My Reading & Listening: 2016

Early in 2016, I wrote this post reviewing books I'd read in January 2016, with the good intention of continuing subsequent monthly reviews of books I'd read or listened to on audiobook.

So much for good intentions. I managed to keep a list of books read in 2016, but aside from that post for January reading, never continued the monthly reviews. (There were a few books individually reviewed.)

In lieu of that, and because a list worth keeping may be a list worth posting, here's my reading for 2016. (I also read some of the sf/f magazines, and listened to a lot of short story podcasts from Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and other audio or dual print/audio producers, but this list is for actual novels or short story collections published as books. Sorry about that, podcasters.)

(these were reviewed in the post linked in the 1st paragraph above)
Don't You Know There's A War On?, Richard R. Lingerman,
The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons
Maplecroft, Cherie Priest
Captain Blood, Rafael Sabatini
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal

(Februarywas a Headless Chicken Month, so not much reading completed)
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore
Planetfall, Emma Newman
The Raven Boys, Maggie Steifvater

The Golem of Hollywood, Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
Zoe's Tale, John Scalzi
Authority, Jeff Vandermeer
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
Leviathan's Wake, James S.A. Corey
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (pseud. Sarah Monette)

Operation Arcana, ed. John Joseph Adams
Redemption Road, John Hart
Beasts of Burden, Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 1: Squirrel Power, Ryan North & Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It's True, Ryan North, Dan Slott, Erica Henderson, Matt Haley, Kieron Dwyer, Ty Templton
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, Neil Gaiman
and a bunch of "Parker" Novels by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)
  • The Hunter
  • The Man With The Getaway Face
  • The Outfit
  • The Mourner
  • The Score
  • The Jugger
(much of May was spent dealing with the aftermath of  April 27th's involuntary participation in Some Asshole's home-grown version of Demolition Derby on a public street, which totaled our car. So, another light reading month)
Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson
Speakers Of The Dead (Walt Whitman Mystery #1), J. Aaron Sanders
It's Up To Charlie Hardin, Dean Ing
Princess Elizabeth's Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal
and more "Parker" novels by "Richard Stark" (Donald Westlake):
  • The Seventh
  • The Handle
  • The Rare Coin Score
Uprooted, Naomi Novik
The Intern's Handbook, Shane Kuhn
Through the Bamboo, Mack Green
and still more "Stark"/Westlake "Parker" novels
  • The Green Eagle Score
  • The Black Ice Score
  • The Sour Lemon Score
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
The Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins
Blood Engines, Tim Pratt
We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold
The Burn Palace, Stephen Dobyns
Drive, James Sallis
Driven, James Sallis
and one more "Parker" novel
Deadly Edge, Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The End Is Now, ed. John Joseph Adams
The End Has Come, ed. John Joseph Adams
Girl At The End Of The World, Richard Levesque (reviewed here)
Scouting For The Reaper, Jacob M. Appel
Gifts For The One Who Comes After, Helen Marshall
North American Lake Monsters: Stories, Nathan Ballingrud

Forgotten Suns, Judith Tarr
Black Hat Jack, Joe Lansdale
A Book Without Dragons, Olivia Berrier
Tutt and Mr. Tutt, Arthur Cheney Train (reviewed here)
In Silent Graves, Gary Braunbeck
The Bread We Eat In Dreams, Cat Valente

The Last Weekend, Nick Mamatas
Comfort Me With Apples, Peter De Vries
The Wrong Box, Robert Louis Stevenson
H. G. Wells, Secret Agent, Alex Shvartsman
Million Dollar Outlines, David Farland
Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor

(I spent November catching up on short story podcasts from CLARKESWORLD, LIGHTSPEED, and other sources. I usually listen to those while at work -- I'm allowed to do that, huzzah -- and found it difficult to do at home while off-work for three months after July's shoulder surgery. At 8-10 stories per week, times twelve, not many actual books read or listened to in November or December. And I think there was some news item or other that month that threw me off-kilter for weeks.):
A Head Full of Knives, Luke Smitherd
The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

The Body Reader, Anne Frasier
There and Back Again, Pat Murphy
Women Up To No Good, Pat Murphy

Among all the books on the list, the one I was most impressed by was Through The Bamboo by Mack Green. It's a Vietnam War novel, with ghosts and spirits added into the mix. The writing is extraordinarily vivid and compelling. One of the best war novels I've ever read, and definitely the best Vietnam novel. I'll try to get a longer review written when I can, but for right now, if you're going to read one book from this list, read that one.

Other books I especially enjoyed this year:

  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant
  • Leviathan's Wake
  • The Goblin Emperor
  • It's Up To Charlie Hardin
  • Uprooted
  • Ancillary Sword
  • The Library At Mount Char
  • We Are All Completely Fine
  • Girl At the End of the World
  • Just One Damned Thing After Another
  • Women Up To No Good
  • and starting a re-read of Westlake's "Parker" novels was a lot of fun. Caught up with the ones I read years ago,and started on ones I didn't get to back then. Still have a half-dozen or so to complete the series.
Olivia Berrier's A Book Without Dragons was an interesting and ambitious, if not completely successful, story written in five different tenses for five different characters. (There's a reason for it.) I look forward to further work from her.

