Bathroom Book

When I read a bathroom book, I want it to be full of bite-size factoids that I mostly didn’t know before.  Soemthing educational, but not necessarily important.  And something that can be easily picked up and put down at any point in time.  It takes a long time to get through any book this way, of course, but it does mean that I don’t need a new one for a while.  If I choose to get one.  I don’t always or even usually keep a bathroom book.

Back in October or so, I met up with some friends at Mitsuwa, the big Asian mart a town or two away.  We wandered through the whole place and ate lunch, and of course spent a goodly amount of time in the massive and still jam-packed bookstore. There I found a little square of a book called Architecture in Minutes by Susie Hodge. It was one of a series of books, each by a different author, and I had my pick of topics ranging from art to science and more.

Given my background, I had no real of the art book, but architecture is an interesting related field.  Art history classes sometimes discussed archiectural elements and notable buildings, but focused much more on paintings and sculptures.  So I had a base knowledge of architecture, but figured I could afford to learn a bit more.  And since some of it I would know, I likely wouldn’t get lost.

The format of the book is simple.  On the left page of each spread is a bolded title – an architectural technique, movement, or person of note.  The rest of the page is information on the topic including dates, materials, other related individuals, other things making use of the same style, etc.  Opposite is a full page photograph printed, like the whole book, in black and white.  If the structure is not named in the left-hand page copy, the right page has a semibold caption in the corner with the relevant information of what we’re looking at.

Ranging from antiquity (Stonehenge, Egyptians, Greeks, etc.) to present day (published in 2016), the book tries to give an overview of architecture as a whole to an uneducated reader.  I think my only complaint would be the fact that there were a lot of names dropped that I didn’t recognize, and would likely never bother to look up.  On the other hand, given the random names and buildings I did recognize, whether from class or firsthand experience, I can see where someone else might know exactly who that one guy was and yet still know no more overall than I do.

There is nothing in this book that necessitates hanging onto it.  It’s served its purpose and while I don’t think I’ve retained much of what I read, it wasn’t unenjoyable.  I’ll put it in a pile of things to sell next time I have the chance (or things to give to friends who would be interested) and maybe I’ll buy a new bathroom book.  The last one I had before this was obscure laws from various places in the United States, some of which I had known before and some of which were revelations.

But really, who doesn’t know it’s illegal to use dynamite to fish in Illinois?

Morning Read

I keep saying that I don’t feel the need to read books four and five of Merlin’s Descendants.  And I mean it.  That doesn’t mean I was done with the series last night.  You may have noticed that on weekends, particularly days when I have plans (although today’s plans are just to see a certain movie), I like to read something relatively short over breakfast, to leave my mind clear for the rest of the day.  Today was no exception to that rule.

A few years ago I was wandering the dealer’s room of a con when I happened to notice, of all things, Guardian of the Vision.  That book being from 2001, it’s not exactly the title you’d expect to see prominently displayed fifteen years later.  Especially not when most of the table was devoted to CDs.  And yet…there was a stack of small booklets, cheaply printed and not even trimmed (sorry, I have experience with this stuff) by its side.  A color photo of a dog drew the eye, above which it read The Curse of the Pendragon and below, of course, Irene Radford.  Next to this stack were CDs with a brown background and a sword hilt front and center, bearing the title Merlin’s Descendants.

Naturally, I had to ask.  The man at the table, Alexander James Adams, explained to me that the CD was a collection of songs that followed through the book series I knew and loved.  And the booklet was a short story set in the same world.  The music was all his work, done years ago before he transitioned (you can find those under Heather Alexander).  I took a listen and decided that yes, I could listen to this, and bought one of each.

The music is mostly good, for the record.  There’s a couple songs that can get annoying, but isn’t that the case with every CD, regardless of artist or genre?  I will admit that one thing I do enjoy about collecting Adams’ work is comparing songs he recorded before and after transitioning.  But that’s beside the point.  The point being that there was something new to read.

The Curse of the Pendragon takes place in 1289-1290, in Oxford.  Wilfred Kirkwood is a Don at Merton College and a minor player as far as the family goes.  His nephew Griffin holds the barony and is not much of a character in this tale.  No, the part of this story that got me so excited the first time I read it is Wilfred’s interactions with the Jews of Oxford.

This is a short story in every sense of the word.  The booklet is a mere thirty-two pages of 14pt type with truly massive top margins.  (Given the placement of the page numbers, the bottom margins are fine and the side margins would be perfect if the thing had gotten trimmed.)  In other words, it doesn’t need to be quite as big as it is, but this was obviously typeset and assembled by people who don’t have my knowledge or experience.  This is self-published to the extreme, although it wasn’t done on someone’s home printer.  The staples are too perfectly positioned, so it was printed and stapled at an actual print shop.

Is my design geek showing?  I think it’s showing again.  It also bothers me how the front and back of the cover are printed too close to the spine, and this is one that trimming the book wouldn’t fix because then you might cut off some of the text inside.  For the record, when I speak of trimming, I mean the open side of the book, opposite the spine.  When you fold multiple sheets of paper in half, the outer ones won’t reach as far as the inner ones because they have to accommodate all the papers they’re folding around.  Trimming means you cut off these uneven edges so that all the pages are flush.

