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Summary: An interesting monograph on the topic of murder in the Roman Republic and Empire, but marred by the very large ax the author has to grind. Recommended with reservations.


A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, by Emma Southon, should be of interest to the general student of Roman History and the history of law, because it covers because it explores an intriguing question: how did the Roman people and state view the deliberate killing of one person by another outside the context of war? In our time, murder, the unlawful killing of one person by another, is viewed as a grave crime warranting the intervention of the State through the police and courts. But how did the Romans, from whom we take many of our concepts of the Rule of Law, themselves see it?


Southon, who holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, over the course of nine chapters explores these differences, which can be striking. Looking at homicides ranging from the highest classes of Roman society, emperors and consuls, to the lowest – slaves, gladiators, and prostitutes – she looks at a fundamental question: whose deaths were, in the Roman perspective, even worth caring about? From there she goes on to “Okay, this person is dead. Now what?”


(It should be noted that Southon uses a very broad definition of murder, essentially equating it with homicide: “…I have used a very comprehensive definition of ‘murder’ to include basically all killing. Rightness and wrongness are products of social space, where gender, status, race, location, means, time, wealth and infinite other variables shift and move and come together to create rightness and wrongness that are never static. Because of this, I have interpreted the concept of murder very (very) broadly.”)


In looking at these questions, Southon makes two valuable observations (at least, two that stick with me days after finishing the book). The first is that not all lives mattered. In our Judeo-Christian/Anglo-American ethics and jurisprudence, the ideal is that the murder of “someone important” is no different from the murder of a nobody: killing a homeless person is just as much a crime as killing a billionaire or a celebrity. Each is of equal worth as a person and each has an equal right to life.


Southon points out, I think rightly, that the Romans (and, I suspect, much of the Ancient World) would scratch their heads at that. Society was rigidly divided into those who came from powerful families and did important things and who had dignity, the honestiores, and those who didn’t, the infames (“infamous”) who were barely above animals. Romans and the Roman State simply didn’t see the killing of the latter as any big deal. Stab Julius Caesar, for example, and the civil war is on. Beat Publius the slave to death because he broke a vase and, oh well, you can always buy another slave.


She’s also right to point out the inferior and more vulnerable position of Roman women, though I think she errs by omission by failing to point out the status of women in, for example, in Classical Greece was far worse. In Rome, at least, women could own property and businesses. They were, however, still at the mercy of their husbands and fathers.


And this leads to another interesting observation Southon makes, that murder in Rome was not a crime against the sovereign (the Crown in the UK and the People in the US), but often a private family matter. Killings were often kept “in house” lest exposure cause scandal and a stain on the family reputation. If someone committed a crime worth killing for, such as plotting to poison dear old Pater to get his money, it was usually up to the family to deal with it themselves. There was no public prosecution as we think of it.


One could seek to take a killer to court in Rome, but this was again a matter of a family bringing its case to a court and hiring an advocate to speak for them. (Cicero being among the most famous) A variant on this lead to one of my favorite stories in the book, regarding how the Emperor Tiberius personally investigated the case of a woman found dead and determined her husband had murdered her. But, again, Southon’s point holds true: all of the actors in this story were Important People whose lives were considered to have worth. One doubts very much if the Emperor would have investigated the killing of a tavern keeper’s wife.


Southon, as I see it, approaches her topic from a leftist-feminist perspective, looking at class, gender, and power relationships. This itself I have no problem with, even if it’s not a perspective I share; different lenses or filters bring other facts into focus that can provide insight.


The problem as I see it, one that hurts an otherwise worthy book, is Southon’s tone and style. The book, and especially its notes, are written in a casual, even foul-mouthed style as if one were talking with a colleague in a bar over beers one evening. And there is plenty of “Can you believe they would do this shit?” anger on behalf of the victims throughout, as well as humorous references to modern pop culture. (Southon co-hosts a podcast called “History is Sexy,” so I gather this style is her metier.)


At first, I found this refreshing and enjoyable, but, after a couple of chapters, it became tiresome. I found myself thinking “Okay, I get it! The Romans were scum and they casually killed people in really horrible ways. The horse is dead, you can stop beating it now.” After a while, I was yearning for just a dollop of boring old scholarly objectivity. In short, the attempt to be relatable and casual with the reader wound up distracting from the message she was trying to get across.


Format note: I read “A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” in Kindle format. The copy was clean, with no editing or formatting mistakes that I saw. Too often, Amazon tolerates these. I was happy to see the publishers took care with this book.

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Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 3 of 5 stars




Lois McMaster’s “Penric and Desdemona” series of novellas represents the kind of fantasy I most enjoy: “small” adventures rather than yet another Grand Quest To Save The World(tm). A mostly ordinary person caught in unusual circumstances faces a problem – now, how does he solve it?

In this series, the main characters are Penric, a minor noble who shares his mind-space with a demon that is itself host to the personalities of all the beings it “co-habited” before. It’s name is “Desdemona.” To learn to deal with his condition, Penric became a sorcerer-priest of “The Bastard,” one of the five gods of Bujold’s setting. Together, Penric and Desdemona’s adventures (so far), involve solving murder mysteries in a fantasy medieval setting. In that, they are a fantasy version of the well-known detective team trope.

The fifth book in the series, but third in the setting’s internal chronology, “Penric’s Fox” wasn’t as satisfying, but still enjoyable. The actual mystery itself wasn’t hard to figure out, the clues being rather “on the nose.” It felt almost as if the purpose was less the mystery than to see familiar characters develop a bit and to set the stage for later stories.

Still the writing is good, the characters enjoyable, and the setting interesting. Recommended for fantasy fans looking for a good, quick read.



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This is a preliminary review of Beth Bensperger’s “Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Two”, as I haven’t made any of the recipes in it yet, but I have read the book and have some comments on it as an e-book. First, it loses a star for the index; it’s almost useless, lacking page numbers or active links. You’re better off highlighting things you want to refer back to. There are also an inordinate number of typos: words split into two, “1/2” rendered as “1.2,” and so forth. I found myself using the “Report an error” feature on my Kindle more than I liked. This is indicative of an OCR scan that wasn’t properly edited afterwards, which should be unacceptable with e-books. Thus, another star lost. And I believe her recommended internal temperatures for poultry were high at 180 (Kindle location 1940) as against USDA recommendations. This could reflect older practice, though.

On the other hand, many of the recipes do look good, particularly for someone who doesn’t want to spend all day in the kitchen or the weather is just too hot to be dealing with an oven. And this book is perfect for one or two people, a boon to those of us who live alone.

Recommended on a provisional basis. I look forward to actually making the recipes.

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While Italian isn’t my favorite cuisine, I do enjoy it, and there’s nothing like a plate of pasta with a spicy tomato sauce on a cool night. (With wine, of course) “Laura in the Kitchen” by Laura Vitale presents recipes meant to be easy for the home cook, quick to prepare on weeknights, taking a little longer on weekends, but none of them hard to make or requiring obscure ingredients. The dishes are of a variety of cuisines: Italian, Italian-American (“Bring on the cheese!”), and a smattering of others. I haven’t made them all, but I particularly liked the “sauteed garlic & lemon zucchini, ” a very tasty side dish. I’ll have to toss it with pasta as the author suggests.

I also like her writing style: Laura doesn’t waste time with her philosophy of cooking, unlike some celebrity chefs who’ve let their egos get away with them. Instead, there’s a brief introduction, the obligatory pantry-stocking pages, and then it’s “Let’s get cooking!” This is a book by a woman living her dream and happy to share it with us. Highly recommended.

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Blue Apron is a company that sends “meals in a box”: prepped ingredients and detailed instructions delivered weekly to your door, ready for you to finish on the stove or oven. I don’t subscribe to their service, but their menus looked intriguing enough that, when I saw they had a cookbook, I decided to give it a try.

