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Which is more impressive in this audiobook, the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde or the readings of them by the assembled famous British actors? At their best, Wilde's stories are exquisitely beautiful and painful and reveal deep understanding of the tragedy of the human condition (mortality, inequality, prejudice, selfishness, and hatred), as well as its transcendence through generosity, self-sacrifice, beauty, faith, and love. The readers are perfect, with wise, compassionate, and flexible voices and deep understanding of each word they say and of each scene they depict.
Special highlights are Dame Judi Dench reading "The Nightingale and the Rose" so full of wit and emotion, Jeremy Irons reading "The Devoted Friend" with a surprisingly wide range of voices for different characters, Joanna Lumley reading "The Star Child" and moving me to tears, and Robert Harris reading "The Happy Prince" and moving me to tears, too, especially whenever he says, "Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow." Sir Derek Jacobi reading "The Fisherman and His Soul," Sinead Cusack reading "The Birthday of the Infanta," and Sir Donald Sinden reading "The Selfish Giant" all do fine jobs with fine tales.
The only dud (forgive the pun) is "The Remarkable Rocket," which, despite Geoffrey Palmer's excellent reading and despite the interesting concept (sentient fireworks talking about their upcoming royal display) is finally a mediocre joke that long overstays its welcome. The only disappointment is that the cover art says that there is a bonus track of "The Actress" read by Elaine Stritch, but it's absent from the audiobook.
Anyway, I highly recommend this excellent audiobook.
Garrison Keillor's Pontoon (2007) is a novel whose chapters read like a linked set of short stories focusing primarily on the death of 82-year old, life-embracing Evelyn Peterson and its effect on her surviving family and friends and secondarily on the return to Lake Woebegone of "that tramp" Debbie Detmer for her quasi-wedding "commitment" ceremony. Keillor tells his tale via the memories, letters, back-stories, and current concerns, etc. of a variety of characters, including Evelyn, her lover Raoul, her daughter Barbara (the protagonist of the novel), Barbara's university sophomore son Kyle, Debbie, and Debbie's father.
Lake Woebegone is a largely Lutheran and muchly Norwegian Minnesota small town, and Keillor depicts both its negative and positive sides: it's "a culture of fussy women and silent angry men and horrified children," but "It's peaceful here. . . you can be just who you are." Keillor enjoys lists (varieties of booze being dumped gurgling down a sink drain, garage sale items spread out on card tables, and so on). He loves people, especially quirky ones, humorously, ruthlessly, and sympathetically exposing their foibles, fears, aspirations, delusions, disasters, and memories. His riffs on his fictional characters make them feel real. He makes the idiosyncratic natural and the typical interesting. He expresses much seasoned wisdom on families, marriage, religion, and life.
Keillor's tone, established by the first line of the novel ("Evelyn was an insomniac, so when they say she died in her sleep you have to question that"), is wry. And his humor can sting, as when Barbara contemplates Branson, Missouri, "a geezer resort, where the face-lifted stars of yesteryear go on singing their hits, like demented robots, eyes glazed, a sort of mortuary of pop music." But usually his targets deserve a little zinging, like Barbara's old classmate Marcy, "one of those mean women who developed hugging tendencies late in life, as if that made up for everything." Keillor's humor may attain an oddly affecting numinous counterpoint, as in his description of a statue in a grotto: "A dog lay at the end of his chain, his chin on the ground, pawing at the grass in front of a bathtub half-buried vertically in the ground, the half above ground forming a little grotto for a statue of the Blessed Virgin, arms outstretched, pity in her blank eyes. He had pawed a bare spot at her feet. A dog's homage." And he is a master of the savory, apt line, as when he mentions a radio baseball announcer's voice sounding "like a string of taffy, stretching" on a day marked by "A heavy air of Sunday boredom. Benign, indifferent, dozy."
Perhaps the climax, involving an aging pontoon boat, a pair of giant fiberglass pedal-powered duck decoys, a hot air balloon, a speed boat, a homemade parasail, a bowling ball on a chain, a naked young man, a malodorous dog with a wet, cold nose, and 24 tipsy agnostic Danish Lutheran pastors, is a stretch too far and a touch too contrived, and perhaps Keillor indulges in a wee bit too much eccentric minor character history (as when he has a parachuting Elvis impersonator recount his life story, beginning with killing his best friend in a youthful hunting accident and climaxing with being grabbed by the first President Bush's bodyguards), but overall his style and vision are pleasurable to imbibe, and he is capable of intensely moving revelation.
Some words about the audiobook read by Keillor. His reading is idiosyncratic, savory, appealing. He pauses where pauses wouldn't ordinarily be: "her old suede [pause] jacket" and "For he shall feed his flock [pause] like a shepherd." Or, less often, he speeds through places where pauses ordinarily would be: "Barbara is somewhat tightly wound, not the person you'd choose for the job of finding dead people. [no pause] She shrieked, she clutched at her mother's hand, shrank back from the body, knocked a lamp off the bedside table, yelped, ran out of the room into the kitchen where she tried to collect herself, and took a deep breath and thought 'homicide' and looked around for signs of violence." He drawls downward the last syllables of the last words in phrases, not unlike a deeper-voiced, bucolic Bukowski: "a hubcap for an ASHtraaaaay." Keillor can purr along in his own rhythm (sometimes independent of his own commas and periods) because he is the Writer reading his Work and he knows what he's doing and it works. Short piano pieces aptly and pleasingly close each chapter.
I enjoyed this, the first book by Keillor I have read, and recommend it to people who like humorous and moving tales of eccentric, flawed, and sympathetic denizens of American small towns.
