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Reading Recollections

Here's a list of the books I read in 2011. I'll work on this list when I can, until I can give you a reason why you should check each one out. (It's also interesting to see how much I remember about books I read several years ago).

Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun: Hercule Poirot visits a hotel on an island off the coast of Dover, England. There, unsurprising, he ends up investigating a murder. A visit to a grand, private home on Burgh Island inspired Agatha Christie to write this novel. On our 2015 trip to Dover, we didn't go down as far south as Burgh Island, where that grand old house is now a hotel. But we have seen the TV adaptation of the story, which was filmed there. (I wrote a post about this novel on my sister-blog, Hercule Poirot And Friends).

Agatha Christie: Three Act Tragedy: Hercule Poirot visits another grand house, this time on the coast of Cornwall. There, another murder takes place. At first, it seems like an accident, as one person drinks poison in a drink taken from a tray. But Poirot eventually discovers differently. Actually, Poirot is a nebulous figure in this story, with a young man and a successful, older suitor investigating the crime. They occasionally check in with Poirot, and he gives them feedback to help them steer their investigation. The couple are engaging, and lots of fun to read. (I also wrote about this novel on my Poirot blog).

Bruce Feiler: Abraham: If you've ever wondered about the places Abraham visited in the Bible, you'll enjoy reading Bruce Feiler's travelogue. His journey takes him through countries like Israel, Egypt, and Petra. It's also interesting to see how visiting these ancient places touches him at an emotional and spiritual level.

Colin Dexter: Last Bus to Woodstock
Colin Dexter: Last Seen Wearing
Colin Dexter: The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn
These are the first three novels written about TV's Inspector Morse. It's interesting to see how differently Dexter paints his characters. For one thing, Inspector Morse is younger in the books, while his assistant Lewis is an old man. It was also interesting to follow the murder from Morse's point of view, rather than seeing him in a TV production. Strangely, I can't remember much about the plot of each story, although I do remember enjoying them.

David Whitaker: Doctor Who and the Crusaders: The first Doctor, his young companion Vicki, and school teachers Ian and Barbara get involved with Richard the Lionheart and his adventures in the Holy Land. Sadly, only two episodes of this four-part story exist. Thankfully, this first Doctor novelization includes some nice black-and-white sketches. The novel also gives a greater scope to the story than the TV production would have allowed. This story was a lot of fun to read. The TARDIS lands in the Holy Land in the time of Richard the Lionheart. The Doctor steals clothes from a local merchant and connives his way into King Richard's camp. He dresses Vicki as a boy, so none of the men in Richard's court will take a fancy to her. Naturally, the advice the Doctor gives Richard, with regard to how he interacts with his nemesis Saladin, differs considerably from that of his official advisors. Eventually Richard discovers Vicki is a girl, and this makes him reconsider the Doctor's advice. There's also a side-plot where Barbara is captured by a villain and carried off to his harem. If you're interested in story, but can't be bothered to read the book, you can probably find the two existing episodes, and watch the fan reconstructions of the missing ones, on the internet.

E F Benson: Colin: The protagonist, Colin, is the younger son, and wishes to inherit the greater portion of his father's estate. This path of coveting what he can not have gradually transforms the good, fun-loving man into a villain. I also seem to remember him selling his soul to the Devil for riches in this life, but I could be wrong. What I remember is the action taking place on a grand estate outside Rye, an English seaside resort town, and the island of Capri off the coast of Italy. E. F. Benson lived in Rye for many years, and even served as the town mayor. He also loved to visit Capri on vacation. Colin shares his creator's love for the two locales, which adds flavor to the story. Still, if I'm completely honest, I remember the plot seeming rather thin. But then, maybe I was just looking for another "Mapp And Lucia" type book, and not the melodramas that formed the bulk of E. F. Benson's novels.

