Reading Journal Entry: Sinister Barrier by Erik Frank Russell

The last novel collected in Entities, Sinister Barrier, was less interesting than the others. It's less humorous and mostly a straightforward adventure story. Our hero is a puckish investigator who begins by making connections between seemingly unrelated suddent deaths of scientists worldwide and ends by saving the human race. The idea that we're being manipulated by mysterious unseen forces is creepy but now seems a bit dated, and Graham the narrator is annoyingly brilliant; A 'lady scientist' makes an appearance, which is nice, but mostly as a foil for Graham to display his ardor/inappropriately sexual conversation skills. Russell's characters often had a paper feel to them. In his previous works the unusual nature of their occupation (professional terrorist/telepath/extraterrestrial being) made their extraordinary competence less jarring. Since Graham is a 'regular guy', hecomes out sounding more like an automaton.

Reading Journal Entry: Call Him Dead by Erik Frank Russell

Mr. Harper is a telepathic mind living in a mind-blind world. He tends to keep his thoughts to himself except when he can't resist turning fugitives over to the police and succouring dying strangers by the side of the road. His penchant for amateur sleuthing lands him in trouble - he's tracking down some suspicious characters when he encounters a mind that is not as it should be.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers! This might sound derivative but only because it's been copied so many times.

Harper's perspective as a telepathic narrator is unique, but his path is too smooth to make this an interesting read. A sweet ending, though.

Reading Journal Entry: Sentinels From Space, by Erik Frank Russell

Sentinels From Space, explains Jack Chalker carefully in his introduction, has a 'closed loop' plot. There's the plot. And then there's the other plot. Superficially this is a mystery/thriller about interplanetary friction between Earth and her colonies of Mars and Venus. David Raven is an individual of extraordinary abilities who has been recruited by the government of Earth to ferret out and defuse a separatist underground. He's not what he seems. He has powers beyond the ordinary, but in choosing to exert them in this cause he risks exposing himself as.... what? Read to the end to find out. I never saw it coming, but it all fit together very nicely and gave me that feel-good 'Aha!' moment.

Reading Journal Entry: Next of Kin by Eric Frank Russell

Last week I reviewed Wasp by Eric Frank Russell, a British post-WWII science fiction author. Wasp was included in Entities: The Collected Novels of Erik Frank Russell, and I've been gulping down the rest of the collection as quickly as I can.

Wasp was hilarious.Next of Kin is prophetic in its echoes of Catch-22, published 3 years later.

It's an irreverent howl at officialdom. John Lemming is a skilled space pilot, one of the few types allowed a bit of craziness in a military force that seems eerily familiar. The work opens as he steps into the office of a Fleet-Admiral with his fly open. He never gives up railing against injustice, on the grand and the petty scale. Luckily for our side, he becomes a prisoner of war and is able to exercise his talents for good.

I never would have guessed where this ended up going - very funny. Good clean fun too, reminiscent of Heinlein juveniles (before he got into the polyamory thing). Straightforward enough that I was comfortable recommending this to my husband, whose latest read was Duel of Eagles, and who goes in for adventure stories and car magazines.

It's clear to me now that Russell was one of the most influential British SF writers of his generation, right up there with Aldiss and Wyndham. How did I not know about this guy? I thought I had exhausted the ranks of lantern-jawed, soap-and-brandy-smelling, no-nonsense adventure SF writers of that era. After all, I read my way through two fairly complete antiquated SF libraries - my dad's, and my high school's. I am so glad to learn I was wrong.

Reading Journal Entry: Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

I came across a mention of Flashman, the swaggering Victorian hero escaped from the pages of Tom Brown's School Days by the twentieth century George MacDonald Fraser, a few months ago, I can't remember where. He was described as misogynistic and cowardly. Then I saw the cover of a Flash book on George W. Bush's summer reading list and I could resist no longer. After all, it was pretty fun last time I read along with Mr. Bush.

