Two bits of exciting book news from fellow indie authors:

-First, my longtime blogger friend Patrick Prescott has published a new book. It is an “autobiography” of Matthew Fontaine Maury. In the vein of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, Pat has immersed himself in study of this Civil War-era naval officer and scientist in order to write an account of his life in the first person. Get it on Amazon here.

-Second, another writer friend, Audrey Driscoll, has the sequel to her 2018 novel She Who Comes Forth available for pre-order on Amazon. She Who Returns follows France Leighton as she revisits Egypt. It will release on May 1 and it’s $0.99 for pre-order. (And She Who Comes Forth is also currently going for $0.99)

Congratulations to Pat and Audrey on their latest writing achievements!

If you’re like me, you know C.S. Lewis mainly as “that guy who wrote the Narnia books.” Most people probably remember them fondly from childhood. I was unusual (what else is new?) in that I really didn’t care for them. I was about nine years old and I couldn’t stand The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I thought it was just weird. My dad agreed with me; I remember him saying that the author of these books “must have been on drugs.” (My dad has never been a big fan of the fantasy genre.)

But I was interested to learn recently that Lewis had also written science fiction. That Hideous Strength is the third book in his “Space Trilogy,” but in the foreword Lewis promises that it can be read without reading the other two books. I have chosen to test this assertion, for reasons which I hope will become apparent.

And, of course, this is Vintage Science Fiction Month! What a perfect excuse to review a relatively obscure book by a relatively famous author. I hope that if nothing else it piques your curiosity. If you’re new to this site, please forgive my rather long-winded reviewing style; I tend to go on at length about books that I find interesting. And I’m afraid I’m usually unable to refrain from discussing plot spoilers. Normally I don’t feel so bad about that, since I’m reviewing older, classic books, but since you may not have read this one before, please be forewarned that I’ll be giving away the ending.

That Hideous Strength follows a couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College in Edgestow, England. He has been busy with college business, and Jane has a sense that she and her husband are drifting apart, as he spends nearly all his time on his work. Jane is also troubled by strange dreams, such as a vision of the disembodied head of a recently-guillotined criminal named Alcasan.

The college business that Mark is involved with has to do with a scientific outfit called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., which is in the process of purchasing land from Bracton College. N.I.C.E. is a prestigious and powerful body of scientists, and Mark is delighted when a colleague recommends him for a job there. Mark eagerly goes to the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury.

Meanwhile, Jane goes to a town called St. Anne’s seeking treatment for her dreams. However, she is told that her dreams are in fact visions of real events, and that she is a seer. The people at St. Anne’s are a mysterious and mystical bunch, whose chief is a man called “Mr. Fisher-King” and who has a wound in his foot.

This is a reference to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend. The whole St. Anne’s group is very much associated with the legends of King Arthur and his court. Mr. Fisher-King, whose real name turns out to be “Ransom,” is himself the “Pendragon,” which, if you are familiar with Arthurian legend, effectively means belonging to the family of King Arthur.

I, by the way, am not really familiar with Arthurian legend, but I got something of a crash course in it by reading this book. Lewis was a professor of Medieval Literature, so I guess he’s a good source.

Anyway, if you think that’s weird, wait until you find out what’s happening at Belbury. In addition to the office political jockeying that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about academia, the N.I.C.E. has its own private police force, headed up by Major Fairy Hardcastle. We have to pause to talk about Miss Hardcastle.

On the one hand, she’s clearly meant to represent a type of “modern” woman that Lewis dislikes. She smokes, she swears, and she even <gasp!> sits with her legs uncrossed. I think just by telling us these facts, Lewis felt he had adequately communicated that she is a Bad Woman.

So, not a whole lot of feminism going on here. On the other hand, I have to give Lewis some credit because she’s probably my favorite character in the whole thing. I don’t mean she’s likable. Not at all. She’s unquestionably a villain, as shown by the sadistic pleasure she takes in tormenting captives brought in by the N.I.C.E. police. But she’s memorable. It’s the same way Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but who could deny he’s the most iconic character to come out of Star Wars?

“The Fairy,” as she is sometimes called, also has most of the best lines. Like this, when she’s ordering Mark to write newspaper articles to polish N.I.C.E.’s image, and he wonders if they’re to appear in the Right or the Left-wing papers:

“‘Both, honey, both,’ said Miss Hardcastle. ‘Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us–to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.'”

She has a coarse, slangy way of speaking that, again, I think Lewis meant to show how evil she is, but this makes her scenes some of the most vibrant, especially the way Hardcastle’s bluntness contrasts with Mr. Wither, the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., who speaks in a mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy fashion, always trying to avoid committing himself too far to anything.

