Category Archives: Book reviews

Books: the Man-Kzin Wars series

This is a series of SF anthologies based on Larry Niven’s creations, the nine-foot-tall spacefaring/spaceferal felinoids called kzinti.  I think there are now twelve books in the series; not going to dig up all the Amazon links, but here’s the first book.

Niven is a superstar, though I myself haven’t read much of his work.  Some of his forewords come off pretty cocky, and if I read the runes right, Elf Sternberg managed to annoy Niven enough to get a personal diatribe–by submitting, evidently, a gay-themed kzin story involving homosexual kzinti with lavish detail about their implausible genital endowment.  One doubts that Elf, whom I’ve met and seems like a good chap, meant it to be taken entirely seriously.  Niven came off as ranting, which isn’t what I’d do even if I had his star power.  When I want to look to the model of authorial deportment, I look to the tact, class and generosity of C.J. Cherryh, whose SF is the kind that even non-SF fans find deep and delightful.

I give Niven credit for not putting up with bad writers, though; he doesn’t have to. The kzinti make a fascinating subject with a strong streak of horror (they eat humans, unless they enslave them; sometimes the latter precedes the former).  The thought of eating vegetable matter makes them physically ill. The humans described in the series are hundreds of years out of the habit of warfare, with even history carefully censored, a social transformation into pacifism that ends abruptly when they meet the kzinti.

My read is that the contributing authors, over the series, have added details and touched on/fleshed out areas Niven might never have gotten around to with regard to his feline creations.  As with any anthologies, some of the stories are a bit blah, some sparkle, and most are pretty good.  Four stars overall.

A great book you have not read: Transit Point Moscow

Some years back, I happened upon Transit Point Moscow in a used bookstore.  Synopsis:  an American, on the spur of the moment and with great impulsive idiocy, agrees to try and smuggle heroin through Soviet-era Moscow–and it doesn’t go well.  I guess that’s in the category of “young, dumbass stunts we pull that cost us ten years of our lives.”

Why it’s great:  the writing style is clear, often funny, and skillfully descriptive of the transition from arrest to imprisonment.  The book also offers a lot of cues to Russian culture.  I wouldn’t describe Amster and his cronies as sympathetic characters, but there’s a sense of honesty in that.  One does pose the question of how much of Amster’s story we believe.  I’m more inclined to believe someone who paints himself as a complete ass than as a dashing hero, and there isn’t much glory in Amster’s self-portrait.  The book is better for it.

What got me thinking about it was a more recent read, Alexander Dolgun’s Story.  I got turned on to this in a strange way, for it was on the guest room nightstand at some friends’ home.  I didn’t read it, just glanced at it, but noted the title and ordered a copy.  Dolgun was in the Gulag in the late forties and early fifties, when life was a lot harder there.  Even accounting for the temporal separation (Amster did his Gulagging over a generation later), there was enough in common between the two accounts for me to recognize terms, prison subcultures and practices.

You can learn things about a country’s mentality from its prison system.  For example, from the sheer magnitude of ours, one begins to suspect that our national mentality is that we should all be incarcerated in it. From its deep division between country club pokies for those who steal billions, and PMITA hard time for people who grow dope, one suspects that we consider having a good time (or relieving pain) without buying the drug from a corporation a horrific crime, but that if you steal a few bill, hey, that’s how we roll, shouldn’t have gotten caught.   I still haven’t figured out what the Gulag says about Russia’s mentality, honestly.

Current read: Vietnam novel _Frenchy’s Whore_

The main reason for the blogging hiatus has been real life happening, and it continues to happen, though Radcon is coming and I may be sober enough late at night to post summaries.  (I am, in great pain, replacing the caulking in my guest room shower.  Does anyone want me to blog about this?)  But in the interim, I’ve been reading a novel about the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam by Verne E. Brewer, Frenchy’s Whore.

I learned of this tale by meeting the author himself playing a Facebook game.  He impressed me as a good guy who hung out with good people, and a little experimentation satisfied me that my rather unorthodox social perspective needn’t divide us.  I’m always interested in descriptions of warfare from those in a position to know, since I’ve never been in that kind of war.

So far I’m quite impressed by Brewer’s descriptive talent.  I wish I’d been there to do some editing, but that would be mainly proofreading and very minor orthographic adjustments; he paints a scene with the sort of talent you expect of a far more seasoned writer.  Though it’s presented as a novel, Brewer doesn’t make any pretense that it is other than an autobiographical work.  So far I like the presentation, especially the story about chucking the CS grenade in the 1SG’s quarters.  While my father-in-law was a jumping first sergeant, and evidently one hell of a good one, I can easily imagine that some of them needed a tear gas grenade chucked into their rooms while drunk.

