My Brother Michael

Nothing ever happens to me.

That is the opening line of My Brother Michael. A young Englishwoman—the narrator, Camilla Haven, on holiday in Greece—is sitting in a cafe in Athens, writing a letter back home, and feeling a bit sorry for herself. Not an adventurous sort, she wanders tamely from one ancient site to the next, guidebook in hand, and wishes she had enough money to hire a car and drive to Delphi, the centre of the world to the ancient Greeks.

She should have known better, because in true novelistic fashion, she gets what she asked for, and more. Moments later she finds herself, in a case of mistaken identity, being handed the keys to an already paid-for car urgently needed by a Mr Simon in Delphi. Before she has time to recover from her shock and make sense of the situation, the car-hire agent vanishes into the crowd. He had been told to deliver the keys to the young foreign lady sitting alone in that cafe at half past ten, and he did; his part in the story is over. So, naturally, Camilla drives to Delphi to deliver the car. (Wouldn’t you?) Delphi is a small place (at least it was in the 1950s, when this story was written), so finding Mr Simon won’t be difficult, right?

She encounters a Simon almost immediately on her arrival; an Englishman named Simon Lester who is, like herself, a classics teacher at a British public school. He, however, claims to know nothing about a car hired in his name, or why anyone would do so. He helps Camilla make enquires, but they don’t find another Simon, and the locals give him curious, sidelong glances.

Simon tells Camilla he has come to Delphi to see where his older brother, Michael, died during the war (World War II). Michael was a British Liaison Officer working with the Greek guerrillas fighting against the Nazi occupiers. He died in 1944, more than a decade earlier, but as Simon, with Camilla tagging along, soon discovers, that time span wasn’t nearly long enough to heal old wounds and lay bitter animosities to rest. The locals talk about ghosts walking on Mount Parnassus, and Simon’s arrival seems to have triggered an increase in activity. There was more to Michael’s death than a simple battle with Germans, and the forces that led to the fatal conflict are still at work. Camilla’s desire for a little adventure turns out to be much more dangerous than she could have imagined.

My Brother Michael is one of several of British writer Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels set in Greece. One of the things I like about it is the skilful interweaving of romance, a solid mystery, and a sense of place strong enough that when I see pictures of the ruins at Delphi, I feel almost as if I have been there myself. In my mind’s eye I can see the glare reflecting off the Phaedriades (literally, “the shining ones”), a pair of cliffs on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. I can see Simon standing on the stage of the ruined amphitheatre, reciting in Greek from Sophocle’s Electra, calling on the gods to:

…Be near me, and avenge
My father’s death, and bring
My brother home!

This is the book that introduced me to Mary Stewart in my teens, decades ago. It’s one of my go-to comfort books, to re-read when the world feels like it’s going to pot. My biggest quibble with it is that the depictions of the women in it feel dated. Camilla is intelligent and emotionally astute, but more passive than some other Stewart heroines. (Plus she hikes up Mount Parnassus in a dress! Well, women did, in the days before trousers were acceptable, but sixty years later it seems ridiculous.)

Simon, on the other hand, is a dreamboat: tough, tender, decisive, competent, and compassionate. There is some sex in the book, but not involving the two main characters. There is little overt acknowledgement of the growing connection between them, and almost no physical contact, but the understated romance is—at least for me—more compelling for being understated. With so much left to the imagination, there’s lots of room to explore the relationship in our own minds, after the book is closed.

Trigger warnings: violence and rough sex. And everybody smokes, constantly.

Posted in Romantic suspense | Leave a comment

Witchy Fiction

Does a collection of optimistic, easy-to-read fantasy novellas sound appealing? Especially if they include a bit of romance? Then check out the books at This brand is the brainchild of a group of New Zealand writers who began these stories to cheer themselves up during lockdown in 2020. The results are lightweight tonics for times when you need a lift to the spirits, something I’m very appreciative of these days.

The first entries were published in September 2020 and there are now more than a dozen titles available. Of the ones I’ve read—they’ve come out faster than I could keep up with, although I have most of them in the queue on my e-reader—they are all sweet and optimistic, with a witch as the main character. They are set in contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand, but you don’t have to be a Kiwi to enjoy them.

