Mad Times

“To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart.” – Wendell Berry

December 15th, 2007 at 2:08 am


two cats stacked on top of a CRT

This picture is from back when Alice and Theo were only about a year old. Now there are no CRT monitors left in the house (there’re a couple on the bikeport waiting to go to recycling, but none in the house). Also neither cat would tolerate this much contact with the other any more. Which is too bad since the only thing cuter than a couple of kitties is a couple of kitties stacked on top of each other.

December 12th, 2007 at 10:27 pm

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

Woman's face above title band, spiral staircase belowA friend was reading Russell’s The Sparrow for a book group which reminded me that we had this book on the shelf. This one isn’t science fiction, but instead a historical novel set in Northern Italy towards the end of World War II.

There are a number of point of view characters: an Italian soldier, various interconnected Italian Jews and Catholics, families of displaced Jews from other parts of Europe, a few Nazi officers, even a British soldier. The book includes a chart of characters, but I never had to resort to it. The people were all real enough that I easily recognized them when they came back into the spotlight.

I was half-way through the book before I committed to finishing it. My uncertainty was mostly because I wasn’t in a mood that could endure a book about the holocaust. While the camps are a constant lurking presence in the book, it is a mostly unfocused presence. To the characters, the death camps are mostly wild and unbelievable rumors. So while the Jewish characters are trying desperately to avoid capture by the Nazis, they are spared true knowledge of what their fate would be. The reader gets to supply his own sense of sick dread at what capture would really mean. I would have thought this approach would give the book a kind of intimate horror, but instead, for me, it put such a gulf between the characters’ view point and mine that I was never able to sink into the book enough to forget that it was just a book. With this subject matter that was actually a good thing.

Rather than being about the holocaust the book ends up being about the lengths people will go to to protect their neighbors from evil. Practically every character makes personal sacrifices that would be unthinkable in any situation less extreme than that war. The result is both inspiring for what it shows is possible and disheartening for the horrors it takes to make us put aside our differences.

December 8th, 2007 at 1:10 am


cats lounging in crumpled paper and cardboard boxes

December 5th, 2007 at 1:12 am

Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton

two gold snakey dragon things intertwined over a field of redBecky read about this book somewhere and got it from the library then failed to read it. She suggested I take a look at it and I read it. Then it sat around the house for another few weeks after it couldn’t be renewed any longer accruing overdue fines while I caught up on my backlogged book reviews. I couldn’t review it out of order, you see. Sucks to be compulsive.

Two alternating story lines. One set in the present day where Blake, a young boy, discovers a strange book in the St. Jerome’s College Library in Oxford while waiting for his mother who is there doing research. The other story line is set in Germany in 1452 and focuses on a young apprentice to an inventor. The inventor is Johann Gutenberg. The apprentice is Endymion Spring. Into their lives comes a man named Fust who has money to support their efforts to perfect their new book production machine, but also has an obsession of his own that centers around a mysterious chest with even more mysterious contents.

All these mysteries keep the pages turning along. Blake has a childish acceptance of the impossible things that keep happening to him coupled with a burgeoning intellect that tries to find explanations and an emotional fragility that keeps him on the edge of collapse. Unfortunately the other characters are not so richly drawn. And the plot while pleasingly twisty feels thin and capricious as it bounds towards a conclusion that wants to be profound and inevitable but ends up just seeming forced.

December 5th, 2007 at 12:47 am

Firebirds edited by Sharyn November

a bird composed of flamesSharyn November is the editorial director of Firebird Books, and this is an anthology of original sf and fantasy short fiction from authors with books published by Firebird. I liked that each story was accompanied by a brief note about the story by its author as well as a bio of the author.

My usual practice with short story collections is to give a couple lines about each story. It’s been a month since I finished it (yes, I’m that far behind in getting reviews written), so we’ll see how well I remember them…

“Cotillion” by Delia Sherman: Since I picked the book up because it was the same publisher as Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin which I’d just reread, I was amused to discover that the first story was another retelling of Tam Lin, this one set in New York City in 1969.

“The Baby in the Night Deposit Box” by Megan Whalen Turner: The entire story came rushing back when I read the title. A fun little changeling story set, as the title implies, in a bank.

“Beauty” by Sherwood Smith: A plain looking princess is kidnapped by a handsome enemy of the kingdom. Based on one of her books, apparently.

“Mariposa” by Nancy Springer: At the doctor’s office, a young woman learns that the cause of her malaise is that she has lost her soul. She goes in search of it. A little on-the-nose, but entertaining in spite of it.

“Max Mondrosch” by Lloyd Alexander: A man fails to find a job despite working quite hard at the search. Odd little tale.

“The Fall of Ys” by Meredith Ann Pierce: A fable of arrogant self-interest. Feels classic.

“Medusa” by Michael Cadnum: Point of view of the title character. Deepens the story.

“The Black Fox” by Emma Bull illustrated by Charles Vess: Sassy comic book version of an old folk song. Fine example of the talents of both Bull and Vess.

“Byndley” by Patricia A. McKillip: Complex tale about a man trying to get back into Faerie.

“The Lady of the Ice Garden” by Kara Dalkey: The Snow Queen reimagined in feudal Japan.

“Hope Chest” by Garth Nix: Another one easily remembered from its title. A baby is left on a railway platform in a small town. Along with the usual cryptic note, this baby comes with a steamer trunk that no one can open. When the baby turns 16 things get interesting.

“Chasing the Wind” by Elizabeth E. Wein: A young woman is flown across Kenya in a single-engine plane in 1950. No traditional fantasy elements here, but the world of a bush pilot is pretty fantastical in a different way.

“Little Dot” by Diana Wynne Jones: Story about a wizard, a beast, and a cat told from the cat’s point of view.

“Remember Me” by Nancy Farmer: A family road trip in the desert, an out-of-place sister finds her place.

“Flotsam” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: A lost boy shows up at the neighborhood basketball court. Really really lost. I really liked the characters in this one.

“The Flying Woman” by Laurel Winter: Two magical children are abandoned on an island and visited by a flying woman.

I liked all but a couple of them. Good collection.

December 2nd, 2007 at 1:00 am

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (repeat)

kinda scary woman on a horse with more mounted people on a bridge in the background.This long-out-of-print novel has been re-released by Firebird Books in a handsomely produced trade paperback. I’ve still got my old mass-market paperback around here somewhere, but it’s nice to have a good reading copy of this book.

Originally published as an entry in Tor’s fairy tale series, it is a retelling of an old fairy story. In this case the ballad of Tam Lin. This is not at all vital information to the enjoyment of the book, however. Dean’s books are always focussed mainly on their characters, and the plot, while not an afterthought, seems inevitable and somewhat mundane, sort of like real life. The book’s main character is Janet Carter, a newly matriculated college student at a midwest liberal arts college (modeled on the one where Dean was an undergrad). The other characters are Janet’s dorm room mates, her family, her teachers, and other students. The fantasy elements and the links to the ballad are subtle and, to Janet, somewhat bewildering.

Janet is an English major, but she falls in with a crowd who are mostly classics majors, so there are many many references to English and classical literature thrown about as if everyone had read Homer in the original Greek or had memorized Shakespeare’s plays as a child. In less capable hands this sort of lofty material could be off-putting, but instead, at least for me, the result is rather charming and makes me wish I’d spent my youth reading plays instead of whatever it was I did do.

This pattern of things which should be annoying failing to illicit that response recurs in several areas of the book so I would be leery of recommending it to others in fear that I am somehow among the small perfect audience for the book. However Tam Lin has many fans (besides me if I haven’t made that clear) so perhaps it is merely a property of the book itself. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

December 1st, 2007 at 12:29 am


Cat curled in a ball

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