In Iain M. Banks' second Culture novel, The Player of Games (1988), a playful narrator tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a jaded 60-year old master game player living in the Culture, a vast interstellar civilization that appears to be something of a utopia. If anything can be said to run such a sprawling and creatively anarchic civilization that solved interstellar travel over 11,000 years ago, the Culture is run by its AI "Minds," spaceships that give themselves clever names like Cargo Cult, Little Rascal, So Much for Subtlety, Of Course I Still Love You, Kiss My Ass, and Just Read the Instructions, and range from modest military models to vast habitats accommodating billions of people. Thanks to the Minds and to the Culture's advanced technology and virtually unlimited access to resources, every humanoid or sentient drone living on one of its many worlds, orbitals, or ships can get or make or do or be anything he or she wants, there is no poverty, disease, money, blackmail, crime, or sexual or racial discrimination, people can change genders and safely "gland" (manufacture at will within their own bodies) any drug as often as they like, fatal accidents are rare, life-spans are long (people in their thirties seem like "toddlers" to people in their 100s), information is mostly free, and everyone is theoretically safe and fulfilled.
The problem, then, for Gurgeh is that he is probably the best games player in the Culture, which, when added to the safety and comfort of his milieu, has led to his having become disaffected by games (and life) played without stakes other than prestige. Sure he cares about that and feels that winning is better than sex or any "glanding," but really, according to Chamlis, a 4,000+ year old drone friend of the family, Gurgeh is at heart a gambler, and "a true gambler needs threat of real loss and danger to feel alive." Thus when Chamlis says that the best Minds of the Culture are in Contact, where they tend to operate like gamblers while seeking out and dealing with new civilizations, Gurgeh perks up a bit.
And the main movement of the novel depicts Gurgeh's five-year Contact mission to master a game called Azad as he travels to a far off Empire called Azad to play. The Empire is an interstellar one founded upon obsolete things like exploitation, ownership, domination, competition, military might, media control, sexual discrimination, and basically everything the Culture opposes. And Azad the game is what holds it all together. The game is a complex affair played for weeks if not months with vast, multiple boards consisting of varied types of terrain, partially sentient pieces with minds of their own, resource and other cards, and complex rules and strategies that most Azadians spend their whole lives learning. The Azadians are also wont to wager on the game mutilation and incarceration and such. For the Azadians the game replicates the complexity of reality and is thus the means by which they earn the right to hold high government offices (including emperor). Will Gurgeh be able to learn the game well enough to compete with the locals? And how will playing the game affect his nature as a member of the Culture? And if he does somehow manage to do well, how will the xenophobic Azadians accept it? For that matter, does the Culture want him to fail or succeed? Banks never quite explains the rules in detail, but does depict Gurgeh researching the game, practicing with his Contact spaceship, and eventually playing against Azadian opponents in momentum changing, surprising, and gripping ways.
As in all his Culture novels, here Banks displays a fertile imagination, reveling in creating awesome things like the Fire World, a planet on which an entire ecosystem has evolved around a vast field of fire that traverses the world once a month. As in all his Culture novels, here Banks explores interesting ideas like the ways in which games and languages reflect culture and reality and change your mindset, etc., and the relative values of societies based on competition or cooperation, and so on. Banks is quite good at doing what the best sf does: using fantastic technology and environments and civilizations etc. to explore the way we live right now. He uses the tri-gendered Azad culture, with all its sexual bias, to make us think about our own bi-gendered cultures, and he uses the Culture to make us think about our own competition-driven, success-oriented, resource-wasting, environment-polluting, poverty-exacerbating cultures.
And Banks does all that with a clean, cool prose. A millennia-old drone floats up an elevator shaft instead of using the elevator car with a "geriatric precosity." Gurgeh experiences culture-shock "as though the city, the planet, the whole Empire swirled around him in a frantic spinning tangle of nightmare shapes; a constellation of suffering and anguish, an infernal dance of agony and mutilation." The Emperor absorbs some bad news "At the top of the high tower . . . seemingly locked into the stone like a pale statue or a small tree born of an errant seed. The wind from the east freshened, tugging at the stationary figure's dark clothes and howling around the dark bright castle, tearing at the canopy of swaying cinderbuds with a noise like the sea."
Audiobook reader Peter Kenny does a fine job. I especially enjoyed his drone and ship voices, differentiated so as to evoke their different personalities: avuncular drone Chamlis, snarky American renegade drone Mawhrin-Skel, prissy library drone Flere-Imsaho, Indian warship the Limiting Factor, etc.
Fans of elegant, imaginative, philosophical, and political space-opera flavored by plenty of wit and bite should enjoy The Player of Games.
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) is a brilliant historical novel, an absorbing account of the first eight or so years of Thomas Cromwell's career during the 1520s and early 1530s, first as the lawyer man of business for Bishop Wolsey and then as an increasingly indispensable and close advisor to King Henry VIII. It is a time of seismic change for England, with Henry trying to annul his twenty-year marriage to Catherine of Aragorn so he can marry a younger Anne Boleyn to get the male heir Catherine hasn't produced, which involves bribing, cajoling, and threatening the Pope to get his sanction and then when that proves difficult, thinking about making Henry the head of a Church of England. Despite the fact that most people know generally what happened with Henry, his wives, and the church, etc., Mantel's story-telling skills, extensive research, keen eye for detail, and deep empathy for her very human characters make the history/story fresh and compelling.
From the very first chapter, in which boy Cromwell is savagely beaten and kicked by his alcoholic blacksmith father Walter ("By the blood of creeping Christ, stand on your feet!"), Mantel makes us care for the man who is usually the chief Machiavellian villain of 16th-century British history. Mantel works into her main narrative pieces of Cromwell's colorful past (running away as a young teen to become a mercenary fighting for France, living by his wits in Italy, becoming an international merchant and lawyer, and finally returning after twelve years to England due to a dice roll). In addition to looking "like a man who knows how to cut up a carcass" and possessing a body solid as a sea wall and a stare "the equivalent of a kick," Mantel's Cromwell has a retentive memory, facility with languages, practical business sense, unaffected manner, fine organizational and managerial skills, loyalty to his friends and masters, sympathy for children, women, and the poor, and knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right solution. He is also curious about everything from mundane matters like the making of French wafers to arcane ones like the making of a memory machine. As the Duke of Norfolk says, "Damn it all, Cromwell, why do you have to be such . . . a person?"
