Gaius Ruso Mystery #7: Vita Brevis by Ruth Downie

Read: 15 October, 2017

Ruso and Tilla head to Rome, their new baby in tow.

I like that Downie changes up the scenery every now and then. Britain is great, but it was nice to see Gaul in Persona Non Grata, and it’s lovely to see Rome here. And while Downie doesn’t exactly do vivid detail, the city certainly managed to come across satisfyingly noisy, dirty, and smelly.

As usual, the mystery is something of an afterthought. The main attraction is Tilla and Ruso, and now their expanded household. Adding Mara and the two slaves creates a whole new dynamic – not to mention nearly tripling the number of people Ruso has to support… somehow.

Narina has a lot of potential as a character, particularly with her tribal background. In Rome, Tilla seemed willing to ignore the traditional dislike between their tribes because Narina was, at least, from Britain. By the end of the book, the two women seem to have formed something of a friendship as they co-parent and face the dangers of Rome together. But I imagine that going back to Britain will highlight their tribal differences, and perhaps put a strain on their relationship. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

The series is still going strong, and I can already see the threads of many new interesting plotlines starting, so I don’t see me losing interest any time soon.

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Jews Versus Zombies edited by Lavie Tidhar & Rebecca Levene

Read: 1 October, 2017

This is a wonderfully “niche” anthology, for that handful of people interested both in Judaism and zombies. Only two of the stories are the kinds of zombie stories you might find in Best New Zombie Tales, though even those have a very particularly Jewish flavour to them. The rest more explicitly use the undead concept to explore philosophy and Jewish identity.

I found that most of this collection is way over my head, and many terms are used that I’m simply not familiar with. This was clearly not compiled with a gentile audience in mind. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading as a gentile, however – even when I don’t feel like I really grasped a story, I still found something to enjoy in every single entry.

“Rise” by Rena Rossner

This story is essentially “12 Dancing Princesses,” except that the princesses are yeshiva students, and their partners are the corpses of holy rebetzin. While they dance, the zombie partners teach the boys about theology and philosophy. The eroticism and physicality of the learning reminded me quite a bit of some mystic cults.

“The Scapegoat Factory” by Ofir Touche Gafla

The central joke of the story is that all things are temporary – even death. A group of scientists use this assumptions to bring a group of dead back to life as zombies. Only, these zombies can’t simply return to their old lives, and they can’t die either. At the same time, there’s this whole other joke about a company called the “Scapegoat Factory” that supplies willing scapegoats for cold cases, to give the families a sense of closure. The story is very funny, but perhaps has a bit too much going on. The whole Scapegoat Factory bit could be written out entirely without affecting the story much (though, I suppose it would need a new title…).

“Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith” by Shimon Adaf

I think this one went a bit over my head. There are two stories: In one, a woman is chatting with an artificial intelligence when it “dies”. Meanwhile, a midwife is delivering demon babies. These two stories are related through the letters that two characters write to each other. It’s a bit odd, and I had a hard time separating what was reference and what was fiction.

“Ten for Sodom” by Daniel Polansky

The first real “zombie apocalypse” story in the collection, a lapsed Jew grapples with this faith as he faces the end of the world. While short and much more similar to the zombie stories I’m familiar with, this still offers an interesting and uniquely Jewish (albeit lapsed Jewish) perspective on the genre.

“The Friday People” by Sarah Lotz

The zombies are more ambiguous in this darkly amusing entry. The titular Friday People are the younger generation who meet briefly on their weekly visits to their older relatives – many doing so in the hopes of a future inheritance. Except that their relatives just won’t die, no matter what.

“Tractate Metim 28A” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

A lot of this one went right over my head, but it was still extremely amusing. A group of rabbis argue over matters pertaining to the purity of the undead. I’ve seen similar types arguments on the internet, and they are just wonderful.

“Wiseman’s Terror Tales” by Anna Tambour

A young man wants to design rockets, but seems destined to design bras instead. The zombies (again, somewhat ambiguous zombies, who seem far more explicitly metaphorical than they usually are) try to persuade him to choose a career. I enjoyed elements of this story, but something about it just didn’t grip me. Perhaps because the imagery, that would have worked better as a subtle pattern in a novel-length story, was too condensed, too thrown together. The final reveal went a long way to endear me to the story as a whole, though!

“Zayinim” by Adam Roberts

The collection ends with another ‘typical’ zombie story – this time we have some alternate history where Hitler wins WWII and gives everyone except the Jews an immortality drug. When the immortals’ minds degrade and they become zombies, the only true humans left are Jews. It’s an interesting consent, and a novel spin on an old idea. It didn’t hurt that the characters were fairly interesting as well.

Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Read: 3 September, 2017

I have such a long TBR list that I don’t often get to just pick a book up based on the cover and synopsis and just give it a try. But I had a gift card, I was in a book store, and I couldn’t find any more of the books from my list. I picked Wolf Winter because it’s a Canadian author born abroad, and that’s a niche I’ve been pursuing lately. Plus, I tend to enjoy Scandinavian literary sensibilities.

The story starts as a murder mystery, but in the small settler community of Blackasen, an investigation quickly starts to turn up secrets in every closet. As one character says, the settlers who choose such a harsh, isolated livelihood are all running from something.

The book is slow, and takes the time to build up its dark atmosphere. The mountain always seems to loom, the snow always seem to press in, and wolves stalk the forest. And in all of this is the hysteria that makes ones’ neighbours the greatest danger of all – precisely the kind of atmosphere that makes The Thing (1982) one of my favourite movies.

The characters are all flawed, but feel quite solid. They all make terrible mistakes, but their mistakes are earned.

I loved that the book never talked down to the reader, but never erred in the other direction, becoming inaccessible. It’s a delicate balance, but it really worked. Events will be described in vague terms, in allusions, approached sideways, but clear shapes emerge.

One of my favourite aspects was the handling of magic. I really enjoy ambiguous magic – magic that could be real, but could just be in people’s heads. And this balance is also deftly handled in the book. It’s never quite clear whether Frederika really is able to see ghosts and cast spells, or if she is just suffering from hereditary mental illness. The story works with either interpretation.

To sum up, I took a chance with this book, and it’s an absolute gem. It’s atmospheric and brooding, it’s ambiguous but not pompously so, and it tells a solid story about superstition and family and survival in extreme environments.

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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Read: 23 April, 2017

Dick is an ideas person. Like Electric SheepHigh Castle is full of ideas, all tossed in and scrambled fairly willy-nilly. A dozen great books or movies could be teased from the setting he creates.

Unfortunately, Dick is not an execution person.

There’s very little that might resemble a plot. The alternative ’60s are described in detail, but it’s an empty world. The characters are soulless automatons who putz around for a bit and then we reach the last page and it’s over. Dick starts three distinct plots: One is a political thriller/spy story that ends fatalistically (the immediate mission complete, but with the realisation that it will help nothing), one is a bootstraps story about the conflict between the antique industry (forgeries included) and the attempt to generate new culture, and the third is a sort of semi-lucid road trip that ends up being a sort of spy story of its own.

These stories sort of connect at points (someone from Story A knows someone from Story B, someone from Story B used to be married to someone from Story C), but that’s about it. These stories, and the characters that make them up, are just there as vehicles for the world development.

And that world development is… meh. The transatlantic rockets are the kind of thing I’d expect from the Fallout franchise’s tongue-in-cheek futuretech. The Nazis being awful, but also hopelessly inept and disorganised once push comes to shove because, ultimately, you can’t run a society on hate is sad and scary in this era of the Alt-Right controlling the government, but ultimately unimaginative.

Then there’s the dialogue. I’m guessing that Dick was trying to “Japanify” people’s speech patterns? Frankly, that came off more Mickey Rooney than linguistically insightful. It was overplayed and overdone for my tastes.

I did like the recurring theme of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – a fictional book within a book of fiction, about an alternative world in which the Nazis did not win the war. That was funny.

I also liked the discussions of colonial identity, from both perspectives. How do the Japanese react to colonising the pacific US, and how does the pacific US react to being colonise? How does the US break? That’s all an interesting background theme that just didn’t get the plot or setting it deserved.

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Thomas Cromwell #1: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Read: 9 April, 2017

I’ve tried and failed to read so much historical fiction because the writing quality often just isn’t there. Ever genre has its standards, and it seems that historical fiction got its from the “bodice ripper” romance tradition – very overwrought phrasing, terrible dialogue, intrusive narration, and all-round poor sentence construction. It’s why I’ve always liked the idea of historical fiction, but so rarely actually read it.

Mantel makes it clear that historical fiction can be well written, even excellently written. All the “he, Cromwell” repetition aside, this is an extremely well crafted novel about Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court.

There’s some time hopping at the beginning, which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Not to mention that the beginning – when the reader is already disoriented and trying to work out who everyone is supposed to be – is the absolute worst time to fuddle with chronology like that! There are other ways to keep readers engaged through backstory!

But the time hopping seemed to fizzle out about a third of the way through, and the rest of the narrative was fairly straightforward.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Henry VIII’s court, apart from the broad strokes outline and Moore’s Utopia, and this was a fantastic primer. That world feels far more familiar and real to me now, and I appreciate that.

A common praise in reviews of this book is that Mantel does an excellent job of getting into Cromwell’s head, and that is absolutely true. He feels like a complex, real, living person. His pains – particularly the loss of so much of his family to the ‘sweating sickness’ – are viscerally conveyed, as are his drives and his joys.