As with any group of diverse writers, the quality of the writing varies, and the romance isn’t necessarily integral to the plot, but they are fundamentally generous in spirit: LGBTQ+ friendly and concerned with healing broken relationships or with protecting family, friends, and community. These stories are about witchcraft in the mode of herbal remedies and the Wiccan philosophy of “an it harm none, do what ye will”, with magic the outgrowth of connections to the natural world.

Here’s a sample of the Witchy Fiction I’ve read so far:

Raven’s Haven for Women of Magic by Anna Kirtlan

I love this cover. What can I say? (In fact, I like all the Witchy Fiction cover art.)

Cassandra, a young witch working among mundanes for the Wellington City Council, saves one from a deadly, hurtling glass shard during an earthquake. They fall for each other, even though she’s against mundane/witch pairings, as it’s too dangerous for the oblivious mundane. At the same time, Cassandra is trying to keep the witching community’s existence secret, despite the irresponsible antics of her grandmother and other residents of Raven’s Haven for Women of Magic.

When the retirement community’s familiars (all cats) disappear, followed shortly afterwards by the witches themselves, Cassandra has to find out why. And as her two separate worlds collide, she discovers her new admirer is not nearly as oblivious as she assumed.

I enjoy this author’s sense of humour, and this was a fun (if sometimes silly) read, with crones that were more than they appeared to be, some ridiculous puns, a few pokes at local politicians, and of course, cats.

Hexes and Vexes by Nova Blake

A teenage girl begs her older sister, Mia, to come home to rescue their third sister, Camilla, from a hex. When Mia, the witch, arrives after ten years away, she has to confront the fallout from an old tragedy: her best male friend in high school died and the town blames her for his death. Another old friend, Georgia, is embittered and still angry with Mia.

This was an engaging story about the complexities of friendships and family ties and the necessity of both letting go and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The new romance was superfluous to the main plot; the real action was between the four women: Mia, her sisters, and Georgia.

Familiars and Foes by Helen Vivienne Fletcher

Adeline, who doesn’t yet know she’s a witch, can see ghosts. She has watched them all her life, but has never interacted with them. So it comes as a shock when one speaks to her in the supermarket. That one, at least, seems harmless. A more malevolent spirit attacks her in her home. The situation escalates as that ghost draws power from other people in Wellington, casting a pall over the city.

With the help of friends both old and new, including another woman who helps her discover her powers as a witch, Adeline digs into her family history to uncover an old, and still unresolved, tragedy.

There’s a lot to like about this story: glimpses into the lives of two women—one blind, one with epilepsy—with service dogs/familiars, the cohesion of a “found” family, and a romance involving one of my favourite tropes (old friends to lovers).

Posted in Contemporary Romance, Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

The Bookman’s Tale

When grieving widower Peter Byerly pulls an old book off a shelf in a secondhand bookstore, he discovers a loose sheet of paper, four inches square, tucked into its pages. He turns the paper over, and nearly collapses in the dusty corner of the bookstore. On the other side is a watercolour portrait of his late wife, Amanda. Only it couldn’t possibly be Amanda; the painting is at least one hundred years old.

Peter is an established antiquarian bookseller. Old books, and a few other people who share his passion for them, are his only friends. An American by birth, he is now living in Kingham, a village (a real one) in Oxfordshire, closer to the centres of activity for his trade. (Like the also-real town of Hay-of-Wye on the Welsh border, with its population of two thousand people and twenty-plus bookstores; sounds to me like a fabulous place.) Determined to find out who painted the portrait and why it looks like Amanda, he goes to a meeting of the Historical Watercolour Society in London, and rather haphazardly finds himself in a conversation with the one person, a woman named Liz Sutcliffe, who is most likely to be able to help him.

Peter’s arrival in Kingham has set other things in motion. A local, whose family had once been well off but was now in financial straits, contacts him, asking for help in selling his family’s collections of old books and papers. Among them is a book that may hold the answer to English literature’s biggest question: who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Or, the book may just be a very well-executed forgery. Peter sets out to determine which it is. Inevitably the two lines of inquiry intersect, and he and Liz are caught up in a centuries-old and still ongoing saga involving forgery, fraud, theft, blackmail, and in the present day, gunfire, deception, and murder. If they are lucky, they’ll only be framed for murder. If they’re not lucky, they’ll be the next victims.

