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palimpsest by justchris

75 Books Challenge for 2011

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Edited: Jan 2, 2012, 4:02pm Top

I'm happy to be back. I certainly hope to be more active after tuning out the second half of 2010. I certainly kept reading, though the pace was much reduced, thanks to lots of big life events. I'm hoping to still squeeze in reviews of the 2010 books in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I already have a few I've read in 2011. So here begins the overall list:


1. Bound in Blood by P. C. Hodgell* (2010 review)
2. Catfantastic IV edited by Andre Norton*
3. The Contentious Countess by Irene Saunders
4. Her Man of Affairs by Elizabeth Mansfield (*)
5. Silver Birch, Blood Moon edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
6. Jackie and the Giant by Linda Jones
7. The Frog Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta
8. The Aliens Among Us by James White
9. The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read & Write It by Nicholas Awde NF
10. Waltzing Matilda by A. B. Paterson
11. Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French
12. Wombat Goes Walkabout by Michael Morpurgo
13. The Magic Colours by Cecilia Egan


14. The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book by Jessica K. Black NF
15. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold* (2009 review)
16. Moongather by Jo Clayton*
17. Moonscatter by Jo Clayton*
18. Changer's Moon by Jo Clayton*
19. Poetas Arabes de Almeria (s. X-XIV) edited by Soledad Gibert P
20. Conscience of the Beagle by Patricia Anthony
21. The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip
22. Miss Chartley's Guided Tour by Carla Kelly* (2009 review)


23. Rat Race by Dick Francis*
24. In the Frame by Dick Francis*
25. The Silent Strength of Stones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
26. Bound in Blood by P. C. Hodgell* (2010 review)
27. The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
28. The Mislaid Magician by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
29. The Kingdom of the Cats by Phyllid Gotlieb


30. Silver Borne by Patricia Briggs*
31. The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer
32. Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer
33. Her Healing Ways by Lyn Cote
34. Holiday in Bath by Laura Matthews*
35. The Chadwick Ring by Julia Jeffries*
36. Hunting Ground by Patricia Briggs* (2009 review)
37. Dragon Blood by Patricia Briggs* (2009 review)
38. Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs* (2009 review)
39. Conspirator by C. J. Cherryh
40. Deceiver by C. J. Cherryh


41. God's Fires by Patricia Anthony
42. Mrs. Pollifax Pursued by Dorothy Gilman*
43. The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner* (2009 review)
44. Betrayer by C. J. Cherryh
45. The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer*


46. The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman*
47. Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled by Dorothy Gilman
48. Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief by Dorothy Gilman(*)
49. Kris Longknife: Mutineer by Mike Shepherd
50. Kris Longknife: Deserter by Mike Shepherd
51. Kris Longknife: Defiant by Mike Shepherd


52. Kris Longknife: Resolute by Mike Shepherd
53. Kris Longknife: Audacious by Mike Shepherd
54. Kris Longknife: Intrepid by Mike Shepherd
55. Kris Longknife: Undaunted by Mike Shepherd
56. Kris Longknife: Redoubtable by Mike Shepherd
57. Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer*
58. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer*
59. Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy*
60. Dr. Ruth's Guide for Married Lovers
61. Mairelon the Magician by Patrica Wrede
62. The Magician's Ward by Patrica Wrede* (2009 review)


63. Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs*
64. The Time of the Dark by Barbara Hambly*
65. The Walls of Air by Barbara Hambly*
66. The Armies of Daylight by Barbara Hambly*
67. The Mother of Winter by Barbara Hambly*
68. Icefalcon's Quest by Barbara Hambly*
69. Medieval Andalusian Courtly Culture in the Mediterranean: Three Ladies and a Lover by Cynthia Robinson ~P
70. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by ntozake shange P
71. The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer


72. Don Quijote by Miguel Cervantes (woot!)
73. Defender by C. J. Cherryh*
74. Explorer by C. J. Cherryh*
75. The Rainbow Abyss by Barbara Hambly
76. The Magicians of Night by Barbara Hambly
77. The Romulan Way by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood*


78. Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P. N. Elrod
79. Race and Slavery in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis NF
80. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold* (2009 review)


81. To Ride the Rathorn by P. C. Hodgell* (2010 review)
82. Bound in Blood by P. C. Hodgell* (2010 review)
83. Hunting Ground by Patricia Briggs*
84. Delan the Mislaid by Laurie J. Marks* (2009 review)
85. The Moonbane Mage by Laurie J. Marks* (2009 review)


86. Ara's Field by Laurie J. Marks* (2009 review)
87. Sunshine by Robin McKinley* (2009 review)
88. Secret of the Lost Race by Andre Norton*
89. Persuasion by Jane Austen*
90. Dragon Blood by Patricia Briggs* (2009 review)
91. Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen*
92. White Jenna by Jane Yolen*
93. Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold*
94. The Price of the Stars by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald* (2010 review)

* indicates reread
(*) I know I read it before, but I sure as hell don't remember much if anything
+ indicates not in English (such ambition!)
NF is nonfiction (going to try harder this year)
P is poetry (definitely need to expand)

My 2010 thread is here. Please note that I'll still be posting here, as I'd like to review the books from the latter half of last year. I've given up on writing reviews. They'll have to wait until I reread those books someday. Moving on...

My 2009 thread is here.

Jan 4, 2011, 9:11am Top

Welcome back!

Jan 5, 2011, 6:51am Top

Glad you are back, Chris!

Jan 7, 2011, 5:27pm Top

Ha ha! Forgot to star my own thread, so I couldn't find it right away. I'll go introduce myself as soon as I take care of a couple of items. Thanks for the welcome both of you. It's great that you keep this group humming along.

Jan 7, 2011, 5:40pm Top

Hi, Chris!

I almost lost you, too! So glad to see you back:)

Ps. My fingers are still crossed for you to find a new job. Looking forward to follow your reading throughout 2011, and of course update on your late reading in 2010.


Jan 7, 2011, 7:24pm Top

I like your symbols - One of the reasons I have so many books on my TBR list is that I can't let them go until I remember what is in them!

Jan 7, 2011, 7:31pm Top

Hey, Chris, almost missed you! Welcome to the new year.

Jan 8, 2011, 1:40am Top

#4: Chris, if you lose yourself again, check out the group wiki on the group's profile page. There is a 'threadbook' with everyone's latest thread - makes it much easier to find everybody this year!

Jan 10, 2011, 12:15am Top

5: Bente, good to see you too. Thanks for the good wishes. I'm still getting a very high interview rate for the number of applications, so we'll see...

@6: Judy, I am glad the symbols are interesting. I can't take much credit, I lifted them from Roni and others. Good luck with the TBR.

7: Roni, thanks for the welcome. I'm late to the party as usual. I'm comfortable with my time (non)sense, though.

@8: The wiki is an excellent feature. Thank you Stasia and whoever else is involved with putting that together, particularly the threadbook.

I'm afraid I am likely to continue to fail my LT goals in the short term. It turns out I am going on vacation in the second half of January, so I have exactly one week to cram in three weeks worth of commitments, including interviews, medical appointments, job applications, paperwork hustling for the new year, travel preparations, and bootstrapping myself into database design and development from scratch. Yikes. Unemployed doesn't really translate into free time in my life.

Jan 10, 2011, 12:18am Top

Wow! Sounds like you are busy, Chris. Good luck in getting it all done before you leave on vacation!

Jan 10, 2011, 12:36am Top

Where are you going for vacation? Hope it's worth the hustle! Don't forget to take some books to read.

Jan 10, 2011, 10:43am Top

@10-11: I'm going to Australia! It is a quite unexpected gift. Definitely worth the hustle. Well, I don't have an ereader, and I don't want to do the usual of taking way too many books, since I need to leave room for gifts and mementos on the way back, and I can't imagine ditching the books over there. So I plan on just the monumental Don Quijote and the Spanish dictionary, along with lots of writing materials.

Jan 10, 2011, 10:51am Top

Chris, regarding database design, you might look for a book titled Database Design for Mere Mortals by Hernandez. It's not nearly as intimidating as some of the other guides. And it's available used from Amazon.

Jan 10, 2011, 11:08am Top

13: Thank you for the recommendation, Judy. I will definitely look into it. Unfortunately, I am operating under quite the time crunch, since we've entered a new year, and my boss wants to transition NOW from spreadsheet to database tracking of employee hours, etc. He had someone develop a template for the database, but I am not convinced it is designed effectively, since it was derived from the spreadsheets, which of course have their own logic that doesn't always transfer directly. But it's not just populating the database tables (and redesigning them and creating their relationships), it's developing the forms and queries, and I have no database experience beyond the most basic of data entry via pre-set, user-friendly interfaces. And this basically needs to be somewhat functional by Friday, when I go in to deal with the current pay period. Yikes! Maybe I'll take Database Design for Mere Mortals with me on vacation, and just stumble along a little longer with what we have.

Jan 10, 2011, 3:13pm Top

I assume this data is proprietary, otherwise I would be happy to take a look at the design and lend you some expertise. I probably don't know the particular database you will work on, but design is design, and it's what I do.

Jan 11, 2011, 5:39pm Top

Congratulations on the Australian trip, Chris!

Jan 11, 2011, 9:15pm Top

15: Thank you for the very generous offer, Judy. I don't think my boss would consider it particularly proprietary, and it is certainly fairly basic, generic administrative stuff that most small businesses need to to track in terms of employees, clients, jobs, billing, payroll, inventory, etc. I looked for the Hernandez book at Half Price Books today, but no joy. I finished reading the basic tutorial, and I have crashed around creating and editing tables and very basic forms and trying to import data from preexisting spreadsheets. It's been fun, since this is something I've wanted to pursue for a number of years, since databases would be so useful for much of my recreational research activities, if only I could keep up with the data entry. But who wants to do that when there are books to devour and reviews to tap out when the mood strikes?

@16: Thanks, Stasia! It's really been a bolt from the heavens. With such short notice, I have to suddenly cram a bunch of appointments to acquire the necessary adjuncts, gear, etc.: snorkel mask, contacts to be able to see while underwater, compression garments for the long flights and so on. Luckily (!), I'm unemployed, so my schedule is open for such things. But I really do need to go send off that application I meant to do last Friday. The delay did allow for excellent feedback from a friend, however.

Jan 12, 2011, 7:13am Top

#17: If you want company, just drop by Texas and pick me up! lol

Jan 12, 2011, 4:31pm Top

Welcome back and great news about the vacation! Will look forward to hearing about your reading when you are back and things have (hopefully) calmed down a little.

Jan 12, 2011, 4:40pm Top

#17: Feel free to stop by Norway, too! I'm in desperate need of some summer. But, Chris, promise me to stay away from the flood!

Jan 14, 2011, 9:25pm Top

18: Stasia, I will be passing through Dallas. Alas, no room in the luggage to smuggle you out with me.

19: Heather, thank you for the kind words.

20: I sympathize, Bente. We're in the middle of another snowfall right now. Luckily, I'm snug at home for the night, and hopefully the plows will have the roads clear in time for my errands in the morning. I am headed right through the flood zone: Sydney to Brisbane to Gladstone to Heron Island (Great Barrier Reef). Apparently, the Brisbane airport is still open. It feels a bit odd/insensitive to go to an area distressed with a disaster like this to play tourist, but I'm consoling myself with the thought that our tourist dollars are all the more needed right now.

Jan 15, 2011, 2:05am Top

#21: Well, rats.

Feb 2, 2011, 12:00pm Top

Hi There

I'm compiling a list of birthdays of our group members. If you haven't done so already, would you mind stopping by this thread and posting yours.



Feb 5, 2011, 9:52am Top

22: Too bad, Stasia. Actually, flying out to Heron Island by helicopter, we were restricted to a 33-lb luggage limit, so I stored most of my baggage, including the computer at the Gladstone Airport for the duration of my vacation at the Great Barrier Reef, so definitely no room for extra bodies.

23: Thank you for thinking of me, Linda, but my birthday is something I don't usually celebrate or share beyond the immediate family. However, I can appreciate that this is a wonderful community-building service that you have organized.

Feb 5, 2011, 10:53am Top

Well keeping on top of my 2011 reading seems very manageable right now, since I've completed only six books, and one has already been reviewed. I expect the tally to continue to stagnate, because I have some serious momentum with Don Quijote, and the end is just barely in sight. I have been enjoying it tremendously, and I think it compares very well with many modern novels, which doesn't say much for the current state of the art.

So here's my take on Jackie and the Giant (please note I have no idea how to fix the very wrong touchstone):

Jackie & the Giant by Linda Jones was loaned to me by a friend, along with a handful of other cheesy romances, when I stopped by her place and was befuddled by the back cover of another book. She did warn me that Cinderfella is the best of these fairy tale inspired historical romances, but that one was with another friend, so I made do with some others. There's lots of room for improvement.

Like most historical romances written by modern writers, the historical context in this story is the thinnest of veneers (little beyond costumes and set pieces) over very modern characters and plots to please modern sensibilities. Clearly, I need to stop trying to read these books, because what I want is something that truly evokes the era so that I am completely immersed in a different time and place.

Jackie & The Giant is set in the American South sometime in the late 1800s or possibly early 1900s. She's a grifter and thief who preys on the wealthy, and she's heard about a fabulous Faberge egg owned by the widower Rory Donovan while staying with a nice family in town. She's caught in her burglary, and he blackmails her into becoming the governess for his six-year-old son Who Needs a Mother. Not only that he's the stereotypical red-headed stepchild. Need I say more?

So we have all of the requirements of a "historical" romance for modern tastes: forced intimacy of strangers, bonding over a forlorn and rambunctious child who only needs love, a man who's been hurt and must be saved by a good woman because he's afraid to love again, the downtrodden, lower-class woman with the heart of gold, and plenty of opportunities for sex, misunderstanding, soul-searching, and final declaration. In costume! Exotic settings! Kindly, mother-figure family servant giving the romantic hero the push he needs!

So if you ignore the entire historical context, it is an amusing enough story. And Linda Jones does an excellent job translating the motifs of the fairy tale into this romance. Jackie, standing at 4'11" and feigning English aristrocracy, is Jack (duh!); Rory Donovan at 6'4" is the Giant (with the requisite line about smelling the English); someone gets tricked into exchanging something valuable for three "magic" beans (who's the credulous tyke in the story?); and said beans become essential plot device for reconciling the lovers.

The major problems that make this an abject failure in terms of historical authenticity? Well, it's set in the South not too long after the Civil War, so we're talking Reconstruction era. The man lives in some sort of grand old house with large estate where he breeds show horses. A total of three domestic servants, an undisclosed but small number of stable-hands, and a passing mention of sharecroppers make up the populace of the estate. The race of these secondary characters is never indicated, but, please, they must all be black, particularly the mother-figure cook. And really, an estate of this size requires dozens if not scores of servants, possibly in the house alone. To completely ignore the race and economic privation of most of the people in the area, I suppose, is just part of the romantic fantasy, but is just that much harder to swallow as an egregious bit of white-washing of a very inglorious period of American history. So context is completely lacking.

Second, Jackie supposedly was brought up by a pimp who was saving her virginity for sale when she hit puberty, but she pluckily made her escape just in time. She then took up with a prostitute who taught her the ropes of being a grifter, and she never looked back. Really? I would think the pimp would have made a lot more money selling a child, since that kind of appetite has always been far less sanctioned and more lucrative business venture than the rather pedestrian trafficking in adult female bodies that is still considered quite ho-hum and unimportant to seriously police. And how the hell did she learn the accent and mannerisms of the privileged from other street people? Really? I get that this was all necessary for her to be an acceptable, saintlike (defending her virtue!) romantic heroine, but so very implausible.

Third, She jumps mysteriously overnight from being a houseguest of a nice town family to governess of a rural widower, and there's not an immediate scandal? People just immediately accept all of that without wondering what the hell, how did they meet and come to terms? And as a governess she's still invited to social functions? No, society doesn't work like that. People are often petty, small-minded, prone to gossip and looking for trouble.

Fourth, he investigates her past, but It Does Not Matter. Really? Once again, I get that it's part of the romantic hero high-minded schtick, but it does not match reality much. Particularly southern gentry, where there's been this obsession with honor and virtue and family name, I find it very dubious that this guy from an important local family can just completely disregard her low beginnings. I'm not saying that this is something exclusive to the South, in fact, I'd consider it more of a general upper class thing. I didn't much buy it in Pretty Woman either. Sure, they're happy in the moment, but you can bet that within a few months Mr. rich and powerful Richard Gere is throwing it in Julia Roberts' face. And some people will make sure her past is never forgotten.

So if you don't care about historical context, any degree of realism, or any sort of reading value but just want an amusing story with a happy ending, this is the book for you. If you want a story you'll remember a week after finishing it, look elsewhere.

Feb 5, 2011, 11:13am Top

Hi Chris! Welcome back:) How was Australia? Liked your review, but I think I will skip this one!

