Tros! Of! Samothrace!

Tros Of Samothrace

By Talbot Mundy

 

Bought this one (several years ago) for the title. And the author’s name. Of course I did.

I also bought it because it had this wonderful pulp adventure cover image (even though, as my artist wife has pointed out, the anatomy is off; nobody’s torso actually bends like that), and because the story seemed pretty pirate-y. The hero, the almighty Tros of Samothrace, is a sailor by nature and inclination; the story is partly about his pursuit of the perfect ship, which he speaks of building more than once; and it also tells the tale of Tros sailing with a British crew and thwarting the invasion of England by Julius Caesar himself, which I thought would be interesting.

It was. This is the second time I’ve read this, because after the first time (And I genuinely can’t remember if I reviewed this book then, but since I can’t find the review to confirm it, I figured I might as well give it a write-up) I went back to Powell’s City of Books (Just about the only thing I miss after moving away from Oregon) and bought all four sequels; I wanted to read them again now, and so I re-read Tros so I could remember the story and characters before I read Helma, the second book. Which I have now read, and enjoyed, and will review in a few days.

This book held up well to a re-reading; better than most pulp adventure books. Part of that is because the character really is delightful; Tros, apart from his epic name (which I absolutely love and can’t resist saying with maximum emphasis every chance I get — “Tros! Of! Samothrace!”), has a great blend of brooding violence and anger, mixed with a life-loving, laughing vitality; he goes straight from cursing at a storm to laughing at the wind as it blows rain into his face, and it makes it a hell of a lot of fun to read his story. Another part of the quality of this book is the historical aspect: Mundy wrote a book that very well could describe what it was really like to face off against Julius Caesar. The descriptions of the character – who does appear in the book, holding conversations with Tros as well as meeting him in battle on land and at sea – seem pretty well in line with what I know about the man himself; Mundy doesn’t change history or Caesar in inserting Tros into his story. Caesar is still the unbeatable general who has at this point conquered all of Gaul; Tros only manages to get the better of him by taking advantage of Caesar’s weak points, and he frequently has to work hard to evade getting steamrollered by Caesar at his strongest. Mundy does it very well. The historical setting, the Anglo-British tribesmen whom Tros allies with, and the druid/mystic religion that Tros shares with the people of Britain, are all quite interesting and well done.

But really, this is a pulp adventure novel like Conan or Allan Quatermain; Tros is a good pulp hero, Caesar makes a fantastic villain, and the adventure is mighty fun to read. Definitely recommend.

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Pirate Book Review: Silver

Silver

by Edward Chupack

I’m not sure why I didn’t like this book more.

I love pirate stories (I mean, I LOVE them. I am writing a pirate story that is most of the way through its second book now. I dress as a pirate every Halloween, and talk like a pirate every Septembarrrr 19th, which is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Some of my favorite authors, my favorite books, are pirate stories.). I love villains, especially when they are the protagonist. I love riddles and puzzles and the very idea of treasure maps. So I should have loved this book: which is about Long John Silver, who is a villain of the first order, a pirate, and the protagonist; and he also spends most of the book talking about riddles that point the way to buried treasure. When he’s not talking about killing people, that is, which he does quite a lot.

But I didn’t love this book.

Part of it is that I am not a serious fan of Treasure Island, the story that spawned Long John himself; I have read it once, in the last couple of years, but never as a kid, when the story really could have captured my imagination. Thus the references in this book didn’t really have much of an impact on me. I recognized some, missed others, and didn’t really care about any of them. Part of it is that the author makes a strange choice to have the entire story be a flashback, which is fine – but Long John is flashing back on his life from his current situation, which is imprisoned in the Captain’s cabin on his own ship, which has been taken from him, and he is being held until he gives up the location of his treasure. It was a letdown that Long John starts off the book having lost. There are some great moments when Silver makes fun of the cabin boy who is constantly bringing him food, which Silver refuses, presuming it is poisoned; and the life he flashes back on was fascinating and supremely piratey; but I hated that he was getting weaker and weaker, starving to death and suffering from a fever the whole time.

I was also disturbed that I couldn’t solve the riddles that led the way to the treasure. There are many hints dropped, and eventually the secret is revealed – or at least, one of them is – but not everything is explained, and I couldn’t get the clues by myself. There’s this one image that is reprinted at least six or seven times, which is supposed to be this fascinating clue that unlocks the secret path to the big treasure: but the whole time, other than the small details that Silver explains, which were pretty apparent from looking at the thing, I got nothing from it. And it is also true that the big treasure was not terribly interesting to me, even though it has some historical accuracy, which is great; but I kind of didn’t care about this one.