Harry Flashman, son of a Victorian gentleman, exceeded all of my expectations for riotous behavior and general moral reprehensibility. The books purport to be his memoirs; in this volume he begins with his explusion from school at the age of 17 for drunkenness and proceeds to cheat in a duel, attempt to rape his father's mistress (after cuckolding him successfully once before), debauch a young virgin of good standing, etc., etc. He joins the military and is posted, to his great dismay, to Afghanistan. Flashman is a tremendous coward, and doesn't have any of that high Victorian gudgeon that drives his peers to sacrifice their lives for Queen and country. No, he prefers to leave his skin intact. He avoids danger whenever possible and takes to his heels in the face of the enemy a number of times. In his narration he indulges in a free flow of contempt for the natives of the countries he travels in, his military commanders, and every woman he meets.

He is a delightfully despicable character. By the end of the book I was rooting for the woman who wanted to castrate him. Sadly, he escaped.

A good part of the events take place during the end of the British conflict in Afghanistan. The British had placed a friendly ruler on the throne, but in 1841 and 42 the British were expelled and completely defeated, the affair ending in a disastroust retreat through snowy mountain passes in which 14,000 soldiers and camp followers died and only 1 Briton survived. Two if you count Flashman.

There are two Flashman novels on President Bush's list, Flashman at the Charge and Flash for Freedom. Flashman is not on the list. It's the first in the series, though, and therefore I can have to conclude that President Bush has read it. Through the release of his summer reading list he gives it and the other volumes (staid non-fiction and biographies, with a few mystery novels thrown in) publicity and by implication his endorsement.

What in the world is he thinking of to give public attention to this kind of character and plot? To a book set in an area where the United States is currently at war, with a narrator who refers in the basest terms to the native people? 'Nigger' is the least of it. Flashman is a drunkard, a coward, and an imperialist to his fingernails. It's impossible to avoid comparing the character to the man. Frankly I can't imagine what his people might have been thinking. It's enough to cause an international incident.

Reading Journal Entry: Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell

Eric Frank Russell was British, and served in military intelligence during World War II. He was also one of the most prominent humorous SF writers of his time.

Wasp is, as Jack Chalker says in his introduction, "the only World War II novel that I know of set in the Sirian Interstellar Empire". It's about a man who is recruited to serve undercover in enemy territory committing acts of sedition and terrorism, a 'wasp' designed to demoralize and distract the enemy and commit resources that would otherwise be put to use on the front lines.

Our wasp is named Mowry, and he's very effective. Minor alterations to his appearance make him appear to be a native-born Sirian. With some fiscal and technological help, he infiltrates himself into the police state and begins wreaking havoc.

There's not a lot of real science fiction here - 'scratch the Sirian's purple skin and find Imperial Japan underneath', says Chalker. It's almost entirely a spy novel set on another planet. But it is very fun and should be enjoyed by fans of Bond and his ilk.

So: the terrorism. Here we have a guy who goes about undercover and commits acts of violence against a civilian populace. That's not too popular these days. Why don't I feel repulsed by it? Well, this is clearly modeled after World War II, which was a conflict that required all-out commitment from the Allies. The niceties were not observed, because they could not afford to observe them. Germany and Japan wanted to invade and control Allies and were aggressors in the conflict. Casting the Sirians as the Axis in WWII makes civilian attacks less surprising. I can't pretend to be shocked by a character blowing up a hotel room in the context of Hiroshima.

Reading Journal Entry: Dzur by Steven Brust

I've been waiting a long time for this book.

Brust's Jhereg series, about the adventures of a sometimes-thug, sometimes assassin Vlad Taltos, is one of the best 'live' fantasy series out there. He delivers elves and swordplay (everybody's favorite, admit it) without succumbing to the numbing sameness that affects much of today's generic medievalesque fantasy.