Have a wonderful weekend!

Feb 5, 2011, 1:34pm Top

Reading your review was a lot more fun than the book itself, it seems! Welcome back, Chris. Yes, how was your vacation?

Feb 5, 2011, 2:10pm Top

@26-27: Thank you, Bente and Roni. Good to be back. I very much enjoyed Australia and the taste of summer, but I was also just as pleased to come back in time for Snowpocalypse. We got 21" last week and still haven't cleared out the front door adequately. I don't know how to post pictures, so can't provide suitable visual aid. I'm hoping to get on the skis later this afternoon, for the first time this winter, but my exercise buddy isn't answering her phone.

However, you were asking about Australia. I greatly enjoyed the vacation. We spent several days in Sydney, which was nice but tiring. I did a lot of walking around the touristy areas near the hotel, including around the outside of the Opera House. We went to the zoo one day. I never managed to visit any of the museums, attend any of the shows of the Sydney Festival, or otherwise take part in any formal activities, despite my good intentions.

Then we spent a week on Heron Island, which is in the Bunker Island Group on the Tropic of Capricorn and is part of the Great Barrier Reef National Park. It's breeding season, and the many thousands of noddy terns barely acknowledged our existence. The shearwaters (mutton birds) and silver gulls were also nesting, but not at such densities. The buff-banded rails were inveterate table beggars and scroungers, with at least one in the restaurant at every meal. Plus the sea turtles (mostly green with some loggerheads) were daily overnight visitors to the beaches, including right outside my room!

I snorkeled for the first time ever. Saw lots of beatiful fishes and corrals and molluscs and more. Got close to both rays and sharks. Mostly managed to avoid sunburn. I hung out quite a bit, saw beautiful sunsets, ate way too much at the daily buffet, and goggled at the lifestyle of the rich.

It was also great spending time with an old college friend that I just don't get to see much anymore. This vacation is part of her bucket list, so the whole experience was bittersweet, because I never did quite manage to forget the big elephant in the room, and we did talk about serious things more than once. So bonding with friends, good, long goodbye (even if she doesn't think so), bad.

In many ways, it felt like a vicarious return to my youth. It made me wonder why I'd stopped working for the Park Service, being in remote and beautiful locations, and pushing to live abroad. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed all of that, and it had never occurred to me that I could pursue very domestic work in private resorts to accomplish such objectives. I've always been in the natural resources management field, not the tourist service industry, so this demonstrated a major blind spot.

And yet, I have fewer options and more commitments to my current life. Just bought a house. Been in this city for over a decade now (a new experience in my wandering life). Many relationships. And many things I can no longer do--my horizons are much closer and dimmer nowadays. Time for still more reflection as I continue to job hunt...

Feb 5, 2011, 11:52pm Top

Sounds like your vacation was wonderful, Chris! Congratulations on the snorkelling!

Feb 6, 2011, 11:52am Top

29: Thank you, Stasia. I enjoyed it once I got used to the taste of salt.

The Aliens Among Us by James White is a collection of short stories. The cover featured a Sector General scene, so I thought many of the stories would revolve around this series, but no.

Only the first, "Countercharm," was actually set at the intergalactic hospital and featured his long-running hero, Dr. Conway. However, in terms of the series, this was an important story, because it's the first time Dr. Conway copes with his first Educator tape and when he first really interacts with Nurse Murchison.

The other six stories connected to the Sector General universe by featuring alien species that recur in that series, such as the Orligians, and other minor aspects of the series. For example, "Occupation: Warrior" is the origin story for Major Dermod, as well as explaining the rationale behind the pseudomilitary branch of intergalactic government. Many of these are first-contact stories, usually beginning from a belligerent warlike stance, but then following the "appearances are deceiving" angle.

All of these were written during the 1950s and very much reflect the themes, technology, and mindset of the Cold War era, which is to say, they haven't aged well. Also, James White, while I admire his biomedical what-if inventiveness, is one of the most hackneyed sexist writers in the science fiction field. In this vein, I greatly appreciated (by which I mean, was irritated by), the general with cold feet on the eve of battle being repeatedly described as "womanish" in "Occupation: Warrior." This author is very much focused on the ideas, not the characters, who are the shallowest of vehicles for exploring the concepts and implications, which once again, I consider relatively reflective of 1950s science fiction.

So it was a real slog to read straight through six stories that completely lacked female characters (with the exception of a couple of superficial romantic interests in the first story), overtly tinged with aggression, dwelling on xenophobia (the better to overturn it in completely predictable plot twists), and absolutely flat and wooden prose. But if you want to get a feel for the anxieties and hopes, and dare I say alienation, of Americans at the beginning of space exploration and after atom bombs had become a reality, The Aliens Among Us is as good an example as any.

Feb 7, 2011, 1:33am Top

#30: I think I can continue to live without reading that one. Great review as usual though, Chris!

Feb 7, 2011, 11:13am Top

31: Thank you for your omnipresence and kind encouragement to so many of us on LT, Stasia. I have lapsed into relative inactivity and obscurity, but you make sure that everyone feels connected and appreciated.

Feb 7, 2011, 12:00pm Top

I try. Thanks for noticing.

Feb 9, 2011, 11:08am Top

I'm going to review Her Man of Affairs because I have access to the book, unlike Silver Birch, Blood Moon at the moment.

When I first started reading Regency romances as a teenager, Elizabeth Mansfield was one of the authors that I liked. So I grabbed Her Man of Affairs, during one of my now infrequent visits, when I saw this book on my mom's bookshelves. I know I read it decades ago, when I was first exploring the genre, but I don't really remember anything.

I'm afraid I am far more of a critical reader these days. David MacKenzie, the romantic hero, is a Scotsman, and much of the humor in the story revolves around reactions to his Scottish dialect: kerfuffle, fair yald, jingbang, muckle, fernitickles, couthie, etc. Since the dialogue gives a good impression of this Scottish brogue and I don't have other sources at hand that proffer such linguistic gems, I am contemplating keeping this book. Not surprisingly, he is the stereotypical Scots according to the English: pragmatic, fiery temper, cost conscious, plain spoken, and so on, though I haven't seen indication that he's a ginger. This stereotype and some degree of disdain and mockery, not unlike American attitudes toward perceived rednecks, persists in British media today, though I can't recall a specific TV show offhand at the moment.

The romantic heroine is Lady Theodora Fairchild (Theo)--beautiful, poised, and engaged to Lord Gerard St. John, the aspiring politician. The premise is that she is now head of the family as guardian to her young brother Willie, Earl of Massingdale, and the family fortunes are in desperate need of repair. So she goes to the family banker seeking a business manager who can improve their finances.

Enter the reluctant MacKenzie, who is employed in an English bank to gain the necessary experience to open his own Scottish financial institution and doesn't appreciate being sent off to babysit a spoiled aristocrat. The romantic tension is created by their class differences with accompanying disagreements about values, priorities, household spending, yadda, yadda.

Of course, it all ends well, after various misunderstandings, arguments, shuffling of romantic partners, medical crisis and devoted nursing, public declarations--you get the drift. This is another one that I am dubious about. After all, this lady of London society is really going to move to Scotland to become middle class? And she's really going to live within her means, rather than keeping up appearances and the necessary pursuits of the leisured class? She's going to curtail her independence and personal freedom by becoming wife and homemaker rather than premier political hostess? And that's going to lead to long-lasting happiness and fulfillment? As I said, I have my doubts.

So what I like about this book: the colorful dialogue, an examination of class privilege, some coverage of agricultural practices of the era, and a sympathetic portrayal of personal insecurities. Problems: the usual with shallow romances: limited and stereotypical characters, predictable plot, too-easy solutions, and unrealistic ending.

Feb 10, 2011, 3:39am Top

#34: Nice review, but I think I will give the book a pass.

Feb 11, 2011, 11:55am Top

@35: It's funny to me how an author's writing can be so uneven. The Phantom Lover by Elizabeth Mansfield has been a favorite for more than 20 years and still charms me, while Her Man of Affairs just seems so wretched.

I reread The Contentious Countess by Irene Saunders while visiting my mom for the family holiday. She's another author that I recall favorably in a vague sort of way, though a quick check of my shelves turn up none of her books, so I guess nothing of hers struck me as a keeper. Checking her information on LT, I see other books by her that I've read are The Difficult Daughter, Lady Lucinda's Locket, and The Gambler's Daughter (listed in order of liking). My overall take: her characters are not egregiously modern and the stories feel generally appropriate to the historical context (not that I'm any sort of authority). But they are nothing wonderful, nor is her writing, which relies a little too much on dreary exposition, stock villains, etc. However, her heroines are fairly smart and assertive (within societal restrictions), challenging the hero's prejudices and privileges. And a glimmer of humor and charm can shine through the dialogue.

The Contentious Countess is comparable to her other books. Melanie Grenville is the older, plainer sister to the belle of the season. The Earl of Denby has happily been a bachelor for many years, but his female relatives are clearly scheming to end this happy state. To forestall them, he decides to go ahead and pick his own bride, and lacking any actual desire, decides to favor the belle, but can't be bothered to actually learn her name. So when he approaches her father to offer marriage, he assumes that Melanie is the name of the pretty one and is a little dismayed to be confronted with the other one when he arrives at the house afterward.

This is one of those married strangers romances, where they get to know and love each other after the deed is done. Sometimes that can work well, for example, The Would-Be Widow by Mary Jo Putney, The Substitute Bridegroom by Charlotte Louise Dolan, and A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer. However, such a plot device requires some sort of halfway believable premise, however contrived. And it just doesn't exist in this book. Melanie is forced into it after-the-fact and the Earl before-the-fact by the strategems of relatives, but neither is really interested in marriage or each other.

The tension and conflict so necessary for romantic development are also not particularly convincing. Her sister spitefully shares the hurtful gossip with Melanie that the Earl is continuing to see his longtime mistress. So Melanie feels neglected and unloved and proceeds to assert her authority as lady of the manor to disrupt his comfortable domestic routine (thus the contentiousness of the title).

SPOILER ALERT: And the Corn Laws once again act as plot device. I believe this is the book where the hero shows his masterfulness and love by fleeing ahead of the subsequent food riots to keep his bride safe. I found this interpretation and appropriation of historical events particularly problematic: yeah, our hero has helped oppress the starving poor, but it's okay, because it's in his best interest (go team!) he knows enough to get out of the way. That's a hell of a way to close a romance.

Feb 12, 2011, 12:04am Top

#36: OK, another one for me to avoid. I appreciate you giving me the heads up (go team!)

Feb 15, 2011, 10:29am Top

#28 Glad to hear you had a good vacation Chris. Are you still snowed in?

Feb 18, 2011, 3:29pm Top

@37: Stasia, I think I'll swear off popcorn romances for awhile--clearly they're leaving a sour taste, and that is not the purpose of popcorn!

@38: Thanks, Heather! Nope, we're in the midst of a major thaw. I can actually see lawn instead of walls of snow.

I'm afraid I've been neglecting LT between the protests and job hunting and general procrastination. But the recent rereads of comfort books indicates a certain amount of stress....

Feb 18, 2011, 11:52pm Top

#39: the recent rereads of comfort books indicates a certain amount of stress....

Yes, it does. I hope the stress eases for you soon, Chris, I really do.

Feb 19, 2011, 11:33pm Top

@40: Thanks, Stasia. Some day I'll manage to be employed again, and in the meantime, I might as well get a bunch of projects done.

So on to Catfantastic 4, edited by Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenberg. I held off on this review until I could get a list of the stories. My mom has all of this particular anthology series, along with Witch Fantastic, and I read them all years ago. As with the other rereads in January, I browsed this from my mom's shelves during the family holiday weekend.

A quick search reveals that Greenberg has turned this into quite a profitable franchise over the last two decades: cats, witches, wizards, elves, castles, tarot, dinosaurs, horses...In a general way, it doesn't appeal to me, since I'm not particularly fannish or interested in fetishes, which is what these feel like to me. Yes, I went through the stereotypical girly horse-mad phase, and I probably would have loved the Horse Fantastic anthology when I was 13. And while I am fond of horses and many other animals, I am slightly turned off by what I perceive as the sort of obsessive fascination that these books help feed, imbuing the focus with many virtues or as the suffering victim of humanity's inhumanity. Not surprisingly, Bast is referenced frequently in the series. I confess that this is my starting bias, which perhaps colors my reactions to the stories.

The fourth book in the series, many of the authors are represented in earlier works, frequently with recurring characters developed over the course of sequential tales. Others are unique to this volume. Some authors are new or relatively unknown, others are well-established and either writing a cat story as a distinct side project or as part of their previously created milieu.

Certainly, like any anthology of short stories, Catfantastic IV feels uneven in the quality and flavor of the 18 tales in this volume. Some (most, even) I enjoyed a great deal, and others were disappointing. A few deal with very serious or sensuous themes, many are quite humorous; the narrator could be cat or human, depending on the author. They also represent multiple genres: fantasy ("The Cat, the Sorceror, and the Magic Mirror," "Arrows, "The Quincunx Solution," "The Neighbor"); science fiction ("Circus," The Tale of the Virtual Cat," "Tinkerbell," "SCat"); horror ("Miss Hettie and Harlan"), world folk tale ("Noh Cat Afternoon"); contemporary fiction ("One with Jazz"), historical fiction ("Noble Warrior, Teller of Fortunes"), and maybe even mystery ("Totem Cat").

The first ("The Last Answer") was the weakest and exemplified all of the flaws that reinforce my prejudice--way too much exposition, cat as mystical savior, not particularly compelling story or characters, dull dialogue, and so on. Nor did "Tybalt's Tale" or "Professor Purr's Guaranteed Allergy Cure" or "Totem Cat" or "Death Song" suit my palate. Doubtless, other readers would list very different best/worst.

However, it is much more difficult to pick out my favorites. I would have to say I particularly liked the one-off "Noh Cat Afternoon," based on Japanese literature, "The Tale of the Virtual Cat" with a hint of cyberpunk, and maybe even "Born Again" with its meld of western and eastern themes. As always, the continuing installments of Noble Warrior by Andre Norton, SKitty stories by Mercedes Lackey, and the Flax and Drop serial by Mary Schaub are fun too.

If you like anthologies of this type, you'll love this particular book. My reaction is still meh, which is why I leave it on my mom's shelves instead of rehoming it. This made for pleasant fall-asleep reading while away from home.

Feb 19, 2011, 11:35pm Top

#41: Does not sound like one for me on various and sundry levels. I think I can continue to live without the book.

Nice review once again, Chris!

Edited: Feb 23, 2011, 3:00pm Top

My goal for the last year has been to work through the books on my shelves, so my library visits have become rather infrequent. Last month, we stopped into the public library since we happened to be in the neighborhood. And since I can't go to the library without checking something out, I came home with Silver Birch, Blood Moon, which caught my eye from where it was on display.

Silver Birch, Blood Moon is another anthology of short stories, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. This is apparently fifth in a series inspired by fairy tales. As usual, not all of the contributions were to my taste, but I found many to be quite delightful. I also greatly appreciated the introduction by the editors and the forward to each item giving a little background. As a whole, I thought this was quite well done, and I am contemplating searching for the earlier anthologies. I had a hard time completing the book because my querido kept stealing it from me (some of his favorite authors were represented). So the other books might also be a struggle. What I found most surprising was that I was completely unfamiliar with some of the inspirational tales.

As a child, fairy tales were among my favorite reading material, so this collection resonates with me. Moreover, the series has been interpreted as feminist reworkings of classic stories, which makes my skin thrum with sympathetic vibrations even more. Given largely misogynistic societies, the heroine marrying the prince is very unlikely to live happily ever after, as amply demonstrated by many of these tales. Yet the villain isn't always a man--as these stories also vividly illustrate. Exploring the dark mirror of exploitation, violence, suffering, and sacrifice brings to light so many truths hidden by silence and the averted gaze and the putative happy ending of cultural tropes purveyed to our children. That doesn't mean that all of these stories are grim and humorless and without a satisfactory resolution. Indeed, they are written with wit, verve, charm, humor, and stronger, more realistic characters and outcomes that acknowledge human nature, both good and bad.

The volume was quite inclusive. Many of the stories obviously came from European tales, and thus the characters are American or European, but this doesn't always translate into white characters. And several of the stories come from other cultural sources. So there's some racial and ethnic diversity. And while many of the characters appear to be straight, there's at least one story that includes more. And some characters come from privileged upper classes, while others represent some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations. The writing styles also represented a spectrum: poetry, comedy, horror, fantasy, contemporary fiction.

Stories inspired by the Frog Prince:
"Kiss, Kiss" by Tanith Lee was one of my favorites in this volume, after a cold start. "The Frog Chauffer" by Garry Kilworth was amusing enough, and the science geek in me approves of the premise. Lastly, "Toad" by Patricia McKillip--she's one of my favorite authors, but I found this disppointing.