This is an excellent – if rather long – book that breathes life into the history it is based on.

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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The Naturalist by Alissa York

Read: 11 February, 2017

After the death of the titular naturalist, his wife, her companion, and his half-Brazilian son from a previous marriage decide to complete the planned expedition to Brazil. As they travel, all three must work through their grief – their grief at the naturalist’s death, as well as the long ignored griefs of their past.

Reading the set up, it’s hard to imagine a book more perfectly tailored to me. We have a Canadian author writing about a 19th century Quaker exploring the Amazon. It’s like York specifically set out to write a novel just for me!

And, for the most part, it delivers. I loved the sprinkling of Portuguese dialogue (and was surprised by just how much I could understand, thanks to my background of French and two years of Spanish classes in high school!), and the descriptions of the jungle were really interesting.

Where it fell a little short was in the characters themselves. Rachel is set up to be torn between her very conservative religious background and the freedom offered her by her bold mistress, but the conflict seems largely resolved by the time the story starts. We get a bit of it in flash backs, but that’s about it.

Paul should be a very interesting character. He is mixed-race, and severed from his mother’s culture through her death in childbirth. In addition to this, he is the son of a passionate naturalist but not being particularly into biology himself (a conflict that becomes even more interesting when we discover that his father’s passions had put him in opposition to his own parents as well). It all should be very compelling. And there are glimpses, but he ends up spending so much of his time passively reading his father’s journal while we get too little of how he is processing what he learns.

Iris is mostly kept at arm’s length, but I’m okay with this. It would have been nice to see her journey more intimately, but we only ever see her through the eyes of others. Still, given her importance to Rachel’s character arc, this does somewhat work – especially since evidences of Iris’s own arc are present in how she is described. She’s left up to the reader to translate, just as she is translated by Paul and Rachel. She could easily have been the main character of this book, but I’m okay with the way she is distanced and, to an extent, objectified by the others. It works.

This isn’t a book with a big climax or epiphany. It’s a journey, characters grow in the course of it, and then it ends. My only complaint is that, while the journey part was interesting, it overwhelmed the character parts. We saw too little of our main characters, too little of how they react to experiences and discoveries, and we don’t get to see much of their growth. While some of that is because York chooses to imply their feelings through descriptions of their physical actions, a lot of it is because it just doesn’t happen. Too much of their development happened off-screen, before the plot began, and we only learn about it after the fact. That, combined with an over-reliance on flashbacks near the beginning of the book, holds it back from shining.

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The Sacketts #4: Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour

Read: 22 January, 2017

I picked this up without realising that it’s part of a larger series. In fact, I didn’t realise it at all until I had finished the book and went to GoodReads to see what other people think of it. Point being, this works perfectly well as a stand-alone.

It follows the story of Jubal Sackett, son of Barnabas Sackett, as he travels ever farther west – intent on seeing whatever is beyond the next horizon. On the way, he receives a quest to find a princess, makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love.

It’s a bit of a meandering tale. When Jubal receives the quest to find the Natchez princess Itchakomi, I thought that would be the focus of the story. But then it seemed to be about defeating the antagonist Kapata. But then it seemed to be about finding a place to settle down and build a trading post. But then it seemed to be about finding one of the few remaining woolly mammoths. But then it seemed to be about dealing with the Spanish, and finding himself in the middle of a conflict between two Spanish soldiers.

The book always had a next horizon, a next quest, a next goal. All the quests that are introduced end up resolving by the end, but their lack of interconnectedness left the ending rather open – it’s obvious that there will be more, even if they aren’t told. As someone who likes tighter narratives, this bothered me a bit.

I was also a little disappointed into the survivalism aspects of the novel. I’m a bit of a survivalist fan – I cut my reader teeth on books like My Side of the Mountain and My Name is Disaster. I just can’t get enough of nitty-gritty stories of people surviving alone in the wilderness. Jubal had a lot of that, the focus tended to be Man vs Man, rather than Man vs Nature.

I did have fun with the book. I kept it on my phone as an emergency audiobook, to listen to while getting changed at work when I didn’t have have my normal audiobook to hand, for instance. Its slow, somewhat episodic narrative is perfect for these sorts of short burst readings, when I don’t need more than just a broad recollection of what’s already happened. The book is interesting in the moment, rather than as a whole.

I found the character of Jubal himself to be rather interesting. He’s the survivalist, but he’s also quiet, reserved, a reader. He often comes across more like a younger boy than a man, especially in how long it takes him to pick up on Itchakomi’s rather obvious flirtations. Even in his friendships, he seems somewhat emotionally immature. It felt like the book was written for a younger audience, with the main character’s emotional experiences being made relatable for that audience.

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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.