Saturday, March 21, 2020

Arroyo, by Chip Jacobs. Rare Bird Books, 2019

You’ve got to figure that a book that starts out with an ostrich race is going to be kind of strange. But ostrich races really *do* take place, so this in itself doesn’t knock the book into complete fantasy land. It’s the psychic, highly intelligent dog that does that, and later, the reincarnation thing. The rest is detailed history- the main characters are fictional, but there are many historical figures and the setting has been researched so well that it totally comes alive- it’s practically a character, itself.

The Arroyo in question is Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, CA, and the year is 1913. The bridge is the Colorado Street Bridge, known locally as Suicide Bridge after its completion, and 1913 is the year it is being finished and opened. You’ve all seen Colorado Street; it’s the avenue that the Rose Parade goes down on New Year’s Day. Young Nick Chance is an inventor and a bird caretaker on the local ostrich farm when the book starts, hence the race. He is developing a method of solar lighting, and gets a job working on the bridge lighting it, thus saving them from running an electrical system clear across. But there are a number of mysterious things going on, which seem to center upon the bridge. When Nick’s life is saved by a psychic stray dog, who he adopts and names Royo, he finds himself drawn into these events.

Jacobs, who is normally a journalist, has made old Pasadena come alive. The Busch Gardens, then lived in by Lilly and Adolphus Busch, sound like a fairy land-they were labeled the ‘eighth wonder of the world”. The details of the ostrich feather industry were something I’d never come across before. He describes the local businesses in detail, all of which existed- and some still exist! The characters are likable and rather whimsical, but even though I liked Nick a lot, he (and the others) had no real depth. When the story moved to 1993, I lost a lot of interest in the story. The era itself is less interesting to me, and 1993 Nick isn’t as compelling. The plot seemed to move along in the past, but sort of just… petered out in ’93. Is it worth reading? If you have any interest in Pasadena (or L.A. area) history, yes, absolutely, as long as you’re okay with it being magical realism or historical fantasy. If not, it might not be the first historical fantasy I’d reach for. Will I read another book by Jacobs? Yes, once the shut downs end I’m going to have the library get “Smogtown” for me, and possible another of his books. This one’s a four star for me.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000 Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection, by Tamim Ansary. Hachette Book Group, 2019

Like the butterfly effect, what happened in China affected what happened in Rome; what the Vikings did affected the world. No culture is ‘pure’; every nation has been changed by others. We are all interconnected; progress does not take place in a vacuum.

The average world history book aimed at the English speaking world tends to start with the Fertile Crescent, give a fair bit of time to the Greeks and Romans, and then go straight to Western Europe for the rest of the book, with some time spent on North and South America. Ansary looks beyond those, and focuses mainly on connections. The far flung Roman Empire put many different cultures and religions in touch with each other, as did the Vikings, and then the Crusades. When Columbus discovered the Americas, a whole new world of cultures, foods, animals, and inventions collided and merged. The advent of factory work changed how the world worked, as much or more than the transistor did. Communications and management changed the world as much as armies and navies did.

The book reminded me of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in the way the author looked at things other than kings and armies as forces that shaped our civilization. Ansary is a bit more casually written, at times drifting into slang, but the thinking and writing is solid. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it taught me things I’d not thought of before.

Monday, March 2, 2020

All My Cats, by Bohumil Hrabal. New Directions, written 1995, translated 2019

In 1965, having published his first books to good sales, Hrabal and his wife purchase a country house an hour away from the city where they live and where his wife works. Like a fair number of rural places, it comes with hot and cold running cats- a feral colony which is really quite tame. When they spend the weekend at the cottage, or when Hrabal retreats there to write, the cats flow into the house like a tide, sleeping on the bed, and eating well. When in Prague, Hrabal worries about their welfare. Meanwhile, the cats do what feral cats do- they breed. And when there, his wife frequently utters the only line of dialogue she is allowed: “What are we going to do with all these cats!?”

Does this sound like a nice, heartwarming story, about a man who loves cats and rescues them? After all, the cover is adorable pencil drawings of cats… but think again. This is no Disney story.

Yes, this is a man who loves cats. But as time goes on, he becomes overcome with pressures. The neighbors complain about the cats because they are killing birds. He is under pressure to produce more writing. He is under pressure because of the cost of feeding the cats. And, of course, there is his wife, worrying about the feline deluge. And this leads him to some shocking, violent acts- the kills some of the cats, very brutally. This is no needle of mercy from the vet; this is being beaten to death. And as he does it, he knows it’s wrong, and he knows he had a choice to be merciful, because he lies to his wife and tells her he went to the vet and got chloroform for them. And then the pressure on him gets worse, because he feels terrible causing such pain to the cats and kittens. I believe it created a psychotic break of sorts.

