Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest Aguirre

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…what were the origins of the many pieces of Heraclix? He was like a puzzle to himself, an unknown being or beings, self-aware, yet unaware of the individuals from whom he had been constructed.

Where do we come from? Of what are we made? Who are we? How did we get to be who we are? Can we change? In the case of Heraclix, of the title, all the above apply. H is a big guy. Think Shrek with a bit less green. Usually the golem is a clay creature, but H is more of a group effort, being comprised of parts, a Frankenstein monster with better (than the film) motor skills, and a makeover. Heraclix is riven, as so many of us are, with a complicated nature. His is more physical in it’s manifestation, though. With one arm in particular eager for action, he reminded me a bit of Doctor Strangelove . In a nifty opening, he breaks out of a womb-like vat of liquid (not the last birth event in the book), and does what any newborn might do. He reads everything he can get his paws on. Doesn’t know where the ability came from, but really, really wants to get a handle on his world, and comes across Daddy his maker’s porn private, and very disturbing, notes.

Mattatheus Mowler is not your garden variety sorcerer. Sure he’s a few hundred years old, and is educated enough to animate dead parts, among other nifty tricks, but the boy has some serious ambition, not to mention an issue with aging, and is not to be messed with. That brimstone aroma that may be wrinkling your nose emanates the Faustian bargain he has made. He has a client list that would be the envy of any K Street operative. Of course, evil, connected genius or not, he is still human, more or less, and makes mistakes enough to allow for an actual contest. Not exactly your ideal re-animator, (or would that be assembler?) as daddy dearest rains blows and other abuse down on Heraclix’s large frame with abandon. But one day MM brings a sweet young thing to the lab, in a jar.

Pomp is a pixie with moxie. She encourages H to stand up for himself, and overcome the self-loathing that accompanies his beatings. Mowler has dark plans for her of the sacrificial sort, but the plan flies to pieces, the premises succumbs to fire (always a risk when dealing with hellspawn), and a dynamic dimorphic duo is made.

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The author – please note the shooter on his sleeve

The motive force here is Heraclix trying to find out who he actually is. With information gleaned from Mowler’s premises, he and Pomp set off on a classic journey of self-discovery. They cover a fair piece of European landscape, beginning in Vienna, with stops in Prague, Istanbul, Budapest, and sundry locales in between. Along the way they pick up pieces of the puzzle, as in a video game, that lead them from place to place. The information is sometimes in the form of clues, in Mowler’s papers, say, or in writing along the side of a coin. More often it is in the form of stories told by Gypsies, Cossacks, wizards, an old man in an obscure town, sundry characters they encounter in their quest. As the pair travel, together and separately, they gain points knowledge.

Heraclix comes across as a likeable hulk. He has a pure heart (whomever it might once have belonged to) and is an honest seeker after truth. In trying to discover his true identity he learns a thing or two

…there was something in the quality of sorrow suffered at the hands of another that was different than the sorrow that one brought on others, whether through one’s own stupidity and neglect or by intentional acts of hatred. The latter carried the sharpest stings of guilt, regret, self-berating…

Pomp, while a very valuable partner, is not so much seeking truth herself as she is eager to help Heraclix. Hey, the big lug saved her, so she owes him. But she finds that she, as well, is challenged to consider her view of herself and the world.

Her life isn’t now about playing pranks all day every day. It isn’t about not caring. All this playing pranks and not caring isn’t fun any more. If she goes on like this, her life stays immortally, eternally…boring. Death is sad, but death makes life more worth living.

In addition to H&P there is a parallel story involving Holy Roman Empire royalty, a young lass, and a fair bit of intrigue.

There are some images and themes that run throughout. Birth is addressed multiple times, in both a biological and baptismal way. Heraclix is very clearly being born by breaking out of a watery enclosure in an early scene. There is what might be seen as a baptism by fire, and later in the book, he has what seems another aqueous bursting through or two. History figures large here. Pomp, when we meet her, has no notion of it, not understanding the concept of memory. Heraclix cannot remember anything and wants to find out who he is. The tale is told in a historical context, offering a look at the feel, if not much of the detail, of tension between the Holy Roman Empire and its foreign enemies. Eternal life is addressed in the wizard’s desire for it and in how Pomp, who has it, copes with and gives a lot of thought to the implications of life without end. Changing one’s life is also addressed on multiple fronts. A killer becomes a healer. Pomp is faced with potentially changing her orientation as well, getting to see in person the questionable wages of all-fun-all –the-time.

I am sure there are many references to folk tales I missed in here, but a visit to hell itself surely must conjure Dante. So be on the lookout for references to The Inferno. And heading to the basement certainly seems in synch with a Campbellian structure.

One of the things that most impressed me was the diversity and creativity of Aguirre’s imagination. Heraclix alone is a marvelous concoction, but there are many more. Phantoms haunting the one who killed them, demonflies from Hell, a Godzilla-like Beelzebub, some carnivorous clover, fairies up to no good, a demonized crow, some magic mirrors, a telescope for seeing magic. The list is considerable and the creations quite fun. While some echo familiar elements of fantasy fiction, there is an added layer of the new that gives it all some real sparkle.

