Serial Reader Book Tag

Yes, I’m a serial reader. If nothing else, I am definitely that.

But this tag is about book series. A book tag is something that comes with a bunch of questions or prompts that the blogger answers. Normally, the blogger is also supposed to “tag” a bunch of other people, like one of those chain e-mails from back in the day, but I don’t usually do that part. I personally got this tag from Fran Laniado. It was most likely created by Dutch blogger, @Zwartraafje in this post.

From which series did you read the spinoff series?

First, I read a number of books in the Emberverse series. The premise of this series is that one day, inexplicably, in the middle of the 90s, a bunch of technology stops working: engines, electricity, and gunpowder. This event, which people begin to call “The Change,” throws the world back into preindustrial technology. Naturally, the first book (Dies the Fire, above) is post-apocalyptic with lots of starvation, hand to hand fighting, and horrendous die-offs in the cities especially. As the series develops, people rebuild a medieval-style world. (Because it turns out that in the absence of gunpowder, you need a warrior class and a peasant class to support them.) Eventually, the young hero goes on a quest to find the source of all the weirdness, which seems to be centered around Nantucket. It turns out that right when The Change happened, modern Nantucket was replaced by an ancient version, from well before Europe colonized the New World.

All of that is background to set up the spinoff series. This is called, not surprisingly, the Nantucket series. In the first book, Island in the Sea of Time, the modern island of Nantucket and a ship near it are suddenly transported back into the Bronze Age. The islanders have to learn how to survive without any mainland. Eventually, they make their way to England and meet the original builders (or at least users) of Stonehenge. I’ve read Island. I own the second book in the series, which opens with King Agamemnon realizing how much he loves artillery. I just needed a break from this spinoff series, but I’ll come back to it some day.

With which series did the first book not sell you over from the start?

Sacred Clowns is one book in the “series,” but not the one I had the bad experience with.

Stretching the meaning of “first book” a bit, I’m going to go with Tony Hillerman’s Navajo police procedural series, starring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

Unfortunately, these books are not labeled as a series, though the contents do have a chronological order. So when I say “first book,” it’s the first one I happened to pick up. I just got unlucky. Unlike most of the Chee/Leaphorn books, most of the action in the one I picked up does not take place in Dinetah (the Navajo homeland in the Four Corners area), but rather in Washington, DC. Also, in that particular book one of the major point-of-view characters was a stone-cold killer with a back story that was just so sad I wasn’t sure I could handle any more by that author. Luckily, later I caved and picked up another of Hillerman’s books.

Which series hooked you from the start?

Well, I mean all of them. If I read any distance into a series, it’s usually because it hooked me. But I am going to have to go with The Belgariad. It opens with the hero, Garion, growing up in a big farm kitchen on a hardworking, prosperous, devout farmstead similar to the one in Farmer Boy, but bigger and more medival. Garion’s Aunt Pol, who we later learn is a sorceress, is first introduced as an amazing cook whose dishes can make farmhands from other farms weep. I’m a sucker for this kind of simple, wholesome stuff.

Which series do you have completed on your shelves?

I have The Chronicles of Narnia, because somebody once gave me a nice, thick doorstop where all the books are together in one volume. Also, I just last week acquired a nice hardbound copy of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. It was on the sales shelf at the library! I am very excited about this, because it’s a brilliant trilogy and I feel that finding it in hardback is like finding treasure.

Which series have you read completely?

*deep breath*

The Chronicles of Narnia, all the Brother Cadfael books (I think), The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all The Three Investigators books (I think), all of Susan Howatch’s Church of England series except the last one, The Little House books, everything ever written by Agatha Christie (not really a series), the Belgariad & Mallorean (but not the spinoffs), the A Wrinkle in Time trilogy.

Which series do you not own completely but would like to?

