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Six Books [Phile]

11 Jun

n.b. So I’m jumping the gun a bit about not posting anew until August. But this article is good stuff. It might also provide a new source of reading -and posting- material for this and other blogs.  Thank you Paris Review!

This marvelous post “Six Books We Could and Should All Write” by Anthony Madrid,  -via The Parish Review   came my way the other day thanks to the magic of  new tab algorithms and prior surfing history.  And really it’s a must for any writer. Writing these books makes us better observers  from diaries, to quotation collections to dictionaries, books of lists, and even a book of what not to say aloud. I haven’t read the books myself (apart from the usual extract of Pepys’s Diaries on the Great Fire of London which was a part of English Literature in high school), but now I want to.  I would probably add the book Islandia, by Austin Tappan Wright a travel book masquerading as fiction, because anyone can write a travel description of places they’ve been to.


Pile #11 “The Highest Tide” by Jim Lynch

4 Mar

The Highest Tide: a Novel / Jim Lynch.  Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.  2010. Kindle Edition.

As always, the  original review can be found here: “The Highest Tide”

You know its time to buy your own copy when you’ve checked out the same book more than three times from the library, and for me this is certainly true of The Highest Tide. So many passages cry out to be underlined and flagged, to be savored. I even re-read the book just for this review. A shocking admission, I know. Even more  shocking (at least potentially) is that this was the first fiction title I purchased for my Kindle (wonderful device a Kindle is: a dedicated platform for reading books, and only books (and periodical literature that happens to fit the screen size), not only can I hold more books in my hand than I used to, and can juggle them at the push of a button or two -a thing I like doing, alot- but it saves wear and tear on the physical volume, which doesn’t always hold up well in my grubby hands. And that doesn’t even consider the Kindle apps for PC and iPad that really assist the book review process).

Always looking

Miles O’Malley is a boy with a passion for exploring the tidal flats, and very good at finding things, ever since he read Rachel Carson at age 6. This all changes the summer he was thirteen. It starts as a normal summer, spent collecting sea-life to sell to local restaurants and aquariums, mooning over his former baby-sitter Angire Stegner, and helping to care for his elderly neighbor Florence. But, by the time of his first discovery made on the night of the lowest tide of the summer. He makes further discoveries, finds himself the subject of television and nationwide newspaper articles, even pursued by members of a religious cult because of his perceived insights into the meaning of life he finds along the seashore.

This is the summer he learns to see things about himself in the same way that he wants others to see things around them. He notes this early in the book: “In the space of a summer I’d learned that everything was changing, including me” (from the Question and Answer section).  Even old Florence, tells him “This is your summer, Miles. This is the summer that defines you” (p. 47).

The first thing to say about this book, in response to other reviewers, is that not all tales with a adolescent protagonist are for adolescents.  Miles chides us that

“People usually take decades to sort out their view of the universe, if they bother to sort at all. I did my sorting during one freakish summer in which I was ambushed by science, fame and suggestions of the divine” (p.2).

These prescient comments come in the very beginning of the book, and are not the voice of thirteen year old Miles, but of middle aged Miles, looking back *back* on that summer, not experiencing it then and there as some other [Amazon] reviewers claim.  Simply put, the book is about life, in all its wonder, grittyness, and pettiness, in short the book stands as “an ovation for life itself” (p. 226).

The book is composed of 30 un-named chapters. Beyond the text itself there is a question-and-answer section, with the author, group study questions, a biographical note on the author, even a “love me” wall of complimentary reviews about the book -though the book can be enjoyed without the extras.

Maybe Jim Lynch is trying to tell us something

Miles’s story, as the title implies, is framed by the tides: it starts with the lowest night tide of the summer and that first discovery, and ends with the highest tide of the year (a freak, unexpected event, unless you happen to be looking for the signs).  The question to ask ourselves becomes is Miles different in the end than at the beginning of his “freakish summer”?  I think for Miles, the answer is yes.