To get back to the synopsis, Mark gradually realizes that he is being manipulated and coerced into staying at N.I.C.E. This is not difficult, as Mark is not a steadfast or resolute type, and his cravenness makes him easy for them to play upon.

The book bounces back and forth between Jane at St. Anne’s, where Ransom and his assistants are interpreting her visions to discover what their enemies are doing, and Belbury, where the scientists of N.I.C.E. are shown engaging in increasingly depraved practices as part of their plot to conquer the world.

Ultimately, it comes out that both groups are attempting to capture the re-awakened wizard Merlin. The land that N.I.C.E. was buying at the beginning of the book housed his resting place where, (rather like Cthulhu), he has lain in a state of suspended animation, waiting until the time is right to rise again. That time comes about halfway through the book, and from there, the rival groups are fighting to recruit him.

This is where I question what Lewis said about it not being necessary to read the other books in the series. The story gets seriously bizarre at this point, bringing up stuff that Ransom did on other planets, and something called “eldila” that are basically angels and devils. Also, there’s a bear named Mr. Bultitude. I hadn’t thought about it for decades, but after reading the third act of this, what my father jokingly suggested about Lewis’s use of drugs seemed quite plausible.

The ending is a mess. Merlin works his magic during a banquet scene at Belbury that feels incongruously comical. It’s not quite Gussie Fink-Nottle at the Market Snodsbury prize-giving, but it’s close. And while that works in a light comedy, here it’s just… odd. It feels unsatisfying and anti-climactic. I guess the best way to say it is that Merlin is very deus ex machina.

And speaking of Deus Ex… well, before that, here’s a bit of dialogue from some N.I.C.E. personnel:

“And so,” said Straik, “the lessons you learned at your mother’s knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment.”
“God?” said Mark. “How does He come into it? I don’t believe in God.”
“But, my friend,” said Filostrato, “does it follow that because there was no God in the past there will be no God also in the future?”
“Don’t you see,” said Straik, “that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first sketch of the real God. It is a man–or a being made by man–who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever.”

And here’s the last line of the intro to the 2000 video game, Deus Ex:

We’ve had to endure much you and I, but soon, there will be order again. A new age! Aquinas spoke of the mythical city on the hill; soon that city will be a reality, and we will be crowned its kings. Or better than kings… Gods!

This isn’t just some freak coincidence, either. Both That Hideous Strength and Deus Ex are about evil, quasi-mystical conspiracies by shadowy organizations of madmen bent on achieving superhuman powers.

More fun facts: Deus Ex includes multiple passages from G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. A contemporary reviewer for the Manchester Evening News wrote that

“In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, [That Hideous Strength] rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.”

Indeed, a major focus of the book is how the scientists at Belbury, mad with power, are trying to create a new, scientifically efficient world. For example, they see World War II as an excellent blueprint to follow:

“[E]very advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people who are required. A large, unintelligent population is now becoming a deadweight. The real importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved. It was not the great technocrats of Koenigsberg or Moscow who supplied the casualties in the siege of Stalingrad: it was the superstitious Bavarian peasants and low-grade Russian agricultural workers.” 

And their schemes aren’t confined to massive wars of annihilation. They’re out to remake every aspect of life. As one of them says, even the trees are going to have to go:

“At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently, we find a chemical substitute. And then, why *any* natural trees? I foresee nothing but the *art* tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”
“Do you mean,” put in a man called Gould, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?”
“Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.”
“I wonder what the birds will make of it.”
“I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.”
“It sounds,” said Mark. “like abolishing pretty well all organic life.”
“And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?”

Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis clearly loved the folkish and organic, and hated the mechanical and the industrial. Speaking of Tolkien, there are also references in the book to “Numinor,” which, Lewis mentions in the foreword, will be discussed further in a forthcoming manuscript by Tolkien. (Does anyone know if that ever got published? ;))

The Manchester Evening News reviewer, though generally favorable about the book, agrees with me on the ending, writing:

The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.

Even this kind of understates it, in my opinion. The book would have been more satisfying if God Himself appeared and said, “I condemn all you evildoers of Belbury to eternal Hellfire.” That might have been predictable, but it would feel less random and bizarre than all this rigmarole about Merlin.

I remember reading once that Frank Herbert said of his novel Dune that the book had many layers, such that the reader could re-read it multiple times and each time find a different layer to follow. I think the same could be said of That Hideous Strength. There are at least three different threads to it:

  • Mark and Jane trying to save their failing marriage.
  • N.I.C.E.’s conspiracy to create a scientistic dystopia.
  • Whatever this stuff about Merlin is.

The first two layers fit together nicely. The third feels like it’s part of some other book and clumsily tacked on.

I’m serious, there are parts of this book where I have no idea what is even happening. Some of the visions Jane has towards the end are just too bizarre, and I have trouble understanding what they’re supposed to mean. There’s clearly some sort of symbolism going on, but it’s over my head.

On a more basic level, I just didn’t feel that Mark had grown enough over the course of the story to deserve Jane. Yes, he kind of redeems himself, in that he’s not the complete wimp he was at the beginning, but he’s still far from a truly brave or heroic character.

Actually, maybe that’s what the book is really lacking: an actual hero; someone who counter-balances the gleeful villainy of Miss Hardcastle & coMerlin isn’t one; he’s just a plot device. Ransom is implied to be heroic, but he never really does anything; just gives speeches. Mark is right out. Jane seems like she could be heroic, but she never gets much of a chance. The most heroic character is Mr. Bultitude. Yes, that’s right: the bear.

The result is that the ultimate victory never feels earned. The show just goes on until the climax, when everyone transforms into who they’re supposed to be, like a bloody harlequinade.

I’ve been withholding some information from you, though. Our reviewer from the Manchester Evening News is not just some random critic. He’s George Orwell, of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame. The review was written in 1945, when Orwell had just begun work on what would become the quintessential dystopian novel. I wonder if That Hideous Strength influenced him at all. Some of the interrogation scenes reminded me of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, I guess the use of the acronym N.I.C.E. to describe the malevolent organization is itself what would come to be called an “Orwellian” phrase.

It’s surprising to me how positive Orwell’s review is, and how many similarities there are between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength. After all, Lewis was a Christian conservative and Orwell was an atheist socialist. But clearly, both of them must have seen some of the same trends in the world they lived in. Namely, the rise of what James Burnham called “the managerial class.”

On balance, I’m with Orwell that the book would have been stronger if the supernatural element were toned down. I wouldn’t be in favor of removing it entirely, but I’d have liked it better as a subtle thing, lurking in the background.

Still, there are some effective occult horror scenes in here. Like this description of the art that is used to gradually indoctrinate people into the inner-circle of N.I.C.E:

There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel the hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried.

Isn’t that creepy? I like this much better than if it had just been a scene of something mindlessly horrific. It’s just a touch off, and so it sticks with you more.

Okay, now we come to the big question, which I’ve been putting off as long as I can: is this book any good or not?

Well… it’s a mixed bag. A seriously mixed bag. Apart from the supernatural stuff and Arthurian legendry that just doesn’t fit with the rest, there are also some really slow stretches. There were parts that were just one committee meeting after another. This is probably an accurate depiction of an academic institute, but it doesn’t make it any more entertaining to read.

But then there are other things that seem strikingly fresh. Indeed, some scenes hit harder than most modern dystopias do. Also, while he seems like he wandered in from Narnia, I really do like some of the parts about Mr. Bultitude. Lewis tries to write him as a truly non-human character, with a whole way of perceiving the world that is unlike our own, but with which the reader can still empathize. I liked that.

And of course, Fairy Hardcastle. Everyone should read this just for the Fairy alone. Of course, if that actually happens and she becomes popular enough, the next thing we know, she’ll be getting her own spinoff prequel movie series starring Emma Stone. Oh, well; it’s just a chance we’ll have to take.

Like a lot of old sci-fi books, this didn’t strike me as an outstanding book, and at times it’s slow moving and old-fashioned. But also like a lot of old sci-fi books, it does contain plenty of interesting ideas for the reader to chew on. I can understand both why someone might love this book and why they might hate it, but either way, I think it’s worth reading.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Before I actually review the book, I have to share the story of how I found out about it. Recently, Peter Martuneac introduced me to the book website Shepherd. While reading about Shepherd and its founder, Ben Fox, I came across this interview Fox did with Phil Halton, which led me to poking around Halton’s site, which is how I discovered this book.

I’m telling you this story to illustrate (1) that Shepherd is cool and you should use it and (2) how I find books, which is generally to read a lot of authors’ blogs and pick the ones I stumble across.

But okay, so what is the book about? It’s a novel set in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation. It follows a mullah who runs a madrassa in a remote and rural part of the country. The mullah struggles to instruct his students in Islam all while defending them, and the residents of the nearby village, from marauding bandits and brutal warlords who continually terrorize them.