Mantel also depicts a new and complex Thomas More, here no Man for all Seasons idealistic and integrity-filled martyr for conscience! This More embeds spies into people's households and tortures and burns “heretics” (whereas Cromwell is sympathetic with free-thinking people), and is a hair-shirt wearing, pleasure avoiding, misogynistic domestic tyrant (whereas Cromwell loves good food and well-made things and his wife and daughters).
Mantel writes a potent, graceful, and pleasurable prose. Here are some of my favorite examples.
The sea: "He will remember his first sight of the open sea, a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream."
The Duke of Norfolk: "Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is as lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an ax head. His joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs' bones."
A numinous world: “The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green.”
Laws: “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world and like spells they only work if people believe in them.”
Silence: "A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts."
Sympathy: "Comfort is often, he finds, imparted at the cost of a flea or two."
British History: "It all begins in slaughter."
I suspect that Mantel could make anything work in anything she writes. For instance, apart from Cromwell's flashbacks, she writes her epic history in the present tense. And her narrator always refers to Cromwell as "he," never as Thomas or Cromwell. It can be tricky to follow things when she refers to a male character by name or title in one sentence and then to Cromwell as "he" in the next, but after you learn "his" personality and point of view, it's not difficult to grasp the referent of most of Mantel's "hes."
Why Wolf Hall? Although Cromwell seems to care for Jane Seymour, whose family lives in Wolf Hall, Jane does not play a big role in the novel, and only on the last page is he planning to stay there for a few days. Perhaps Wolf Hall represents something of Cromwell's own will, private pleasure, and romantic heart, all of which must usually be restrained as he goes about the Cardinal and especially the King's business?
The audiobook reader, Simon Slater, does an excellent job with the different voices of the large cast of characters, making them--male and female, old and young, aristocratic and common, English and foreign--sound like different real people. Among my favorites are his Cromwell (tough, intelligent, witty), More (learned, snide, superior), Wosley (John Geilgud channeling Oscar Wilde), Catherine (strong, sharp, Spanish), Norfolk (proud, merciless, choleric), Anne Boleyn ("unforgiving, hard to please, easy to offend"), and Mary Boleyn (sad, flirtatious, mischievous).
I recommend Wolf Hall to anyone interested in British history or in fine literature full of complex characters and rich writing.
What a bleak, awful, hopeful, and beautiful book is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006). It takes the post-apocalypse genre and pares it to the core, burning away almost all flora and fauna from the world, obscuring with ash earth and sky, sun and moon, making each day darker and colder than the last, and setting in that "dead to the root" wasteland a father and his young son to travel "the road" for days "uncounted and uncalendared" through mountain passes and ghost cities and past derelict houses and charred forests south to the coast. A handful of people yet exist in this world: bands of cannibal savages and, possibly, some "good guys" who manage to survive without eating people.
The descriptions of the landscape are spare, apocalyptic, and vivid, like when the father and son walk past cars once caught in a conflagration, "The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts." The ubiquitous ash. The fallen husks of dead trees and the weeds falling to dust. The bones of animals, birds, and people. The colorful memories that are dangerous to recall and the awful nightmares that cannot be recounted aloud.
The journey of the unnamed father and son through the "shoals of ash" is mesmerizing. The father believes the son to be a kind of angel or son of God, though that may be the wishful and hallucinatory effect of starvation and illness. "He knew only that the child was his warrant." The relationship between the father and his son is almost unbearably poignant. The father fears and hopes so much for his precious son in such an extinct world. The son is dependent upon his father for life and companionship and learns vital things from him and in turn guides his father with his pure moral heart. They interact with honesty and love, "each the other's world entire." From the start of the book the father is wracked by a blood-spraying cough, and he wastes and weakens as the journey proceeds, and yet he always finds the strength to lead his son down the road. As he thinks at one point: "No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you."
The moments when the son forces his father to partake in some miraculous treat like a can of coke are moving. The scenes when the father tries to prevent his son from seeing some horrible sight, like a headless baby roasted on a spit, because "the things you put into your head are there forever," are harrowing. The moments when the son is upset and the father tries to reassure him and make him talk are powerful. The scenes where the father meticulously searches a house or boat for salvage are suspenseful: he could unveil a hell (a cellar full of naked people waiting to be eaten) or a "tiny paradise" (a storeroom full of stacks cans of food waiting to be eaten).
The novel is dark, yet it expresses desperate love and hope: the bond between parent and child, the need to do what is necessary without complaint, the wonder of doing good without context or reward, and the strange beauty amid horror: "Human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes. The small wad of burning paper drew down to a wisp of flame and then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then all was dark again.”
McCarthy's book stands apart from other post-apocalypse novels in its severity, its beauty, its darkness, its isolated father-son relationship (most other genre works depict a community maintaining and or rebuilding some form of civilization), its lack of explanation (most other genre works explain their holocausts as nuclear and or viral) and its idiosyncratic style. McCarthy writes elliptical, biblical, poetic prose marked by short sentences without verbs and grounded with simple words and afire with unusual ones (like "gryke," "illucid," "entabled," and "discalced") and illuminated by unexpected similes, such that any "like" may be a lamppost for epiphany, whether ironic ("They wandered through the rooms like skeptical house buyers") or sacred ("All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them"). And the dialogue is laconic, repetitive, and precise, because accurate communication is a matter of life or death and because anything the father and son say may be their last words.
We're going to be okay, aren't we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we're carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we're carrying the fire.
If there is a flaw in the novel, it may be that McCarthy doesn't seem to think much of women. The father and son have been abandoned by their wife/mother, who despaired and committed suicide: “I will not. I cannot.” And the man's memories of her are somehow unconvincing. This is a masculine book. But the man acts both father and mother for his son with great courage, resourcefulness, and tenderness.