The exploration of the tidal flats around his hometown, the opening of his eyes to what is really there, the relationships he has with family, friends, and other members of his community- it is through his looking in the tidal flats, that he has trained himself  to be able to look at himself and those around him. He does not always like what he sees, but he does not shy away from the seeing.  Along the way Miles, and Lynch, hopes to reawaken our own sense of wonder and magic about the life that lies all around us, whether on the border between see and land, or the hazy border that is the self.

The passage from ignorance to self-knowledge. Seeing life for what it is.  Finding your place in life. An environmental message about caring. The exuberance and passion of youth. – All these could be said to be messages contained in Lynch’s book.  I think, though, that Lynch’s message is much simpler, that it revolves around Miles’ declamation that “I just see what I see” (p72) and could be summed up by saying “its amazing what you can find if you simply look”.  Miles is looking around, and he too is seeing things in his life he never noticed before.  He sees his parents and their troubled and rocky relationship that just might end in divorce. He watches the slow, painful decline of his elderly friend Florence, and the equally deteriorating condition that Judge Stegner has to deals with in Angie and  her wild and self-destructive lifestyle and drug addiction. He observes his friend Phelps antics in regards to girls. Above all and always, though it is the Tidal Pools of Puget Sound, a character in itself, and the wondrous things about him that he discovers in this one summer.

The Sea’s the Thing

Some readers may become distracted, or even irritated with the long passages about marine life that abound in the novel, and in fact some reviewer complain about the long passages of, but they are in fact integral to the story, from the giant squid in the beginning to the many unexpected species found at the biodversity right before the climax of the story. It is in relating this information that Miles reveals his true self.  Even all the references to Rachel Carson, with its strong hint of ecological crusading, serve to reinforce, that the earth is speaking to us if we but take the time to really look, and listen.  It is not important to Miles -as it is for the students of the ‘School’ he meets- what we find, or whether it comes from science or new age religion, or from within oneself, but that we are looking.

When Miles starts sharing the maritime discoveries he has made, he goes off into another world (sort of like me0, I can just see him beginning to talk and talking more and more rapidly

Squirming with Life and Love

Admittedly, as other (Amazon) reviewers have pointed out, there is a lot of crude sex-on-the-brain imagery, and less than flattering descriptions of women, but this is a story about a boy entering upon adolescence, and there is a more than casual resemblance between the observed fecundity of the tidal shallows of Puget Sound and the growing sexual awareness of youth.  You can’t expect a character to be outstanding in all areas, now can you?  Even Miles admits this -right at the beginning he tells us “I was an increasingly horny, speed-reading thirteen-year-old insomniac” (p2).

On the one hand, the book is free of overtly graphic scenes of sexual or violent activity, but on the other hand, an atmosphere of sexual exploration is still present, reminding us (as if we needed any such reminder) that the sexual reproductive drive is as strong in man as in the rest of creation.  Yet he is still sensitive about these things, feeling guilty afterwards as he wrestles with his burgeoning desires. As Phelps passes on what he has ‘learned’ from others, Miles remarks that “Something about it made me feel defensive, as did most of the crap I heard directly or indirectly about what girls wanted.”(p. 54) and the changing tenor of his relationship with Angie, who finally agrees to wait for Miles perhaps caps his summer of self-discovery.

Defining Miles

So, in the end, we have a boy who finds himself, a girl who is beginning to find herself -thanks in part to Miles just being himself- after a young adult binge of sex, drugs, and rock music, and a town coming to grips with itself in the wake of  a summer of extra-ordinary yet natural occurrences. And it’s all related to Miles’ self-discovery.

note for readers of the Kindle version:   There ARE  typos, quite a few of them, sadly: I noticed lots of them  on several “pages”: 23, 78, 122, 123, 139, 143, 160, 188, 189, 195, 196, 205, 208, 240

Pile #9 “Freehold” by Michael Z Williamson

23 Jan

Freehold / Michael Z Williamson.   Riverdale, NY: Baen Books. 2004. 667 p.