Well, this is a tough one. In theory, I would like to own a complete set of every series I like. In practice, until recently I moved house every few years (sometimes much more often), and I have a limited budget. Both of these factors make it difficult to build up a dream library. Also, I have plenty of bookish friends and relatives, so if I want to re-read something, often I can borrow it. I guess if I had to name a series that I would like to own all of, it would all of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop books and also all of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries. I’d also like to own all the Tintin albums and all the Asterix albums, because those are great for kids, table reading, and art inspiration. But that’s one where it’s possible to borrow.

Which series to do you not want to own completely but still read?

Andrew Klavan’s Homelander series. I convinced my librarian to order them and then I read them all.

Which series are you not continuing?

There are plenty of contenders here. Life is short.

The latest series that I started, enjoyed several of, and then broke off was Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series. The later books aren’t bad, it was just that once I’d learned Odd’s tricks, it got so that I could take or leave further books.

Which series you haven’t started yet are you curious about?

Which series did others love and you did not?

The Legacy of Orisha series. I read the first book: Children of Blood and Bone.

Here’s a sample of an incident that drove me crazy: the romantic hero, who is also sort of the villain, is the son of a king who has oppressed magicians with harsh purges. He is just starting to discover that he himself has a magical power: he can directly sense others’ thoughts and feelings. He has a terrifying moment when he picks up on a memory of the heroine. It was the lynching of her mother. He is shocked and horrified by what he sees and feels. And then he concludes, “I will never understand her pain.” Even though he literally just did! He literally just lived through it! But that line is a clue that the author is not going to give him a redemption arc or let him out of the role of oppressor. Nor is the author going to let him and his sister off the hook for “not seeing sooner” that their father was an awful tyrant, even though they are about 18 years old and just came of age themselves. So, if you like merciless class war, you’ll love this series.

Sorry, that might not be the most cheerful note to end on, but that’s the way the tag crumbles. Have a great day, everyone!

The Word is Murder: A Review

“Why do you think anyone would want to read about you?” I asked.

“I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.”

“But you’re not a proper detective. You got fired. Why did you get fired, by the way?”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Well, if I was going to write about you, you’d have to tell me. I’d have to know where you live, whether you’re married or not, what you have for breakfast, what you do on your day off. That’s why people read murder stories.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Yes!”

He shook his head. “I don’t agree. The word is murder. That’s what matters.”

Anthony Horowitz, The Word is Murder, 2018, p. 25

The blurb on the back of this book calls it a “meta-mystery,” and that’s a perfect description. It is so, so meta.

Horowitz writes about himself, Anthony Horowitz, the guy who has created the TV series Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War and who has written a popular series for kids, and is now trying to break into the adult market. He has just published The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Conan Doyle. He’s approached by this ex-detective, Hawthorne, who still sometimes does consulting work for the local police force. Hawthorne’s idea is that Horowitz will follow him around as he investigates, turn the investigation into a crime novel, and make both of them rich and famous. The problem is that the investigation has just begun, and it’s unknown whether Hawthorne will solve it and, if so, whether it will have a satisfying ending. Also, though Horowitz naturally has to be present while Hawthorne interviews suspects, he is under no circumstances supposed to interrupt, ask his own questions, or contribute in any way. If Hawthorne misses something due to one of these interruptions, it’s Horowitz’s fault.

But How Meta Is It, Really?

I still don’t know how much of this novel is truth and how much is fiction. I think the whole thing is made up. But references to Horowitz’s past books and TV shows, and his descriptions of the industry, seem to be real.

There’s a very funny, agonizing scene where Horowitz is in a meeting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg to show them the script he’s written for a planned second Tintin movie. He’s been working on the script for months, and he’s feeling excited as well as startstruck to be in the same room as Spielberg. But Spielberg abruptly tells him that the Tintin book he has turned into a script is the “wrong” book, even though that’s the one he and Jackson had agreed to use. Into this tense moment, Hawthorne bursts in. He fails to recognize Spielberg, but recognizes Jackson and compliments him. He then insists that Horowitz leave with him. The directors insist that Horowitz leave too, saying they will call him back, which they never do.