Gripes were few. There are a fair number of characters, and it can be a bit tough at times keeping them straight. The ARC I read did not have a list of characters in it. I do not know if the final version might. I find it useful to make my own list as I read to help keep everyone straight. Also there was one escape I had a problem with. H manages to escape from hell, but it is not entirely clear to me how he got from underground to above..

Aguirre has established himself as a top-drawer, award-winning editor of speculative fiction, and a seasoned writer of sci-fi as well. Heraclix and Pomp demonstrates that he is also a confident, creative and imaginative novelist. The journey on which Heraclix and Pomp set out is a consistently interesting and engaging one, offering not only a look at a fantastical world, but adult consideration of eternal, real-world, existential issues. I am sure they would love for you to tag along.

Heraclix and Pomp was sent along by the author, a GR friend, in return for a fair review

Review posted – 9/12/14

Publication date – 10/14/14

This review has also been posted on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Aguirre’s blogspot page, Forrest for the Trees, includes a 24:47 sample of the audio book. Some items in the archives are worth a look, including a three-part sneak peek at the second adventure of H&P, and a piece on his writing process (no necromancy involved).

An interesting interview with Forrest on Shelf Inflicted, in which, among other things, he talks about how H&P came to be.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction

The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

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Stand very still. Breathe as softly as you can. See that little flicking movement? No, not over there, straight ahead, behind the bush. Keep looking. You will see it. I promise. There. Didn’t I tell you? Cool, right? Isn’t she beautiful?

One of the foundations on which the study of nature is based is to be still and watch. Yes, there is a lot more to it, but you have to find some inner quiet, clear your mental and sensory palate, stop fidgeting, and allow the images, scents, sounds and feel of the world cross your senses, settle in and register. Watching and noticing is an excellent place to start. In The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has done just that. And she was able to learn a lot without having to look very far beyond her back door in Peterborough, NH.

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The Author

Usually oak trees spread acorns over the landscape every autumn, but in 2007, in Thomas’s neck of the woods, they seemed to be on strike. Reluctant to see the local whitetails endure the particular hardship of cold plus starvation, Thomas took it upon herself to provide something that might help, corn. Deer had been visible on her land forever, but the feeding assured that there would be plenty of deer to watch.
There is probably more written about deer than any other animal. I found 1.2 million websites, 80 books in print, many more out of print and about 100 articles on deer. I really think they are the most studied mammals in the world, but nobody cares about their social lives. They care about the bacteria in their gut in winter, and things related to hunting them — but not what they really are or do. I wanted to just watch them and learn who they are.- from the Mother Nature Network interview

Thompson takes us along with her as she struggles with figuring out how to identify individual animals, and observing the dynamics of interactions among deer groups. There are nuggets of information scattered throughout the book, material that will make you smile as you add it to your accumulated knowledge of the world. Why, for example, do deer nibble and move, nibble and move, instead of chomping down a bit farther in a given patch? Why is food that is ok for deer at one time of year, useless in another? How can deer scat help you determine what direction the critter was headed? How dangerous are antlered buck battles? How can you tell a place is a deer resting spot? How have deer adapted to ways in which people hunt them?

…a useful way to look at another life-form is to assume that whatever it may be doing—chewing bark, digging a tiny hole, wrapping itself in a leaf, sending up a sprout, turning its leaves to face the sunlight—it is trying to achieve a goal that you, in your way, would also want to achieve. In fact, you can be sure of that. The closer you are taxonomically to what you are looking at, the more likely you are to recognize what it’s goals might be, and the further you are, the less likely. Either way it’s fascinating.

Thompson does not fawn solely over deer for the entirety. There is plenty of subsidiary intel here on other forest dwellers. Turkeys come in for a considerable look and you will be thankful, I guarantee it. Bobcat scat (no not a form of feline singing) on a boulder has particular significance, and is not just evidence that the kittie could not make it to the usual dumping ground in time. (see, I managed not to conjure an image of the guy below leaving a deposit in the woods) In fact there is a whole section on varieties of woodland scat that you will not want to wipe from your memory. There is a description of oak behavior, yes behavior, that will make you wonder if Tolkien’s depiction of ents might have more truth to it than most have suspected.

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Not to leave all the consideration to the critters, Thompson offers some observations on human selection and characteristics as well.

suppose we had evolved in the northern forests, rather than simply arriving there as an invasive species. We certainly wouldn’t be naked—we’d be permanently covered with dense fur—and when our pineal glands told us that the days were getting short, we’d do a lot more than simply feel gloomy—we‘d redouble our efforts to find food, and we’d start breeding so that nine months later our young would be born in the spring. Allegedly we do eat and breed a bit more in the autumn, but if we were truly a northern hemispheric species, we’d do it in grand style…The reason we don’t have thick fur and a breeding season is not because we’re superior beings, but because we evolved where such things were not needed.

She also goes into some unusual hunting rituals humans engage in, wondering if the practices in question might extend into pre-history. She refers to such learning, handed down from generation to generation, as The Old Way, ( a subject she explores in depth in her book of that title) whether it is the passing of information by ungulates or homo sap.

In fact Thomas, an anthrolopogist, as well as a naturalist, has spent considerable time in Africa, living with and studying the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari, writing about what she learned in The Harmless People, Warrior Herdsmen and The Old Way: A Story of the First People. She is best known for The Hidden Life of Dogs. She has also written about felines, in The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and their Culture

Thomas is very easy to read. You need not be concerned with getting lost in scientific jargon. She is very down to earth, and very accessible. There is a spare beauty to her prose. She has also written several novels, (Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife most prominently) so she knows how to frame and tell a story.