I'll see if I can get more than just a list up in 2017.

Back To Blogging, Maybe

I seem to finally be getting out of the funk the November elections tossed me into. So I'll be trying to resume at least semi-occasional posts here.


Well. That Happened.

One day after the election, I'm still stunned.

The future is looking pretty damn dark and murky right now.

This is what I know for certain.

  • The garbage still needs to be put out for pickup.
  • Laundry still needs to be done.
  • There are bills I still need to get paid.
  • The litter boxes still need cleaning.
  • Some prescriptions still have to be refilled.
  • Groceries still have to be bought.
  • The planters & yard still need watering.

That's all I can say right now.


"Hey, Arthurs, I Grabbed Alice's Crotch"

In 1972 I enlisted in the US Army and, that summer, was going thru AIT (Advanced Individual Training) courses to become a Photographic Laboratory Technician at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

This was long before digital cameras became common or ubiquitous. (The concept was first proposed in 1961, but the first practical version wasn't until 1975.) Photographic film, and film processing, were the obligatory method to take and make photos. Film processing took place in darkrooms, where exposed film or photo-paper was swashed in trays of chemicals for a set number of minutes.

There were about a dozen people in the course, and the darkroom held six; three active at the developing stations, the other three standing about a yard behind waiting their turn. (The doubling-up was to minimize any light leakage from people entering or leaving the darkroom.) The other half-dozen students would wait their turn outside, either taking a break or being told to police the streets and lawns. ("police", in this context, meant picking up cigarette butts from the ground; thank a veteran someday for your not having to wade through hip-deep drifts of cigarette butts stretching from horizon to horizon; sometimes it seemed like the military's major purpose.)

The senior member of the group was nicknamed "Nick", an E-5 (Sergeant-level) about five or six years older than the rest of us. He had a wife and kid. Nick had reenlisted after an earlier tour to gain the additional training. He was  a joker, tending towards the crude and lewd side.

One of the other people in the course was a WAC (Womens Army Corps) member, Alice.

(names have been changed, blah blah blah)

One day, I was in the second group, waiting outside. The first group, which included Nick and Alice, exited the training building. Nick had a big grin on his face. Alice had a frozen expression on her own.

Nick walked up to me and said, in a low voice: "Hey, Arthurs, I grabbed Alice's crotch in the darkroom." Then he chuckled.

My mind kind of froze. My face kinda froze. It wasn't that uncommon to occasionally hear guys bragging or lying about copping a tit feel from women they dated or socialized with. But... grabbing a crotch? Doing it in a classroom? With four other people present, even if in total darkness? That... that was so far over the line I couldn't wrap my mind around it. Decent people didn't do things like that.

Here's what should have happened then:

I should have called Nick out on his behavior. I should have said, "What the hell is wrong with you? What would you think of someone who did that to your wife or daughter?" I should have shamed him, or at least tried to shame him.

I should have gone to Alice. I should have said to her, "Nick told me he grabbed your crotch in the darkroom. If you want to report this, I will back you up."

I should have reported what Nick told me to the officer in charge of the training class. What would have happened to Nick then? Most likely, in that time and in that social environment, Nick would have been called into his CO's office, given a verbal reaming and warned to never try anything like that again. Possibly he would have been taken out of that group of students and made to start over with the next group. At worst, he might have been expelled from the class and sent back to Infantry, which in 1972 still held a good chance of being sent to Vietnam. An Article 15 (the Army's version of a misdemeanor charge) or court-martial were extremely unlikely.

I did none of that.

I just stared at Nick. I didn't smile, or frown, or show any expression at all. After a few seconds, he chuckled again, then moved on. I don't know if he told any of the others what he'd done. I don't know why he picked me to tell first; I already had kind of a reputation for being a stick-up-my-ass, no-fun kinda guy who'd rather read a book than drink a beer or watch a sports game. Maybe I was just the closest person when he left the training building.

The instructor called the second group to go into the darkroom. I got in line and went in. I didn't look towards Alice.

That where the incident ended. I don't know if Alice ever said anything about it to anyone. Nick never mentioned it again, at least in my presence.

That's not where the shame and regret ended. Because this wasn't something where I looked back on it in later years and thought "I should have acted differently back then."

I knew at the time that I should take some kind of action about it, what needed to be done. I didn't do any of it.

I knew at the time that I was being a chickenshit by trying to ignore it, by trying to avoid any involvement. I ignored it anyway.

I knew at the time that this was one of those moments that show a man what kind of man he is. And I turned out to be a coward. I passed the Photo Lab Tech course, but failed the Decent Person test.