E F Benson: Lucia In London: When a family member dies, Lucia and her husband Peppino inherit a house in London. As she's dominated the social life in her home town of Riseholme, this gives her a new and larger challenge. Some readers feel as if she becomes mean in this novel, and it's true that she forgets her friend Georgie, and neglects her other friends at home. But this is Lucia using every bit of willpower and talent at her command. She makes the most of every opportunity, and even rises in London society until she is invited to a party at Checkers, the home of England's Prime Minister. It is at this party that she receives a revelation: the morals of big city society are less black-and-white than her own. She refuses to delve into that gray area. So she leaves the party, she and Peppino sell the London house, and they return to their beloved Riseholme. 

One cool fact about Lucia In London is that, when Lucia gives the address of her new house in London, she's giving out E. F. Benson's actual house. You can even visit it, if you're so inclined. I did. I didn't ring the doorbell, however, as I had left my cards at home. 

Another cool fact is that Rick Steves listed Lucia In London as a book to read for greater insight into the city in one of his guidebooks.

E F Benson: Mapp And Lucia: Lucia and Georgie travel to Tilling for a seaside holiday. They stay in the house of Elizabeth Mapp, who is renting out her house for the summer. They fall so much in love with the town that they sell their homes in Riseholme and stay in Tilling. This is the fourth novel in the "Mapp And Lucia" saga, and the best known. It has been dramatized on TV twice by the BBC. Tilling is actually Rye, a city on the southern coast of England. E. F. Benson used actual locations in the town for his characters' homes and interactions. If you visit, you can buy and map, visit those places, and remember what happened there in the books.

E F Benson: Miss Mapp: This novel introduces Miss Elizabeth Mapp, a notable resident of Tilling. It also introduces many of the other characters who populate the wonderful fictional town of Tilling. While Lucia's schemes were always bold, imaginative, and generally benefitted her friends (as well as the greater community), Miss Mapp's thoughts run constantly to saving money and protecting her own interests. But then, unlike Lucia, she's always in want of cash. She's inherited a beautiful large house, a focal point of her town, but has to scrimp and save to pay the bills while remaining a vital force in her community. So perhaps we can understand why she seems a little mean and selfish sometimes. This novel predates Mapp And Lucia, and thus Lucia's entry to the community. 

E F Benson: Mrs. Ames: This was a new paperback I found in London in 2011. It was such a thrill to buy it, as you don't typically find nice, new editions of an E F Benson book. It's a social comedy on the order of the Mapp And Lucia novels, but it predates Queen Lucia, the first in the later series, by eight years. Whereas Lucia lives is Riseholme during Queen Lucia and Lucia In London, Mrs Ames is set in a town called Riseborough. While I don't remember much about the story, I remember liking the characters, the intrigues, and the feel-good ending. Maybe I'll have to read it again soon.

E F Benson: Queen Lucia: This is the first novel in the Mapp and Lucia series. We meet Lucia and her husband in Riseholme, where she dictates the social life of the village. When a world-class opera singer buys a vacation home there, this woman disrupts Lucia's life. Suddenly nothing Lucia does seems important anymore. Even Georgie, her right-hand man, remains loyal to her. Lucia tries all kinds of things to attract her friend's attention, even hiring a traveling guru to interpret signs and portents. What I'll remember most is the opera singer's kindness. She realizes how important village life is to Lucia. So she defers to the local queen, knowing she can have the spotlight everywhere else.

E F Benson: The Worshipful Lucia In this fifth installment in the Mapp and Lucia series, Lucia starts investing her money. She educates herself by perusing the financial papers, and makes thoughtful investments. When she starts making profits, the town learns of this, and others, including Miss Mapp, follow her example. While others take their cues from Lucia, Miss Mapp decides she knows better, and in the process loses so much money that she is forced to sell her beautiful house in town. So Lucia swaps her house outside town for Miss Mapp's, along with some cash to pay Miss Mapp's debts. 

