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The Helmsman (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 11 March 2012 15:50

Every now and then, while wading through a stiff read (in this case, Olmstead's 524 page History of the Persian Empire), I have to take a break. In this case, I fell into something I got out of a used bookstore, Bill Baldwn's The Helmsman from 1985.

So the universe apparently is a very class-conscious place, with the nobles on the top, and Carescrian ore-miners (such as our hero, Wilf Brim) on the bottom. Evidently recent legislation has opened up the academy to guttertrash such as Wilf and he's made it through with a sub-Luitenancy, ready to report to his first ship, the destroyer Truculent. And, of course, nobody likes him, which is to be expected. And he'll go on to prove himself, which is also expected.

Still, I really liked the novel. When Brim is given the helm of the ship to move out (at restricted speed, in a blinding snowstorm, and a noble-helmed ship pressing close), it's quite a nail-biter, especially since his career is on the line should he scuff one fleck of paint. The action is fun and furious, with Brim falling from one desperate situation to the next (the land battle, where he is stuffed in an alien tank with no training and forced to make do, was a little bit of a stretch, but still fun).

Of course, in an infinite universe, one can only expect to find a nemesis that you are always tripping over and our hero is no exception, repeatedly foiling (and insulting) Overprefict Valetin. And of course, in their showdown ship-to-ship slugfest, just before the baddie's ship explodes, something (clutter, wreckage, an escape pod, perhaps?) flies clear.

And it's a good thing, since Baldwin went on to write more of these yarns. If interested, you can find links on this site HERE to purchase the set.

Nothing Earth-shattering or new here, just a good space opera. I'd give it a guarded approval.

Last Updated on Sunday, 11 March 2012 16:30
Piece of Cake (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 04 March 2012 19:38

So why do I like Piece of Cake, outside of the fact that it's a World War Two flying story?

Well, as a writer, I love the book because it does two things I respect any book in doing. These are...

1) It takes a perception of our world (here, the nobility of "the few") and skews it.

2) Characters get killed.

It turns out that Hornet Squadron is made up of infallible, bungling, selfish, vain, and stupid humans. The squadron CO taxis into a slit trench the first day of the war and breaks his neck while trying to angrily clamber out. Later, there are bungled attacks (as fitting with the RAF at the start of the war), bureaucracy and confusion. And the pilots? There is a shirker. A brute. A know-it-all Yank. All led by an upper-crust yob who treats the squadron like his own private flying club and blindly follows fighter command's dictates, no matter how stupid they are.

And, with all these items from point (1), it leads, naturally, to point (2).

Robinson writes strong. His flying scenes are top notch. He knows how to write areal confusion and panic, and also the beauty of flying. And he knows how to write people; his dialog chatters along like a crowded mess on a rainy afternoon, snippets and inside jokes and cutting remarks. He did much the same in his earlier Goshawk Squadron, and he pulled it off here as well.

I'll mention that, in regards to point (1), the book was stunningly adapted into a Masterpiece Theater six-parter that followed the high-points of the story fairly well and brilliantly cast its characters (so when I read it now, I see the actors in their places). Apparently there was a swelling roar of indignation among the Brits over this. The could understand point (2). They didn't get point (1).

But I got it. And I liked it. So Piece of Cake gets a recommendation from me.

Last Updated on Sunday, 04 March 2012 21:07
Moby Dick (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 26 February 2012 20:07

Yes, I know. This book should speak to me as a writer for the themes it explores. And it should speak to me, personally, about the mad pursuit of the unobtainable.

But I just...


get through it.

Forgive me, for I have sinned. I've read Three Musketeers (and all the companion books). I've read Candide and Anna Karenina. I've read Don  Quixote. I've even read Tom Brown's School Days. Even Gilgamesh! I know how to set aside the twenty-first century me and become a simpler, less-expectant, slower-paced me, to read a book for its merit and discover the charm as those did hundreds of years before. But Moby Dick - I simply can't get through it.

I've tried. I've forced myself to focus on it, to not lose my way when Melville spends thirty pages on the types of whales. All I know is that twice I've challenged this novel and twice I've failed. Last time, I got to where Starbuck wanders the deck, babbling though the night and keeping the crew awake. But no, I can't do it. I simply can't get through this windy, dusty tale.

And that's too bad, since tales with a cautionary take on the weaknesses and foibles of humans really appeal to me. But no, there is something about Melville (just as there is something about lettuce) that I can't get down.

And it's not just that tale: I've tried Billy Budd and barely made it out of that novella alive. I just can't read Melville, no matter how hard I try.

So sorry - there is your review. Good luck with this fish story. I simply can't force it into my eyeballs.

Last Updated on Sunday, 26 February 2012 20:27
Flashman (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 19 February 2012 00:00

It was back in sixty-nine. I was a youngling then, eleven years old, not even shaving. We were stationed in Cubi Point, the Philippines, beastly hot, nothing to do (especially if one hadn't hit puberty yet). And in the base library, I found this book, d'ya see? Flashman. Odd, but it had a strapping big bloke with a sword on the cover - not swinging it, rot the luck, but just standing all satisfied before a seated Indian girl.

I was at the age where not much made sense - I'd read Ensign Flandery the year before and while I liked the idea that blood in space would form floating blobs, I hadn't followed the diplomacy angle of it. No, I was still young, but for a wee rotter I loved to read.

Flashman, by Frazetta no less!But Flashman. The only thing like it was War of the Worlds, and only because it set its story on its ear as the Martians won and won and kept winning, right until the end (my take HERE). Flashman played the bully of the classic Tom Brown's School Days and the novel picks up right after he's been ejected from Rugby (and that story), sent home in disgrace. Of course, his father pulls strings and has him shipped off to India. But as the story proceeds, we find that Flashy is a damned peculiar "hero" to be following. He's a worm, a weasel, a cheat, a bully and a coward. And yet with us (the reader), he's honest. He tells us he is all of those things, makes no effort to conceal it. He's not proud either; not in that boastful way of our culture. No, Flashy tries to just stay under the radar, to seek a warm billet and bedmate, all as far from the guns as he can.

And the charm of the story is that even while we like him, we still hate him (for what he is, since we can't help from being moralistic). And so his pratfalls into hell and high water are oddly fitting. Oh, we'll watch him scream with our puritanical delight, but cads have nine lives and Flashy always manages to win free, through luck or fast talking or a freak fall of the dice.

Fraser (the author) went on to write a dozen or so Flashman novels, ranging from fine to fantastic. As an American, I feel particularly cheated that we never found out what the old soldier did during the American Civil War (though we know he fought on both sides and is somehow personally responsible for Pickett's Charge). But it doesn't matter - I didn't know anything about the British retreat from Kabul in the 1840s, the blood in the snow and the column being methodically ground up. Oh, I had to go back to the library once or twice, to consult their globe and find the places mentioned, but it was quite the story.

If you are looking for a wild wandering, rags-to-riches-and-round-again sort of tale, this one would warrant a look. It's nothing short of brilliant.

Last Updated on Monday, 20 October 2014 12:39

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