I promise not to turn this blog into the All Bertocci All The Time channel. This is the third short story of his I’ve reviewed in the space of two months, but this one is a real departure from other books of his. It’s about a young woman mourning the unexpected death of her girlfriend, and trying to work through all her feelings of grief and bittersweet memories.

Not to say that the book is without Bertocci’s signature wit; because that is still very much present, as is his knack for wordplay. It’s just that here, it’s all turned towards addressing the subject of death. That grimmest of subjects which, as the Stoics remind us, we all must confront someday.

It’s a short, striking, poignant story. Above all else, it’s about all the little things we remember. Or rather, that we don’t remember, until it’s too late. That is the real kicker, isn’t it? That we don’t appreciate these little things until they’re gone.

Maybe this will be too emotionally trying for some people to read. It’s supposed to be, I think, because it can’t help but make you think of the loved ones that you miss. But the implicit corollary is, treasure the ones who are still around.

Ah, I know I sound melancholy, and I hate sounding melancholy. I was recently re-reading Zachary Shatzer’s The Goose Finder, a comic novel which contains this immortal (forgive me) line: “People shouldn’t die, and it’s stupid that they do. It really creams my corn, I don’t mind telling you…” Amen to that! Would that we could solve these problems by writing books. Oh, well. Like Zorba the Greek says: “Why do the young die? Why does anybody die? […] What’s the use of all your damn books if they can’t answer that?

And yet… these feelings, these experiences are important to record all the same, and in this slim little book Bertocci has done just that.

You have to know something before we start this review: Andrew Crowther is probably the greatest living W.S. Gilbert scholar, and has written numerous biographical and literary analyses of the great Victorian dramatist.

I, having become a Gilbert fan at a young age, have been reading Crowther’s writings since I was about 14 years old. And since then, I’ve come to realize that besides being a great critic and Gilbert biographer, Crowther is also a fine writer in his own right. And Down to Earth is a good example of why.

This book is a satire, but not so much in the Gilbertian vein as it is in the tradition of another favorite author of Crowther’s (and mine): George Orwell. It takes an initially utopian science fiction concept, a lunar colony, and gradually uses it to examine concepts like governmental power, freedom of expression, and racial prejudice.

The book addresses these issues in a number of clever ways, especially through my favorite character, Mr. Thark, a bitter and often deliberately offensive literary critic who nonetheless has some essential core of kindness which he tries his best to conceal.

Actually, I could say a great deal about this book, and the way it handles thorny concepts. Like freedom of expression, for instance. Should people have it? They should, right? But what about for things that are really, really offensive? Specifically things that come under the now nearly-forgotten doctrine of “fighting words”? And this leads to another question, which is who gets to define what constitutes fighting words? It all puts me in mind of a certain Frank Herbert quote.

But I can’t go into too much detail about these things, for to do so would be to spoil the book. And it really is a good story, with a likable protagonist whose goodhearted naïveté makes your root for her from the beginning, and creates an interesting dynamic between her and Mr. Thark.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book. It’s a thought-provoking Orwellian satire that explores many current issues. And, Crowther is a fantastic writer who deserves to be widely read.

This is the kind of book I’d normally never read. It’s about a 17-year-old girl, LeeAnn Heartney, planning to run away from her incredibly dysfunctional family. Her mother, still devastated from the death of her youngest child, spends all day drinking and watching Watergate hearings. Her father barely speaks and works the night shift as a security guard, sleeping during the day. And her younger sister is, well, going through all the drama associated with teenage girls in an environment ill-suited to help her deal with it.

Add in to this mix the three ambulance personnel who rent the upstairs rooms from the Heartneys, and you have a intensely emotionally fraught situation.

As I said, I’d normally never read a book like this. I don’t like family dramas. But Kevin Brennan is a master of the craft, so when I see his name on it, you can bet I’ll read it, no matter what genre it is.

Brennan doesn’t disappoint. The prose is gorgeous, as always, and the way he crafts the setting, right down to details like who was testifying at the hearings on a given day, is equally masterful. The tension builds slowly, then explodes suddenly at the end into a gripping conclusion.

It’s beautifully written, perfectly paced, and impeccably crafted. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction. Or even if you don’t like it, at least give it a try. Brennan is a gifted writer and his work deserves to be widely read and recognized.