Looking forward to seeing how the book develops.  Brewer is quite candid that it was a form of therapy to help him process and come to terms with the experience that was Vietnam, but I think he’s also got messages in here, as do most authors worth their salt.

Tom Sawyer

I just finished re-reading this eternal classic, and I hope some of you will do the same.  As a child, I had no idea of Clemens’ social commentary, which I can now appreciate a little more.

Then again, as a child of five, living in Kansas, I read it and immediately began to talk like a Missouri 1840s hillbilly kid.  What you may not know about Kansas is that while there is definitely a fair bit of Cletusism in the state, the population is rather divided about it.  As in:  there is one segment that embraces country everything, speaks with a rural drawl and makes no apologies for it.  My father comes from that stock, but more or less abandoned it to get an engineering degree.  My mother doesn’t, despite her ranching upbringing, and always wanted not to be identified with backwoods habits.  Not one bit.

Back home, this is somewhat accentuated by stereotypes and prejudices specific to Kansas and our Missourian neighbors, in which the perception is that Missouri has only one tooth and shares it out without even washing it.  Of course, it’s not true; it’s mostly good-natured joshing but underneath it lie some authentic prejudices with deep roots more terrible than the rest of the nation understands.  One of these days I’ll write about it.  Suffice it to say that the folk memory runs deep on both sides, and neither side was a wagonload of saints.  It’s a miracle we get along as well as we do now, probably because most sensible people realize the two states are not as different as the more prejudiced citizens of either would like to imagine.

So, along comes their son, a fairly precious little fellow whose idea of fun is to read through the whole encyclopedia, and he begins to talk like Tom Sawyer.  As you may know, erudition ain’t a feature of Tom’s character.

It did not go over well at all.  “But we wanted him to have access to great reading!”  Oops.

Fortunately, I got over it.  I still say ‘ain’t’ sometimes just to annoy her, or in cercles litteraires.  I’m at ease with both.  I like the down-to-earth rural life and basic practical wisdom of it all, and I like Brie.  Zero reason one can’t have both, as I see it.  If that doesn’t fit someone’s mailbox, they can refuse delivery and send it back.

This is the part where it’s about time to explain to why Tom Sawyer would be a good re-read.  Where Clemens shines for me is in his cynicism about mob mentality, stuffiness, pretense and the fickle nature of mass opinion.  The reader cannot miss it.  Clemens is laughing at his characters, which seems to be his literary wheelhouse.  In a lesser author, his laughter would come off mean-spirited and snooty; that’s probably how I’d ring if I set myself to the same storytelling task, which is why I don’t.  Clemens laughs at people without malice, and has you laughing at them too.  He ranks among our great.

Definitely a happy reunion.

Anyone else remember the Educator Classic Library?

This series of books may well have been the most ridiculously great bargain my mother ever spent money on, when one measures the amount spent vs. the educational gain.  Anyone remember them? They came out in the late 1960s, large hardback adventure classics familiar to most people:  Treasure Island, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Alice in Wonderland, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and more.  They looked like this:

What made these versions great, above and beyond the basic greatness of the literature:

  • Nearly all were unabridged–but no fear on frustrating references, as margin entries defined anachronistic or complex words for the young reader.
  • The cover and interior art was something to behold, painting just enough imagery to help the young mind do the rest.
  • The afterword was always interesting and revealing, both about the author and about the story’s times.
  • With relatively large print, children had an easy time with them.

One may imagine the pause it gave me, many years later, when my work called for me to abridge some of these very classics for young readers.  Full circle indeed.  Take a literary scalpel to Robert Louis Stevenson? In the cause of enticing young people to the joy of reading, yes.

I read my Educator Classics so many times I had whole passages memorized before I went off to kindergarten.  This is more a tribute to the books’ greatness than to any youthful eideticism on my part.  Later in life, I realized our family never owned them all.  Of course, I still have all the originals we did own–those aren’t going anywhere until they scatter my ashes.  Now, thanks to the ease and versatility of modern used book hunting, I am seeking these out one by one so as to complete the collection.

If you are doing the same, a lady named Valerie has compiled a full list of the series, including some knowledgeable notes.  She’s right; they would be ideal homeschooling tools.  I think they’re one of the best possible ways to introduce kids to the adventure novel.

