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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Portal of a Thousand Worlds

Dave Duncan is a new author for me, but I can guarantee that I'll be looking to read more of his books after finishing Portal of a Thousand Worlds (#644).  Although this is classified as SciFi/Fantasy, it's set in a Victorian Age thinly-disguised China.  Like Guy Gavriel Kay's outstanding Chinese fantasy novel River of Stars, it's grounded in a recognizable setting and culture.

The story moves from the shadowy world of the Gray Helpers, where we meet the orphan boy Tug, so desperate to survive he offers to kill for the Gray Helpers if only they will feed him.  Far away, we meet another boy locked away in a fortress and tortured by his imperial captor.  In this life, he is known as Sunlight, but he has lived many, many lives.  The distant court seeks his knowledge of the opening of the Portal of a Thousand Worlds, predicted to be coming soon.  In the capital itself , Heart of the World, the Empress Mother controls the court with an iron fist and her personal assassin.  No one is allowed to see the Emperor Absolute Purity, and rumors abound that there is something wrong with him, or that he is actually dead.  Meanwhile a rebel army has arisen in the south under the Bamboo Banner determined to drive the Empress Mother from the throne.

Mr. Duncan has taken these threads and woven them together into an enthralling tale of power, lust, betrayal, adventure and illusion across a sweeping landscape, building to the climax of the Portal's opening.  I found it hard to put this book down,but alas, as with all good things the ending came much too soon.

Clownfish Blues

My favorite Florida serial killer, Serge A. Storm, is back in Tim Dorsey's Clownfish Blues (#643), and this time he's skewering the Florida Lottery, worm grunting and the town of Cassadaga.  Okay, Cassadaga is a target for a lot of people who enjoy poking fun at Florida, but nobody does it like Serge and his faithful sidekick.

This time Serge is paying tribute to one of his favorite TV shows - Route 66.  I must admit, that's not a series I know a lot about, so I didn't realize that in its last season, a number of episodes were shot at Florida locations.  Apparently the series stars found a job at each location, so Serge sets out to emulate them, meeting the usual cast of crazies along the way.

Of course when one of the families he meets tells him about a problem with an elderly aunt, Serge does deal out a well deserved end for the caretaker who has cut off all contact with his client's concerned family, and put his name on all her bank accounts.  Unfortunately, that's all too common here.  It's nice for once to imagine that someone so callous actually gets what they deserve!  Of course, that's what keeps me rooting for Serge.  That, and the lists in each book of interesting places to visit here in Florida.  I think I'll give Cassadaga and its mediums and New Age mumbo jumbo a miss, though.  Always a fun read.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Family Trade

How can a day go so wrong?  Miriam Beckstein covers the bio tech beat for a small Cambridge-based trade journal.  Her research assistant Paulie has just given her evidence of money laundering at two of the biggest firms in the country.  It promises to be the scoop of her lifetime.  So why does her boss on the executive floor hustle her and Paulie out of his office and have them escorted out of the building by Security?  And why does her adopted mother insist on today, of all days, on presenting her with a battered locket and a box of clippings about her birth mother's unsolved murder?  All Miriam was looking for was a little sympathy.  She certainly never expected to end the day with threatening phone calls, or worse yet, being chased through the woods by medieval knights on horseback shooting at her with machine pistols!

Fantasy writer Charles Stross grabs your attention in The Family Trade (#642), Book One of the Merchant Princes.  By the time Miriam figures out that her mother's locket allows her to pass between alternate universes located in roughly the same geographical area, her presence has been detected by forces on the other side.  In that universe, she is heir to a title and a huge fortune as a long-lost member of a powerful merchant family moving goods between the two worlds.  Needless to say, where money is involved, not everyone is happy with Miriam's sudden and unexpected reappearance.  In fact, at least two factions are determined to see her dead...

Action, romance, suspense and humor are all part of this fun read.  As Miriam fits together the pieces of her new world, while maintaining a foothold in the equally perilous world she left behind in Cambridge, the plot keeps twisting until Miriam is no longer sure just who she can trust on either side.  She's safe for the moment, but I know that will only last until I get my hands on Book Two!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Shores of Tripoli

Who would have expected a Texan historian to write an exciting naval trilogy about the America war with Barbary pirates?  In The Shores of Tripoli (#641) James L. Haley has given us Lieutenant Bliven Putnam to put on our shelves along with our Horatio Hornblower novels.  When he is first introduced to us, Lt. Putnam is still a midshipman aboard the USS Enterprise.  At age fourteen, he has met the conditions his father had set to leave the farm in Litchfield, Connecticut to go to sea.  His first assignment takes him to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping from the raiders of the Barbary States, who deem it their right to capture and enslave any Christian infidels, or to hold the wealthy ones to ransom.  Putnam sees action in his first engagement at sea which will set the course for his naval career.

Politics plays a much larger role in the navy than Putnam would like to believe, as President Jefferson and the Congress squabble and make treaties with the individual Barbary States which undo the victories which his commander has won, and makes heroes out of those who have blundered badly. By the end of the first volume Bliven Putnam is giving serious consideration to whether he should remain in the nascent navy, or resign his commission.

This story has a bit of everything to keep the reader glued to the pages: page-turning action sequences, political back-biting, romance, and a hero with a strong moral compass to match his interest in the outside world.  James Haley spoke at the 2017 BookMania!, and he stressed his desire to make the story as  historically accurate as  possible - to thread the fictitious Putnam and his friends through the existing canvas of historical events - with enough leeway to make it a can't-put-down story.  I look forward eagerly to his next adventure!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight - An African Childhood

When she was three years old Alexandra Fuller moved with her parents and older sister from England to Rhodesia in 1972.  She remained there until 1981, when her family moved to Malawi and then on to Zambia.  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (#640) is her memoir of those childhood years spent in Rhodesia during its civil war, and after majority rule took effect there, other African nations.

Through Bobo's eyes (She didn't realize her name was actually Alexandra until she first went to school.) we see both the beauty of her adopted continent, and the life threatening  conditions of drought, poverty, and violence in contrast with the tight-knit society of the ex-pat community there. Her memories are in turn lyric, amusing, tense and appalling.  Physical discomforts are offset by the anodyne of constantly flowing alcohol.

Bobo herself seems to be fearless, handling the loading of weapons as a seven year old to protect their isolated farm as a matter of course.  But disease and accidents have a way of taking their toll, especially on her own family.  She and her surviving sister Vanessa had different ways of coping with the constant vigilance and isolation, as did their parents.  Dysfunctional as the faimily may have been, they did stick it out together.

An interesting perspective on a time and place I never thought much about before.  Recommended.