Oh, Star Wars! Just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in. Although in this case, it was really the author, E.K. Johnston, that got me to read this particular bit of the endlessly-expanding SW universe. I read  Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing last year, and enjoyed it. So, when I saw she had written a book about Padmé Amidala, my favorite character from the Star Wars movies, I figured I’d give it a try.

The book largely focuses on the early days of Amidala’s Galactic Senate Career, between Episodes I and II. She, along with her handmaidens, make the transition to working on the sprawling city-planet Coruscant, while still retaining the decoy system that they used to great effect in Episode I.

Despite hostile press, and continual interference from the Trade Federation, Padmé begins to form alliances and coalitions, wheeling and dealing with other senators to pass bills, make reforms, and so on and and so forth.

Ah, my friend, if you were one of those who didn’t like The Phantom Menace because it had too much political stuff, you are going to hate this book, because politics is what it’s all about here. There’s one brief space battle towards the end, but otherwise, there’s very little combat for a book that belongs to a series with the word “wars” in the name.

But then, didn’t Clausewitz say that war is politics by other means? The two are closely linked all right, and Padmé’s political jockeying is really just maneuvering in a different sort of war. A dark irony that recurs throughout the book is the knowledge that behind the scenes, the apparently-kindly Chancellor Palpatine, who does nothing in public but read vote tallies and administer procedural rules, is building an army that will sweep the entire Republic away. Like Mao, Palpatine clearly believes that true power emanates from the barrel of a gun, and renders all Padmé’s senatorial efforts for naught.

This is why Padmé’s story is so tragic, when you think about it. Here is someone who believes firmly  in the ideals of the Republic, so much so that she is incapable of understanding how it is slowly rotting away.

Or is she? There are some curious things deep within the Star Wars lore, such as a scene filmed, but then cut, from Attack of the Clones wherein Padmé tells Anakin:

Popular rule is not democracy, Ani. It gives the people what they want, not what they need.

This is rather confusing, due to George Lucas’ well-known struggles with writing words. What she means, of course, is:

From this view of the subject, it may be concluded, that a pure Democracy, by which I mean a Society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths…

A Republic, by which I mean a Government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. (Federalist No. 10)

Eh, on second thought, maybe Lucas’ version is better suited to film, even if how the whole “elected Queen” thing works remains unclear.

(As an aside, I’ve been thinking about this since I was 12 years old, and my interpretation is that Naboo elects something like a planetary CEO, who holds ultimate sovereign power for the duration of their term, but is obligated to resign after a certain period. The monarchical terminology is only there because Lucas thought since Leia was a princess, her mother should be a queen.)

But I’m straying off-topic. This book is about Padmé before the Clone Wars, before her relationship with Anakin, and how she navigates the public eye as well as the corridors of power. One of her methods is the dissociative tactic by which she plays “Amidala”; essentially a role created and maintained by her and her handmaidens for public appearances. One of the themes of the book is that Padmé seems to lack a true sense of self; rather, inhabiting one of a variety of personas depending on what she needs to do at the moment. Presumably, all public figures do this to some degree, but it’s taken to a literal extreme here, considering the fact that the “Amidala” persona can be portrayed by a handmaiden as well as by Padmé.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that it is all political theater. That Amidala, with her elaborate gowns and make-up, as well as the Senate itself, are merely actors and sets on a stage, playing a distracting part while the real machinations of power grind on in the dark, shaping a fate for the galaxy quite different from what the squabbling elite of Coruscant imagines. This lends the whole book a grim tone, underscored by the epilogue set at the end of Episode III, that darkest episode of the saga.

Like I said, this really comes down to a matter of preference. If the politics in the prequels bored you out of your mind, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you liked the themes of the prequels, then you should give this book a try.

This book is about a young woman named Emily Tinker, who is hired to teach English Literature at Merlinfirth Academy. Merlinfirth is a boarding school, isolated, with odd traditions and customs, inclusion four different houses into which students are sorted (Gryllenbar, Rowlingstone, Hathaloath and Syliname), and a number of peculiar students, none more so than Ariana Tolliver, who is always getting involved in weird and dangerous adventures.

On one level, this book shares a theme with several of Bertocci’s other books: it’s about a young woman who feels adrift. She’s been working in retail and service jobs, never getting a chance to put her knowledge of the Western Canon to use. Until now, when she begins teaching with earnest zeal, only to discover the students at Merlinfirth are more interested in practicing magic than in learning the finer points of literary symbolism.