There's also a subplot about Lucia smelling odors in her new house. When workmen dig into the ground and fix a broken pipe, they uncover shards of pottery and other curiosities. Lucia sends them away, and she and Georgie do more digging. They are convinced that they have discovered Roman remains, and tell everyone in town of their important discovery. Then they connect the printing on the shards with a local manufacturer, quietly cover up the dig site, and tell everyone they're taking a break from their archeological work, but shall return to it in due course. A fun novel, if perhaps the least important in the series. But it was fun to visit the house in Rye where E. F. Benson lived, which served as Mallards, the house in which Miss Mapp and later Lucia live. I could imagine Lucia digging among the cobblestones in the street, and poring over what they found in the garden room.

E F Benson: Trouble For Lucia In some ways, this sixth and final Mapp & Lucia book is my favorite of all. One of the most colorful characters in Tilling is a young spinster named Quaint Irene. Instead of limiting herself to realistic depictions of houses and landscapes, she peoples her paintings with nudes and other elements that rock local society. So while most look down on her as hopelessly out-of-touch, with no likely prospects of the future, she gains national recognition when one of her paintings becomes celebrated in London. She also spearheads a campaign to help Lucia get elected as mayor of Tilling. 

Another interesting aspect of this novel is a social one. Up until now, people in Tilling are limited to inviting their friends over to their house if they want to socialize. While this doesn't tax someone of Lucia's financial standing, others like Mapp, who calculate the cost of everything, prefer having friends over for tea because dinner is more expensive. Everything changes when Diva Plaistow opens a tea shop in her home. Her friends, including Mapp and Lucia, find it so much easier, and expensive, to gather there. Each person can order what he or she wants, and even if they pay for the party, it still costs less, and is more convenient, than hosting a party at their house. Thus we see the introduction of a social change which sweeps through England, that of the local tea shop where friends gather for tea, refreshments, and conversation.

Eric Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Lucky Loser One British TV series I love is May To December. One of the main characters is Alec Calendar, who works as a solicitor (or, as they say in the USA, a lawyer) in Pinner, a suburb of London. His hero is Perry Mason, and he's always dreamed of defending clients in criminal court. Yet he's spent his life working on routine legal matters, such as home sales. I found this novel somewhere, and thinking of Alec Calendar, took it with me on vacation in Maui. Strangely, I can't remember anything about it.

George MacDonald: Phantastes This novel is full of vivid imagery. MacDonald's fantasies reminds me of the Chronicles of Narnia and Pilgrim's Progress. Sadly, they lack the structure and ease-of-reading of C. S. Lewis and John Bunyan. So, despite all their imagination, and everything I could have drawn meaning from, I remember them as vivid dreams that had a soporific effect. 

Gregory Benford & Gordon Eklund: Find The Changeling I wrote a lot about Benford and Ekland's earlier novel If The Stars Are Gods, but I don't think I ever mentioned Find The Changeling. I remember it as a fast-paced novel, in which two astronauts crash-land on an alien world. There they find a species that can mimic anyone's facial and body characteristics. This dark story ponders questions of identity, and asks Who we are, if we can be replaced by someone who looks and acts exactly like we do. Definitely one of those books I need to read again some time. 

Gregory Benford & William Rostler: Shiva Descending This is one of those Earth Being Destroyed By Meteors novels, kind of a mini-genre that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. I think the authors were hoping it would be developed into a movie. It certainly would have made a more memorable movie than Meteor, a film that came out in 1979 with an all-star cast, including former James Bond actor Sean Connery. I remember seeing that movie, and reading the novelization, but, well, that's all. Shiva Descending was far more memorable. Instead of one meteor, there's a storm of meteors heading toward Earth. Some of the pack strike Earth during the novel, and a crew of NASA astronauts (not truck drivers and construction workers, as in the film Armageddon) are tasked with blasting into orbit to prevent most of them from hitting the Earth. Unfortunately, society goes crazy around this time, and riots cause major havoc in cities. They even overrun NASA facilities, and impede the astronauts from trying to save the planet. Or maybe it was the religious zealots who believe that this is the end times, and nothing should prevent God from destroying the Earth. 

Usually I'm in awe of Benford's writing. But I could not connect with this novel. I don't believe that a significant percentage of the Earth's population would give way to madness in such an emergency. Despite most people's inherent need for religion, I don't believe large portions of society would opt for fundamentalism, or join sects and take up arms to kill their neighbor, or hasten the planet's doom. I don't believe that NASA astronauts, faced with such an emergency, would break mentally, turn psychotic, and try to kill their coworkers in space. At least, that's what I choose to believe.

Gregory Benford: Timescape Earth's ecosystem is collapsing as a result of pollution, the long-term effects of using chemicals in agriculture, and mankind's continual destruction of native landscapes to enlarge cities. So scientists from the present attempt to use knowledge of their mistakes to send knowledge back into the past. Nothing can save the ruin they have brought on themselves, but by alerting their earlier counterparts to the consequences of their actions, they hope to build a habitable future for themselves, even if their own future is doomed. The novel becomes a race against time, as present-day scientists at Cambridge University in England try to send these messages before their power and food supply runs out, and their air becomes unbreathable. Meanwhile, the young scientist at past-day University of California in San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla races against time to translate the messages he's getting, and convince his more established colleagues before they pull his funding and he loses the respect of the scientific community.

This is an interesting and award-winning novel. It gained such prestige that Pocket Books used the title as an imprint for noteworthy Science Fiction novels they published. I enjoyed reading it in 2011, and then reread it a few years later for a book group. While the story still resonated with me on a number of levels, I found it difficult to convey my positive feelings to others in the group. Nearly everyone in the group found reason to criticize it in nearly every way they could. They claimed Benford didn't know his San Diego geography, as a character couldn't see a landmark from where he stood in a given scene. They criticized his characters, and claimed he must be a woman-hater. They criticized his science and math, despite the fact that he made his living as a scientist and educator at UC Irvine. For whatever reason, they didn't connect with the book, and they blamed Gregory Benford for that. Given their disdain for the novel, I had to wonder why they chose to read it in the first place. Ultimately, I left that group after a few discussions, because I didn't connect with them. They're the kinds of folks I have no desire to associate with, regardless of whether or not a meteor storm is heading toward the Earth.

Jane Lindskold: Thirteen Orphans Imagine learning that you have inherited powers from another world. That happens to Brenda Morris, a college girl who is part Chinese. Her father, and others who have inherited their powers, are attacked and their memories altered. Brenda teams with an old woman who mentors her in how to use her powers to unite the other inheritors of these ancient powers, before their enemies can attack them all and erase all memory of their ancestry in this other magical land, along with the ability to use their powers to help others.

One cool aspect of this novel was that Jane Lindskold sets this novel largely in San Jose. Brenda takes up residence in her mentor's house, which is across the street from the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. I traveled to the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose back in 2009, and visited the museum, which rivaled most of the museum exhibits on ancient Egyptian society, religion, and culture. So that made for a nice tie-in between the novel and my life.

Janet Evanovich: Explosive Eighteen
Janet Evanovich: Smokin' Seventeen
Janet Evanovich: Visions of Sugar Plums
All the regular Stephanie Plum novels have numbered titles. This doesn't help the individual stories stand out from the others. Visions of Sugar Plums was a Christmas novel, and would have been a reread. It's the first Stephanie Plum novel I read, and the first time I read it, it was so wacky it nearly turned me off reading more books. Also, Visions utilizes fantasy characters and magic, which the regular numbered novels do not. But rereading the novels gives me a deeper appreciation for them. And it's an interesting example of how far you can stretch a series, if readers love it enough to give you that power.