Taltos lives in a world dominated by tall, near-immortal Dragaerans, all of whom are sorted neatly into clans bearing the names of animals. Humans (Easterners) make a living mostly in the corners of this society. Taltos found his path with the Jhereg (basically the mob), named after a breed of scavenging lizards. He also happens to have two of said lizards as companions to whom he is telepathically linked. After working with the Jhereg for a number of years, he pissed them off wildly enough that the biggest price in history is on his head and he's been in hiding for a number of years. Now and then he emerges from obscurity long enough to have interesting adventures involving the most powerful Dragaerans in the realm and, sometimes, gods.

The most recent of said encounters endowed him with an unusual weapon whose capabilities he is still feeling out, and an unusual relationship with a goddess who seems to have been messing with his head.

OK, that's the set-up.

The hook for this one is that Taltos is drawn back into the affairs of the Jhereg because his ex-wife has gotten herself in trouble. After mismanaging the Eastern section of Adrilankha (the criminal/extortion aspects thereof) a mysterious organization of women called the Left Hand of the Jhereg is moving in and trying to displace her.

Vlad doesn't want her to get killed, so he has to figure out who they are, what they want, and how to convince them that they don't really want it badly enough any more.

Taltos is the narrator as well as the main character, and he has a spare dry voice that edges toward comedy. He doesn't explain much, which makes for a challenging read; more so, I imagine, for readers new to the series. This makes for an intense and engaging reading experience.

The story is framed by the courses of a meal at Valabar's, a restaurant whose culinary delights have been mentioned in passing many times in previous novels. Vlad's dinner companion is a Dzur; famous for their impetuousity, their skills with blade and spell, and their love of lost causes.

It's been five years since Issola was published. Brust has focused on another series set in the same universe, some five hundred years earlier (or so) in the meanwhile. But I like Vlad better, and I was so glad to see him again. There's something endearing about his wry observations, and something amazing about the way Brust manages to make them believable in a world that is his own creation but feels completely real.

Reading Journal Entry: Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett

A sequel to Only You Can Save Mankind, these are the continuing adventures of Johnny Maxwell and his pals.

When saving mankind, Johnny was dealing with aliens and video games. Now he's developed a disturbing availability to see dead people. The cemetery he walks through on his way home from school is a pleasant enough place, but he wasn't expecting to be handed the job of preserving it from developers by the inhabitants. They're nice people, mostly - it's just that they're transparent.

Johnny rises to the occasion, of course, and Pratchett's warm-hearted tone really makes the story work.

Reading Journal Entry: Defending Gary by Mark Prothero

A true crime story written by one of the primary defense lawyers of the Green River Killer.

Green River is in Kent, the rural suburb of Seattle that my husband works in. The first victims (young prostitutes) were found in the river, and the name stuck as more and more bodies of young women were found, abandoned all over King County.

In toto Gary Ridgway killed at least 50 women and probably more like 80 to 100. He eventually made a plea deal with the prosecutors, who could only have successfully prosecuted him for a handful of the killings.

This book follows the case from Ridgway's arrest; Prothero was a public defender and was called in to defend Ridgway very early on.

This book won't win any literary prizes. Prothero obviously relied on transcripts and there are something pages of tedious interviews. But it is a fascinating story and that makes it a very worthwhile resource. Prothero really tried to get into Ridgway's head and figure out what made him kill, but ultimately he remains a cipher.

Reading Journal Entry: Lost Girls, by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Ha, ha, I have Lost Girls and you don't. The first printing sold out the day it hit the stores. Luckily I had it pre-ordered.

OK, how do I review a book of pornography without terminally embarrassing myself and my parents, both of whom (at least according to my IP logs) read this regularly?

Mom and Dad: you can read this review. But I don't want to talk about it, EVER, and I'm not under any circumstances going to lend it to you.

First, the physical object. Beautiful. Absolutely fantastic. I hadn't seen any pics of the cover so I was expecting something all black and serious and not girly and fun. They are magnificently bound and produced volumes. They even smell good.

Artistically: Perfect for the subject matter, impressive design, the perfect marriage of art and words to convey story.

The story: Three women named Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy meet in a hotel in Austria on the eve of the first World War. Do those names ring a bell? Moore and Gebbie give us Alice as an older member of the English aristocracy; Wendy as a middle-aged, middle-class Edwardian housewife; and Dorothy as a windblown farm girl fresh from Kansas. They progress from sexual repression to bawdy smut as the political atmosphere goes from twilight innocence to threatening, stormy skies.

Each woman tells her story - and oh, what stories they are. Alice is first molested, then seduced by a schoolmistress and drawn into a corrupt ring of drug addiction and underage sex. Wendy and her little brothers are introduced to sex by a group of boys they meet in the park (the ring-leader, of course, is named Peter). Dorothy has her encounters with the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man before finally confronting the Wizard himself.

I've seen people comment that this was the dirtiest thing they've ever read, which to me says they haven't been exposed to much anime. The worst things in here are multi-partner sex, some mild bestiality, incest, golden showers, and of course, tons and tons of underage sex.

Moore inserts an ironic commentary, from Monsieur Rougeur, the proprietor of the scandalous hotel, after reading a piece of work that I can only call 'the porn within the porn'. "You see, if this were real, it would be horrible. Children raped by their trusted parents. But they are fictions. They are uncontaminated by effect and consequence. Why, they are almost innocent."

The three women leave the hotel, much as they were cast out of the arena of the erotic in their previous lives. Alice leaves the precious mirror that she's carried with her on all her travels since childhood. "I once thought part of me was stuck inside it, but now. We've rescued her." They've reached some fulfillment. But the hotel is destroyed, and Europe is engulfed in war. Do 'beautiful and imaginative things...blossom, even in wartime'?

It's hard to blossom when you're dead. I think the ending acknowledges that masterfully.

Reading Journal Entry: The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre by Dominic Smith

What is with these odd coincidences? A short month after reading one historical novel featuring Charles Baudelaire as a character, I find another. This time Baudelaire is the young friend of an aging Daguerre. The inventor of modern photography is losing his mind, the wages of a decade spent in close contact with the poisonous fumes of mercury.

He enters a netherworld of hallucination and paranoia with a bang. The apocalypse is coming, and he has a list of ten things he wants to photograph before the end of the world. The opening scene is impressive: it begins "When the vision came, he was in the bathtub' and cascades from there. The last item on Daguerre's list is Isobel Le Fournier, the love of his life, who married another man after a childhood romance. Ghosts of the past rule Daguerre's mind as he becomes less and less functional. He obsesses about his youth and loss of Isobel's love. After finding her daughter in Paris working as a prostitute he pays her to pose for him over and over again.

Flashbacks from his early life make up a large part of the book; Daguerre's early life is, alas, much more exciting than his decay among the riots and debauchery of modern Paris. I found the addition of Baudelaire as a character distracting and unnecessary. His work didn't play a part, and his famous mistress Jeanne Duval, featured so prominently in The Salt Roads, was missing. Why was he Baudelaire?

I think I prefer my historical novels, if they feature real people like Daguerre and Baudelaire, to be more firmly rooted in fact.

Reading Journal Entry: Dope by Sara Gran

After just reading Too Darn Hot by Sandra Scoppettone, which is a detective novel set in New York in World War II, I picked up Dope by Sara Gran. Why? Because Bookseller Chick reminded me that this is the book that Max Perkins outed himself for. Dope is set in New York as well, in the fifties, a short decade after Faye Quick solved her murders. But it's a thousand miles away from it in tone and content.

Gran has played with the noir genre here, making her 'detective' a female ex-junkie trying to get by on what she can steal. Josephine (Joe) is hired by two well-to-do Westchester parents trying to find their daughter, who dropped out of Barnard and disappeared into the drug culture.

The great pleasure of this book was Joe. She's a horrible detective. Pretty good at being a recovered junkie, though. She makes the same kind of naive mistakes that I would make if someone hired me to find someone. She is never one step ahead. Gran expresses wonderfully the muddled mess of emotions and motivations that most of us walk around as - and I still don't know how she did it, because Joe's internal dialogue was spare and terse. Nonetheless her feelings leapt off the page.

I liked Joe and that made this a difficult book to read, because she has a pretty shitty life. But it paid off in delight and heartache.

Reading Journal Entry: Mr. Monk goes to the Firehouse by Lee Goldberg

Mr. Monk Goes To The Firehouse is a tie-in novel for the TV series Monk, which stars Tony Shaloub as an obsessive compulsive detective. It's a wonderful show, that I have seen less of than I would like (I just put the first season on reserve to rectify that).

Shaloub's performance is wonderful, and Goldberg really captures the quirky charm of the character. The book is written from the point of view of his assistant Natalie, which is a nice touch.

I very much appreciated that it starts off as an invetigation of the murder of a dog impaled by a pick-axe, a nice touch of the hat to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, about an autistic boy investigating the murder of a dog.

Marjane Satrapi

I went to see her when she came to speak about Persepolis....wonderful lady. Somehow the post got lost and it never ended up on either Seattlest or here.

Dr. Jonathan Wells

I covered a Discovery Institute event last week for Seattlest. Here is the article, with a sketch of author Jonathan Wells.

Peter Jackson attached to Temeraire

I really, really enjoyed Naomi Novik's series about dragons and the Napoleonic Wars.

Now it seems that Peter Jackson has secured the rights to film them.

I approve.

Reading Journal Entry: Desire in Disguise, by Rebecca Brandewyne

My inspirations, the Smart Bitches, turned me on to Desire in Disguise when trying to help out a loyal reader. As described, Desire in Disguise sounded like delicious campy fun, and I had to try it out. It was everything I expected, right down to the purple prose.

Two cousins, engaged from youth, marry when she escapes revolutionary Frances. They quickly come to despise each other (through a set of amusing contretemps, of course) and become estranged. She periodically slips out of the manor to free French nobles in danger of beheading in the disguise of a pirate calling herself Rouge. He does the same, under the name Noir. The two masked pirate/freedom fighters meet and a grande passion is born.

Oh, it was awful. And delightful.


I owe so many reviews. But I am SO TIRED. So we're going to start with a clean slate this week. Since I read 3 books on planes this weekend I'm ahead of the game.

Reading Journal Entry: Too Darn Hot, by Sandra Scoppettone

The sequel to This Dame for Hire, a hard-boiled detective novel set in New York during World War II. Faye Quick is one of those thousands of women like Rosie the Riveter who had to step into roles that enlisted men left behind. She's trying to keep her detective agency afloat while her boss is overseas. Solving a high-profile murder case in the last book has sent a nice stream of business her way.

Scoppettone does a wonderful job of evoking wartime New York with great period details, dialogue, and the horrible New York summer heat. These are competent little mysteries that win my personal 'best in breed'. I like Faye a lot, and the setting really makes the books priceless. Well done!

Reading Journal Entry: Circus World by Barry Longyear

I have been waiting to read this book for about... 15 years.

When I was a lonely teenager in Italy a used copy of a science fiction book about a ship full of circus people crashing on an alien planet and building a new society, Elephant Song. I loved it, but I forgot about the series until recently. It came into my mind again and I realized that now that I am no longer marooned in a foreing country I might be able to find a copy of the other works. Voila, there is a book called Circus World and I have read it.

Circus World is a collection of connected short stories that explore the cultures of the circus world as it is affected by interstellar politics. Baraboo is in a strategically important location between two powers, and it can no longer remain isolated from the Galactic mainstream. But how can they retain their unique way of life?

The writing has a classic feel that makes it seem a bit dated (twenty years after publication) with some leaps of logic and odd racial stereotypes. But it's very fun - the traditional 'what if' question played out to an extreme.