Prairie Angel's Reading Room

Friday, August 27, 2004

the Healer's War

Book Rec

With Vietnam on everyone's minds, I thought I'd recommend a recent read of an older ('88) book; The Healer's War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. The author is better known for her rather 'lite' fantasies about contemporary fairy godmothers, but this book is a significant departure for her. Drawing on her experiences as an army nurse in Vietnam, she tells a 'realistic-fantasy' tale of a similar nurse, also deployed to Vietnam. Evocative of M*A*S*H and China Beach without the slapstick, nurse Kitty wonders what she's doing there, questions her nursing and military vocation, and contends with military bureaucracy at its most maddeningly idiotic. Sympathetic to the Vietnamese who are also treated at the army hospital, she is bequeathed an ancient amulet by an elderly holy man. She discovers that wearing the amulet allows her to see people's 'auras', which both causes her to doubt her sanity and becomes a useful source of information. When the martinet that takes over the hospital orders all the 'gooks' to be released, cured or not, she wangles a helicopter flight from an old boyfriend for herself and a young Vietnamese amputee, meaning to get the boy to some people who will take care of him. Of course the helicopter is shot down, killing the pilot and navigator, and Kitty and young Aun find themselves lost in the jungle, unsure who to trust and how to find their way to safety. A very gripping read, and recommended especially for everyone too young to remember Vietnam.

This book won the Nebula award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in '89.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

New Book Recs

Avoid if you don't like mysteries or 'chick lit'.

Two new books to hawk today; first up, 'Sleeping with Schubert', in which normal thirty-something Brooklyn lawyer Liza Durbin is surprised to find herself 'inhabited' by the spirit of Franz Schubert. Suddenly she's a piano virtuoso, and Franz (who died at 31) has a lot more music he needs to release to the universe. Why Liza? Who can she trust with her odd secret? 'Sleeping with Schubert' is Bonnie Marsden's debut novel, and it's filled with likable characters in unusual situations. Bittersweet fun.

Next up, 'We'll Always have Parrots', a Meg Langslow mystery. Meg is a blacksmith, which leads her to unusual venues such as Civil War Re-enactors camps and Renfairs and the like. In this latest outing, she finds herself at a sci-fi con, since her actor boyfriend Michael has become the latest hunk-hero as a recurring character on cult-TV-hit Porfiria, Queen of the Jungle. When the series star proves to be a gold-plated bitch, her demise comes as no huge surprise. But Meg has to find the real killer while the con goes on, complete with Amazonian security guards, fanfic smuggling, filking and masquerades. Anyone who's ever been to a con will recognize the venue.

One book I read lately I want to DE-recommend (decommend?) is Dean Koontz' latest, 'The Taking'. I had noticed during the late eighties and early nineties, Koontz had seemed to fall in with some anti-government far-right nutcases; at least his books resonated with that kind of Tim McVeigh-paranoia. He seemed to have recovered somewhat, and after the charming 'Odd Thomas', I had rather hoped he had stopped drinking the koolaid. But 'The Taking' finds him right back in Paranoia-land, where Global Warming is a liberal conspiracy and our Corrupt Culture is leading us directly to hell. Read Odd Thomas, but eschew The Taking. I provide links to both so you can read the Amazon reviews.

More Meg Landslow mysteries:

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Imperial Hubris

To-Be-Released books on how the Bush presidency is damaging our nation.

I include here for your convenience links to Anonymous' new book and another book on the same topic. Order today.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Resurrection Day, Brendan DuBois (1999)

This novel depicts a world ten years after the Cuban Missile Crisis was the start of an all-out nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Now the USSR is in ruins, the US has lost NYC, DC, Omaha (home of SAC) and suffered various other collateral damage. The US is now an impoverished country dependant on the slightly gleeful charity of our former allies.

While the US makes a pretense of remaining a democracy, it is really a one-party dictatorship under control of the military. Our hero Carl works at the Boston Globe, where all the news that prints is vetted by a military censor in the interests of 'national security'.

Cringing under the necessity of accepting charity from Britain, deeply ashamed of the enormous death-toll of the war, the only thing that keeps American pride intact is our still-existing arsenal of nuclear weapons, which the entire rest of the world wants to see destroyed.

The murder of an old veteran of the Kennedy administration sets Carl on the trail of the true story of the start of the war, putting him at odds with an amazing assortment of factions who do not want the truth to emerge.

When this book was written in '99, it was a far-out can't-happen-here fantasy of alternate-history. Now, in the increasingly Orwellian Ashcroft's America, where the US Vice President can blame the press for his own mistakes with impunity, it becomes a cautionary tale. Read it and weep.

I include a link to another book, ALSO called Resurrection Day, from '01, which I haven't read, but which looks equally interesting. I've added it to my Amazon wishlist; if someone wants to buy it for me, I'll review it as well, heh.

Catchup 4: His Dark Materials trilogy

Time to recommend more reading material. I just re-read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and am a little annoyed at the number of people who compare this series to the Harry Potter books. Frankly, for complexity of character, originality of setting, the epic-level of conflict and the sheer scale, this series cleans Harry's clock.