Janet Evanovich: Wicked Appetite This was another series, about a lady who works in a bakery in Salem, Massachusetts. Diesel, the fantasy character from Visions of Sugar Plums, arrives in the home of the witch trials, and upsets her life. I didn't continue with this series, but I enjoyed reading a novel set in Salem, the ancient sea port where Nathanial Hawthorn once worked in the Custom House. While he waited for the trading ships to arrive, he would take out his notebook, and write a few paragraphs of a book such as The Scarlet Letter. Having visited Salem while attending Readercon the previous year, I enjoyed traveling back to Salem, and seeing the town through Janet Evanovich's eyes.

Joe Haldeman: Star Trek: Planet of Judgment
Joe Haldeman: Star Trek: World Without End
Two early Star Trek novels written after the TV series ended, but before the movies came out. Both are highly scientific, and the science is intelligently discussed. Even Captain Kirk reels off scientific concepts and mathematical constructs like Mr. Spock and Data (from Star Trek: The Next Generation). The one I remember most is World Without End, in which Kirk and a landing team beam inside a hollow planet. The closer they travel to the center, the weaker the gravity becomes. So ultimately, Kirk and the landing party strap on wings and fly, just like the planet's residents. 

One cool memory of the book was that Joe Haldeman thanks Gregory Benford for helping him working out the physics of water currents in lakes and rivers. Another interesting feature was that one of the novels suggests that Scotty and Uhura had romantic feelings for each other. The latter was never a feature of the original TV series, but it did emerge in the the later movies.

Jonathan Gash: Moonspender
Jonathan Gash: The Judas Pair
These are two novels featuring English antique dealer Lovejoy. The most memorable one for me is The Judas Pair. This was the first in the series, and was adapted for an episode by the TV production. The Judas Pair refers to a pair of old dueling pistols. There's also some gun mythology about the nature of a Judas pistol. Most of the gun experts Lovejoy interacts with tell him the Judas Pair doesn't exist. But due to his insatiable curiosity, Lovejoy proves differently. One aspect of the novel that was never brought out in the TV series was that Lovejoy is agoraphobic. Here he is in the pastoral English countryside, intersected by narrow roads, with few people around, and yet the vibrancy of the landscape threatens to overwhelm him, and makes him want to shut himself away at home.

Kevin J Anderson & Rebecca Moesta: Star Wars: Heirs of the Force
This was the first in a Young Adult Star Wars series by husband-and-wife team Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moestra. It centers in on Jaina and Jacen, the children of Han Solo and Princess Leia. They travel to Yavin Four, where they study in the ancient temple, and Luke Skywalker helps them develop an affinity with the Force. Yet they can't help but explore the jungles around them. In the novel, they happen upon a Tie Fighter pilot who crashed there, and does not realize that the war between the Empire and the Rebellion is over. The pilot, injured in the crash, has grown psychotic during his years of hiding out in the jungle. So the children have a job to escape his clutches, while trying to convince him that they are not his jungle, and he should not attempt to hurt those now inhabiting the ancient temple.

Timothy Zahn, a major writer of the Star Wars novel line, said that he always viewed writing the tie-in novels as playing with toys in George Lucas' driveway. The new stories were written to entertain readers, but might be declared nonCanonical at any time in the future. His words proved prophetic when Disney bought Lucasfilm, and declared that all the thousands of Star Wars novels written to that point were nonCanonical. So in the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we learn that Princess Leia and Han Solo have split up. We only meet one son, Ben, who has turned to the dark ways of the Sith. Personally, I liked Jaden and Jacen, along with their younger sibling Anakin, much better. But that's just me.

Larry Niven, Poul Anderson & Dean Ing: The Man-Kzin Wars 1
Larry Niven created the Kzin, a predatory, sentient feline species, in short stories and the novel Ringworld. Later, he wrote a story for the animated series of Star Trek, in which the Enterprise crew encounter a group of Kzin. In the Man-Kzin Wars series of books, he offers the bulk of the book to other authors, after starting it off with a previously unpublished story of his own.