Overall, I think it was a good book, and well-written; I think it was just a little off the mark for me. I think someone else who loves pirates – especially someone with a particular love for Robert Louis Stevenson – would really enjoy this one. Though I will note that the Goodreads reviews of this book say that the connection between this book and Treasure Island is tenuous at best, and a shallow marketing scheme at worst, so maybe that wasn’t the problem; maybe it really just isn’t that good a story. I’m going to recommend giving this one a miss. Try Jeffrey Farnol: now that man could write a pirate story!

Book Review: Rediscover Your Story by Drew Kimble

Rediscover Your Story: A Journal for Creative Exploration

by Drew Kimble

 

I’m going to have to make this quick; because I have writing to do.

I have writing to do because this book inspired me to do it.

I am a writer, both a blog/ranter and a novelist; I am also a full-time high school teacher, because my vocation doesn’t make me money. I struggle, constantly and consistently, with keeping my passion and focus as a writer, because it is so easy to let the writing slide off to the side, to tell myself that I “need” to do work for my job, that my job is “important” and “valuable” and “worth spending time on.” It is even easier to find things that are related to writing, but not actually writing, and do those things in my free time; that way I can tell myself that I am writing, without actually doing too much of it. And of course I have to put aside the actual writing until later; I am too busy, and too tired. I don’t have time.

I’m not going to say that this book changed my life, because I’m not done working with it: I haven’t written out all the prompts, haven’t answered all the questions, haven’t examined and reflected and interacted with all of the inspirations inside. (There is one that I immediately want to turn into a piece of art – which I will do myself, though that scares me – and hang on my wall. It is “The unfed mind devours itself.” Page 134. Though in looking back through the book to find that one, I saw three or four others that I want to give the same treatment – “Do not dare not to dare,” and “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together” leap out at me. It may not sound that impressive that I want to make art of these quotes, but you have to understand: I have never been a visual artist, never made anything other than words on a page – and I’m married to a prodigiously talented illustrator. The bar is high, and I have never jumped. But I will try.) I don’t know that the book will change my life when I’m done interacting with it, though I think it likely if I can focus on small changes, planted seeds, an idea of old habits I would like to replace with new habits. That change, I think is pretty likely.

Because Mr. Kimble knows how to do this. The prompts are varied in style, ranging from internet quiz-style questions (Don’t scoff; we all take them.) to soul-searching checklists and life inventories. The types of prompts run the gamut, and the depth as well; I think that everyone will be able to find something useful in here. The quotations which appear in between each prompt-page are fascinating, also showing a wide range of focus and depth, some about the slow march of particulars, some about leaping to the stars. The book could easily be written in, or one could take the prompts and re-write them and one’s responses in a journal, which is what I will be doing; not that there is anything wrong with writing in a book, but I have all of these excellent journals. Though maybe I’m wrong: maybe I should do something different from my usual habit. Maybe I should write in this book.

I think I will.

One last comment: as a teacher, I could definitely use these as journal-writing prompts for my students. Particularly the prompts that push one to search for and define one’s self, one’s identity – and the ones that get you thinking about your future, too. Those would be good for my high school English classes.

This is a good journal. If you’re looking for one, this is a good choice.

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies

 

Interpreter of Maladies

by Jhumpa Lahiri

I didn’t love this book.

Some of the stories were beautiful. All of the writing was lovely, but some of the stories didn’t sing to me, where some did. I was a little disappointed that the title story was definitely not the best; it’s about a man who interprets for a living, who takes a group of American tourists (of Indian heritage) around on a tour of his hometown, which they visit every year or so from their home in New Jersey. The tourists are pretty delightfully obnoxious, and the ending of the story when one of them gets an Indian comeuppance, is delightful; but the major action involves this interpreter (who also works in a doctor’s office, translating people’s symptoms to the doctor – hence the title) developing a crush on the tourist woman. Which was pretty disappointing, really.

I did like about half of the stories. A Temporary Matter, the first one, was maybe the most touching; it’s about a couple trying to find their way after a stillbirth; they are mostly estranged and alienated, until the power company turns off all of the lights in the neighborhood around dinner time, and then these two people find that they can talk in the darkness in a way they can’t when the lights are on. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, which was also a letdown, though it did make sense. It was good, but not my favorite. The second story, When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, is pretty much the typical story for the collection: it features a mix of Indian culture and Western, which creates discomfort and conflict; the characters are interesting, the descriptions are lovely – and the story goes freaking nowhere. Ditto for A Real Durwan, Sexy, and The Treatment of Bibi Haldar (The first and last only differ in that they are purely Indian, and so have at least some appeal in showing something of the culture; Sexy is the only story in the collection with a Western main character, and she’s a dud, as is the story.), and, sadly, the title story. Which at least does have the best title, which is, I suppose, why Lahiri picked it for the collection. The other three I’ve listed here were all a little too strange, and a lot too dull: nothing really happens, nothing gets resolved, nobody goes anywhere. I’m sure that was the point, an attempt to show the futility and emptiness of modern life, but — whatever.

The good stories were The Third and Final Continent, This Blessed House, and especially Mrs. Sen’s, which was my favorite. They showed relationships that were fraught, but not doomed; the couple in The Third and Final Continent actually work out quite well, as does the most significant relationship in the story, between the Indian main character and his American landlady, who is 103 years old and is splendid. Say it! Say “Splendid!”

This Blessed House has the most interesting character, in the woman named Twinkle, who reminded me of the classic vivacious hostess, the sort of Katherine Hepburn energetic wit with grace and style who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty; she was contrasted nicely with her dud of a husband, though I do have to say that, as an introvert, I was kind of on his side: he just wants a quiet house to come home to after work, and his wife keeps throwing parties and doing things. I have never been so glad to be married to a woman even more introverted than me.

Mrs. Sen’s was the sweetest story. It’s about an American boy who spends his afternoons at the home of his babysitter, the titular Mrs. Sen; seeing her through his eyes made her interesting but never offputting – other than the damned knife in the beginning of the story, which I could not for the life of me imagine; it’s apparently an Indian cooking tool, a blade fixed to the cutting board, and you move the vegetables over the knife to chop them. It’s a nice piece of Indian culture, but I just couldn’t grasp it. Still can’t. But I love how Mrs. Sen is so eager to get news from home, and I was heartbroken with her when the news is bad; I thought it was very sweet how she tries to learn to drive, and I actually liked her husband, which made this one of the few relationships in the book that isn’t depressing or disappointing. Plus, I used to have to go to my babysitter’s after school — Mrs. Bergstrom’s —  and so I bonded with the narrator right away, and I sort of wish that Mrs. B. had only had me to watch, instead of the five or six kids she took care of at once. I would have liked to get to know her the way we get to know Mrs. Sen in this story.

Overall, I don’t think it was really worth it; even the good stories aren’t among my favorites, really. If you are in the mood for a sort of gentle alienation, like looking through a soft veil at a surrealist painting, then go for it; if you feel like reading about romances that don’t have a whole lot of closeness in them, as well, then this one is right up your alley. I think it missed my alley.

Mattimeo: Redwall Book III

Mattimeo

by Brian Jacques

 

The third book in the Redwall series – and I’m a little concerned. Because this was the first book of the three that started to feel formulaic.

It wasn’t, not entirely; Jacques was wonderful at creating characters, and he introduces half a dozen new ones – a young otter who was hilarious, a heroic badger whom I enjoyed very much, a kite that had a wonderful alien feel to him, as well as a new generation of Redwallers and, of course, new villains. The first book focused on the battle for Redwall, the second on the battle that led to the rise of Redwall; this one goes outside of Redwall for its main conflict, though there is a second conflict that happens within the Abbey walls. The combination was effective, because it made it easier to maintain suspense for the entire book in both plotlines, and that was good. I also have to compliment Jacques for being unafraid to kill off his characters: there was a whole group of Redwall creatures who were wiped out in this book, and though I hated that it happened – this group were some of my favorites – it does show that the characters we enjoy aren’t safe, and I think that is a necessary tension in a long-running series.