For most of us, city-dwellers by and large, opportunities for wildlife observation are much more limited than they are for those living so much closer to actual wilderness. But we need not be starved for information, insight, lore and wisdom about the natural world. Just as Thompson provided corn for deer to help get them from one year to another, so she has offered, in The Hidden Life of Deer, knowledge and nourishment for the mind and the soul. You will learn a lot reading this, some of it very surprising. The book has been found by many readers since its publication in 2009. Do yourself a favor and hunt down a copy, then sit somewhere where no one can see you and read it very quietly. I advise against twitching your ears.

Review posted – 9/5/14

Publication date – 2009

This review has also been posted on Goodreads.com
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

A PBS Nature Video – The Secret Life of Deer

The Quality Deer Management Association, a hunters site, yes, really has a lot of info on whitetails

A Lovely interview with the author on Mother Nature Network

A Publisher’s Weekly profile of Thomas, Rebel with a Cause

An interesting youtube vid of Thomas talking about The Old Way

There are six parts to this Daily Motion interview with Thomas. Here is a link to the first of those.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Science and Nature

Suicide Game by Haidji

book cover Suicide Game, a first novel by the mononymous Haidji, is an oil and water mixture of intriguing concepts, impressive visual sensibilities, and, at least in the English version, a crying need for a professional, native-English-speaking editor.

The core element here is the Suicide Game itself, a privately run enterprise that takes in 8,000 contestants and produces a single winner, in a more or less contemporary setting. It does put one in mind of the scene in Glengarry Glen Ross when Blake, a bully sent to incentivize the sales staff at a real estate firm, says to them, “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize’s a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” It might read here “First prize, fame and fortune, with treasures beyond your imagining. Second prize, you die.” In The Hunger Games participants were selected by lottery. In Suicide Game, it is voluntary. One might wonder who in their right mind would willingly participate in such a travesty.

Haidji has put together an ensemble cast. There are game participants, with contemporary and back-story people connected to each, the council that runs the whole thing, the arena designer, and a smattering of game employees. No one character occupies enough time to be considered primary. Oh, and add in a terrorist.

One can take this as a straight ahead story about a social abomination, and the individual tales that feed it, or take it as a metaphor for existing sociological madness. Choose the former and you may find yourself leaping into an abyss.

What country would allow such a thing to take place? At least when nations sponsor the suicide game we call war, they attempt to offer at least the pretense of a reason. Not so much here. Why would anyone choose to participate in any contest with such poor odds unless they had nothing left to lose? And while the lure of fame and fortune might lead one to publicly humiliate oneself, as we see every day on reality programming, it is a whole other level to join a death march. And if one is seeking to kill oneself, the usual reason is despair. What possible appeal might there be to enticing participants with glory when they have already given up all hope? While there are some shenanigans involved in the legitimacy of some of the contestants, I found the justification offered for most of the competitors to be thin. Kinda tough to invest much in relating to characters if the reasons for their actions are unpersuasive. Why choose to die? Why not try to solve your problems? And if you are determined to snuff it, there are plenty of quicker ways to go about it. Why drag it out for several days, and do it in front of a global audience? Lost love figures large here. But then found love figures pretty large as well, with love at first sight a very unconvincing motivator. Maybe in this world there are no second acts, let alone third ones. They might take some advice from Ingrid Michaelson. All the broken hearts in the world still beat. Despite the rampant heart disease our culture breeds, people get over heartbreak, find new loves, new outlets, new satisfactions. I got the feeling that the characters jumping into the game could do with a good talking-to, or an intervention. “You schmuck, sit down! What the hell were you thinking?” Taking the USA as an example there are 39,000 suicides here annually, more or less. Cramming 8,000 of them into a four day span is, well, a stretch, suggesting that it must have been a really bad week when applications were being accepted, or a big week for immigration. I imagine the selection process was probably as selective as that used by the National Geographic Society for individuals nominated for membership. (Although George Bailey certainly deserves to belong.)

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Haidji

In addition to an excess of telling over showing, there are elements there that hint at an eagerness to gloss over problematic details. It is as if the entire world existed in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film in which the neighborhood kids decide, “Let’s put on a play,” and magically a stage, set, costumes, script and time for rehearsal all appear as if out of nowhere. Just think it and it is so. For example, the management of the stadium decides to make a radical change in their food service, and it is changed during a break in the game action. Modifications to significant stage elements of the stadium are likewise implemented as if by divine command. A significant computer programming re-working is done in, it seems, nanoseconds. With over twenty years as a programmer, I can say for fracking sure, no bloody way. The romantic relationships also seemed to lack real-world substance.