Yes, I know, I’m spending far more time talking about the physical construction of the booklet than the story.  It’s a short story, and I don’t want to spoil anything for those who may find themselves a copy!  There’s really not much to it, and little else I can say without giving away the entire thing.

Although, speaking of graphic design, when I was a school we had an assignment to design new book covers for existing volumes.  I actually chose Guardian of the Vision because of its meaning for me.  None of the covers were great, all things considered, but the new editions of the book (and the series) actually resemble some of the concepts I had created years ago.  (Yes, that means my designs were obviously not very creative, but still!)  I think the one thing I did better was to find a good photo of the English moors for a background.  I’m sorry but I will never, ever be impressed by Photoshop filter backgrounds, even though they’re all the rage right now, especially for young adult books.  I know how easy it is to make them.

Some Accompaniment

Often when I read, I have music playing softly in the background.  Usually this is just the eclectic assortment of iTunes, but not always.  Tonight I opted to lounge on the couch while I finished this book, and the record player happens to sit nearby.  In the interests of not distracting myself from my reading, I chose something lyricless and not too intrusive.  Disney’s Fantasia.  Why is this relevant?  Because in listening to sides I, II, III, and VI, I managed to miraculously time it so that I was listening to “Night on Bald Mountain” during the climactic battle with the demon and “Ave Maria” for the tearful denoument and conclusion.

No wait, you need a little more background first.

This was Guardian of the Vision, book three of Merlin’s Descendants and what I consider to be the strongest book in the series.  Although the prologue begins at the end of Edward VI’s reign, followed by Bloody Mary Tudor, the main monarch of this book is Elizabeth I.  The family having been renamed Kirkwood from Griffin (per the dying wishes of John Plantagenet to Resmiranda), they retain the tradition of naming the eldest (legal-born) son Griffin.  Griffin, elder than his twin Donovan by an hour at most, is the protagonist.  He is also a Catholic priest, having forsaken the barony in this pursuit.

Griffin and Donovan are truly two halves of a whole.  Not only do their strengths and weaknesses complement each other, but they easily express two sides of any argument.  Griffin was always the designated heir – not only to the land but also to the magic.  Donovan had potential, but no real power that he could access.  And, of course, the dogs chose Griffin.

The world of Elizabethan England was a much wider one than what we’ve seen previously in this series.  In Arthur’s day, the mainland was far away and somewhere to go for dire escape and no return.  In Resmiranda’s day, the barons were forced to choose England or France, not being permitted to retain lands on both sides of the Channel.  And she, being the last heir of her generation, could not be spared to leave England defenseless.

As part of becoming a Catholic priest, Griffin leaves for Paris, where he spends five years before finally returning.  Later in the story, he ventures also to Rome and Spain as well as returning to Paris.  Admittedly, we don’t see nearly as much of these other locations as we do of England, but it helps drive home the fact that travel is much easier in the 1500s than it was previously, and the world is more connected than it was.

I should also mention there are three main traits that run in this bloodline.  First is obviously the magical talent that marks our protagonists in every book.  Secondly are twins – originally seen in Myrddin Emrys and Dyfrig, then shoved in our face with Griffin and Donovan.  Lastly, and not super important until book four, is madness.  In Guardian of the Balance we get a brief glimpse of Myrddin and Dyfrig’s mother, whose mind is stuck in a time when her sons were still infants.  In Guardian of the Trust the madness is seen in Henry Griffin when he returns from the Crusades…although that’s probably more along the lines of post-traumatic stress.  Here in Guardian of the Vision it is Griffin and Donovan’s sister Meg who spends the entire book insane – the prologue is predicated on avenging her rape, which broke her mind.

The ending of this book bears the most resemblance to the first, but it resonates much more powerfully this time.  Before, the ending seems tacked on to the traditional Arthurian tale.  Here, Radford has created a new story out of historical events, and actual past figures are peripheral to the main plot.  (Like Guardian of the Trust, this book also opens with a cast of characters denoting historical figures.)  So the climax and conclusion are exactly what they needed to be and should be for maximum impact.

These first three books are the ones that focus on a religious conflict in some way.  Here it’s made far more obvious by the very fact that Griffin is a priest.  Even so, he still has his magic and must make his peace between his faith, his church, and his power.  This is the core of the book, and why the music was so very fitting.  After all, what animation did Disney choose for this?  “Night on Bald Mountain” features a demon (Satan, I guess) and his minions causing trouble and reveling in it all night long.  However, as dawn breaks, the church choir’s hymn spreads throughout the land, banishing the demons back to their darkness and welcoming the light back.  The demons aren’t vanquished or otherwise destroyed, but they are beaten back to make way for light and life and goodness.

“No matter what name you call G-d, be certain She is listening,” is the advice Griffin is given throughout the book.  Not that Guardian of the Vision is the first time we see this concept in Merlin’s Descendants.  I think Wren may have been the first to give voice to these words, although I’m not pulling the book out to check.  There’s also another interesting line here about the Church’s fundamental purpose being that of control.  Really, I think that applies to any organized religion.  I’m not saying faith is bad, but when we create these massive constructs of community, we give over part of the control of our lives over to them.  In some cases more than others.  Then we get those who are ignorant and trusting of the organized religion and expect it to spoon feed them the answers unquestioningly, with no way of knowing truth from falsehood.  You can draw your own parallels.

You may also notice that Guardian of the Vision took me two days to finish, as opposed to a single day for Guardian of the Trust.  Well, there are two reasons for that.  Firstly, I didn’t get to read on lunch yesterday.  Secondly…this book was too good to just rush blindly forward.  Oh yes, I was so enthralled by book two I couldn’t put it down.  But in this case my reluctance to pick the book up was because I didn’t want it to end too soon.  Yeah, you can call it weird that the Jewish girl finds the book about the Catholic priest to be the one that touches her most deeply.  But truth is truth.  I have no problems with reading books about other religions or starring deeply religious people of different persuasions…as long as they aren’t trying to make me feel negatively about my own religion.  And considering the open-hearted message quoted throughout, I couldn’t possibly feel attacked by what Radford’s written.

Oh yeah, and there’s elves on the cover of this book.  Not even touching that.

Historical Fantasy

If you doubted me when I said that books two and three are the best, here’s the proof: finishing Guardian of the Trust in a mere 24 hours.  You can’t zip through a 530 page book in a day that also included work if you’re not enjoying it and eager to read more with every turn of the page.

The second volume of Merlin’s Descendants skips over numerous centuries and brings us to the beginning of the thirteenth century.  John Plantagenet has succeeded his brother Richard the Lionhearted.  What we last knew as Wren’s Caer Noddfa has grown into the Barony of Kirkenwood, a quaint little village and grange tucked away up near Hadrian’s wall in the north of England.  And if the villagers are now most definitely Christian like everyone else around them, that doesn’t mean they don’t still respect the standing stones in the center of the village, nor that they won’t turn a blind eye to strange goings on with their lords and ladies.

Our new protagonist is Resmiranda Griffin, the last of her line (for now) and heir to the Merlin’s power.  She, like her homeland, is being torn in many different directions.  Between the church and her magic, between men she loves and could love, between peace and war, etc.  Her journey is to reconcile and come to terms with the different conflicts in her life whilst staying true to herself.

There are two main things I want to touch on with Resmiranda, the first of which is the church.  In contrast to Arylwren who was an actual priestess of the Goddess although she rarely rubbed it in anyone’s face, Resmiranda is very religious.  She has been told that her magic is ungodly and must be cast out, and so part of her her’s journey is to understand that any power is a tool that can be used for good or for ill, and that magic is no sin against G-d.  The symbol atop her staff is a cross, and in her rituals derived from ancient times, she uses prayers to G-d and Jesus Christ.  Even her land’s name ties into this theme; “Kirkenwood” is literally the “church in the forest.”

Religion plays a major role in the first three books of the series, not just in the sense of paganism versus Christianity, or finding everyday holiness in one’s life, but also because momentous events are happening at the time the story takes place.  I mentioned that part of Guardian of the Balance was the land’s shift towards Christianity and away from worshipping the older gods, the conflict which was best exemplified with Myrrdin Emrys and Dyfrig.  For several years during the course of Guardian of the Trust, England is placed under Interdict by the Pope.  No official religious ceremonies can be celebrated (Mass, weddings, etc.), and a great deal of chaos and confusion was generated in terms of lords and knights whose oaths were held to the Church.

The other point I wanted to make with Resmiranda is actually a single scene.  She’s back at Kirkenwood for the first time in a year, researching in the family grimoire for a spell when she discovers an common ingredient in her great-aunt Lotta’s spells: her own menstrual blood.  Now, Irene Radford’s books do not back away from bodily facts such as periods, sex, and death.  And it’s true that for Wren it was merely a fact of life…which means it was barely mentioned and not as a big deal.  But for Resmiranda, who felt unclean when on her period, it was important to discover that her menstrual blood could be a key ingredient in her spells, a way to further imbue her materials with her essence and power.  This resonated with my younger self in the same way that Alanna: The First Adventure did when dealing with her period.  It’s not just an empty reassurance that this is a natural thing for your body to do, it’s showing you.  Show, Don’t Tell they say, and it’s so true.

People aren’t saints.  They aren’t perfect.  This is why comic books took a trend for the more realistic by giving their superheroes flaws to overcome.  It’s hard to relate to someone who is perfect.  It’s a lot easier to relate to people who have difficulties, even if they aren’t the same problems, as us.  And when those conflicts are the same as our own, then it truly hits home for the reader.

I should also mention that this book bucks the trend of the first and third books as far as the ending.  Resmiranda’s story concludes at a different point than Wren’s or her successor’s because the world’s tale has closed.  If the main plot of Guardian of the Balance is the same as any classic retelling of Camelot, then the conclusion has to be when Mordred kills Arthur.  In this case, the end is when John Plantagenet, the King who brought about the Magna Carta, dies.