The Mullah is a fascinating character: intelligent, wise, but also very harsh, and strictly adhering to the fundamental precepts of his religion. At times he seems quite sympathetic, at other times downright heartless; but no matter what, it’s hard to doubt his conviction.

Some of his students are dutiful and faithful, others are impulsive and reckless. But of course, one feels for all of them, growing up as they are in this brutal and war-torn environment.

This book is incredibly dark, and while it is a novel, there can be little doubt that events similar to those described took place, which makes it all the harder to read. It is gritty, unsparingly realistic, and disturbing. And at the same time, Halton’s prose is beautiful and haunting, which makes it all the more unsettling.

It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it does give a westerner such as myself a great deal of insight into the recent history of Afghanistan, and how it came to be the way it is. Halton has also written a non-fiction history of the country, which I am considering reading as well.

This Shall Be a House of Peace is an unforgettable look at a region and a culture which, despite having been a focus of American geopolitical power for two decades, many of us know very little about.

[Audio version of this review available here.]

As I think most of you know, Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. But even I can go for a good Christmas tale. So naturally, a Christmas book that brings a witch into the picture is going to get my attention.

This book tells the story of Cinnamon Mercy Claus, who unexpectedly finds herself journeying to the North Pole for the holiday season. There she meets her grandparents: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus themselves.

This would be a shocking enough discovery on its own, but she next learns that her grandmother is a witch and that she wants a divorce from the jolly old elf, who has been taking all her Christmas magic for granted. She angrily leaves her bewildered granddaughter in charge of handling all the arrangements for delivering toys to all the children of the world.

This is a lot to take in for Cinnamon, who is more comfortable working in the world of spreadsheets and number-crunching than of magic, but, with the help of the elves, she throws herself into the task.

The book is a lot like those made-for-TV Christmas movies that they broadcast this time of year. Which are not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but I happen to enjoy them. Yes, they can be predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental, but hey, what are the holidays about if not the comfort of something cozy and familiar? It is true that most of the time I prefer darker varieties of fiction, but when December comes round, there’s nothing wrong with little light trifles.

And that’s exactly what this book is; a fast-paced bit of Christmas-themed fun. Read it while eating some gingerbread cookies or something, preferably by a fireplace or under some decorative lights, and you’ll surely be filled with the Yuletide spirit.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

The first thing I had to do before reading this book was try to forget everything I previously knew about James Bond. It’s not easy. Even if you’ve never seen a Bond movie, you probably have absorbed some things about him from pop culture references. I’ve seen most of the films, so I had to consciously purge all memories of Bond-related media I had seen before reading this

Because this is the first Bond book, the one that started it all, and it seemed best to try to view it through fresh eyes as much as possible. Fleming’s original character is a cold, efficient secret agent, and his mission is to defeat the communist operative Le Chiffre at baccarat in order to disgrace him in the eyes of The Party.

The first half of the book involves long and fairly complicated descriptions of baccarat, as well as some other casino games. Also, many of the terms are French, and Fleming assumes that his readers would be familiar with the language. Probably they were, because his intended audience was well-educated, not savages such as myself.

“He made a high banco at chemin-de-fer whenever he heard one offered. If he lost, he would ‘suivi‘ once and not chase it further if he lost the second time.” 

Uh… ‘kay? To be fair, some of these terms get explained later on in the book. Vesper Lynd, Bond’s assistant on this mission, serves as much as a plot device to have this stuff explained as she does a love interest.

At first, I found it a little dull, but after a while I got absorbed in the high-stakes game. Fleming did a good job building the tension and making the reader sweat right along with Bond.

And so, from the blank slate I’d consciously developed, the character of Bond as Fleming saw him starts to come into focus. It’s funny to think now that the name is so iconic that Fleming’s reason for naming him “James Bond” was because it seemed to him such an uninteresting and ordinary name.

As for his looks, Vesper compares him to Hoagy Carmichael, who I had never heard of before, although Bond himself doesn’t see it. Myself, I started picturing someone on the order of Basil Rathbone: not bad-looking, but not terribly remarkable either.

Maybe it’s because Bond evokes another iconic English hero whom Rathbone did portray: Sherlock Holmes. He surveys everything with a calm detachment, and largely avoids falling prey to emotional entanglement. Or so he tells himself. But, during the first of those signature 007 car chases, his actions betray him. Sure, he may say to himself the woman he’s racing to save means nothing to him, but he is driving 120 miles per hour at night to catch up with her kidnappers.