Charlie Lovett’s plot-driven novel, The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession, veers back and forth between past and present, weaving together several narrative strands: the history of a lost copy of the book on which Shakespeare based his play, A Winter’s Tale; a 19th century forger and what drove him to take up his questionable trade; Peter and Amanda’s college romance; and Peter’s present day untangling of the intertwined mysteries. (Well, present day, sort of. The novel was published in 2013. Peter’s present is set in 1995.)

Unfortunately, the novel can’t quite make up its mind what genre it wants to belong to. It starts off seeming to be a fairly high-minded story combining an academic mystery with a psychological study of a man with a serious mental health issue who is not dealing well with the loss of his wife. But by halfway in, it shifts gears to become a thriller. It is reasonably successful as a mystery/thriller—more so than some other books I’ve read recently that were obviously intended to be in that space—despite involving a few too many coincidences, and one plot thread that was glaringly obvious. The sappy romance was not as successful. Amanda never felt real; she was a man’s view of a perfect wife: beautiful, supportive, always sexually willing, and wealthy to boot. (The foul-mouthed Liz was better.) And Amanda’s upper-crust family’s easy acceptance of a boy with a trailer-trash upbringing was unlikely, if not absurd.

Aside from these problems, the story was fun, and interesting enough to make me put aside the other three books I’m currently in the middle of to focus on this one.

The one aspect that I most liked was the glimpses into the antiquarian book trade, and the life of a serious book collector/bibliophile. Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller himself, so presumably he knows what he’s talking about when he throws tidbits about forgery techniques, bookbinding, conservation, and questions of provenance into the story line.

(Confession: I collect books, but I’m not “serious” about it; my shelves are filled mostly with beaten-up genre fiction gathered by the bagful at used book sales. First editions? Pffft! In my world books are like cars, dropping in monetary value the instant they leave the lot/store.)

As for the question of who did write Shakespeare’s plays, this novel doesn’t excite any controversy, coming down as it does on the side of majority opinion. I have no stake in that debate; either way would have been fine with me for the sake of the story.

Trigger warnings: murder, gun violence, foul language, non-explicit but gratuitous sex scenes.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Mysteries | Leave a comment

A Life Well Lived

My father, Lamar Howe, died on 17 May. I’m writing this on Saturday morning, a week after the funeral, at the time when we would have been having our regular video chat. It hurts to know I’ll never be able to talk to him to again, or ever again experience one of his solid fatherly hugs.

His obituary sets out the bare facts of his life, but these few sentences seem so inadequate at capturing the qualities of a life well lived:

Lamar attended Robinson Elementary, Gastonia High School, and Erskine College as well as various business and trade schools. He entered the family business, T.Q. Howe’s Garage, in 1949 and remained there until his retirement in 1994. For 30 years he served as a volunteer fireman, and 25 years as chief, with Union Road Volunteer Fire Department. For 5 years he served as assistant Gaston County Fire Marshall. Lamar was a lifelong member of Olney Presbyterian Church where he served as a Deacon, Elder, and Choir member. He enjoyed golf, photography, traveling, and motorcycle riding.

He was married to my mother for 67 years. He hardly ever left her side after her first fall more than a decade ago when she broke her shoulder. Even after they had to move her into their retirement village’s heath centre because she needed more intensive care than he could provide, he spent most of every day with her until she died, looking after her and keeping her company.

He was, among many other things, a mechanic and a businessman, running a garage that specialised in large trucks and heavy equipment, with customers all over the Southeast. He was a businessman because he had to be; a mechanic because he wanted to be. Because fixing things was fun. He was a skilled diagnostician, often able to pinpoint what was wrong with an engine just by listening to the sounds it made. I understand the thrill it gave him to dig into a tough problem and experience that “gotcha” moment when the root cause finally becomes clear; I got that from him.

He retired at 65 and sold the business. When the new owner proved unable to keep it going, he stepped back in at the age of 70 and started a new business, helping his former employees regroup, and propping them up with his decades of experience until they were ready to keep it running on their own.

