Friday, September 23, 2022

49. Deathworld 3 by Harry Harrison

The third Deathworld had some cool action and adventurous moments, but the overall appeal of this series is somewhat lost on me by this point.  The main idea that drives it seems to civilize the uncivilized so we can exploit their resources, which is colonialism as far as I can tell.  Here, Jason is getting bored and desperate with the planet Pyrrus as the city's population is slowly but inexorably reduced by the constant attacks by the planet.  He comes up with a plan to take a giant starship to an abandoned mine and I guess make a ton of money so they can find a new place to live.  The mine planet has a really cool geography; the mine is on the north side of giant cliffs that split the long narrow sole continent.  This is an arid, mountainous land of savage barbarian nomads (who drove away the original mine owners).  Jason's plan is to infiltrate them and then somehow take over and change their culture so they will accept the presence of offworlders exploiting their natural resources and disrupting their migratory culture.  By the end, he succeeds but in a much more destructive way involving helping the north invade the more advanced south.  Really quite horrible in a certain sense, but it is all presented as an intellectual challenge and a clever victory for narrator Jason DinAlt.  I think Harrison was a pretty progressive guy for the time.  This book feels much more in line with nerd individualism fantasy.  Despite the questionable morals, the middle of the story is as fun as the first two, with a cool, well thought-out setting.  There are also some well-told battles and cool tech.  It feels like Jason DinAlt did not really justify a series and it petered out on its own.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

48. The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat

Monsarrat continues to deliver.  He is making a place for himself in my pantheon of favourite writers.  I haven't read a dud by him yet and he works in a range of genres.  The Kappillan of Malta is the story of a priest in what was known as Fortress Malta during WWII.  It's also a story of Malta itself.  The book opens in the 60s (contemporary from when the book was published) with a narrator taking a touristic trip to Gozo, a smaller island to the north of Malta.  There he encounters a massive funeral for a priest and he meets an old giant pushing a one-legged dwarf in a wheel chair. This odd pair relates the story of Father Salvatore.  This is the bulk of the book, with Father Salvatore dealing with his aristocratic family (and supporting his mother who barely holds their estate together), the judgemental church elders and his flock sheltering in giant catacombs as Malta is blockaded and bombed.

The book is structured around the historical sermons that the priest delivers to lift morale.  These are interludes that allow Monsarrat to relate several important chapters in Malta's history where they dealt with war and invasion and survived.  Each was a great little mini-fictionalized history, informative and entertaining.  I learned a lot about Malta, of which I was almost totally ignorant.  It's also quite moving, with many great characters, especially Nero the super positive dwarf.  His introduction, as the only voice of spirit during a boat ride after the first bombing, is particularly compelling. "Nero wheeled round, and began to run and jump and skip up the street, as if he could not wait to confront his next problem."  There are no direct antagonists, but the two most hateful characters: manipulative and small-minded monsignor Scholti and traitorous brother-in-law Lewis Debrincat are extremely effective.  There is also a romance between his niece and a cliched but still well-drawn rakish British pilot.

It has a relaxed narrative, confident that the situation itself is compelling, not needing forced conflicts.  I found myself caught up in Father's Salvatore's various plights and problems, even his spiritual agonizing.  Great read.


Tuesday, September 06, 2022

47. The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

I found this, if my memory serves, in the big dump of smokey, food-stained nerdy paperbacks and other belongings from some poor soul living in the rental apartment down the street from me.  I had it on my on-deck shelf for when I was ready for a nice, absorbing vacation read but ended up grabbing it now at the end of the summer just because it is thick and I need room on my on-deck shelf!

What can I say here of any depth, beyond that it delivered exactly what I had anticipated.  Another easy to read, enjoyable, funny and brutal fantasy novel.  The Heroes is fun because it is very focused, unlike the epic First Law trilogy that precedes it.  It all takes place in three days in a single location.  The story is entirely about a battle between the "barbarians" of the North and the civilized Union of the South.  Not only do we get a beautifully illustrated map of this pastoral valley, but each of the three sections of the book updates the map with the various military positions at the end of each day.  This was all super helpful for me to picture the action and be clear on what was going on, though I suspect that Abercrombie's writing is clear enough that one could still figure it out without the maps.

Many of the characters from the First Law trilogy show up here and some of the lesser ones get a full expansion.  We also have some new ones.  As usual, we get all the wide range of grim, cynical and funny characters that make the other books so enjoyable.  If you are more into the fantasy and politics and less the fighting and Named Men, you may not love this one.  However, if you are into crunching medieval combat and rich, funny brutal warriors, this is the book for you.  He even has an annoying warrior keener, in Whirrun of Blight, who loves to fight and is always super enthusiastic, a hilarious counterpoint to the mostly grim and weary members of his dozen.

Just a lot of fun and it reminded me how much I enjoyed The First Law.  There is another trilogy taking place the next generation down that I will be keeping an eye out for, but will have to save it for later is it will always be readily available and I have an overflowing on-deck shelf to deal with now.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

46. The David Bowie Story by George Tremlett

I am not interested at all in music journalism, nor particularly in David Bowie's story.  I took this book almost purely on aesthetics alone.  Look at that cover!  It's really not a good book, though I am glad I read it as it spurred me to go back and listen to Bowie's earlier music.  It's funny that this book was published in 1974 and honestly the text itself implies that his story is over more or less at the time of publication.  This book really should have been subtitled: "The Kenneth Pitt story, my good friend who is also very cultured unlike most music agents and how David Bowie made a terrible mistake in not listening to Kenneth which ended up delaying his success by two years!"

Seriously, the bulk of the first half of this book is a fawning apologia to Kenneth Pitt who was indeed Bowie's first agent and whom Bowie dismissed after a few years.  The tone has a slightly moralizing, superior air, chastising Bowie for not doing things the way Pitt and a traditional pop star should and elaborating on all the ways Kenneth Pitt (and his lovely house in the country) is a decent and cultured man, not at all like most music agents.  I almost suspect the author and Pitt were lovers.  We do get some actual facts about Bowie's upbringing, though even there it veers into how not only did Bowie not invite his own mother to his wedding, he didn't invite Kenneth!

The second half is a bit more informative, with a fairly detailed narrative of Bowie's tour in the United States, his growing relationships with other celebrities at the time and his own struggle with early fame.  When you peel away the inconsistent structure (he jumps around a lot in time and often repeats the same message in slightly different ways), though, there is a nice history here that gives some insight into Bowie's mercurial creativity and the scene he came out of.  I always respected Bowie's work, but it never grabbed me and I think a big part of that is because he is really an experimental artist who was constantly trying everything within the framework of popular music and culture.  I am guessing that some have accused him of simply being a chameleon, but reading this book did make me feel that he was genuine in his artistic exploration (unlike say the more cynical Madonna) and definitely a truly talented and charismatic performer.