Stories inspired by Rumpelstilsken:
"The Price" by Patricia Briggs was a wonderful alternate version from a favorite author, definitely one of the highlights in this book. "Marsh-Magic" by Robin McKinley was more loosely based on Rumpelstilsken and featured more original world-building, but the writing wasn't as engaging (far too much exposition), and I didn't care for it much, despite this being another beloved author.

Stories inspired by the Sleeping Princess:
"Glass Coffin" by Caitlin R Kiernan was quite well done and out of the ordinary. However, it was ugly, and I could not like it. I feel much the same way about The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon--the writing was excellent, yet the imagery so ugly.

Stories inspired by the Fairy Gifts:
Nalo Hopkinson is a wonderful writer, and "Precious" is no exception. "Toad-Rich" by Michael Cadnum is another fine, but very different take on who's the winner and the loser here.

Tales derived from Sleeping Beauty:
"Carabosse" by Delia Sherman was a pleasant enough poem, and I liked the alternate spin on the "bad fairy's" motivation. "The Wild Heart" by Anne Bishop was good, but didn't quite do it for me. I liked the themes, but the writing didn't engage. I thought that "You Wandered Off Like a Foolish Child to Break Your Heart and Mine" by Pat York was another brilliant reinterpretation.

Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson:
"The Vanishing Virgin" by Harvey Jacobs was in the ultracomedic and farcical vein. I did not care for it. The source material was "The Flea and the Professor." In contrast, "Ivory Bones" was super-creepy. Susan Waden modeled it on "Thumbelina." I thought "Clad in Gossamer" by Nancy Kress was brilliant. This was derived from "The Emperor's New Clothes." Finally, Melissa Lee Shaw interpreted "The Little Mermaid" from the Sea Hag's perspective to address how older women are vilified in patriarchal society.

Inspired by miscellaneous tales:
Neil Gaiman's poem "Locks" plays on fatherhood and Goldilocks. Meh. "The Wilful Child, the Black Dog, and the Beanstalk" by Melanie Tam is a modern tragedy that draws from multiple tales, but isn't a retelling. "Skin So Green and Fine" by Wendy Wheeler, is one of my top three from this volume, for many reasons. Beauty and the Beast was the story that I loved most as a child. I also appreciated the setting on the island of Hispaniola and the marriage of Haitian and Dominican cultures, Latino and Afro-Caribbean. Plus the writing was superb. Second is "Arabian Phoenix" by India Edghill. Again, Scheherezade and the Arabian tales are a personal favorite. Again, the writing was excellent, and I appreciated the setting. Finally, to complete the hat trick is "The Shellbox" by Karawynn Long. I have always loved selkies. The writing is wonderful, and the themes universal. A close fourth would be "The Dybbuk in the Bottle," a delightful Jewish morality tale by Russell William Asplund.

That's all 21 contributions, nicely divided up and rated. As much as schmaltzy, saccharine happy endings stimulate my gag reflex (warning! cannot swallow this insult to my system!), I didn't enjoy the tales with truly unhappy endings. So I do like for the protagonist to come out ahead, but with some real trial and tribulation and growth, it seems. Definitely worth reading this thought-provoking collection that challenges our ideas about reward and punishment.

ETA: fix grammatical mistakes and finish a hanging thought.

Feb 23, 2011, 2:13pm Top

What a very interesting review. I don't ordinarily read fairy tales, but these short stories sound quite thought-provoking.

Feb 23, 2011, 3:03pm Top

44: Thanks for the positive feedback, Judy. It's such a nice change of pace for me to write a thumbs-up review. Lately, I feel that all I do is trash the books I read. And what does that say about my reading choices, hmmm? Plus, I'm really hoping to stay on top of the reviews this year, and maybe even get back to reading others' threads. So thanks for taking the time to visit my thread and for reminding me that there's a world of interesting people out there.

Feb 24, 2011, 7:32pm Top

And thumbs up for your review, too!

Feb 26, 2011, 2:15pm Top

#43 Another good review Chris. My library has a copy of Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears which is in the same series so I will check that out at some point.

Feb 26, 2011, 2:52pm Top

@47: Let me know what you think of it, Heather, once you get a chance to read it.

Feb 26, 2011, 11:50pm Top

I was starting to go into fiction withdrawal, so I took a break from all of the things I meant to get done today to read The Book of Atrix Wolfe. I picked this up not too long ago because it was a McKillip novel I had not seen before. I am a big fan of her lyrical prose, and this story was no exception.

If you prefer lots of dialogue, then this is not the author for you. Don't get me wrong, it's not weary pages of exposition droning out wrought explanations of characters' thoughts, world-building, backstory, and so on. Nevertheless, her stories are composed of nearly even proportions of descriptive passages and dialogue, the plot conveyed as much by the scene and the unspoken as words among the actors on the page.

Moreover, Patricia McKillip is one of the least inclusive authors I know--pretty standard for the fantasy genre. It's all derivative of northern European culture, full of white, straight (or possibly asexual), cis, able-bodied, thin characters living in fairly homogeneous milieus.

This was a quick, charming read that felt like an amalgamation of her earlier works with some archetypes from European culture thrown in: the Wild Hunt, the Horned King, the Elf/Summer Queen of the forest. Akin to The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a war is dispersed by a great magic, and a destructive, magical creature is summoned by a powerful wizard too innocent (at first) to understand death, fear, and the ways of humanity. And as in The Riddle-Master of Hed, a young prince is drawn to magic, seeking love and chased by an awesome power from time past. Like The Changeling Sea, it features an apparently simple kitchen girl whose fate is tangled up with princes and magic, under the noses of everyone while she goes about her daily chores.

I love each of those stories in their different ways. And perhaps my reaction to this book is biased by that previous knowledge. This book felt watered down, more confusing and less satisfying, a melange of flavors that came together, but didn't allow any of them to shine forth.

What I liked about this book that I have rarely seen elsewhere, though, was the loving details of medieval style feasts. Endless dishes, and courses, and whole banquets passing by our eyes, game from the hunt turned into tempting repasts and reworked into further meals. Mouth-watering pastries and desserts and subtleties and soups and casseroles and breads and so many other foods. Plus the sense of the labor involved in producing large quantities of food for an entire castle populace, and the multigenerational servant hierarchies from small children peeling vegetables to the tray-mistress and head cook in the kitchen, but expanding beyond to the musicians, servers, guards, and more. Life in an industrial fire-based kitchen never felt more vivid.

So there you go: magic and royalty and war and domestic service and wizards and enchanted forest. Everything you need and more for a classic high fantasy novel. The language is beautiful, the story is fairly predictable, and it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Mar 9, 2011, 12:07am Top

I'm going to continue holding off on The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book, since I've tried only one recipe so far.

In the meantime, I should try to catch up with February reviews, since March has sneaked up on me with the hush of the last snowfall of the season.

After writing the very belated 2010 reviews for Jo Clayton's Drinker of Souls trilogy, I was inspired to revisit her Duel of Sorcery trilogy. This is one of my childhood favorites. Moongather was published in 1982, followed quickly by Moonscatter in 1983 and three years later closed with Changer's Moon. The Dancer trilogy revisits the central protagonist and this phenomenal world a couple centuries later.

I consider this to be a seminal work of feminist fantasy, though I was not conscious of this as a child. It is very much an exploration of gender roles, how girls and women survive patriarchal societies, and to a lesser degree love and sexuality. It is the first instance I can recall reading of a lesbian (or at least bisexual) relationship, though as I indicated, sex is a relatively minor part of the story. And the bisexual characters aren't bad guys, unlike in the romance genre--sexual perversity clearly indicating their villainous nature.

The premise is an archetypical struggle between the (masculine) impulse to command and control and concomitant desire for efficiency and order, represented by Ser Noris, who has near-immortality and mastery of elemental powers that allow him to control anything inanimate yet is emotionally stunted, and the wasteful, extravagant, endlessly creative diversity of life, embodied in the goddess representing the feminine mysteries, fertility, love, and nature.

On a clifftop overlooking the valley that is the heart of her power, in the prelude of Moongather, Ser Noris challenges the goddess (embodied in her avatar Reiki Janja, a shamaness of a nomadic desert tribe) to a game for mastery of the world, or maybe just this continent. They draw cards to determine their "pieces," which is to say, the key characters and plot elements. In Moonscatter the face-off between Ser Noris and Reiki Janja on the cliff looks more like an abstract strategy game(say, for example, go): a gridlike game surface with stone playing pieces; in Changer's Moon it's more like a role-playing game, with dice and miniatures.

And so opens the wild adventure, following the epic quest format of most fantasy books. Our band of heroes emerges over the course of three books to resist the political and religious coup and subsequent oppression arising from the duel of sorcery as Ser Noris attempts to dominate the world through his pawns: a fundamentalist patriarchal sect (Sons of the Flame) seeking to overthrow worship of the Maiden aspect of the triple goddess (Maiden, Matron, and Crone--it's a common enough trope), the lesser sorcerors (as a whole, known as the Nearga Nor) and all of the magics at their fingertips, and the power-hungry members of court plotting against the hereditary ruler (Domnor) Heslin Hern--wives and military leaders.

Moongather concentrates almost entirely on Serroi, the main protagonist and pivot point for events in the ongoing duel. She's small, she's green, and she has some special abilities in addition to being a kick-ass fighter. Like many Jo Clayton novels, Moongather follows a nonlinear format--jumping back and forth between Serroi's childhood training with Ser Noris ("The Child" chapters) and the present as Serroi flees for her life in the first chapter and then desperately tries to get out word of the plot against the Domnor ("The Woman" chapters). She's the solitary star of the first book.

Along the way, we meet minor characters, many of whom appear in the later books, either as key players or in brief cameos. These include Domnor Hern himself; Dinafar, the unwanted legacy of a fisherwoman's rape by a hill raider who is approaching puberty and desperate to escape the hatred and destitution of her life in the fishing village; Tarom Tesc Gradin and his family, particularly the twins Tuli and Teras, a wealthy plantation family on pilgrimage; Coperic, the shifty barkeep and spy in the capitol city of Oras. I won't bother listing the bad guys, since they have a tendency to not survive their encounters with Serroi.

The precipitating crisis is only hinted at in the beginning of Moongather. As the story progresses, Serroi keeps revisiting it in flashbacks and nightmares and dialogue with other characters, all of which slowly fleshes out the sequence of events that led to her mental breakdown in the midst of a thunderstorm. The concomitant backstory developed in parallel help us understand her actions and motivations in the opening chapter.

Both Ser Noris and Reiki Janja are important characters in the childhood half of the plot. In the later two books, they play only peripheral roles confined to the metastory interludes and the final climactic confrontations in Moonscatter and Changer's Moon. These subsequent books are far more linear in narrative, simply jumping around POVs as more characters become central to the increasingly interwoven and complicated plot.

Moonscatter takes place about a year after Moongather. Serroi and Hern trek to another continent, seeking a mysterious figure named Coyote who may be able to assist the beleaguered forces of the goddess by giving Hern a go at his (magical) Mirror ("The Quest" chapters). Meanwhile, Tuli's POV (one of the twins introduced in Moongather) gives us perspective on how the new regime is affecting people on the ground, in addition to being something of a coming-of-age tale ("The Mijloc" chapters). Once again, minor characters introduced in this book have more central roles in the third installment. The star has become a constellation of points that build the outlines of a larger pattern.

Finally, Changer's Moon gives us a whole slew of new characters for the endgame. The stellar view now encompasses multiple constellations as the POVs multiply and converge, named according to metaphysical gamepiece for key characters. For example, Hern is the Kingfisher and Tuli is the Magic Child. Moreover, a science fiction infusion gives this installment a very different feel from the earlier books.

Coyote's Mirror allows access to other realities, and so the story alternates between the ongoing struggle between Ser Noris and the goddess and an alternate dystopian United States where a fascist fundamentalist group has taken power (sound familiar?) . Using the same narrative style as in Moongather, this particular storyline alternates between the backstory of Julia ("Poet-Warrior") and current events as the new regime prepares to crack down on the last rebel camps in the mountains and Hern and Serroi magically appear with their offer of escape and a winnable battle.

As I mentioned in my review of the Drinker of Souls trilogy, I love Jo Clayton's originality, inclusiveness, world-building, gritty realism, strong characters, plots, and dialogue, and alternative writing styles in at least some sequences (much like Stand on Zanzibar in some respects). The Duel of Sorcery epitomizes these strengths. Serroi also resonated a great deal with me.

Serroi describes herself as a tribe of one, since she's a misborn of the windrunners, destined to be burned but for the intervention of Ser Noris, which means that there is no one else like her in the world: green and with her magical connection to animals, which the master sorceror uses to create animal-like demons. As a child, I felt more connections to animals than to people who were too often inexplicably cruel or simply incomprehensible, and I also felt alone, since no one in my family resembles me. She's small and female, so constantly underestimated and not taken seriously as a warrior. I get that too, though I grew up to be slightly above average in height. And as a child I desperately longed for the skills that Serroi displayed as an adult: master archer, competent fighter, self-sufficient, able to survive in the wild. So I strongly identified with this protagonist, which wasn't surprising given a genre overwhelmingly dominated by male protagonists.

Plus I was fascinated with the description of the Biserica. This is the valley that Ser Noris covets--the center of the goddess faith and symbol of the limitations of his power. It is a refuge for women escaping the traditional gender roles of their societies. The Biserica trains the priestesses who staff the temples around the country, the healerwomen who provide the medical care, and the meien, the warrior women pairs who serve as guards for women-run caravans, royal women's quarters, ruling queens, etc. (anyplace where male fighters might prove problematic). The meien provide essential cash income to the Biserica, along with the female artisans in the valley who specialize in such esoteric arts as glass-blowing. The entire community consists of women who provide all of the skills and labor needed to maintain an independent enclave.

Marian Zimmer Bradley suggests something similar in Thendara House, published the same time as Moonscatter: a community of women warriors that provide shelter and training to women fleeing abusive relationships or simply the confines of traditional gender roles. Jane Yolen explored similar female-only communities with warrior women in her books Sister Light, Sister Dark (published in 1989) and White Jenna. I can't think of any other books off-hand that develop this idea.

All in all, a great read that has stood the test of time and many rereadings.

Mar 9, 2011, 12:23am Top

The title of Changer's Moon sounds familiar, but I don't know if I have ever read this series. Unfortunately, my introduction to Clayton was her Diadem series, where after six books, the continued torture of the heroine in adventure after adventure basically turned me off Clayton by the early to mid 80s. On the other hand, I do love Thendara House and the Yolen books. ??

Mar 9, 2011, 12:48am Top

@51: Yes, I do have a little bit of a love-hate thing for Jo Clayton's oeuvre. I read all of the Diadem books and most of the spin-offs back in the day. I went through this absolutist completist phase where I felt like I needed to own *every* work by a given author if I was going to keep more than one book, or else *none* of them. But frankly, the Diadem series got really old, much less the derivative works. It felt like Aleytus was a feminine version of Captain Kirk--what alien humanoid is she going to have sex with now and how is he going to tragically die this time? So then I sloughed off all of the Diadem books on my mom. But I couldn't quite bear to part with the Duel of Sorcery. And I am fond of some of the other books as well.

I forgot to mention in the review that I was particularly amused by an excerpt from one of the Diadem books that appeared in Changer's Moon. After all, Hern is looking for powerful allies from another reality, and Aleytus is certainly that, but he shivered at the thought of her let loose in his world.

So while I admire much of her work, I also weary of the endless oppression, the misogyny, racism, and all of the horrible ways that governments and other groups can control and destroy people, however nuanced the presentation; the originality is gone after the nth repetition. The protagonists also are much of a much. I wonder if this is an inevitable hazard of writing success. I have some of the same issues with Barbara Hambly, another author I love.

I stumbled across the Jane Yolen duology a few years ago (followed by the next generation of the saga in The One-Armed Queen, but this was quite disappointing). I liked these two a great deal. Each chapter contains three elements: the myth, the legend, and the story, as well as a metastory that lampoons academia. The myth part concentrates on creation stories and the goddess and roughly presage events in the chapter; the legend features some tale or traditional song or other bit of folklore that also pertains to key plot elements about to occur and also represent the distortions that occur between current events and collective memory/history centuries later. Each section, and possibly each chapter, also contains an excerpt from a modern scholar's writing, whether a letter to the editor or an article or something similar which develop over the course of the novel into an academic controversy over alternate theories about that ancient period known as the Gender Wars (in which the story takes place).

Mar 10, 2011, 10:59pm Top

A friend loaned me Conscience of the Beagle a couple weeks ago. I'm not sure why, since I couldn't recall it being any of the books we had discussed recently, and it didn't appear to relate to any of the themes that we gnawed on while pushing the wheeled cage around the supermarket on our weekly expedition, filling it with prisoners condemned to devourment and digestion in our tummies.

