Book Review: A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters (Four Stars)

Book Review: A Morbid Taste for Bones (The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #1) by Ellis Peters

Four Stars

“Have you never hunted zealously in all the wrong places for something you desired not to find?”

Not the best Cadfael story, but the logical starting place. After my third reading, I find new depths in this series of medieval mysteries cum historical fiction. It’s easy to lose oneself in that time and place which presents itself as epic fantasy to modern readers.

“Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all the same under habit or robe or rags.”

When I first read Peters twenty years ago, I accused her (a nom de plume of Edith Pargeter) of dropping a twentieth century man into a twelfth century setting. It’s more complicated. In fact, Cadfael comes to us who has lived and enjoyed life to the full, but found all the world had to offer wanting. In his maturity he found his vocation as a contemplative: a nurturer of herbs, justice and persecuted lovers. Apart from the world, but somehow the world kept finding Cadfael.

“There’s a lot of merit in silence.”

These books may seem obscure to current readers because the underlying assumptions of western culture have shifted so much in the last forty years. That change adds to rather than distracts from the historical fantasy tone of the stories. Cadfael lived in a world of mystery, conflict and value just beyond the brightness of today.

“Genuine sinners are plentiful, but genuine penitents are rare.”

It’s impossible to visualize Cadfael without seeing Derek Jacobi who played him in the television adaptations. Even if you’ve seen those dramatized tangles, read the books. The first season wasn’t so bad, but the last two turned Peters’ stories inside out.

“God resolves all given time.”

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Revised Review Ratings

Up front, I need to tell you: three stars is positive. Two stars is “okay,” that is I’m ambivalent or indifferent about the book or show. I’ll usually tell you why. Four stars means I really like it. Five stars I’m trying to reserve for books and movies which are special. Why they’re special will vary and I’ll tell you why in the review.

While I use the usual five star rating scale, I’m trying to be more rigorous. Previously, a book I liked got four stars, now it gets only three.

I made that alteration in 2014 so that my four and five star ratings really meant something. I don’t want to give only 1 and 5 star ratings, then whine because the scale is so restrictive.

There’s a sixth rating: “gave up.” I apply what I variously call the 50-page and the 100 page test. As Frank Zappa said, “So many books, so little time.” Some books are so bad that I quit them within the first ten pages; those you’ll never hear about–I delete them from my database. But some books seemed to have enough quality that I soldiered through 50 or 100 pages (depending on the length of the book and the deepness of my exasperation) before I quit. Those reviews (and the single star ratings) tend to only posted on Goodreads.com unless I feel you need to know.)

I’m not especially qualified for reviewing books other than liking to read. I am a college graduate and have a master’s degree. I’ve read thousands (of documented) novels and hundreds of non-fiction books. I’ve attended half a dozen writing conferences as I struggled to learn the craft myself. I know from first-hand experience that it’s harder than it looks. Few of us can be Tolkiens or Rothfusses; in fact, I’d settle for producing the page-turning excitement of a David Weber space opera or be able to evoke mood like Jodi Picoult.

I have adolescent tastes and standards. Engaging characters and strong plots are preferred, and happy endings, especially unexpected ones. I like humor. Not big on graphic or gratuitous violence or sex. Most of all I like the story that’s believable in its context (especially hard in science fiction, where so few authors passed high school physics). As Coleridge suggested, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief but I expect the author to meet me halfway with a coherent tale.

Likewise, I have no special credential for reviewing movies; I probably see many fewer than the average American and most of them on video.

So, my ratings are conservative but, I hope, informed.

Book Review: The Novel & The Novelist by Tom Morrisey (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider’s Guide to the Craft by Tom Morrisey

Four Stars out of Five

Not just a new book about writing but a new approach. Worth reading if only because it challenges some current folk wisdom. For example, Morrisey’s take on when you need and how you get an agent counters what “everyone” else tells us. His approach to writing similarly goes in new directions.

His situation was unique. Some of what he suggests may not be applicable to all—your mileage may vary—but you should consider this book if you are an unpublished writer of fiction. Even if you’re not, it’s an easy, enjoyable read.

Full disclosure: I attended Morrisey’s seminar on writing at the 2015 Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference; he distributed copies of the book free. The seminar, of course, follows the outline of the book. I have no other personal or professional connection with Morrisey.

I attended his seminar because I’d previously read his Pirate Hunter, and it gave credence to his teachings.

Book Review: Bowl of Heaven by Benford and Niven (Two Stars)

Book Review: Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

Two Stars out of Five

Skip the introduction. Seriously, skip it. The story begins when the protagonist awakes from Deep Sleep in Chapter One. The rest is back story. Boring and unnecessary.

That they can’t get the story opened (or closed) despite being famous, award-winning authors tips the reader to the rest of the problem: this is way below what they are capable of. Think: Ringworld in the half-round.

The story-telling is good, but the science is shaky. For example, they don’t seem to understand that centrifugal force is perpendicular to the plane of rotation; not, as in gravity, perpendicular (sort of) to the surface of the mass. Therefore, near the pole where the pseudo gravity is near zero, it’s also roughly parallel to the surface. No standing.

The solar system-sized hemisphere rotates to create artificial gravity. Okay, but if the period of rotate is nine days long, the pseudo gravity would be more than 0.8 g. A bone-crushing lot more, considering the hemisphere is the diameter of either Earth’s or Mercury’s orbit. (I’ll talk about their proof reading later.)

Clouds hundreds of kilometers high with a seven kilometer “ceiling” membrane?

Live pigs for food on an interstellar mission with resource issues?

“Expelling her lungs” Ooo. Ugly mental picture.

Words of the week: actinic and ceramic.

They spend pages and pages lecturing the reader about how evolution caused all this, except most species of the Bowl of Heaven were genetically designed.

Lots of repetition. Leaves the reader suspecting no one read this all the way through after it was in final form. In fact, the whole thing seems dashed off.

How does the story turn out? No clue. It doesn’t end, it stops. One of those “to be continued” books which authors and publishers love these days.

Why not one star? Because it’s a great set up and interesting cast.

Book Review: Tricked by Kevin Hearne (Two stars)

Book Review: Tricked (The Iron Druid Chronicles #4) by Kevin Hearne

Two stars out of Five

Same old, same old. Hearne has a good formula, but it is a formula and, by book # 4, it’s stale. And predictable. He fluffs it up by shifting locales and mythic traditions to the Navajo Nation. Still, too many tales told.

I listened on audio. The voices were good, except for Oberon, Atticus’ dog. The whole business of Oberon conversing with the druid doesn’t work for me, but it gives Hearne a sock puppet to ask dumb questions and comic relief. It also distances Hearne from sillier lines, “[Francis] Bacon is the way and the truth.” A line which Oberon repeats.

Will probably not delve further up this tree. (Though the attached sample chapter reveals that Book #5 is set twelve years after Book #4, which raises all sorts of continuity and consistency questions about the first books.)

For those who wish to venture further, #7 comes out next month. Get reading.

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett (Three Stars)

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment (Discworld #31) by Terry Pratchett

Three Stars out of Five

Vintage Pratchett. Even for those who have gotten tired of his Discworld silliness will find this a fresh, engaging–if predictable–story. No spoiler could be bigger than the title, drawn, like half a dozen other modern works, from John Knox’s 1558 polemic. That said, enjoy the ride.

I enjoyed on audio book and was amazed now reader Stephen Briggs differentiated all those voices. Yes, many were clichés for vampires, trolls and such, but creating and producing so many must have been mind-numbing. Good job.

Perhaps not great literature but definitely great fun.

Forgotten Suns by Judith Tarr Three Stars

Forgotten Suns by Judith Tarr

Three stars out of Five

Almost quit after five pages. Glad I stuck with it. Well-told, imaginative science fiction with bursts into new frontiers. Nice capture of the thrill of archeology and anthropology.

First book I’ve read with post-Islamic characters. No graphic language, violence or sex issues, though Tarr diminished one of her primary cast by having her go into heat over someone in almost each new world she encountered.

If I was to quibble it’s that Tarr was so busy being politically correct that it occasionally clashed with her story. Interestingly, that issue seems to have invaded the science fiction awards process: “The Cultural Wars Invade Science Fiction.” What is PC depends on “a certain point of view.”

The cover art was pretty but had nothing to do with the story.

Still, a decent read.

Empress of Eternity by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (Three Stars)

Empress of Eternity by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Three Stars out of Five.

“There is no time,” takes on a whole new meaning.

Set in the far distant future of Earth—or an Earth—this tale interleaves the struggle of three couples against the tyranny of their day’s culture. The structure echoes Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, my least favorite of his novels. On the other hand this is the best Modesitt I’ve read to date. It was contending for an additional star before the denouement got preachy.

Modesitt creates not one but three believable future cultures and technology so high that it might as well be magic. Dense with techno-babble.

Interesting, that despite focusing on three couples—at least one of which live in a female dominant culture—Modesitt tells the story from the point of view of the male in each pair.

Good science fiction if you can stand the preaching and, since his soapbox closely matches prevailing cultural dogma, it’s not hard to take. If only he’d toned it down a bit … .

The Just City by Jo Walton (Three Stars)

The Just City by Jo Walton

Three Stars out of Five

Think: Plato’s Republic meets Short Circuit (or WALL-E, for you Millennials). Lots of dialogue punctuated by monologue, but very little action. Boring.

Neat premise: Suppose the gods of Homer’s era were real, and all other gods before and since (including the Greek perceptions of them during the Classical Greek period) were not … maybe. And suppose a couple of gods decide to create Plato’s Just City. You know, as an experiment. There you have it.

Having the point of view jump between two female characters and one god is not so confusing as having it jump back and forth during their time—that is, of the experiment. I almost quit before page 100.

Then Sokrates shows up. Excellent. Yeah, that Socrates. He’s good for comic relief. “‘You can’t trust everything … Plato wrote.’ Said Sokrates.” The closing dialogue shows much like those recorded by Plato, and just as artificial.

As you can imagine, the wheels start wobbling–if not coming off–early.  Still, Walton tries to make it work almost as hard as Athene, despite some improbably physical attribute, food and work distribution problems. “Children love philosophy.” Improbable, even with divine and high-tech help. Oh, about that help …

A fun read, but not engaging enough to attract me to the rest of the series.

The opening scene might be illustrated by this incredible statue by Bernini (except that WordPress routinely messes up the proportions). The marble twigs supporting the laurels leaves are about one tenth inch in diameter. Amazing sculpture.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (Five Stars)

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Five stars out of five

I assume that few readers have not read the book (the second-best selling English-language novel of all time) or seen the movie series (the biggest, most expensive film project to that time). If you haven’t; do. Even those who don’t like fantasy will find thought-provoking drama and character development.

(There be spoilers beyond, though nothing none of you don’t already know.)

This is my fifth reading of this epic fantasy classic. It improves with age. I first read it in the 1960, skipping the poems and appendices. When I read it again in the 1970s I slowly went through the whole. For my 1980s reading, I read the story of each set of characters (after The Fellowship of the Ring is broken at the end of the volume by the same name) straight through until they were reunited. (That was a spoiler.) Read straight through, the trials of Frodo and Samwise leave a different impression read consecutively than if dispersed among the tribulations of the others. Just before the first movie was released, I read the entire volume through again—poems and all—as I did this time.

I have to admit, Continue reading