The original review can be found here:  “Freehold”

“Holding Free”

“Freehold” is yet another in the spate of fast-paced hard military sci-fi to come out of Baen Books in the last two decades, and is itself part of a series of inter-related books written in the Freehold universe by Williamson (though each novel is self-contained, and the series as a whole can be read non-sequentially (chronologically or published order) with the same enjoyment as reading it. as published.

Kendra Pacelli, a sergeant in the UNPF seeks asylum in the Freehold of Granine after being framed in an investigation of embezzled military equipment. She arrives as a refugee, and after a shaky period of cultural acclimatization, begins to find her place in this new society and build a life for herself, just as a cold war with Earth heats up into open conflict, and she finds herself fighting against her own former homeworld.

In this case, the Freehold of Granine is not attempting to hold itself up as a paragon of virtue, or the ultimate Utopia, they just want to be left alone to pursue their own destiny as “a nation of co-operative loners” (p. 228), which is a very apt description of life in the Freehold. Politically, economically, and socially, the Freehold is best described as ‘libertarian’, and very successful in all that they do, as contrasted to Earth under the totalitarian/socialistic rule of the United Nations. And that success is the one thing that Earth cannot stand in the face of its own propaganda.

So what’s the catch?

The Freehold contains a minimalist government (political leadership is predicated on building wealth only to give it away), unregulated capitalism (in every sense of the word) and a live-and-let-live social structure (it is even expected that everyone and anyone will carry personal weapons about their person). The majority religious influence seems to be Goddess based, though the presence of other religions is noted from time to time. With very few laws or regulations, crime, graft and corruption is virtually nonexistent. The one partial exception to this free-wheeling existence is the military, which still maintains a hierarchical, regimented life -though even here Kendra will find major differences in the spirit of discipline and responsibility between her birth planet and her adopted home, usually with the latter coming out the worse for the comparison.

More than half of the book is devoted to Kendra’s life in the military (similar to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Scalzi’s An Old Man’s War). Of a 54 chapter (plus epilogue) book, all but 14 directly connects Kendra to the military. Additionally, the major military campaign against the Freehold and it’s Occupation is from chapter 29 to the end.

Everything in Williamson’s book (as in most offerings from the Baen pantheon) is highly realistic -almost hyper-realistic- from its description of combat, military life and training, to passages of sexual liaisons and relationships, which is the one aspect of the book which sits ill with me (the same can be said for John Ringo’s “Kildar” series), and makes this an adult reading experience. The realism serves to push the story forward, and to act as an anchor for contemporary readers, but it can also push the unwary reader away

Another positive aspect for me of reading this type of  hard (military) sci-fi is o want to learn more about things it takes for granted (such as technology and science, economics and economic theory, even philosophy and military science). At the same time, if you don’t leave the Freehold without a few criticisms of social, political or economic policy (both your own and the Freehold’s), then I think you’re not actively reading.

Survey Said..!

Other (Amazon) reviewers either hate him or love him for the implicit message about “libertarian” political economy, and social policy (or lack thereof) and like to compare Williamson’s work (favorably or not) to Robert Heinlein’s work (1). If Williamson is trying to ‘shove’ his political economy and social views down our throat, as one reviewer asserted, he is at least not the first, nor shall he be the last to do so in a a work of fiction (Upton Sinclair’s Jungle comes to mind here), and  at least he goes about it in an entertaining way.   Also, as at least one other  reviewer noted at least implicitly, and hitting upon a truth of science fiction:  it is Ideas, more so than character or plot that take center stage. And quite often, in order to air out the idea properly, you need to take it out of current context and place, thus the future setting (it assists the contemporary reader to achieve the emotional detachment necessary to analyze a concept). Of course, the world wide UN government and the Freehold for all the realistic description, comes off as either “too good to be true” or “too bad to be believable”, but I choose to believe that this was intentional, so that we could see the outcome of the competing ideas in action in as pure form as possible.