Really, this makes it clear that half of what Radford’s goal is with these books is to bring readers to experience something of the time when these momentous events occurred.  Oh sure, we have our fictional main characters (and the book starts with a cast of characters denoting real historical figures) and magic and demons, but she could have written about any time period in England’s history.  But Radford wanted to write about the Magna Carta, and so this is the (general) story (with embellishments) of how it came to be.  And if you don’t believe me, then check out the last twenty pages which contains a copy of said document with annotations as to how it relates to the book.

Just to be clear – there’s nothing wrong with historical fantasy.  I love it.  And I have loved this series for some twenty years.  But writing these posts helps and forces me to think more analytically about books that I know so well and allows me to see them in new light.  Which is no bad thing.  It doesn’t quite help with books four and five, but those are…well, one day we’ll get to those.  Someday.

Earliest Exposure

Sooner or later, it seems that every prolific fantasy author must touch upon the Matter of Arthur.  I’ve seen authors preface stories about how they didn’t want to write about Excalibur and Camelot, how everyone does, how there’s so many interpretations.  I’ve seen authors write multiple and very different stories concerning Merlin.  I’ve seen most of the characters in the tale made sympathetic and villainous, and the variations are endless.  So few facts are actually known about King Arthur that the story is as another fairy tale, another myth, a legend that can be twisted this way and that while still retaining it’s key points.

You know, I nearly didn’t finish this book.  Maybe because I did stop in the middle of a book recently, my mind is more willing to consider it an option.  But it’s not like I haven’t read this book before, multiple times.  Although to be fair, it’s the second and third books in the series that are the strongest.  I’m reminded that once I get over the hump to maturity, the majority of the book reads a lot faster than the first portion.

Guardian of the Balance was probably the first novel I ever read based on the tales of King Arthur.  I picked it up because I was already familiar with Irene Radford through her Dragon Nimbus and Dragon Nimbus History series and I will always give authors I’ve previously enjoyed a shot.  To be brief, I was thoroughly enthralled the first time I read this book.  I was undoubtedly a bit young for it at the time, probably no older than Arylwren when she married – at fourteen.

But let’s back up a bit and talk about the actual story.  Guardian of the Balance envisions a fairly simple Britain as compared to the modern island.  The land is ruled by the Ardh Rhi, beneath him are client kings, then lords, all the way down to villagers.  The land is in the midst of changes.  The Romans are gone, the Saxons invade almost annually, and paganism is giving way to Christianity.  Arthur’s reign is a golden age for the land, although there’s a fair bit of struggle getting there.

The prologue introduces us to Myrddin Emrys, better known as the Merlin and head of the Druids, counterpart to the Morrigan who leads the Ladies of Avalon.  Then we skip ahead nine years to chapter one and meet our viewpoint character.  This is something Radford always does in the series; the book is mostly told in first person by the protagonist, but additional sections are told in third person as we get glimpses into the minds of other characters, especially the antagonists.

Arylwren, daughter of the Merlin, is the hero of this book.  She’s a side character to the Arthurian tale, but so much more than that.  She provides a focal point of calm reasoning and unyielding will for the story, as well as the foundation and meaning of the series title: Merlin’s Descendants.

Like I said before, the first portion of the book is very slow moving.  The prologue, Wren’s childhood, and her time on Avalon growing into a young woman.  Once she leaves the island, things pick up and we really get into the story of Camelot.  There’s a great deal going on with politics, religion, factions, incest, people, torture, childbirth, rape, etc.

Yeah, I did mention I might have been a bit on the young side when I read this.  There’s a fair amount of sex and it gets worse when you sit back, do the math, and realize how young some of these people are.  These books are not meant for children…and yet I don’t think I would love them as much as I do (well, certain of them) if I hadn’t first read them at a fairly young and impressionable age.  I said this was probably the first Arthurian novel I ever read, and that means any subsequent experience would have to be related back to this one, if only because it was first.

Now, Radford doesn’t get into quite as much detail as say, Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Yes, I have read The Mists of Avalon, and that’s about all I can say about it.  I seem to recall it was fairly dry and that I would never want to reread it.  I gave the book away shortly after finishing it, and have been pleased to wash my hands of it.  It was good quality, sure, but also a brick.

Speaking of bricks, I mentioned how there were two series I was considering rereading, one with longer books and one with shorter.  Fun fact: even though Merlin’s Descendants are the shorter books, I still needed my saga-sized bookcover for this.  But there’s a good 300+ page difference between this and the first book of the other series.

I also chose Radford’s series because it’s been on my mind a lot over the past few months, and I wanted to reread it so that I could share it and my thoughts about it with you.  That’s not to say I don’t have things to say about the other books – they haven’t been featured on this blog yet either – but just that I feel more instances have been pulling for this series of late.

There is one other thing to mention.  Guardian of the Balance is the first of five books and is probably dead center of the series for quality.  I’ve said that the next two entries are the strongest…which by process of elimination says that four and five are the weakest.  And the weirdest.  And I just read a book with legal rape and incest so I think you can see where this might be going.  Or not.  Point being that I’m not certain I’ll be rereading those at this time.  I’ve never enjoyed them too much and if I do read them, it’s mostly to be a completionist.  But there’s more than enough other books to read in my library that I’m not sure I’ll subject myself to them.

That’s all for now as I go on to book two!

A Ghost of a Chance

I didn’t want to read more short stories.  And I wanted to avoid comedy (or attempts at humor).  Mostly I wanted to pull another book out of the Pile which does severely limit my options.  Finally I settled on The Time of the Ghost which is a fairly strange read from Diana Wynne Jones.

The book opens with a ghost…gaining consciousness?  Becoming aware?  I don’t even know.  Anyway, she doesn’t remember anything off the bat, not even her own name, but drifts around until she finds herself at a school.  The more she sees, the more she remembers, but not completely.  Seeing a person will prompt her to identify them, but she may not remember more than that about said individual until their actions or words invite more memories in.

She figures out that she’s one of the four Melford sisters, the daughters of the school’s headmaster and…cook?  Accountant?  I’m not certain what Phyllis does.  And, because one sister is missing, the ghost assumes herself to be said sister after a tragic accident.

The ghost is mostly a passive observer of the sisters and a few of the students (it’s a boys’ school, the girls just live there) as they go about their lives, figure out that a ghost is around, and engage in some behaviors that may seem sinister and strange as presented in the book, but really, are utterly typical for children.  Jones does create a good spooky mood, which I guess makes this more of a horror novel than a fantasy.  Yes, there are fantastic elements, but the book is more about the mystery.

It does take most of the book to be absolutely certain which of the sisters the ghost is, and there’s an air of mystery as well as a sense of running out of time as the story moves onward.  There are clues dropped throughout, but for the most part the reader is as clueless as the ghost herself.

I’m not sure what to think of The Time of the Ghost.  I guess the ending was satisfying in some respects, but not in others.  Those things I didn’t care for are, well, products of their time and place.  Not nearly as obnoxious as the white male privilige in Applied Mythology, but things that I wish weren’t as common as they have been.  As they probably still are, even though many more people try to be politically correct and inclusive today.  Obviously this book can’t be set too recently because Diana Wynne Jones is dead and has been for several years.

Well, this is one I guessed poorly on!  Written in 1981, and I would’ve thought it came twenty years later.  I suppose it makes a lot of sense – I’m not sure I would’ve gotten away with as much as these kids did, and no one younger than me could’ve even imagined such a lack of supervision.

I don’t hate this book.  I’m not even certain I dislike it.  It does a great job fitting you into the ethereal shoes of the ghost and keeping you guessing right up until the end.  I certainly can appreciate its merits, I’m just not sure how I feel about it.  I don’t think I can honestly say I liked The Time of the Ghost, but I have no reason to not keep it and shelve it.

In better news, today I worked less overtime!  Here’s hoping that I will be able to get back down to a normal workday and then be able to read more each and every day!  Not to mention that there’s a weekend now and I should be able to zip through a fair amount.  I’m thinking of rereading a series, although which one remains to be seen.  There’s one that sounds more attractive, but is made up of small bricks.  The other one is also good, but happens to have shorter books that will therefore go by faster, regardless of how much freereading time I have in the coming days.

Remembering

Years ago, before we had a black president, before The Lord of the Rings rethought what you did with extra scenes, before Star Wars had prequels, before Harry Potter was more than a mansucript, my mother bought me a book.  Yes, I know, my mom bought me a lot of different books when I was young.  She still buys me books now, especially for my birthday.  But those are usually right off my amazon wishlist.

Anyway, my mom bought me a book that she thought I’d find interesting, and it was not at all the normal sort of book I read.  It was called Pooh and the Millennium, for I had at that time begun to insist that Winnie the Pooh was not just for little kids.  The book was, as I recall, interesting for the various principles it equated the Bear of Very Little Brain with and how it examined those though the lens of the Hundred Acre Wood.  But it wasn’t that great for more than the concept and its very existence. I’ve never had any interest in rereading Pooh and the Millenium, but the thought of giving it up or away just doesn’t sit right, especially not after all these years.

So when I was at Half Price Books last weekend, I happened to see something interesting sitting on the staff recommendations shelf.  It was The Tao of Pooh.  Now, I remembered that Pooh and the Millenium wasn’t great, but consdering the fact that I’ve never forgotten I own that book, I couldn’t simply pass by The Tao of Pooh.  And I figured I might as well read it sooner rather than later, if only because it isn’t very long.

Now, Pooh and the Millenium did touch on Taoism.  This I only know because I looked through the table of contents just before I sat down to type.  But it’s hardly surprising because I can see the basics just reflecting on the character of Pooh Bear.

The Tao of Pooh has three main types of content, plus illustrations here and there.  The first type are excerpts – some from A.A. Milne’s stories and others from other sources, usually relating from translations of Taoist works.  The second type of content reads like a thesis, though the vocabulary is geared towards a younger audience – say ten and under.  The last type is where the author, Benjamin Hoff, interacts with the various denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood (there is no Christopher Robin outside of excerpts – perhaps we’re meant to equate Hoff with the lone human of the books?).

I have mixed feelings about the book.  It is a good primer for those interested in learning the basics of Taoism, focusing through the lens of a familiar Western icon.  However, Hoff seems to feel superior to his audience, to his “companions”, and it bleeds through in his writing.  And he doesn’t like Eeyore.  He doesn’t say it ever, but Eeyore seems to get the short end of the stick a lot.  Which I take offense to, as the depressed donkey happens to be my favorite character of the lot.  I may or may not have him sitting on my lap at this very moment.

Between dumping on Eeyore and the not-so-subtle environmental messages, I’m a little annoyed with Mr. Hoff.  And, of course, that makes it difficult to enjoy the book.  It’s why I can’t read any of Orson Scott Card’s newer books – because the man no longer lets telling a good story get in the way of proseletyzing.  But I’m getting off topic a little.

There are two reasons to look at how many pages are left in a book.  The better reason is because I have a limited amount of time and need an estimate of how much time it will take to finish the book.  The worse reason is the same as asking “are we there yet” on a car ride.  You can imagine which one prompted me to check the remaining pages multiple times today, and it’s never a good thing to do so.  Not for the enjoyment of the book.

The Tao of Pooh is not really a book I want to keep.  However, it is a book that I don’t want to sell.  Rather, I will hang onto it until I find a friend who gets as nostalgic for Pooh and friends as I do, and give it to them to read.  It’s quite likely that whomever I choose will be less critical of their reading material, and so find more enjoyment than I did.

So, let’s wrap this up by giving Eeyore a big hug and picking out a book for tomorrow.

Coming to Magic

Sad to say, but it’s been a while since I last read a new book out of the Pile that I wanted to finish because it was so good, instead of wanting to finish so that I could move on to something else and hopefully better.  Yeah, Horse Fantastic was a solid anthology, but not so much that I really wanted to look at the stories within in my post.  Something Magic This Way Comes, however, is a very different book.

Sure, it’s not a Fantastic anthology.  But that’s not a prerequisite for quality, just a sign that it’s not bad.  This is one of the books I picked up at Half Price last week, and as you can see it caught my attention enough to warrant reading it sooner rather than later.  It’s edited by Martin H. Greenberg (one of the editors who signed Horse Fantastic) and Sarah A. Hoyt.  The latter is somewhat newer in the field, I think, but I do know her name.  She and Kate Paulk (one of the authors featured in this anthology) wrote a particularly notable set of stories for the Valdemar anthologies.  Initially they wrote together but by the end of their run they were each contributing a Jem and Ree story to the anthology until the tale reached its logical conclusion.

Speaking of, there was a story tucked away near the back of this book which struck me as a good “opener”.  That is to say, I am deeply curious if the author, Darwin A. Garrison, will be writing more in this world of “Firebird and Shadow”.  It’s not unheard of, even outside of a series of anthoogies like Valdemar.  Tanya Huff’s collection Stealing Magic is a good place if you’re looking for all of her Terazin stories, or all of her Magdalene stories.  Blood Bank serves the same purpose for short fiction in the Blood/Shadows universe.  Mercedes Lackey has multiple SKitty stories and the list can go on.  The point is, I might have to keep an eye out for that name.

Speaking of, who else might I know in this group?  A few, as usual.  Irene Radford, Harry Turtledove, Laura Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer off the top of my head.  Turns out I’ve also read things from Esther M. Friesner (a lot by her actually) and Barbara Nickless as well.  Out of twenty authors, that’s a pretty good percentage.

The only “theme” to Something Magic This Way Comes is that all the stories are fantasy of some kind, nothing more specific.  Which may be why this anthology was more invigorating than the last – authors clearly had very few restrictions placed on them.  Some stories, especially those towards the beginning, are more speculative fiction or “left of center reality” as I like to call it.  Things that don’t scream “fantasy” when you read them, but are clearly not straight from the real world either.  The tales do become increasingly more fantastic as the book goes on though.

Before I start picking out some of my favorite stories, I do want to say I feel somewhat like an idiot.  I may have mentioned that I don’t pay a lot of attention to chapter numbers or titles as I read – they’re just convenient page breaks.  And while I do recognize the end of one story and the beginning of another, that doesn’t mean the title and author make more than a momentary impact.  So I started reading “More to Truth than Proof”, the first story in the book, and thinking how much it reminded me of the Merlin’s Descendants series, without once recognizing it’s from the same author until now.  Good job, me.  Gold star.  Which reminds me, I should definitely revisit those books so I can talk about them here…

Paul Crilley’s “Tears of Gold” was a strange but endearing tale about grief which left a lasting impression and a whole bunch of questions and in a similar vein to Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Still Life, With Cats”.  “Angel in the Cabbages” by Fran LaPlaca gave me some mixed feelings of yes, let’s support people but also why should you play into stereotypes of significant others being so vital to persondom?  Kate Paulk’s “Raining the Wild Hunt” was just great and that twist was kind of Lord of the Rings but who cares?  Still a good story.  I also greatly enjoyed the spirituality of “A Midsummer Nightmare” by Walt Boyes.

Needless to say, I had a great time reading this book and it’s the sort of experience that brings home why I do this; why I read, why I like to share my thoughts with people, etc.  There is something truly magical the first time you read a good book and while anthologies aren’t novels, it’s still a pleasure to find one as thoroughly enjoyable start to finish as this one.

Not to mention that perhaps the next time I have an opportunity to pick up a novel by Sarah A. Hoyt or Kate Paulk…maybe I will.  At this point, they’ve both earned my trust and I’m willing to put my money down to see what else they can do.

Not Awesomely Bad

After a lovely Passover meal with friends and family (this being back on the final day of March), I drove my friend to the train station so he could get back into the city.  Having some twenty minutes before the train would come, and the station being so courteous as to be open after 7pm on a Saturday night, we went inside, out of the cold and wind.  And, as we were waiting around, I noticed a “take a book, leave a book” display.  Given that both my friend and I are happy to wander used bookstores at the drop of a hat, we had to peruse the lot.

Most of the books were “housewife” novels.  You know the types: romance, softcore porn, thrillers of various types, and “book club” selections.  However, one caught my eye, and not just because of the orange cover.  Titled Cybermancy, it seemed to buck the trend that most of its fellows followed.  And with the subtitle “Hades has a Hell of a firewall”, my interest was peaked.  I picked it up and scanned the synopsis briefly.  To say the least, this book sounded dumb.  But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I thought that The Crystal Sorcerers sounded dumb when I found it in a used bookstore and, well, it really is.  But it was fabulously and awesomely bad and I love it and its sequel so much.

Kelly McCullough’s Cybermancy is not in the same league as The Crystal Sorcerers.  In fact, it’s a disappointment in comparison.  As I bulled through the first hundred pages, I began to wonder if I’d drop another book without finishing so soon after the last.  And to make it perfectly clear, I think the last book I abandoned before Applied Mythology was The Swiss Family Robinson and I was in highschool at the time.  I think ten years between failures to complete says a fair bit towards how rare an occurance this is.

So the main character is Ravirn.  Except his real name is actually Raven because he was forcibly renamed by the Fates – the Greek Fates because he’s a descendant of theirs and the Greek pantheon is real and…yeesh this is a lot.  You know, it never actually says anywhere on the book that this is a sequel, right?  I didn’t get that confirmed until I decided to keep the damned thing and it showed up as book two when I scanned it into my database.

Anyway.  Ravirn does not like his new name.  He is doing everything possible to deny the fact that he has a new name.  And you’d think that when people keep dropping hints about the fact that he should probably, you know, try to understand what this name means he’d actually listen but oh no, that wouldn’t be stereotypically masculine.  Ugh.  I mean, when you have a magic user, which he is, even if in this world magic is intertwined with computers and the m[agical]web, names are kind of a big deal.  Having your name forcibly changed is going to affect you right down to the core of your being, not to mention numerous side effects that will just…unexpectedly pop up.  I can’t be the only one to see this, right?

Whatever.  I became more invested as Ravirn began to actually take notice of the fact that being Raven is different and will change him.  It’s the difference between a character whining about the plot being too difficult and the character standing up and moving with the plot.  I’m not sure that the quality of the book ever improved, but at least it finally engaged me in such a way that I wanted to find out what happened next.

And if the ending isn’t perfect, it’s not bad.  I do have to wonder about what will happen next – because you know nothing lasts forever, and I think I picked up some foreshadowing – and what happened previously.  As I mentioned earlier, this book is tagged as being from “the author of WebMage” which I can now assume to be the first in the series.  But, again, there is nothing on Cybermancy‘s cover to indicate that it’s a sequel.  I have a number of books that are advertised as being by the author of a different book, but that’s not always a guarantee that the new book is set in the same series or even the same world as the older one.

To be honest, since the general events of the first book are summarized (several times, poor writing there) here, I don’t actually need the experience of reading WebMage and I’m not sure I would pick it up if I was given the opportunity.  I did not care for Ravirn for the first half of the book.  I found him to be self-absorbed, a trait not helped by the fact that this is written in first person, reckless, too inclined to think with his dick, and generally obnoxious.

Oh, did I mention that I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be classed as my least favorite genre of new adult?  The randomly gratuitous sex-shit is pretty obvious and fairly shoehorned in.  Ravirn doesn’t actually think about sex most of the time, so it’s an abrupt turn to left field when he does.  Most of the time he’s thinking about coding and hacking which I can just barely follow as sometimes McCullough throws around terms that I can not quite guess at.  Maybe people younger than me have a higher base knowledge of coding, but that portion feels almost as gratuitous David Weber’s seamanship.  Which, if you’ve read Safehold or my posts about it, you know is not a compliment.

I also want to know how separate the world of the Greek pantheon is from the normal human world.  I mean, we have two descendants of the House of Fate, Ravirn and his girlfriend Cerice, and the latter is working on getting her master’s degree in computer science/magic programming.  But there’s nothing in Cybermancy to indicate how separate (or not) the mundane world is from the magical.  I do wonder if this was dealt with in WebMage, but I have serious doubts.  From the excessive summarizing of previous events, I can presume that the author understands any book in a series might be someone’s first, but I’m not sure said author is at all interested in explaining how the “normal” world interacts with the magical one for us mundane humans.  It’s an annoying gap in the worldbuilding, to say the least.  But I guess I’ll have to overlook it.