He was—first, last, and always—a valuable and valued member of his community. He was buried in the cemetery surrounding the church where he was baptised 91 years earlier and spent his entire life as a member, and where his parents and generations of Howe ancestors and other relatives are buried. It had been decades since he had given up firefighting, but the members of the Fire Department remembered him and turned out for his funeral, laying his fire coat and helmet across the casket. I get teary-eyed thinking about that.

As a kid I was unaware of how much the dangers a firefighter faces must have stressed my mother. The chatter of the fire radio, broadcasting fire calls for all of Gaston County, was a constant part of the background noise in my parents’ house, and I, oblivious teen, frequently tuned it out, to my mother’s great annoyance. She’d catch the sound of a callout from another part of the house and come rushing into the den wanting to know which station was involved. I’d have my nose in a book and would just shrug. “Don’t know.”

Sorry, Mama.

After the fire was out, he’d come home and shed his gear in the carport so the smoke wouldn’t stink up the house. I have jumbled memories of him being out at a fire most of the night, getting an hour or two of sleep and then getting up again before dawn so he could get to the garage to open on time.

I don’t know how he did it, year after year after year, but he was always on the move. He had more energy at 70 than some people have at 30.

When he wasn’t being called out on fires, there were the late-night wrecker calls. We got socked by an ice storm one memorable Christmas. When he got a call to go pull a Duke Power truck out of a ditch, a visiting elderly relative’s sleep was disturbed, and she wanted to know what was going on. With the sleeping arrangements already topsy-turvy in a cramped house, none of us got much sleep that night.

Sometime during those years as a firefighter, he trained and was certified as an EMT. I have no idea how many people have reason to thank him for that training; I just remember him as Doctor Dad. He tended to my bandages after a high school shop-class accident took a bite out of my right hand. Decades later I remember him picking splinters out of my daughter’s hand after an encounter with some faulty playground equipment. He took care of other people’s children, too, always carrying a Band-aid or two tucked inside his wallet to patch up skinned knees or knuckles.

He loved to travel, seeing most of the United States with Mama after he retired. He was funny, curious, and open to new experiences. He saw the value of computerising his business, back in the 1980’s, to ease the work involved in accounts management and inventory control. Computers did give him some trouble, especially video conferencing, but he kept at it so we could keep in touch after my family moved to New Zealand.

My grandmother would tell how excited he got as a little boy whenever she said they were going out, bouncing in his playpen, saying, “Ridey-ride, ridey-ride.” It sometimes seemed as if he was always behind the wheel of something: cars, trucks, fire engines, farm tractors, tractor-trailers, or the honking huge tow truck the garage used to pull those tractor-trailers when they broke down. He was never comfortable as a passenger; he was much happier behind the wheel. When he and his buddies went down to Myrtle Beach for a weekend golf trip, or to Atlanta to watch the Braves play, he drove, hauling a crowd in a big van nicknamed Vanessa.

In later years, particularly after a bad shoulder forced him to give up golf, he spend more time on the motorcycle he bought after he retired. (He’d always wanted one, but didn’t have the money when he was young, and then in middle age he was too busy.) Ten years ago, at the age of 81, he raised money for his church’s building program on a one-day, 403-mile marathon loop through the Carolinas and Georgia.

A few years ago he started having occasional dizzy spells, and had to trade the two-wheeler in for a three-wheeled motorbike, but he still enjoyed his rides. He made a 200+ mile ride through his favourite spots in the North Carolina mountains (Blue Ridge Parkway in particular) to celebrate his 90th birthday.

I knew the end was near when he told us, not long ago, that he had finally had to give that up, too. Although lung disease did him in—years of dealing with asbestos-lined brake pads caught up to him—losing the activity that had given him the most pleasure the last few years took a toll, too.

Miss you, Daddy.

Posted in A Writer's Life | 21 Comments

A Few Short Reviews

The Stone Wētā by Octavia Cade is a timely and rather chilling take on the repression of scientific data by climate deniers and corporate/political interests. It reads a bit like a World War II spy story, with the scientists acting as the Resistance and corporate agents the German Gestapo. A global network of female scientists smuggle climate data, and every so often one of their number goes missing or has a close brush with catastrophe. The rest continue their work, constantly watching over their shoulders for looming disaster.