All Squeamishness Aside…

As I wrote above, parts of Williamson’s writing are very explicit and sexually graphic, this is something that may or may not change with future works. This may turn some readers off, (I certainly found it off-putting), and yet that too is part of the Freehold mentality: liberty and license as long as it does not hurt anyone else. It’s not a particularly Christian ethical standard, but then the book was not written with a necessarily Christian audience in mind. I can accept that, and still enjoy the story, even if i don’t agree with it’s worldview.

My final thought on the matter: this will not be the last book by Williamson I will read, even if parts of it leave me a little squeamish.


  1. Customer Reviews: Freehold  accessed on 21 January 2013

My next Pile is On Basilisk Station by David Weber (you may have heard of him), so until then, keep calm and read on. *why yes this IS a new tagline, why do you ask?*

Pile #8 With the Lightnings by David Drake

22 Jan

With the Lightnings / David Drake. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books. 1999. 416 p. [“RCN Series”]

And you thought I only read and reviewed nonfiction (and mostly religious works at that), didn’t you?

The original review can be found here: 8.  “With the Lightnings”

I have read fiction as much as non-fiction virtually my whole life (though understandably, I’ve been reading fiction longer than non-fiction, what starting as  a child and all).  It just so happens when I began a book review blog, the books most at hand were non-fiction, and that Drake’s With the Lightnings ) was the first fiction book I decided to review (or could lay my hands on at the decision making time (ok, so it was the book with the lowest review count on Amazon of the pile before me that led to my decision to review it first, but it was still the first book I could lay my hands on at the time), though it’s not even the first Drake book that I have read -having first been introduced to him through “Hammer’s Slammers” and his collaborative series with Eric Flint “Belisarius’.

A fast paced tale along with its sequels in the  “RCN” series, With the Lightnings is primarily high quality pukp military sci fi  high adventure in the space lanes.  Drake is skilled at presenting a good military romp (the aforementioned “Hammers’ Slammers”, a fantasy series titled “Lord of the Isles” and numerous stand alone novels attest to that).  Harking back to the sailing days of the 18th and 19th century in a way that David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series doesn’t, Drake presents a rough-and-tumble universe, and doesn’t shy away from placing the nitty-gritty front and foremost in the reader’s face. The feel of the series is like crossing late Republican Rome with the British Navy of the Napoleonic Wars.

Up, Cinnabar!

So then, what is With the Lightnings all about?

Lieutenant Daniel Leary, estranged scion of the Learys of Bantry, is a low ranking officer in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy (read: a freshly minted lieutenant) included in a ‘show the flag’ mission to a ally of the Republic of Cinnabar. Disaster strikes the deputation in the form of a palace coup supported by Cinnabar’s bitterest rival, the Alliance of Free Stars, leaving only himself, his man-servant and a small contingent of sailors from his ship free, along with an exiled Cinnabar native on planet to take up a post as the Electoral Librarian, Adele Mundy (a Mundy of Chatsworth), to keep things from going bad to worse for the Republic. Through a combination of quick wits, personal charisma and leadership on Daniel’s part, along with Adele’s incredible analytical ability (not to mention her ability with a gun) and the crew’s willingness to bust heads,  Daniel and company are able to outwit both native and foreign armies, capture a ship, defeat the enemy, and uphold the honor of the RCN and the Republic. Along the way it could be argued, Adele finds a new family and Daniel a purpose, though it’s not really clear until later volumes how this set of relationships will work out.

“Full of sound and fury, signifying….”

There was no shortage of excitement to be had in the book, and not a small amount of admiration for the abilities of the central characters. And yet, I feel empty after reading of their exploits.  I can read his books for an adrenaline rush but not for understanding the human condition, which is what the best literature does (and yes, even science fiction can be accounted literature on occasion, I think especially of Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell  in this regard -note to self:  make Sparrow a future review). He’s good at describing the human condition, but not explaining it, or overcoming it, at least that is, in the world of the RCN.

