Monday, February 27, 2012

New Atlantis - Francis Bacon

1627; 52 pages (but I Kindled it).  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Philosophy.  Overall Rating : 4*/10.

    Setting sail from Peru in the 1620's, a ship of explorers runs smack dab into a fierce Pacific storm.  Just when all hope appears lost, the crew finds an island haven.  And it's not even deserted; it has towns, fresh water, lush farmlands, and white, English-speaking  inhabitants - all living in harmony with each other.

    So how did they get here?  And how is it they know so much about Europe, when no one in Europe has seen or heard of them?  Most of all, why does everything seem so perfect here?

What's To like...
    Forget the plotline; New Atlantis is really Bacon's musings on how to achieve a Utopian society.  He drapes a bare-bones story around it so that he doesn't sound preachy, which is quite clever.

    Francis Bacon was, among other things, a scientist (the father of the "scientific method" or empiricism), a statesman (Lord Chencellor), and an ardent (Anglican) churchgoer.  The world of New Atlantis reflects this.  Those who govern do so only to promote the welfare of the people.  Science and Engineering invent things that make life better, with no adverse side-consequences.  And Jews and Christians co-exist here, each offering fervent prayers to their respective gods.  Children honor their parents, the land yields an abundance of food, and the natives freely share with our band of bedraggled sailors.  What more can you ask for?

    New Atlantis also allows Bacon to share some views on things like the origins of the "uncivilized" New World natives, homosexuality, and polygamy.  He also makes some startling technological predictions.  Things like glasses, airplanes, submarines, hearing aids, amplifiers, telescopes, miscroscopes, and genetic engineering.

Kewlest New Word...
Boscage : a growth of trees or shrubs; a thicket.

    "But thus you see we maintain a trade not for gold, silver, or jewels; nor for silks; nor for spices; nor any other commodity of matter; but only for God's first creature, which was Light: to have light (I say) of the growth of all parts of the world."  (pg. 23; 49% on Kindle)

    "I have read in a book of one of your men, of a Feigned Commonwealth, where the married couple are permitted, before they contract, to see one another naked.  This they dislike; for they think it a scorn to give a refusal after so familiar knowledge: but because of many hidden defects in men and women's bodies, they have a more civil way; for they have near every town a couple of pools, (which they call Adam and Eve's pools) where it is permitted to one of the friends of the men, and another of the friends of the woman, to see them severally bathe naked."  (pg. 32; 68% on Kindle)

Happy are the people of Bensalem. (pg. 27)
    Bacon's use of a seafaring storyline is both clever and a drawback.  His vision of Utopia is fine and dandy, and well thought out.  But readers want to see it put to the test.  What will happen if the crops fail; if a despot comes to power; or if the European empires become aware of New Atlantis's location?  A lush island in the middle of the South Pacific would be a vital place to take on fresh provisions.  Worth conquering, and worth fighting to keep.  Utopias are fragile.

    New Atlantis is short, which is the main reason I read it.  It's the first book I downloaded to my Kindle, and I wanted to get comfortable with the bells-&-whistles of the device.  If the Kindle wasn't for me, at least I'd find that out in 50 pages, not 500.

    It was interesting to read about 17th-century philosophies and ideals; and Bacon's technology predictions are eeerily insightful.  But Bacon is not a novelist, and New Atlantis screams for some tension, some bad guys, or some paradise-threatening drama.  You shooda hired an editor, Sir Francis.  4 Stars, but I do like my Kindle.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Greener Shore - Morgan Llywelyn

2007; 301 pages.  New Author? : No.  Sequel to "Druids", reviewed here.  Genre  :  Historical Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Thoroughly defeated by Julius Caesar's Roman legions, the druid Ainvar flees Gaul with the pitful remnant of his tribe - about 20 people total.  Albion (England) is out of the question; Caesar has conquered it as well.  But Hibernia (Ireland) is ideal - there are Celts and Druids there.  And no Romans.

    But these are not the same Celts as were in Gaul.  Nor the same Druids.  Will Ainvar and his band survive?  Will they fit in?  Should they retain their lore?  Their customs?  And will the Romans come one day to subjugate Hibernia?