The plot is not the book’s strong point; the story is more of a series of vignettes in the lives of the women in the network. There are ten chapters, each one dedicated to a different member, code-named after some organism she feels an affinity towards (Antarctic Lichen, Glass Sponge, Sand Cat, etc.). Scenes from the women’s activities and their emotional responses are interspersed with short discourses on the peculiarities of that organism. With so many characters, the individual chapters came to feel repetitious, and it sagged a bit in the middle, but picked up again at the end. Aside from that, I liked the format, with the chunks of scientific information gleaming like semi-precious stones in the narrative flow.

This beautifully-written book is a powerful and prophetic work about the value of science and the integrity of the people involved.

The Better Sister and Other Stories by Piper Mejia is a collection of nine very well-written but emotionally demanding stories ranging from tear-jerker to horror. They cover a variety of settings and subject matter, but are thematically connected by unhealthy family relationships, usually involving a trio of sisters, some loving and supportive, some not. Some have fantastic elements, while others are straight-forward contemporary family dramas. Each one is gripping, hard to put down.

There are no happy endings in these stories, but if you don’t mind the grim subject matter (parental abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism, betrayal, a society caught in an endless war, …) they can be a rewarding read. Particularly if you’ve ever had a sister, or wondered what it would be like to have one.

No Man’s Land by A J Fitzwater offers an intriguing mix of genres. Set during World War II, the protagonist is a young woman who joins the Land Service, an apparently under-appreciated corps of women recruited to replace the male farm labourers who had gone off to war. She goes to work on the farm where her twin brother, now in the army, had worked as a shearer, and encounters disturbing revelations about him and his friends, and about herself. When he is wounded and in serious danger from Rommel’s Germans in North Africa, she suffers along with him, but what can she do to help, half a world away?

Part historical drama, part sweet LGBTQ+ romance, and part pure fantasy, this novella offers a glimpse into the world of mid-century rural New Zealand, taking into account both the backbreaking physical labour involved in Kiwi farm life, and the dangers of non-heteronormative desires when homosexuality was still illegal. As an immigrant to New Zealand, I was tantalised by the Land Service, and would like to find more stories about the women who participated.

All three of these books are short-listed for this year’s Sir Julius Vogel awards, New Zealand’s annual awards for speculative fiction, in their respective categories: The Stone Wētā in Best Novel, No Man’s Land in Best Novella/Novelette, and The Better Sister and Other Stories in Best Collected Work. I’m not attempting to make any predictions here (I haven’t gotten through all the contenders yet), just highlighting a few that touched me.

Posted in Climate fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

Ghost Bus: Tales from Wellington’s Dark Side

The stories in this small collection (eight entries) made me smile. Some even made me laugh. Not bad for a collection titled Ghost Bus: Tales from Wellington’s Dark Side. I’m generally not a fan of either horror or grim dark fantasy, but these stories are on the lighter edge of the ‘dark side’, saturated with a sense of humour that counteracts the grim kernels at the core of several stories.

That sense of humour takes over in a few, veering into the whimsical or outright silly in Raven’s Home for Women of Magic and The Night I Helped an Interstellar Bogan. Entertaining, but I preferred the ones that had more of a balance between light and dark. My favourite is The Oriental Bay Piranhas. It has social commentary, gore, and a sly poke at Marie Kondo’s decluttering advice. Delicious.

Besides the humour, there are other reasons to like these stories. One is the matter-of-fact, almost reportorial, tone. The Ministry of Public Art starts off with a real event: on 7 October 2018, a tourist broke the Water Whirler, a kinetic sculpture on Wellington’s waterfront, when he attempted to climb it. (Like most of the city’s inhabitant’s, I was pretty disgusted when this happened.) Then, having firmly grounded the opening paragraphs of the story in reality, the author catches the reader by surprise by veering off into the fantastic. When you realise the story has left the highway, so to speak, you have to look back to see where it started to go sideways. She does this particularly well in The Oriental Bay Piranhas, too.

As the author, Anna Kirtlan, admits in her Introduction, this collection is a love letter to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. The stories exude a strong sense of place, not by name-dropping streets or suburbs, but by building the action around details that make Wellington unique and interesting. Details like Wellington’s iconic sculptures (Katherine Mansfield, Woman of Words and Solace in the Wind), or the locks festooning the footbridge over the entrance to the lagoon, or the unwary getting splashed by the bucket fountain. Or the bustrastrophe, the 2018 reset of the city’s bus routes and contracts that left us with chaos and ghost buses.