A Leary  Without Honor…

Quite frankly, its hard to like, or respect, Lt. Leary as a person.  Coming from an aristocratic family he brings the baggage of aristocracy with him, despite his ability to bond with deck hands. The principles he does have, he holds with adamantine solidity, yet he is equally cocksure in his prejudices, his “us versus them” mentality, and an innate sense of his own personal, and his Republic’s, superiority to other peoples and polities. His intense in natural history adds a little depth, but not enough.

The same judgement can be made for most of the characters: set in their ways, sure of themselves, and of the superiority of their way of life over any other. I can admire their skills their ability to produce when the proverbial fecal matter hits the  rapidly spinning rotary blades, (Adele is a whiz at tickling information out of computers that most people would overlook as insignificant, Hoggs is accomplished at, shall we say, alternative logistics procurement, and Tovera is, well Tovera, though she doesn’t shine  much in this first volume) but all in all, they do not come across as outstanding individuals.  All the characters in this series are very colorful, but flat (true, Daniel is a fairly intense amateur naturalist which also provides Drake a way to introduce discussions of xenobotany and xenobiology, but Daniel doesn’t’ really grow from this exposure).

To be fair, it may not be Drake’s _intention_ to present Daniel and his spacers, Adele, Tovera, and Hoggs or even the Republic of Cinnabar as sympathetic, developing characters (unlike say Weber’s major characters,* they don’t appear to mature as persons: i.e. the Lt. Leary of book one is the same as the Leary of book 4) but I at least expect that main characters will alter some of their perceptions over a multi-year span of adventures, not so here. On the other hand, as the main characters are in their adulthood, their basic personalities are already set, and to expect any basic change

Theirs is a stratified society where family interest and pedigree count for more than personal merit; it is a world where honor counts for more than life -which, in this future time is treated if not callously, as more of a commodity than an end in itself. An example is this line written toward the end of the book, “Adele couldn’t feel sorrow for dead strangers, but the artwork which had shared their destruction made her face tremble to behold.” (p389), and a similar line about Adele’s future hatchet-woman Tovera, who admits that “[T]here is a piece missing” in her life (presumably a sense of direction) who thus has no qualms about using other people to provide “that piece of me that isn’t there” (p390).

And yet for all this, Leary is free of most of the politics that wrap up other characters in other novels and series just like Drake’s writings are relatively free of political intrigue.  What you see is what you get, straight up action.

Leary as mimesis

Other reviewers frequently compare Drake’s work to its inspired model Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Mauritani  series, as well as Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series, and find With the Lightnings wanting. I would submit that just because a famous work of literature inspires a homage, does not mean that the later writer is attempting to copy or improve upon the original. At the same time, highlighting commonalities with Aubrey, or even Hornblower can help to situate the novel’s audience: if you like naval adventure and you like science fiction, and you like action, chances are you’ll like where Drake is going. If you like deep meaningful revelations about human life and destiny mixed in with your adventurous heroes, I advise  you to look elsewhere, although, multiple small shards about what it is to be human do leak out from time to time. It’s possible though I don’t know, that Drake did consciously draw on the form of O’Brian and Forester for his story (and as he acknowledges in later volumes in the series, draws inspiration for, and elements of the plots from actual events in classical history, often, relatively minor ones in terms of overall history).

Last Man Writing: or Drake versus Weber

I realize that in this review I frequently contrast Drake’s Daniel Leary to Weber’s Honor Harrington (the first book of which series, On Basilisk Station is the subject of a future review btw), but that is solely because I think Weber does a better job overall of developing his characters over the long run, not that Drake is an inferior writer. It means also that Drake is an orange, and Weber an apple, having different approaches. Drake’s focus is more on small group interaction even within large scale organizations (which probably owes a lot to Drake’s service in Vietnam), whereas Weber, even when focusing on the command staff of a single ship, does not loose sight of the larger story. Both authors though are equally readable, and devoured as readily.

My next Pile will be Freehold by Michael Z Williamson,  a libertarian science fiction fairy tale, also published by Baen Books. So, until then, keep reading, my friends.

Sources cited:

  1. Customer Reviews: With the Lightnings
  2. David Drake -Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia