Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

It is late December, 1941.  The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America is now at war with the Axis powers.  The United States’ alliance with Great Britain is now an active one, and to cement that alliance,  Prime Minister Winston Churchill has crossed the ocean to confer with  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante

Accompanying Mr. Churchill is secret agent Maggie Hope, posing as a humble typist.  When Eleanor Roosevelt expresses worry about one of her employees who hasn’t shown up for work, Maggie volunteers to go with her to check on Blanche Balfour’s health.  As it happens, that young woman’s health is impaired by the fact that she’s dead, an apparent suicide.  There appears to have been a suicide note implicating Mrs. Roosevelt, but the note itself is missing.  Maggie smells foul play.

This is the fifth Maggie Hope mystery novel; I have not read the previous ones.  This volume is not much of a mystery from the reader’s point of view; we are privy to scenes Maggie is not, so it is really more of a thriller.  Also mixed into the plot are the upcoming execution of a young black man (whose trial stinks on ice) and the British intelligence service trying to find out about Germany’s rocket program.

Ms. MacNeal has done extensive research, and cites her sources in a “Historical Notes” section at the end.  This results in a lot of name-dropping and factoids scattered throughout the book.  I did spot one anachronistic reference; World War Two buffs will know it when they see it.

One of the themes of the book is that leaders are human; they have good qualities, but can also have unpleasant sides, wrong opinions, and do less than good things in pursuit of what they consider more important goals.  Both Maggie and her current lover, benched RAF pilot John, must make difficult decisions about their priorities and what will be the best course of action to win the war.

Thankfully, there’s at least one actual villain in the book to provide some moral clarity–they’re a bad person in every important way, and we can cheer Maggie on as she opposes them.  There’s also some Hope family drama back in England, presumably to set up the next volume in the series.

Maggie Hope herself is (as so often in historical mysteries) a woman way ahead of her time in attitudes and behavior.   It’s sufficiently supported by her special circumstances.

There’s period racism and to a lesser extent sexism and homophobia, as well as that apparent suicide.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries and spy thrillers.

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey

One of the great things about reading history books is learning about obscure people whose lives illuminate a corner of time.  In school history classes, the emphasis tends to be on larger stories, a few “great men” (possibly a woman or two) and lots of dates to memorize.  But a book that focuses on just one minor figure can tell you a lot about the time and place they lived in.

Our Man in Charleston

This volume concerns Robert Bunch, who was the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853-63.  For our younger readers, a consul is a diplomatic official that handles the interests of a country and its citizens in an area of a foreign land less important than the capital, which is covered by an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary.  The big issue when Mr. Bunch arrived in town was the Negro Seaman Act.  In South Carolina and several other states of the southern United States, if a ship landing in a port had free black people in the crew, those crew members would be imprisoned for the duration of the ship’s stay.   That meant those crew members couldn’t do the work necessary to get the ship ready to leave, as well as suffering the privations of prison.  What was more, the ship’s captain was charged for the expense of imprisoning his crew, and if he couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, his ship and cargo would be seized by the government, and the crew members enslaved to pay the debt!

Since Great Britain had freed its slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s, and any British merchant captain operating in the West Indies hired locally, this meant that British citizens were being imprisoned, ran the risk of being enslaved and having their business prospects dampened.   Her Majesty’s Government was not well pleased.  On the other hand, the previous consul had been indiscreet about saying so, and was too forthcoming about the evils of slavery, so had been forced to leave town in theoretical disgrace.   Mr. Bunch would have to be more discreet.

Meanwhile, South Carolina and its fellow Southern states were facing their own economic crisis.   Their biggest crop was cotton, and their method of producing it demanded a steady supply of slaves.  Back when the U.S. Constitution had been signed, it had been agreed to stop importing slaves from other countries (especially African ones) after 1808 as by that point, domestic production should be sufficient.  They hadn’t realized just how heavily cotton would take off.  Worse, the Northern “free” states were expanding their territory and economies faster than the slave states, and getting more disgruntled with slavery by the year.   So the Southerners wanted to guarantee their right to have slaves forever, expand into places like Cuba and Mexico to increase their territorial power, and re institute the slave trade.

The British government was not thrilled with any of those plans, but they were well aware that their textile industry depended heavily on Southern U.S. cotton, which at the time had no viable substitute.  So Mr. Bunch’s instructions were to be as subtle as possible about opposing such things.

What emerges is a remarkably sympathetic account of the two-faced behavior required of diplomats.  In his interactions with the South Carolinians, Mr. Bunch was pleasant and friendly and non-committal, slowly working behind the scenes to accomplish British goals (it took several years, but the Negro Seaman Act was repealed.)   But in his diplomatic correspondence and secret messages to his superiors, Bunch revealed his true horror about the practice of slavery and his belief that the people around him had gone insane in a fundamental way.

(Lest Northerners get too smug, most of the ships practicing illegal slave trading with Cuba and Central America at the time were built and funded by people in New York City, using their American flags to bluff their way past British anti-slavery patrols.)

When the American Civil War came, Mr. Bunch was the only competent British consul in the Confederacy.  He was required to carry out secret diplomatic missions to try to get the Confederate government to pledge not to revive the slave trade–without ever making a solid promise to have Great Britain recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.   Meanwhile, his dispatches were part of the reason the United Kingdom held off on recognizing the CSA, despite the foreign policy blunders of U.S,. Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed ready to provoke war with Britain if that’s what it took to show the Union would not be intimidated.

Mr. Seward was also completely taken in by Mr. Bunch’s smiling facade, and decided he was in cahoots with the rebels, pulling his diplomatic credentials.  When Mr. Bunch was evacuated from Charleston by a British ship in 1863, the South Carolina newspapers hailed him as a friend of the South.

The book comes with a center section of photographs, an extensive bibliography by subject (the book was vastly helped by Bunch’s diplomatic correspondence now being declassified), endnotes, acknowledgements and index.

Some thoughts:  this book is very clear about the way the South Carolinians’ dependence on slavery and their doubling down on it being the only ethical mode of life led them in a death spiral that could only result in economic destruction, even if the Civil War had not come about.  Make no mistake; at least for the elite of Charleston, the secession was all about keeping and expanding slavery (though their diplomats in European countries quickly resorted to all the other explanations you’ve heard, because slavery was a hard sell.)

Also, the peek behind the curtains of diplomacy makes me wonder what our own diplomats are up to around the world, and other countries’ diplomats are up to here.  How much double-dealing is acceptable in a good cause?  How can we ever be sure what an ambassador is really thinking?  Was that really the best treaty we could get, or is something entirely different going on behind the scenes?

Highly recommended for American Civil War buffs, history fans and those who want to know more about how diplomacy works.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.  No other compensation was involved.

Magazine Review: Cosmic Crime Stories July 2012

Magazine Review: Cosmic Crime Stories July 2012 edited by Tyree Campbell

If you want to stand out in the crowded field of speculative fiction, one of the ways is “genre-blending,” taking two different popular genres and splicing them together.  For example, horror and romance to create the vampire love stories so immensely popular in recent times.  This twice-yearly magazine blends science fiction and crime fiction.

Cosmic Crime Stories July 2012

“Suttee” by Tyree Campbell leads this issue off.    (When you’re the editor you can decide what order the stories go in.)  Sweeney is a smuggler whose husband was recently killed.   She’s going on one last run, but what’s her end game?  Much of the story is her verbal sparring with an authority figure who doesn’t understand her motivation.

“The Price of Selfishness” by Robert Collins is set on the frontier of space, as a merchant’s prank results in murder.  Captain Jason Ayers must investigate the matter, and determine what sort of justice the alien perpetrator will face.  The local law enforcement shoves the matter off on him, and then doesn’t like the result.

“Perfect Vengeance” by Kellee Kranendonk takes place in a society where the aged are despised.  Shae was one of the few space captains left over forty; until her crew mutinied, shooting her and stranding her and her younger lover on a supposedly barren planet.  Said planet is not nearly as deserted as it appeared, and the locals’ society has an important difference that allows Shae a kind of revenge.  This story suffered badly from not having the background better explained.

“All Tomorrow’s Suckers: Robert Bloch’s Speculative Crimes” by Daniel R. Robichaud.   This short article looks at some of the Psycho author’s more speculative crime fiction, including the series about Lefty Feep, a not quite successful con artist whose schemes always involved science fiction or fantasy gimmicks.

“The Faithless, the Tentacled and the Light” by Mary E. Lowd concerns Nicole Merison, captain of the Hypercube and a rescue mission the government asks her to undertake.  The mission evokes complex emotions, as the captured person is her ex-friend who got her fired from a dream job.  Turns out Cora misinterpreted an important detail of alien biology/technology, so she may deserve to stay….

“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” by Wayne Carey stars an attorney named Murph, who is called in to defend his cousin Tom Finnegan from charges he carelessly activated an experimental device that destroyed the space station he was on and killed dozens of people.  Murph isn’t really that good of a lawyer, having only won one case before via applied bribery.  That won’t work here, and it gets worse when he discovers that a) Tom’s employers have bailed on the scientist, leaving him holding the bad, and b) local laws requite the attorney to suffer the same penalty as his client.  The locals still have the death penalty for murder.   The fun is watching Murph dig himself out of this hole and win the case mostly honestly.  It feels good, but remember the title.

“Rarified Air: Big City Policing, Year 3000” by Marilyn K. Martin is a police procedural.  In the overcrowded future, only the wealthy can afford to live in buildings high enough to see the sky.  They’re somewhat insulated from law enforcement by the politics of the day, and when a multiple widow reports that her latest husband has gone missing, the cops must tread lightly.

There are a few house ads for Sam’s Dot Publishing and a couple of illustrations by Denny Marshall which don’t go with specific stories.

The Wayne Carey story is the best of the lot, which are mostly middling good.  This magazine might be worth looking up if you like the intersection of SF and crime.

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men by Robert Silverberg (writing as Calvin M. Knox) and A. E. Van Vogt, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two books in one, upside down from each other.  According to Larry Niven, during the 1960s Ace Books was known for being particularly skinflint towards authors, so would only be sold to if all other SF publishers turned down the book, and the writer just needed some cash in hand, because royalties and overseas sales would never be forthcoming.  When Tom Doherty bought the publishing house, he didn’t talk to any of the writers who’d worked for them, but did do a two-year search for legal complaints.  There were none–because the writers had all learned that it was useless.  (Mr. Doherty reformed Ace Books’ payment policies, and a lot of authors finally got back payments.)

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing features a young asteroid prospector named John Storm (no relation) who is looking for rare metal deposits in the asteroid belt to feed Earth’s early 21st Century computer technology.  He finds a jackpot, but between filing his claim on Mars and getting to Earth to set up the funding to get it mined, the computer network somehow loses his claim.  And all of John Storm’s personal records!  Since almost everything in the future society revolves around your existence in the computer network, being “unpersoned” like this is a terrible blow.

Of course, this complete erasure of John Storm’s identity belies the suggestion that he somehow screwed up the claim registration.   A clumsy typist might have erased one record, but it would take money and dedication to pull this off.  “Why?” then is the question; even a jackpot mining asteroid would hardly be worth this much effort, including a physical assassination attempt.  John must return to the asteroid belt to investigate, and what he finds there could change everything!

To be honest, John’s struggles with the future bureaucracy are more interesting to me than the actual space adventure stuff.  Anyone who’s had to deal with a petty official declaring that it must somehow be your mistake that caused their computer system to act unjustly can certainly identify.

John’s fiancee Liz seems to have no goals outside of marrying John whether or not he succeeds (though she would prefer he succeeds), and her offer of help is rejected because space is “too dangerous for a woman.”  In our 21st Century, that would get a laugh.  She also never learns what actually happened.

There’s an alien involved who looks nothing like the picture on the cover (which is awesomely SF in its own right) and Mr. Silverberg’s fascination with psychic powers shines through.   It’s middling-grade but quite readable.

The Twisted Men

The Twisted Men is actually a collection of three longer stories by A.E. Van Vogt, too long to fit in a regular anthology, but not related enough to turn into a “fix-up” novel.

“The Twisted Men” itself stars Averill Hewitt, a scientist who has discovered that something strange and dangerous is going to happen to the sun in a few years.  Apparently he is terrible at explaining his theory, because one person taking his metaphor and saying that said metaphor is not literally possible is enough to put Mr. Hewitt in the Jor-El category.  Unlike Jor-El, however, Mr. Hewitt is able to build a full-size spaceship to go to the Proxima Centauri system to look for habitable planets.

He insists that it be staffed by personnel whose wives are pregnant, or can become so; it apparently doesn’t enter his mind that pregnant women might also have space-worthy skills.  His own wife refuses to get on board and takes the children with her.  This results in some sub-optimal personnel, including several religious fanatics and a captain who wants to marry his ward who doesn’t actually look eighteen.  Skeeviness aside, this is the only available captain, so the Hope of Man is launched.  Six years later, the ship is detected re-entering the solar system at enormous speed, and not responding to hails.

Naturally, Mr. Hewitt is tapped to try to discover what happened; what he discovers, and the implications, drive the rest of the story.  The story is heavy on the speculative science, but not nearly as forward-thinking on the social end.  There are some evocative passages as Hewitt explores the ship and struggles to understand what is going on.

“”The Star-Saint” is a planetary colonization story.  Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who are about to make planetfall only to discover that the previous batch of colonists have vanished, their village completely destroyed.  Fortunately (or perhaps not), Mark Rogan has arrived to help out.  Rogan is a mutant with strange powers and a detached attitude that drives most other men up the wall.  Oddly, women seem to find Rogan extremely attractive.   Hanley is unhappy about the help, but it’s not as though he’s got much choice.

Hanley thinks he’s figured out the problem, only to be told by Rogan that he’s actually made things much worse.  The situation is finally brought to something of a compromise point–but Hanley suspects this colony will soon have several mutant babies, including his own wife’s.  The treatment of women in this story is frankly kind of creepy, but the fact that it’s told from the perspective of the patriarchal and controlling Hanley means that we don’t know what actually happened.

“The Earth Killers” starts with America being attacked by an unknown party, which wipes out the  major cities with atomic bombs.  The only surviving witness is Morlake, a test pilot who was trying out an experimental “rockjet” near Chicago when the bombs fell.  Unfortunately, the military outpost he manages to land at is run by a fool who has him arrested for treason rather than listen to the truth.  Admittedly, the truth is pretty unbelievable–the bombs came from straight up, not in an arc.

It’s months before the remaining Americans can get around to realizing the importance of his testimony–and Morlake is able to uncover the shocking secret behind the war.

This story’s got a nice bite to it, especially since it avoids taking the easy route of making the villains Communists (as was the fashion at the time.)

The creepy treatment of women in the first two stories makes this set hard to recommend–mostly for Van Vogt completists.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

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