Ok, if, however one takes this as a piece of social commentary, it becomes possible to look past the story-telling problems and settle in to a consideration of larger issues. One can look at the heartless exploitation of the participants by corporate entities, and not have to look too far to find contemporary equivalents. In the US, how the NFL treats players is pretty close to amoral disinterest in the well-being of the workers who create the value they are selling. I am sure there are plenty of equivalents in other sports. The entertainment industry offers many examples of people willingly putting themselves, their reputations, and maybe their health, if not their lives, at risk in order to gain their fifteen minutes in the media spotlight. The Suicide Game might be seen as an exaggeration of that reality to make a point. I do not think that major sports organizations descended to a level of exploitation where they process, package and sell bits of loser contestants. But would you really put that past the NFL, or our major networks? One element in all this is the dehumanization of the contestants by putting them all in the same uniform and having makeup artists remove remnant individuality from their faces. This surely speaks to the depersonalization inherent in much of mass media. Outside of committed fans, can you really tell who is wearing a particular football uniform on a given Sunday? Just as players are largely a production factor for corporate owners, parts that can be replaced as needed when they wear out, the suicide game takes the notion to an extreme, and succeeds in making a point.

My biggest gripe about the book is that the English is in need of serious repair. Haidji speaks English. We were pals on GR for a while (until this review was posted) and have exchanged our share of messages, so I can attest that her English is pretty good. But I cannot say whether this book was written in another language (she speaks several) and translated or was written directly in English. In either case, it is in great need of an editor whose native tongue is English. There are many instances in which it is possible to ferret out what the author meant, when the words used did not do that job well enough. Turns of phrase are sometimes simply wrong. Readers are expected to read between the lines for thematic or psychological reasons, but should not have to do so in order to simply correct the text. That said, it is a readable book. Just be aware that you may have to do some extra work to figure out what is being said.

If one can get beyond the language shortcomings, there is fair bit of interesting material tucked into the story. Haidji concocts an umbrella made of air alone that is pretty cool. The notion of making diamonds of the unexpected material cited here is a real thing. The stadium design has some elements that are quite fascinating. Her governing Suicide Game council applies a very unusual voting methodology. A court case involving Big Oil is also reality-based. An early scene involving a terrorist and 9/11 was one of the strongest elements in the story. On the other hand, use is made of a drug referred to as “milk of amnesia.” Such a drug does exist. I have been a personal beneficiary on multiple occasions. (Yes, it is legal, wiseass, and is used in medical work) But it does not act in the real world as it is shown to act here.

There are some mysteries in here as well that add texture. Who is actually in charge of the whole thing? How did a baby get loose in the stadium? Will the smitten connect with the actual objects of their…um…smit? Will everyone be blown to bits?

It is also clear that Haidji has a strong sense of the visual. Color and texture offer a strongly defined background against which the characters do their things. The game logo is wonderful. Candidates are in white face, dressed in shiny black, made up to betray no emotion. The logo is painted in orange. That hare krishnas are in attendance enhances the presence of that color. Ushers who clean up the bodies are dressed in gray. Makeup artists at the game wear matte black, and the game Hostess wears a red femme fatale dress. Designer names for clothing and footwear are rampant, which certainly does not speak to me. I had to look up far too many of these. But readers with more fashion knowledge (pretty much everyone) will have a better shot at appreciating the references.

There are problems for sure with Suicide Game. It really, really needs the assistance of a professional, native-English-speaker editor. There are issues with an overly simplified view of how relationships might progress and even how things work in the world. But if you can make a leap of faith to look past these, there are rewards to be had in the many fascinating notions that live in that world with them. You might enjoy Suicide Game, and without having to pay the ultimate price.

Review posted – August 29, 2014

I received this book from the author in return for an honest review.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+, FB and Youtube pages

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

book cover In principio erat verbum

In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printing millions of copies, you might never have known. So maybe in the beginning was the word but right behind it was the printer. Before Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or AC Doyle, there was once a major global best-seller, the first one. It had an initial printing of one hundred eighty, and it changed the world.

Alix Christie has given us a look at how the Gutenberg bible came to be, and in so doing has illuminated the image we might have of this seminal work with portraits of the man himself, the era in which he lived, the politics of the time, details of the technical advances that went into development of the movable type press, and a look at the people involved.

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The finished product – from the University of Cambridge Library

When you combine the words Gutenberg with Bible, you might conjure an image of some monkish guy in a garage basement, or barn, banging away at his personal project until Voila! You might also think printing the bible was his first gig. Turns out, not so much. While it may not have taken a village to make the famous big book, it came close. Johannes Gensfleisch, the man we know as Gutenberg, (the name of the town where his mother had been born) had some help. There is no question that he was a genius, and that his notions of using movable metal type ushered in a new age. But he was also a very results oriented entrepreneur. Bit of a slave-driver too, as well as being someone of questionable ethical standards, and maybe not the guy you would want having your back in a critical moment. One of the joys of Alix Christie’s tale is learning at least some of the many challenges of all sorts that had to be met along the way from revolutionary printing notion to reality. She came on her less-than-glowing notions about Gutenberg as the sole source of the genius behind the press as a result of relatively recent research by several European scholars. She goes into details on the book’s site.

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The author – from her Facebook page


Our window into this world is his assistant. Peter Schoeffer, the apprentice of the title, was a scribe in Paris when Johann Fust, who had adopted him, summoned him back to Mainz (pronounced mīn(t)s) to work as Genfleisch’s apprentice. Fust had seen what Gutenberg might do with his marvelous new machine and committed a significant financial stake to the project. Part of the deal was for Peter to be an apprentice in Gutenberg’s shop. Fust’s intentions were not wholly beneficent. He wanted a spy on the inside. The story of how the bible was ultimately made is given by Peter, relating his history to a monk many years later. We step back and forth between the then (1450-1454) and the now (1485), of the story. This offers the author a way to present some views on Gutenberg from a more objective distance. Well, from a distance, anyway. JG is presented in a rather dim light as seen through Peter’s eyes.

