Saturday, December 28, 2013


I usually get really, really annoyed by science fiction that posits a return to feudalism in our future -- it's even the bit in Frank Herbert's Dune series that I like the least -- but as I've grown older it's come to seem less ridiculous to me, especially when, as in Philip K. Dick's first published novel, The Solar Lottery, said feudalism is characterized not by dueling aristocrats but by the re-institution of serfs. As our own post-millennial economy continues to collapse and so many millions have been out of work for so long, those of us with jobs are terrified of losing them, however crappy they are, and so cling to them fearfully, and those of us without them grow ever more desperate, we're just steps away from the masses swearing oaths of personal fealty to big shots who promise magnanimously to protect them. I'm pretty sure the Koch Brothers and Donald Trump already have scribbler serfs drafting oaths for the masses, yo.

But the feudalism is just part of what's going on in this one; the socio-economic system of the human-colonized Solar system has devolved into a sort of government by game show/lottery, in which everyone who has managed to hold onto his "power card" has a chance every irregular interval of becoming the Quizmaster and the effective ruler of all nine planets (yes, that's counting Pluto; this book is from the late 1950s).

So of course as our story starts a new Quizmaster is chosen, but he might be a ringer: he's the head of a crackpot society who not only believe that there is a tenth planet out there but that they should colonize it, following their prophet out there. So nobody's happy that absolute power has fallen to him, least of all the former Quizmaster. But the moment has been prepared for: to keep truly unworthy rulers from ruining everything, a Challenge system exists whereby one assassin at a time is specially chosen to try to kill the new Quizmaster -- if the assassin can get past the corps of telepaths and other bodyguard types protecting the new Quizmaster that is.

But just as the new Quizmaster has a strange new agenda, the old one has been working against the day with the bottle spun around to replacing him. His plan is a doozy. Only a disgruntled newb in the ranks could foul things up. But of course there is one. Of course there is.

Meanwhile, an expedition launched to find and settle the tenth planet, Flame Disc, encounters weirdness as its crew tries to escape the insanity of the Solar Lottery. I would have like to have seen more of this subplot, which almost threatened to become a first contact story (and I would so love to see what PKD would do with that hoary old sci-fi chestnut!), but it was underserved, PKD more interested in the assassination and conflicting oaths going on back on good old Mother Earth. The result is still a good read, but not his best. Which is as it should be.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Winston Graham's JEREMY POLDARK

Not since Tristram Shandy has a novel's titular character taken quite such a long time to actually appear -- by which I mean be born -- in his novel as does Jeremy Poldark. And Jeremy Poldark actually takes longer!

He's not a character so much as a placemarker in his book, is Jeremy, second child of Ross and Demelza Poldark, Regency era Cornwall's sudsiest soap opera couple. The year of Jeremy's birth also sees his daddy on trial for his life, accused of attacking revenuers and inciting a riot during the wreck of a pair of ships near his property one tempestuous Cornwall night, his parents somewhat estranged over some behind-the-scenes meddling Demelza seems to have done to ensure a favorable verdict, his family's fortunes threatened by dastardly deeds of business (by which I mean, mostly, the upstart Warleggan clan), and, as always, his daddy making eyes at Cousin Elizabeth, who was originally set to marry Ross but who married Ross's cousin Francis instead back when Ross was given up for dead in the American Revolution (see the first Poldark novel, Ross Poldark).

For added historical flavor, the assizes at which Ross is tried coincide with a local election, and of course the Poldarks live in a rotten borough, so lots of tasty machinations ensue -- by the way, if you don't want to click on that boring old Wikipedia explanation of a rotten borough, you might enjoy one E. Blackadder explaining it to the Prince Regent:

And yes that's House doing the chicken impression

The machinations in Jeremy Poldark aren't quite as hilarious as those in Blackadder the Third, but they're still a pretty entertaining backdrop to the novel's action.

Other subplots include Jeremy's Aunt Verity finally getting to meet the stepchildren that came along with the marriage Jeremy's mother helped make happen in Demelza, and the somewhat hapless Dr. Dwight Enys,  perhaps Ross' best friend, meeting yet another woman who flummoxes him, though admittedly with less disastrous results than the last go-around.

And as I said, Jeremy eventually gets around to getting born, but even his birth is something of a non-event. One hopes this new hero gets more to do in later books...

Monday, December 23, 2013


This is a book I reviewed for Insatiable Booksluts. To read it, make with the clicky at that site.

Patrick O'Brian's THE SURGEON'S MATE

The Surgeon's Mate is one of the cleverer titles for an Aubrey/Maturin novel, suggesting that it does that Dr. Maturin is at last going to get some help in keeping Captain Aubrey's crew healthy; larger commands like those Aubrey is entitled to these days not only get to bring along a surgeon but also a surgeon's mate, but that's not even sort of what is going on here.

The title refers to Maturin's lady-love, Diana Villiers, who has at last agreed to marry him as a means to recover her British citizenship after having run away with a rich American several novels ago -- a move she came to regret by the time The Fortune of War brought Aubrey and Maturin to America. Partly with her help, our duo escaped from the clutches of her lover (who turned out to be a major American spy-master) after having killed some important French spies, and made off with some of the lover's very important personal papers to boot.

It's a strange courtship these two have had, and by the time Maturin has found Villiers again, in America, he's mostly out of love with her; she has taken up tobacco smoking and bourbon drinking and a bit of a colonial accent, but she's still a looker and a pretty cool chick, so he's not completely off her, and good thing, because in The Surgeon's Mate it's her turn to save his bacon. Well, sort of. She believes she has done so, and is going to be allowed to believe it, because if the real story of how Stephen escapes France (where he and Aubrey are taken prisoner after their sloop wrecks after assisting in a chase after a mission in the Baltic involving Catalan freedom fighters and a Swedish island battery and other complicated stuff) ever became common knowledge, he would no longer be able to deny being the George Smiley of the Napoleonic wars.

This is not my favorite Aubrey/Maturin by a long shot, choppy and sort of all over the place, but it's still good fun.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


In 1963, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford, youngest of the amazing brood of literary siblings that includes my beloved "U and Non-U" Nancy, published a tartly observed expose of the American funeral industry that opened a lot of eyes and angered a lot of undertaker funeral director grief therapists and made her a hero to the kind of flinty-eyed, savvy observers and consumers of American culture that I would most like to be myself.

At that time, The American Way of Death focused mostly on the racket of coffin casket sales and marketing and the budding collusion between undertakers and florists and other providers of goods and services used in disposing of honoring the dead during the apex of American civilization. The coming of giant funeral home conglomerates, industrial-scale mausoleum development and aggressive "pre-need" marketing was hinted at but still, in the 1960s, still all just potential. For this newer edition, published in 1998, The American Way of Death Revisited took on those developments with just as jaundiced, as funny, as tartly observed glee as the original work, and while yes, it disgusted me in many ways, it also made me laugh the way Paul "Dumbing of America" Fussell makes me laugh: bitterly but heartily.

I haven't had direct experience with this industry as yet, but sooner or later I will, and I'm already mad at the kind of crap they're going to try to pull. Suggesting, for instance, that cremation is disrespectful but that if I must I still have to buy a casket to cremate someone in (not true). Insisting that the body is required by to be embalmed as a public safety measure (not true). Intimating that I'm a bad, cold, unfeeling person if I don't shell out for embalming and for a big fancy satin lined casket and an open casket funeral so everybody can look at the deceased one last time looking better than he or she ever did in life (!) and a for vault to go over the casket and protect it from the elements and by the way it's really more tasteful to buy a bronze plaque to go over the hole in the ground where you stash the meat than to have a headstone made by a monumental mason. Because the bronze plaque manufacturers are our sort but those headstone people are really not the thing, you know. And don't even talk about scattering ashes, horrors!

By the way, as Mitford confirms (I had long suspected it but never been sure) embalming isn't really preservation at all; it's pretty much just an exercise in human taxidermy, its aim to make the corpse look good for that open casket funeral; its effects start to go to crap almost before the earth hits the coffin lid internment. You're paying to have your loved one (wink at Evelyn Waugh fans) stuffed and mounted like an elk head for display so that your friends and family can admire the taxidermist's embalmer's handiwork* so they'll choose him or her when it's their turn to let someone go.

 But I'm only scratching the surface of what's disinterred here. The Death Industry has, we learn, lobbyists every bit as powerful and persuasive as Wall Street, and they've skewed so many laws and codes in that industry's favor that it's hard to tell what the consumer's rights still even are. I'm sure it's only gotten worse since 1998. I'm waiting for pre-need funeral ads to start showing up in the margins of my Gmail. And the grief therapist marketing spam. And...

And it's all such a horrible mess, really, because the majority of Americans seem to think a big showy expensive open casket funeral is traditional and only decent and anyone who doesn't opt for this must be an unfeeling jerk who hated his deceased; i.e., the marketing has been successful as hell. So now the "conventions" the Death Industry pretty much invented to squeeze more money out of the recently bereaved (preying on their emotional vulnerability unconscionably) really are what's expected. Only the very strong and stubborn are coming out of the experience with their fleeces intact, I suspect.