Since I was going into fiction withdrawal and it was top of the heap, I read it on Procrastination Saturday not long ago. Based on a sample size of one, Patricia Anthony is a good, competent writer; I just don't like the story.

Conscience of the Beagle is science fiction police noir. It certainly had all of the necessary noir tropes: rundown, has-been protagonists, gritty mean streets, some sort of corruption or conspiracy, and one or two women as empty plot devices rather than actual characters (protagonist can't move past dead relationship). Ugly people, ugly scenery, ugly imagery, ugly premise, ugly resolution, plus the stereotypes and cheap exploitation of women (yes, I know the author's a woman). What's not to like? (/snark) It reminded me of The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, but without the layered world-building, intricately self-referential plot, fascinating characters, and amazing prose (again with the ugly imagery though). Michael Chabon is a Class A writer (again, sample size of one), while Patricia Anthony is definitely second-rate, comparing these two books side by side.

The narrator is Major Dyle Holloway, a police detective from Earth who is famous for catching a serial killer who was executed not too long ago. However, he's a broken man after the mysterious, brutal murder of his beloved wife. Next on his team is the android (called a beagle) programmed with the personality of the most famous and intelligent now-dead police detective (sorry, already returned the book and can't remember the name)--take the data processing and pattern recognition of a supercomputer and combine it with the intellect and deductive abilities of a human and there you have it. Makes you wonder why the others on the team are necessary and why the beagle isn't in charge. Then there's Szabo and Arne, a telepath (also broken) and a demolitions expert (can't get along with anyone). On the surface, the best Earth has to send when the colony planet Tennyson sends for help.

What's the trouble you ask? A string of bombs in public places left by some unknown terrorist(s). But wait, this is a peaceful fundamentalist Christian colony--so who could be doing this and why? Is someone trying to overthrow the government? And why no evidence for the local law enforcement to follow? Is the government involved? Our sad-sack heroes suspect each others' and everyone else's motives, agendas, and actions as people continue to die.

Some of the connections in the book escaped me. The supposed utopia run by a religious cult leader and involving omnipresent surveillance by secret police being called Tennyson obviously had some significance. And I suspect calling the android a beagle was a reference to Darwin and the theory of evolution. But while I could perhaps recognize the presence of allusions and metaphors, I wasn't able to interpret much of the symbolism. Someone who was able to connect all of the dots would probably have a deeper appreciation for this work. Certainly, other reviewers have commented positively on Patricia Anthony's ability to satirize and subvert genre formulas. I might try another book at some point, one that isn't noir.

Mar 10, 2011, 11:49pm Top

Have I mentioned lately how happy I am that you are back with us and writing your reviews? I could sit and read ones like this all day long. Won't read the book, but love reading your writing.

Mar 12, 2011, 1:55pm Top

@54: Thank you for the compliment, Roni. It's good to be back. I'm glad people enjoy the reviews. I'm afraid they're rather dry, so I'm always surprised by the favorable reaction.

Mar 14, 2011, 4:14pm Top

Hi, Chris! How are you?? Trying to catch up on thread, so I'll be back to read your reviews later. Have a wonderful day!

Mar 15, 2011, 12:31pm Top

Hey Bente! Thanks for stopping by. Yes, my reviews aren't a quick read. I hope you do find time later, because I generally value feedback and discussion.

Mar 15, 2011, 12:43pm Top

#43 Loved the review of Silver Birch, Blood Moon - I like exploring fairy tales and retellings so I should look out for this series.

Mar 15, 2011, 1:59pm Top

Poetas Arabes de Almeria (s. X-XIV), edited by Soledad Gibert, is part of a large stack of books that have been sitting in my office for the last couple of years as part of an ongoing research project. These were university library books that I had checked out with my academic staff privileges. Now that I've lost my job and lost my privileges, I can't renew them any longer and I need to return these books. Luckily, they haven't been recalled, so I have until the end of May.

My goals with these books are to glean details of clothing, food, gardens, and historical figures from taifa period al-Andalus and to a lesser degree other time periods or possibly other Islamic cultures, inasmuch as they can inform me about likely details of taifa cultures. To a lesser degree I read for enjoyment, largely because poetry is mostly a mystery to me. Some of it speaks to me; much does not.

Poetas Arabes de Almeria (s. X-XIV) is different from many of the other research books I've accumulated. First, the author is focused on a particular taifa kingdom, Almeria. So she has collected poetry from anyone who has some connection to this kingdom, whether living there, originating there, or a celebrity passing through. This local, place-based focus filters the topics of the poems to some degree as well.

Second, the Arabic original on the verso page accompanies each Spanish translation, typeset so that it is possible to match corresponding Arabic and Spanish verses. I'm a big fan of editions that allow this direct comparison, whatever the languages involved or the motivation in reading, which is why I love M. S. Merwin's edition of Poem of the Cid. This juxtaposition allowed me to puzzle out some of the specific clothing terms used in the original, which is exactly what I need. Because I don't know Arabic (beyond deciphering some individual letters in a word), my research is largely hostage to translators who could turn many different words into the generic "tunic" or "robe." Hence, the value of pictorial sources, which admittedly have their own suite of issues, particularly artistic license and stylized figures instead of realism.

She includes a broad range of poets and a smaller range of poetic styles. Only one woman was represented, but this says more about the limitations of written evidence for an oral tradition and the restrictions on women in Islamic society. Frankly, there just isn't much by women that was documented in the first place and that's been preserved through the centuries in all of al-Andalus, much less one small corner of it. Before this, I read a book that concentrated on women's poetic voices in al-Andalus and about one-third consisted of the anonymous closing couplets of muwashshahs, the jarchas in the vulgar Romance language of the streets, often cribbed from popular songs of the day (according to scholars), that acted as a piquant, satirical, ironic, or simply emotional twist to the classical Arabic sentiment of the main poem, not unlike the final line of a haiku. Usually this final twist is interpreted as a feminine response to the masculine poem.

This collection contains only one muwashshah. Most of the others appear to be qasidas, or simply poetry tossed off in letters and general conversation that were saved for posterity. Quite often, she provides details of the circumstances leading to the extemporaneous composition. I also appreciated the biographical sketches, including significant works and places to find the specific poem, in terms of later authors and compilers in the Islamic literary tradition.

So an interesting read exposing me to new poets and some useful leads in my research project. Obviously, this book has appeal to a fairly limited audience.

Mar 17, 2011, 9:46am Top

I forgot to add Rat Race to my list because I read it in the bookstore while waiting for my querido to finish browsing. This was my successful don't-buy-books strategy, since I don't have the income right now to spend on luxuries. I couldn't remember the title either, so I had to search for it. reread In the Frame under similar circumstances. Dick Francis novels are perfect for this purpose. They're quick, easy, entertaining, effortless, and really quite forgettable. A great way to kill a couple hours of downtime between the real events of the day.

Rat Race and In the Frame are two of many, many novels by the British author Dick Francis. His novels are a lot of fun, just as much brainless fluff as romances, but instead represent the action genre and generally shelved in mysteries. And just like the romance genre, these action stories rely on formulaic plot and entertaining dialogue rather than character development. However, they do have charm and share insights on the human condition.

The first novel I encountered was Flying Finish. It was a bit slow to begin because I found the hero rather unsympathetic, but by the end I was hooked. Then I tried The Edge, which was a treat, right from the start. I proceeded to blaze through all of the Francis novels published at that time (1990s). I haven't kept up with the more recent works. I would consider these a comfort read, in terms of being something pleasant and enjoyable. But I don't own any.

I was sorry to learn while getting background for these reviews that Dick Francis died just over a year ago. He used to be a professional jockey and retired young enough to develop a long second career. From sports writer he went into fiction. At first, his protagonists and stories were entirely set in the racing world: jockeys, horse owners, trainers, race tracks, the Jockey Club, and so on. These stories are an intimate portrayal of the racing life from the inside, much as Nevada Barr has done for the relatively small, closed world of career national park staff. Over time, he started exploring other professions as well: banker, pilot, architect, diplomat, wine taster/merchant, actor, glassblower, meteorologist, inventor/entrepreneur, ransom consultant, and so on. In each case, he has clearly done his research and gives excellent descriptions of each of these professions as an avocation--the passion that drives people into such fields; the activities, skills, and concerns involved; a look at a day in the life--once again, something of an intimate, inside look, but derived from interviews and research and experimentation rather than deep-seated personal experience. But even in these cases, there's some link to the racing world. The banker makes a business loan for a stud stallion; the artist paints horses or is related to a horse owner; the wine merchant is at a ritzy party (horse owner) when tragedy strikes; the kidnap victim is a female jockey.

So what is the formula? The Dick Francis hero is always a smart, capable, quiet, white, straight, cis man going about his business. Then something shady happens, and our hero is forced to get involved, either because he's the target and really has no choice, or because his personal principles do not allow him to remain a bystander/leave it for law enforcement/pretend it isn't important. Sometimes this happens only after coincidences allow him to make unexpected connections.

Such is the case for In the Frame. Charles Todd, a painter of horses, visits his cousin for the weekend and walks into a murder scene, with the bereaved widower cousin as the chief suspect in the police inspector's insurance-fraud-gone-horribly-awry scenario. Soon afterward, he's hired by someone just met at a racetrack bar to paint the burned-out shell of a house--arson is confirmed, and once again insurance fraud suspected. What do these completely unrelated incidents have in common? A recent trip to Australia and purchase of an amazingly affordable painting by a reknowned artist. And so the action unfolds.

Rat Race is somewhere between target and principled bystander. Our hero is pilot Matt Shore, who's been reduced to flying racing commuters (jockeys, trainers, owners) around to different race tracks, after a once-glorious career as passenger airline pilot. During his first week, a bomb explodes his plane just after he and the passengers disembark. Given a previous safety inquiry shadowing his reputation, the investigators give him the fish eye, at least to start. So he's not the target, per se, but in the thick of it for sure.

While the heroes are always of a type, I appreciate that Dick Francis always mixes up the personal details. Their backgrounds and current entanglements run the gamut. Hardscrabble childhood, life of wealth and privilege, broken homes, foster system, dysfunctional family, stable happily married parents, alcoholism. depression, no mental health issues, chronic health problems, debilitating injury, only child, many siblings, un/happily married, un/happily single, un/happily divorced, un/happily widowered, looking to get laid/settle down/find freedom/not really looking, wife meets social ideals/physically handicapped/estranged/loving/tolerant/bitter/forgiving, no kids/lots of kids/small child, family/in-laws loved/despised/distant/underfoot/nonexistent, whatever. He really does seem to try out just about every combo involving a straight white cis guy.

This is not to say he is homophobic or racist or otherwise bigoted as such, though people of color and strong women are rare (beyond the largely asexual forceful horsewoman of whatever stripe). In his many books, I recall all of two mentions of gay characters, both positive yet very minor. One is in The Edge: the actor who teaches our hero about makeup and disguises; the other is the gay couple who teach the hero of Reflex photography in his youth.

There's always a love interest. Sometimes it's wifey back home. Sometimes it's a new love met in the course of the adventure. Or maybe it's explored but not yet fulfilled: Rat Race, where they meet, they date, they each know it's "the one" (we won't go into how trite and problematic this trope can be) but leaping to conclusions and bad-guy intervention leads to angst before reconciliation, so no consummation within the plotline. Other times it's mentally acknowledged and recognized as out of bounds, for example, In the Frame, usually because she already belongs to somebody (yay, property! yes, yes, it's not meant this way, male honor and all that). Other times they meet, they have sex, and it looks it'll be an enduring relationship. Sometimes the hero even has sex but not with his real love interest! While these female characters often have some personality, they have a very limited role and only as adjuncts to the men.

These formulaic action novels fulfill sexist stereotypes of the genre to varying degrees, and looked at more carefully, one could argue that the sexism might go a little beyond that. In the Frame contains all of three female characters: Regina, the murdered wife in the opening scene, a classic women-in-refrigerators motif; Sarah the newlywed of our hero's oldest friend, whose last name we never learn, presumably changed to her husband's; and one of the bad guys who is never named, in fact the ONLY one who is never named, even though she plays more of a role than some of the other villains. That last fact is what makes me consider implicit sexism in the writing. And yet. Our hero is shocked and appalled at the explicit sexism in Australian racing, in terms of gender-segregated seating, where the women definitely have inferior accommodations. He makes a point of sitting there when meeting a male character, after sitting in that section by necessity in mixed company (and unwilling to separate). That's a pretty feminist act, and essentially irrelevant in terms of the story, but perhaps a necessary detail for defining the protagonist's character (read: moral fiber).

This is intended to stand in contrast to the villains. They are always working some fiddle that entails getting rich by ripping off one or many people, depending on the scheme. Or they simply want power in the racing world and will stop at nothing to achieve their goal. Inevitably, they rely on violence to achieve their ends, or simply act out their frustration at being foiled (Curses! If it hadn't been for you snoopy kids!). So our villains are immoral, sometimes sleazy, sometimes powerful, determined, dangerous. Their character is revealed as less than shiny by the usual methods: mean to animals and children, into kinky sex, bullying, arrogance, and so on. Good guys are good, and bad guys are bad. But at least Dick Francis recognizes that moral quality is not proportional to physical attractiveness.

Our hero stands in contrast: he outsmarts the bad guys, relying on strategy and allies to gather the evidence, box the villains into a corner, extract justice, or otherwise respond to the threat. Often he takes quite a beating along the way. Such is the case with In the Frame, where they try to kill him twice. Twice! But even with broken bones, our hero is able to outmaneuver them. Rat Race entails more of an emotional beating, but the inevitable physical confrontation is still there.

After my recent trip to Australia, I especially enjoyed rereading In the Frame, which goes from England to Australia. Admittedly, the only scenes in the book that I have some personal experience with are some parts of Sydney, but still the thrill of recognition and delight! I also have more of a personal connection to Rat Race too, because one of the characters is dealing with cancer. Who knew that I would have a greater appreciation for pop fiction revisits as a result of the plot twists in my own life?

In sum, I still enjoy these fast-paced action adventures. I find them educational and rewarding in terms of painting portraits of different livelihoods and always the view of British sporting life. The characters remain individuals within a limited formula. I can live with the endemic faults far better than those in much of the historical fiction I've tried, because Dick Francis immerses us in these worlds quite successfully, and I'm more able to suspend my disbelief for just a little while, even as I admit to some of the ridiculous coincidences and awful stereotypes. Dick Francis novels will always be a go-to read when I need to kill a few hours with a book that is sure to entertain.

Mar 17, 2011, 8:18pm Top

Hi Chris! Just making my way through all the threads and saw that you read The Book of Atrix Wolfe awhile back and just wanted to say that I read that book awhile back and was pleasantly surprised since I didn't know the author. Truth be told, it was one of those purchases that was based more on the coverart than on the story, but I didn't regret my choice at all. The story reminded me a bit of the classic fairytales and was quite enjoyable. :)

Mar 17, 2011, 10:23pm Top

Yep. It was a pleasant story and very typical of McKillip's work. I am particularly fond of The Changeling Sea and The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy. The latter is a favorite from my childhood, and I took it with me to Costa Rica for my semester abroad. The Throme of Erril of the Sherill was fun, and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is also a keeper. Thanks for stopping by, Valerie!

Mar 26, 2011, 1:59pm Top

I keep forgetting books read away from the house. While updating tags and collections, I realized that I finished The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read & Write It while in Australia in January. my master list is now current (I think).

Mar 28, 2011, 2:29pm Top

Hey, Chris!

How are you? Those McKillip books sure sounded interesting. I think I need to add them to my wishlist. Hope your situation turns soon. Getting any writing done?


Mar 28, 2011, 4:04pm Top

@64: Hey, Bente! Thanks for stopping by. The situation has improved remarkably. I received a great job offer last week making almost double what I earned before doing work that is well within my comfort zone (I think) that I enjoy. I'll be managing editor for a medical journal. Still can't say I'm doing much writing--none in terms of my long delayed book projects. But I am writing for various other small projects. Right (ha!) now, I'm embroiled in database design and putting together SOPs for administrative tasks, as well as book reviews and handouts for novices getting started in our hobby group.

Yes, I like McKillip a great deal. I just finished my first Nina Kiriki Hoffman book, which was fabulous. I'll definitely be looking for her other stuff. And it's so nice to be enthusiastic after so many dismal reviews.

Mar 28, 2011, 4:11pm Top

That's great, Chris! I knew it would work out for you!! Congratulations with the job!:D

Oi, database design seems so difficult to me, though I have no technical gene to show for. Good to have others deal with that:)

Mar 28, 2011, 4:16pm Top

great news about the job, Chris!! You've been talking about McKillip for a while now but haven't mentioned one of my favorites (the others are also yours), Od Magic. Have you read it?

I'm a big fan of Nina Kiriki Hoffman too. What did you read of hers? My favorite is The Thread that Binds the Bones but I really like most of her books.