Tom Stechschulte's reading of the novel is masterful: reading The Road as a book moved me, but listening to the audiobook made me cry.
I recommend The Road to parents or to people who want to imagine being parents, to people who like the post-apocalypse genre and condensed epic novels, to people who like style as much as story, and, of course, to fans of McCarthy.
Fyre (2013), the seventh and last book in Angie Sage's entertaining Septimus Heap series, enriched and disappointed me. The main story begins a short time after the events of the sixth book, Darke, during which Septimus and company managed to stop Merrin Meredith's Two-Faced Ring-guided Darke Domaine. Now Marcellus Pye, reinstated Castle Alchemist, is secretly restarting the great Fyre beneath the Castle for the first time since the Great Alchemie Disaster 500 years ago. ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand is keeping the dangerous Two-Faced Ring in a magically Sealed Cell as she waits for Marcellus to become ready to DeNature the artifact. The two Darke Warrior Wizards trapped in the Ring are threatening to escape to extinguish Princess Jenna's line. Marcia's Apprentice Septimus Heap is still equivocating between Alchemie and Magyk. Septimus' oldest brother Simon (now fully redeemed after his year in the Darke) and Lucy Gringe are getting married in a well-attended ceremony. Sarah Heap is feeling happy because for the first time all eight of her children are together, but also stressed because the gifts for Jenna's impending Coronation are piling up. Jenna's biological father Milo is working on a secret project, while her biological mother’s ghost is still waiting for the right time to Appear. Jenna is missing the easy relationship she had with the old Beetle, and, worse, is fearing that the Dragon Boat is dying. Aunt Zelda, the Keeper, is forgetting things, but luckily her Apprentice Wolf Boy is becoming ever more confident and capable. And the Wendron witches are still hoping to bag a trophy princess.
For the first part of the novel Sage lovingly tours the Castle (and its Palace and Wizard Tower) with her quirky characters, as if preparing herself and her readers to say good-bye to it all. Then, as in most of the books in the series, mind-boggling adult blunders lead to complications for her child heroes (now 14) to deal with. As in other books in the series, Sage introduces appealing new characters, in this case the Drummins, Alchemical salamander-dwarfs with shiny dark eyes, suckered digits, a complex system of burrows, a lyrical sign language, an affinity for Fyre, and the ability to hibernate for centuries when cold. The Fyre, which feeds on water and calms under coal, is a sublime creation: living, beautiful, powerful.
In a Sage-ian page-turning and humorous way, the story attempts to tie things up, but in this novel Sage also writes more sublime descriptions than in her other books, making it often quite wonderful and pleasurable to read. When Marcellus opens the sluice gate to pour water into the reservoir of the Fyre, when Marcia opens the Sealed Cell to show Septimus the Two-Faced Ring, when Jenna massages the heart of the Dragon Boat, when Septimus and Beetle gaze at the Wizard Tower at night, when Jenna holds out her hand for the ghost of her mother to touch, when Septimus senses the "quiet and purposeful process" of the living Fyre and sees its huge red eye, when the ten-foot tall Warrior Wizards in their iridescent green carapaces and Darke cloaks direct their red eye beams onto the surface of the Fyre, when Aunt Zelda goes into the forest with her storm petrol brother and leans against her large tree brother: all such moments create a vivid, new magical world. And Sage achieves this even when describing non-fantastic things: "One of those bright forest mornings, when the sunlight filtered down through the leaves, and danced across the forest floor like reflections on water."
Sage does occasionally yank the reader out of her fantasy world with jarringly inappropriate writing, as when she compares two hapless Heap uncles to slow motion pinballs, or when she has Marcia quote a person she really admires, Sherlock Holmes. But such moments are outnumbered by delightful and apt touches like this: "In the very center [of burning houses and shops] stood the Alchemie Chimney with a massive plume of black smoke belching from it, like a Witch Mother on a midnight moot conducting her acolytes as they danced around her." Such moments have ever been my favorite parts of the Septimus Heap series (elevating it above the Harry Potter books), and the times I have been disappointed by Sage's work have usually been when she neglects her numinous imagination for too much page-turning action.
It struck me in reading this last book that many rules regulate life in Sage's fantasy world: Queen Rules, Ghost Rules (e.g., an ExtraOrdinary Wizard Post-Living Handbook), Wizard Tower Code of Conduct, Wizard Induction Oath, Spell rules, and so on. And yet despite all the rules, in the Septimus Heap series (unlike Le Guin's Earthsea cycle or Butcher's Harry Dresden books) there is never any discussion about the nature of magic--what it is, where it comes from, how much derives from study and how much from innate gift, what happens to the world when it is used, etc.
The main thing that disappointed me in Fyre is Sage's under use or misuse of potentially interesting characters like the Darke Wizards, Merrin Meredith, Arthel Mella, Jim Knee, Queen Cerys, and ESPECIALLY poor Syra Syara and over use of uninteresting characters like the all-too Ordinary Apprentice Rose, whose interactions with Septimus ("I'll pick you up later?" "Yes.") and reactions to wonderful things like the Dragon Boat ("Wow. . . . That is just so . . . wow.") are banal.
Gerard Doyle, who capably reads books two through seven, finally nearly made me forget Allan Corduner (the superb reader of the first book); I've always liked his gruff Beetle, and really enjoyed his high-pitched Drummin voices.
Readers who like young adult magical fantasy stories, should like Sage's series and this concluding novel, which is full of original and vivid fantasy writing, humorous and moving moments, and plenty of restoration and renewal.
The opening line of Darke (2011), "It is a Darke and stormy night," recalls Bulwer-Lytton's infamous line while using a capital D, an extra e, and bold font to evoke a different Darke. Readers who have made it to this sixth book in Angie Sage's engaging young adult magical fantasy series about Septimus Heap know that the Darke is a selfish, evil use of magic opposed to the selfless, good kind called Magyk. This novel is both a journey into the Darke and an invasion of the Darke into the light.