I was horrified by the book. I was not expecting this sort of deliberate violence; it literally made me nauseous. I found it more awful than any work of fictional horror could be. Now, I realize this was a different time and place from my own life; there was no trap/neuter/release programs going on then and there, and spay and neuterings were probably too expensive, especially in bulk. But he did, as I say, have a choice in how he dealt with the matter and that is what repels me. Now, the prose is intriguing; the man had writing talent. I kept reading, and finished the book. But I cannot recommend it to anyone who loves cats.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Demon Knight, by Sharon M. White., 2019

For years, Blake Rossi was the chief exorcist for the Catholic Church. Then a 6 year old died during an exorcism, and he found himself excommunicated and out in the cold. He drowns his misery and guilt in alcohol, drifting from one meaningless job to the next, unable to pay the rent and demon haunted. So when old friend Gregor Balfor comes calling to try and convince Rossi he needs to take up his old profession again, he’s against it. But events wear him down- an old woman needs help because her father captured a demon many years before and now the demon is on the loose- and he finds himself joining Balfor and Balfor’s allies fighting a high level demon- a demon knight.

I liked the characters, and hope White develops them more as the series goes on- yes, it’s the first of a series. I want to know about Balfor’s group, and especially more about Lilith. The story was slow to get started, but I suspect (and hope) that, without having to create backstory, the 2nd will take right off. Four stars.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline: Dieselpunk & Decopunk Fairy Tales, Anthology edited by Rhonda Parrish. World Weaver Press, 2019

The time of “Dieselpunk’ and “Decopunk” runs from the start of WW 1 to the end of WW 2. Like Steampunk, they refer to an alternate world history, one in which the mechanics of the world are futuristic- ray guns, robots (sometimes sentient ones), rockets, and, sometimes, magic. Some of the tales I think I’d call noir punk. This collection takes fairy tales and sets them in this D-punk world, mostly with good effect. Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio. Rapunzel, the Little Mermaid, and more. I was happy to see many female heroes, and pretty good queer representation. All the authors were new to me, but there were NO duds in this anthology- which I find unusual; most times, I don’t like half the stories in an anthology. Five stars!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Elizabeth of Bohemia: The Winter Queen, by David Elias.

In 1596, Elizabeth Stuart was born to James IV of Scotland (soon to be James I of England when Queen Elizabeth I died) and Anne of Denmark. In 1616 she was married to Frederic V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine (part of the Holy Roman Empire). On his part, it was a love marriage (and they married on Valentine’s Day); she was far less enthusiastic but found him tolerable. She is ambitious; he is not.

They lived happily in Heidelberg for a while; Elizabeth had 13 children. When the Bohemians overthrew their king, Ferdinand, Frederic was elected to that post. But his rule only lasted a few months before Ferdinand regained his throne and Frederic and Elizabeth had to flee. The Princes of Orange at the Hague took them in and supported hem. But they were not supported in the style to which they were accustomed, and this grated Elizabeth to no end. She conducted an incessant letter writing campaign, seeking aid from Parliament, her brother Charles (who was now King of England), and the English ambassadors.

It’s an interesting story, and we get to see it from the POV of a largely ignored character in history. But the story drags at times; there is just not enough of Elizabeth’s life that is interesting for a book of this size. I found myself really wishing at times that the author hadn’t made it so detailed, although I did enjoy the parts about Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh, and Descartes.

Elias does a good job of recreating the language of the era. Elizabeth is an important figure in that her descendants went on to become kings and queens of England. Elizabeth just does not come off as a compelling character; her scheming and complaining get very tiring after a while. The death of her beloved brother Henry left her shattered, and perhaps unable to love again. It’s the only explanation for her disregard for her children and husband.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Palmer Entity: Asylum Series Book 2, by David Longhorn. Scare Street, 2019

This is the second book in the Asylum Series, and it picks up a year after the first one ends. Paul and Mike are drawn back into goings on at the asylum. The young girl who was involved in the first book is still being tormented by the spirits, and her mother asks for help. A “true hauntings” TV shown sends their team into the asylum (note: I screwed up; in my review of the first book in this series I had this TV team in it; I had read both books some time before I wrote the reviews and got them mixed up), stirring up trouble. And a new entity besides Palmer and the inmates of the asylum has risen, one far older than the asylum itself.

Paul and Mike seek out advice from one of Mike’s old professors, a specialist in myth and folklore. They find out the history of the site the asylum was built on, and realize there may be more than Palmer to deal with; the old entity doesn’t like to be disturbed and Palmer has disrupted his land.

I really enjoyed the old professor; he seemed rather Tolkien-esque. Paul and Mike get their characters filled out more. The TV team was enjoyable- as I said in my review of Rookwood Asylum, the psychic was amusing. The rest of the crew were likable people, and reacted to the mayhem as one would expect people to do. The story is suspenseful- is anything ever going to stop this thing?!?! And is anyone safe from it?!?