Mar 28, 2011, 4:25pm Top

That's great news about the job! What a wonderful way to start the season.

I used to work in magazine publishing (not peer-reviewed journals - more trade magazines). Too bad no one needed me to do a database design back then - my favorite thing these days!

Mar 28, 2011, 5:49pm Top

@66: Thanks, Bente. I'm having fun with the database stuff, though it's always so slow. My boss/client chided me just this week for my perfectionist streak, but I pointed out that the more effort on the front-end, the fewer headaches once the database is actually running, because changes at that point are hard. I'm having a great time and looking forward to applying the new skills to several personal projects.

@67: Roni, thanks for the support. I am unfamiliar with Od Magic. I'm a rather happenstance book buyer, and many of her one-off books are rare in the stores, so I don't see much beyond those I already own. Moreover, my budget has always been limited, so I have tended to purchase fill-ins for incomplete series when I rarely buy fiction. Most of my book dollars go to building my reference library. I picked up The Silent Strength of Stones from a discount shelf sometime in the last year, having added her to my list of authors to try out after following various LT conversations and recommendations, particularly yours.

@68: Judy, I greatly appreciated the database design recommendations. It's good to know that I am simply following in the footsteps of others in terms of zigzags in the career path. I was applying for a great many different jobs (thanks to my interesting background--blue collar, white collar, academic, hands-on, research, teaching, field, medical, agricultural, publishing, etc.). I am happy to be continuing in the academic journal field for now. I kinda felt like an impostor in the last position. People kept assuming I had a degree in English or journalism, and even when they didn't, I had to explain that my route to editor was very nontraditional. In fact, I was interviewing for another editor position last month (in grant-writing), and one of the interviewers basically wanted to know where the hell I got the editing chops, since my resume didn't seem to suggest such capabilities. If it really is all about information, then good database design will always be in demand. Certainly, interest in fine-tuning the written word seems on the wane, at least in terms of paying for such services.

Edited: Mar 28, 2011, 9:35pm Top

It's on the wane where I work - and then someone writes something understandable and everyone is awestruck. My sweetie Jim is excellent at clear and concise writing, especially technical writing that other people find impossible. But too many people have been mis-educated, and think clear writing is either a)difficult or b) not impressive enough. Alas.

I'm glad you found my recommendations useful. There's a lot of free industry stuff out there, seinars, webinars, product stuff. You might check your local or nearest chapter of the Data Management Association (DAMA). Frustrated clarifiers, all of us.

Mar 31, 2011, 3:20pm Top

@70: I hear you, Judy. Clear communication is too often shorted or taken for granted, without much middle ground, and certainly without institutional support for it. Maybe it's a legacy of past publishing practices that paid by the word. I'll check out local resources someday, but I suspect that I won't manage to find the resources for organized self-improvement.

Mar 31, 2011, 3:31pm Top

Spring is in the air, and I went wild today! The warm, sunny weather, my new financial prospects now that I'm hired, a new burst of research enthusiasm, the local Borders close-out sales, and a pledge to support an independent bookseller, struggling in the ongoing recession have collided into a spending spree. I don't usually tally my acquisitions here, but what the hell:

First, I stopped by the bookstore I browsed a couple weeks ago (Avol's). Back then, I waffled when I saw The Kingdom of the Cats, which has been on my wishlist ever since I discovered its existence from trolling through Roni's library (*waves*). I couldn't remember whether I had found it already, or simply read a library book. And, of course, I don't have a smart phone, so I couldn't check my LT wishlist. Plus, I was going into my third full month of unemployment, so I held off. Got home and discovered that indeed my library lacked this volume. So I retrieved it today. As a bonus, I picked up two of Barbara Hambly's fantasies that I had never gotten around to reading. These were adjacent to the Gotlieb book, and both were in excellent shape: The Rainbow Abyss and The Magicians of Night.

Then on to another nearby independent bookseller, A Room of One's Own. I had already decided to reward myself with a special order to celebrate the new job. Next week, the hardcover reprint editions of The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties of Spain in two volumes by al-Makkari should arrive. I had intended to purchase other books at that time, but I discovered The Mislaid Magician and The Grand Tour on the YA shelves--no wonder I've been drawing a blank for so many months everywhere I've searched. Well, they were the only copies there, and no guarantee they'd be there next time, so I had to purchase them now! In support of this position, I checked for a replacement copy of Kushner's The Fall of the Kings, which was found there last year and promptly lost at the airport before I even had a chance to read it. And hell, since I was putting money down, might as well buy the other books I'd been contemplating from the premiere feminist bookstore: the books by Kate Bornstein: Gender Outlaw, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, and My Gender Workbook.

From there, we headed over to Borders in search of a booklight. While our matching lamps and nighstands are very elegant, the excessive light when one of us is insomniac has had a tendency to trigger insomnia in the other. This makes for much grumpiness and general fatigue. And yet, we want to be able to be in bed together. The obvious solution is more localized and less sleep-disturbing lighting. No joy, already sold out. But the books are at 50+% discount. So I picked up The Song of the Cid, Slaves and Other Objects, Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and Spanish for Law Enforcement Personnel. Plus my querido acquired a couple Simon Green Nightside novels.

I think I can stop now. Gotta get the freelance gig done. But this has been a great way to usher in the change of seasons.

Mar 31, 2011, 4:26pm Top

Chris, what's your connection to Spain? It looks to be quite a passion.

Mar 31, 2011, 5:36pm Top

@73: Yes, it is a passion. I studied Spanish growing up, largely because my family is Mexican in origin. Then I discovered the SCA (the medieval hobby group). My particular area of inquiry is 11 c. Moorish Spain, or what's known as the taifa period of al-Andalus. El Cid, the national hero of Spain is from that era. It's a fascinating example of multiculturalism, with all of the tensions and innovations that go along with that. And Spanish is very relevant in the United States today, as we experience La Reconquista in slow motion.

Apr 1, 2011, 9:41am Top

I studied Spanish in high school and one semester at college, but was never really fluent. It would take some immersion, probably. There are quite a few immersion weekends available in the city, but I haven't made time for them yet. What I'd really like to be able to do is both speak and read with fluency.

That era in Spanish history must be really fascinating - all those cultures spinning around, Christians, Moors, Jews in the soup.

Apr 1, 2011, 9:43am Top

I just noticed that you're reading Bury Me Standing, which I read several years ago. Let me know what you think of it.

Apr 1, 2011, 11:10am Top

@75: Yes, immersion is definitely required. I lived in Central America for a semester and then for a little over two years. So now I speak Spanish with an accent that many mistake as Colombian. However, I've now been immersed in English-speaking Midwest for over a decade, and my easy facility with speaking is gone. I've been figuring out how to get Spanish back into my life. Reading is a start, but that's the easiest of the four skills and the slowest to decline. I don't watch TV, so univision is right out. I listen to some Spanish radio broadcasts at intervals, so that helps. However, I need to get involved with the local Latin@ community. But that would require some significant changes in my life at the moment. I had tried to find a meaningful job incorporating Spanish, but I came across very few such openings that didn't require degrees that I don't possess.

Yep, I think it is fascinating era. The taifa period in particular is considered the Golden Age for Sephardic and Andalusi culture, especially poetry--all of those royal courts vying for prestige via patronage of the arts. This particular 60-year period has also been largely overlooked by the scholarly community. The preceding Caliphate and subsequent Reconquest (with associated Almoravide and Almohade fundamentalist regimes) have historically (ha!) attracted most of academe's attention.

76: I've read just a couple of chapters and have enjoyed it tremendously so far. I don't know when I'll finish it, though. I'm using the "Currently Reading" collection to note all of the books I've started and then put down, so that I remember to go back to them at some point. This was a book that my querido picked up fairly recently, and it was lying around while I was looking for a lunchtime companion. So I'm interested in finishing it, but I have several other books that are higher priority for various reasons.

Apr 1, 2011, 11:20am Top

I do the same with my 'currently reading'.

Ah, no TV. No wonder you get so much reading done. I'm afraid I have not been able to disconnect in a while. Jim is more interested in TV than I am - I don't know how he reads so much.

Apr 1, 2011, 11:55am Top

I have been to Spain several times, I love it there! Many people from Scandinavia/northern parts of Europe travels to southern parts of Europe almost every year. Or at least very often, since the climate is much warmer down there:)

I love Spanish food and sangria;) Have you ever been to Granada? We drove up to Granada a few years ago and visited the Moorish palace, Alhambra. It was very warm, but definitely worth the trip.


Apr 1, 2011, 3:09pm Top

@78: I'm actually doing remarkably little pleasure reading these days. I have piles of articles and magazines and other serious stuff that I've slowly been trying to work through. Plus the monumental Don Quijote has been quite the bottleneck, yet quite wonderful. In some ways, the conversion to digital signal has worked out well. When we moved, we never got around to hooking up the converter, so all we watch are DVDs. We do still get some airtime, even television programming, but on a very sporadic and irregular schedule. We received a slew of DVDs over the holidays, but we haven't made many inroads, largely because the querido keeps borrowing series from friends. Right now, we're partway through Rome. The TV and associated hardware live in the far corner of the basement, which means that the upstairs is blessedly quiet (well, except for my little radio). It's such a nice change from life with my ex--the TV on at all times and too small a house to ever escape the noise. My reading has been far more seriously impacted by being online--way too many blogs etc.

79: Visiting Spain is a lifetime ambition of mine. I've never been to Europe. The Alhambra is certainly on my itinerary. I hope to spend the next couple of years figuring out what exactly I want to see while I'm there in terms of museums, relics, architectural marvels, etc. I too am fond of the cuisine. I made a full paella once on our grill--it was fantastic. At the moment, I am slowly accumulating a range of Spanish cookbooks. Most recently, I received a modern Andalusi cookbook.

Apr 4, 2011, 11:34pm Top

79: I forgot to say thank you, Bente, for posting the very lovely photo from Spain. Someday I will make it there myself.

I forgot about a bunch of books that I read as part of my Australian vacation. I bought them as gifts for nieces and nephews. So I've now added them to my list and hope to catch up on reviews shortly.

Apr 5, 2011, 3:15am Top

I am way behind on threads, Chris, after my extended stay away from LT, so I will just try and keep up with you from here on out :)

Apr 6, 2011, 12:42pm Top

82: Thank you, as always, for stopping by, Stasia. I hope that your absence was for happy reasons, and if not, I hope your situation is much improved. I'm afraid that your threads scare me a little--much like the mythical hydra, with extra threads sprouting up so quickly. So I haven't managed to star them and keep pace. And in the last week or so, I've lost steam, so I'm a little behind in general. My best wishes to you in the meantime.

Apr 7, 2011, 7:42am Top

Thanks for the good wishes, Chris. No worries about my hydra - I am sure another head will sprout some time and you can catch up with that one :)

Apr 8, 2011, 8:34am Top

I hope you get to visit Spain one day, Chris. The Alhambra is amazing - I visited with my family on our last holiday all together before I left home, and it has left a strong impression on me - all those cool stone water features and shady courtyards amid the baking hot Granada sun.

Apr 22, 2011, 7:19pm Top

85: Thank you for the kind wishes, Genny. Sorry I am so slow to respond. I just started a new job two weeks ago, and I've been working very long hours then coming home and crashing. I have seen plenty of pictures of the fabulous landmark. And I look forward to the scholarly publication of all of the inscriptions layered throughout the Alhambra. I do hope to see it all in person some week.

I'll try to review one of the library books this weekend...

Apr 22, 2011, 7:46pm Top

Congratulations on the new job! I've not been posting much either--had a virus that has lingered as a cough and tiredness. Hoping to update this weekend.

Apr 24, 2011, 8:54am Top

@87: Hope you're feeling better soon, Roni. I know lots of people laid low by a nasty virus in the last year--for weeks and weeks on end, it seems.

Apr 24, 2011, 10:37am Top

#65 I lost your thread for a while Chris but so pleased to hear the news about your job offer. :-) Congratulations!

Although sorry to hear the hours have been long to start with. Hopefully things will ease off once you are into the swing of things.

Apr 25, 2011, 10:22pm Top

@89: Thank you, Heather! Yes, after two weeks, I feel like I can finally catch my breath. And the boss just decided that we can cut back from meeting twice a week to weekly. I like the job, the commute is great, and everyone has been amazingly nice and helpful. Plus I am even better paid than I was before (though who knows how long that will last, given the ongoing political and budgetary uncertainty). So I am in a very good place right now. But didn't manage to review any books over the weekend. Maybe next weekend...

May 1, 2011, 4:46pm Top

#90 Well being in a good place is much more important than book reviews :-) Glad things seem to be going well and I will enjoy the book reviews whenever you get time.

May 3, 2011, 9:12pm Top

@91: Thanks, Heather. I look forward to carving out a space to return to LT, but lamentably, despite good intentions, that moment has not yet arrived...

Edited: May 19, 2011, 11:41pm Top

Hey, I am not dealing with lots of other things! Let's try a few quickies.

In January, I was treated to a trip to Australia. An amazing opportunity. While I was in Sydney, I went to the Saturday market at The Rocks. Several of the vendors were booksellers, one specializing in books for schoolchildren (though I did not realize it at the time). So I bought a book for each of my nephews and nieces. I tried to find books that captured some aspect of Australian culture and represented a wide range of styles.

Waltzing Matilda by A. B. Paterson came with a music CD. This is the unofficial anthem of Australia, probably the best known Australian song in the United States, except maybe for the kookaburra song. The song lyrics are beautifully illustrated with a pastiche of watercolor (I think) illustrations and historical newspaper clippings. The full-size but skinny book includes a glossary and an introduction that provides an explanation of the historical context of the song. It's a nice mesh of entertainment and education. My nephew wasn't impressed, so I waited until he went to school to try out the CD. I enjoyed it, and maybe someday he'll appreciate it.

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French is a droll fantasy in which a wombat becomes a suburban nuisance, though that is not her perspective on events. The cover indicates that this book won multiple awards and recognitions. Both the text and the illustrations are minimalist--a series of snippets that charm.

Wombat Goes Walkabout by Michael Morpurgo features not just the wombat, but an assortment of Australian bush life: kookaburra, wallaby, opossum, emu, koala, and even a boy. As wombat goes about his day searching for his mother, he meets the others and they explain how their lifestyles differ from wombat's. Once again, a charming story filled with simple dialogue and a straightforward plot. The illustrations by Christian Birmingham feel almost impressionistic, sketched in chalk or color pencils in earth tones. Very beautiful.

Finally, The Magic Colours by Cecilia Egan tells a traditional aboriginal story of how birds got their colors. On black, glossy pages, the left side features white text encircled by traditional geometric patterns, with illustrations on the right side--again what looks like chalk or crayon sketches in a brilliant palette of colors.

Four very different books in terms of the art, the tone, and the theme. There was a fifth book illustrated with photographs telling the story of an Australian cattle dog traveling around the country in a VW bus with his human companion. It made a nice travelogue, but I gave it away before I had the time to examine it thoroughly. I don't remember the title, I'm afraid.

May 20, 2011, 12:42am Top

Hey, your trip sounds very exciting! I hope you enjoyed it. How is the new job going?

May 20, 2011, 2:23am Top

Woot! Glad to hear about the new job, Chris!

May 20, 2011, 8:25am Top

@95: Thanks, Stasia!

@94: The job is going great. I love it. Everyone has been wonderful. I've been able to work full-time and a little more. It pays even better than my old job, so we should be out of debt fairly quickly. I can bicycle to work, and I have my own office. It's all good. New content area, and I don't do so much editing anymore, but it's interesting reading material.

The trip was exciting. Since I'm not plugged into Facebook or other social media (I tell people that LT is the only social network that I participate in), I haven't shared my pictures very far. Plus the stupid people developed my slide film wrong, permanently messing up those images, though they did their best to fix them. I think I uploaded one photo to LT. I had a very good time, and it was great to see my old friend, but very bittersweet, since this was her bon voyage world tour.

May 20, 2011, 8:38am Top

I am glad to hear that the new job is going so well! Again, my congratulations.

Sorry to hear your slide film was incorrectly developed. What a shame.

May 20, 2011, 9:27am Top

How wonderful to have a job you love! That's always been my dream, and now and then it actually happens.

And it pays! Imagine that!

May 20, 2011, 4:28pm Top

Hi, Chris!

Looks like very good books you picked up "down under":) I think it is nice for children to broaden their horizons, and learn about different cultures:)

Have a nice weekend!

May 21, 2011, 11:48pm Top

@97: The film fiasco just shows what a dinosaur I am. Apparently they stopped processing slide film there years ago, and when I pointed out what it was (thinking that would be sufficient to ensure appropriate handling), I received a nod and failed to perceive the blank look. Sigh. Apparently there may be only one place left in town that handles slide film. Truth is, it's been many years since I did much photography, so I just grabbed the rolls of film that had been sitting in my fridge all this time. I had no idea whether anything would turn out because of the age of the film. However, they mostly were okay, and I requested cds of all of the images.

