Archives: Reading

Slim Volumes

I’ve been ill. Still am, to be honest. Head throbbing, muscles and joints aching. Tired. No surprise then that it is hard to concentrate. But today is Sunday, so a web log post must be completed, illness be damned.

I’ve been re-reading Simon Hawke’s “TimeWars” novels. Fun, fast-paced stuff, the kind you really don’t see much of in today’s marketplace of 300+ page novels. Number four in the series, the one I”m reading now, weighs in at about 196 pages, if I remember correctly. I’m too tired to check. My bookshelves hold a lot of paperbacks of roughly the same page count, the 175-200 page range. I miss those. Not that I dislike longer books, it’s just that I don’t seem to have any other option when it comes to new releases.

Currently in the Book Chute

I am usually reading three or four books at any given point, all at varying points of completion. Call it the book chute. There are books upstream, queuing up to enter the chute, and there are others just emerging from the chute, freshly read. So here’s a snapshot of the book chute now, and it is fairly representative.

I finished Robert Sheckley’s “Immortality, Inc.” recently. And I’m about a quarter into Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash.” Yes, I’m late to the party on both of those. “Snow Crash” I’ve meant to read for years, but I wanted to buy a copy instead of checking it out from the library. I’m also cheap, so I wanted to buy a used copy, but have never been able to find anything other than new. Birthday gift card to the rescue! Actually my intent was to pick up the latest of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, but Barnes & Noble didn’t have a copy in stock (odd, since they’d been pushing it in the inescapable online advertisements that accompany my web browsing.)

I mention “Immortality, Inc.” and “Snow Crash” together because I find it interesting to read almost side by side two visions of the future written about fifty years apart. Both still hold up despite missing certain developments. Sheckley didn’t forecast the computer revolution. And it is disconcerting to read so much about telephone operators and pay calls. The nineteen-fifties permeate the book, but it is still an inventive take on the future. Stephenson stuck with the cyberpunk conception of the internet as an immersive, virtual world, navigated on foot by avatars, interfacing with programs on an almost physical basis instead of through the intermediation of a keyboard. And he didn’t take wi-fi far enough, not envisioning the speed and data capacity we now take for granted. But I’m digging the book to this point.

I’m also reading M.A.R. Barker’s “Flamesong.” I finished the first of his Tékumel novels, “The Man of Gold,” a couple of months ago, and moved on to “Flamesong.” The world-building is first rate, and hyper-detailed. Perhaps overly so. I almost worry there will be a test once I’ve finished the book.

I’m reading “The Thousand” by Kevin Guilefoile. Think Dan Brown, but with more originality and a bit of a sci-fi component. And, so far, better writing.

Then there’s the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories sitting on the upstairs toilet tank, “The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” One must have a bathroom book, right?

In line I’ve got a couple of Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno novels, conveniently combined in a single volume, and a John Ringo novel, “Live Free or Die.”

So long as I keep the chute fed, I’m content.

Dune: The Spice Still Flows

Is there a work of science fiction that acts as the standard-bearer for the entire genre, the way “The Lord of the Rings” does for fantasy? I’m not sure. The field is crowded with worthy candidates. But I’d nominate Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”

It is a sprawling, glorious space opera, replete with memorable images, clever conceits, scientific speculation on a grand scale, and magnificent characters. The villains are vile and the heroes heroic. Who can ever forget Baron Vladimir Harkonnen? Or Duncan Idaho? “Dune” gave us mentats, gholas, hunter-seekers, the Gom Jabbar, and ornithopters.

The Elfin Ship

Feeling, as I did, a trifle lonesome with my wife and daughter out of town for the week, “The Elfin Ship” by James P. Blaylock provided the ideal anodyne. It’s a warm fireplace and mug of hot, honeyed tea kind of book. Literature as comfort food.

“The Elfin Ship” fits the tradition of the leisurely road trip filled with adventures and perils that feel at less-than-serious on the surface, but ominous beneath the light-hearted prose. The book would be at home on the shelf next to “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Hobbit,” and “The Face in the Frost.” It’s the upper middle-class Englishman analogue stirred from his complacency and sent on a colorful round trip. You never truly fear he’ll fail to return and get to enjoy every way stop, every pipe smoked and tankard of ale drunk.

It is not easy feat maintaining this tone consistently for the duration of a long narrative. Given that “The Elfin Ship” was Mr. Blaylock’s first published novel, my hat is off to him.

My apologies for the brevity of this post. I’ve got some house-cleaning to attend to. My ladies are due back home in a couple of days and I fear my short reversion to bachelorhood has left the place rather a mess.

Rainy-day Reading

The grey days are here again. The storms roll inland from the Pacific in succession, bringing the seemingly continuous rain. The temperatures drop and coats come out of the closet. The days grow shorter. The nagging bugs commence. My daughter has already picked up a cold from somewhere and has graciously shared it with my wife. I imagine I’ll get to join the fun soon enough.

Goodbye summer. Hello long hours indoors. Those with the time curl up under a warm blanket and read. For the purpose of this web log post I’ll pretend I’m one of those fortunate folks with time on their hands, and not someone with a full-time job, a wife and infant deserving attention, novels to write, and a home to keep clean and maintained. I’m going to pretend I can do more than snatch a few minutes here and there to read.

Peregrine: Primus, Philosophy and Picaresque

I’ve written before about Avram Davidson. Might he not have graced the list of an alternate Appendix N? If I recall correctly, Gary Gygax was a Christian. Whether observant or not. But it is possible that he might find Avram Davidson’s rather acid and frequent criticism of religion distasteful and thus did not consider him an influence upon D&D. Pure speculation on my part.

The point is, I’m writing about Avram Davidson again. I just finished “Peregrine: Primus,” a short novel by Davidson, published in 1971. It is an interesting and entertaining read. It is in part a bildungsroman and in part a picaresque. A picaresque as composed by James Branch Cabell and John Myers Myers writing in tandem, if that gives you an idea of the style and quality. Funny stuff, droll, learned, rife with wordplay and bawdy innuendo.

Ursus

Today’s post comes rather late. I don’t apologize. I was busy desecrating the game of golf with some old friends, too seldom seen. Later the day involved overcooking meat on the grill and sweating off a pound or two adjusting the crib so that my hyperactive offspring doesn’t crawl out of it in the night.

Tonight, after scrubbing burnt barbeque sauce from the grill, I’m reviewing Ursus of Ultima Thule by Avram Davidson. In previous posts I’ve commented on some of the authors and titles from Appendix N of the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. It’s not a bad list, Appendix N. Sometimes I read something I think ought to be in some sort of Appendix N supplement, a few loose leaves of paper distributed periodically to those of us with a DMG that we can fold in between the covers, appending Appendix N. Avram Davidson is one of those authors I think fits.

Davidson is perhaps less well known than his talents deserve. I know him primarily for a historical fantasy character, a hardcase sort of character from the sword-and-sorcery school whose adventures are set around the turn of the millenium Mediterranean. I picked up Ursus on the strength of Davidson’s short story writing.

I wasn’t disappointed. He’s written an early iron age fantasy, in the lost civilization tradition of stories set in Atlantis or Mu. He employs a highly stylized narrative voice. I can see that being off-putting for some readers, but it worked for me. Ursus is a short novel, far from the expected massive word count of today’s books. Probably for the best, the poetic style might have worn out its welcome had the book ran on much longer.

Ursus is tbe coming-of-age story of a man who – Conan fashion – becomes a king. The eponymous Ursus is a boy by the name of Arn who discovers his heritage as a shape-shifter, a were-bear. He lives during a time when wooly mammoths still roam the far north, a time during which non-human races still exist. A dying king is dealing with ‘iron-sickness,’ a sort of chronic plague of rust. Arn finds himself caught up in the matter, meeting his father, learning something of his heritage, questing for a cure to the iron-sickness, and becoming a man.

I can see the book serving as inspiration for a game involving late ice age characters and/or shapeshifters. I can also, as I said, see readers putting the book down after the first chapter, unwilling to engage with the voice the author chose for the story. Me, I liked it and I’ll keep my eye out for more of Avram Davidson’s fiction.

A Child's Library

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I’ve been thinking about what books to purchase for Victoria Valentina. With what titles shall I stock her library? Honestly I’ve been pondering this since before she was born. Look, that’s just how I am. Don’t judge me.

I’ve already picked up a paperback copy of Tbe Wind in the Willows. She may be about a decade from appreciating that one. I read it aloud to my wife. It’s been more than thirty years since I’d last read it. It held up, though it is more ponderous and somewhat less whimsical than I remember.

A boxed set of of A.A. Milne is probably at the head of the list. Winnie-the-Pooh, When We Were Young, etc. Maybe Beatrix Potter. These are likely the foundations, the talking animals, stuffed or otherwise. We can move on to Charlotte’s Web later.

I’ll probably want a nice hardcover, illustrated fairy-tale collection. And a Hans Christian Anderson collection. I’ve already got The Hobbit, copies in English and Spanish. But this might be an excuse to buy another edition.

Looking at this selection I see a decided predilection toward the fantastic. Is it any wonder I write fantasy and science-fiction? I suppose I’ll want to pick up a Laura Ingalls Wilder set as well. Establish some historical grounding. I’ve got editions of Robin Hood and King Arthur tales, but those hardly qualify as historical.

Some might say that the books I’ve selected are written for more advanced readers, that contemporary children’s books are more age-appropriate. Some would say that the concepts and vocabulary in my selections will prove challenging for little Victoria, that the language is outmoded, the morals old-fashioned, that I’m attempting to impose my own childhood on my daughter.

You know what? I don’t see a problem with any of that.

Of course, she won’t even turn one until November. So I’ve got some time.

Bard

No, not William Shakespeare. I’m writing today about “Bard” by Keith Taylor. A hat tip to Black Gate http://www.blackgate.com/ for the recommendation. “Bard” was exactly what I needed, fast paced, well-written, humorous, cover-to-cover action and magic.BARD_KT1.jpg

“Bard” is an exemplar of 1980’s fantasy. Back then I could head to the mall with a five dollar bill, hit the Waldenbooks or B. Daltons, buy a paperback and still have enough for a sandwich at the food court, and maybe a few quarters left over for the arcade. For my book-buying dollar I’d get two or three hundred pages of story. The page counts grew during the ‘80s. It wasn’t uncommon for ‘70’s paperbacks to weigh in at 175 pages. The ‘80s were a stepping stone on the way to the current paradigm: book one of an endless cycle. I’m not opposed to cinder block-sized epics, but sometimes I don’t want to commit to 8,000 words and ten plus volumes that won’t be completed for the next fifteen years. Sometimes I just want a self-contained tale. Not that all novels from the ‘80s were stand alone stories. “Bard” has sequels, but there is no cliff-hanger ending compelling continued reading, no “to be continued” or “Book One of the Bard Saga.”

Instead we get an episodic tale of Felimid mac Fal, a bard, natch. He’s traveling through Britain, from his native Ireland, during the Saxon invasions subsequent to the Roman exodus – the era of the King Arthur legendarium. Arthur doesn’t make a personal appearance in “Bard” but references pop up here and there. Felimid is an atypical sword and sorcery hero. He can fight, and ends up doing a fair amount of it. But he’d rather avoid it, rather lie his way out of a conflict, use his wits and music and magic.

“Bard” is steeped in Irish folklore. That’s another reason the book is an exemplar of ‘80s fantasy. Celtic myth enjoyed a vogue in the fiction of the decade. Seemed like every book you picked up involved the Sidhe, or Tuatha de Danann, or the Fomorians. Not that I minded. If that vogue comes around again I won’t complain.

Pick up a copy of “Bard.” I think you’ll enjoy it.