But: Matthias is essentially indistinguishable from Martin the Warrior, and so for all three books now, we’ve had a heroic mouse swinging a big sword to save the day. His son, Mattimeo, becomes more like his father over the course of the book, so I worry that the trend will continue. The old abbot is the same, as well, as is the mighty and cantankerous badger; Jacques even added a second badger (though I liked the new guy – he carries a giant battle-axe) so there could be a badger in both plotlines. The villains are stoats and weasels and rats, and they are exactly alike in every way; Basil Stag Hare, though I love his character, changes not a whit from the first book to this one. You have the fight for control of the Abbey, and the quest outside of the Abbey for the key that will win the main fight – a plot that also happened in the second book, as Martin went off in search of the great sword so he could win the battle against the cat queen. There’s a lot of talk about food, and a lot of mooning over adorable baby animals (Not that I’m against baby animals, but I prefer actual fuzzy puppies in front of me rather than narration and description.), and a secret within the Abbey that tells the animals what they need to know, all of which happened in the first and second books. So it made me a little wary.

Now, the villains in this were great: the fox who leads the raid on Redwall and kidnaps all the younguns for enslavement was a good character, as was the corrupt and decadent despot who plans to buy the slaves. The final battle scene regarding those slavers was truly epic. The assault on Redwall was honestly a little more annoying, but the villains there were new and more interesting, with different strengths and weaknesses than the usual weasels and rats; and the twist that made a Redwall victory possible was really neat. Reminded me of Hagrid’s brother Grawp from the last three Harry Potter books.

Overall, there were enough new things, and enough things that Jacques has done well for all three books, to make me enjoy this book; I did, quite a lot. I will definitely read the next book, as well. I’m just – a little concerned for the series as a whole, that’s all.

Book Review: Dracula

Dig the cover for two reasons: it’s Boris Vallejo, and my copy says “Basis for a major motion picture.” No shit.

 

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

 

Since this past week was Mr. Stoker’s birthday – and according to some people, also Vlad Tepes the Impaler’s – it seemed appropriate to finally write up his famous book, which I have at long last read to its completion.

I know, I know; I read fantasy and horror both, I have written a book about vampires – how could I have never read Dracula? I can’t really say. I tried reading it once, several years ago, and stopped because it got boring; I’ve never been very good at reading classics, having avoided most difficult work in high school and nearly all of the classic canon in college. It has only been in the last couple of years, with my discovery of Jeffrey Farnol’s magnificent pirate books and his excellent Regency romances, and then my becoming an AP English teacher, who must teach his students more of the classics of British and American literature than I have hitherto, that I have started going back and actually working my way through Bronte, and Dickens, and suchlike.

And now, Dracula.

I will say that Stoker didn’t really do himself many favors, in the eyes of the modern reader. He had this wonderful idea, and a real gift for both action scenes and wonderful atmosphere, and what is three-quarters of this book? Victorian manners and stupid people fluttering about wringing their hands. Several of the characters are great, at least in concept: the Count himself is wonderful, as are his three ladies of the night, and Renfield is one of the most interesting people in the book. The concept of eating life, of capturing flies and feeding them to spiders, and then feeding the spiders to birds, and then eating the birds – that is fantastic. It’s one of those things that a madman would think, but it makes so damn much sense that it gives we sane folk (I flatter myself, of course, and probably you, too, if you’re reading this review of mine) pause. Van Helsing is a great character in theory, though in his actual words and deeds, he is much more annoying than I wanted him to be. But everyone else is boring and stupid and obnoxious, more often than not.

And then there is the vampire. The Count is good as a character, particularly the contrast between the dignified nobleman and the lizard-crawling wolf-summoning bat-transforming blood-drinking monster; but just the idea of it is so magnificent, that even if the book was total trash – and it isn’t – the way that Stoker brought this idea to life and into the modern world (at the time), and the legacy he built, would be enough to justify his fame. The man must have known he had lightning in a jar, when he thought of this one. The creature that lives among its prey; the creature that once was one of its own prey, and became a predator; the creature that turns humanity, the most destructive and murderous of the animals, into victims, a solid step down from the top of the food chain – the dead that eats life to live – that is an amazing thing. No wonder we just keep writing about it and talking about it.

