Do I even need to tell you what this book is about? You can probably tell from the cover. That’s right, it’s about baseball. In particular, a minor league phenom named Joe Carpenter who quickly takes the sport by storm. The scout who discovers Joe, Bud Esterhaus, is a grizzled but likable veteran of the American pastime, who narrates the budding star’s meteoric rise from one league to the next, as the two of them pursue Joe’s ultimate dream of making it to “The Show”.

Of course, Joe has a secret that threatens to derail any hope of playing in the major leagues, and Bud has problems of his own–an ex-wife, an estranged son–that make their journey far from smooth.

I admit, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. Fortunately, Brennan’s wonderful prose is so finely crafted that knowing anything about the sport is purely optional. The story moves along well, and the characters are interesting and likable. Especially Joe, who I was rooting for from the start.

This book also includes another Brennan staple: long and vividly-described road trips during which characters can explore their pasts. Like Fascination and Eternity Began Tomorrowthis is partially a road trip story, if only because the “here today, gone tomorrow” ethos of the minor leagues requires near-constant travel.

If you love baseball, you’ll love this book. If you don’t love baseball, you’ll still probably love it, simply because Brennan is a fantastic writer who knows how to spin a compelling yarn in any setting.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

I applaud you for reading this. You could have just left well enough alone by reading the first part and marking this down as a gentle romantic comedy. But you want to know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say.

I breezed past some of the world-building elements of this book in the first part, but now I want to get into the nitty-gritty.

First, as mentioned in H.R.R. Gorman’s review, the Victorian class system is very much intact. Helena and August both have family servants. Now, in keeping with the principle of noblesse oblige, and because Helena and August are good people, they treat their servants well, and they, in turn, are deeply devoted to their employers. Which is all swell, and will be a dynamic familiar to anyone who ever read a Jeeves novel.

But… it’s still a class system. Helena’s servant Fanny is never going to be a member of the ruling class. Which may be fine, as Fanny shows no desire whatsoever to be a member of the ruling class. But I am just saying.

“Okay, Berthold,” you reply. “So there’s a feudal dynamic. Whatever; I’ve watched Downton Abbey. What’s the big deal?”

Nothing… it’s just very Victorian. Which is to be expected since it’s in the title. I’m not arguing that it’s a flaw or that it shouldn’t have been like that. It’s just interesting, especially in light of other things.

Because then you have that hybrid DNA test and dating service which finds promising romantic matches based on a person’s genetic makeup. Did I mention this service is run by the Church of England, which at this point now encompasses all religions practiced in the Empire?

Now, one asks, what reason could there be for wanting to run DNA tests to find good matches? Is there any other term for this type of practice? Why yes, there is, and its origins are also firmly rooted in the Victorian epoch.

To be clear, the gene-matching program in That Inevitable Victorian Thing is purely based on individual choice. There is no compulsion (unless you are actually a member of the Royal Family) to marry certain people based upon it. It’s just a rite of passage. Like getting your driver’s license. Or registering to vote.

Oh, about voting… yes, well, I don’t think that happens here. Now, if you’re a neo-Imperialist, you’re like, “What part of ‘absolute monarchy’ is confusing you, Yankee Doodle? Of course there’s no voting!” (Real die-hards may also be unable to refrain from adding aloud, “And rebellion and treason are forcèd to yield!“)

So, just to recap: we have a strict class hierarchy, a social system predicated upon genetic compatibility and overseen by the Church, and unelected monarchs who rule for life and hold supreme executive power.

Does this sound to you like the setting for an idyllic romance, as I described in the first part? Or does it sound like, I don’t know, nine different dystopias are about to break out all at once?

Of course, the story is the story. If Johnston wants to write a book about a genteel, peaceful, and civilized society governed by absolute monarchy and based on eugenics and class, she can do it. And there’s no unreliable narrator sleight-of-hand going on here, either, trying to make us think it’s one thing when really it’s another. Believe me, I put on my Hildred Castaigne goggles and looked.

Part of the reason is, as I mentioned earlier, everyone in the story is basically good. As Plato himself said, the best form of government is the kind where the best people are in charge. (Well duh, Plato! How much are we paying you again?)

And because everyone is basically good, they can do fine with a form of government which, in the wrong hands, one can easily imagine being used to turn the Empire into a nightmarish hellscape.

Speaking of nightmarish hellscapes, I want to talk a little about how the alternate future of That Inevitable Victorian Thing depicts the United States of America. Not that it depicts it much. The book largely takes place in Canada, with other characters from different parts of the Empire dropping in now and then.

But when something bad shows up, chances are it came from the USA. The USA of this world is the rotten ruin of a failed experiment. It has no culture. Its food is terrible. It is apparently overrun with pirates. When the neo-Victorian ruling élite discusses it at all, it is with a mixture of disgust and pity.

Any one of these elements in the world Johnston has built might seem like a trifling bit of counterfactual history put in just for the sake of being different. But together, they form an unnerving and weird backdrop to the light and pleasantly mild main plot.

Which is, I think, the point. After all, the real Victorian world, which we often see with rose-colored sentimentality, had its unnerving and weird side too. But the real Victorians, who read books like Jane Eyre without thinking of what you might call the Wide Sargasso Sea perspective, were probably oblivious to the unnerving and weird aspects of their society. So is everyone, in every society.

To read That Inevitable Victorian Thing is to get a vague sense of what it would have been like to read a Victorian novel as a Victorian, and not as a modern looking back at the literature of a bygone era. In that regard, while it’s probably not for everybody, it is a fascinating literary experiment.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Zachary Shatzer’s books never fail to make me laugh out loud. They’re absurd, over-the-top, fast-paced and hilarious, and Sorcerers Wanted is no exception.