As usual in Sage's books, adult blunders make plot complications for her young heroes. This one begins with ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand accidentally banishing the avuncular ghost of her predecessor Arthel Mella to the Darke Halls when she intentionally banishes the malevolent ghost of Tertius Fume. Still worse, Merrin Meredith, pimple-faced wearer of the Darke Two-Faced Ring, has been enabled by the obtuseness of Sarah and Silas Heap (biological parents of ExtraOrdinary Apprentice Septimus and foster parents of Princess Jenna) and by the oversight of Marcia (who has never bothered to deal with Merrin) to covertly reside for eighteen months in the Palace attic, where he has made a Darke Domaine. And tomorrow will be Septimus and Jenna's fourteenth birthdays, crucial landmarks in their lives: he will go on his Darke Week, officially to test his relationship with the Darke and unofficially to rescue Alther, while she will gain some new rules, responsibilities, and privileges. In addition to Jenna and Septimus, Sage gives key roles to Simon Heap (still trying to prove that he has left the Darke), Beetle (still trying to find a satisfying job), Stanley the Rat (still trying to run his Message Rat business while taking care of his four teenage ratlets), Marcia (still trying to protect the Castle), and Marcellus Pye (still trying to convince Marcia that Alchemie has a vital role to play with Magyk). Perhaps to make her plot manageable, she removes from it Jenna's biological father Milo, Septimus' jinnee Jim Knee, Snorri and her NightCat Ullr, and Wolf Boy and Aunt Zelda.
Sage writes plenty of great scenes in the novel: Beetle and Jenna visiting Gothyk Grotto, Septimus visiting the Room of DisEnchantment, Marcia setting up the Quarantine and Safety Shield around the Palace, Jenna telling Septimus that she'll keep her real Darke witch's cloak, Spit Fyre dueling a six-eyed and six-winged giant Darke Dragon, Septimus finding a clean little skeleton in the Darke Halls, and Beetle finding out about Wolf Boy's family. I am glad that FINALLY Sage is writing some real teenage feelings of resentment and jealousy between Beetle and Septimus.
And as usual she writes plenty of spicy lines, like "One princess is as bad as a dozen wizards" and "There goes your Coven, Jen." And plenty of vivid, magical descriptions, like: "As if on cue, a spurt of Darkenesse puffed in through the keyhole with such force that it looked as though it had been blown in with a pair of bellows," and "The air begin to buzz with Magyk once more. It was exhilarating, like walking through the aftermath of a storm with the air fresh and tingling and dusted with faint sparkles of light rain drifting in the breeze."
Audiobook reader Gerard Doyle continues to grow on me and does a fine job.
Notwithstanding all that, I found this book to be the least enjoyable of the series so far. It should, perhaps, be less charming and funny than the previous books, being about the Darke and all, but. . . To try to evoke suspense Sage often forces her characters into contrived and irritating arguments. Jenna and Septimus, Septimus and Simon, Sarah and Marcia, Marcia and Marcellus, Marcellus and Sarah, Marissa and Jenna, and so on argue noisily or lengthily when silence or time is vital. And to try to generate suspense Sage makes characters like Jenna, Marcia, Marcellus, Septimus, and Stanley briefly despair which, because we know they should know better, actually decreases suspense. And Sage too often makes her plot work by unpleasant or inconsistent character actions, as when Septimus is so preoccupied with his impending Darke Week that he doesn't take Jenna's bad feelings about the strange Palace attic seriously (after five books of strange feelings being confirmed and dangerous things happening, you'd expect him to take her concern seriously). And a personal kvetch: as an ailurophile, I dislike what happens to the Castle cats.
Finally, despite all the Darke stuff going on in the novel, I left it feeling not much wiser about the nature of the Darke and its relation to Magyk. There is said to be a delicate balance between the Darke and Magyk, but what practically does that mean? Is it that there is a neutral magic that becomes Darke or Magyk depending on how you use it? Or are they different types of magic deriving from different sources in the world? And is the goal to balance them evenly or to do Magyk mainly and Darke Art occasionally? And shouldn't things like using Darke Suspension Under Water spells or traveling the Darke Halls for hours and miles or being slashed with the talon of a Darke Dragon leave some lasting mark on you (as when the Nazgul's stabs Frodo)? Sage's main characters seem strangely unchanged after their walks on the Darke side.
Despite my complaints, the story is compelling and there are many great moments in Darke. I think that readers who have made it this far in the Septimus Heap series should read this one, too, though readers who haven't started the series should (of course) begin with the first, Magyk.
A Civil Campaign (1999), maybe the ninth space opera novel by Lois McMaster Bujold about Miles Vorkosigan, begins a short while after the events of the previous novel, Komarr (1998), during which Miles fell in love with Ekaterin Vorsoisson, an unhappily married woman, witnessed her become a widow in traumatic fashion, and solved his first case as Imperial Auditor. Now Miles and Ekaterin are back on their home world Barrayar, in its capitol Vorbarr Sultana. Having suffered through ten years of psychological spousal abuse, the widow has no interest in remarrying, so Miles initiates a campaign of covert courting: hire her to design a new public garden by his estate, appealing to her landscaping interests, helping her start a new career, and spending a lot of time with her. What could go wrong?