Over the years, I've said or written or done things I've regretted or felt ashamed for. This is one of the biggest. Even after forty-plus years, thinking about it leaves a hollow, sick feeling in my chest.

And now, forty-four years later, the entire freaking country has heard a Presidential candidate brag about how he can grab a woman's pussy and get away with it.

This is a moment when every voter has to decide: "What's the right thing to do?"

Don't be Donald Trump.

Don't be Billy Bush.

And for God's sake, don't be me.

And, Alice, I'm sorry I failed you forty-four years ago.


My First Reprint: "The Rest of the Story" at Great Jones Street

"The Rest of the Story", my short story that originally appeared in the 1997 anthology HIGHWAYMEN; ROBBERS & ROGUES (edited by Jennifer Roberson, DAW Books), is being reprinted as one of the selections for the new readers' app Great Jones Street.

"The Rest of the Story" was my 1997 retelling of the Good Samaritan Parable as a mystery/detective story set in 1st-Century Judea. (Who was the man rescued by the Samaritan? Why was he really beaten and robbed on the road?) It's a story I'm especially pleased with, and I'm glad to announce it's finally being reprinted.

Great Jones Street is a new smartphone app that wants to be "the Spotify of short fiction", with access to hundreds of short stories by a plethora of writers across multiple genres, for busy people who want to be able to read a complete piece of fiction on a lunch break or in a waiting room or standing in line at the airport, etc. The iOS version is currently available at iTunes; an Android version is forthcoming.

[Image: Liz Danforth's illustration for the story's original appearance.]


Review - TUTT AND MR. TUTT, by Arthur Train

Early Bird Books puts out a daily email to promote various discounted ebooks, always including a link to a free ebook of an old work that's fallen into public domain. Sometimes these look interesting and I'll give them a shot.

TUTT AND MR. TUTT, originally published in 1919, was one such. Arthur C. Train was a lawyer who wrote on the side in the first half of the 20th century. His "Tutt and Mr. Tutt" stories, about two NYC lawyers, ran for years in the Saturday Evening Post, were collected into a number of volumes, and were apparently immensely popular in their time. Nearly a century later, I'd never heard of Train or his characters.


First, there's some racist language in the stories that might be off-putting, with references to "Chinks" and "niggers". I'll give that a pass for work written a century ago (historical mores, blah blah blah), but it was still jarring to encounter.

Second, the two Tutts don't just defend innocent people from being wrongly convicted, they work to see guilty people set free. Murderers both hot-blooded and cold-blooded end up walking the streets again. When one of the Tutts is maneuvered into a position where he's threatened with blackmail, he ends up paying off the blackmailer; the blackmailer strolls off with no consequences and I was left sitting there with my jaw dropped, thinking "No! That's not how you end a story!".

I worked in several law offices for about a year decades ago, so I recognize that "dubious morality" is an occupational hazard of the legal profession. But I don't want to see that in the fiction I read. I want protagonists, even if flawed, to be people I can respect or at least understand. ("Hey, Bruce, what about all those Parker crime novels by Westlake you enjoy so much? Whaddabout those, huh, huh?" "Shut up.")

I couldn't like or enjoy either Tutt. I found their behavior and standards off-putting and repellent. I read the first three of the seven stories in this collection; by that point I just didn't want to spend any more time in the characters' company.

Third and finally... wow, the writing style here is very heavily in a "Tell, Don't Show" manner, with long, long sentences and passages about the characters, about what's happening in the story, rather than showing by dialogue and action.

So, for me at least, this once-popular book wasn't able to inspire any appeal or a desire to read past the first few stories. In the near-century since its publication, society has changed, writing styles have changed, and I'm clearly not the same as the people who read and enjoyed these stories when they first appeared. C'est la litterature.


Review - The Girl At The End Of The World

THE GIRL AT THE END OF THE WORLD, by Richard Levesque.  Amazon (ebook & print),  Barnes & Noble (print only).

Originally published in 2013, I got it as part of the 2016 Immerse Or Die offer from Storybundle.

Post-apocalyptic (plague variety), sole (almost) survivor story, with a YA narrator. Scarlett Fisher is a 15 year old in Los Angeles when a fast-spreading fungal plague leaves her seeming to be the last person alive in LA, or possibly the world. Not quite, it turns out, but other survivors have their own agendas, ones that threaten Scarlett’s own life and freedom.

That’s a fairly standard storyline, but Levesque is very good at presenting Scarlett’s viewpoint and reactions, and depicting the plague’s swift progress and then the breakdown of society’s infrastructure and systems. Scarlett’s presented as a determined character, but not a super-capable one. When she tries to teach herself to use a bow and arrow, her skill only progresses from awful to mediocre. She makes mistakes, with consequences. She has crying jags, but eventually picks up and soldiers on.

I read it in one sitting. Been quite a while since I’ve done that with any book.


Getting Back In Print

Received word that my short story, "Beks and the Second Note" has been scheduled for the December 2016 issue of ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, on sale 11/15/16. As actual pub date gets closer, I will post reminders.

"Beks and the Second Note" will be my first story to appear in a mystery-specific publication, though several of my previous credits fall into the mystery genre. "The Rest of the Story" was my presentation of the Good Samaritan parable as a detective story set in first-century Judea. And my Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Clues" (well, duh) was very much a mystery story.

This will be my first publication since 2006, when "Labyrinth's Heart" appeared in the Scalzi-edited issue of SUBTERRANEAN. Then I stopped writing fiction (because Reasons) until the end of 2012. Being off-work for over half a year from that first shoulder replacement let me get a running start back into fiction writing, and I've been able to keep it up even after returning to work. I call writing my "fourth job", because the first three jobs -- the bill-paying day-job, being a caregiver, and getting enough sleep to cope with those first two -- take priority. I still manage to get a handful of short stories, and an occasional novelette or novella, done each year. There are about a half-dozen out on submission right now, and some others that still need a copyedit or revisions before I send them out.


Review - THE SCARLET CRANE by J.E. Hopkins

THE SCARLET CRANE, J.E. Hopkins. Available at Amazon. Current promotional price: free; usually 0.99.

There are certain expectations for genre books. The definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and their differences, have been the subject of discussion and argument for decades. My personal version of that argument is "Science Fiction deals with the consequences of social and technological change; Fantasy deals with the presence of the miraculous."

Another popular genre is the Thriller. Thrillers are novels of action, of constant forward momentum. Here's a diagram from Thriller writer Matt Rees showing basic plot points for a Thriller novel: Plot A Thriller.

THE SCARLET CRANE takes a very, very interesting fantastical premise and tries to map it onto a Thriller framework. It doesn't quite succeed. I felt the (fairly standard) thriller elements overshadowed the (underdeveloped) fantasy element.

That fantasy element is a doozy, though. In the world of THE SCARLET CRANE, the beginning of puberty also brings a one-month long period known as Transition. During that month, your eyes turn lavender. And... IF you perform the appropriate ceremony/invocation/prayer properly... and IF your invocation/prayer/wish has "uniqueness", if it's something that has never quite been wished for in quite the same way before by anyone else... then your prayer, your wish, might be granted. You can perform magic. You can perform miracles, from something small and inconsequential to literally rewriting the past.

BUT... here's the catch... if that invocation ISN'T properly performed... if that wish DOESN'T have that ill-defined quality of "uniqueness"... then you die. Stone cold freakin' dead, instantly. And that death, almost invariably, is what results from trying to invoke Transition magic. Successful Invocations are rarities.

What are the consequences of such a world? Hopkins shows us some. Knowledge of the Invocation ceremony is kept widely suppressed, especially from young people. (But it's also findable, with some effort, on the Internet or from other sources.) Parents go to extremes to prevent children from attempting Transition magic during that lavender-eyed month, including constant surveillance or even sedating their children during those weeks. There are government agencies devoted to dealing with Transition issues.

That's okay, so far as it goes. But I couldn't help feeling there should have been much bigger consequences to the existence of Transition magic. If Transition has existed for centuries or millenia, it would have had major, major, effects on history and society. How was the proper form of the Invocation originally discovered? How differently would religion have developed in a world where everyone has the potential to be a miracle-worker, but if your first attempt isn't pitch-perfect a fickle murderous God will strike you dead? Wouldn't there be entire libraries filled with the writings of theologians, philosophers, alchemists, scientists, all trying to understand the reason for Transition's existence and how it works? Or, conversely, wouldn't those few who invoked magic successfully and tried to pass on their experience be decried as witches and warlocks (which, essentially, they'd be) and burned or drowned to protect future generations? What of the adult miracle-workers throughout history (Oh, hi, Jesus!); what's up with those guys?

But the action of THE SCARLET CRANE takes place in a world almost brick-by-brick identical to our own. There's very little deep background or history to show Transition's long-term effects on society or history. Looking at the book as fantasy or science fiction, I found that disappointing. There are some hints that further books in the series (there are several) might go a little deeper into Transition's history, or show the wider effects of successful Transition magic.

Viewed a a Thriller novel, it's mostly successful. John Benoit and Stony Hill are US agents for an agency missioned with not only trying to protect kids from trying to use mostly-fatal Transition magic, but preventing kids from being manipulated by malign adults or government into Invoking magic hostile to US (or world) interests. The action moves right along, bam, bam, bam, leading to a final battle at a secret Chinese base where experiments with kidnapped children are making progress in controlling and weaponizing Transition magic. (Kids still die, but fewer of them, and Transition magic is successfully invoked more often.)

But... the relentless action, the constant forward momentum of the plot, also seemed to leave little room for much character development. John Benoit's distinguishing characteristics are carrying a cane (mostly for show, and for the concealed stiletto inside it), and that he's still an active agent at age 70. (I haven't seen a senior citizen action hero this spry since Manning Coles' Tommy Hambledon was still shinnying up drainpipes in his 80's.) I would have liked some understanding or background of what continues to motivate Benoit to do dangerous field work at an age when most agents would be driving a desk or have retired.