The best way to describe it is, imagine a spoof of Harry Potter and all the Potter clones that followed it, but done with the sensibility of the movie Airplane!, only in book form. I won’t summarize the plot, because it’s too zany, and anyway, you don’t read a book like this for the plot. There’s an evil sorcerer called Pobius who has conquered Arizona, an even eviler and much cooler sorcerer named Doomsboro who has conquered Chicago, and a school to train young sorcerers to fight back against them.

This school is where our protagonist (who is unnamed, but sometimes referred to as “Mitchell” or “Doofus”) begins his journey. He’s not what you’d call a real success in life, having failed at pretty much everything he’s ever tried, but he tries to remain upbeat.

There are just too many funny lines to even count in this one. Like this, describing Doomsboro’s use of a TV game show to capture the public’s imagination:

It’s hard for most people to choose defiance against evil when they have to give up televised drama as part of the deal.

Or this, on his use of propaganda:

These papers now cranked out nothing but propaganda about Doomsboro. How strong he was, how handsome he was, how tyranny and malevolence were actually cool and benevolence was only for old fogies who can’t keep up with the times.

“Coolness” is a major theme in the book, and in fact the use of the intangible concept of being cool is used by all sides in this complex magic war. Which is critical for our protagonist, who is about as uncool as it gets.

And like an earlier Shatzer book, there’s a fictional text mentioned in this one that I desperately wish actually existed: The Cowboy Sorcerer, by Jenkins Crabston, a novel that combines Crabston’s “experience as a sorcerer and his love of movies set in the old west.”

This book so, so needs to be real.

As for Sorcerers Wanted, it’s a wonderful comic romp that had me guffawing uncontrollably. Highly recommended for when you want to just kick back and read something light.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

One of the things that gets much discussion in the writing community are so-called “rules of writing” that go around on social media. Like Moses bringing the tablets from Mount Sinai, people are all the time posting quotes from famous writers like Stephen King or Elmore Leonard, telling writers to do or not do various things.

Foundation is the greatest rebuttal to this I’ve ever seen. You’ve been told that a book shouldn’t have too many points-of-view? Foundation has at least five; more like ten. You’ve heard that books need to have description? Foundation has next to none. And above all, you must have heard that you’re supposed to show, not tell. Foundation laughs in your face. The whole book is nothing except telling.

Whether Foundation might have been better had it followed these rules can be debated. But Isaac Asimov was the Vice President of Mensa and Foundation is a classic of science-fiction. It at least proves rule-following is not essential to success.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book begins with Hari Seldon, a scholar in the field of psychohistory, which is a science that makes sweeping predictions about the fate of civilizations over the course of millennia. Seldon foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire he lives in, and has made a plan to manipulate events such that a Second Empire can be restored in a thousand years, give or take.

The later parts of the book follow various political figures, religious leaders, merchants and scientists, many of whom are carrying out the pseudo-religious duties laid down by Seldon’s foundation. Periodically, a “Seldon Crisis” will occur; that is, a major inflection point in the re-development of civilization that Seldon foresaw in his detailed models of how the future would play out.

The book is actually a series of short stories compiled together, and in some ways, that shows. None of the different characters are around long enough for them to be really fleshed out, but the dilemmas they face are interesting, as are their ways of resolving them. In a way, it feels to me like a forerunner of the original Star Trek, in that each situation presents some moral or ethical situation for the characters to work through. (Another reason this book is perfect for Vintage Science Fiction Month!)

The book does have a detached, maybe even downright cynical view of history. And of course, it’s materialist through and through. Don’t look for larger-than-life heroes here. It’s really more like science fiction as conceived by the Hanseatic League.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said that what first interested him in the field of Economics was that it was the closest thing to Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”: a science that tries to synthesize knowledge about how populations behave and use it to make predictions about the future. This concept appeals to me as well. I have a Bachelor’s in Economics.

Of course, not many people look for excuses to talk about economics when they’re reading escapist fiction. They call it “the dismal science” for a reason, after all. Partly, this is due to an early association with the work of Thomas Malthus. Malthus was the Hari Seldon of the 19th century, in that he too tried to use models to predict the fate of civilization. Unfortunately, his model wasn’t quite right.

And thus, the fundamental problem with economics: models are never perfect. As Paul Samuelson once remarked, “the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions.” And so, the question nags at me: would this work? Given sufficient computing power, could you actually predict events the way Seldon does? It seems theoretically possible, I think. Or does it? Because after all, we don’t know what we don’t know. You may think you have accounted for every possible variable, but there are always other variables you didn’t even know were variables.

One of the frequent assumptions made in simple economics models is perfect information, meaning everyone in the market knows everything about the relevant market at all times. Of course, this is never, ever true, which means the models themselves are not in fact accurate; just approximations of what “should” happen.

If someone actually had perfect information, they would be, effectively, a god. I think that’s actually Asimov’s point in Foundation, since Seldon’s plan becomes essentially a religion after a certain amount of time. “If God did not exist…” etc. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” also applies.

The problem with trying to map out the future like this is much the same as the problem with laying down rules of writing like those I mentioned at the beginning of the post: it leaves no room for things that organically just work, even though by all accounts they shouldn’t.

So, what is my final verdict on Foundation? Er, well, sorry to disappoint you, but… I haven’t got one. H.R.R. Gorman has convinced me that I need to read more of the series before I form an opinion. All I’ll say is this: the book was interesting enough that I’m going to read more.

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.]