Into that plot, Bujold interweaves many other civil campaigns. Miles' clone-brother Mark and Kareen Koudelka, for instance, have just returned to hidebound, patriarchal Barrayar after a year as lovers on the advanced, anything goes Beta Colony. Will Kareen's family accept Mark as her potential husband? After all, he is a clone who was created and trained as a weapon to destroy Miles, and who is now the unstable manager of four, torture-created sub-personalities, Grunt, Gorge, Killer, and Howler. Will Kareen be able to find a way to be with Mark and to be herself on Barrayar? Still more. To Barrayar Mark has brought (bought?) Dr. Enrique Borgos, a nutty bio-chemist professor who breeds genetically modified butter bugs to eat any flora and regurgitate it as highly nutritious curd. Will Mark be able to turn this into a successful business? And Captain Ivan Vorpatril, Miles' unambitious cousin, is trying to avoid any difficult work while dreaming of reuniting with a former lover. Meanwhile, the progressive and conservative Barrayaran Counts are jockeying for power, as it has recently come to light that Count Rene Vorbretten is half Cetagandan (Cetaganda being a bitter enemy of Barrayar), while Lady Donna Voruttyer has been trying to find a way to succeed her recently deceased brother as Count when "The prick's always been the most important qualification for a Countship." All of these sub-plots occur in the context of the impending politically-charged marriage between Emperor Gregor of Barrayar and Dr. Laisa Toscane of Kommar.
The sub-title of the novel, "a Comedy of Biology and Manners," then, is quite apt. In addition to comical and moving romance on Barrayar, biology plays an amusing role, from the genetic engineering of the butter bugs to the changing cultural and social milieu on Barrayar (uterine replicators, sex changes, clones, and the like). Here be no epic battles involving fleets of star ships belonging to various alien and human civilizations. There is a suspenseful fracas in a parking area involving stun guns, a kick to the groin, a vibra-knife, and a bottle of liquid bandage, as well as a zany melee involving multiple tubs of butter bug curd, two foreign policemen, two spunky Koudelka daughters, one hunky undressed House Vorkosigan Armsman, and one gormless scientist.
As usual, Miles is fun to watch, being brilliant, energetic, charismatic, and, because of his dwarfish stature, overly driven and prone to finding himself in sticky situations from which he tries to extricate himself by "forward momentum," escalating impromptu bold moves and BS, though his talents may not work so well in his first courtship. Ekaterin is a good match for Miles: intelligent, creative, dignified, and excited to find her soul since the death of her husband.
As usual, Bujold writes many great lines:
--"The Countess was to obstacles as a laser canon was to flies."
--"So, hope staggered upright again, like a newly revived cryo-corpse, dizzied and squinting in the light."
--"Yes, if anyone was going to crawl around on the floor hunting bugs alongside Ekaterin, it would be him, dammit!"
--"Well, it could have been worse. I'm glad you didn't have him watch Hamlet."
--"Intimacy of the flesh seemed easy, after the far more terrifying intimacy of the mind."
As usual, Grover Gardner gives an engaging, no frills, spot on reading of a Miles Vorkosigan novel; I can't imagine any other reader doing it.
For all those good things, some things in A Civil Campaign are less good. The Barrayar aristocratic imperial system and Miles' use therein of his connections (like his war-hero parents Aral and Cordelia, Emperor friend Gregor, and former ImpSec boss Simon Ilyan) are a bit disconcerting. (A code card giving immediate comm link access to the Emperor is sure handy!) Although the book affectingly exposes the negative aspects of male dominated societies (where being female is "a legal disease"), I also wish it had more serious investigation of the motivations, implications, and ramifications of things like gender change and genetically engineered invader insect species. As much as I like watching Miles on his homeworld as it becomes less insular, feudal, and patriarchal and more "galactic," I miss his former mercenary entrepreneur life as Admiral Naismith away from Barrayar. And the climax of the novel relies too much on the too unsubtle behavior of a too obvious villain.
Finally, A Civil Campaign IS entertaining, witty, and character and culture driven space opera, one great, amusing scene after another (until, perhaps, the climax). Readers who would want to read Jane Austen doing romantic and political sf comedies would like this book.
If Mark Twain wrote science fiction, it might resemble Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s The Sirens of Titan (1959). The novel is narrated by someone living nearly a century after our own time of "gimcrack religions" and exploration of outer space at the expense of inner truth, an exploration that yields only "empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death." To illustrate what people were like before becoming able to find the meaning of life within themselves, the narrator tells a "true" story "from the Nightmare Ages," which took place between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression.
In the story, Winston Miles Rumfoord is a Newport, Rhode Island millionaire who, nine years ago in an act of upper class "gallantry and style," accompanied only by his dog Kazak ("the Hound of Space") flew his private spaceship into a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" near Mars. As a result, master and dog became scattered through space and time as wave phenomena, pulsing from the Sun to Betelgeuse in a spiral that overlaps the earth for a few minutes every fifty-nine days. In addition to no longer being "punctual" (that is, no longer existing moment to moment like normal life in the universe), Rumfoord has become able to read minds and see the future (because for someone like him everything that has ever happened, will happen, and vice versa). During one of his "materializations" on earth, Rumfoord gives some unpleasant news to the richest man in America, Malachai Constant: in the future he will mate with Rumfoord's wife Beatrice on Mars, producing a son called Chrono, and will end up living on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Needless to say, neither Beatrice (a woman who strives to remain cleanly aloof from life) nor Malachai (a hedonistic womanizer who because his name means messenger expects to bear a message from God to someone equally distinguished) want to make a baby together on Mars! But will they be able to do anything to avoid Rumfoord's future? And could Rumfoord be masterminding a "series of accidents" to bring about that future? And if so, to what end? For that matter, what is the purpose, if any, of life?
The Sirens of Titan is a strange novel: comic, tragic, horrible, beautiful, silly, philosophical. . . Although probably the meaning of life comes down to "some people are lucky and some are not," although probably we are just victims of a series of accidents as we go through our lives, although, who knows, perhaps an ultra-advanced civilization of machines 150,000 lightyears away from earth has been warping every human action in history, although surely the universe is "not schemed in mercy," and although, generally speaking, humanity "is a scummy thing" (people being superstitious, selfish, violent, and ignorant), Vonnegut, Jr.'s novel does offer some truths to cling to: it's better to be used by somebody than not to be used by somebody, and human life has a purpose: "to love whoever is around to be loved." Despite its mockery of humankind (particularly its religious, martial, and business aspects), Vonnegut Jr.'s novel is also infused with his love of "lucky" losers (like Malachai, Beatrice, Boaz, Salo, and even Rumfoord), with his fertile imagination (like the machines of Tralfamadore, the harmoniums of Mercury, and the bluebirds of Titan) and with his knack for witty, vivid description, like the following:
"Bobby Denton spitted his audience on a bright and loving gaze, and proceeded to roast it whole over the coals of its own iniquity."