And, finally, there’s a story about Wellington’s infamous wind: You Can’t Beat Wellington on a Good Day. A good day, when the clouds whip by and the wind blows your hair into your eyes and the cobwebs and rage out of your mind. Exhilarating, both the wind and the story.

Posted in Speculative fiction | Leave a comment

Time and Again

One January night in 1970, illustrator Simon (Si) Morley walks out of a New York City apartment and into the night of 21 January 1882. Si is a participant in a secret government project attempting time travel, but he hasn’t given much thought to what the government hopes to achieve with it; he has an agenda of his own: to solve a mystery in his girlfriend’s family history. Her grandfather shot himself, leaving a suicide note scribbled on the bottom of an old letter. The suicide note explains nothing, and contains this baffling, curiosity-provoking sentence:

That the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the entire World …[a word missing where the paper was burned] seems well-nigh incredible.

Si makes several excursions into 1882, following the few clues the grandfather had left. When he identifies the man who mailed the original letter, he rents a room in the same boarding house the man, Jake Pickering, lives in. Si soon finds himself in trouble, in both eras. In his present, the people in charge of the project lean on him to not just study the past, but to change it, and in ways he disapproves of. And in the past, there’s blackmail, accusations of murder, and Julia Charbonneau, a young woman that he quickly becomes very fond of.

Jack Finney’s classic time-travel novel, Time and Again, uses self-hypnosis as its time-travel mechanism, which is patently absurd, but then all time-travel explanations are hand-wavy magic, aren’t they? This is no more ridiculous than walking through a portal between two standing stones (the Outlander series), or a genetic abnormality that makes a person unstick from time (The Time Traveller’s Wife), or any of a dozen other equally nonsensical mechanisms. It doesn’t matter; time travel stories are fun, even without logical explanations.

The book starts off rather slowly. Si’s first excursion into the past takes place a quarter of the way in. (100 out of about 400 pages). The opening chapters describe how he is recruited to work on the project and his immersion in it. The story gets more interesting as he becomes involved in Jake and Julia’s lives, and begins to see them as real people and not just as interesting historical artefacts. The tempo quickens further in as the mystery plot takes over as the dominant story line and Si and Julia tangle with several unscrupulous men, but it never does reach the galloping pace of most modern thrillers. That wasn’t what the author was trying to accomplish, and it is a satisfying story when taken at a more leisurely pace.

Time and Again is primarily a historical novel masquerading as a mystery, with some sci-fi and romance thrown in. It was published in 1970, before cell phones and sophisticated computer graphics, so younger readers may experience it as a sort of two-pronged historical novel, traveling to both the 1880s and the late 1960s.

But more striking than either the mystery or sci-fi aspects is how much this book is also a love letter to New York City. Finney does a terrific job of grounding his story in a particular time and place. The book is studded with dozens of illustrations—sketches, woodcuts, and photographs, most from the 1880s—of people and places in Manhattan. Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, and the Dakota apartment building—a New York City landmark that has housed John Lennon and Yoko Ono, along with many other celebrities—play prominent parts. Despite the passage of nearly a century and a half, and the American fervour for tearing down anything slightly old and shabby and replacing it with new and shiny, surprisingly large chunks of the city are still recognisable (Or were, only a decade ago. I don’t believe it has changed that much since we moved to New Zealand in 2009.)  Your enjoyment of this story will probably depend on whether the Big Apple entices or repels you. If the city appeals to you, this novel is likely to only enhance that appeal.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Exhalation: Stories

Exhalation: Stories is a collection of award-winning stories (at least five Hugos and several Nebulas between them) by American speculative fiction writer Ted Chiang. These moderately-paced stories are entertaining, but they are also examinations of ideas, touching on such serious topics as religion, meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and AI. These are stories to take your time over, because they make you think, and in the way of the best kind of science fiction: about what it means to be human.