As a self-taught cook, I need a lot of hand-holding – step by step instructions, lots of pictures of what things should look like at each stage of the process, and clear notes about what kind of equipment is needed. The Blue Apron Cookbook does all that, and I happily recommend it, especially to beginner-level home chefs like me who want to make fancier looking (but still easy) meals.

There’s the usual chapter on stocking your kitchen (equipment and staples), and thankfully it tells you something I wish more cookbooks did: define what a “medium” this or a “large” that really means. It’s annoying when a recipe says “use a medium pot” and you’re left wondering “okay, does your ‘medium” mean my ‘medium?’” So, points earned, here.

Recipes are divided into chapters both by type of methods (e.g., braises and roasts) and by type of meal (sandwiches and risottos). Directions are step-by-step and have plenty of pictures, and always tell you up front what equipment you need. There are helpful tips and sidebars, such as how to clean leeks or capers, and suggested variations.

None of the recipes are difficult, though I think sometimes some are aimed at higher than average budgets; how many of us have leftover roast lamb for sandwiches? Still, there aren’t any real budget-busters in here either, particularly if you ignore their constant admonitions to buy the “freshest, best ingredients.” Sometimes, the pack of Foster Farms breasts on-sale will have to do.

I’ve only made a few of the recipes so far, but they were delicious: for instance the white risotto with parmigiano-reggiano and the crispy-seared chicken thighs with mushrooms. I’m looking forward to cooking my way through the whole book.

I have two complaints about the book: one niggling and one serious. The minor criticism is their constant use of the word “flavorful.” Honestly guys, there are synonyms and you can look them up online.

More seriously, this Kindle version (I own both hardback and Kindle copies) commits the egregious sin of having a flat index – no tappable links. Page numbers in the index don’t match the page numbers in the e-book, so you have to search manually. That’s inexcusable for such a nice cookbook and this far into the age of e-books. So, one star deducted.

That aside, I do like the Blue Apron Cookbook quite a bit and recommend it for people looking for impressive, tasty yet easy to make recipes in a book that has instructional value.

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Actually, a link to my review on Goodreads. If you’re a fan of either R.E. Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” stories or the other writings of Poul Anderson, save yourself the trouble and read this, first. It commits the greatest sin a Conan story can: it’s tedious.

 

 

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When Paul Johnson writes biography, the intent is not simply to recount the facts of someone’s life: it is didactic. Johnson is an historian who intends to teach a lesson with this writings, to show us what we should draw from the subject’s life, works, and thoughts to better our own lives.

Thus it is with Johnson’s biography of Socrates, the first and perhaps still the greatest of the moral philosophers. Rather than a dry recitation of what we know of Socrates’s life and works, Johnson looks at themes in Socrates’ life –bravery; his love for Athens; an absolute commitment to doing what was right and just; and irony– and uses them to illustrate those things that should be valuable in our own lives, and thus improve our lives for being valued. Johnson reads much into the texts and context, sometimes making assumptions and presenting them as facts because he’s sure they must be true, and there is the occasional odd error, but the broad lessons Johnson teaches (or, rather, relates what Socrates taught) and the beauty in his writing make them forgivable. The Kindle version is clean, with no typos that I could spot, though it is rather expensive for such a  short book.

Recommended as an introduction to the person, to help make the philosophy more accessible.

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One of the time-honored genres of science fiction and fantasy literature involves men from Earth who suddenly find themselves on other worlds, whether through super-science, magic, or mysticism, rather than visiting as, say, a “normal” space traveler. The most famous early example would be Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series, but among others are Lin Carter’s “Green Star” books and Andre Norton’s “Witch World” series. In the modern age, the popularity of games such as Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s and 80s helped revive the genre, with books such as Norton’s “Quag Keep,” Joel Rosenberg’s “Guardians of the Flame” series (especially book 1), and Brian Daley’s “Coramonde” books.