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Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer

In the world of the late 15th century the Catholic Church was a particularly corrupt and oppressive force, impacting the world of earthly politics to an unholy degree. It was within the power of an archbishop, for example, to essentially quarantine an entire city if, say, the ruling council of that city went against his wishes. The Church was also busy selling indulgences, pieces of paper on which the church had incorporated its imprimatur, and which, once you filled in your name, would guarantee forgiveness in heaven for sins committed on earth. The 15th century variety was a way for the church to raise funds, for things like Crusades and large papal celebrations. As the mass production of these monstrosities could be stunningly lucrative to the church, those in charge had a considerable interest in the possibility of new printing technology. And Gutenberg had to be on his guard to keep the church from learning of his project too soon, lest they seize his entire workshop for their own purposes. Secrecy was paramount, and many tongues needed to be stilled for the project to proceed. This creates considerable tension in the story, even though we know that the book is eventually made. Christie also looks at the local politics of the city, the importance of guilds, and the political push-pull of the elders (think the one percent) vs the workers (in this case, guilds).

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The G-Man

The focus on the people involved in the time and place make this a tale of Mainz and men (sorry), and not just a tracking of technological innovation. There is a bit of romance in here as well, as Peter and a local lass become entangled. This offers Christie an opportunity to look at the status of women in the late 15th century and note the life-threatening aspect of childbirth that was much more a hazard then than it is today. Of course the tech stuff is fascinating, as it took considerable trial and error to work out the kinks. Christie is a master of these details. As she should be. She apprenticed as a printer and owns a working press. However, she is equally adept at portraying the many interpersonal tensions and complications in the relationships of the major players.

For centuries the ruling class had run the city like their private bank. They’d lent the council sums they then repaid themselves at crushing rates of interest. These bonds they then bequeathed to their own spawn, in perpetuity. Thus was the city fated to insolvency, like half of the free cities of the Reich. Each time the treasury was bare, Archbishop Dietrich would step in, prop up that rotting edifice, enact some other tax that only workingmen and merchants had to bear.

Contemporary issues resonate here. Just as the internet, a marvelous bit of technology, can be put to low or dark purposes, so could the original printing press. In fact an early money-maker for Gutenberg was the equivalent of a penny-dreadful. The selling of indulgences by the Church is echoed today whenever the Department of Justice investigates corporations for malfeasance. What remains clear is that tools, even miraculous ones, are only as good as the people who control them. The stresses between old and new, between powerful and less powerful, between religious and secular power comes through. BTW, one of the reasons Gutenberg opted to produce a bible is that a project that was in the works with church leaders to print a standardized missal fell through. I suppose one might call this an early missal crisis. I wouldn’t, but I suppose some might.

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The press

I expect Christie was hewing as closely as possible to the history she is writing about. Peter was a real person, as were all the major and maybe even minor characters in this impressive book. As the fictional Peter here tells his story to a monk many years after the events described, so the real Peter did the same. This is definitely an instance in which the historical aspect of this historical novel is a very powerful element. She even includes in an afterword a bit of what happened to each of the characters after the bible was completed. No, nothing on Dean Wormer.

I have two gripes with the book, neither of them major. I appreciate Christie hewing to history in her re-telling of how the great book came to be, but I did not find the steps forward to Peter’s telling the tale to a monk altogether necessary. Second, one thing you should know about Gutenberg’s Apprentice is that, as informative and satisfying as it is, it is a slow read. At least it was for me. You are unlikely to be taking this one to the beach to while away a few hours. But if you settle in for a longer spell, you will be richly rewarded.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice may not be the first book you have ever read, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

An informative Wiki piece on Fust and Schoeffer

A nice video on the press. Ignore the word kids on the site. This is accessible and interesting, even if the documentary video cadged music from John Adams and is a bit amateurish.

A nifty wiki article on movable type

==================================AUTHOR

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

In addition, there is a lot of excellent material on Christie’s book site

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews

O, Africa by Andrew Lewis Conn

book cover

Point a camera at something, you change it.

Change is definitely in the air in the summer of 1928. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 the Grand brothers, silent-film director Micah, and his cameraman, partner and brother Izzy, might be feeling a bit of heat from the new kid on the block, the talkie. Their producer certainly is. Mired in debt and fearing for the future of his group’s stock in trade, he wants Micah and Iz to secure another foundation for their company. When he proposes that they go to Africa to create stock footage for sale to other companies, they are reluctant. But Micah has a bit of a problem with gambling, and really, really needs the money such a grand tour might generate.