So, overall, pretty successful as a Thriller, with some reservations. As SF or Fantasy, some bigger reservations. The predominant Thriller plot and pacing makes Transition magic a MacGuffin for much of the book. ("MacGuffin" -- the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is the audience doesn't care -- attributed to Alfred Hitchcock.) Benoit and Hill's race toward the final chapter might have as easily involved a stolen nuclear bomb or plans for the Death Star, rather than the kidnapped children and secret base; Transition magic isn't an essential element of their quest.

But like I said, that whole concept of Transition is a doozy of an idea, with some great potential. I hope Hopkins develops that potential in further books. I'll almost certainly read the second book in the series, THE SAFFRON FALCON.


A Catch-Up Post

So, over two months since writing the last post here.

Why? Various reasons. Overall, life has been leaving me in a bit of a funk since the beginning of the year. Shall we make a list?

1) My mother's death in January. Not unexpected; she was 88, and had been in declining health for several years. But our relationship was never completely comfortable, with some old issues going back to childhood that were never discussed and never resolved. And now they never will be. Doesn't stop me from thoughts or regrets, even now.

2) The Arm. My right arm, which has never been fully pain-free or as easy to use or as strong as it was before the joint replacement surgery in 2012, got worse again. Updated x-rays showed the prosthetic joint was shifting and starting to work loose from the surgical cement used in 2012. I had revision surgery on July 21st, replacing the original prosthetic with a different type (a "reverse shoulder arthroscopy", using a cup-and-ball joint instead of the standard ball-and-cup joint and working primarily from the deltoid muscle instead of the rotator cuff). Still in a sling 24/7 right now (my left-handed typing is getting fairly decent), with another three weeks before starting physical therapy to get strength back and maximize range of motion. Still won't be normal, but might get 75% use of the arm back, which would be better than I'd been doing.

3) The Smash-Up. On April 27th, in the middle of that period of trying to get paperwork and x-rays and pre-testing done before the new arm surgery, Some Asshole decided to make an abrupt left turn across traffic lanes without checking for oncoming traffic. My car got T-boned hard enough to spin me 180 degrees and leave me facing south in a north-bound lane. The frame damage to my Outlander resulted in it's being declared a total loss by my insurance company, which in turn meant several weeks of having to deal with paperwork and many hours online and at car dealerships trying to find a suitable replacement. (We ended up with a 2015 Nissan Versa Note, smaller and with less cargo capacity than the Outlander. Because it was a former rental car and because it had some minor hail damage, it was kinda sorta affordable; it still cost $2500 more than the insurance reimbursement. It's a nice enough car, but something I'd ordinarily have considered as a secondary vehicle, not our primary vehicle.) And I had to deal with all that while also dealing with medical consequences of the crash; getting flung around by the collision aggravated the right arm's problems, so I needed more painkillers and was even less able to use the arm for weeks afterward. I've turned the case over to an attorney to try and get compensation for that, and for the unexpected financial costs. I really, really, really don't want to end up having to carry additional debt for a couple of years; if I do, my plan to be debt-free and able to fully retire when I turn 66 in a couple years might have to be pushed back. That thought, it's probably needless to say, doesn't make me happy.

4) Trump. Ghaaaaack.... Can't look away from the trainwreck. Back during the Bush administration, I spent way, way too many hours online, horrified and jaw-dropped at what was happening to America. Trump is worse. Why do I do that to myself? Because I hope that someday, eventually, please God, I'll find that webpage I've been looking for, hoping for, the one that says HI BRUCE. YES, IT'S ALL BEEN A JOKE ON YOU. THE ENTIRE INTERNET, TELEVISION, RADIO, NEWSPAPERS, EVERYONE, EVEN YOUR OWN FRIENDS AND FAMILY, HAVE BEEN PUNKING YOU. FOR YEARS. IT'S ALL BEEN FAKE, ALL BEEN LIES. TRUMP ISN'T RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. HE'S NOT EVEN A BILLIONAIRE. HE LOST HIS MONEY YEARS AGO AND WORKS AT A STARBUCKS NOW. AS A JANITOR. YOU'VE BEEN TRUMAN-SHOWED. PRETTY DAMN FUNNY, HUH? SINCERELY, ASTON KUCHER. And I'll say, "Oh, thank God."

Those have been the Big Bads this year. It's not all been doom and gloom, though.

I've continued to write fiction, and have gotten several short stories completed and out on submissions.

I haven't been completely inactive online. I've been making occasional tweets, and responding to others', on Twitter. The Twitter limit of 140 characters has been more achievable for me recently than the time or energy for 140 or 1400 words here. (Twitter is weird. Most posts get 40 or 50 impressions. But sometimes one will take off and gets hundreds or even thousands of views, not always for any clear reason.)