Rereading: James Michener’s ‘Iberia’

I have come up with a recurring topic idea I’ll continue if people find it interesting:  re-reads.  I have a lot of books, enough that I could not re-read them all in five years, including many to which I later return.  I don’t like to post reviews on Amazon, unless I have a motive; I resent them shipping my content to affiliates.  (Yes, they have the legal right.  Not disputed.  Nor should they dispute my legal right to refrain from donating my content to them.)

When most of us think of Michener, we think of his great historical fiction novels that span great ranges of time.  They walk us through the development of a culture, and in so doing they help us see that culture’s modern residents in light of their forebears.  My personal favorites are The Covenant (South Africa), Centennial (Colorado), Alaska, Texas and The Source (Palestine).

Iberia differs.  It is a composite personal travelogue of the author’s experiences in Spain (Portugal is not really included).  This is that rare book for which hardcover is by far the best edition, because I own it in both hardback and paperback, and the hardback contains many more of Robert Vavra’s excellent photographs.  James Michener met Spain as a very young man, came to know it well, and its people showed him their country as thoroughly as a people can.  Spaniards can be sensitive about the world’s take on their world-shaping, gold-glittering, intensely religious past.  Said world has given them ample cause.  It follows that they considered Michener an honest broker worthy of hidden knowledge, frank debate and candid admission.

It reads differently from his fiction, as you would expect, because fiction and non-fiction narrative often differ slightly. In the editing world, we must take account of this. If this is his natural style, though, I like it. It is sophisticated yet word-economical.

What it means for you:  a trove of cultural enrichment.  Think of every social science and humanity discipline applied to a given nation, from history to fine arts.  That describes Iberia with respect to Spain and Spaniards.

Laura Miller on Spamazon

Here’s her article.

The emptor must caveat real well these days.  While I think that the advent of e-readers has a lot of benefits (though I don’t currently plan to obtain one), any new technology signals that it has become popular and mainstream when it is invaded by crooks, garbage and advertising.  (Okay, sorry, that was triply repetitive.)  Anyway, do keep an eye out when buying, so you don’t get sucked into the Great Internet E-Trash Vortex of these sorts of books.

Over time, having moved from writing into editing, I have also seen this evolve. For example, I used to get tons of book review requests, but one day they just ground to a halt. What replaced them? Seriously irritating spam trying to bribe 5-star reviews out of people. I’ve had to change my whole guidance to editing clients with regard to marketing, because I once knew how to generate book reviews, and it no longer works.

Amazon’s little game

Do you buy used books through Amazon? I do, though I’m seriously considering ending that practice.  If you’re anything like me, you have absorbed the following salient facts:

  • Any used book costs a minimum of $3.99 for shipping.
  • Often that’s the entire cost, with the book selling for $0.01.
  • If you make an order of any size at all, Amazon gives you free shipping.

Perceptive readers with business sense, and at least a little bit of avarice, have just done the mental math.  Okay.  So if I’m Amazon, here’s my game.  I’ll set up my system to adjust my price to $3.98 above whatever the best independent bookseller deal is.  And if they buy from the bookseller in spite of my undercut, since I take most of the profit anyway, I can’t lose.

The reason this offends me is that it is so scientifically designed to hose the little guy or gal, the independent bookseller in Waverly, KS who keeps a local retail store going by using the business as a net-order warehouse with retail capability.  It’s not malice, just scientific greed, and I see through it. Given that it affects books and authors, thus clients, as an editor I’m perhaps more sensitive about it. I like local bookstores and help keep them around when I can. So, I reckon, do most editors and writers.

What I have taken to doing, when I do buy used books from Amazon, is easy and inexpensive.  Buy it from the little guy or gal anyway, for the extra $0.02 or $0.50 or $2.00.  It would be great if others did so also.


Today I was inspired to look up my very favorite William Least Heat-Moon quote.  If you do not know who he is, he is an excellent travel author.  He’s from Missoura.  His commentary on that situation:

“A Missourian gets used to Southerners thinking him a Yankee, a Northerner considering him a cracker, a Westerner sneering at his effete Easternness, and the Easterner taking him for a cowhand.” –William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways.

Now, if I denied you links to Heat-Moon’s writings after that appetizer, I’d be a cad:

Blue Highways (circling the nation away from freeways)

PrairyErth (an intensive study of my family’s county in Kansas)

Roads to Quoz (a search for stuff out of the ordinary)

River-Horse (he boated across America, at least all but 70 miles of it)

Columbus in the Americas (historical study of the old slaver)

Heat-Moon can seriously write, and has a quirky style that comes at the situation from angles others would not see. I love editing travel narratives, have written my own, and I get how difficult they are. They are even harder to do very well.