Lisa Goldstein: Dark Cities Underground In this novel, characters in San Francisco uncover strange happenings in the city's underground BART system. The trains take them to interesting underground places, where a magical people and trains exist. Then they emerge via the London Underground, and have to have their friends and family mail their passports (and money) to them so they can fly home. The novel also features Egyptian gods and mythology, which was a nice link to my 2009 visit to the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose. This was a fun, basic story, that would appeal to Young Adult readers.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Cryoburn This novel, in an odd way, reminds me of Gregory Benford and Allen Steele. Gregory Benford, as a scientist and science fiction writer, is a real believer in Cryonics. When he dies, he has apparently planned to have his body cryogenically frozen, in the hopes that in the decades (or more likely, the centuries) to come, medical expertise will allow him to be brought back to life. 

In Allen Steele's novel A King of Infinite Space, the protagonist awakes in the future. His aging body has been replaced with a young one, but all his carefully laid financial plans have gone wrong. He is now a slave, the property of the person who bought him as a commodity. 

In Bujold's novel, her popular character Miles Vorkosigan investigates a cryonics corporation. He discovers that bodies have been preserved using cut-rate fluids, materials, and other processes. In the process, many of the bodies have degraded so that the people can never be resurrected. 

Cryogenics offers us hope of another life, or potentially everlasting life in our mortal bodies. Cryoburn reminds us that while the emerging field of Cryogenics holds great potential, the potential of something going wrong during the physical process of preservation, storage, and reincarnation is highly probable, given the long span of time involved, and the all-too-Human natures of those charged with caring for our delicate bodies.

Michael Palin: Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years Michael Palin made a commitment to writing down his thoughts and reflections during this period. Obviously, the period is dominated by his involvement with Monty Python, as the entries start during the first TV series. I wrote several blog entries on how the Pythons worked hard to cash in on their success, and retain the rights to their material. In his entries, we also learn about his life, family and his friends, the other entertainment deals he makes, and the gradual dissolution of his long-time writing partnership with fellow Python Terry Jones. 

One aspect of his life that stuck with me was the appalling state Michael Palin's teeth. Visits to the dentist take up numerous entries, and he is always making strange references to Americans' teeth, as if they're artificially nice-looking. But then, he ends up with dentures during this time. These entries, and general stigma surrounding "British teeth," make me wonder what part of British society lets so many people down, so that this stereotype exists.

Michael Palin met his friend Terry Jones at Oxford University, where they participated in a comedy group called The Oxford Revue. Other future Pythons attended Cambridge University, where they participated in a comedy group called the Cambridge Footlights. When you think of these two world famous universities, you think of august halls, serious professors, and intrigues and rivalries so intense that they might just lead to murder. How many people think of these centuries old centers of learning, and associate them with world-famous comedians? 

One final memory of the book was how Michael's Palin's success in Python opened up other opportunities. Because he had proved himself in one venture, people in Britain and America offered him other opportunities to explore his creativity. He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his own TV productions. He wrote screenplays and produced movies. He even wrote novels for children and adults. I enjoyed reading how free he felt to explore the opportunities Monty Python granted him. It demonstrates how one success in your life can lead to others. But it also underlines how you have to know the right people, and achieve that success, in order to capitalize on it. 

Mike (Shepherd) Moscoe: The First Casualty
Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere
Neil Gaiman: Odd & the Frost Giants
Patricia C Wrede: Snow White and Red Rose
Peter F Hamilton: The Naked God: Flight
Reginald Hill: A Clubbable Woman
Richard Castle: Heat Wave
Richard Castle: Naked Heat
Richard Sapir & Warren Murphy: The Destroyer: The Head Men
Robert Silverberg: Nightwings
Robert Silverberg: To Live Again
Roger Zelazny: Collected Stories 1: Threshold
Romano Guardini: The Art of Praying
Steven Brust: Dzur
Steven Brust: Iorich
Steven Brust: Issola
Steven Brust: Jegaala
Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Emperors

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman: Good Omens

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