I've got a long list of books read and audiobooks listened to since February. I'll try to get some reviews written for forthcoming posts here. So, yeah, I'm hoping to write more here again.

That's probably enough words for now.


A Story For Today

Back in 1974, I was serving my enlistment in the US Army. I spent most of my three year enlistment (two-and-a-half years) stationed at Fort Lee, VA, most of it working as company clerk for a transportation unit (that means truck drivers). Our company was in the middle of our annual field training exercises, where we spent a week out in the woods living in tents, getting meals from a mobile kitchen-on-wheels, standing guard duty in foxholes, and coming under a mock night attack by training personnel. (How did our unit do with the mock attack? Well, not quite this bad....)

The CO, other officers, First Sergeant, and clerks were set up in a command tent. Oops, no, wait, we were missing someone. Just before the field exercises, our First Sergeant had been transferred out to a different base. A new First Sergeant had been assigned, but there was a gap of several days between the start of the field exercises and the designated arrival date.

So it was several days into field exercises when First Sergeant Pietrowski arrived out in the field to join our company. He walked into the command tent, reported for duty, and handed over a folder containing his orders and personnel file.

The personnel file was ordinarily something that would have stayed behind at the company office, but First Sergeant Pietrowski had reported in at Fort Lee, found out the company was already out on field exercises, had paused only long enough to change into fatigues, pack essentials, and drive out to the boonies where field exercises were being held at a smaller Army camp.

And when he reported in, everyone in the command tent sort of gave each other side glances, like "This is our new First Sergeant?"

Because First Sergeant Pietrowski was old. He was ancient. He was a geezer. Maybe a geezer and a half. He had a beaked nose, more hair in his ears than the rest of his head, liver spots to make a Dalmation cry with envy, and about a googol of wrinkles and veins. He was probably only in his 60's, but he looked eighty. No, ninety. No, actually...

...well, I grew up in the 1960's reading lots of comics, so my first thought was that he looked just like General Immortus, the centuries-old villain who fought the Doom Patrol on multiple occasions.

General Immortus
Really. If someone had been trying to make a Doom Patrol movie in 1974, and had seen First Sergeant Pietrowski having a Coke at Schwab's Drug Store, they'd have offered him the Immortus role on the spot.

After the initial paperwork to register him with the company, First Sergeant Pietrowski said that between driving his family across the country to Fort Lee, then rushing to get out to the field exercises, he was feeling pretty worn out. If there wasn't anything that needed immediate attention, he could really use a nap.

(More side glances.)

So the First Sergeant laid down on a cot at one side of the command tent and....

After a few moments, one of the company lieutenants asked quietly, "Is he... still breathing?"

Yes-s-s-s-s, but lying on his back, hands folded neatly on his chest, and lying very, very still, the First Sergeant did indeed seem to be doing a great imitation of a corpse.

One of our young lieutenants stood up, picked up First Sergeant Pietrowski's folder, and went over to stand behind the cot where the old man lay. "Friends and family of the dear departed," he said softly, "We are gathered here to pay our last respects to First Sergeant Charles Pietrowski..."

This was disrespectful, and maybe a little mean. But it was really hard for everyone awake in that tent to try and not smile or let a small laugh escape their lips.

...and the lieutenant flipped open the folder, which held the First Sergeant's service records...

...and the lieutenant stopped speaking, and his eyes got wide, and he said "Oh," in a small voice. And then he said, "He took part in the Normandy landings on D-Day." And everyone in the tent went quiet. And the young lieutenant, whose rosy young cheeks had suddenly grown rosier, closed the folder, and stepped away from the cot, and put the folder back on the desk.

And no one in that company, officer or enlisted, ever showed disrespect to First Sergeant Pietrowski ever again.

(Who turned out to be a damn fine First Sergeant, and a damn fine man, despite age and appearance.)

(D-Day, June 6, 1944.)



"The Withdrawal From Dunkirk, June 1940" by Charles Ernest Cundall

On 27 May 1940, the Dunkirk Evacuation began. British, French and Belgian forces had been surrounded and cut off by approaching German armies, in the area of Dunkirk in northern France. A combination of British and French warships, aided by hundreds of conscripted or volunteered civilian vessels, were able to evacuate over 300,000 troops to Britain over the course of eight days, from May 27th to June 4th, despite heavy bombing and strafing by German Luftwaffe planes.

Despite the heavy material losses (thousands of guns and vehicles, and over a half million tons of ammo, fuel, and supplies), the rescue of the majority of the British Expeditionary Force provided a major propaganda victory for the British, encouraging public support for the continuing fight against Germany's Nazi regime. The rescued forces also provided a core of trained and experienced men who were able to train new soldiers in the build-up to the eventual return to active combat against German forces.

The "Miracle at Dunkirk"has also provided inspiration for artistic and literary work since the event of 1940. The best known example of "Dunkirk Literature" is Paul Gallico's novella "The Snow Goose", published in 1941, and going up at least to Ian McEwan's 2001 novel ATONEMENT.

The 2014 anthology IN THE COMPANY OF SHERLOCK HOLMES: STORIES INSPIRED BY THE HOLMES CANON (edited by Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger) includes "Dunkirk" by John Lescroart, presenting an aged Sherlock Homes (operating under his alternate identity of "Sigerson") joining one of the civilian vessels assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation. (Very good story, by the way, even without the Holmes connection.)

Filmmaker Chris Nolan recently began production on Dunkirk, a film scheduled for 2017 release.


Arizona Dust Storm -- Moving Fast

Out on the interstate highways, especially I-10, Arizona dust storms can spring up fast, going from this...

...to this...

...in just a few minutes.

This particular storm was aggravated by moving across a freshly plowed field.

(Photos via Arizona Department of Public Safety. Somebody at DPS knows how to shoot... pictures.)


Our Poor Outlander

The verdict is in: Totaled. The driver who T-boned me Wednesday afternoon hit hard enough to spin the car 180°; I ended up facing south in a north-bound lane. I am not happy.


Bandersnatch Arrives

It's nice when I win a Goodreads Giveaway and it comes with an extra flourish.

Awww, and it's not even my birthday.

And this is what I won, Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Diana Pavlac Glyer, illustratedby James A. Owen. And some bonus goodies:

Bandersnatch has been getting very good buzz in other reviews, so I'm looking forward to reading it. Thanks, Diana!


A Stark Comparison -- the Parker Novels

I’ve been listening to audiobooks of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels (written as Richard Stark), extremely hard-boiled crime novels with the sociopathic career criminal Parker as protagonist, and had a minor revelation.
Except for the eponymous Parker, everyone — EVERYONE — in the series is expendable. Backs are stabbed (sometimes literally), crosses doubled and tripled, loyalties abandoned without hesitation, lives taken without a second’s hesitation or regret. Forgiveness and mercy are for chumps, and chumps are the most expendable of all. Betrayal and death can come at any moment.
And the thought struck me: “Oh, this is like Game of Thrones, if GoT was set in the 1960’s criminal underworld, and people like Roose Bolton, Walder Frey, and Ilyn Payne were the primary characters.”
So, hey, if you’re tired of waiting for the next book in ASOIAF, the Parker novels might fill in the gap while you wait.
(Surely it's just a coincidence that prominent characters in ASOIAF are named Stark?)


Tigerishka, from THE WANDERER

There`s been some discussion over at File 770 about Fritz Leiber's 1965 Hugo-winning novel THE WANDERER, which features an alien catgirl, Tigerishka, among the characters. Tigerishka has tended to be poorly portrayed on the book's various covers over the years. Back in 1981, at the World Fantasy Con, Hilde and I came across sculptor Dale Enzenbacher's bronze statuette of Tigerishka, which we thought blew away other portrayals, so much so we bought the statuette. Here you go:


Not Dead, Just Not Blogging Lately

It's been over two months since the last post here. I've been a little distracted, and a little depressed, by recent things. Primary among them my mother's death in January, and learning about the same time that the shoulder surgery in 2012 -- of which I've written so many posts -- will need to be redone in the fairly near future.

I'm not deeply depressed, just feeling sad and rather frustrated, along with a dose of Thoreau's "quiet desperation". I've started about a half-dozen posts for UF, but haven't felt able to write them with enough focus or conclusion to hit the "Publish" button. I've been able to do some degree of shorter stuff, such as occasional comments on other people's blogs like Mike Glyer's File 770, and I've been posting links on Twitter to occasional interesting stuff or leaving occasional brief replies to others' tweets (140 characters; yeah, that's about right for me right now). I still spend too much time on the Internet, but it's been in a more passive, rather than active role.

I expect I'll get back into a normal swing of things eventually. Besides finally writing this post, I've continued to work on some fiction (and even completed a short -- 1100 words -- story that's already been to several markets). I need to set aside some time to do some revisions and edits on other stories that are "completed", but not polished to the point where I feel okay to start submitting them to markets.

AND... I finally (it's been a couple of years) got the planters in the front courtyard cleaned up and replanted, the two smaller planters with a variety of flowering bulbs and the larger front planter with tomatoes, eggplant, patty pan squash, watermelon and basil. Some photos:

garden planter
first tomato setting
squash blossoms
And that's what I've been doing lately.


Recent Reading & Listening, Jan 2016

Gonna try to keep a running log of books read and audiobooks listened to this year.

Don't You Know There's A War On?, Richard R. Lingerman, Putnam, 1970. Some of the fiction I've been writing lately is set in mid-20th Century, including one story set specifically in Home Front America during WWII. This is a useful overview of that period when America geared up for full-scale war, including mention not only of the extraordinary accomplishments, but of the effects on American society and behavior.