In the end of course, it’s not just Bond’s actions that betray him. This is a spy thriller after all, and at the end of it, Bond is even more of a heartless, misogynistic, unsentimental S.O.B. than he was at the beginning.

Okay, I lied. I didn’t actually erase all my preconceived notions about Bond before reading this. But I promise, I did my best to forget about Connery, Craig and everyone in between. Who I kept in mind was Patrick Dalzel-Job, a British intelligence officer who served under Fleming’s command during World War II, and whose memoir, From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, I recently read.

Dalzel-Job is thought to have been Fleming’s inspiration for the character of Bond. Although his service seems to have been, if anything, way more exciting than Fleming’s fiction. Dalzel-Job’s memoir records no glamorous casinos, expensive meals, or fancy cars, and quite a lot of hiding out night after night on the coast of Norway, spying on the activities of the Kriegsmarine.

On the other hand, Dalzel-Job does describe reassigning himself after the war without consulting his superior officer, in order to be closer to the woman he would eventually marry. Such roguish defiance of his superiors may have been in Fleming’s mind when he was crafting his fictional spy.

Anyway, I know I’m supposed to be reviewing Casino Royale, but I really do have to recommend From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy to anyone who enjoys reading about history. Dalzel-Job gives a clear, well-written and extremely humble account of his heroic actions during the war. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and some of his real-life adventures are more breathtaking than any Bond story.

But, back to Casino Royale. The last quarter of the book makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but in essence, a bunch of suspicious stuff is going on, and Bond is blithely ignoring it. It’s totally out of character for him based on how he behaved in the first part of the book, where he was meticulously paranoid about security measures, and proud of it. Then at the end he’s reckless about obvious threats, and the only reason for this seems to be that he needed to be to make the plot work.

I didn’t care for the ending at all, which was too bad, because I really liked the rest of it. It’s well-paced, interesting, and Bond was a good character… until he wasn’t.

To me, the book really should have ended with a fascinating conversation between Bond and his colleague, Mathis, where Bond is waxing philosophical about his profession:

“Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Can you imagine any of the cinematic incarnations of Bond saying that? I can’t.

Even better is Mathis’s parting advice to Bond:

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

This was my favorite chapter in the book, and really made the characters feel much more real and interesting. And then Fleming had to go and make a mess of it at the end!

Oh, well. It was still a good book and I’m glad I read it. All told, I’d say I enjoyed it more than the majority of the Bond movies I’ve seen, including the 2006 adaptation of this very story. Even if you don’t like the Bond franchise generally, it’s still worth giving the book a try if you like thrillers.

All right, that’s the end of the book review. What follows is just me going off on one of my hobbyhorses. Don’t feel like you have to read it unless you are interested in minutiae.

At one point, Bond is described as arming himself with “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip,” which he checks by removing “the clip.”

This is apparently a Beretta M418. There is an interesting behind-the-scenes story about how Bond ultimately swapped it out for his signature Walther PPK, but what I’m interested in is the use of this word “clip.” In this context, it sounds like he’s talking about a magazine, not a clip. Peter Martuneac (who, incidentally, I have to thank for recommending Casino Royale to me) has written a post about distinguishing the two. But Fleming was a navy officer, so I’m reluctant to automatically assume he was ignorant of the difference. Perhaps it’s a difference between British and American lingo? Or am I missing something, and it really is a clip? This picture of the 418 shows a pretty definite  magazine, though.

Anyway… well, if you read all this nit-picking and found it interesting, perhaps you’ll also enjoy this clip (pun intended) that I stumbled across while researching this. While it might be too big for a spy to carry discreetly, I think it’s worth noting that a few years later, a .44 magnum revolver would become an iconic cinematic weapon in its own right.

[Audio version of this review available below. This video is dedicated to the memory of all the French words I slaughtered trying to pronounce them when making it.]

The great comic novelist and book lover Noah Goats once told me, “Books lead on to books, and sometimes in strange ways. They all seem to be connected somehow.” This is a good example. After reading T.J. Brown’s excellent ghost story The Last Photograph of John Buckley, I looked to see what else he had written. And the first thing that grabbed my eye was the image you see at the right.

Well, I mean, how could I resist?

As the cover suggests, this is a raunchy, bawdy comedy. Emily Spankhammer is a young, widowed Southern Belle who runs a beaver farm. And in case you are wondering if that leads to many, many Are You Being Served?-style double-entendres, why, yes, yes it does. It is that kind of book, and I’m not ashamed to say it made me laugh.