As for the book, the beginning is boring. Jonathan Harker goes to Dracula’s castle, and it’s creepy there, but nothing actually happens. When Stoker wrote it, I’m sure people were swooning over the Count and his evil magic, but now that we all know what vampires are and what Count Dracula was, it just drags on until Harker finally escapes. And then we get to the most annoying part of the book: Mina Murray fretting over the slow decline of her friend Lucy. Again, when the idea was new, it might have held more suspense; but even then it must have been difficult for a reader to sustain interest when Mina is such. An. Idiot. “Oh me, my dear friend is pale and weak, as if she has lost much blood; she has holes in her neck; and that strange man was bent over her on the bench with his face right by her throat. I WONDER WHAT EVER COULD BE THE MATTER?!?!?!?” Good grief, woman. The only saving grace in this part was Renfield. It also made it much more difficult to be on board with the gentlemen who team up to fight Dracula, as they swear their undying devotion to Mina, whom they will give their very lives and their Christian souls to save, for she is so good and pure and perfect, and I’m like, “Don’t give your life for that moron. Let Dracula have her: she might be more interesting once she’s dead. (Lucy was: I like that she went straight to eating children. Reminded me of Angel on BTVS.) Find yourself a smart girl.” It took something away from their heroism that it was dedicated to a dolt. But then, it also took something away from their heroism that they just kept swearing their dedication to their task, which they seemed to do every chapter, every conversation, and that they had so damn much trouble accomplishing it. Ask me, they were all idiots.

So for the book overall, the beginning is boring, the characters are idiots, and the Victorian writing drags sometimes – the fact that Stoker wrote it as diary entries and letters works well for the most part, but he actually included the correspondence from the guys who drove the cart that carried Dracula’s boxes of dirt, for the love of God; and the gentlemen all see this as a chance to praise Mina for her wondrous abilities, which did kind of crack me up. “My God! A Victorian woman who can type as well as swoon? What a goddess! I pledge my life to save her!” – but none of that matters. Because it’s Dracula. It’s vampires. It’s wonderful. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, but I’m glad I read it now.

Book Review: The Mighty Swordsmen

Isn’t that beautiful? Interesting how the men are in greater detail than the women, who are graphic and one-dimensional. Maybe there’s a reason for that . . .

 

The Mighty Swordsmen

Edited by Hans Stefan Santesson

 

A collection of Mighty Warrior swords-and-sorcery stories, this was like most of its kind: a couple of good ones, some that were okay, and a couple of stinkers.

The stinkers were “Break the Door of Hell” by John Brunner and especially “The Keeper of the Emerald Flame” by Lin Carter. The Carter story was too painfully derivative of Conan stories to be worth reading – though I admit I like the name Thongor – as well as too long and plodding, and the bad guy at the end was completely lame. The John Brunner story had some good bits: the concept is Ahura Mazda, the evil deity of Zoroastrianism, wandering Earth and granting people their wishes – which immediately makes those people regret their wishes. Some of those evil wish-grantings were great. The main city that Mazda goes to torment – and he sees himself as merely acceding to people’s wishes, not in any way working evil, and he’s probably right – has a great number of noblemen who would be sorcerers; they start casting their mojo, and even though they don’t really know what they’re doing, Mazda makes it so that their spells actually work: to their unspeakable regret and torment. That part was pretty fun, but also a bit repetitive; and at the end, the twist just irritated me. Bad story, overall.

The mediocre ones were the Elric of Melnibone story, “The Flame-Bringers,” and one of the two Conan stories, “The People of the Summit” by Bjorn Nyberg. The Elric story was actually fine, but exactly like every other Elric story I’ve ever read: he goes questing with Moonglum, brings out Stormbringer even though he doesn’t want to, chops up some enemies and eats some souls, and then calls out the damn dragons to save his bacon at the end. The one Conan story was also fine – better than Thongor – but it was overshadowed by the one that finished up the collection.

That last one, “Beyond the Black River,” along with the Roger Zelazny story “The Bells of Shoredan,” was by far the best. The Zelazny story was about his Dilvish the Damned character, who’s cool to begin with, and this was, for once, a self-contained story, with a good twist, and Zelazny’s usual beautiful prose and wonderful atmosphere. The last story was Conan as written by Robert E. Howard, and seeing that story along with a Conan by a different author, and the cruddy Thongor knock-off, really drove one point home: Robert E. Howard was a hell of a writer. That last story is the longest in the collection, but also the most exciting; Conan is the ultimate badass, and yet he is the most human and believable hero in the bunch. If you can find this collection – unlikely, as I picked up a faded copy with the cover falling off at a Goodwill in town – then it’s worth getting just for the Howard story. And the sweet 1970 pulp fantasy cover art. Good stuff.