These stories have already been reviewed by many people; I doubt I have anything to add to the conversation, except to say that I liked them. In order by how much they appealed to me (a totally subjective measure), here are the stories. (Warning, a few mild spoilers ahead):

  • The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate: Time travel in an Arabian Nights-style tale, with stories within a story, and lessons about acceptance of what cannot be changed. An inability to change the past is not necessarily tragic.
  • Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom: Electronic devices allow communication across parallel worlds. A woman with a guilty conscience uses her unethically-obtained wealth to benefit someone else she respects. This story is an antidote to the nihilistic many worlds theory, which says that all choices are equally probable, and cancel each other out. Chiang argues that if an individual’s character is revealed by the choices they make over time, some choices would be impossible for the character to make, even across many worlds.
  • Omphalos: A scientist on a provably God-created world has a religious crisis on discovering that their world was a trial run, and they are not the true centre of creation.
  • The Great Silence: The physicist Enrico Fermi asked where are all those alien civilisations that are theorised to be out there. Chiang asks if we would even be able to recognise them, given our inability to recognise and communicate with the alien intelligences in other Earth-bound creatures.
  • Exhalation: In an enclosed world of mechanical beings, a scientist undergoes a truly dangerous self-examination.
  • The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling: In two intertwined narratives, one examines the impact of easy searchability of recorded video of an individual’s entire life on that person, when that factual record doesn’t match the individual’s unreliable memory. (The conclusion—that people would face up to their failures when confronted with the video evidence—seems rather optimistic to me.) The other narrative describes the impact of written documentation on a tribe’s oral culture, and the tribal elder’s drawing a distinction between the truth of a fact (from the written record or eye-witness testimony) and the truth of a person or group’s narrative of their identity, which may not jibe with the recorded facts.

There were three other rather less-successful stories in the collection, including the longest, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. It drags, unfortunately. It isn’t very successful as a story, even though it is worth skimming as an exploration of an ethical quandary we may face in the not too distant future: if we do succeed in creating self-aware AIs, what responsibilities will we have towards them in terms of their ongoing support and education? Chiang argues that if we expect AIs to eventually become as capable (at least) as adult humans, their consciousnesses will need to be grown organically, and tended and educated just like human children; we won’t get there quickly or by simple machine learning.

Posted in Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Night Sky

On a dark night in Brittany in March 1943, Julie Lescaux, and her 7-year-old son Peter shelter from the wind and rain in a cleft in the cliffs at the water’s edge. They watch in horror as German occupiers converge on the men below them, shooting or capturing everyone trapped on the narrow rocky beach. The prisoners and dead included their friends and relatives in the French Resistance, Allied servicemen they were trying to help, and the crew of the British naval vessel that had come to spirit them away to safety across the English Channel.

Along with Julie and Peter is a man the Germans are frantic to recapture: David Freymann, a Jewish scientist and expert in short-wave radar. The trio evade the German soldiers, and begin a desperate voyage across the Channel in a small sailboat with the Germans in pursuit. None of them have ever sailed before. David is too ill and Peter too small to be of much help; all three lives are in Julie’s hands.

Julie and David are two of the three point-of-view characters in the World War II historical novel Night Sky by Clare Francis. Julie, the foremost of the three, is English, with a French father. In 1935 she is unmarried and pregnant at the age of 19. At odds with her rigid and controlling mother, she flees to her father’s relatives in Brittany. She seems at first soft and uncertain of herself, but as her world grows more dangerous, she develops a steel spine to protect herself and her son.

The third character, Paul Vasson, is the villain: the collaborator who infiltrates and betrays the French Resistance in exchange for German gold. Vasson is a nasty piece of work and, rather unfortunately, is the first character we are introduced to. He was so repulsive I almost tossed the book out after the first chapter, but I’m glad I didn’t. Julie and David were both much more appealing.

This is a relatively old thriller (published in 1983) with a simple plot: Will they escape? Will the traitor be brought to justice? It starts off slow, introducing us to the characters and their problems before the start of the war. The pace picks up as the war begins, becomes nail-biting with the scene on the beach, and stays intense until the end.

The description of the race across the Channel is impressive for its immediacy and the heart-breaking quality of Julie’s battle with the sea in a small boat. That voyage is not the second-hand distillation of an armchair traveller listening to sailor’s tales. This author has been there, done that. That was obvious, even before I learned that she had twice sailed solo across the Atlantic, and was the first woman to captain a yacht on the Whitbread Around the World Race.

The race across the Channel is fictional, but many of the events this solidly-researched book is based on are real, including the importance of the development of radar to both sides and the history of the French Resistance. Vasson, in particular, seems exaggerated—How could anyone be that foul and still get people to trust him?—but he is based on a real person, Jacques Desoubrie, who penetrated at least two escape lines and was responsible for over a hundred British and American evaders being captured and sent to Buchenwald.

In opposition to such traitors, this novel celebrates the quiet heroism of ordinary citizens, and brings alive rural life in Brittany under the Germans. It’s a terrific story, well worth getting past the tedium of the first few chapters.

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A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

Ironically I am publishing this in the midst of COVID-19, when we all started making sourdough at home and then started protesting police brutality. Suddenly a twelve year old book was actually relevant. Go figure.
T. Kingfisher

Meet Bob, the omnivorous sourdough starter. Or perhaps you really wouldn’t want to meet Bob; the only person he shows any affection for is Mona, the baker who brought him to life. He’s quite willing to give her globs of himself in return for her regularly feeding him flour and water. But after the time when the city froze over and she couldn’t get to the bakery to feed him for several days, she came back to find his bucket in a different place in the basement and a couple of picked-clean rat skeletons nearby. Since then even she hasn’t been willing to risk annoying him.

Bob is one of several entertaining characters in T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guild to Defensive Baking, but his is a minor role. Mona is the star. This fourteen-year-old wizard can do amazing things with bread and dough…and nothing else. That’s fine with her. She’s happy working in her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery, using her magic to bake the best sourdough loaves in the city of Riverbraid, and making gingerbread men dance to entertain the customers.

The story opens with Mona arriving one morning at her usual time (4 a.m.) and discovering the dead body of a girl about her own age. A constable is called in, others follow, then the coroner, and finally a man high in the political hierarchy running the city, who promptly charges Mona with murder. That’s obviously ridiculous, but Mona is soon on the run, evading capture with the help of the murdered girl’s streetwise younger brother and a gingerbread man who rides on her shoulder and pats her cheek when she’s upset.

She’s not the only one in trouble. Someone is systematically murdering all the city’s wizards. Before long, Mona is sneaking into the castle to tell the Duchess—Riverbraid’s ruler—news about the city’s condition that her traitorous underlings don’t want her to hear.

In addition, Riverbraid’s army is out in the countryside, following misleading rumours about the location of an army of mercenaries. When the mercenaries arrive at the city gates with the city’s army three days’ march away, the defence depends on the skill of the only two remaining wizards: the madwoman Knackering Molly and Mona, the bread wizard.

What can one fourteen-year-old bread wizard do against an invading army? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Magical talents in this world appear to be both unique to the individual and narrowly defined. Knackering Molly can make dead horses walk. Another wizard, a carpenter, can smooth knots out of pieces of wood. Minor talents, apparently, but the primary limiting factor on what the wizards can do with their talents is the size of their imaginations. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away what Mona does, but I will say the battle for the city was entertaining.

The story is at its best when focusing on Mona’s wizardry. The world building was weak; there were a few things about the city, in particular, that bothered me. (A walled city, riddled with canals? Hmm. And so large it took hours to walk across? Yeah, right. And the bungling incompetence of the people in charge? Well, maybe that’s not so farfetched.) Some of the characters—the urchin sidekick and the formidable aunt among them—felt like clichés, and the villains were tissue-paper thin. On the other hand, several characters—the gingerbread man, Bob, Knackering Molly—were more interesting, and there were some minor characters sketched out in a few lines that left me wanting to know more about them: Mona’s uncle, a scullery maid, and and a problem-solving blacksmith that responded to this teenage girl’s orders with no resentment.

This book is a quick, easy read, suitable for middle grades and up. It is quite funny in places, but there is darkness lurking under the humour. It does, after all, deal with murder, betrayal, and the imminent destruction of the city by rampaging barbarians. Mona starts out as a naive, trusting girl and becomes disillusioned as she is forced to accept adult responsibilities the adults in charge can’t or won’t. The first chapter reads like a murder mystery, but it soon turns into a coming-of-age story, with Mona learning the hard way how painful, both physically and emotionally, being a hero can be.

Trigger warnings: death (human, animal, and animated cookie), violence, hate crimes, contact with excrement.

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