In her quest to find love, Emily is aided by her spirit guide, a wisecracking pink unicorn named Sparkle. Despite his appearance, Sparkle is, shall we say, anything but pure or nice. As he explains to Emily, he has been forced by the Ancient Greek Gods into the role of spirit guide after his decadent hedonism indirectly led to the destruction of Atlantis.

I’m not doing it justice. Let me quote Sparkle verbatim:

“This is the realm of gods and monsters, you silly woman. They don’t have moral codes in that place. If you’d spent more time watching sword-and-sandal movies, you’d know that. This is the domain of passion, of jealousy, of revenge, blood feuds, and raging hormones.”

Sparkle and Emily’s relationship is a turbulent one. Actually, all her relationships are turbulent, whether it’s with a mechanic whose home is filled with fake owls, a circus ringmaster, or a Scottish Highlander. Are you getting a sense now of what a wild story this is?

The long and short of it is, it’s a hilarious, madcap adventure. It reminded me a little of Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf and a little of Lindy Moone’s Hyperlink From HellIt’s not a coincidence that the best comparisons I can think of are indie books. This is what makes reading indie books so rewarding: these are the kind of unusual stories that publishers are too risk-averse to take a chance on, but are an absolute delight to read.

Now, I’ll admit that some readers might not see the appeal in it. If you don’t like raunchy humor, then it isn’t for you. But if you’re in the mood for a zany, somewhat off-color, fast-paced take-off of romance novels, you should give this one a try.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Normally, I’d hold off on reviewing a ghost story until October rolls around. But I read this after Lydia Schoch recommended it, and it was so good I couldn’t wait to share it with you all.

The book is about a man named Peter, a World War II veteran who is an expert on retouching photos. He is hired to fix a photo of a group of World War I soldiers which has a peculiarly smudged figure in it. In the process of what proves to be a difficult and frustrating procedure, Peter begins having disturbing dreams. As he already suffers from PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares are nothing new for Peter, but these are different. They depict scenes from the Great War, and gradually begin to turn into something very, very real.

What follows is a marvelously written story of betrayal and revenge. There are two distinct narrative voices: Peter, and the author of certain documents from World War I that he discovers. Both of them fit their respective time periods perfectly. The story is very short, but at no point feels rushed. It has a well-paced narrative arc that culminates in a very satisfying conclusion.

The book’s description says it is “a short ghost story in the M.R. James tradition,” and yes, it absolutely is. This is a perfect story to read around a campfire or on a dark, rainy night. If you enjoy ghost stories at all, this is a must-read.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a long time. First, I read Joy V. Spicer’s review of it, which got me to download it, and then I let it languish on my Kindle. Then I read Peter Martuneac’s review and realized if two of my friends had recommended this, I really should get to it.

I also struggled to figure out a good time to post this review. The book isn’t old enough for January’s Vintage Science Fiction Month, although it disturbs me a bit to realize 2004 was 17 years ago. Kids who were born the year this book was published will be voting next year. I am an old man.

Anyway… so you get the review now, because why not?

If you haven’t seen any Star Wars movies, you should know that the background to this book is that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there is an order of knights called Jedi who keep the peace in the Galactic Republic. Unfortunately, a bunch of star systems are trying to secede from the Republic, causing a civil war in which the Jedi are commanding an army of soldiers cloned from a member of a warlike race known as the Mandalorians.

Hard Contact follows Omega Squad, a group of elite clone commandos deployed to the planet Qiilura, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems is creating a nanovirus designed to target the clone soldiers themselves.

Omega Squad is assigned to destroy the lab and rendezvous with Jedi who are somewhere on the planet. Unfortunately, the only Jedi still alive on Qiilura is padawan Etain Tur-Makan.

Maybe saying it’s “unfortunate” is a bit harsh, but Etain often seems like she’s not even trying to follow the Jedi virtues. She’s emotional, impulsive, and annoyingly self-pitying. Then again, perhaps she just learned these habits from the so-called “Chosen One” himself.

More interesting is the main antagonist, Ghez Hokan, a Mandalorian warrior whose job is to defend the lab and its science team, led by Dr. Uthan. I love Mandalorians. They are so cool. Even though he is a ruthless killer, part of me couldn’t help but like Hokan.

There were large portions of the book that really didn’t feel like Star Wars to me. It was dark, gritty and violent. At one point, although there’s nothing explicit, it’s mentioned that one of the thugs working for the Separatists is a rapist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in any other piece of Star Wars media.