“Starfollowers of Coramonde” is the second of two books, sequel to “Doomfarers of Coramonde,” which introduces us to Gil McDonald, an American soldier fighting in Vietnam. One moment, McDonald and his armored personnel carrier crew are fighting an enemy ambush, and the next they’re in combat with a dragon. (Spoiler: APCs beat dragons. Barely.) McDonald and his men learn they’ve been summoned by magic to Coramonde, a kingdom under grave threat from the evil wizard Yardiff Bey. McDonald chooses to remain behind in the world and helps to restore the rightful ruler, Prince Springbuck, to his throne, foiling Yardiff Bey’s plot. “Doomfarers” ends with Yardiff Bey escaping and taking with him as prisoner Dunstan the Berserker, Gil’s friend.

“Starfollowers” picks up soon thereafter, with Gil, Springbuck, and their friends and allies deciding to take the war to Yardiff Bey and his masters. McDonald and a small party head west to return a magic sword and an infant heir to the land of Vegana, currently under siege by the enemy, as well as to investigate what it is that Yardiff Bey seeks in a long-dead wizard’s writings. Meanwhile, Prince Springbuck forgoes responding to the attacks on his own land and instead leads an army to the lands of the enemy and the city of Shardisku-Salama, wherein reside Yardiff Bey’s masters.

And therein lies the problem with “Starfollowers of Coramonde.” After that set up, the book becomes one long pursuit and series of battles leading to a climactic confrontation in front of the city, itself. The large cast of new characters is thinly drawn, and it is assumed that the reader has all the background information he needs on existing characters from reading the first book. Thus there is little to capture one’s interest and give one a reason to care if one is reading “Starfollowers” first. Without the ground laid in “Doomfarers,” this becomes a rather standard fantasy quest.

But it is well done and enjoyable nonetheless. Mr. Daley showed promise as a writer, even with the occasional tendency toward a Gygaxian abuse of the thesaurus, and it’s a shame he died relatively early in his career. His setting in Coramonde is interesting, and I would like to have seen it developed further. And, similar to other books of that time, I have to wonder if this was the author’s home D&D setting. If so, I would have enjoyed playing there.

I read the book in Kindle format and was disappointed in the quality of the file. There are simply too many typos that could have been fixed with decent proofreading. Not enough to spoil the book or make it impossible to read, but enough to be an annoyance. The publisher should issued a copy-edited revision. There is also a paperback copy available.

On a scale of one to five, I give “Starfollowers of Coramonde” a straight three: enjoyable, but best read if one reads “Doomfarers” first. However, I recommend just that: buy both and sit back for a good late-summer’s read.

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Book cover the last moriarty

I’ve been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was in junior high, when I used to watch the old Basil Rathbone movies on Sunday afternoons. One year around 8th or 9th grade, someone bought me a volume of the complete stories for my birthday, which I devoured over the course of the summer. (“The Adventure of the Second Stain” being a favorite. ) I can truthfully say they’ve had an influence on my life, since, thanks to the “malign” influence of Rathbone and Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle, I’ve been a pipe-smoker since high school. (Don’t worry. I’ve stayed away from the “seven-percent solution”)

Since then, I’ve occasionally read modern pastiches on the Holmes stories. Some were excellent, such as Nicholas Meyer’s “The Seven Percent Solution”, while others were just awful. The good ones not only captured the feel of late Victorian London, but understood Holmes’ and Dr. Watson’s characters, how they would speak, and their relationship to each other. The bad ones were only “Holmes in name only” and often had the characters saying or doing things they just wouldn’t in “reality.” Some clearly had axes to grind or thought they were being edgy, making me wonder why the Doyle estate didn’t sue them for damages.

I’m happy to say, however, that “The Last Moriarty” by Charles Veley largely falls into the “good pastiche” category. In fact I’d say it’s very good and well-worth a fan’s time and money.

(Warning: mild spoilers may follow.)

The story opens with the discovery of a dead American floating in the Thames. First ruled a suicide, Holmes (naturally) concludes it was a murder. He then learns the victim was in the employ of the Rockefellers and was in London as an advance man checking into security for a meeting between the highest levels of the British government and the richest men in America: Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie. From there the plot involves multiple murders, terrorism, blackmail, Great Power intrigue, secrets from Holmes’ own past, not one, but two damsels in distress, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Famous characters from the time also make their appearance: not only the Americans, but Prime Minister Salisbury and the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. And, as the title avers, Professor Moriarty himself is somehow tied up in this.

Author Veley paces the story well. Like a serial publication from that era, the story is broken up into many short chapters. The pacing is swift, but never rushed. An average reader could easily finish this over a weekend or even a single long night.

Veley captures the London of Doyle’s tales nicely: you almost hear the horses’ hooves’ clack against the cobbles and feel the cold wind off the Thames. The characters largely sound like they should, too. My favorite dramatic interpretation of Holmes was the late Jeremy Brett’s, whose performances in a British series from the 1980s and 90s set a bar I don’t think anyone will ever clear, even Benedict Cumberbatch. When reading Veley’s “Holmes,” I can hear Brett saying the lines. That to me is a mark of his success.

He’s less successful with Watson’s narrative voice, which doesn’t sound quite right to me, and I think he gets it wrong when characters address each other by their first names. It’s fine for the Americans, being a less formal people than the British, but for our two leads to call each other “Sherlock” and “John” with regularity, instead of “Holmes” and “Watson,” is off: acquaintances would say “Mr. Holmes” or “Dr. Watson;” male friends would address each other with last names without the honorifics. First names would only be used under moments of stress or emotional significance. This is a minor quibble, though.

Where I think the author really missteps is in his two final twists. No spoilers, but they involve Holmes’ past and, I think, go one step too far in reinterpreting the character. The revelations go against two of Holmes’ major attributes: his misogyny and, more importantly, the role of Irene Adler as “The Woman.” Veley handles the consequences of this well, but it’s a step I would not have taken.

Some might criticize the villain for being a two-dimensional caricature, but I think it fits fine with what is, after all, a melodrama involving the theater.

Overall, I highly recommend Charles’ Veley’s “The Last Moriarty” to fans of period mysteries in general, and Sherlock Holmes fans in particular. It’s enjoyable, fun, and even a bit gripping – a definite three-pipe read.

Note on the Kindle edition: Too often reviews of Kindle books make no mention of the format or the quality of the translation to electronic media – and Amazon is far too tolerant of publishers selling error-laden Kindle books. I’m happy to report “The Last Moriarty” has no such problems: the formatting is clean and easy to read, and I could find no typos that I recall. Well done!

PS: Before anyone shoots me, I happen to think Benedict Cumberbatch does a superb job with his modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes (and his “Watson” is excellent). I just believe Brett’s is still superior and truer to the character.

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"But please give us subsidies"

“But please give us subsidies”

I wrote a small review of John Etherington’s book “The Wind Farm Scam: An Ecologist’s Evaluation” at GoodReads:

The Wind Farm Scam: An Ecologist's EvaluationThe Wind Farm Scam: An Ecologist’s Evaluation by John Etherington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rather dry, but a good overview of why wind-power is a scam: uneconomical,an ugly blight on the landscape, unlikely to reduce the “problem” of greenhouse gases (assuming for a moment such a problem exists), and a way for “green energy” firms to drain “rents” (tax money) from gullible governments. Focused almost wholly on the UK, the discussion is useful to critics of wind-farming here in the US, too.

View all my reviews

Not so sure I like GoodReads, but, what the heck. I haven’t posted here in a while.

And wind-power is still a farce.

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Of course, a Melnibonean dragon would be much tougher:

There have been innumerable science-fantasy books about crossovers between our world and a world where dragons and magic is real; one of my favorites is Brian Daley’s “The Doomfarers of Coramonde,” which is about a Vietnam-era US Army unit that winds up in another world… and fighting a dragon.

I’m surprised no one’s done a movie on this, yet, given the glorious special-effects possibilities.

h/t The Daily Beast

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book cover odd thomas

“Odd Thomas,” written by Dean Koontz, is one of those books I wanted very much to enjoy, but just didn’t. It is the kind of story I should have found gripping, but, like a spirit almost ready to leave this world behind, I often found myself close to “letting go.”

“Odd Thomas” is the name of the title character, a short-order fry cook in his early 20s in a fictional California desert city who has an unusual ability: he can see the spirits of the dead, those who haven’t been able to “move on” for one reason or another. They cannot talk to him, but some do find ways to communicate with him, in order to lead him to the person or persons who killed them, or otherwise solve the mystery of their death. Odd uses this ability to aid the small local police department. The local police chief is a good friend and knows of Odd’s talent, as does Odd’s girlfriend, “Stormy,” and a few close others. (His parents are not among that group.)

The plot surrounds Odd’s realization that something very bad is about to happen in his town, “Pico Mundo,” when he sees a somewhat disconcerting man and then begins to notice “bodachs” luking about town. Bodachs are creatures (Odd isn’t sure if they’re spirits, demons, or something else) that appear when bad things happen. Odd frequently sees one or two, but now dozens and even hundred are appearing. They don’t involve themselves in the disaster, but they like to watch, and their growing numbers give Odd an urgent sense of desperation to prevent whatever they’re here to “enjoy.”

No spoilers, but there is a serious threat our hero must prevent. He succeeds, but only mostly and at great cost to himself and others, fitting for a horror novel.

My problems with this book are twofold: first, I’m convinced there is a superb short story hidden within this plodding, overwritten novel. I only wish Mr. Koontz had realized that. I often found myself thinking “get on with it.”

Second, the writing style put me off almost completely. Told first-person from Odd’s point of view, his narrative is very straightforward, almost formal, and at times overly descriptive, like a talented but undisciplined young writer. His own personality is odd, of course, and studiously even-tempered, polite and again formal. While Koontz makes clear why he made these choices over the course of the novel, I found the execution off-putting, almost dull, and even annoying.

Others obviously disagree with me; this is the first book in a popular series and it has been made into a movie. But, in comparison to the works of masters of horror and occult fiction, such as Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Ramsey Campbell,  I found “Odd Thomas” bland and  lacking.

Not recommended.

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book cover wailing asteroid

I’ve gotten way behind in my science fiction reviews, so let me jump back in the saddle (or choose another cliché) with a short review of Murray Leinster’s “The Wailing Asteroid.”

My brief evaluation: Recommended with strong reservations.

Regarding Leinster, I’ll confess, for a science fiction fan, I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of him, even though he was referred to as “The Dean of Science Fiction.”  Speaks to my cultural poverty, I guess. This Wikipedia entry gives a good summary of his career, and there is also a informative entry for him in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia. He wrote in many genres besides science fiction, including mysteries, adventure, and romance; his earliest science fiction tale was published in Argosy in 1919, making him one of the pioneers of the genre.

Spoiler warning. The rest is “below the fold” (more…)

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Book reviews I owe

Books

More of a reminder to myself.

Dear Self, you still need to do reviews for “Eight Worlds of C.M. Kornbluth,” “The Wailing Asteroid,” and “The Hangman’s Daughter.”

Love, Me.

(Quickie reviews: “Eight Worlds” is recommended, “Wailing” is recommended with some reservations, and “Hangman’s” is recommended, highly so for fans of WFRP.)

Really, I will get around to it, someday…

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book cover williams dread empires fall

I’ve updated the “What I’m reading widget” with the latest entry in my “I need a break from History and Politics, so give me spaceships and aliens” list. In this case, part one of  Walter Williams’ space opera trilogy, “Dread Empire’s Fall: the Praxis.”

I’m only a few chapters in, but, so far, it moves quickly and is very enjoyable, just the way good space opera should be. And the setting is a bit different: instead of a human-dominated galaxy or multi-stellar state, Mankind is just one species in a vast Empire (which, per the title, is about to fall apart) controlled by the lizard-like Shaa and governed under their brutal, totalitarian religion, the Praxis. The last of the Shaa has died, and things are about to get “interesting,” in the sense of the old Chinese proverb.

I’ll post a review when I’m done.

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Having read way-too-much politics and history lately, I needed a break and felt the urge for some classic science fiction. Andre Norton’s “The Star Born” fit the bill nicely.

Norton’s story begins as the tale of Dalgarth, a human teen on his coming-of-age trip with his “merman” (think large, humanoid otter) friend Ssuri. Humans are not native to this world, having come here centuries before after escaping a tyrannical government on Earth. Lacking what they needed to maintain their civilization, the “colonists” have retrogressed to a roughly Iron Age technology, but they do recall where they came from and why. On their new world, “Astra,” they made friends with the mermen, who communicate largely through telepathy. And, over the course of generations, humans began to develop similar abilities.

Problems arise for Dalgarth from two sources: first, he and Ssuri discover that the cruel “Those Others,” the former humanoid masters of Astra who destroyed their civilization in a global war and who genetically engineered the mermen and other races and used them for sport, have recovered on another continent and come to Dalgarth’s to reclaim their ancient and deadly technology. As Ssuri tells him, this could mean death for everyone else, including the humans.

The other problem comes from the arrival of a ship from Earth. The oppressive government was overthrown over a century before, but the war to do it was so devastating that Earth is only now recovered and re-entering space. The focus character here is the pilot, Raf Kurbi, who becomes our second main character.

The story lies not only in the defeat of “Those Others,” but also in the realization on both Dalgarth and Raf’s part that the humans of Astra and their cousins from Terra are no longer really the same people, that they are along different paths of development, and need to let time pass before they are again ready to meet.

I enjoyed this book, which I would rate for teens and young adults. The tech is by no means up-to-date (It was written in the early-mid 50s), but the themes are evergreen: exploration, friendship, and choices that have consequences. For gamers, Norton’s “Astra” makes a nice change from the standard pseudo-medieval worlds common in fantasy roleplaying games and is closer to the hobby’s actual literary roots.

Recommended as a pleasant diversion.

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If you look at the sidebar on the right, you’ll notice that the “What I’m reading” link has been updated to “The Complete Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard.” I haven’t finished the book, yet, so can’t do a proper review, but I will say I’m enjoying it immensely.

What a relief after the drudgery of “The Return of the Sorcerer.”

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I’m a great fan of fantasy and science-fiction, much preferring it to “mainstream” fiction. Give me spaceships or wizards any day over the adventures of desperate suburban housewives or men trapped in a job they hate. So it struck me as odd the realize I had never read much of the work of a writer regarded as one of the greats of the Pulp era of “weird fiction,” Clark Ashton Smith. I’d of course seen him referred to in other works, such as Fritz Leiber’s “Our Lady of Darkness,” and knew that he was friends with one of my favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, even contributing elements of Lovecraft’s bleak fictional universe, but I don’t recall ever actually reading Smith’s stories.

So it was, after reading several posts and comments full of effusive praise for Smith at James Maliszewski’s Grognardia blog and after mostly enjoying a small folio of three of his stories, that I decided to dive into the deep end and read a collection of what were regarded as his best stories, “The Return of the Sorcerer.”

My one-word review: Ugh.

Okay, okay. That requires some explanation.

The tales contained in Return… come from a time when the barrier between fantasy and science fiction wasn’t as strong as it is today, and so elements of both would often mix in a story, as in “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” or “The Chain of Aforgomon, both stories in Return… . That’s representative of the period and something I enjoy quite a bit. Burrough’s John Carter stories on Mars do the same and are quite a lot of fun.

However, two things ruin this collection for me: pathetic endings that break the rules of good storytelling and Clark’s language. That last is sure to be the most controversial assertion in this review, so I’ll deal with the question of endings, first.

There was a convention in weird fiction of the time that one could end a story, not with a real conclusion, but with an ending that the reader left wondering at the horror and… weirdness of it all. “Weird,” in the older, more poetic sense of things strange and unnatural, not that which leaves one puzzled and thinking “that’s weird.” Lovecraft often did that, and it mostly works fine. In the stories in Return… however, Smith often crosses over to the latter, ending a story with something that doesn’t leave one with a satisfying sense of wonder, but rather with the urge to throw the book across the room in frustration. Which is exactly how I felt at the end of “The Seven Geases:” the protagonist suffers a mors ex machina that literally had me saying “That’s it?” aloud. This is the worst example in the book, though several others had similarly unsatisfying endings.

But what really killed my enjoyment of Smith’s stories was Smith’s prose. This, I know, will be heresy to some, but it’s true. Smith was a poet and, as James observes in in an appreciation of Smith on the anniversary of his birth:

In particular, CAS reminds us of the power of words to transport us to other places and times and to induce in us feelings and moods. Smith began his literary career as a poet, which is why so many of his stories are better understood as prose poems rather than as narratives in the traditional sense. That’s not say that Smith’s stories are devoid of plot, but plot is often secondary to the evocation of emotion in the reader through the use of exotic language. Critics of Smith’s approach deem his vocabulary unnecessarily ornate and they would be correct if one were to indulge in a steady diet of such language. But, as a “palate cleanser,” such language is both useful and inspirational.

I’ll have to demur, with respect. Even in very small doses, I found Smith’s prose florid and often pretentious, indeed precious. Smith regularly indulges in circumlocutions that had me more than once muttering “Will you please get to the damn point.”  Perhaps that reflects a failing on my part as reader, an impatience that makes me ill-suited to Smith’s writings. It’s worth noting that I don’t often appreciate poetry, either. Others may well enjoy Smith prose — in fact, many do. In my defense, I offer my enjoyment of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, which often engaged in similar “purple prose.” Why I should like Lovecraft while reacting badly to Smith is a mystery to me; perhaps it has to do with discovering Lovecraft in my teen years and having fond memories from that time, whereas I came to Smith only recently and thus I wasn’t willing to “cut him some slack.” Maybe, but I still think Smith’s use of language is inordinately self-indulgent.

So, given I disliked Return… so much, was there anything I liked? Sure. Many of the stories, such as the aforementioned “Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and the eponymous “The Return of the Sorcerer” contain great ideas for fans of roleplaying games, whether fantasy, science-fiction, or horror. Often I found myself being intrigued by a concept Smith introduced, but wishing it had been written by his contemporary, Robert E. Howard. And, should I ever again gamemaster a RPG campaign, I’ll surely come back to the tales in The Return of the Sorceror as an “idea mine.” But for enjoyable reading? No, not when the first word that comes to mind is “chore.”

Summation: Recommended with strong reservations.

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I’m still a game-o-holic

That must be the explanation. Otherwise, why would I have bought a copy of the new, revised Swords and Wizardry, when, if I do ever run a class-and-level FRPG, it’s likely to be with Labyrinth Lord or the Cyclopedia version of D&D? And, beyond that, if I ever run an FRPG again at all, it will most likely be with Chaosium’s BRP rules?

Because… Because it was new and shiny, and I was curious and… and… and…

Because my name is Anthony, and I am a game-o-holic. I weep.

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I changed the “What I’m reading” widget in the sidebar; I was distracted from Howard’s “Conan” by the arrival of a collection of the best stories of Clark Ashton Smith, “The Return of the Sorcerer.”

I’m enjoying it, but not as much as I had expected. While the stories are entertaining and the imagery vivid, Smith’s florid, purple prose doesn’t wear well with me. I regularly find myself thinking “Oh, get on with it, will you?”

And that’s odd, because I love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, who also employed pretentious, magniloquent prose and greatly admired Smith. But, thinking about it, Lovecraft was my introduction to this genre of Pulp weird fiction in my teen years, so he’s always held a special place for me in my “literary heart.” Smith, on the other, hand, I’ve only just started seriously reading, so I have less patience with his endless exploration of his thesaurus.

Still, as my friend James Maliszewski has often remarked, Smith was also a source of wonderful ideas for roleplaying games. This much is undoubtedly true, based on what I’ve read so far. Should I ever run a game again, Smith may be a large influence.

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