98: Thanks, Judy. Yes, I have been profoundly fortunate. I was laid off in January from my absolute dream job. I thought I'd be there for a decade or two doing what I loved and working with a great boss and mentor in a good location. It was quite a disappointment to lose all of that, and I was sure that I wouldn't find a position that allowed me to exercise my talents and set my own boundaries in terms of my schedule, daily tasks, etc. Then I wasn't sure that I would find a position, after so many interviews and no offers. But here I've lucked into a job that is in my comfort zone, uses my talents, allows me a great deal of independence and flexibility, pays even better, produces another product I can believe in, and on top of all that, my colleagues have been wonderful. I hope you luck into such circumstances too, if you aren't already too.

99: Yep, I'm trying to subvert my nieces and nephews. I'm dismayed to discover that at least one of my relatives is pretty narrow-minded, and as a result I fear the kids are well on their way to becoming nice little bullies. What else can be the result of teaching kids to mock people who don't meet a very specific definition of what's "normal"?

May 21, 2011, 11:58pm Top

Sounds like your nieces and nephews need subverting, Chris!

And is there a definition of "normal?" I missed school on that day, obviously.

May 22, 2011, 1:38pm Top

101: Well, a lot of people seem to think there is some sort of universal normal. Certainly, the oppression of so many individuals is largely because they don't fit within whatever narrow conception. In my sibling's case, it's clearly gender roles and presentations. Boys/men have only short hair and certain proclivities to sports, video games, violence, etc. Girls/women have only long hair and are not interested in boy things. Homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, etc. How these attitudes can be so deeply entrenched when growing up with me, I don't know, because I certainly rarely hew to any gender norm. Sigh, again. And this doesn't touch on the whole reading/books thing. My relatives want to instill a love of reading in the kids, but since they are so clearly nonreaders themselves and don't own any books, it's hard to say that they will succeed. Sadly, I don't get to spend nearly enough with said young relatives. They've never been to my home, so they haven't seen my books occupying just about every room in the house. And I've been such a homebody that I haven't been to visit them much at all. I got an invite to a school activity on a Monday night, and if I'd still been unemployed, I would have happily made the overnight trip, but it was the second week of the new job (new job! squee!), that it just wasn't possible.

May 24, 2011, 3:01am Top

Well, by their definition of "normal," I do not know too many people who fit!

Jun 13, 2011, 10:44pm Top

@103: Whoops, time gets away from me. Sorry I didn't respond, Stasia. It's been an amazingly hectic last few weeks. I agree that few people fit the popular conception of normal, particularly the interpretation close to home that I find so dismaying, and yet somehow so many people seem to believe that the norm fits everybody. In reality, it's just that many people have the luxury (read: privilege) of not having their differences on public display. Often that's a conscious choice, just as the public display of difference is in many cases, but not always.

Once again, I'm approaching the half-year mark and fallen woefully behind on reviews. Hopefully, I can begin to tackle them in late July, once my current spate of commitments lighten up. I miss LT.

Jun 13, 2011, 10:50pm Top

We miss you too, Chris! I hope your life eases up soon :)

Jun 13, 2011, 10:52pm Top

This user has been removed as spam.

Jun 13, 2011, 11:08pm Top

What Stasia said, Chris!

Jun 30, 2011, 7:17pm Top

106: Was that a drive-by spam?

@105, 107: Thank you, Stasia and Roni, for your continued steadfastness despite my dilatory participation.

How about I whip out another quick one:

The Frog Alphabet Book is lusciously illustrated with zoological accuracy by Ralph Masiello. Jerry Pallotta provides the text--basic information or trivia associated with each of the presented species in simple terms that generally can be grasped by even fairly young children. The art is very much focused on the animals, with just enough habitat shown to provide some context. The only human glimpses are a boy squatting next to a stream (on the page for "J"), arms holding the goliath frog (presumably to provide a sense of scale), a framed drawing of a skeleton of a long-extinct species ("I"), and tree stumps in the background ("U"). Pallotta makes sure to include the range of amphibians: frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians from diverse habitats on multiple continents. It's a beautiful book for introducing small children to the English alphabet and slipping in some basic science/environmental knowledge. Apparently, this book is part of a large series of comparable books by the author focusing on various charismatic organisms and similar topics. Nothing says love like cute critters that are in decline worldwide thus pointing to their use as one of the most sensitive bioindicators on the planet. Who needs canaries?

Jul 14, 2011, 7:23pm Top

I hope the new(ish) job is still going well, and you'll soon have a bit more time for LT too... I sympathise with being behind on reviews, I'm always about 10 behind at least.

Jul 14, 2011, 10:50pm Top

@109: Thanks, Genny! The job is going great, and I love it. The problem is the other commitments that then drain away what little energy I have left after full-time work every week. I'm staying home this weekend--a rarity since May. Maybe I'll manage another review...

Jul 15, 2011, 12:37am Top

#110: I hope you have a wonderful weekend at home, Chris! Get some rest.

Jul 16, 2011, 3:09am Top

111: Thanks, Stasia. I was exhausted and asleep by 8 pm. Now it's 2 am, and I'm wide awake. So a little insomnia-fueled reviewing...

Jul 16, 2011, 3:20am Top

I hope the insomnia goes away quickly! I hate it.

Jul 16, 2011, 4:12am Top

I'm going to skip ahead, since I loaned out both The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read & Write It and The Silent Strength of Stones, and I want to try more recipes from The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book before reviewing it.

The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer are the follow-ups to Sorcery and Cecilia. I have been searching diligently for these ever since I discovered they existed (H/T to ronincats). Finally, while browsing a local bookstore, I checked out the young adult section, which I rarely visit, and there they were. Apparently, I was looking in all the wrong places.

Anyway, Sorcery and Cecilia is an epistolary novel of letters exchanged between the two protagonists, Cecy and Kate, with the authors writing alternate chapters/letters. This format doesn't work for The Grand Tour because the two cousins are traveling together, so the conceit is modified: Cecy's subsequent deposition "to the Joint Representative of the British Ministry of Magic, the War Office, and the Foreign Office" alternate with Kate's journal entriers during their travels. The letters resume in The Mislaid Magician as Cecy travels and Kate stays home in parallel and ultimately converging plotlines. If you like the epistolary format, great; otherwise, avoid these books.

In The Grand Tour, Cecy and Kate are double-honeymooning through Europe with their husbands, James and Thomas, respectively (whom they married at the end of Sorcery and Cecilia in fine Regency romance style). Their travels begin in Calais and continue to Amiens and Paris in France, then through the Alps to Milan, Venice, and Rome in Italy. The Grand Tour reflects, I believe, the standard tour route followed by upper class British tourists and was an experience expected of anyone with pretensions of education and refinement. Of course, the experiences of our two married couples are anything but conventional, as magical hijinks ensue with their arrival in Calais and the mysterious delivery of a little vial. A villainous henchman from Sorcery and Cecilia reappears, and new villains and magical evil plots must be foiled.

While The Grand Tour takes place immediately after the events in Sorcery and Cecilia, The Mislaid Magician begins ten years later. Both couple now have children who play key roles in the story. Cecy and James are sent on a mission to investigate a Prussian magician/engineer who disappeared while conducting a survey of a rail line in northern England. Meanwhile, the plot at home is precipitated by the sudden visit of Kate's sister Georgiana, apparently in some sort of trouble. The plot thickens with the discovery of a kidnapped girl nearby. Neither of these arrivals will talk about their troubles, thus leaving Kate and Thomas and the children to muddle along trying to figure things out. Cecy and James quickly run into Georgy's husband Daniel and become embroiled in a house party hosted by the Webbs, a sister and brother of dubious background and intentions. Cecy and James discreetly inquire about the missing Herr Schellen while navigating the social shoals and magical mysteries at Haliwar Tower, the home of the Webbs.

All three books share a similar lighthearted and fun style. They are an entertaining fusion of Regency romance, mystery, and fantasy. The characters are amusing and the dialogue well done, and the plot keeps rolling along. The comedy and tone are reminiscent of Connie Willis, most notably, her time traveling novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, itself modeled on the Victorian classic Three Men in a Boat. The stories and characters are not deep, and the plots are predictable. These books are neither art nor literature, but a very pleasant way to spend several hours. I won't touch on issues of diversity, stereotypes, tropes, etc., since these books follow the generally narrow genre formulas and conventions associated with the Regency-period setting.

Jul 16, 2011, 4:25am Top

113: Thanks, Stasia. Looks like you experience your own share of insomnia. I hope it's only a rare problem. And I hope that in the next week or so, I can reassert a regular schedule, which should help with the insomnia. My recent travels and concomitant upheavals have left my body and internal clock confused. Sigh.

Jul 16, 2011, 4:56am Top

In my case it is not a rare problem, but a chronic one. I hope your return to a normal schedule helps you with yours.

Jul 16, 2011, 7:30am Top

Hi Chris, I've been trying to find your thread (with not much effort in my part apparently!) but found it just now. The word palimpsest caught my eye- my wife had done a painting last year that evoqued a palimpsest.

Anyway, I was glad to be able to catch up on your thread and see what you are up to. Good to know that your job is working out very well for you. But you put me to shame when I see that you are almost done with Don Quijote. I'll get back to it sometime in the future- I hope.

The bycicling to work is nice- I do that whenever I can, but my office is only a mile away.

Jul 16, 2011, 11:21am Top

117: Thanks for stopping by, Manuel. My thread has been hard to find because I post so rarely that it cannot be found near the top of the heap for palimpsest to catch the eye. I put that in the subject line to make it easier for me to find too.

No shame about Don Quijote. You may notice from my ever-expanding list that I go back and forth many times between DQ and everything else. I typically work on it only during my breakfast, and then only when I'm in the mood. Typically, I'll spend one day reading a chapter (or part of one), simply underlining the words and passages that I don't know (even if I can puzzle out the meaning from context). Then the next day, I go back and look stuff up. It's very annoying to keep looking words up repeatedly, but some of them just won't stick in my brain, such as "melindroso." It's a process. I gave up trying to track and match idioms and aphorisms. Maybe someday I'll go back to that. I have them marked. And I stopped flagging pages for costume and food references, but those too are marked.

I lived about 1.5 miles away from the last job. I walked to work many days because it was so close. I loved that too. During pleasant weather, I often read while walking, which upped my daily book time. And the route was very nice, through a quiet residential neighborhood with many landscaped yards and also prairie and woodland. Now the bike ride is 4.5 miles, almost entirely bike path, once again through the backs of quiet residential neighborhoods, also often prettily landscaped, as well as prairie plantings and scrub vegetation adjacent to the trail. Also very nice.

Jul 16, 2011, 3:52pm Top

You're reading DQ in Spanish, I gather. I've been told that the language is a bit archaic - are you finding it so?

I've had the most recent translation on my shelf for several years now, but haven't started it yet.

Jul 16, 2011, 6:10pm Top

@199: Hey, Judy, good to hear from you. I haven't found it particularly archaic. I don't know if the edition I have modernized the spellings, though some are clearly not (things like h vs f for some words). I've found some of the facsimile editions of other books in Spanish more challenging than this. And the original Canterbury Tales. It's hard for me to tell whether a difficult passage is due to an archaism or simply some aspect of the language I don't have much experience with. Except for those passages with explanations in the footnotes--then it's clearly something unfamiliar to modern readers. Some sentences I need to reread several times because even though I understand the individual words, the whole thing simply doesn't parse. But mostly I can read through it with only a handful of words at most per page that require a dictionary for my peace of mind. Sancho Panza's dialogue is the most problematic because it's the most colloquial. It's definitely worth reading in any language. I can see why it was a bestseller in its day. It's amazingly good and compares well with a lot of modern fiction. And that's with a lot of the social commentary going right over my head.

Edited: Jul 24, 2011, 12:59pm Top

The Kingdom of the Cats by Phyllis Gotlieb, published in 1985, follows A Judgment of Dragons and Emperor, Swords, Pentacles, both of which I acquired back when they were first published in 1980 and 1982, respectively. I didn't know about the third novel in the series until I browsed Roni's library collections--thanks, Roni! I've been searching for it for over a year and finally lucked out.

A Judgment of Dragons introduced readers to the Ungrukh: large, red telepathic cats that live on the stark, remote, hardscrabble planet Ungruwarkh. The Galactic Federation offers assistance in exchange for their telepathic services. Thus the adventures of Khreng and Prandra, a young Ungrukh couple, ensue. The main plot driver being a renegade Qumedni--a nigh-omnipotent energy being that bears a strong resemblance to Q of Star Trek fame. Emperor, Swords, Pentacles features Khreng and Prandra's daughter Emerald and her partner Raanung. This time, the story begins on the planet of Qsaprinel, where a crustacean society is threatened by human outlaws, but most of the action takes place on Earth (called Solthree in these books). Kingdom of the Cats features the third generation of Ungrukh protagonists, this time, Emerald and Raanung's daughter Bren and her companion Etrem, a rare genetic throwback who is entirely black. Much of the action takes place around the Grand Canyon on Solthree, opening with the massacre of nearly all of the Ungrukh residents, but quickly spreads to include several distant worlds.

These stories are classic space opera--lots of action and not much science. They are fun and serious at the same time, though. Phyllis Gotlieb's style is unique, and her books are like nothing else I've read. She starts with the charismatic hook of intelligent, giant cats, but brings in many other types of intelligent beings. So she's one of the rare authors who creates believable aliens. Moreover, her space operas have a rare depth, anchored in both the complex characters with individual personalities and the array of issues and concepts that are incorporated into the plot. The characters are extremely diverse and representative (whether of real or entirely fictional groups), not just another legion of generic, homogeneous white folks with no particular background or culture beyond a vaguely American feel. These include Native Americans, traditional Jews, blacks, Sikhs and other Indian groups, women with a rare genetic disorder that turns their skin blue, genetically engineered amphibious men and women, homosexuals, heterosexuals, the rare person born with six fingers and toes, the wealthy and privileged as well as the down-trodden outcasts...it goes on and on. And even the most minor secondary characters are given their own personalities and motivations. Then there's the requisite supervillians--crackpot psychopaths, the lot of them. But once again, each with his or her own personality and history leading to the increasingly unhinged evil plots that entangle our Ungrukh protagonists and their allies. The books address questions of prejudice, power, politics, colonialism, etc. And all in such an engrossing style. All of them are keepers, and I'm happy to have all three of this obscure and hard-to-find collection in my library.

Jul 24, 2011, 11:49pm Top

Congrats on finding the third in the series, Chris. I love this series, and Gotlieb's writing in general--she is a true classic and reads just as well now as when I first got her books over 25 years ago. They are hard to find now, as you say.

Jul 25, 2011, 8:53pm Top

122: Thanks, Roni! I can't remember which used bookstore it was in, but it was a great day! Yes, her novels have aged well, I think because they aren't full of topical references and therefore easily dated.

Aug 14, 2011, 6:19pm Top

I picked up The SIlent Strength of Stones by Nini Kiriki Hoffman on the discount shelves of a local bookstore. I'd heard good things about her writing on LibraryThing, so I figured it was worth trying. The book sat on my shelves for a few months before I finally delved into it. My reaction within just a few chapters was "Wow!" It was fantastic! Some of the best writing I've read in years.

This is something of a fantasy coming-of-age story. Nick is a teenager who lives in the tiny hamlet near Sauterelle Lake in the Oregon Cascades. It's one of those remote locations where the rich urbanites congregate for the summer, and the much less wealthy locals provide the necessary services for the tourists. In Nick's case, he and his divorced dad run the little general store. Nick spends his days working in the store and spying on the neighbors, particularly the interesting range of summer guests. In rural areas, not much entertainment is available, and people watching allows Nick to escape his own dreary circumstances for awhile each day. Willow and her family move into one of the rental chalets, and Nick finds their mysterious activities an irresistible draw. Soon Nick finds himself entangled in magic, including a wolf companion, and his life will never be the same.

The prose is crisp and engaging. The characters are exceptionally well drawn; they are all white and apparently straight and able-bodied, though Nick does deal with some temporary physical problems. Nina Kiriki Hoffman excellently portrays teenagers struggling with questions of identity, need, love, responsibility, abuse, abandonment and loss, and problematic adults in their lives. The plot moves along smoothly, the dialogue sparkles, and the resolution doesn't feel too contrived. It feels set up for a sequel, since various mysteries have been introduced and remain unresolved. Again, amazing, evocative writing well worth reading again and again.