This doesn’t make the book bad, to be clear. It was a pretty gripping military adventure. It was just that I would practically forget it was Star Wars at times, until somebody would pull out a lightsaber or something.

Actually, one of my gripes about the book is that sometimes it seemed to be trying too hard to shoehorn in references to Star Wars-y sounding stuff:

“She took a small sphere from the scattering of possessions on the mattress and opened it in two halves like a shef’na fruit.”

And then in the next paragraph we have:

“After a few bottles of urrqal, the local construction workers dropped their guard.”

I know this seems like a nit-pick, and to be fair, almost all sci-fi writers do this. I think I’ve done it myself, in fact. Anytime you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you feel a temptation to enhance the alien-ness of the world you’re creating. I wouldn’t mention this except I can’t help but compare it to my favorite Star Wars book of all time, Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith:

“Listen to me: if this ‘Darth Sidious’ of yours were to walk through that door right now–and I could somehow stop you from killing him on the spot–do you know what I would do?”

Palpatine rose, and his voice rose with him. “I would ask him to sit down, and I would ask him if he has any power he could use to end this war!

[…]”And if he said he did, I’d bloody well offer him a brandy and talk it out!

How much stronger is that than if Palpatine had said “offer him an urrqal”? The scene from Revenge of the Sith feels immediate and real. It’s the most vivid interpretation of Palpatine I’ve seen. Stover was a gutsy writer, and that’s why his book still sticks with me.

I’m not trying to rag on Traviss’s writing too much. Overall, it’s quite good. Peter’s review confirms my impression that the action scenes are very realistic, and the interactions between the characters feel very real.

Both the protagonists and the antagonists are well drawn. The only weak link is Etain, and even that actually makes sense in a way.

I haven’t read the next book in this series, but Joy has, and her review was enough to dissuade me from picking it up. She made one observation about that book that I think is already foreshadowed in the first book:

Karen Traviss obviously does not like the Jedi…

There is a moral conundrum here for the Jedi. They’re guardians of peace and justice, but they find themselves in a war, not of their making, one they’re ill-equipped to fight without the clone army.

Instead of exploring that conundrum, Traviss chooses to shove her view down the reader’s throat, of the Jedi as belligerent tyrants who feel nothing for the clones as they merrily send them to their deaths.

You can definitely see this happening towards the end of Hard Contact. It’s very clear we’re supposed to sympathize with the Mandalorians (on both sides) and their straightforward warrior ethos over the Jedi. The final conflict at the end of the book is when Etain disobeys a Jedi Master to help out the commandos.

Now, I could say a bit more about how I think this ties in with the larger Star Wars universe, and why I think it makes sense, although I can also understand why it’s a controversial point. But, it involves bringing in a lot of Star Wars lore, and ultimately it’s just a matter of interpretation. It’s probably not worth looking at in-depth, especially since it would involve references to lots of other Star Wars media. No need to go down that rabbit-hole today.

Right?

Oh, who am I kidding? We both know I’m gonna do it.

I think a big problem a lot of people have with the Star Wars prequel series is the way it demythologizes the Jedi. After they’ve been built up so much in the original trilogy, we meet them in the prequels and they are… kind of bad?

I’m not telling you they’re as bad as the Sith, of course, but the fact is, in the Late Old Republic period, we’re seeing the Jedi at a time when the Order is already deep in decline. They break their own rules to let Anakin Skywalker join. They join a war effort that is contrary to their deepest values. As Yoda notes, arrogance is “a flaw more and more common among Jedi.”

This is symptomatic of the broader decline of the Old Republic. They say the fish rots from the head, and what could be a clearer sign of civilizational collapse than the most esteemed, élite and virtuous of the institutions becoming corrupted, betraying its own internal rules, and morphing into a catalyst for the destruction of the old system itself?

My favorite scene in the entire Disney sequel trilogy was the one where Luke gives Rey an accurate and unbiased history of the final days of the Jedi Order:

Luke: Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.

Rey: That’s not true!

Luke: At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.

Now, again, this isn’t to say the Jedi of the Clone War era are monsters. Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi etc. are good people trying to do the right thing. But sometimes what appears to be the “right thing” in the moment means making some compromise of values that will come back to haunt them down the line. Even the best people in the world, after all, can still be hypocrites.

I think Hard Contact goes right to this point. Joy is exactly right that Traviss clearly prefers the simple, soldierly virtues of the Mandalorians, who fight for nothing but honor and the guy beside them, to the overly-complicated and compromised clerical institution of the Jedi. This contrast becomes especially clear when the clones, who still have much of the old Mandalorian mindset, are under the command of Jedi.