But, you know, you can't take it with you. Whatever your culture's funeral customs.

*It's impossible not to think of John Waters' gleeful turn as a funeral director in My Name Is Earl, he of the "living tableau." And yes, Six Feet Under too, of course. But I think Waters did it way better. Because John Waters. Der.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Dorothy Dunnet's NICCOLO RISING

O Claes van der Poel, O Nicolas de St. Pol, O Niccolò, where have you been all my life. Actually, that's a pretty funny question, because as I believe I have previously shared via these pixels, this is not my first time taking up Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolò Rising, the first volume in her even-bigger-at-least-because-more-books-than-Lymond series, The House of Niccolò.

This was a total DNF when I was 16 or so, despite the hilarity of its famous opening three-men-in-a-tub caper, in which our hero, whom I shall refer to simply as Claes because I like that name and that's how he wants people to keep thinking of him through this first novel -- I'll get to that bit in a moment -- his young master Felix de Charetty and "their" tutor Julius hitch a ride in the Duke of Burgundy's bathtub as it is being floated into the great city of Bruges and things go ridiculously wrong and Chekov's cannon* gets accidentally (?) dumped into the canal. Yes! That bit definitely hooked 16-year-old Kate, but the stuff that followed made her eyes glaze over, for while later in the book there are quite a few Shouty Men in Shiny Armour, until those moments it's a lot of early-Renaissance business drama, which try convincing any 16-year-old (except maybe Alex P. Keaton) that the words "business" and "drama" can even go together, go on, I dare you.

Considerably older Kate, though, relatively fresh off the Lymond Chronicles and considerably more attuned to the importance of trade to cultural development and thus to the notion that there can be drama in mercantile doings, found Niccolò Rising to be even more fun than those loftily beloved books, mostly because its hero is more fun. SO much more fun. Not to bag on Lymond, whose adventures and plots and subtleties I heartily enjoyed right up until he made me want to slap him silly in his last volume, but Claes, Claes, Claes!

Though things are revealed about his ancestry towards the end of Niccolò Rising that made me roll my eyes a little because I'm no great respecter of aristocracy and all of the crap ideas that surround it (if you haven't noticed, I tend to root against the queens when I read Jean Plaidy), Claes is poised to become my favorite literary hero, maybe ever. Raised as a dyer's apprentice (which, in 15th century Europe means stained fingers, weird chemical odors and oh yes pretty much the constant smell of urine) and looking like a big dumb lout with absurdly huge round eyes, ridiculous dimples and a profoundly innocent and dopey expression, he's a magnet for trouble and cheerfully accepts all the beatings that seem to be the wages of all of his escapades -- which, yes, include sleeping with girls he shouldn't sleep with along with dumb accidents (?) like the men-in-a-tub/cannon-in-the-canal stunt that opens the novel.


About those escapades. Those who have come to know Claes (short for Nicolas) well have begun to notice things about his pranks and the way things happen in general when he's around. The remarkable woman who owns the Charetty Company (of which the dye works is but one subsidiary), Marian de Charetty, widowed mother of Felix, for instance, agrees with Julius that Claes is maybe smarter than everybody gives him credit for. He only seems passive, does Claes...

Bit of an understatement, that. Before much ink has been consumed in describing his world -- and an unhappy incident involving a serving wench whom an unpleasant Scottish nobleman (who was also present for the tub/cannon affair) had thought was only servicing his noble self  -- he is busy, busy, busy in his head, working out an elaborate scheme to capitalize on a bit of possibly throwaway information a famous Greek prince of industry let slip in Claes' presence concerning a non-Ottoman source of alum, a mineral compound vitally important to many industrial/chemical processes like making dye stick to fabric and thus a vital raw material for his mistress' business. And also military adventure! Except the military adventure is for other people; the Charetty's should just hire and equip them and rent them out to various Italian noblemen fighting over all those wacky things Italian noblemen fought over in the 15th century. And how these two things -- alum and mercenaries -- might come together in one grand coup that might just lift Claes out of the piss vats and into the bourgeoisie.

But again, this is a guy whom nobody takes seriously, except for the Widow and her notary/Felix's tutor. So he has to finesse. Without giving away the fact that he's actually a mathematical/mercantile genius, because being underestimated is his favorite strategy, and not rubbing it in when people realize what brilliance he's pulled off but instead staying humble and passive is his best tactic. Or something like that.

