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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-06-18

The Sad Vampire: A Silver Clock Ticking in a Void

You might think that having immortality, a perfect complexion, and super strength, speed, healing, and senses would be a gift. But wait--imagine eternal nocturnal life: an endless series of years comprised of a never-ending series of nights (the sun and daytime are off limits to vampires). After the intoxication of heightened perceptions wore off, you might come to feel bored or out of touch with a given century. You might come to dread the prospect of never dying. And if you saw the taking of human life as a horrible crime, being a vampire might become a curse. Perhaps all that's why in the world of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976), the oldest vampire is a mere 400 years old.

The novel consists of Louis, a nearly 200-year-old vampire, telling his unhappy life story to a mortal "boy" interviewer who is rather clumsily recording it on cassette tapes (it is the 1970s after all). Louis begins by recounting how he became a vampire near New Orleans in 1791 and began a strange and strained relationship with the vampire who turned him, Lestat. While Louis is a reluctant predator of humans, revering life and retaining his human feeling (it takes him four years to start feeding on mortals, and he feels guilty once he starts), Lestat is a callous and wanton killer seemingly intent on revenging himself for his immortality on the mortality of humans. Lestat can't understand why Louis must always be so reluctant and remorseful in his new life: "You look the gift horse of immortality in the mouth." Louis cannot understand why Lestat refuses to explain the meaning of it all to him. Did God or the devil make vampires? And why? Although Louis finds Lestat repugnant and Lestat finds Louis exasperating, they stay together because Louis continues to hope for answers from Lestat, because Lestat needs a financial provider like Louis (who is a wealthy plantation and land owner), and because they appear to be the only vampires around.

The most interesting development in the novel occurs when Louis and Lestat become fathers when Lestat turns a five-year-old girl into their vampire daughter in order to keep Louis with him: quite the modern (19th-century) family! Claudia is a fascinating character because becoming a vampire froze her physical growth as a little girl, so she must rely on her cuteness to trick human prey and comes to resent having been made a vampire before her body could mature to a size and strength that would enable her to take care of herself. But although Claudia's physical growth has been arrested, her emotional and intellectual growth (given her vampiric advantages and limitations) continues, her two fathers educating her, Louis in his appreciation of life, Lestat in his enjoyment of killing. And as her mind matures, her feelings for Louis and his for her morph into a kind of romantic love.

Rice heats the discreet sensuality of the vampire genre (circa 1976) and to an sensual and psychological fever. This happens not only when Louis is drinking a mortal and feeling his heart beat synchronize with the person's--sexual intercourse is replaced for vampires by blood drinking, which is called in the novel "taking" a victim--but also when he is holding Claudia and nuzzling her hair or kissing her eyelids and inner arms and smooth palms or looking up "into my paramour's eyes." That most of the love in the novel occurs between male vampires and between an "adult" male vampire and a "child" female vampire adds to the strange nature of it all. As I read, I thought, "OK, she's an immortal vampire and vampires don't have sex," but then, "Louis sure likes touching her five-year-old body!" Love takes odd forms.

Rice puts us in Louis' head so deeply that we often forget that he's rather reprehensible. Ever searching for the meaning of his existence, ever prizing life but loathing his, he feels sorry for himself in being so "alone" (an eternal exile in the world) and believes that he is more human than other vampires but doesn't shirk from killing people when he could survive on animals.

Rice's novel is more provocative and moving than the movie (compelling though young Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt's vampires are), for the film downplays the sensual and romantic nature of the love between Claudia and Louis and the homosexual love between Louis and Armand and cuts out potentially upsetting moments like when Louis "takes" a priest on his altar after a botched confession. Although homosexual vampire romance must have been pretty new for 1976, Rice follows the tradition of white vampires (still maintained in Twilight et al). In her world becoming a vampire makes white people whiter, vampires of color don't appear, and she doesn't interrogate the slavery-source of Louis' wealth and power. She also gives no biological or other explanation for vampire powers, limitations, and physiology.

The reader of the audiobook, Simon Vance, reads Rice's style and story with understanding and a smooth and appealing voice and manner. However, the "French" accent he assumes for Louis sounds more Cinema Transylvanian than New Orleans French, and his interviewer sounds like a Brit trying to sound like an American.

Finally, although Rice's vampires are inhuman monsters, they also represent us to the extent that "the only power that exists is inside ourselves." Readers not averse to the vampire genre should give Rice's highly wrought, sensual and emotional, moving and appalling novel a try.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-06-18

Whimsical Pre-WWII Americana with Talking Animals

Freddy Goes to Florida (1927/1949) by Walter R. Brooks begins like a whimsical Animal Farm. Orwell probably didn't get inspired to write his grim Stalinist parable by reading about Freddy and company, but in Brooks' book Mr. Bean's animals are sick and tired of working and living uncomfortably during winter on his farm. The rooster Charles hates having to wake up before sunrise to crow (Mr. Bean threatening to fricassee the rooster for dinner if he doesn't do his job), while the horse Hank has rheumatism. And so when a barn swallow explains migration, Charles and Hank call a meeting to discuss migrating to Florida for the winter. The animals argue about who will go and who will stay to help Mr. Bean run the farm--until the cat Jinks has everyone draw lots. Jinks also gets a robin to draw a map of the way south, and when Mr. Bean is away in town, the cat leads the migrating animals out on their journey, "with his tail held straight up in the air like a drum-major's stick." In addition to the mischievous Jinx (useful in a pinch), the traveling companions are comprised of phlegmatic Hank, the young dog Robert, the cow Mrs. Wiggins ("a character"), the pig Freddy (a songster with "an inquiring mind"), a few mice like Cousin Augustus (good at chewing through things), the white duck sisters Emma and Alice (good at teaching swimming), and the barn spider couple Mr. and Mrs. Webb (tiny-voiced and philosophical). Will Charles' wife Henrietta (who likes to henpeck him) let him go?

The book depicts the adventures of the animals as they walk to, in, and from Florida, featuring roads, rivers, and towns, a treasure, a swamp, a doll baby carriage, the Grandfather of All the Alligators, some timid burglars, and a dangerous and desperate man with a black moustache and a dirty-faced son--and more. As they journey south, the animals begin to realize that maybe Mr. Bean isn't such a bad master after all, and they resolve to bring him a present when they return home.

The light-hearted book has many funny moments, like Henrietta's explanation for why hens don't crow, Mr. Webb's conversations with an ant and a fly, the animals' welcome in the nation's capitol, Mrs. Wiggins' heroic defense of a bridge armed only with a few mice, the animals' enjoyment of jewelry and disguising of themselves on the way home, etc. Every animal plays a key role at least once during their adventures. There are also some bizarre touches like when we learn that Mrs. Wiggins gave Jinx and Robert some milk, without being told just how she managed this.

Here are some examples of Brooks' dry humor and clear style:

-"Mr. Webb, however, was firm in his decision, as spiders are apt to be."
-"Mrs. Wiggins had a sense of humor. That means that she always laughed at the wrong time."
-"Now, if you are a rather timid burglar, and you light a match in a dark room and see a cat that is within an inch of your nose, you'll probably do just as Ed did. He dropped his match and let out an awful yell."

This is the first of 26 Freddy books, and whereas in later novels Mr. Bean's animals talk with each other AND with people, here they are limited to speaking with other animals, because although they understand human speech perfectly, people only hear them quack and squeak and bark etc. Perhaps this is because animals "hear better than people." Another difference is that here Freddy is but one supporting character among many, whereas later in the series he becomes the mover and shaker and hero of the animals' adventures (which must be why the original 1927 title of this book, To and Again, was changed in 1949 to Freddy Goes to Florida).

Audiobook reader John McDonough has the perfect gravelly voice and sensitive manner for the book, taking humorous things seriously and serious things humorously. I got a kick out of his horse, mouse, and spider voices, and he sings Freddy's songs with tune and gusto. The only drawback of the audiobook is that it lacks the illustrations by Kurt Wiese, so charming, realistic, and humorous.

When I binged on the Freddy the Pig books in elementary school in the 60s, I missed much of the humor and read the stories as exciting and interesting adventures, while now I feel less suspense and laugh more. Their quirky charm and affection for animals make them a pleasure to read. You should enjoy Freddy Goes to Florida if you like talking animal stories (like Charlotte's Web minus the pathos), journey and return adventure stories (like The Hobbit minus the fantasy world), idyllic rural American stories (when phaetons could be found in garbage dumps, the best way to get to Florida was by surface streets, and small farm communities spread out everywhere), and lightly satiric stories targeting foolish and or bad humans. It's the kind of book you read smilingly.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-17-18

'The time has come for sorcery and swords.'

Swords against Wizardry (1968) is the fourth book in Fritz Leiber's sword and sorcery series about the rogue-adventurer duo Fafhrd (tall, fair-skinned northern barbarian) and the Gray Mouser (short, swart scion of southern civilization). It features four stories, each full of all the things that make the series so uniquely delectable: dry irony, witty banter, comical slapstick, graphic horror, kinky hints, suspenseful action, heroic anti-heroism, original imagination, and baroque style--including quaint archaisms, quirky vocabulary, Shakespearean syntax, rich alliteration, and vivid similes. Here follows an account of the four stories.

I. 'In the Witch's Tent' (1968)
Favorite line: 'It appears that someone doesn't like us.'
This short prologue-story is funny and entertaining in situation (visiting a drugged out hag for a prophecy), climax (using a tent as a weapon), description ('Its glow showed her face to be as dark, jagged-featured, and dirty as the new-dug root-clump of a black apple tree'), and banter ('You'd turn a wizard's workroom into a brothel'). However, it's really only a fix-up bridge between the last story of the third book ('Adept's Gambit') and the second story of this one.

II. 'Stardock' (1965)
Favorite line: 'I'm beginning to think . . . they aren't sportsman.'
In this novella Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been challenged to climb Stardock, the tallest peak in the north, to win a pouch of stars and the right to father sons on the Snow King's daughters. The story is a funny and suspenseful mountaineering fantasy featuring an ice-cat, a flying-carpet manta, snow serpents, ice-gnomes, rival rogues, a race of invisible people, and a neat climax. Alternating between the comical (e.g., Fafhrd forgetting about the Mouser trapped in a chimney), the sublime (e.g. the vanishing of an entire snow ridge 'as if some great God had reached down while the Mouser's back was turned and removed that block of reality'), the physical (e.g., eating powdered or raw meat while climbing), the story finally asks what drives men to climb mountains.

III. 'The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar' (1968)
Favorite line: 'Mouser? Your box is buzzing.'
This short story is a perfect length for its plot, freshly focuses on what comes after an adventure, and humorously humbles its heroes. Having spent too much time together before and after Stardock and quarreled over the best way to sell their invisible jewels, the friends part--until 'Night was a-slink' and the 'malfeasors' of Lankhmar are readying for business, and they run into each other by chance (?) outside the headquarters of their respective fences, Ogo the Blind and Nemia of the Dusk. When the Mouser proclaims that he and Fafhrd are the two best thieves in the city and Fafhrd crosses his fingers, one expects something to go amiss with their jewel selling. After all, adventuring is not conducive to thieving, and men are no match for women.

IV. 'The Lords of Quarmall' (1964)
Favorite line 1: 'He almost stuttered midway through the word 'slewerisophnak.''
Favorite line 2: 'But they assured me they were the very greatest sorcerers.'
This novella, the longest story in the book, is uneven, having been begun in 1936 by Leiber's friend Harry Otter Fischer and completed by Leiber decades later, but it is an entertainingly lurid romp that reads like a fusion of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Robert E. Howard's 'Red Nails,' and Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Unbeknownst to each other Fafhrd and the Mouser have hired themselves to the two feuding sons of the King of Quarmall. Quarmall is a 'huge ramified castle kingdom,' an unwholesome realm consisting of the King's above-ground castle, the older brother Hasjarl's subterranean Upper Levels, and the younger brother Gwaay's Lower Levels. Genetically modified pinheaded slaves with elephantine legs run treadmills to pump fresh air underground. Fafhrd's boss Hasjarl looks like a 'kobold birthed in a hot-spring,' pours invective from his sphincter-shaped mouth, tortures his slaves, and drives his bearded mages to bespell Gwaay with diseases. Gwaay, the Mouser's master, is 'a pallid, handsome, soft-spoken youth' who goads Hasjarl while acting calm and keeping his depilated sorcerers blocking the disease spells. The hating brothers are fire and ice foils for each other and for their hired champions. As we read the story wondering what will happen when Fafhrd and the Mouser finally run into each other, we encounter many fine scenes: e.g., Gwaay playing a telekinetic strategy game; the King looking down from his tower at villagers walking like 'ants struggling through some sticky trap'; Fafhrd reading the 'dry and prosy' history of Quarmall inscribed by an eon-old cockroach called Scraa; Hasjarl having his eyelid grommets inserted; Hasjarl and Gwaay playing a game of chess; the Mouser finally getting to read a dread spell; the principles participating in a splendid climax; etc.

As usual, Jonathan Davis gives a wonderful reading of the audiobook, doing an Aussie/Cockney Mouser and an American Fafhrd and relishing all of Leiber's outre events, characters, and style. I particularly enjoyed his High Eunuch, combustible Hasjarl, and Blind Ogo, his Eyes, and Nemia.

Fans of sword and sorcery who want to see one of its decadent, imaginative, and witty fathers at the height of his powers should read this book.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-15-18

“It's all human nature, sir, isn't it?”

'I would have liked to have left that past time alone, for as I write of 1939 I feel all my hatred returning. Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?'

Maurice Bendrix is a moderately successful novelist--films are made from his books, and he is 'praised for his technical ability'--but he earns little money from his writing and calls himself a scribbler. Beginning his account of an affair he had with Sarah Miles during WWII, he says, 'this is a record of hate far more than of love.' He then recounts recently seeing Sarah's civil-servant husband Henry at night standing in the rain without an umbrella and, instead of passing by unseen, addressing him. Had God or the devil moved him? He had had no contact with the couple ever since the affair ended over a year and a half ago, and he was unsure whom he hated more, Sarah or Henry, who'd remained obtusely innocent of the affair. On that rainy night, Henry ended up inviting Maurice home because he wanted to confide in him: suspecting Sarah of having an affair, he'd contacted a detective agency to investigate her but would like Maurice to laugh at him for being a fool so he can burn the agency's letter and forget his suspicions. 'Then the demon spoke,' however, and Maurice offered to visit the detective for Henry, initiating a tragic chain of events. As Maurice tells us, 'How twisted we humans are. . .' (Maurice makes plenty of similarly bleak comments, like 'Why do we have this desire to tease the innocent?')

It's not easy for Maurice to revisit the past: 'If this book of mine fails to take a straight course it is because I am lost in a strange region.' Throughout his account (his confession!), Maurice's honesty about the affair, about his self-centered love, jealousy, and hatred, and about his dislike of God, is so appalling that reading Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair (1951) felt like watching a man flay himself in public. It also made me wonder how much of it is autobiographical (apparently Greene based the character of Sarah on the woman with whom he had an affair and to whom he dedicated his novel).

If it sounds unpleasant, it is, but it is also brilliant and funny and moving. The brilliance shines in philosophical and psychological insights (e.g., 'The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than happiness'). The humor lies in witty lines (e.g., 'He had very limited small talk, and his answers fell like trees across the road') and ironic situations (e.g., detective Parkis having named his son Lance because he believed that Sir Lancelot found the Holy Grail when actually he found Guinevere's bed). The emotional impact comes from the pain and suffering of the characters (e.g., Maurice strangling his and Sarah's affair before it can end naturally), and their gestures of humanity (e.g., Maurice putting a pair of biscuits by Henry's bed).

Greene's characters feel real, especially Sarah, Henry, and Maurice, but also supporting ones like the sad-eyed detective Parkis and the desperate rationalist Smythe, and thus the relationships between them are absorbing. The third of the five books of the novel consists almost completely of Sarah's diary, and reading her naked words feels like an invasion of privacy of a real person and casts an intensely ironic light on the incidents that Maurice relates in the first two books.

Colin Firth reads the audiobook superbly. He does not over-dramatize or showily alter his voice when speaking for different characters. Instead, he reads every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph with perfect understanding of the English language, the author's style, the mood and meaning of each scene, and the mind and emotion of each character. He enhances the novel.

WWII plays a big part in the affair, and Greene concisely evokes what life was like in London then (e.g., 'Once in the blitz I saw a man laughing outside his house where his wife and child were buried.'), but the novel is most deeply about time (or eternity), love (or jealousy and hate and forgiveness), God (or devils), faith (or unbelief), miracles (or coincidences), reality (or magic), writing (or writing block), truth (or fiction), and memory (or misperception). I suppose that Greene finally stacks the deck against atheism a bit too neatly; or do I just want to dismiss miracles as coincidences? Anyway, the suffering of the main characters is all so human and real that I am willing to give them whatever comfort they can find, and in Maurice's case his argument with God gives him little comfort. Even amidst his self-absorption, however, Maurice reveals a path to salvation, regardless of whether or not one believes in God, when he says, 'I had become nearly human enough to think of another person's trouble.'

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-07-18

The Fascinating Life of a Special Sanitation Bee

When Flora 717 breaks out of her emergence chamber as a generic 'flora,' belonging to no particular flower kin and destined to be a lowly Sanitation worker, her beehive is experiencing an extraordinarily cold summer, so that her roughly 8,000 sisters are hungry and on edge: 'They say the season is deformed by rain, the flowers shun us and fall unborn, the foragers are falling from the air and no one knows why.' The scary fertility police are keen to detect deformity or abnormality in new bees and give them 'the Kindness' ('From death comes life eternal'), and Flora is unusually large and ugly. Fortunately for her and for the readers of Laline Paull’s fascinating novel The Bees (2014), Sister Sage (a bee priestess) sets Flora on an unprecedented path towards self-development and hive-knowledge.

Soon Flora is visiting different parts of the hive and doing different things, including feeding larvae, attending to spoiled drones ('their malenesses'), meeting the Queen, and being promoted to forager. As the most basic law of the hive is that 'only the Queen may breed' and violating it is the grossest treason, Flora is conflicted when something sentient seems to be pressuring the inside her abdomen. . . To live and learn, she must deal with the Myriad, the numerous bee-foes like venomous wasps, beautiful dragonflies, cursing crows, and oily spiders, and with the controlling hive impulse for conformity ('Accept, Obey, and Serve'), all in the context of human activities hostile to bees like mass farming of single crops and overuse of poison. We learn in the prologue that the beehive's orchard is under siege, 'a dullard's patchwork of corn and soy' on one side and 'a light-industrial development' on the other, and that the owner of the orchard is planning to sell it.

Paull depicts life in a beehive with panache, from realistic features like the specializing of roles, the gathering of nectar and pollen, the making of wax and honey, the feeding of the young, the maintenance of the hive, the killing of invasive wasps, the quasi-hibernation of the winter cluster, and the legendary 'Visitation' of the beekeeper, to imaginative extrapolations like scent-gates, chemical stories, hive mind utterances, and the religion of the Queen: 'Our Queen, who art in labor, hallowed be thy womb.' And she does lots of vivid, beautiful, and imaginative writing, like 'She felt the cool, soft press of its petal tunnel, then a shiver of delight as its pollen brushed against her fur. A bead of nectar pulsed sweetness, and she stretched out her tongue.'

But although to tell Flora’s story Paull writes much bee-appropriate behavior (e.g., like grooming fur, drinking nectar, communicating via antennae and chemical scents, breathing through spiracles, grabbing with leg hooks, and giving directions by dancing), she also anthropomorphizes her subjects to engage our emotions more than necessary. Her bees feel guilt or scorn or smile or sob or curtsey or clap their hands or don pomade or rev their engines. Her intense focus on mother's love seems too human and hence too alien to my notion of a beehive. She ruins a fine account of Flora's terrifying encounter with the 'heavy magnetic throb' of a metal tree by identifying it as a cell phone tower. She also loses track of Flora's character when, after early on demonstrating the bee's accurate ability to identify the gender of baby bees, she later has her fail to do so for no other reason than to surprise us.

But for the most part Paull impressively uses bee biology to imagine bee culture and psychology to tell an absorbing and moving story. Although Flora's relationship with Sir Linden would be impossible for a real bee, it is interestingly stranger than a typical human romance. Reading the novel does make one see the world from the point of view of the tiny, hard-working creatures and regret the decrease in wildflowers and the over-use of poisons.

Paull has a critical view of authority figures and power wielders like police and priestesses, and some readers compare her book to 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale, but I think The Bees is much stranger and brighter. Her novel more resembles Richard Adams' Watership Down (which blends biology and imagination to depict the quest of a group of rabbits for a new home) and T. H. White's The Book of Merlin (which imagines life in an ant colony to comment on human nature and society). If you appreciate bees and sf about aliens who are very human in some ways, you should like this remarkable novel.

The reader of the audiobook, Orlagh Cassidy, is excellent, especially with the brutal fertility police, arrogant drones, hyper bluebottles, inimical wasps, and Flora 717, but perhaps she overdoes it for malevolent characters like Sister Sage, who sounds like the good witch from The Wizard of Oz twisted to the dark. That is, even though the novel is very much for adults, with plenty of graphic violence and some sex, Cassidy often seems to be reading it for children.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-02-18

It is the wind alone that moves us

The Ionian Mission (1981), the 8th novel in Patrick O'Brien's excellent Age of Sail Age of Napoleon series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, starts a new mini-series after the resolution of the 7th book. Stephen is happily married with Diana Villiers (though due to their different personalities and interests they don't share the same house), while Jack is happily married to Sophie (though due to his legal entanglements with a land shark, he has had to escape to sea via a temporary commission). The year is 1814, the British are still at war with America and France, and Jack is to join the British blockade of French shipping in the Mediterranean. And Stephen will accompany Jack in his cover capacity as ship's surgeon and in his secret role as spy.

Once Jack begins his blockade duty on the Worcester, an old, moldy, poorly built, unwieldy ship ('a floating coffin'), the monotonous routine begins sapping his morale and that of the crew: 'There is no duller life on Earth than a blockade.' However, the Mediterranean political situation is complex and fluid (the Barbary States, the Ottomans, and the European powers are all busily at work with and/or against each other, while Greek pirates and Muslim corsairs appear and disappear opportunistically), and this is an O'Brian novel, so when we read, 'Although this was only a parenthesis in his career, a routine turn on the ever-lasting Toulon blockade, with little likelihood of action, there was always the sea to cope with. . . and the unexpected was always at hand,' we may expect some unexpected action (though O'Brian, especially in this book, is a master of deferring action). Through this, the 8th book in the series I've read, O'Brian never repeats himself. He has access to a limitless imagination, a bottomless storehouse of historical information, and an endless variety of political, nautical, martial, meteorological, psychological, philosophical, and zoological matter. From the preparatory beginning to the ferocious climax, I had no idea what was going to happen next.

One of the great pleasures of O'Brian's series (and this novel) is the friendship between and personalities of Stephen and Jack. They are perfect foils for each other, Jack being a hulking, red-faced, good-natured, straight-forward man, at confident at sea and at sea ashore, Stephen being a short, sleight, dark, philosophical (if not misanthropical), secretive man, clumsy at sea and adroit ashore. Both men are brave. Both men love music, conversing without words while playing their violin (Jack) and cello (Stephen), and it is for Jack the only way he has of approaching the mystical or the absolute.

O'Brian efficiently works into his story many vivid early 19th-century British navy details: the effects of grog, the superstitious treatment of luck, the need 'to pass for a gentleman' to get promoted, the system of pressing, the need for and nature of entertainment, the routine for washing clothes, the typical Sunday, the code of punishment, the names of puddings (e.g., spotted dog and drowned baby), the importance of wind direction, the preparations for battle, and much more.

Throughout the novel, he writes vivid descriptions, whether of people ('smiling so broadly that his blue eyes were not more than twinkling slits in his red face'), sea and sky ('a sparkling day, warm in spite of the wind, a truly Mediterranean day at last, with splendid visibility, white clouds racing across a perfect sky, their shadows showing purple on a sea royal-blue where it was not white'), ships ('he plunged down into the familiar reek of the lower deck: bilge-water, cable-slime, mould, hard-worked unwashed men'), music ('then Stephen struck out a phrase from a Haydn symphony, a strange haunting inconclusive phrase, a faintly questioning voice from another world'), fauna ('The sleepy gabble of flamingos'), and more and more.

He also works into his book(s) many apt lines about life, like 'Jack was sipping his hot lemon-shrub and reflecting upon moral superiority, its enormous strength in all human relationships but even more so between husband and wife,' or 'Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority.'

Ric Jerrom is the ideal reader for the audiobooks. He reads everything with perfect sensitivity to style and mood and character. His Stephen (slight Irish) and Jack (bluff British) are always spot on, and he enjoys doing colorful voices like Jack with a cold, Jack's coarse, nagging, and nasal steward Killick, the puny earnest adolescent midshipman Mr. Calamy, a Greek Orthodox patriarch, and Turkish beys and pashas, and he sings sea shanties and booms like a bittern with panache. I can't imagine a better reader for the series.

This book is a pleasure! Fans of literate historical fiction set in the age of Napoleon and of Sail, especially the kind that features great characters, and rare but extraordinarily exciting action.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-29-18

Fine Psychological Supernatural Horror

Dr. John Montague has rented Hill House for three summer months, because it is isolated (the closest people live six miles away) and reputed to be haunted. He's out to conduct a scientific investigation of the paranormal there for a book that should knock the socks off his peers. To accomplish this, he’ll need 'assistants' to corroborate (if not to catalyze) supernatural phenomena, so he's sent invitations to people with relevant experience.

Two agree to participate. First comes Eleanor Vance, a self-conscious, friendless, unfulfilled, sensitive, and highly imaginative 32-year-old virgin--imagine an Anne Shirley who never met Diana Barry or Gilbert Blythe! When Eleanor was twelve, her father died and for three days stones fell from the sky on the family house. She has spent the last eleven years of her life taking care of her invalid mother, and now that the woman has died Eleanor is a free agent (though her unpleasant big sister and brother-in-law sure don't want her driving the family car). Second to arrive is the vivacious shopkeeper Theodora, who lives in a world of 'delight and soft colors' and once laughingly broke a laboratory's record for identifying hidden playing cards. She's at liberty because she recently had a terrible fight with her roommate climaxing in the destruction of the gifts they had received from each other. Joining them in Hill House is Luke Sanderson, a wealthy and rakish young man due to inherit the pile. His aunt figures that she's gotten 'the liar and thief' out of trouble for the summer by forcing him on Dr. Montague.

As soon as Eleanor arrives at Hill House she senses that 'it was . . . not a fit place for people or for love or for hope' and hears 'the sick voice inside her which whispered, Get away from here, get away.' Instead of following that advice, she musters all her 'moral strength' and, repeating the lines of a song, 'journeys end in lovers meeting,' steps onto the veranda of Hill House. There she is 'enshadowed' by the house, which she feels 'was waiting for her, evil, but patient.' If you don't like horror stories in which people do stupid things like enter obviously inimical houses …

As the other participants show up at Hill House, and Dr. Montague recounts its history and legends, and inexplicable and disturbing things begin happening there, we realize that Eleanor is the worst person in the worst place at the worst time (or the best person in the best place at the best time). Where will it all end? Are they dealing with one ghost or multiple ghosts or a sentient house or all these? Why is the space before the nursery so abnormally cold? Why can't Eleanor enter the tower and its library? What do the house and or its ghost(s) want with her? What does she want with them? Is it all in her head? It can't be, because Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague all perceive many of the same supernatural manifestations as Eleanor. And yet…

Shirley Jackson excels at psychological horror, putting complicated people in situations attuned to their needs and weaknesses. The book has interesting things to say about fear, as well as about loneliness and the limits of friendship in stressful contexts. She unveils our unflattering impulses, as when we experience a momentary desire to physically or verbally slap someone we really like. She's very aware of how and why groups turn on weaker members. She's also very funny: even before the comedy relief entrance of Mrs. Montague and her right hand man the schoolmaster Arthur, who believe themselves to be supremely sensitive to the supernatural while remaining pompously oblivious, Luke, Theodora, and Eleanor often engage in witty whistling in the dark repartee and flights of fancy.

The reader of the audiobook, Bernadette Dunne, gives a fine reading, although perhaps her male voices tend to sound the same.

I've never forgotten watching the first movie adaptation, The Haunting (1963), when I was nine, because the part where Julie Harris as Eleanor holds what she thinks is Theodora's hand for comfort terrified me into a night of wakefulness with bedroom lights on. So I was curious to find out what the original novel would do to my middle-aged self. I found it to be more morbidly fascinating, ambiguous, and sad than scary. Instead of writing scenes of sensational and graphic violence ala Hellraiser et al, Jackson makes us care about the emotional and mental distress of her main characters. Eleanor is so pathetic in her yearning to belong and so sensitive and imaginative that it's hard to draw the line between what she wants and what Hill House wants. I recommend the book to people who like well-written psychological supernatural horror without graphic violence, expensive special effects, complete explanations, or happy endings.

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3 of 5 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-22-18

A game played with clouds in the sky

Call for the Dead (1961) is John le Carre's first published novel and the first featuring his spy George Smiley, a neat protagonist. 'Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition,' toad-like with a tick in one eye, he's no handsome spy of action ala Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne or James Bond. He's an expert in obscure, 17th-century German poets, and posed in pre-WWII Germany as a scholar-lecturer while really serving as a talent-scout for potential spies. Now during the Cold War he's working for 'the Circus,' a fictionalized British Intelligence, as a home-based Intelligence Officer without expectation of promotion. He's been divorced by his beautiful upper-crust wife Lady Ann Sercomb and is still imagining what she'd say in certain situations. He's intelligent, possessed of a quick and powerful memory, and an astute judge of human nature and character. No idealist, he's aware that his work has encouraged his 'bloodless and inhuman' side and left him somewhat hollow.

After establishing Smiley's character and history, the plot of the novel begins when Smiley learns that the Foreign Office civil servant Samuel Fennan has committed suicide. Just the day before Smiley interviewed Fennan to let him know that he was not under suspicion from an anonymous letter referring to his Oxford University days' communism, and he knows that the man couldn't have felt that his career was in jeopardy or his loyalty questioned, so he doesn't believe the suspiciously typed suicide note. Smiley interviews Fennan's widow Elsa, a 'slight, fierce woman in her 50s with hair cut very short and dyed the color of nicotine,' a Jewish woman with a slight German accent and the atmosphere of the concentration camp survivor. After talking with her, he knows that she lied to him, but he also cannot believe that she could have killed her husband.

That said, (perhaps partly thinking of his wife) Smiley does muse, 'However closely we live together, at whatever time of day or night we sound the deepest thoughts in one another, we know nothing.' He has also become cynical about the concept of the state: 'State is a dream too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky. But States make war, don't they and imprison people?' Then he considers his return to work as going 'back to the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report.'

Enraged by his smooth head of service Maston not wanting to believe Fennan's death was a murder and very aware that 'intelligent men could be broken by the stupidity of their superiors,' Smiley resigns and tries to solve the mystery on his own, enlisting the aid of just-retired policeman Mendel and spy colleague Peter Guillam. This leads to painful realizations about Smiley's past and a suspenseful climax involving a theater, the Thames, and the suitably opaque London fog.

Call for the Dead is a compact and potent tale of espionage and murder, with a convincing set of characters and a complex (rather dark) vision of human nature and governments and bureaucrats and spies and the nations they're working for. No cardboard completely evil villains or completely good heroes here. Fans of literate murder mysteries with a political, espionage bent should like it.

Audiobook reader Michael Jayston is excellent as the narrator and as the different characters, whether British, German, male, female, working class or Oxbridge.

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3 of 5 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-24-18

Now tell me about civilization and your part in it

Swords and Deviltry (1970) is the first book in Fritz Leiber's original, ironic, funny, and richly styled sword and sorcery series about the relationship between and the adventures of the antiheroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. This collection of three novellas depicts the origins of the complementary duo (giant-sized, red-haired, fair-skinned northern barbarian Fafhrd and child-sized, black-haired, swart-complexioned southern slum-boy Mouser), how they came of age, found their first loves, and became friends.

The first story, 'The Snow Women' (1970), depicts naïve and secretive 18-year-old Fafhrd's erotic infatuation with civilization, embodied by the 'culture dancer' mime-actress-thief Vlana, who has traveled with an exotic theatrical troupe to Fafhrd's home in the Cold Wastes of the far north, where a literal cold war is being waged by the women on the men over the decadent southern entertainment. The story ends with a tour-de-force climax in which Fafhrd must choose between civilization and the south and Vlana or barbarism and the north and his controlling girlfriend Mara (who says she's pregnant with his son) and his dominating mother Mor (who'd like to keep him in her ice magic womb) in a sequence fraught with danger, female magic, fireworks, a ski jump, an ambush, and a dagger.

If 'The Snow Women' is Fafhrd’s coming of age origin story, 'The Unholy Grail' (1962) is the Gray Mouser's, revealing how he came by his name and affinity for dark arts. Returning from a quest that is to complete his apprenticeship under the gentle white magic hedge-wizard Glavas Rho, the Mouser (still called Mouse) finds his master murdered and his cottage burnt. Detecting the agency of the magic-hating Duke Janarrl, the Mouser employs black magic against him, despite having been warned that its use strains and stains the soul. His revenge is complicated by the Duke's daughter, the 'perpetually frightened yet sweet' Ivrian. The novella is unpleasant and lacks the series' usual humor, though it features a fine climax involving a torture chamber, a rack, an ant, an audience, and the 'hitherto hidden . . . whole black universe.'

The third story, 'Ill Met in Lankhmar' (1970), is the strongest and strangest in the book, a classic. It recounts the fateful meeting of the two young men and their lovers in Lankhmar, City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes (and hence City of the Black Toga) when Fafhrd and the Mouser separately decide to mug two men belonging to the powerful (and misogynistic) Thieves’ Guild and become instant friends. There are great comedic scenes, like the Gray Mouser inviting Fafhrd and Vlana into the 'throne room in a slum' that he's set up for Ivrian with his loot, Ivrian getting drunk and acting like a Tennessee Williams’ aristocrat and calling Fafhrd and the Mouser 'poltroons,' and the new friends touring Thieves' House in beggar guise, 'fired--and--fuddled by fortified wine.' And then suddenly--'a universe upturned.'

In the three stories Leiber introduces his fantasy world Nehwon (= Nowhen), its terrains, cities, cultures, magics, swordplay, and banter with which he developed the sword and sorcery genre. He complexly portrays Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, as well as Vlana and Ivrian. He explores themes on civilization and barbarism (both are indicted, but for different reasons) men and women (both are 'quite horrible,' but in different ways), and relationships between parents and children (Ivrian’s parents make Fafhrd’s look like June and Ward Cleaver) and between lovers (the power dynamics between the two sets of lovers are shifty).

And he does lots of his fine fun writing, featuring wit (e.g., 'he was about as harrowed as virgin prairie'), ambiguity (e.g., 'He wondered why, although his imagination was roaringly aflame like the canyon behind him, his heart was still so cold'), alliteration (e.g., 'a very faint foam of fear'), and varied and vivid imagination and style, ranging from the comic to the horrible and from the colloquial to the Shakespearean (e.g., 'Fafhrd won and with great satisfaction clinked out his silver smerduks on the stained and dinted [tavern] counter also marked with an infinity of mug circles, as if it had once been the desk of a mad geometer').

Leiber has been criticized for male chauvinism, and if it bothers you to call teenage boys men and mature women girls, you may wince at some things in his stories. Indeed, the scariest, weakest, or most abused people in this book tend to be women. But keep in mind that Leiber is a mid-20th century writer, that he can sympathize with the female point of view, that he writes plenty of unsavory male characters and institutions, and that his 'heroes' are rogues.

Jonathan Davis reads the audiobook with panache and pleasure. He gives the Gray Mouser a cocky cockney-Aussie (?) accent to make him sound more civilized than his very American Fafhrd. He does a fine East European Grandmaster thief and a creepy squeaky wizard's familiar.

Readers who like elegant, bawdy, unpredictable, usually funny, and psychologically complex (if not twisted) sword and sorcery should like this book and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

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2 of 4 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-24-18

'The True Mediterranean'

With his The Silk Roads: A New History (2015) Peter Frankopan wants to change how people see history and the world, as not having always been centered in the Mediterranean a long time ago or in America today, but as having been centered in the crossroads between east and west, in 'the true Mediterranean' of the world, in Central Asia, in now mostly forgotten cities 'strung like pearls connecting the Pacific to the Mediterranean.' Not that he's only concerned with literal silk roads; he's telling a history of international communication and trade and conflict and influence by which different cultures in the world have always wanted things produced by each other and have traded along networks of cities, through different eras silk, furs, spices, gold, silver, wheat, oil, or rare earth. He also covers the transmission of things other than goods, like ideas, languages, religions, technologies, and plagues.

Frankopan covers a lot of ground, ranging from ancient Persia to contemporary –stan countries and everything in between. He is a bit brief on certain interesting people or trends or events dealt with in more detail in other books, like about the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Mongols, the fall of Constantinople, the Opium Wars, etc. By contrast, he provides much detail on World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the current war on terrorism. Granted that there are many more historical sources the closer we approach our current era, but I would have liked more detail on older eras and less on recent ones.

That said, the book is full of interesting information. I liked learning for example that much of the wealth exploited from Central and South America in the age of colonization ended up in Central Asia rather than Europe, funding for instance the construction of the Taj Mahal. The history of Knox Darcy and the British exploitation of oil in Persia and Iran from near the end of the 19th century until about the end of World War II was fascinating. It was interesting to learn that Venice became an international power largely through the slave trade--and that the Italian greeting Ciao means 'I am your slave.'

And it's healthy to be reminded that the nuclear technology in Iran causing such concern in the USA today was given by the USA to Iran as part of misguided efforts to prop up the corrupt dictatorial regime of the Shah. For that matter, Frankopan's depiction of the mess that the UK in the 19th and early 20th centuries and then the USA after World War II and the Cold War made in the Middle East and Central Asia through ignorance of local cultures and histories, through too much focus on the short term and not enough on the long, and through the gap between espousing democracy and freedom on the one hand and callously exercising imperial power as with torture, drone strikes, sanctions, and Guantánamo Bay on the other--is salubrious. Some of Frankopan's best lines come describing American debacles, like "The United States' efforts to diffuse the situation [in Afghanistan] ranged from the inept to the shambolic."

Frankopan is into international trade and culture more than war, and he prefers listing different goods for sale in different markets in different cities in different eras to listing different kinds of soldiers and weapons and tactics used in different battles in different eras. Throughout his book, he successfully demonstrates how all peoples and cultures are interconnected.

About the audiobook, the reader Laurence Kennedy is excellent when doing the base narration (a clear and engaged British accent), but whenever Frankopan quotes a historical figure like a historian or merchant or emperor or prime minister or president, Kennedy feels compelled to dramatize things by changing his voice to ostensibly suit the figure and his or her culture, donning for example a pseudo silk road (slightly Indian) accent or a generic American accent or some seasoned age or greater authority or hotter indignation or gruffer timbre or smarmier condescension, etc., all of which is completely unnecessary because the sources are full of character in their own rights. This is not such an obvious problem in the pre-sound-recording era, but as soon as Kennedy starts acting like people whose distinctive voices we know very well like Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan or Henry Kissinger or Barack Obama, the mismatch between his assumed voice and the real person's voice is jarring. I continually wished he had just read everything in his narration voice.

Be that as it may, I recommend this book because it is well-written, informative, and reorients one's focus towards Central Asia, which is, as the last chapter of the book illustrates, once again becoming an economic and cultural powerhouse nexus in the world.

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2 of 4 people found this review helpful

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