The seed of the idea for O, Africa! came from an incident in the lives of the Korda brothers, who made several trips to Africa in the early period of moviemaking to create a vault of B-roll footage of the bush—an anecdote that immediately suggested to me a big, freewheeling book that could accommodate many of the themes that most interest me. – from KGB Bar interview

They do not get to Africa until about a hundred pages in, so there is a lot of local color to absorb. Historical figures, whether by reference or named overtly, are a large presence here. Babe Ruth pops by for a cameo in a film they are shooting in Coney Island. There are gangster sorts that seem lifted from the pages of Damon Runyon or Elmore Leonard. At least a few, such as Bumpy Johnson, and Stephanie St. Clair, are fictionalized versions of historical NYC baddies. The brothers’ leading man, Henry Till, is an avatar of silent film comedy star Harold Lloyd, complete with signature eyeglasses, and damaged hand.

Conn’s love for cinema shines through. O, Africa is a celebration of film-making and the characters involved, and includes a look at the first Oscars night. And while the characters may not always be the purest of the pure, they are certainly colorful. Micah, although married and a father, is a committed philanderer. But he is most heavily involved with a light-skinned black woman, Rose. Iz has complications of his own. He is so closeted that he makes his first appearance in O, Africa in a box. A dwarfs wrestles well beyond his stature, and a gangster has that most Hollywood of things to offer, a screenplay.

There is range in Conn’s tonality. There is a light touch in looking at the brothers’ lives in the beginning, but events take place that call for a much more serious approach, and the lightness floats away.

book cover

Andrew Lewis Conn

Conn’s content (Conntent?) is considerable. He looks at a slew of minorities. Conn’s 1920s gangsters (with the trailing “er” intact) do not fit the usual image we have of tommy-gun-toting bank robbers and Prohibition-fueled thieves, killers and smugglers. These mobsters are black. He includes a dwarf director, a mixed race relationship and an adult gay virgin.
You have these different minority characters who are trying to find a way in, a way into the culture and, you know, it could be either through some sort of artistic endeavor or criminality. But the instinct is the same. It’s all trying to break through somehow. – from Momemt Mag interview

There is some powerful imagery. A dump site near the African village is particularly poignant. Subtlety does not always rule, however, as we are treated to a bludgeoning when it comes to interpreting a nightly film showing.

GRIPES
Sometimes, it seems that the author is trying too hard to sound substantive, and it comes across as stretching rather than insight. …heading west is an instinct, too. It has to do with mortality, catching the last light before it slips beyond the horizon. Such an impulse is as likely related to fleeing one’s creditors.

Conn’s eyes must need a rest after all the winking to the reader he does regarding references to future events. King Kong, black exploitation films, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Where’s Waldo, Cheech and Chong and the crash of 1929 jumped out at me. There are doubtless many others. I found these to be distancing.

Occasionally, a bit of fact-checking or at least explanation seemed in order. An African village is reported to have a considerable number of bison horns on display. There are no bison in Africa. Ditto a reference to a local lemur. Lemurs exist in nature only in Madagascar and not on the African mainland.

IN SUM
So, what to make of all this? It is pretty clear that the author has put in a considerable amount of work to create O, Africa. There is much to enjoy in this book, and a fair bit to learn. Conn offers a Kavalier and Klay-like portrait of an early time in a particular art-form and in an era that is interesting, lively and enjoyable. But the literary legerdemain on display here, like that which is often displayed on screens large and small, did not succeed in creating that necessary reader-character magical bond for me. There were moments, for sure, when this or that character seemed to breathe an actual breath, but I never felt truly engaged for more than a spurt here and there. O, Africa is definitely worth a few hours of your time, as long as you are looking for more of an intellectually than emotionally satisfying read.

I received a copy of O, Africa! from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.

Review posted – 8/7/14
Publication date – 6/10/14

This review has also been posted at Goodreads.com, or soon will be

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews – KGB Bar Lit Magazine and Moment Magazine

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel

book cover Hi, welcome. I’m happy to see you are settling in to read this now. But…what?…really?…please…ignore that chirp that just told you a new e-mail arrived. It is probably just another add for Viagra or penile enlargement. It is almost never something critical, so…hey…come back. Son of a bitch. (Taps fingers on desk, plays some solitaire, checks watch) Ah, you’re back. Took long enough. Geez. All right, can we get back to it now? You remember? The book is A Deadly Wandering, a pretty amazing look at attention, the demands on it, how it functions, how it is being compromised, and what the implications are for some aspects of that. Stop, no, do you have to answer the phone now? Can’t it wait? (sighs loudly, checks e-mail on a separate screen; weather.com lets us know upcoming conditions in another tab; who is pitching for the Mets tonight?) Oh, you’re back, sorry. Been there long? I must have wandered off. Focus.

I know a little bit about distraction. My job entails constant blasts of it. I work as a dispatcher for a security company. I have a dozen or more sites checking in every hour to make sure our guards are not sleeping (or that they know how to set the alarms on their cell phones). People call asking for their schedules. People call at 2 in the morning to let us know they will not be showing up for their 6am shift. They call because they just turned the wrong way and the cell phone in their pocket somehow redialed the last number they’d called. They call at 4am to let us know they will not be coming in for their 6am shift. They call asking for direction when there is some event at their site that requires handling. Our clients call, sometimes asking for emergency ASAP coverage in diverse places across the continent, sometimes to add ridiculous increases to the number of guards they want for a morning shift at a large institution. Our security guards call to ask if their check is at the office, or to inquire as to why the totals on their checks did not match what they expected. They call to let us know they have arrived at their post. They call to let us know they have clocked out for the day. They call at 5am to let us know they will not be in for their 6am shift because they have a newly discovered “appointment.” There are many, many calls. It makes it damned tough to keep a log of all the calls, particularly when half a dozen arrive at the exact same moment. It makes it tough to prepare the multiple reports of overnight activity, all of which have to be transmitted during the busiest time of the morning. In the middle of this, the boss comes in, drops papers on my desk and asks when this or that person arrived at or left from a post sometime in the last week or so. For someone who is, shall we say, not comfortable with being interrupted, this presents some challenges. And it presents a real problem. I write the bulk of my reviews while at work. And to enter notes, do research on items, and then compose actual reviews of books during this time can be a bit difficult. Thoughts that have not made their way into a file are in constant danger of vanishing into the ether with the next barrage of incomings. I scream sometimes. I frequently forget what I was doing before the latest set of calls. And, struggling to remember, I am interrupted yet again by the next set. The one good thing about this blitzkrieg of interruption is that I am not enduring it while behind the wheel of a ton-plus hunk of metal hurtling down the road at 60 mph. My sanity may be in jeopardy, (or long gone) but I present no existential threat to the rest of humanity. The same cannot be said for the main character in Richtel’s story.

By all accounts nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw is a decent young man. A Mormon, he was eager to serve his community by preparing for and then undertaking an LDS mission. His first try had come up short, so he was back home, working until he could build up enough moral credit to try again. In September, 2006, while driving a Chevy Tahoe SUV, Reggie had his Cingular flip-phone with him and was texting with his girlfriend. A witness reported seeing him weaving across the center line multiple times. Finally, Reggie weaved too far. The results were fatal. Reggie came through ok but two scientists were killed as a result of Reggie’s texting, leaving wives and children to pick up the charred pieces of their lives and go on without their breadwinners, husbands, fathers. Reggie denied he was texting when the accident occurred.

Matt Richtel is a novelist and top-notch reporter. He won a Pulitzer for a series of articles, written for the New York Times, in which he detailed the national safety crisis resulting from increasing use of distracting devices by drivers. He has written a few novels and even pens a comic strip. There is nothing at all amusing, however, about the tale he tells here.

book cover

Matt Richtel – from his site

The core of A Deadly Wandering is how constant distraction, particularly while in a car, kills. Richtel looks at the case of Reggie Shaw as a prime example of how the distractions that have become embedded in our lives have unintended consequences. Richtel spends time with Reggie, with the cop who pursued the case when most officials wanted to brush it off and move on, the surviving family members, and a victim’s advocate who pursued prosecution of the case. Richtel also talks with several neuroscientists who have been studying the science of attentiveness. That material is quite eye-opening.

There are legal questions in here regarding where responsibility lies for such events, and how far communities are willing to go to punish violations and even to establish that such behavior is not permissible. Where does your freedom to act irresponsibly interfere with my right to stay alive? There are scientific questions about how the brain functions in a world that seems to demand multi-tasking. How does the brain work in dealing with attentiveness? What is possible? What is not? Where are the edges of that envelope?

When drug companies want to bring to market a product for public use, they must go through a significant review process to make sure their product is safe to use. Before auto manufacturers can bring a vehicle to market they must put it through safety testing.

But neither Verizon nor any other cellphone company supports legislation that bans drivers from talking on the phone. And the wireless industry does not conduct research on the dangers, saying that is not its responsibility – From – Dismissing the Risks of a Deadly Habit

And the corporations know what they are doing with their techolology.

If you take yourself back millennia, and you’re in the jungle or you’re in the forest and you see a lion, then the lion hits your sensory cortices and says to the frontal lobe, whatever you’re doing, whatever hut you’re building, stop and run.
Well, here’s what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let’s say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices. But these in some ways aren’t these modern bombardments; they’re the most primitive bombardments. They’re playing to these most primitive impulses and they’re asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot.
– from the Terry Gross interview

In addition, and in a chillingly similar impact to other addictive substances, our communications technology knows how to make itself feel crucial to us.

when you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you hear a ring – you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline. So you’re getting that more and more and more and more. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You’re actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response. – also from the NPR interview

Richtel follows Reggie’s story through to the end, at least for some of the players here. Laws have been changed. New knowledge has been gained. Responsibility has been allocated. Amends have been attempted. It is a moving tale. In addition, you will learn a lot about what science has found about how our brains handle multiple concurrent demands. You will learn about change in how distracted driving is being addressed by our legal system. But most of what you will get from reading this book is a chilling appreciation for what is involved in distracted driving. You might even be persuaded to switch off your phone the next time you get behind the wheel. At least I hope you are. I would like to live a bit longer and not be taken out before my time because someone was talking on the phone with their friend, texting with their significant other, or trying to order penile growth products from the road. I would like to live long enough to spend at least a few more nights screaming at the phone to stop ringing at work so I can get some writing done. That call you were thinking of making while in the car can wait. It really is a matter of life and death. A Deadly Wandering is must read material. Please, please pay attention.