So Claes is someone who could either be seen as a manipulative mastermind who is out to deceive and revenge himself on everybody who ever sneered at him or ordered him beaten, or as a genuinely nice and loving guy who innocently comes up with a lot of really cool ideas that just happen to have staggering worldwide repercussions and make him some epic enemies in the process (his companions have a big long discussion about which version of Claes (whom they start calling Nicolas as his stature elevates, and whom the Italians with whom he has started dealing with on surprisingly high levels insist on calling Niccolò) is the "real" one. They conclude it's best to hope for the latter but be ready for the former as Claes' first round of jaw-droppingly intricate and mostly-successful (ah, but the successes are always bittersweet) schemes come to fruition and he and the Charettys prepare to embark on a brand new round on an even grander scale in the next novel, Spring of the Ram, which I think I'll be reading soon because I AM SO TEAM CLAES YOU GUYS. He's like Lymond, only not at all pretentious and not nearly so self-important (because he's not a nobleman, perhaps?) and he's having to make it on guts and smarts and sheer merit alone...!

People who find this series a let down after Lymond... I don't think I understand them, at all.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S COMPANY

In a lot of ways, Sharpe's Company can feel like Sharpe's Fortress revisited, though in a slightly diminished capacity. Fortress had Sharpe leading the charge and finding the vulnerability in India's awesome mountaintop fortress of Gawilghur where Company has him "merely" having to do so to take the Spanish fortress-town of Badajoz, a much less impressive target, but there are challenges and complications to keep things fresh, oh yes.

Though the fortress angle is not the only parallel with Fortress. Oh no. For Sharpe's Company brings back one of Sharpe's most entertaining enemies, the malevolently cunning Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill -- last seen in Sharpe's Fortress, once again failing to kill our hero, but not for lack of trying.

Here Hakeswill surfaces as a new member of the South Essex, the battalion to whose fortunes Sharpe and his Rifles have been married for several Peninsular novels now, and he arrives just in time to see Sharpe laid somewhat low: his latest field promotion to Captain has finally and formally been rejected by the British army's top brass (over Wellington's objections, to be sure) and Sharpe is just a lieutenant again, though still sort of running his Light Company, at least until its new captain arrives -- a captain who is a proper high-born gentleman of means, and who purchased his commission like you're supposed to.

That system of the hereditary upper-class buying their way into officer-dom has always blown me away, as an American who used to take it for granted that the military is and should be a meritocracy. A lifetime of reading stories proving me wrong, at least in the case of the European military, hasn't robbed me of this basic reaction; I suppose by now it's obvious that I'll never really lose it, no matter how often the injustices of the purchased commission system are exploited for drama.

And speaking of obvious, if it's not by now, continuity, as far as the Sharpe novels are concerned, is a matter for other series, as is driven home anew early on in Sharpe's Company as we learn that his lover Teresa, badass Spanish partisan and beautiful babe, has given birth to a daughter, his daughter, and we see him acting like it's his first an only child even though those of us who are reading his adventures in chronological, rather than publication, order know that he's already got a daughter by one Lady Grace, whom he met on his homeward journey from India. The late Lady Grace having been a lady, her upper-class family would rather not acknowledge Richard's part in the creation of their granddaughter and so have taken the girl away from him, so perhaps he's just done a really, really good job of blotting this real first child from his thoughts?

Anyway, fiction. Which this is. And the Sharpe novels are a special case, there. To the point where I think that from now on, if anyone asks me in what order to read them, I might just say publication order. The discontinuity might jar less that way, even as the adventures leap about in time. Sharpe already spends lots of time in Doctor Who jeopardy; he might as well just be experienced as full on timey-wimey, amirite?

At any rate, Sharpe's Company. As I've mentioned, Sharpe's most enthusiastic (if not always most effective because batdung insane) enemy is back and up to his old tricks, and Sharpe has been put somewhat out to pasture for a while, suddenly in charge of the battalion's "wives and mules and baggage" instead of his Light Company and his beloved Rifles (who themselves are being, cough, strongly encouraged to ditch their threadbare green Rifles jackets for good old British army bright red-and-pipeclay, and to exchange their Baker rifles for plain old muskets, further insulting Sharpe's pride). Which he bitches about to his sub-protector, Major Hogan (who looks after Sharpe for Wellington), and gets shot down with a speech that could come straight from the mouth of his Author trying to keep this swashbuckling bastard under control: ""Just because you've been allowed to swan about like a bloody pirate for years doesn't mean you shouldn't take your turn at the real work." This made me laugh, even though it's precisely Sharpe's swanning around like a bloody pirate that makes him such fun to read, even when his adventures start getting formulaic.

Swan on, Sharpe. Swan on.