Aug 14, 2011, 10:24pm Top

Boy, have you got a treat in store, Chris! Her first book, The Thread that Binds Bones is even better, and I like all of her books up to Catalyst very well. That one is just weird, and I haven't made it through Fall of Light yet, which looks like a much more traditional urban fantasy. Her newest book, Thresholds, is the first of a juvenile series. But her Families books (The Thread that Binds the Bones, The Silent Strength of Stones, Spirits that Walk in Shadow) and her other grouping, starting with A Red Heart of Memories (World Fantasy Award Finalist) (1999), Past the Size of Dreaming (2001), A Fistful of Sky (2002), and A Stir of Bones (2003) are all very good. Also her shorter stuff--probably "Skeleton Key" (novelette) (Nebula Award Finalist) (1993) is the best known of those.

Sep 3, 2011, 12:49pm Top

@125: Dear Roni, sorry I didn't respond immediately, and look, weeks have passed! I've wishlisted the other books of the trilogy, but will hold off on pursuing the others for right now. Still have scads of books on my own shelves that haven't been read...

Sep 3, 2011, 12:53pm Top

No problem! Don't we all?

Edited: Sep 3, 2011, 3:28pm Top

It's a holiday weekend, so I should make a push to write some reviews. The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read It & Write It was returned to me recently, and it's the oldest on my list, so that's a good place to start. This is the fourth book on Arabic writing that I've acquired, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses.

The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read It & Write It by Nicholas Awde and Putros Samano is a very accessible introduction to Arabic writing. Of the books I've read on Arabic writing, this one has been the most useful in terms of helping me decipher Arabic inscriptions and the logic of the writing system in terms of pronunciation, word construction, etc.

This slim volume (95 pages including a map) opens with "A Word to the Reader," which indicates its target audience and goals, starting with the assertion that Arabic classes that immerse the student in grammar and writing system simultaneously are problematic, and that a better approach is to make knowledge of the alphabet a prerequisite for an Arabic language class. The book is intended to provide a basic grasp of Arabic writing so that travelers have minimal survival skills in terms of reading signs, menus, etc. and language students can concentrate on grammar and vocabulary in class. It provides sufficient background on the language to better understand the writing system, and covers the individual letters and sounds, which other books I've read also address. But it also moves into such issues as ligatures, numbers, punctuation, case endings, definite and indefinite articles, and aspects of pronunciation--accent, stress, and so on that I have not seen addressed in other books.

The introduction discusses the different forms of Arabic, how Semitic languages differ from Romance and Germanic languages, and how the writing system fits the spoken language, plus tips for the English speaker to remember. Chapter 2 introduces the individual letters and their pronunciation. It has the best descriptions I've encountered so far of the additional sounds that are beyond the scope of the English language. The Arabic alphabet has 29 letters: 26 consonants and three vowels, two of which can also function as consonants--one fairly equivalent to the English "y" and the other similar to the English "w". In effect, there are two forms of "h," "s," "d," and "t," and as someone who is relying solely on books right now, the distinctions between these range from challenging to impossible. Chapter 2 closes with general writing tips.

Chapter 3 focuses on writing the individual letters. Little arrows show how to create each letter, which is displayed in each form: in isolation, initial, medial, and final positions. It is also written with each of the vowel diacriticals, and reminders on pronunciation, letter shape, and other details are provided. Finally, each letter section ends with representative vocabulary, building upon earlier letters and vowels. This section also goes into detail on the use and pronunciation of definite articles and how this is shaped by whether the first letter of the relevant word is a "sun letter" or "moon letter." This was tremendously helpful and the first time I had encountered this explanation. Moreover, time was spent exploring the intricacies of alif as a carrier, the complications created by hamza, and how such situations influence how words are written. Once again, tremendously helpful, because my attempts to puzzle out written Arabic have been hampered by coming across terms that do not appear in basic alphabet descriptions.

Chapter 4 spent more time with hamza, then spent time with one of the most commonly recited verses from the Qur'an as an example to work with, in terms of testing basic understanding of written Arabic--the verse in Arabic is followed by a transliteration and then a translation. This exercise is followed by "A Note on Handwriting" that demonstrates the most common differences between hand-written and typeset letters (for example, siin and shiin). The book closes with the basic reference table of the alphabet and a map of the main Arabic-speaking regions.

Easy Arabic Script by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaafar was similar in many ways. The focus is largely on handwriting, providing practice space in the book and "master calligrapher tips." This is great for people who are planning on doing a lot of writing in Arabic. However, I am more interested in reading inscriptions, books of poetry, etc. Easy Arabic Script also covers numbers and some ligatures, but these are toward the end of the book as more advanced topics, rather than being integrated with the other content. Similar to The Arabic Alphabet, basic vocabulary is incorporated into each section to illustrate and expand the use of the letters as they are each introduced. There are also plenty of examples via cartoons and photos for practicing reading comprehension.

Easy Arabic Script is divided into 21 units and four parts. Part 1 covers the basic letter shapes (units 1-16), with "extras" that address vowels and other diacritical signs, long vowels, hamza, and numbers. Part 2 discusses letter combinations (units 17-21). Part 3 has fun activities to practice reading comprehension and writing skills. Part 4 is the obligatory basic reference table of the alphabet. Again, a very accessible and useful book, but not quite the focus that suits my personal goals.

Arabic Script by Gabriel Mandel Khan is not about learning the fundamentals of writing in Arabic. It is a book focused on the art: the many different scripts, which is to say the history and mechanics of different calligraphy styles. It contains lots of examples (drawn reproductions of actual sources) displaying the decorative capacity of Arabic calligraphy. The introduction discusses the origins of written Arabic and some of the famous historical figures who influenced the development of various writing traditions. The book also describes how to make and use the calamus, the traditional reed pen. Like the other books, this one focuses on individual letters, showing how each one appears in more than 30 individual scripts or fonts, sharing some of the oldest extant examples of the letter, the ideal proportions for the letter and its artistic and metaphysical values. The end of each individual letter section is a spread of a wide range of decorative examples with the specific letter highlighted, to facilitate reading comprehension of the amazing array of calligraphic decorations on every conceivable surface and object. This is not a book that introduces Arabic as a language. There's no vocabulary building or tips on pronunciation or explanation of ligatures, etc. This is an introduction to the art of calligraphy that focuses on individual letters as the building blocks of that art.

Islamic Calligraphy by Yasin Hamid Safadi is similar to Arabic Script. It discusses the origins and evolution of Arabic writing, some of the notable historical figures who shaped it, and the major calligraphy styles. However, the bulk of the book, and it's greatest value, is dedicated to photographs of Arabic calligraphy in a wide range of styles, media, geographic areas, and time periods. My review of it can be found here.

So all four books have their different strengths that complement each other. This means they will all be staying in my library. I'm pleased with all of them, though none meets all of my needs on its own, which probably just isn't possible.

edited to fix touchstones

Sep 3, 2011, 4:22pm Top

Chris, have you read My Name is Red by Pamuk? While not my favorite book, it spends a great deal of time on the precision of Islamic art. Now that I think of it, there's much more about art than letters, but it may be an interesting side reading with your Arabic studies.

You are certainly digging in to this autodidactic task. I admire your ambition.

Sep 3, 2011, 7:06pm Top

@129: Hey, Judy, thanks for stopping by. I have not heard of My Name Is Red, but I've made a note of it. Sounds like a fun book. Thank you for the compliment. Someday, I'd like to take a formal Arabic class, but I don't have the resources right now. So I just muddle along. However, my Arabic aspirations are part of a larger project, rather than simply learning new languages. My hobby focus is eleventh century taifa kingdoms in al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia). I'm trying to figure out costume details right now, and I am entirely at the mercy of translators and editors until I get some basic grasp on the language myself. Plus it would be very beneficial to understand the significance and meaning of the art, since much of it is symbolic and I need to understand context before I try to interpret the clothing depicted.

Sep 4, 2011, 2:16am Top

Your Arabic studies sound wonderful, Chris. I hope you continue to share your resources with us as you move through them.

Sep 4, 2011, 3:11pm Top

131: Thanks, Stasia. This is very much a half-hearted, part-time pursuit. I toyed with the notion of enlisting a few years back so that the government would teach me Arabic, but that wasn't quite sufficient reason to disrupt my life, and now it's no longer an option. Too many interests, too little time and dedication to pursue any one of them for long...I'm about to embark on tai chi!

Sep 4, 2011, 7:03pm Top

Half-hearted, perhaps, but definitely ambitious!

Sep 5, 2011, 12:02pm Top

@133: I'll agree on ambitious. Just a little frustrated too, because I've misplaced my flash cards again!

I'll squeeze in an extra review. That'll catch me up through April!

I saw The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book at a friend's house last fall, and I was intrigued. She let me take it home and doesn't want it back, so it's another cookbook for my collection. I held off writing this review because I wanted time to try out several recipes.

Jessica K. Black is a naturopath, and this book is very much a product of that tradition, without getting into pH and food residues and the other minutiae of that credo. I consulted a naturopath toward the end of my first year of treatment at the behest of my cancer mentor. Indeed, the person I consulted was a grad school classmate who moved into an entirely different field. While I enjoyed her assessment process, most particularly the blood drop under the microscope to analyze cellular level conditions, projected onto a computer screen, I was put off by a few things. First, the relentless marketing of supplements etc. (I have the same beef with a recent chiropractor). Second, the somewhat subtle victim blaming (admittedly, this was more of a problem with her colleague)--once I've been properly educated and stop my bad habits, the cancer won't be a problem--really, you think I brought this on myself?? Actually, my lifestyle and diet have been generally healthy, thankyouverymuch. Third, I managed to poison myself with a naturopathic detoxifying tea by steeping it far too long. Wow, some warning of the potential hazards might have been nice. Fourth, my consultation was toward the end of winter, and the two weeks of cleansing diet consisted entirely of organic fruits and vegetables--exceedingly expensive during that time of year. I really can't afford $300 per week. Again, admittedly, with better planning and preparation and relying on produce of the season, etc., it probably wouldn't have been so bad. But the grocery bill, poisoning, we-know-better-than-you condescension, and please buy expensive supplements all added up to an end to that relationship. And hey, these are by no means special problems limited to naturopathy. I have an Ayurvedic friend who is also very much into the victim blaming--maybe your stressful life and can-do attitude led to your cancer (cause-effect, see how that blaming works?). I readily acknowledge that diet, exercise, relationships, and stress affect our ability to cope with problems, physical or otherwise, and can make us vulnerable (or stronger!), but that's very different from *causing* the problems.

But hey, none of this has to do with this book, beyond explaining that I do have some familiarity with the tradition that informs this particular author and dietary approach. Now I tend to agree with complementary/alternative medical traditions and the well-known truism, "You are what you eat," in the sense that inputs can influence our system more than most conventional doctors seem willing to consider. Certainly, my medical oncologist seemed supremely uninterested and unconcerned about diet and dietary supplements, considering their potential effect trivial, but maybe lay off the antioxidants during chemo. Admittedly, the body may be able to shrug off the effects of our habits for years, whether it is diet, posture, repetitive motion, etc., but the body doesn't have endless recuperative powers. At some point, that lifetime accumulation starts to manifest. And so now that I'm middle-aged with shoulder problems, I am trying to retrain myself, change my sleeping positions and posture so that I don't have to continue to deal with chronic pain and discomfort. Plus, permanent and slowly growing symptoms that are a direct result of treatment mean that I not only have to pay attention to my body on a daily basis, rather than taking it for granted, but also diligently practice various exercises and activities to keep the symptoms manageable. It's certainly reasonably to consider diet as part of that process.

The first part of the book consists of various introductory items and five chapters, the second part of the book is the selection of recipes. The introductory items are pretty standard: foreward, preface, acknowledgments, along with "Why an anti-inflammation diet." These are followed by "Modern health paradigms," "Inflammation: what's the big deal," "The importance of diet," "The anti-inflammation diet," and "How to use this book." All of that in 54 pages is quick reading. The author points out that what's presented in this book is the most extreme and restricted form of the diet. Partial adoption will still lead to health benefits.

The first chapters discuss precepts of naturopathy, maintaining the body's homeostasis, and avoiding "toxic overload"; how the body's immune system works, inflammation as an immune reaction, the role of prostaglandins and other biomolecules; how chronic inflammation can be associated with various health problems and diseases: heart disease, fibromyalgia, insomnia, etc. Indeed, autoimmune diseases seem to be some of the most prevalent and sky-rocketing health problems, from Crohn's to lupus, and certainly many respiratory problems are triggered by allergens.

Anyway, what's the general prescription? Avoid conventionally produced food that's full of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, etc. Avoid highly processed foods, particularly wheat flour and sugar and artificial sugar substitutes. Avoid all of the foods known to cause allergic reactions (or digestive intolerance): dairy, peanuts, shellfish, gluten and wheat in general, also tomatoes and potatoes. And avoid all of the vices: alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, trans fats and hydrogenated oils, fried foods, etc. No pork because pigs are very close to us biochemically, and the proteins and fats in pork can potentially trigger the immune system. As a side note, consider swine flu historically and the avian flu recently out of China that originated in areas where chickens and pigs were penned together, creating a cross-infection breeding ground for viruses to jump from birds to pigs and thus readily to humans. Have more omega-3 fish (salmon, tuna, etc), garlic, ginger, turmeric, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, flax and olive oils, and lots of water.

The recipes are a mix of (often vegetarian) unchanged standards like guacamole, Mexican egg skillet, baked chicken, steamed vegetables and modified standards to eliminate verboten ingredients: mango salsa, mashed "potatoes" using Jerusalem artichokes, pesto and chicken pizza, almond satay sauce, etc. The recipes and approach frankly aren't that different from the South Beach diet, which I tried back in 2008. Both discourage starches--potatoes, pasta, breads--to varying degrees.

However, this book relies on vegan or at least wheat substitutes for baked goods. That's been an interesting exploration for me. So far, I've tried the banana bread and three of the cookies. I see a recipe for spelt tortillas that I'll have to try. Certainly, the vegan cookies perform quite differently from those relying on a great deal of butter and sugar. I thought the ginger spice cookies were quite good, and the tahini-almond butter cookies acceptable. I was disappointed by the ginger snaps, but that had more to do with my using commercial ginger paste instead of grating fresh ginger root, and especially the all-forgiving banana bread.

The book provides handy charts for substitutions for baking, as well as the list of foods to include or avoid in various categories. However, I found that the recommended ratios for substituting rice syrup for sugar did not match the instructions on the jar, and the outcome following the former was somewhat disappointing. Next time, I'll follow the recommendations on the jar. It is handy to have some direction, instead of flailing about on my own.

The almond satay sauce was fabulous, and the accompanying salad rolls would have worked well if I'd had the appropriate rice paper. The green beans and other recipes have generally been fine, much as I've found in vegetarian cookbooks. The stuffed mushrooms was the biggest disappointment so far (besides the banana bread), but I think that's largely a matter of taste. The filling was far too sharp for me, relying on ginger and lemon, which I like very well in other cooking, but a far cry from the traditional parmesan and bread crumbs for mushrooms. I'm afraid my palate needs to be weaned slowly not shocked into change.

So it has been a mixed bag, just like any other cookbook. We are generally following the prescription, but stray when dining out or at potlucks or entertaining certain friends. My querido has noticed a tremendous improvement in his digestion and has sadly concluded that his beloved dairy has been causing havoc in the absence of the gall bladder. The good news is that largely dairy free means that he can occasionally enjoy a traditional pizza without immediate recourse to the bathroom. However, milk and cookies will never be the same...

Sep 12, 2011, 12:08pm Top

I loved your review of the Islamic writing/calligraphy books. I too admire your attempts to learn the language and decipher the script - and reading your detailed comments has reminded me how much I enjoyed in the past teaching myself Latin (at least i didn't need to learn a new alphabet!) while learning how to read early medieval scripts, and also joining a calligraphy group so I would be enouraged to practice the styles and understand them better. I'd love to get back to doing more of this - and I'd love to know more about how the Arabic script and alphabet works. From your mention of a couple of the names of letters, it sounds very similar to Hebrew, which I have studied a bit, but the letter shapes look unintelligible to me in Arabic so they must be quite different.

Sep 12, 2011, 11:00pm Top

135: Genny, thank you for stopping by as well as the kind words. I tried to teach myself Latin when I was living in the Republic of Panama. I found an old Spanish-version Schnitzler Latin book (Nuevo Método para Aprender el Latín) and got about halfway through before I stopped. I got to the end of declensions but didn't quite make it to verbs. So I salute your initiative equally.

I too practice calligraphy, though very sporadically. I am excited about the instructions for making a calamus in Arabic Script because I want to learn Arabic calligraphy in addition to western scripts. Yes, Arabic is very similar to Hebrew in that they are both Semitic languages that rely on consonantal roots to derive multiple words. Similar languages, different scripts. Arabic is inherently cursive, while I get the impression that Hebrew doesn't allow for cursive, whereas most languages relying on the Latin alphabet can be written in either cursive or block letters.

Nov 4, 2011, 8:31am Top

I see that the end is fast approaching and my reviews have languished. I'm afraid that health issues and full-time work are really taking it out of me. And the dregs of me are dedicated to making it through Stanford's free online course "Introduction to Databases." I've already fallen a couple weeks behind because I really only have (some) weekends to dedicate to the class, and I don't have the computer science background, so it's proving to be a bit of a struggle. So my life is pretty simple these days: work, home, PT and tai chi exercises, PT appointments, domestic chores, database class. At this point no time for travel, family visits, hobbies, etc. However, I'll try to squeeze in a book review this weekend. That's my goal every weekend, let's see if I can deliver this time.

Nov 4, 2011, 12:06pm Top

Good to hear from you, Chris, even if just briefly. Sounds like this is a very busy time of life for you.

Nov 5, 2011, 7:45am Top

@138: Yes, I haven't had much time for any of the communities that I'm a part of, including LT. Thanks for the response, Roni. I hope you are enjoying retirement (surely that must have happened, and I just wasn't paying attention).

Well, since I had a nightmare and can't fall back asleep, I might as well take this moment of insomnia to write a review:

I finally acquired and read The Rainbow Abyss and The Magicians of Night by Barbara Hambly this year. I have been a big fan of hers since her first books, the Darwath trilogy. I have read almost all of her fantasy and science fiction over the years, and I followed her when she jumped to historical murder mysteries (the Benjamin January series), once I figured out what happened, and I have also appreciated her further move into historical fiction featuring actual historical figures, such as Patriot Hearts, featuring three of the earliest First Ladies and Sally Hemmings, who might be considered "First Slave Concubine." So why did it take me so long to finally read the Sun-Cross duology?

Yes, I enjoy Barbara Hambly's works: strong characters, dialogue, plotlines, backstory, worldbuilding, etc, She always has strong female characters (often passes the Bechdel test), and her protagonists are usually geeks and social misfits of one sort or another. They usually do not conform to conventional beauty standards, and even when they do, they are outcasts for pursuing their passion in defiance of social convention (the very definition of wizardry in her worlds!). There is an inevitable romance (geek love!), whether it develops over the course of the plot (the Darwath trilogy, the Sun-Cross duology, the Unschooled Wizard series, the Benjamin January series, etc.) or is part of the characters' backstory (the Dragonsbane series, the James Asher vampire books), which shares emotional truths and exposes painful vulnerabilities. She often explores themes of power and the limitations of power, and being a historian and "economic determinist" definitely explores nasty political intrigues framed as financial self-interest and the tension between royalty and the baronage (or merchant guilds), ruler and governed. That's all great, but after a while, and many books, it all starts to feel much the same.

So one of the consistent tropes in her books is that magicians/wizards are social outsiders condemned by religion. Hence, much of the inevitable angst in the blooming romances of her stories. And many of her fantasy books seem to follow post-apocalyptic themes, though that's too strong a term. Either civilization is in the process of collapsing over the course of the story (Darwath trilogy), or the dregs are struggling along a generation or few later after the collapse of empire (Dragonsbane series, the Sun-Cross duology, and in many ways, the Unschooled Wizard series). Another common theme is reality-hopping, usually through the Void but also through the demon realms. This turns out to be a key element in every fantasy series except the vampire duology. The Rainbow Abyss and The Magicians of Night are no exception. And also, her interpretation of magic is pretty much the same in all the books. All of her wizards are natural historians, indefatigable observers of the world around them, seeking to understand patterns, rhythms, essences, because this is the foundation of magic.

Because the Sun-Cross duology seemed very derivative of her earlier works, I did not bother with them for many years. Strong wizard, check. Wizard social pariahs condemned by religion, check. Geek love and angst, check. Some amorphous threat to the world only the strong wizard realizes, check. Reality hopping, check. In fact, these books take these themes much further than her other books. In short, The Rainbow Abyss and The Magicians of Night are a contemplation of genocide. The Sun-Cross is a reference to the swastika, a symbol that goes back millenia in many cultures around the world, but today only references the Nazis for most people.

This grimmest of themes is experienced by the least inspiring of Barbara Hambly's heroes who open The Rainbow Abyss already damaged and downtrodden. Rhion is overweight and drab (he comes to be known as Rhion the Brown), the disowned son of a banker, who is extremely near-sighted as the consequence of casting a too-powerful spell in his youth. His master Jaldis, is blind, mute, and crippled--the mutilations ending his court mage career during a period of political turmoil. He can see and speak in a limited fashion only through magical devices, at great cost. It's winter, and they live in an unheated garret in the slums eking out a meager existence selling love potions and the like, but flee before a lynch mob within the second chapter. A suitably dreary beginning to such a dire topic.

The plot of The Rainbow Abyss spans decades, setting the scene, as it were. Jaldis makes contact with magicians from a world where magic ceased to exist, and he recognizes the implications for their own world--if it's possible to end magic, then the religious zealots would make it happen. Jaldis is determined to cross the Void to understand what happened over there in the hopes of preventing it from occurring in his own world. But life sometimes just gets in the way of ambition--that's the plot of The Rainbow Abyss. Boy meets girl (Tally) and helps her. They go their separate ways. Boy and master wander around. Boy meets girl again, and this time he helps her sister. Complications ensue. Boy resists love, and more complications. Boy stops resisting love, and complications. But what about frail master and crossing the Void? Too sick. Then too broke. Then the expected help doesn't arrive. Boy tries to stop him. But he does it anyway. So boy goes along. End of story, well book 1, anyway.

The Magicians of Night spans a much shorter period. Rhion wakes up in Nazi Germany alone. He doesn't know how to cross the Void, and even if he did, even his master wasn't powerful enough to do it alone. He quickly realizes that he's a prisoner who must unwillingly help the Occult Bureau with their magical experiments. Along the way, he meets an incognito American Jewish woman looking for her father in the concentration camps and a British agent sent to kill him. Most of the story takes place in Germany with Rhion as he struggles to communicate with the wizards back home, to escape, and to help others in desperate straits. Part of the story takes place back in his world, following Tally (remember the girl?), who struggles to find wizards to bring Rhion back home to his family and also to protect their children (in effect, hostages to fortune) from the ever more powerful Cult of Agon as wizards are increasingly targeted for attacks and arrests and a widespread media campaign of fear-mongering and negative stereotypes. In other words, the world of Tally, Rhion, Jaldis, and the rest is at the beginning of the genocide trajectory in The Rainbow Abyss, and Rhion gains terrifying firsthand experience with the end of that trajectory in The Magicians of Night.

These are certainly very serious stories without much fun. But not nearly as disturbing as the Dragonsbane series. And Barbara Hambly does make sure to end on a note of hope and determination. It feels much like the end of the third Terminator movie (Rise of the Machines), where John Connor watches society falling apart, the moment he's dreaded his entire life, and then he steps up to the radio transceiver at Crystal Peak to respond to requests for guidance, so beginning his career as leader of the human resistance. And so Rhion returns home inspired to lead the wizard resistance.

Nov 5, 2011, 8:06am Top

Ha! forgot to mention the hat tip in The Magicians of Night to the Darwath trilogy, in the form of the offhand comment by Leibnitz about that nice young Ingold Inglorion who visited once. I always find such self-referential asides amusing.

Nov 5, 2011, 8:43am Top

I forgot something else too. Barbara Hambly lays out the necessary context for state-sponsored genocide: a culture of secrecy, anonymity, and obedience that eliminates personal accountability for actions, and a convenient scapegoat as a pretext for the consolidation of power.

Nov 5, 2011, 10:31am Top

Hi Chris, good to see you back posting again - I hope life stuff eases up for you soon. The Sun-Cross duology definitely sounds like an interesting (if dark) read.

Nov 7, 2011, 8:25am Top

142: Thank you for the kind wishes, Heather. I don't know that things will ease up--I think that's just the way life is, especially in the world today where everyone is distressed to some degree. Sun-Cross was indeed interesting and engrossing. It was like a novel written all in sepia tones (if you've every seen many of those old photos).

Nov 30, 2011, 11:10pm Top

Ha! The end of the year approaches, and I haven't written many reviews. Been caught up in full-time work and three classes lately. Plus ongoing health issues. Sigh. Anyway. I will review Race and Slavery in the Middle East, since I need to return the book this weekend.

Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry by Bernard Lewis is a fast read at 99 pages of running text. The preface explains the origins of this work as "part of a group project on tolerance and intolerance in human societies," followed by acknowledgments. Given some of the dates in the preface, that initial effort probably occurred sometime in the 1960s; this volume was published in 1990.

The main text is divided into 14 chapters, followed by the endnotes, an appendix of samples of relevant documents arranged chronologically from the late tenth century to 1936, the list of sources for the 24 color plates in the center of the book, and finally the requisite index.

Lewis begins in chapter 1 by briefly examining slavery as an accepted part of societies going back to the oldest written documents, though often complemented by opposition to either particular inhumane practices or the entire concept by some groups and individuals. He then describes how Islamic Qur'anic and juridical traditions regulated the institution of slavery, and in the process, changed the premises that provided the legal foundations for slavery--i.e., the default "natural" state of humanity is free; therefore, enslavement is legal only when the person is captured in war or is the child of slaves. As a consequence, the relationship between master and slave became something of a social contract, albeit a vastly unequal one, that acknowledged the humanity of both parties (thus giving the slave some minimal human rights in the process).

Lewis then moves on to the profound economic drivers of the slave trade in Muslim cultures. Turnover among the lower caste slaves was high, thanks to the very high mortality caused by the hard labor and poor living conditions. And mortality was high across the board thanks to epidemics and lack of immunity to local pathogens in imported slaves (kinda like the inverse of the genocidal decimation of Native American populations as a result of colonization). A significant percentage of the higher caste slave population were eunuchs. And many of the higher caste slaves were freed fairly early in their careers, so that any children were also likely to be free. So slavery was an extremely high-input not-self-sustaining institution, thus creating an insatiable demand for imported slaves. Thus the lucrative slave trade that persisted well into the modern era, and continues largely underground.

The second chapter discusses race, recognizing that it is largely a modern concept, but seeking documentation of prejudice and general attitudes based on skin color. He points out that early authors tended to focus on the concept of ethnicity, which encompasses culture as much as phenotype. They clearly distinguished among different ethnic groups that could all be classified as black today. The Ethiopians were feared, admired, and respected at some point, while the Zanj were loathed and often described in subhuman terms. And yet, some notion of skin color being a defining attribute did begin to emerge as early as the seventh century: "the narrowing, specializing, and fixing of color terms applied to human beings." With this rigidity of nomenclature comes an intrinsically hierarchical classification, thus begetting an association between dark, and especially black, skin and bad or inferior or ugly human qualities.

It is truly dismaying to realize that some (many?) of our racist stereotypes go back more than 1000 years. Is this familiar: "They lack self-control and steadiness of mind and are overcome by fickleness, foolishness, and ignorance" (p. 48, quoting Sa'id al-Andalusi, 11 c.)? And does this sound like a well-known caricatures: "frizzy hair, thin eyebrows, broad nostrils, thick lips, pointed teeth, smelly skin, black eyes, furrowed hands and feet, a long penis, and great merriment" (p. 46, quoting Ibn Qutayba, 9 c.)? And still more: "Dancing and rhythm are instinctive and ingrained in them" (p. 92, a quote from Ibn Butlan, 11 c.).

Over the course of the chapters, Lewis discusses how perception, prejudice, and privilege play out in the differential treatment of slaves of different origins and colors, as well as social status among free members of society (non-Arab or only partial Arab heritage definitely resulted in second-class treatment). And how such tensions affected civil society, marriages, military organization (Janissaries!), playing an important role in both initiating and suppressing various uprisings.

He compares and contrasts slavery in Islamic cultures with that practiced until fairly recently in the United States (and other parts of the Americas). Both entailed some degree of propaganda rationalizing "white" supremacy over blacks who were naturally suited to be beasts of burden. (An interesting aside--the friend who loaned me the book took away the idea that everyone perceives themselves as white (i.e. the "norm"), so the Arabs considered northerners to be blue per some of the anecdotal quotes in the book.) At the same time, there were some notable differences. In some times and places, most if not all Muslim rulers were the offspring of slave women and royalty. In fact, it was not unusual for the birth of a son to lead to a concubine's manumission and conversion to wife. Key military and political and cultural leaders were slaves, former slaves, descended from slaves. Servant and master, free and slave, all tightly tangled together but openly acknowledged as family, complicated as so many families are. In the American South, the entanglements were just as commonplace, but unacknowledged, hidden, denied. Sally Hemings, anyone? Woe betide any person of black heritage caught passing as white. And I don't doubt that many miscegenation laws are still on the books today, so marrying a slave? Never. And our profound silence largely continues.

Lewis also makes the point that Islamic culture was one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse and to some degree tolerant, spanning three continents and incorporating and synthesizing many cultural elements, ideas, and peoples into a single religious society. Arabs were great explorers, with trade routes into Africa and to China. Thus they were also ethnographers, observing the cultures around them. Too often this was in the form of slave buyers and owners manuals, but also in the travelogues that were a popular genre of Arab literature.

He also discusses slavery in Islam in more recent times and the abolition movement that really began to make strides in the nineteenth century. While I can applaud the efforts of British (and American) abolitionist organizations, I can also appreciate a certain underlying societal hypocrisy of making a multigenerational profit on slavery and then turning around and pointing the finger at others. The wealth of western societies was built on slavery and profiteering that defined colonialism and imperialism, and the social inequalities resulting from that process and the prejudice involved persist, largely ignored or blamed on individual moral failings. But I digress.

Another extremely disheartening realization is that the practice of slavery isn't as historical as we would like to think. Sure, pundits and analysts like to throw the term around a lot, and there is merit to the concept of "wage slavery." The most recent document in the appendix dates to 1936, and is a list of regulations of the slave trade in Saudi Arabia. So human trafficking was openly practiced in Saudi Arabia well into the 1930s, which meant that it was probably even more widespread in areas remote from government oversight. Indeed, the ancient slave trade routes that once supplied Islamic states have been revived. Many of the consumer products imported to American markets probably involved some form of slavery or indentured labor, and there are plenty of people exploited illegally within our borders. The U.S. State Department's 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report includes 184 countries. Indeed, some current statistics indicate that the number of people enslaved today exceed historical numbers, reflecting our much larger global population.

To sum up, this book is a very accessible look at a challenging subject that is rarely the subject of academic scrutiny or public discourse. While it is a historical study, it inevitably leads to reflection on modern events, which are inevitably shaped by the past. It cleared up some misperceptions on my part and expanded my understanding of medieval culture. I'll probably get my own copy.

Dec 24, 2011, 5:22pm Top

Belatedly sorry to hear about your health issues Chris. I hope you manage to get some rest over the holiday season and that 2012 gives you a bit of respite.

Dec 24, 2011, 9:19pm Top

Hope you are feeling better, have finished your classes, and have a Merry, Merry Christmas, Chris!

Dec 25, 2011, 8:01pm Top

@145-146: Thank you for the kind wishes, Heather and Roni. The health issues are the flare-up of lymphedema and the ongoing fatigue as my body continues to recuperate from 3 years of treatment. I figure realistically it will take 3-5 years to approach a full recovery, and I am only in year 1. And "full recovery" doesn't necessarily mean that I will gain back everything I lost. Surviving cancer is all about figuring out what one's new normal is. The lymphedema is disheartening. The symptoms came on in July or August, and I have been working to manage them since then. For awhile, I was seeing three different PTs (for separate but interconnected shoulder/neck problems) and had 2-3 appointments every week. But now I have a follow-up with the lymphedema PT at the end of January. The ongoing treatment has not resolved the symptoms entirely. And not seeing the PT in the last couple of weeks hasn't made the symptoms worse. So I am on my own again. Well, seeing an acupuncturist, actually. I think we've seen the most consistent and notable, though small, improvement in the last two weeks with weekly acupuncture. But ultimately, I apparently need to get daily aerobic exercise, lose weight, all that to best manage and perhaps resolve the symptoms. We'll see.

The online class finished, though there are a couple of items I would like to follow up on. It's great to be done with that. It was worth doing, though. We are currently between tai chi classes, since the new session starts in mid-January. Daily tai chi is supposed to help with the lymphedema. Haven't quite managed that, and still need to do the routine today yet.

Anyway, thank you for the loveliest and bestest of X-mas trees! What could be better than books!

I am hoping to squeeze in a couple of more reviews before the year ends, though once again, a great many reads have gone unremarked on this thread. Sigh.

Jan 2, 2012, 9:01am Top

Happy New Year Chris - sorry to hear about the lymphedema flare up. I hope 2012 brings you better health.

Jan 2, 2012, 4:10pm Top

@148: Thanks, Heather! I hope you enjoyed the holidays tremendously! Sorry I haven't kept up with your thread, or anyone else's.

Group: 75 Books Challenge for 2011

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