Review posted – 7/18/14

Publication date – 9/23/14

This review has been also been posted at GoodReads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A list of Richtel articles in the NY Times’ Bits blog

The Pulitzer site includes links to all the pieces in Richtel’s award-winning series. Very much worth checking out

Another article Richtel did looked at the benefits of uninterrupted face time free of technological intrusion, from August, 2010, Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain

There is some great material in Richtel’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets

There are some interesting pieces on Oprah’s site. Distracted Driving: What You Don’t See is pretty good. And it is worth checking out Oprah’s No Texting Campaign

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Public Health, Reviews

Crooked River by Valerie Geary

book cover Fifteen-year-old Sam McAlister and her ten-year-old sister, Ollie, have had a crap summer. On the Fourth of July their mother died of a heart attack in Eugene, Oregon. They are staying now with their father, whom they call “Bear.” He has been living for some time in a teepee on a piece of rented land outside the thriving metropolis of Terrebonne, OR, doing odd jobs, raising bees, and mostly keeping to himself. Normally they would have spent only August with their dad, but now it is looking like a more permanent arrangement, if, that is, their mother’s parents can be persuaded that he is up to the task. And just when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse…

We found the woman floating facedown in an eddy where the Crooked River made a slow bend north, just a stone skip away from the best swimming hole this side of anywhere. Her emerald-green blouse was torn half open and her dark, pleated skirt was bunched around her waist, revealing skin puckered and gray, legs bloated and bruised. Her hair writhed like black snakes in the current.

Bear, the odd outsider, is, of course, suspected, arrested, and it looks like he will be successfully railroaded, but Sam has faith in her father. Her sister has something more.

I see things no one else does.
I see them there and wish I didn’t. I want to tell and can’t.

Ollie calls the ghosts she sees The Shimmering. It would be too easy if Ollie could simply report what the ghosts only she sees clue her in on. But Ollie has not spoken since her mother passed several weeks ago. And of course there is a full dose of the Cassandra Syndrome at play, as even when Ollie is able to communicate, no one believes her.

The missing father has been a literary trope for quite some time, in adult as well as in YA literature. The one that jumps up for me is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. While Sam’s father did not vanish while working on a tesseract, and is not actually gone here, at least until he is arrested, he had been largely absent from his children’s lives for many years. Now, in the face of the calamitous loss of their mother, the girls must contend with the possible loss of their father too. There is probably a message here about the need for both the urban (mom) and the natural (mountain man father). Sam is called upon to utilize both her city and country skills to try to save Bear, and in fact engages in a very Campbellian quest to find out who he really is. She must find her inner strength and overcome, or fail before, some very real-world perils in attempting to bring back the knowledge gained in her quest, and put it to use, as she comes of age. But if you want to see her as just getting in touch with her inner Nancy Drew, that works too.

book cover

Valerie Geary – from her Twitter page

The cast includes a kindly elderly couple on whose land Bear had been living, suitable grandparent sorts. There is a young man of diverse intentions. Sam feels drawn to him. Ollie sees him more truly than her sister does. A somewhat reasonable sheriff offers a glint of understanding; a somewhat peculiar artist looking to make a comeback is both sad and scary; his wife is not the most welcoming of shop-keepers; and a local cleric may be up to no good. At core this is a mystery. Who killed the floater and why? And why was Bear living in a teepee on rented land? Why had he abandoned his family years earlier? Sam is certain that Bear is innocent and sets out to prove it. Even Ollie take some dodgy risks trying to find out the truths at play here, but this is no children‘s story.

ART DIRECTION
Every novel incorporates a palette, colors, furnishings, places and/or images that help illuminate elements of the characters, set a mood, pull us through the story with externals that cast light on themes and the characters themselves. In Crooked River, trees are a part of the landscape, serving both to remind us that the setting is rural, and marking some significant locations as well. Bees figure large here. Bear is a bee-keeper. We get to see him as a good daddy taking care of the bees and training Sam to do the same. A bit of bee mythology is noted that might inform events. One bee leads to a clue. A hive comes into play.

Did you know that the ancient Egyptians thought bees were messengers sent from the sun god Ra? The Greeks, though, now they believed bees were souls of the dead come back to keep the rest of us company.

When Ollie sees ghosts they appear in a sparkly aspect. This fireworks-like image appears not only with ghosts but in some other places as well.

As far back as I can remember I’ve seen them. In dim light, they seem almost solid. In bright light, barely visible. If I touch them, it’s ice and fire, energy burning. They are glints and specks, here and then gone. Shimmering. Like heat rising off pavement.

GRIPES
Sam is both an engaging sort and bloody infuriating for all the planning-challenged adolescent choices she makes. You may find yourself shrieking “Schmuck” at the character as I did, but hey, teenager. They are expected to make some bad choices. I was not entirely persuaded about Bear’s decision to live where and how he did and thought some of his decisions were a bit adolescent as well, however well-intentioned. So there is a bit of credibility straining going on. But if you are willing to accept a young girl seeing ghosts, I suppose you give up the right to grouse about less obvious stretches.

SUM
Despite the above, Crooked River is not only a fine example of a classical literary approach, it is a serious page-turner. Sam is a good kid, a character we can admire as well as chastise. You will care about her, and her much-beset younger sib, and will keep turning those pages to see where Crooked River will take them, and you, next. There are plenty of bends here and the water is choppy. But it is a journey well worth taking. Straight business.

Review posted – 6/27/14

Publication date – 10/14/14

This review has also been posted on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google + and FB pages

An article on writing Geary wrote for Writer’s Digest, 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews