with an updated version of the old Articles of Confederation. When you add what Frank has presented to a thorough grasp of the goals of neoliberal economics, that becomes clear. What makes this particular book more useful to beginners on the road to reawakening is Frank’s ironic voice and style, which will offend those who think “small government” is utopia and appeal to those who understand the alternative is the destruction of government by, of and for all the people.