What's To Like...
    First and foremost, The Greener Shore is historical fiction.  There really were Celts in Ireland in Roman times.  And since we know almost nothing about Druids (and what little we do know comes from the Romans, who hated them), Morgan Llywelyn is given free rein to weave a marvelous-yet-believable Gaelic world in Hibernia.

    But TGS is also a personal saga.  The Roman victory in Gaul has left Ainvar bitter, full of hatred towards Caesar, and with no faith in Druidism anymore.  Not surprisingly, he finds he has lost his powers as a result.

    Finally, there is a fantasy elment to TGS.  There is the mystical relationship between the Druids and Mother Earth.  And there are also the "little people", who were living in Ireland before the Celts arrived.  The Celts call them the Tuatha de Danann, and they are forgotten now.  But are they really gone?

Kewlest New Word...
Murmuration : The "group" term for starlings.  Like a gaggle of geese, a pod of whales, a school of fish, a sneak of weasels, etc.

    "What else does the chief druid do?"
    Fiachu gave me a blank look.  "What else is there?"
    "Well, what are the functions of your other druids?"
    "They interpret omens."
    "Is that all?"
    What else is there?" he repeated.
    What else indeed.
    My thoughts ran back to Gaul.  Druids whispering to seeds in the frozen earth so they would burst forth in the springing time.  Druids lighting the fires that called back the sun from the kingdoms of ice.  Druids recalling the past and foreseeing the future  Druids supervising birth and burial.  Druids keeping the dead and the living in harmony with each other, with the Earth, with the Otherworld.  The whole complex structure of druidry that had been so elaborately interwoven to cherish the creation of the Source.
    Gone.  (pg. 71)

    "You seem genuinely fond of Labraid," I remarked to the Roman.  "I'm glad for his sake, yet puzzled, too.  He's not a very likable man."
    Probus chuckled.  "I was born old and Labraid will never grow up.  The symmetry appeals to me."  (pg. 287)

"Druidry is inclusion, not exclusion.  To be druid means to be part of, not apart from."  (pg. 118)
    If you don't care about history in general and druids in particular, you might find The Greener Shore a bit slow.  Unlike the first book, Druids, there isn't any fighting to be found here.  Also, this isn't a stand-alone novel.

    But for me, this book was a thorough delight.  Morgan Llywelyn is a superb writer; the storyline and ending are skillfully crafted; and the subject material is something that interests me greatly.  The author has written a slew of other novels about historical Ireland, and I look forward to reading more of them.  9½ Stars.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Silent Cry - Anne Perry

1997; 356 pages.  Book #8 of the William Monk series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Two bodies are discovered in the dead of night in one of the toughest, seediest slums of London.  They've been savagely beaten; one is dead and the other is just barely clinging to life.  Well, these things happen in St. Giles.

    But there are a couple odd things.  The two men are richly dressed.  What would they be doing in such a neighborhood?  And they turn out to be father and son.  And as the investigation proceeds, it appears they were fighting each other.  Could the son have murdered his father?

What's To Like...
    The Silent Cry is my introduction to William Monk, and I like him.  He's short on charm, yet has a certain persuasiveness about him.  He sometimes reaches wrong conclusions.  He quit the police force in a huff some time back, but due to a bout of amnesia, he doesn't know why.  Best of all, he's not burnt out.

    The setting - London in 1860 - is nicely done.  The historical fiction is convincing, without distracting from the plot itself.  There is a running storyline in this series (now up to 17 books), but this is also a stand-alone book.

    The mystery unfolds nicely.  There are three main good guys - the investigator William Monk, the cop John Evan, and the nurse Hester Latterly.  They all seem to be working on spearate cases, but you know they're going to converge at some point, and Anne Perry carries this out seamlessly.

Kewlest New Word...
Running Patterer : a street peddler, specifically one who tries to sell his wares via long, glib, entertaining spiels on public thoroughfares.

    She was also to keep his room warm and pleasant for him, and to read to him should he show any desire for it.  The choice of material was to be made with great care.  There must be nothing disturbing, either to the emotions or to the intellect, and nothing which would excite him or keep him from as much rest as he was able to find.  In Hester's view, that excluded almost everything that was worthy of either the time or effort of reading.  If it did not stir the intellect, the emotions or the imagination, what point was there in it?  Should she read him the railway timetable?  (pgs. 38-39)

    "'Ow do I know?  I seen lots o' geezers wot don't belong 'ere, but usual yer knows wot they're 'ere for.  Reg'lar brothels or gamblin', or ter 'ock summink as they daren't 'ock closer ter 'ome."  (pg. 185)

"The wisest thing ... is to accept blindness and not either to blame yourself or to blame others too much."  (pg. 120)
    The Silent Cry is an entertaining read, but problems arise when you begin to analyze the technical aspects of the mystery.  For starters, the victim/suspect's injuries render him unable to speak or write; so he is reduced to nodding his head yes or no.  But couldn't Nurse Hester point to letters or words on a chalkboard to improve his communications abilities?  And if he wasn't inclined to communicate, why give him those injuries in the first place?

    There are at least three other similar inconsistencies, but since they border on being spoilers, I'll list them in the Comments section of this post.

    Also, the ending is a bit weak.  The mystery is solved; the innocent defendant is exonerated.   But the real perps are not apprehended, and therefore we don't get the dramatic (albeit hackneyed) confession from the guilty as to why they did it.
    The Silent Cry is not a bad story, but it could've been so much better if the last 50 pages of it had been tightened up.  I blame the editor.  7 Stars.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bearing An Hourglass - Piers Anthony

1984; 357 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Bearing An Hourglass is the second book in Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series.  By being in the wrong place at the right time, Norton hesitantly takes over the position of Incarnation of Time as its previous holder winks out of existence.

    It's a mixed blessing.  There are some kewl perks, but also some things that take getting used to.  Such as having one's lifetime run backwards to everyone else's.  And having to match wits with Satan.

What's To Like...
    BAH is similar in structure to the first book in the series, On A Pale Horse (reviewed here).  Norton receives some nifty pieces of equipment to go with the office, and goes on some neat quests as he learns the ropes of being Chronos.

    Piers Anthony again takes the opportunity to muse upon the aspects of the main topic, in this case it's Time, instead of Death.  Things like Predestination, Time Stoppage, and one of my favorites - Traveling backwards and forwards through Time.

    You meet some kewl characters, such as Bems ("Bug-Eyed Monsters"), an Alicorn (like a unicorn, but without the cuteness), and a Sword Elf.  Thanatos and Luna reprise their roles from the first book, and there is the novel concept of a "ghost marriage".  Quantum Physics (the birth of the universe) shows up again (I've been encountering it a lot lately), and when's the last time you met a hero named "Norton"?

Kewlest New Word...
Discarnately : In an immaterial, disembodied state; without a body or form.

    "At age two I fashioned a rope out of my blanket and scaled the summit of the playpen wall and went after the cat.  I vivisected her after she scratched me for cutting off her tail.  So they brought in a werecat who changed into the most forbidding old shrew when I bothered her.  She certainly had my number; when I toasted her feline tail with a hotfoot, she wered human and toasted my tail with a belt.  I developed quite an aggravation for magical animals."  (pg. 4)

    ",drawkcab gnivil er'eW" she said.
    "?eh si lleh eht ohW" the man demanded, glaring at Norton.
    ",snomed morf gnidih s'eH" she explained.
    "-lleW" he began, then paused.  "?drawkcaB"
    ",drawkcaB" she agreed firmly.
    "!top eht ffo tog" tsuj I tuB" he said, annoyed.
    The woman looked at her unconsumed repast.  "?did uoY" she asked, making a connection.  "-snaem taht nehT"
    "taht toN" he exclaimed.  (pg. 238)

"Is that all there is to human life - blasting gunks?"  (pg. 280)
    The separate parts of BAH are entertaining, but they never coalesce into a coherent whole.  Side characters come and go, and you keep expecting them to reappear, to have their fates resolved, but it doesn't happen.

    Norton goes on quests, but they don't really contribute to the overall plotline.  Our fledgling Incarnation once again thwarts Satan's designs, and while the confrontation is a bit more protracted than in OaPH, outwitting the Ultimate Evil One is still all too easy.  And Sning ("Snake Ring") seems to conveniently have all the answers to too many questions, so that there's a lot of telling when there should be more showing.  All this may gel at some point further along in the series, but is it too much to ask that each book provide a complete story within itself?

    Still, BAH gives you lots to think about (such as inter-species bigotry), and Norton's adventures make for interesting reading.  As long as you don't ask it to all fit together.  5½ Stars.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky

1869; 578 pages.  Genre : Russian Lit.; Classic Lit.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    After 4 years of being treated for epilepsy in Switzerland, Prince Myshkin returns home to Mother Russia.  He has almost no money, knows no one, and has no idea how he's going to survive.  But it doesn't bother him; he will trust in the goodness of others and endure.   Whatever happens, will happen.

    What will he think of his countrymen?  And what will they think of him?

What's To Like...
    The crux of The Idiot is this : if you took a person who embodies all the Christian ideals, and plopped him down in mid-19th century Russia, what would happen?  Dostoevsky's opinion is that they would like him initially, and even confide in him because of his simplicity and lack of guile.  But ultimately they would scorn him as an idiot, and this is the author's scathing indictment of his fellow Russians.

    But Dostoevsky presents his characters so well, and makes their scorn seem so reasonable; that you can't help but see things their way as well.  And the Prince's goodness does have a small-but-positive effect on those around him.  Alas, the reverse is true as well.  The Myshkin at the end of the book has acquired a bit of a "taint", which the Myshkin at the beginning of the story didn't possess.   He is now wiser to the ways of the world, but it came at a cost.

    Dostoevsky also uses The Idiot as a vehicle to present his views on a whole slew of topics.  Here's some that I noted : Capital Punishment, Love, Gossip, Turning the other cheek, Forgiveness, Honor, Atheism, Slander, Fraud, Politics, Gun Control, Death, Charity, Suicide, Catholicism, and Jealousy.

     He creates a fascinating "anti-Myshkin" in Parfyon Ragozin, and it is enlightening to watch their interaction.  And ultimately, like a great Shakespearean play, we come to realize that a tragic ending is inevitable.

Kewlest New Word...
Charivari : A noisy mock serenade typically performed by a group of people in derision of an unpopular person or in celebration of a wedding.

Excerpts...  (and there were lots to choose from)
    "There's not one person here who is worth such words," Aglaia burst out.  "There's no one here, no one, who is worth your little finger, nor your mind, nor your heart!  You are more honourable than any of them, nobler, better, kinder, cleverer than any of them!  Some of them are not worthy to stoop to pick up the handkerchief you have just dropped... Why do you humble yourself and put yourself below them?  Why do you distort everything in yourself?  Why have you no pride?"  (pg. 319)

    There is, indeed, nothing more annoying than to be, for instance, wealthy, of good family, nice-looking, fairly intelligent, and even good-natured, and yet to have no talents, no special faculty, no peculiarity even, not one idea of one's own, to be precisely 'like other people'.  To have a fortune, but not the wealth of a Rothschild; to be of an honourably family, but one which has never distinguished itself in any way; to have a pleasing appearance expressive of nothing in particular; to have a decent education, but to have no idea what use to make of it; to have intelligence, but no ideas of one's own; to have a good heart, but without any greatness of soul; and so on and so on.  There is an extraordinary multitude of such people in the world, far more than appears.  (pg. 431)

"Better be unhappy and know the truth, than be happy and live like a fool."  (pg. 487)
    This is Russian Lit - it's long; every character has two names; it's a difficult read; and there's a lot of drama and not much action.  You have to accept those things going is, and read it a bit at a time.  For me, 15-30 pages per sitting seemed right; and it took me a month to get through The Idiot.  But I found it to be a masterpiece.

    Dostoevsky's question - would a righteous person survive in a decadent society - can be applied to modern-day America as well.  One wonders if the USA today is like 1869 Russia - a half-century away from a thoroughly corrupt 1% being forcibly overthrown by a 99% that's poor and getting poorer, and without any hope for improvement of their lot.  9 Stars.