"There was no sign in the face of any intermediate stages in the aging process, no hint of the man of thirty or forty or fifty who had been left behind. Only adolescence and the age of sixty were represented. It was as though a seventeen-year-old had been withered and bleached by a blast of heat."
"The Wilburhampton Hotel was a frumpish, three-story Tudor structure across the street from the Magnum Opus Building, standing in relation to that building like an ummade bed at the feet of the Archangel Gabriel."
"The child's hair was jet black, bristly--and the black bristles grew in a violently counter-clockwise swirl. . . . And his eyes were luminous under their black-thatched eaves. They glowed with an unshared rage."
Jay Snyder reads the audiobook well, especially Rumfoord's "genial and yodeling" voice and that of Salo, the machine from Tralfamadore.
The Sirens of Titan is science fiction, but, despite the "appallingly beautiful" rings of Saturn ("dazzling bands . . . forty thousand miles across and scarcely thicker than a razor blade"), the Tralfamadorians, the harmoniums, an interplanetary war, and a 36-million-year space voyage mission, it is about exploring the human mind more than about exploring outer space. As Constant puts it (in reference to the shrines of Saturn and its moons made by his son Chrono), "It was all so sad. But it was all so beautiful, too."
The title character of Laurence Sterne's unique classic The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) was ill-conceived when his mother asked his father an ill-timed question (“Did you wind the clock?”), which led to Tristram's “Homunculus” fretting inside the womb without his full compliment of animal spirits for nine months, which led to his becoming the “perpetual sport of fortune,” a prey to "a thousand weaknesses both of body and mind, which no skill of the physician or the philosopher could ever afterwards have set thoroughly to rights." Best not to mention the accidents attendant on his delivery, christening, and circumcision! In nine books and umpteen chapters (some consisting of a single sentence), Tristram uses the story of his unfortunate begetting and birthing as an excuse to entertain us with spicy digressions, irreverent opinions, and rich character studies, which, told with a lively wit and a deep humanity, evoke eight parts mirth and two parts pathos so as to relieve us from the hard life we must live in "this scurvy and disastrous world of ours."
Tristram says that in writing he’ll not confine himself "to any man's rules that ever lived," because, after all, rules should follow a man and not vice versa. He writes a chapter on chapters, a digression on digressions, a preface on prefaces, a dedication on dedications, and, I suppose, a novel on novels. He "writes" blank spaces, black pages, marbled pages, blank chapters ("I look upon a chapter which has only nothing in it with respect"), and a torn out chapter. He archly conceals risque matters behind asterisks and dashes and draws a set of squiggly lines representing the "progressive digressive" plots of his books before drawing a perfectly straight one that he (falsely) promises will structure the next book as "the path-way for Christians to walk in!" He tells his reader, “Do anything, only keep your temper.” It's hard to lose it with Tristram, "child of misfortune," because he maintains a "just balance betwixt wisdom and folly" in writing his "Shandyian book," believing "That every time a man smiles--but much more so when he laughs--it adds something to this Fragment of Life."
Through the follies, wisdoms, and kindnesses of his father and uncle and their cronies, Tristram parodies and illuminates philosophy, psychology, politics, war, love, health, education, procreation, writing, story-telling, and so on. The characters are rounded and winning caricatures: Tristram's whimsical, unpredictable, philosophical, frustrated father; his benignant, humane, groin-wounded, Lillabullero-whistling, hobbyhorse-riding Uncle Toby; his long-suffering, normal mother (who escapes her husband's intellectual foibles by acquiescing to them); the loyal, commonsensical, advice-giving Corporal Trim; and the humane, waggish "enemy of the affectation of gravity" Parson Yorick (descended indeed from THAT Yorick). Even that "whoreson" of a gossiping and none-too-competent Doctor Slop and his nemesis the maid Susannah are fun to encounter. (In effect, all the characters ARE Tristram, who, as a character is absent from his own story.) The novel "ends" when Uncle Toby's climactic "amours" with the Widow Wadman are interrupted by a digression about Tristram's father's bull and a servant's cow.
Although we do not learn much about matters like Tristram's life after infancy, the fate of his elder brother Bobby, or the identity of his "Dear, Dear Jenny," we do learn amusingly much about knots, noses, eyes, whiskers, britches, chestnuts, conscience, in utero baptism, love, learning, and the like. There are comic erotic moments to enjoy, like a Christian knee rub and a sausage-making marriage proposal. Even when catching himself babbling, Tristram entertains: "But this is neither here nor there--why do I mention it?--Ask my pen,--it governs me,--I govern not it." And of course he writes many witty lines about life:
--An eye is for all the world exactly like a cannon, in this respect; That it is not so much the eye or the cannon, in themselves, as it is the carriage of the eye--and the carriage of the cannon, by which both the one and the other are enabled to do so much execution.
--'It is with Love as with Cuckoldom'--the suffering party is at least the third, but generally the last in the house who knows any thing about the matter.
--What a jovial and a merry world would this be, may it please your worships, but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief, discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions, and lies!
Tristram Shandy is an encyclopedic novel, as is evidenced by its incorporation of many branches of knowledge and its many lists of everything from Roman footwear, scholarly child prodigies, excommunicating curses, and auxiliary verb conjugations to apothecary treatments for illnesses, elements of fortifications, attributes of love, and traits of tutors. Such pleasurable lists, along with the rich style, the bracing irreverence, the fertile imagination, the comedy and tragedy of life, and the sheer pleasure of the writing so evident in the reading, all prefigure works like Moby-Dick and Ulysses.
