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One Corpse Too Many, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, God Is Not One, The Hobbit

Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many
This is one of those books that I’m sure is a very different experience reading for the first time unspoiled, because it’s the first appearance of Hugh! Hugh Beringar, sheriff’s deputy, is Cadfael’s best friend for most of the series (and is played delightfully by Sean Pertwee in the first few TV adaptations), and watching Cadfael trying to decide whether or not to trust him is great fun when you know he’s entirely trustworthy. Hugh and Cadfael have a glorious battle of wits – mostly involving sneaking around the countryside – and at the end they become fast friends. I loved every minute of it. Oh yeah, and there was a murder or something too, I dunno.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
So the story goes that Jones was in the hospital, and working on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy at the same time, and she said, “I swear, all these books are so similar I could write the travel guide for the world they’re set in.” So she did. I was actually surprised to find that at least half of the clichés in the book were not straight out of Lord of the Rings. But still, after twenty-six years of a fondness for epic fantasy novels, there was not a damn one I was not familiar with. (Why in god’s name would you cook STEW on the road, anyway?)

Stephen Prothero, God is Not One
The sequel to his Religious Literacy which I read and reviewed here not too long ago, in God is Not One Prothero offers a brief introduction to eight of the world’s most influential religions. He calls them “the world’s rival religions,” which I’m not too fond of — I don’t think Daoism, for instance, is particularly the rival of anything — but I liked the book very much overall. He treats, in a self-defined order of importance, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religions, Judaism, and Daoism, with a short section on atheism in the back. The insight that I found particularly helpful, and one I thought supported Prothero’s position that the major religions are really very different from one another, was the way he described what each religion sees as the central human problem and the solution to that problem. Looking at it this way, you can really see a difference between, say, Christianity (which sees the problem as sin and salvation the solution) and Islam (where the problem is pride and the solution submission to God’s will) in a way that you can’t when looking only at history and practice. Also, he talks about Yoruba religions, including the facets of it still based in Africa and the Catholic syncretism in the Americas, and that’s just awesome.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
So in October I started reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my roommate, who’d never read it before. We’d finished Fellowship and started on Two Towers — got just about to where the second movie starts, actually — when a couple of our friends came up to visit and we told them about it, and it came out that the roomie had never read The Hobbit. Friends were suitably appalled, and I protested that I didn’t know, what kind of a crazy person has never read The Hobbit, and the upshot is, we started trading round the paperback, alternating reading chapters aloud all afternoon. We got through about half of the book that day, and just the other day I finally finished it. You know, I always forget how much I like Balin. He’s a decent fellow, for a dwarf. And although I was leery of it when I first heard the casting news, I cannot wait to see Richard Armitage playing Thorin Oakenshield.

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Religious Literacy; Miles, Microbes and Mayhem; Cryoburn; Strange and Secret Peoples

Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy
Prothero’s basic argument is that Americans, although they profess to be extremely religious, actually know very little about religions — their own or anyone else’s — and that this is an extraordinarily dangerous way to walk around in the world and pretend you know something about what’s going on. I certainly wouldn’t argue with him on any of those points, but the book annoyed me a little anyway. He opens with a history of how Americans stopped learning about religion, and in doing so he presents the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a kind of golden age of religious literacy, mentioning only once that the religious literacy in question was a specifically Protestant literacy involving no knowledge at all of even Judaism or Islam, and a pretty warped knowledge of Catholicism. (And when he does offer this caveat, he gives it only a clause — not even a full sentence, never mind a paragraph.) I was a little bit filled with rage when he mentioned that “even blacks and Native Americans” were learning their Bible, with nary a mention of the fact that both African slaves and Native Americans had their own damn religions before they were forced to learn the Bible instead.

I’m not sure about his proposed solutions, either — that all high school students should have a mandatory religious literacy course and an elective Bible studies course, and that all college students should fulfil a religious studies requirement before graduation. At the college level, that’s fine, but I don’t have any faith that high school religious studies classes would be worth the time spent in them, or that Bible studies classes would be at all nonsectarian. (I do not speak wholly in a vaccum; I grew up in a pretty religious area, and when I took a religious studies class in high school, we spent two class periods dealing with students who didn’t believe in the Council of Nicea.) I wholly applaud his basic principle — we need to stop pretending that all religions are somehow the same, and learn about what makes them different — but I’m not sure American culture is ready for that at the high school level. But there will be more on that subject when I finish his other book, God is Not One, which I have from the library right now.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Microbes and Mayhem
Including Falling Free and Diplomatic Immunity. Well, and Labyrinth, but that’s been in two anthologies already, I just ignored it. I’ve been reading these books in chronological order for the most part, but Falling Free is an exception, set a full hundred years or more before the beginning of the main series. It details the origin of the quaddies, genetically engineered humans with four arms instead of the usual two arms/two legs arrangement, designed to live and work in zero-gee environments, who have suddenly been made obsolete by the development of artificial gravity. The corporation that developed them — that owns them — wants to just get rid of them somehow, but Leo Graff, an engineer hired to teach the quaddies the trade, and a handful of the quaddies band together in a truly epic escape attempt which eventually (this is not a spoiler if you’ve read any Vorkosiverse books at all) results in the founding of Quaddiespace, a network of zero-gee space stations inhabited almost entirely by quaddies. Diplomatic Immunity takes place in Quaddiespace, hence the logic of putting the two books together, and features Miles’s old friend Bel Thorne, a former Dendarii Mercenary; the politically incorrect shenanigans of the Barryaran military; a quaddie ballet based on the romance of Leo Graf and Silver; and the kind of elaborate genetic treason that could only be committed by a Cetagandan. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of the early Naismith books, considering that it’s also the book where Miles’s first children are born. Maybe it’s a last hurrah for the little admiral? (Or Miles is just terminally immature. Also possible.)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
And now I am caught up! Huzzah. This was a fairly lightweight book, as the Vorkosigan series goes — more on the level of Cetaganda than Memory, but delightful for all that. (Except for the last three words. Oh god, the last three words.) In addition to Miles’s point of view, we get the POV of Jin, a street kid on Kibou-daini, where Miles has been sent to poke at the local economy and figure out what kind of game they’re trying to pull. You see, on Kibou-daini, when people are close to death, rather than just dying they’re cryo-frozen for a length of time, until someone comes up with a cure for whatever they have or their contract runs out, whichever comes first, and White Chrysalis, one of the major cryocorps on Kibou-daini, wants to expand into the Barryaran Empire. There’s a lot of poking around, and political protestors, and shady corporate dealings, but Miles doesn’t really have a lot at stake for most of the book. Until those last three words. Oh my god, those last three words. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried.

Rumor has it that the next one is an Ivan book. (More than rumor, really, since there are a couple of scenes that Bujold has been doing readings of floating around the interwebs.) I cannot wait.

Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples
This was one of those delightful coincidences — just as I was thinking about starting to work again on that faerie novel I had begun a couple of years ago, someone recommended this book in a blog I read. It’s a history of Victorian attitudes toward and uses of fairies in literature, folklore, and analysis, and it was enthralling. Fairies were a big part of what was basically Victorian pop culture, and Silver cites examples in everything from folklorists’ writings (which were also pretty big at the time) to Dickens to Blake. Plus there were a lot of references to the works of the Romantics which the Victorians were riffing off of, which will be wonderful for my novel.

Sun Dancing, A Morbid Taste for Bones, The Dead-Tossed Waves, I Shall Wear Midnight

Geoffrey Moorhouse, Sun Dancing
I was a little disappointed in this book — it was advertised as an imaginative retelling of the history of one of the white martyr monasteries in early medieval Ireland, with documentation to back up the retelling. Most of the documentation was pretty vague stuff about the history of the Celtic Church, though, rather than anything in support of the actual events he was talking about in the retelling section. Which was interesting, but not awesome. I’m not sorry I read it, but I don’t think I’ll run out and read it again.

Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
After watching Derek Jacobi be awesome all over the TV series, I figured I ought to actually read the Cadfael series. I’d brought one of them home from the epic weeding project I did last spring, but it turned out to be not only very late in the series but actually a direct sequel to the first book, so I didn’t actually read it. severa lent me her copy of the first book, and I enjoyed it immensely. Pretty good medieval setting, excellent main characters, and a murder mystery that is supported almost entirely by characterization rather than by some kind of elaborate double-bluff. I am now plowing through as many of the rest as I can get my hands on.

Carrie Ryan, The Dead-Tossed Waves
The sequel to the amazing Forest of Hands and Teeth, almost immediately after I bought this I read a review that said it was terrible, so I took forever to get around to reading it. It wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t as good as the first one. It covers roughly the same kind of territory — growing up, and becoming an actual person, in a post-zombie-apocalypse society — but with a very different main character and a very different part of that society. It was a little slow to get going, but it really picked up in the second third and I enjoyed it very much by the end.

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
The latest Tiffany Aching book. I love Tiffany. Best witch ever. Yes, even better than Granny Weatherwax — especially for narration, because when she makes mistakes, she doesn’t always know they’re mistakes right off, the way Granny does. This was also great fun because pretty much everyone had a cameo: Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Nobby Nobbs, Magrat, Carrot, even Esk… I was just sad that Tiffany didn’t get to meet the Patrician. Now that would have been entertaining.

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