It starts in The Golden Compass, with young Lyra growing up wild amidst the stodgy scholars of Oxford. But it's a subtly different world that the one we're used to - the technology seems to be hovering around the turn of the twentieth century, when gaslight is slowly giving way to electric (or 'anbaric') power, and people all have a physical manifestation of their soul that takes the shape of an animal called a daemon, who is with them all their lives. The church is a much more powerful force here than in our version of reality, and the study of physics becomes 'experimental theology'. Lyra comes into the possession of a device of great utility, the Golden Compass of the title - a 'truth-teller' which will answer any question if you understand how to read it. With this, she uncovers a great conspiracy that is in motion to cement the power of the church over humanity's affairs forever.

Book Two, The Subtle Knife, starts in OUR version of reality with Will, a twelve-year-old with far more responsibility that he can handle, the sole care of his mother, who frequently looses her grasp on reality. Sinister men are looking for papers left by Will's father, an explorer who vanished when Will was a baby. Will soon joins us with Lyra in a place between their two worlds, and Will learns the art of going between worlds via the Subtle Knife of the title.

Book Three, The Amber Spyglass, brings in a third significant character, Mary - a physicist from Will's (and our) version of reality, a researcher studying Dark Matter that may make up the bulk of the universe. The nature of His Dark Materials becomes more clear, as the trio work to prevent the exodus of this cognitive stream of subatomic particles from the cosmos, to the destruction of everything meaningful.

Why they call this a children's fantasy series beats me - it's pretty dark and grim in places; children are victimized in the most gruesome ways, and very meaningful characters meet really heartbreaking ends, some nobly, some just wasted by the forces at war.

I think the only thing that has prevented Christian Fundamentalists from burning these books is that they have never read them; I suspect the vocabulary is a bit beyond most fundies' skills. But if they knew about them, they would surely protest them, so annoy a fundie today - buy and read these books. If you need further proof and don't mind spoilers, highlight and read the following blank-block - if you don't want the story spoiled, avoid the blank block.

God is a fraud - just another of a 'race' of angels who managed to persuade humans that he created the universe.

Catchup 3: The Rule of Four

For those who liked The Da Vinci Code, another contemporary/Renaissance mystery.

The Rule of Four features a book written in 1499, and four friends at Princeton trying to decipher its many mysteries. Because beneath the surface tale are riddles, cyphers, clues and ultimately (of course) betrayals and treasures galore.

The book at the base of all the mystery is real:

It has been called the most beautiful book in the world, and the most unreadable. Its hero has sex with buildings. It also has a nearly unpronouncable title, "The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili." The book was published in Venice in 1499, and there are perhaps 260 copies in existence, among them one in the rare book library at Princeton University.

"The Hypnerotomachia" is written in many languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean, Italian, invented words and hieroglyphics, and it was not even fully translated until 1999, when the first complete English edition appeared. No one is quite sure what it is about, or even who wrote it.

But now Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, both 28 and best friends since the third grade, have written "The Rule of Four," a novel in which they have invented a solution to both mysteries. And though it is filled with esoteric Renaissance scholarship and initially put off publishers, "The Rule of Four" (Dial Press) is flying off the shelves.


In the real "Hypnerotomachia" this much is understood: a character, Poliphilo, dreams of his beloved Polia, and of his journeys in search of her. The title can be translated as "the struggle for love in a dream." Poliphilo has dreams within dreams, and when he has sex with buildings in at least one case his ecstasy is returned. The book is illustrated with exquisite woodcuts of the swooning hero and heroine, enchanted gardens, strange creatures, cherubs and nymphs.

The key to the true authorship of "The Hypnerotomachia" may lie hidden in the beautifully ornate letters at the beginning of each chapter, which spell out the words "Brother Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia." There were two men with that name known at the time, one a Dominican monk in Venice, the other a Roman noble. There is also a theory that the book was written by the great Renaissance humanist and artist Leon Battista Alberti.

Quote is from NYT story about the 28-year-old authors, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, best friends since they were eight.

Compulsively readable, full of collegiate and renaissance lore, worth a sleepless night while you stay up to finish it.

catchup 2: A spectacle of Corruption

New Book Recs

You'll notice a couple new books have appeared on the right column under Recommended Reading. I just finished A Spectacle of Corruption, and recommend it and the book that precedes it (which I have yet to read).

The protagonist is Benjamin Weaver, an ex-pugilist (boxer) turned thief-taker in the early part of the eighteenth century. Thief-takers are 'law for hire' in a severely socially stratified period, when Justice is something the poor can only dream about. The story takes place in 1722 (three years after the previous book), and Weaver has been set up for murder. In spite of his proving the witnesses against him had been paid to lie, the judge instructs the jury to find him guilty, which they duly do. As he's being taking away to prison, a totally unfamiliar woman casts herself weeping into his arms, wailing at his fate and managing to pass a set of lockpicks to him.

In short order, he has liberated himself, and now faces the puzzle - one faction wants him hung and one faction wants him saved. Who are these people and why are they variously for and against him?

Going 'undercover' as a rich merchant recently returned from Jamaica, Weaver crashes the upper crust, in the midst of a parlimentary election. The election process is the Spectacle of Corruption of the title, and will remind the astute viewer of Florida, although in the modern case, the Pretender is ON the throne and not trying to gain it. (Yes, Jacobians figure into the plot.)

The milieu of the London slums is almost over-realized, in all its fetid stinking splendor. Still, Weaver is an appealing character and one in whose company you won't mind visiting the slums, especially since you fortunately will not be able to smell them.

If you like mysteries set in historic periods, this is your next book.

catch-up; The Sparrow, Children of God, Archangel, etc

Something Different

You'll notice down the right of the page that I have a few book links. I have never intended that this blog be all politics (after all, I want to have something to talk about after we defeat the Boy King), so I thought I'd throw in a few book reviews. These won't necessarily be new books, just books I think deserve more attention than they may have recieved, or goodies that I have discovered in the library or thriftshops.As long as the reviews are on the 'front' page, I'll keep the links in the sidebar - as the reviews scroll to archive, I'll move the links to the posting itself to keep the sidebar from getting all cluttered up.

If you're only here for the politics, scroll past this entry.

My first pick to recommend is the Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I have recommended this book to many people as one of the most intriguing grownup first-contact stories out there. The author is not a science fiction writer, and many readers who primarily read sci-fi are the nitpickiest about this book. There are lengthy conversations about the meaning of faith, and the nature of God. That said, the premise is compelling, the characters are intriguing and the situation is heart-breaking. Sometime in the near future, when the human race is moving around in the solar system (bases on a few planets, mining in the asteroids, etc), we discover incontrovertible proof of alien life in a near-by system. While the governments of Earth debate what to do about it, the Jesuits quietly organize a mission to the system. From the introduction:

It was predictable, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research. During what Europeans were pleased to call the Age of Discovery, Jesuit priests were never more than a year or two behind the men who made initial contact with previously unknown peoples; indeed, Jesuits were often the vanguard of exploration.

The United Nations required years to come to a decision that the Society of Jesus reached in ten days. In New York, diplomats debated long and hard, with many recesses and tablings of the issue, whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to contact the world that would become known as Rakhat when there were so many pressing needs on Earth. In Rome, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.

The Society asked leave of no temporal government. It acted on its own principles, with its own assets, on Papal authority. The mission to Rakhat was undertaken not so much secretly as privately--a fine distinction but one that the Society felt no compulsion to explain or justify when the news broke several years later.

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the furthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm.

Read to see what happens when people with the best intentions in the world stumble into a situation they don't understand and try to make sense of it. If more 'men of God' had the morals and ethics of Father Emilio, I would have a lot less 'issues' with organized religion today.

I include a link to the sequel, Children of God, which sends the devastated Emilio back to Rakhat, against his will, to attempt to repair the damage caused by humanity's last incursion. It's not quite as good as the first book - the author seriously pulls her punches at the end, eschewing a powerful ending for a cozy one. But if you want to know more about Emilio and the aliens, you'll want to read this.

I am rather annoyed to discover, on Russell's website, that the story, which had previously been optioned by Antonia Bandaras, has now been picked up by director George Miller, to star (gag) Brad Pitt. Oh, no - say it ain't so!

I recently read Angel Seeker, by Sharon Shinn, which is also linked in the sidebar. This isn't quite in the same league as The Sparrow, being more what I'd call A Good Read than a great one. This is the fifth (or so) in her Samarria books; Samarria being a human colony of the future in which humans live among 'angels', mortal winged people who interface directly with the diety 'Jovan' through their singing. The series started with the so-called Archangel trilogy (Archangel being the first of the three books), which gives you all the background on how angels and humans interact and why.

Samarria is home to a variety of 'clans' or tribes of people, all of whom seem to have their counterparts on Earth. The Edori, for instance, are nomadic, clean living, happy people who talk directly to the diety, whom they call Yovah, and are clearly modelled after Native Americans. The Jansai are desert-nomads, who hide their females behind walls and veils and are obviously middle-eastern Muslims. There is a 'merchant' clan who facilitate all commerce on the world - I'm not sure if they're supposed to be the Merchant Princes of the Italianate City States, or Jews Without the Pograms. This most recent entry into the Samarria ouevre features an angel Obidiah falling (literally) from the sky and into the life of a sheltered young Jansai woman, Rebekkah. I include this book for your reading pleasure in case anyone wants to read a book in which the Muslim surrogates are so clearly the bad guys; you can boo their Taliban-like treatment of their women and cheer their ultimate comeuppance without being politically incorrect.

I include a link to the first Samarria book, Archangel, for readers who want to start at the beginning of the series.

(Like book reviews? Hate 'em? let me know in the comments, or, if you're shy, via the email link at the top of the page.)

Edit: Book links moved from sidebar to post:

Welcome to my reading room

This is where I'll duplicate all my book review posts so you can find them without slogging through all the politics and news-of-the-day posts.