With his appealing voice and manner, Peter Barker gives a fantastic reading of the novel, deftly handling pauses and emphases, moments of incomprehensible whispering when Sterne hides juicy bits with asterisks, French and Latin, and even things like this: "Ptr...r...r...ing--twing--twang--prut--trut--'tis a cursed bad fiddle." Barker audibly breathes and turns pages, but such sounds only enhance the conversational book, as if we were listening to a witty, creative, and live man progressively digress.
Because much of the pleasure of Tristram Shandy derives from Sterne's typographical play and 18th-century punctuation, while listening to the audiobook it might help to have the actual book handy.
People interested in comic digressive epics or unique classics should read Tristram Shandy; my only regret is that I waited to do so until after my father, who loved Sterne's novel, died.
Syren (2009), the fifth book in Angie Sage's entertaining and magical Septimus Heap series, begins about two days after the end of the fourth one, Queste. While Beetle, Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, and Ullr are in the far Trading Post being entertained on the Cerys, the splendid ship belonging to Jenna's biological father Milo Banda, Septimus is getting ready to fly there on his dragon Spit Fyre to pick them up. Newly promoted to Senior Apprentice of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, the boy would like to dramatically finish his Queste by flying his long-lost older brother Nicko home to their parents at the Castle. As usual in Sage's books, things don't go quite according to plan. As Spit Fyre and Septimus are flying over a set of seven beautiful islands en route to the Trading Post to pick up his friends, the boy falls into a half-dreaming state and hears, perhaps, someone call his name. And mightn't some people prefer a leisurely ship voyage to an uncomfortable dragon flight? And just what's inside the old chest that Milo has secretly bought and sealed in the hold of the Cerys? Milo proudly tells Jenna that the contents of the chest will keep her safe in the Palace forever. Is Milo yet another of Sage's well-meaning but ignorant, feckless, obtuse, and otherwise flawed adults who cause so much trouble to her kid characters?
Meanwhile, other characters are engaged in sub-plots of their own. Wolf Boy is on an initiation mission to the Port Witches' Coven, which, if he survives, should make him Aunt Zelda's Apprentice Keeper (the first boy to ever be one). What will happen when Wolf Boy asks the Witches to let him feed the Darke, tentacled Grim? Simon Heap is missing Lucy Gringe, who has vanished in the port; has she dumped him for another boy? Merrin Meredith, AKA Daniel Hunter, AKA Septimus Heap, is still lurking about the Palace, gorging on licorice snakes and banana bears, growing ever more greasy haired, pimply, and obnoxious, and performing none too reliably at his new job in the Manuscriptorium. Will he learn a lesson about the dangers of shaking down little boys and opening their fancy scent bottles? Aboard the large, black fishing boat the Marauder, the skipper Theodophilus Fortitude Fry (ex-ship wrecker, ex-pirate) and his two thuggish hirelings the Twin Crows (one fat, one thin, both identical) are up to something shady. Is the rumor going round that Fry was plain Joe Grub until he came into some money by selling himself to become a ghost's BondsMan true? Speaking of ghosts, Tertius Fume, "no friend of the Castle," is suspiciously absent; can he be up to some new nefarious scheme?
Sage's unpredictable plot will have all those characters becoming involved with one another in one way or another, along with Syrah Syara, a slim, 500-year old former Senior Apprentice; Jim Knee, a jinnii with an outre hat; Barney Pot, a spunky little terrier of a boy; Jakey Fry, the lonely son of the unpleasant skipper; Miarr, a cat-man lighthouse keeper; and Syren, an ancient Possession Wraith. In this book, even the scream-prone Lucy Gringe becomes an interesting and capable character: "a smarty-pants boy and a tantrum-prone cat-man were not going to stop her from getting even with two murderous thugs and their skipper."
This novel may have fewer rich descriptions and more exciting action than Physik and Queste. And Sage is still apt to suddenly do something inconsistent or unconvincing with a character, as when she has Wolf Boy, who grew up wild with wolverines in the forest and who loves living in the Marram Marshes with all their creatures, wax squeamish about having to grab a live toad door knocker on the witches' door. And she needlessly attempts to evoke suspense by making Miarr's submarine have to launch in 60 seconds as Wolf Boy and Lucy equivocate over whether or not to get in it. And the climax suffers a bit from Deus Ex Machina. And Sage still, I think, overuses fairy tale superlatives like "the longest corridor Barney had ever seen."
All that said, there is plenty of fine and fun writing here. Cool descriptions like "She heard the loud swoosh of a dragon's wing, a noise not unlike the flapping of a hundred striped tents full of ghosts being blown away in a ferocious gale." Nifty Young Army rhymed sayings that Septimus and Wolf Boy (formerly Boy 412 and Boy 409) mouth to irk Jenna, like "Use your head or you are dead." And Jim Knee's mock formal and grand addresses to Septimus, like "O Excitable (or Exigent or Desperate or Displeased etc.) One" are funny. And Sage is good at writing unpredictable plots in which her appealing characters and her repulsive characters entertainingly collide. Syren also introduces some sf elements: a submarine, a palm-activated elevator, and a long-vanished culture from the Beyond based on science and technology rather than Magyk.
Reader Gerard Doyle does fine. I particularly like his cat-man Miarr, his Marcia in high-dudgeon, his lilting Snorri, and his Indian or Pakistani Jim Knee.
Probably my favorite book in the series so far has been the third, Physik, and the fourth, Queste has many more impressive descriptions than Syren, but this book has its moments: the unorthodox dance (swinging his arms like a windmill in a gale) that skipper Fry does when trying to locate some invisible interlopers on the deck of a ship; the uncanny clockwork dance that Syrah does when possessed; the view from inside Miarr's Red Capsule of the eerie undersea world; the reading of Syrah-Syren's diary when Jenna feels "like I watched someone being murdered"; Jakey Fry yearning to join the nighttime silhouettes of kids playing on an island. Fans of young adult magic-fantasy should give Sage's series a try.
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