The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons, Blackstone audiobook (narr. David Pittu), 2015. Every writer, it seems, wants to take a crack at writing in the Sherlock Holmes genre at least once. In The Fifth Heart, Simmons' twist is pairing Holmes with hyper-literary writer Henry ("Turn of the Screw") James. The unlikely pairing takes the two into the top levels of 1893 Washington DC society to investigate the 1885 death of Clover Adams, and to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to stop a Presidential assassination plot. Parts of this novel are a lot of fun (the section where Henry James performs a devastating literary critique on the Holmes tale "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" is a special hoot), but considered as a whole I kept feeling that Simmons didn't have a firm hand on the narrative. There are points where Holmes feels less like Holmes, and more like Batman, James Bond, or The Shadow. So, a great read in parts, but the sum of those parts ends up being less than the story as a whole.

Maplecroft, Cherie Priest, Roc, 2014.  I'm not generally a fan of Lovecraftian fiction. I've read a good chunk of Lovecraft's original work, once, and haven't felt an urge to re-read it. I've read some other assorted Lovecraftian work, usually short stories, and again it's been a read-once. The tropes get repetitive and tiresome after a while. Cherie Priest manages to freshen up those tropes by mashing up Lovecraftian elements with the real-life Lizzie Borden, famous accused murderess. Priest's version of Lizzie killed her father and stepmother because they were changing into... something non-human, and continues to encounter and battle other Lovecraftian creatures that the Falls River community has become a focal point for. Priest manages to overcome my ennui about Lovecraft stories, and produces a genuinely creepy and gripping adventure. (Would I re-read it someday? Umm, probably not, but I enjoyed the book more than I expected.)

 Captain Blood, Rafael Sabatini. Blackstone audiobook, 2004 (narr. Simon Vance). Sabatini is one of the classic writers of historical fiction, reinvigorating the genre in the 1920's with the publication of Scaramouche. Captain Blood is another of his most highly regarded novels, telling the tale of Doctor Peter Blood, wrongly convicted of treason during the Monmouth Rebellion and sold into slavery in the Caribbean colonies. Escaping slavery, Blood becomes a pirate. Many adventures ensue, with broadsides and boarding parties, cutlasses and cudgels, and more swashes buckled than you can count. Eventually Blood regains his honor and takes revenge on the brutal man who had been Blood's master during Blood's time as a slave. Classic adventure narrative; I was surprised to find the novel had originally been a series of short stories in magazines; the novel fix-up reads smoothly without any jarring breaks. Simon Vance's audiobook narration is a bit on the bland side, particularly noticeable when Blood's Irish-accented dialogue never seems to waver in emotional tone.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson, Tor, 2015. Oh, this was a good one. A rebellion-against-the-conquerors fantasy is made memorable by the depth and complexity Dickinson imbues into the story.  Dickinson gives clear and understandable depictions not only of the military battles and maneuvers involved, but also of the background plotting, scheming, double-crossing, backstabbing (sometimes literal) and betrayals that are a constant threat and danger among all involved. Everyone has their own agenda, that agenda isn't always the public one, and in the end no one can be trusted. The titular hero (for flexible values of "hero") Baru Cormorant, a political appointee from the expansionist Empire of Masks to the distant conquered land of Aurdwynn, but herself a native of another conquered land, has her loyalty to the Empire come under question and flees, eventually rising to form an alliance between Aurdwynn's dukedoms in a rebellion to drive the Empire from their lands and shores. Baru's decisions in pursuit of that alliance are hard and sometimes brutal ones, where the pursuit of a goal can override loyalty or even love. A very, very impressive first novel.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal, Random House Audio, 2012 (narr. Wanda McCaddon). This is the first novel in the Maggie Hope series of mystery/thrillers set in WWII England. In 1940, with Churchill only recently made Prime Minister and England under threat of invasion by Germany, Maggie Hope, seriously overqualified young woman with high degrees of math and language skills, lands a position as a typist in the Prime Minister's office. This places her in position to play a part in discovering and foiling a plot by German agents and IRA extremists to make a multi-pronged attack on British institutions. I have a fondness for Home Front stories (see the first review at the top of this post), so I wanted to like this one a lot. I liked it, but not a lot. It shows some typical problems for a first novel. There's an outrageous coincidence driving a large part of the plot, the attitudes shown towards homosexuality are closer to current-day than they would be in the 1940's, and the cast of characters is a bit large to easily keep track of. But you also get some great historical details and tidbits (the bit about German agents hiding Morse code in newspaper fashion advertisements is true), and good descriptions of what it was like living under imminent threat and experiencing the bombing raids of the London Blitz. At the end of the novel, Maggie's skills have been recognized and she's being recruited into the MI-5 intelligence agency; I rather felt like this first novel's main purpose was setting things up to achieve that goal, and liked this one enough I'm probably going to read or listen to further books in the series.

Besides full books and audiobooks, I regularly read or listen to short fiction in various venues, both print and podcast. But that's usually about 40-50 stories a month, so I'm keeping this book log to actual full-length books for now, unless something at shorter length is very impressive or memorable.