On another level, it’s also a commentary on the state of modern education. Merlinfirth is facing pressures to modernize as much as any school, and its older staff feel the threat to their traditions. Also there’s some deal with a dark wizard who threatens the school. But you probably expected that much.

There is another layer, of course, which is that it’s a parody. I think it’s pretty obvious what it’s parodying from what I’ve said already. Probably it’s best if you’ve read some of that popular series to get all the references, spoofs, satires, and other such elements. For good or for ill, I think most people have done this.

Here’s the thing, though: this is more than a takeoff of a popular cultural phenomenon. Because now we get to the final and most important aspect of the story: it’s about Miss Tinker’s love of language, and her efforts to help her students discover the value that words and literature have.

Bertocci’s style, and this book especially, is highly reminiscent of Wilde. I think it’s pretty much how old Oscar would take on modern books: with wit, playful use of language, and some keen insights into human nature.

If you follow me on the rapidly-collapsing but still oddly fascinating behavioral experiment once known as Twitter, you may know that I have a proclivity to complain that modern entertainment is being drowned in endless sequels, prequels and reboots.

Here’s what I may not have made clear: I don’t hate derivative works. One author taking the works of another and building upon them is an old tradition, and one that has produced some fantastic stories. Every author is influenced by others. Why, Wilde himself was known to borrow from others: The Importance of Being Earnest was heavily inspired by W.S. Gilbert’s play Engaged, so much so that the Victorians probably would have called it a reboot, if they’d had the concept of rebooting.

The healthy way to capitalize on a fashion is to tell a story with the same trappings as whatever is popular, but add innovations that make it stand out as your own. The unhealthy way is to keep doing the same damn thing again and again with only trivial variations.

Bertocci has done the former. He has used the common form of the YA wizarding adventure to tell his own tale of the value of language and stories.

Human beings are bad at processing time. We think of time relative to our own existence, where a year seems long. But on a larger scale, a year, a decade, even a century, can be as nothing. We struggle to even conceptualize this. If something has lasted say, ten years, we’ll say, “It’s been that way forever.”

Which is why a book with a non-human protagonist is so tricky, and why this book, told from the perspective of an oak tree, makes for such an interesting exercise.

The story begins with Catherine Miller, a young doctor murdered in 1853 shortly after her graduation from medical school. She never knows who murdered her, but her spirit mysteriously lives on inside a oak tree. From this vantage point, she witnesses the changes that occur over the centuries, as a technology evolves, cities rise and fall, and human nature remains in many ways the same. In the present day, Catherine’s consciousness inhabits the backyard of a cruel man whom she sees murdering another medical student.

She does what she can to help the authorities in solving the crime to which she is the only witness. But as a tree, she has limited ability to communicate with humans, which is where the implacable veteran police detective Lani Whitaker and her partner come in to the picture. The book alternates between Lani and Catherine, between past and present, giving us a full scope of what changes, and what remains.

Sorry to inflict my amateur literature teacher routine on you two weeks in a row, but this book has a theme, and that theme is age. Besides the obvious point of the Catherine-as-oak’s many decades, Whitaker is also confronting a more human experience of time, as she is near the mandatory retirement age, and is reminded of it constantly.

The book has a very melancholy feel to it, and not just because of the multiple murders that drive the plot. It’s about people observing the passage of time from a variety of perspectives. The vibe of the book is the same vibe you get from a tree in late Autumn, and obviously that’s exactly what it should be. It’s a work of magical realism with a motif that goes beyond the typical police procedural elements to evoke a bittersweet longing for things we can’t even remember.

The Beach Wizard was one of my favorite new books of 2022. It’s a brilliant comic novel with some real heart and even some philosophical weight to it. It’s a great book. An instant classic, in my opinion.

So when I saw Shatzer had written a sequel, I was filled with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Could he match what he achieved with the original? It seemed a tall task, but of course I had to find out.

The story begins with the Beach Wizard suffering from a personal crisis brought on by a long spell of rain at Benford Beach. Finally, in attempt to restore sunshine to the party town, he uses Wettington’s Trident, a powerful magical artifact discovered at the end of the first book. But the effort goes awry, and he accidentally unleashes chaos upon the town, from turning one of the streets into tomato soup, to revivifying a long-dead pirate, to, most disastrously, creating an ever-growing hole in the ground that threatens to consume the entire city.

Needing help to rectify his mistake, the Beach Wizard enlists the aid of the Benford Beach Surfing Club to help him find another magic set who can set things right. But the wizard in neighboring Beansville is not of a mind to help, given his dictatorial ambitions and arrogant personality.

The book is full of crazy and off-the-wall misadventures and comical happenings, and when it ultimately arrives at its expected conclusion, it proves to be a very satisfying trip. If you enjoyed the first one, you’ll like this one, too.

I could just leave it at that. If I were a normal person, I suppose I would just leave it at that. But zis is Ruined Chapel! Ve don’t “normal” here!

What we need to ask, of course, is “Does The Beach Wizard’s Big Mistake have themes?” Let’s start by examining the Beach Wizard’s rival, Piddleman. Piddleman is introduced as a man who, years before the events of this book, once briefly ruled Toledo, Ohio, as a dictator before he was arrested by the Council of Magic.

However, since his days as a unitary executive, Piddleman has refined his approach to power. As he says:

“I came to see the error of my ways. Democracy is the way to go… To simply seize control is akin to cheating. What I am doing now is different. It is the people of Beansville who have given me the chance to impose my elegant vision on them by electing a mayor who is willing to act as my puppet.”

This is pure Machiavellianism, but not at all unusual in the world of politics. Indeed, it is arguably the most common fate of a democracy to vote to install some powerful person as ruler. As John Adams said, “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Yet, as the Beach Wizard reflects, he is not so much better than the conniving Piddleman. For he himself chose to wield the powerful trident, and in his quest for power, became corrupted. Or at least really screwed up his beloved beach town.

And here is where we find the theme of The Beach Wizard’s Big Mistake. It is the same as the theme of The Lord of the Rings: namely, the malignant effect of power on the human soul. Wettington’s Trident might as well be The One Ring for all the power and danger it holds.

And as the Beach Wizard says to the consummately easygoing mayor of Benford Beach, John Smacks:

“The reason you’re so popular as Mayor, despite your lack of enthusiasm for many of the duties of your office, is because you have no desire to wield power over anyone.” 

This is why, no matter what calamities befall him, Mayor Smacks always seems to maintain an even keel. We can’t help but be reminded of Tom Bombadil, who, as Wikipedia tells us Tolkien scholars claim, “is entirely free of the desire to dominate, and hence cannot be dominated.”

The Beach Wizard’s mistake is the desire for power, and the beach can only be saved when he surrenders his wish to control it.

Of course, I’m making all this sound way heavier than it actually is. I can’t help it; I got hooked on political theory when I was in college, and like any recovering addict, even the vaguest scent of the stuff is liable to make me relapse. In fact, like any truly good book, the themes are only there for those who want to find them. If you just want to enjoy a good comedic story about a bunch of wacky characters, then you can, and pay my wannabe Discourses on Livy-style reading no never-mind.

Any way you slice it, The Beach Wizard’s Big Mistake is a funny novel and a worthy sequel to The Beach Wizard.

This is a steampunk adventure-comedy about a group of geniuses, The Hogalum Society. When their founder and namesake, Dr. Yngve Hogalum, dies suddenly, one of the society’s members, Phineas Magnetron, takes it upon himself to make a daring, perhaps even mad, effort to restore Dr. Hogalum to life.

The book is written in a verbose, overly-ornate style that is a deliberate parody of Victorian prose. It takes place in 1877, albeit an alternate 1877 with many counterfactual technologies.

A few times, the author succeeded a little too well at mimicking the wordy style of the day, to the extent that I sort of wishes he’d get to the point more quickly. I got used to this eventually, and by the end found the narrator’s sesquipedalian tendencies rather entertaining.

The book is a quick 30 minute read that serves as an intro to the world of the Hogalums. I happened to stumble across it while searching for retrofuturistic books, and while it’s really an alternate history as opposed to actually retrofuturistic, I nevertheless enjoyed it very much.

Even more than the book itself, I liked the afterword where the author explains all the historical references and deliberate anachronisms. Things that sounded like impossibilities as I read them (a 20-chamber revolver???) turned out to be based in fact. I always learn something from these “stories behind the story.”

All in all, this is a very entertaining story for anyone who likes humorous steampunk adventures.

In this, the year of our Ford 115, limitless entertainment can be summoned for us at the push of a button. We live in an era where shows, films, games, and musical performances surround us constantly. If that’s still not enough, advanced computer technology will soon allow us to create our own customized artistic experiences on a whim. Want to see photos of Star Wars as a Spaghetti Western? It’s not quite ready to produce the full film version yet, but that day will come…

Yet, for everything we have in entertainment, we lack in imagination. Indeed, there is a very clear trade-off of imaginary power being made here. When you ask the A.I. to show you a new interpretation of Star Wars, you are literally outsourcing your imagination to a machine. Isn’t that a little scary?

‘Twas not always thus. It used to be that people relied on these things called “books” for entertainment. With a book, your task is to use your imagination to complete the ideas suggested by the author’s words. It’s similar to a computer program compiling, actually. In a sense, every book is a collaboration; the author gives us the basic furnishings, but it’s up to us as readers to finish it.

Which is not to minimize the importance of the author. Quite the contrary. Whereas, say, the director of a film has the power to manage every frame, every line, every sound, to inspire a specific reaction in the audience, (and we all know the stereotype of the tyrannical micromanaging film director) an author’s job is much tougher. What is not written is as important as what is. An author has to know what to state baldly, and what to only imply. An author has to know exactly what to tell the reader.

Which brings me at last to the subject of today’s review: Gold of the Jaguar, the third installment in Peter Martuneac’s Ethan Chase series.

Gold of the Jaguar takes us on an adventure in the jungles of South America, far away from the ease of modern life. It invites us to imagine lost treasure, ancient temples, and mysterious islands guarded by eerie predators that keep watch from the trees.

And Martuneac, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, knows what details to give to immerse you in the adventure. The combat scenes feel vivid and immediate, the equipment, ancient and modern, is so real you feel like you can touch it, and the occasional flashbacks to earlier epochs give the setting a sense of history.

Beyond that, though, this book also deals with themes of recovering from addiction, abuse, reconciliation and healing. In that respect, it feels closer to Martuneac’s zombie apocalypse series, His Name Was Zach. While this is still a light adventure compared with the ultra-dark tone of those books, this one has some emotional weight to it.

Bringing all this back around to the point I made at the beginning: why, in 2023, should you read the Ethan Chase series, out of all the various forms of fiction competing for your attention? Well, I say the answer is because it’s sincere. I don’t care if it makes me sound like Linus in the pumpkin patch; there’s nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see. It’s an adventure story, with heroes and villains and a lot of heart.

It is not the product of a focus group at some multinational entertainment megacorp, or a famous brand-name author who long since farmed the actual writing out to nameless drudges, or an A.I. piecing together bland assemblages of words to produce simulacra of stories.

No, it’s just a tale that one man wanted to tell, and he did it, and reading it is like coming along with him on a great adventure. Let his imagination team up with yours, and be swept away in a rollicking yarn of lost treasure, danger, and exploration.

A friend recommended this to me, and though it’s not the sort of book I normally read, I gave it a shot.

Dead Cert is told from the perspective of Alan York, an amateur jockey who is horrified when his friend Bill Davidson falls during a race, and dies from his injuries. York, who was right behind him when he fell, is convinced he saw a wire used to trip his friend’s horse, but on returning to the scene finds nothing.

But York isn’t the sort to give up, and keeps digging, trying to bring Davidson’s killers to justice. In so doing, he uncovers a taxi company acting as a front for a protection racket, a systematic scheme to rig races, and a beautiful young woman for whose affections he competes with one of his fellow riders.

It’s a classic mystery book, and York is a likable protagonist. His guts, determination, and stoicism make him easy to root for, even when he does run some pretty crazy risks. The writing is snappy and clever, and moves things along briskly and wittily.

All in all, it’s a really good book. Now, as it happens, I was able to guess who the ultimate “baddie” was the minute they were introduced.  Which is fairly early in the book, but there were plenty of tell-tale signs. And yet, this diminished my enjoyment of the story not at all. Even being pretty sure what would happen, seeing it unfold was still a treat, thanks to how well-written the story was.

More than the plot itself, what I really enjoyed was the portrayal of everyday life in early 1960s Britain. The social customs feel quaint and alien to a modern reader. That’s a compliment. Francis captured the setting beautifully,

While reading about this book, I came across this gem of a quote from The Guardian‘s obituary for Francis, describing his writing:

It was an American style that many clever people in England had attempted to reproduce without much success, and it was a wonder how a barely educated former jump jockey was able to do the trick with such effortless ease.

Yeah, pretty crazy that a former jockey would be able to write a book about being a jockey, isn’t it?