With all that said, I think there are many, many Star Wars fans who just didn’t want the Jedi demythologized. And, I can respect that. “You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,” after all, and I think the Original Trilogy notion of the Jedi as an ideal, a glorious order of noble knights, is one that many fans prefer over the Prequel Era’s deconstruction. Idealism vs. Realism: the unending debate.

All told, it’s a good book for older Star Wars fans, especially those who are fascinated by the clone army and the Mandalorians like I am.

This is the sort of book I rarely read: a fantasy-quest type of story. But it came recommended by Peter Martuneac, so I figured I would give it a try.

Am I ever glad I did! This is a fantastic tale of adventure set in an ancient Eastern kingdom known as Hosa. The book begins with the death of the protagonist, a warrior named Itami Cho. But Cho is returned to life by an extremely creepy child called Ein.

Ein explains that he has been granted the power to restore the dead to life by a shinigami, a type of malevolent spirit. He is on a quest to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings, and to do so, he is recruiting various “heroes” by returning them to life and binding them to his will, forcing them to aid him. In exchange, he promises to restore them to true life when their mission is complete.

It’s a sort of “Dirty Dozen” scenario, as Ein and Cho assemble a team of strong, though not always honorable, fighters. Together they journey across the land of Hosa, fighting all sorts of enemies, from common thieves to demonic entities known as “yokai”; monstrous perversions of living forms into hideous abominations.

What really makes the book great are the characters. Besides the humble and valorous Itami Cho, you’ve got the skilled-but-untrustworthy bandit Emerald Wind, the powerful, hard-drinking “Iron Gut” Chen, and the wise Master, Bingwei Ma.  In addition to these “heroes” (which is what Ein calls them, though some are less heroic than others), there are a host of other supporting characters, including a leprous sharpshooter who joins the party despite still being mortal.

Late in the book, we also meet a military leader called the Steel Prince, and his strategist, Art of War, a mysterious woman whose features are hidden behind a robe and a mask. They’re not in the story much, but I really liked the dynamic between them. The Prince is a brave and charismatic leader who unites his army, and Art of War is the brains behind the scenes, planning strategic maneuvers. Both are essential to the functioning of the entire force.

Ultimately, the book is a story about heroism. Not just about the heroes per se, but also about what it takes to be heroic. In different ways, all the main characters perform great feats of courage and sacrifice, while still coming across as very relatable and human.

It’s a dark and violent tale right from the get-go, with plenty of extremely well-written and bloody battle scenes. The story moves at a brisk pace, and the dialogue and character development are balanced perfectly with the action scenes.

Simply put, this is a marvelous book. I generally don’t bother writing reviews for books that already have hundreds of reviews on Amazon, but this one was so good, I just had to. Even if you’re not big on Epic Fantasy, you should still give this one a try. It’s one of those books that grabs you at the start and never lets go. I’m very grateful to Peter for bringing it to my attention, and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who likes a good story.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

Earlier this year, I reviewed Zachary Shatzer’s The Goose Finder, and said it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. So when I saw he released a new short story, I eagerly pounced on it.

And yes, if you liked The Goose Finder, you’ll like this too. As with the earlier book, I laughed out loud multiple times reading it. It has the same zany, absurd, laugh-a-minute style as it recounts the history of John Warbly, Chad Crackleman, Portman Humberson, and, of course, Old Man Cornwell, as they combine their musical talents and embark on a wild and tumultuous journey.

Once again, it’s really impossible for me to describe the book, so let me offer a few quotes. Here’s the description of Old Man Cornwell:

“He seldom spoke, and when he did it was usually in a confusing and cryptic way, often utilizing spiritual symbolism and references to ancient mythology. Sometimes he would imply that he was older than time itself, but when asked to further explain his meaning, he would simply chuckle and change the subject to the price of gasoline.”

Or this, when the band has its first hit:

“Despite insisting he wouldn’t let success change him, John instantly let success change him in numerous ways.”

Later, when the band breaks up, Portman takes up a new profession:

…writing political thriller novels, including but not limited to The President’s Secret Code, Senator/Spy, and The Shadow Government That Covertly Rules the Country and is Run By the Ghost of Warren G. Harding.”

I don’t mind telling you, I really, really want that last book to be real. Maybe Shatzer will consider writing it next.

Maybe none of this makes you chuckle, but if it does, I highly recommend checking this book out. It’s a short read, but given that there’s a laugh on every page, it’s well worth it.

[Audio version of this post will be available as soon as possible.]