That sounds awfully realistic, even if it didn’t happen with Hawthorne. Even if there is no such person as Hawthorne. There is also no such person as Damian Cowper, the British movie star, recently relocated to Hollywood, who is at the center of the mystery.

So, on the whole, I think this actually is, as they say, a “fiction novel,” weaving in nonfiction glimpses into Horowitz’s career, modern London, and the conditions in the publishing and movie/TV industry. Horowitz’s insights about writing and marketing his work are enjoyable. And the novel is extremely professionally written. The characters, the writing itself, the clues, and the satisfying nature of the mystery all show that Horowitz has been writing mysteries for many years.

The Tintin Rant

I do have to take one side trip to rant about a rant of Horowitz’s. If you will pardon a long quote:

Tintin is a European phenomenon and one that has never been particularly popular across the Atlantic. Part of the reason for this may be historical. The 1932 album, Tintin in America, is a ruthless satire on the United States, showing Americans to be vicious, corrupt and insatiable: the very first panel shows a policeman saluting a masked bandit who is walking past with a smoking gun — and no sooner has Tintin arrived in New York and climbed into a taxi than he finds himself being kidnapped by the Mob. The entire history of Native Americans is brilliantly told in five panels. Oil is discovered on a reservation. Cigar-smoking businessmen move in. Soldiers drive the crying Native American children off their land. Builders and bankers arrive. Just one day later, a policeman tells Tintin to get out of the way of a major traffic intersection. “Where do you think you are — the Wild West?”

The Word is Murder, p. 148

Side eye.

O.K., Mr. Horowitz.

First of all, I can tell you the exact reason Tintin isn’t popular in the United States: It’s just not available. Oh, sure, it’s available now. Now we can get anything, with the Internet. But when I was a kid, there was just nowhere in the U.S. that you would see Tintin albums for sale. I was first exposed to them because we knew a family who had lived in Europe for a time, and once we knew of his existence, my siblings and I enjoyed Tintin just as much as any kids would. The same goes for Asterix and Obelix, by the way. It’s still kind of difficult to get good-quality A&O albums. When I tried to buy some for my kids, one arrived with the pages falling out.

Secondly, it never occurred to me, reading Tintin in America in the 1990s, that it was a “vicious satire” of America. I just figured it was all the silliest and most extreme stereotypes about America, which is the same treatment that Herge gives pretty much every country he portrays. And, the idea that Americans would be shocked by this portrayal? I don’t know, maybe in the 1930s. But this generation Xer would like to point out that gangster movies are one of our most beloved film genres, and that we are taught from knee-high about the injustices done to the Native Americans (besides many films and books being made about same). And in fact, Herge’s portrayal of the way the Indians talk would not be considered acceptable in America today. So, yeah, Mr. Horowitz, I realize you are very smart British author — and it’s obvious from your craft that you are smarter than I will ever be — but I think you may have overestimated Americans’ provinciality just a tad, while also underestimating our IQ.

The Detective

The best thing about this book, in a way, is the detective, Hawthorne. He is also the most unsatisfying thing. He never does allow Horowitz to get to know him. He really does prove to be brilliant, and Horowitz sort of ends up playing Hastings to Hawthorne’s Poirot. This is all the more frustrating for Horowitz (and for the reader) because Horowitz is not dumb and he knows it. He’s an adult with a good career well underway, and he knows his way around a mystery novel. He just hasn’t had direct experience with real-life investigating.

Hawthorne is the sort of person that all of us have had to work with at one time or another. He comes off as unwittingly controlling, always telling Horowitz his business. He doesn’t like the title “The Word is Murder,” for example. He wants it to be “Hawthorne Investigates.” (Spielberg and Jackson back him up.) He doesn’t like the way that Horowitz sets the scene in the first chapter. Although not a writer, he thinks that Horowitz should methodically introduce every detail that Hawthorne would notice, without any atmosphere or description. He gives advice about choice of words. Whenever Horowitz objects “But I’m the one you asked to write it!”, Hawthorne says something like, “Hey, don’t get all upset! I was just trying to help.”

This is the kind of person that you cannot be around for very long. Unless you are pathologically conceited, all their “help” can’t help but make you doubt yourself. Although we cannot work long-term with such a person, it is nice to see one portrayed in fiction (if this … is … fiction?). It lets us know that even pros like Horowitz have had the same experience.

Prescient Quote of the Week

Applies equally well to 2021 as to this kid’s situation.

And, of course, it’s by The Klavan.

I tried to think. It wasn’t easy. My mind felt like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces scrambled. The bright clarity of those moments before I’d been put up against the church wall — that was totally gone. I had left the bright moment of my death behind and was back in life, back in the world. And the world, let me tell you, was a mess, absolute confusion.

For another half second or so, I continued to sit there in my stunned stupidity. Everything had changed so quickly, I was still having a hard time taking it in. I mean, one second you’re standing against the wall in front of a firing squad, suddenly realizing that life is beautiful and that you should’ve appreciated everything more and been kinder to everyone — and the next second you’re rattling around in the back of a van, racing to get out of town. And suddenly life isn’t beautiful at all! It’s nuts! Everything’s wild and confusing around you …

Andrew Klavan, If We Survive, pp. 121-2, 125

Hooray for the Scots!

Photo by Kevin Bidwell on Pexels.com

Most notable achievements involve multiple factors… What this suggests is that an individual, a people, or a nation may have some, many, or most of the prerequisites for a given achievement without having any real success in producing that achievement. And yet that individual, that people or that nation may suddenly burst upon the scene with spectacular success when whatever the missing factor or factors are finally get added to the mix.

Poor and backward nations that suddenly moved to the forefront of human achievements include Scotland…

Scotland was for centuries one of the poorest, most economically and educationally lagging nations on the outer fringes of European civilization. There was said to be no fourteenth-century Scottish baron who could write his name. And yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a disproportionate number of the leading intellectual figures in Britain were of Scottish ancestry — including James Watt in engineering, Adam Smith in economics, Dave Hume in philosophy, Joseph Black in chemistry, Sir Walter Scott in literature and John Stuart Mill in economics and philosophy.

Among the changes that had occurred among the Scots was their Protestant churches’ crusade promoting the idea that everyone should learn to read, so as to be able to read the Bible personally, rather than have priests tell them what it says and means. Another change was a more secular, but still fervent, crusade to learn the English language, which replaced their native Gaelic among the Scottish lowlanders, and thereby opened up far more fields of written knowledge to the Scots.

Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities, pp. 9 – 10
Here’s an image I found on the Internet that purports to show where the different clans live.

And now for two of the best clans …

Rattray
Ferguson

I Rejected Cottagecore Before You Even Heard of It

In case you’re not picking up that this is self-deprecating humor, this is my version of that popular meme where a bespectacled hipster claims that he or she (or ze) was into some obscure thing long before it became a trend.

I’m not really this big of a jerk in real life. Quite.

But I am half-serious.

Eustacia made a lovely post recently, and it was there that I (for the first time actually) heard the term #cottagecore. Here is a BBC article about it. Since the article is by a major news organization, we can assume that it is late to the trend and gets a few things wrong. Still, this will be my source.

Basically (per the article) “cottagecore” is a visual aesthetic that became popular during the pandemic. It involves pictures of cottages, mushrooms, billowy dresses, rustic picnics, maybe gingham, maybe a gnome here or a fairy there. “It is the equal and opposite reaction to the contamination, helplessness and incoherence of our contemporary mise en scène,” says someone in the article. In other words, it’s sort of the exact opposite of a gritty urban fantasy.

As a lifestyle, cottagecore seems to involve things like gardening, sewing, crafting. Practicing self-sufficiency.

Correction: pretending to practice self-sufficiency.

I love the aesthetic. I do. I also love the idea of living self-sufficient. But it’s not really possible to do that in any thorough way, and if you do, you will be working so hard, and suffering so many privations, that your life will not look like a billowy, gingham-clad escapist fantasy. Hence, I can’t help feeling that anyone who takes this cottagecore thing as more than an interior decorating theme — anyone who tries to pretend it is somehow their lifestyle — is actually a poser. Let’s not fool ourselves, friends. I like mushrooms and sparkles as much as the next person, but they are not going to save us in the apocalypse.

I said as much here. Technically, this post was published before the pandemic started, so before cottagecore became a really big thing on Instagram. However, the article notes that cottagecore (as well as “faeriecore,” “farmcore,” and “grandmacore”) have been around since 2018. So I can’t really pull the hipster I-was-into-it-before-you-were move. Not to mention the Amish. And, you know, real subsistence farmers. They beat me to it a long time ago.

A Light, Crunchy Snack of a Space Opera

Keltie Sheffield is a real estate agent. In space. About two thousand years after humanity has learned to take to the stars. She sells planets like you would sell a house, but with a 200-year mortgage, paid off by the buyer’s great-grandchildren. She sells this one planet, which she thinks is uninhabited, but … you can imagine how that could possibly go wrong.

Also, she’s a young career gal who chose this path to spite her parents. Lost in space, she’s rescued by an adorable, gentlemanly military reservist named Grayson, and … you can imagine the possibilities.

At 162 pages, Phantom Planet is light, crisp, and refreshing, sort of like eating a handful of cucumber slices, maybe with a little tzatziki. Also like that, it goes quickly, and sort of feels like it was written quickly. I finished it in about one day. Also like the cucumber, it is really tasty (i.e. fun) and digestible, but it feels like just the appetizer. I got the feeling this book was the setup for a much larger epic. Which it is, as it is one in a planned series called “Galaxy Mavericks.” Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so many bricks lately, but it felt like just a first chapter.

One more cucumber comparison: this book is very clean. There is plenty of budding chemistry between Keltie and Grayson, but spoiler alert: they don’t even manage to kiss. At least not in this book.

Fun Moments

There were a ton of fun and charming moments. I am pretty sure the author gave himself a cameo (as a bookseller, naturally), and I’m now wondering whether he does this in all his books. Also, the scientific disclaimer at the beginning is delightful: “OK, pretty much every area of science probably got bastardized in some way while I wrote this book. Any and all errors were made lovingly for your reading enjoyment.” Gosh, I wish I’d thought of that line!

The food and fashion in Phantom Planet still retain many influences from Earth circa 2020. Keltie enjoys wine and chocolate croissants, for example. The women wear jewelry, which women have always loved to do, but you seldom see it in most space settings. (And why don’t more space opera characters get drunk in space? That seems like such a human thing to do, but this is the first time I can remember encountering it.) And, despite thousands of years of technology advancing, human beings are pretty much the same: there are still phishing scams!

One more thing that it may surprise you to see someone do in space: pray. “Prayer was always important in space. It kept things in perspective for her. A lot of people forgot that and often got carried away” (page 39). And no, this is not just meditation: Keltie is “thanking God,” and she wears a cross necklace. This element is kept very low-key, but it is so refreshing to find in a genre that often assumes that people, in the course of discovering that distant galaxies and alien races exist, will have “discovered” that God doesn’t. Space travel (even in this series, where it’s comparatively easy) is so dangerous, full of wonders, and above all disorienting that we can imagine that prayer would be a very human response and an excellent way to keep one’s sanity. Yet it is missing from so many books in this genre which, consciously or not, wish to portray human nature as mutable.

But What Does She Look Like?

Besides the “this is just the first chapter,” slightly less-than-satisfying feel of this book, which I understand because it’s part of a series, one minor thing bothered me.

We are given physical descriptions of nearly all the major characters, including Grayson, Keltie’s boss, her flight crew, her clients, and her best friend. We are not given a physical description of Keltie. Being able to picture the characters is important to me, so I just imagined her looking like a women from the cover of another La Ronn book I had seen (which is in a completely different genre). About 3/4 of the way through, we are finally told that Keltie has very long hair. Then that her sister is “blonde-haired and skinny and unlike [Keltie] in every way” (p.134). So, Keltie apparently is stout or curvy, with long, dark hair. I still don’t know what color her eyes are.

Maybe this issue is not important to any reader but me. (Maybe it’s even a trend. Is there some rule that we are not supposed to describe the point-of-view character, so that readers can picture that character however they like? I’m asking because I recently read a different book that made this same omission.) As for me, I take cover art very seriously as a clue to how the characters look, and I dislike having to guess and/or revise my mental image of the character partway through. (Especially if you are going to introduce a romance as a subplot.) Please, fellow authors, when you first introduce a character, give us a quick physical sketch, even if it’s just one or two outstanding physical features that can act as a peg to build our mental image on. I’m not saying you have to do the scene where the character looks at herself in the mirror (though if she DOES happen to look in a mirror, and you don’t tell me anything about what she sees, I’m going to be miffed). Just throw me a bone here.

Now … Go Eat Some Cucumber!

Other than those minor quibbles, this was an enjoyable book. There were lots of questions left unanswered that make me want to get the next one. If you like space operas and are looking for a new series to gobble up, check out Michael La Ronn’s Galaxy Mavericks! This would be a good series for libraries to carry because readers will speed through the books and check them out one after the other.

“Prehistoric” Swag

So, we’ve just come through a holiday season, and in the course of the last few months, I have acquired some items that would help me — or you — survive if we were suddenly plopped down in 10,000 BC. It is these that I will share with you today. And by “share with you,” I mean show you pictures. I will not actually give you my swag.

All of these items were gifts to me. (I now have my loved ones trained to give me cave man stuff.) I didn’t buy any of them myself, nor was I sent any of them in exchange for a promotion. Also, outofbabel not be held liable if you should find yourself in a prehistoric situation and these items fail to help you survive. It’s probably a “you” problem.

You Can Talk Good

First of all, your most pressing need will be to communicate. This game will help you learn to speak like a Neanderthal. The rules are: words of one syllable only. So, you can say “Angst,” “Eat,” and “Id,” but not “Ego,” “person,” “animal,” or “democracy.”

It comes with a cute little caveman boy who, if you speak a word of more than one syllable, will hit you with the No Stick.

You Can Wear Shoes

Minnetonka has been making wonderful moccasins for years now. They are modern mocs, suited to our need to be able to walk on pavement; they have rubber soles. Also, for the record, they are NOT as warm as boots on a snowy day!

Here is what they look like on.

You Can Visit Wyoming

This silver ring is supposed to represent the outline of the Tetons near Jackson, Wyoming, which, for the record, exists. It is by far the simplest looking of this gorgeous collection.

There is plenty of evidence that people have had pyrotechnology for many thousands of years.

You Can Drink UP!

Yes, that is exactly what it looks like.

It’s a drinking horn.

The packaging copy says, “GOAT STORY was inspired by the greatest discovery of all time — COFFEE! It was back in the 13th century when a flock of goats stumbled upon a bush of berries that made them go loco! Their obviously bored and adventure-seeking shepherd decided to brew the berries — and thank goats he did! Fast forward to the 21st century: that’s when we kick in. We decided to revolutionize coffee drinking and designed this one-of-a-kind coffee mug you’re holding now.”

I don’t know why we are randomly speaking Spanish (other than that it’s fun), and I’m not cool with the near blasphemy … but other than that, this copy was obviously written by a kindred spirit. I do love the “kick in” pun.

If you were to land unexpectedly in the very ancient world, you would be very very grateful to have with you one last, precious, cup of coffee. This item comes with a longer leather strap (not pictured) so that you can sling the hornful of life-giving liquid across your back and always be prepared lest you stumble upon a time portal.