Yes, I’ve opted to retain ownership of Cybermancy for now.  (And maybe I’ll bring a book to leave…if I have one…if I’m at that train station at some point…if I remember…)  It’s not as terrible a book as it could be and, like I said, it did begin to engage me and redeem itself somewhat.  It will never be a good book by any stretch of the imagination, but I have enough interest to wonder what will happen next.

Oh. My.

Last convention I attended, I didn’t find too many books to buy.  But, I did find another Fantastic anthology, even though I thought $5 was a little much.  Of course, the increasing price on used and out of print books is an ongoing complaint of mine and really, given how hard it is to find these anthologies, I couldn’t turn it down.  I didn’t even glance at the authors before buying – not just because it was in a plastic cover, but also because it didn’t matter given that it was a Fantastic anthology.

Later, at home, I took the plastic off and opened the book to see what authors I would recognize.  But before I got there, I saw the cover page.  With signatures.  Those of the editors, Martin H. and Rosalind M. Greenberg.  Pleased, I shelved the book.  Fast forward to my finishing Sunshine for the third time and finally being ready for some new material and thinking an anthology would be just the thing.  Settling in, I opened the book again, reminding myself of those signatures as I flipped past and to the Introduction.

Which was also signed.

I stopped and stared.  Then I began to flip through the entire book.  Not every story here is signed, but a third is still pretty impressive for an anthology.  That’s right, I have signatures here for Jennifer Roberson (twice, the Introduction and her story “Riding the Nightmare”), Charles Ingrid, Mike Resnick, Elizabeth Moon, and Mercedes Lackey.  You bet I was excited and shocked to find this out.

I do love it though, picking up a book because you want to read it and then finding that special bonus of the signature.  I know that in many cases it adds little if any value to the book, especially for authors who aren’t super well known and are still alive, but it still makes the book special to me.  It also makes me wonder about whoever owned the book that had these seven people sign it.  I would guess they wanted every story signed at some point…but why stop?  Why sell or give the book away?  Did they die?  This book is close to thirty years old, having been published in 1991, so a lot can happen between now and then.  None of the signatures are dated, so I really have no idea how long it’s been since the book was last marked.  Still, it was a great find and I’m very pleased to own it.

This is Horse Fantastic, which makes it no surprise to find Lackey here with what I once saw her call “the only Valdemar short story she will ever write.”  I am certain that statement predates the now-annual Valdemar anthologies, so we’ll overlook it.  Her story here is, of course, “Stolen Silver,” which is now the prologue to Exile’s Honor.  And this being a horse-themed anthology, it’s not surprising that other contributors to this book have also added to the Valdemar mythos at least once.  Such authors include Mickey Zucker Reichert, Josepha Sherman, Judith Tarr, and Janny Wurts.

So, a third of the book signed, a third of the book contributing to Valdemar, a third of the book by authors I’ve never read before – including one, Mary Stanton, who has two stories in this volume.  There’s a lot of weird stuff going on here with Horse Fantastic, but none of it takes away from the quality of the content.  The stories here are mostly memorable and some downright fascinating.  At least one made me sit back and say “sci-fi you are weird” as I read this morning.  But at the end of the day, it’s another anthology worthy of being called Fantastic.

In other news, I may have mentioned that a new Half Price Books was opening in the area.  In fact, today was the first day they were officially open to sell (they’ve been buying stock for a bit).  And, me being the bibliophile I am, I went straight from work.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it as full as any bookstore, with no signs they were suffering for stock.  And, even better, I began to pull books off the shelves as I browsed my favorite sci-fi/fantasy section.  As I perused the alphabetical authors, I started noticing the ever-distinctive DAW anthologies here and there, shoved in by editor.  Which made even less sense when I came to the end of the alphabet and alphabetical series to find an anthology section…populated only by oversized paperbacks and hardcovers.  Still, I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.  Three anthologies, two sequels (one I’d been trying to find for months and one I didn’t suspect existed), two Diana Wynne Jones books…it’s a good haul.  Seven books in all, one of which was directly shelved since I’ve read it before.

The hardest question now is…what to read next?  It will be Friday, so I’ll have a weekend to (theoretically) finish whatever I select, but I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for now.  I kind of want to reread “The Tenth Worthy” from Immortal Unicorn Volume 1 or maybe that WWII story from Castle Fantastic, but I don’t know that I want to reread either of those anthologies in full.

On a different note, today is a special day.  Today, as I entered the short stories from Horse Fantastic into my database, the number of unique short stories I own surpassed the number of physical books.  Not by much, but 1491 is still more than 1484.  It’s a milestone I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while, but all I knew was that it would happen sometime this year.  There’s something like six more anthologies in my Pile, so it was inevitable.  Well, I guess my habit of picking up anthologies made it inevitable regardless…bah.  It doesn’t really matter.

I still have no idea what to read next, so it must be time to shelve this book and wander my library until inspiration strikes.