Books Read in August, 2021
Answers in the form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear
Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy by Gareth Wronski
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock
Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson (r)
July, 2021 Locus
The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow
Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker (r)
The Dolphins of Laurentum by Caroline Lawrence
And that was my reading for August, 2021. This was a pretty good month of reading for me, especially given the limited use of my hands and all. While my reading time was somewhat impacted by this (and I was still having bad headaches, as well), the quantity and quality of the books I read was pretty decent. Once more, this was a month of reading for the joy of it, rather than reading out of boredom or having nothing better to do. Regardless, my bookcases are still stacked with a pretty large To Read Queue (TRQ). The books I enjoyed the most were:
Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear
What is the smartest, most celebrated game show of all time? In this insider's guide, discover the rich history of the beloved game show that has shaped our culture and entertained audiences for years. Jeopardy! is a lot of things: record-setting game show, beloved family tradition, and proving ground for many of North America's best and brightest. Nearly four decades into its current edition, Jeopardy! now finds itself facing unprecedented change. This is the chronicle of how the show became a cross-generational touchstone and where it's going next. Answers in the Form of Questions dives deep behind the scenes, with long-time host Alex Trebek talking about his life and legacy and the show's producers and writers explaining how they put together the nightly game. Readers will travel to bar trivia showdowns with the show's biggest winners and training sessions with trivia whizzes prepping for their shot on-stage. And they'll discover new tales of the show's most notable moments - like the time the Clue Crew almost slid off a glacier - and learn how celebrity cameos and Saturday Night Live spoofs built a television mainstay. Answers in the Form of Questions looks to the past — and the future — to explain what Jeopardy! really is: a tradition unlike any other. Let me say, first of all, that while I don't know whether this is a definitive history of Jeopardy!, it was a well-written and enjoyable read. I suspect that, like most people who would be inclined to read this book, I am a big fan of Jeopardy!, and as such, I thought that author McNear really does justice to this American institution that is in its 37th season of existence. I thought the author was able to strike a good balance between information and education, while making the contestants of the show the stars, much as late host Alex Trebek was able to do for so many years. One of the best aspects of this book is the thoughts and ruminations of the various contestants of the show. The reader is given a bird's eye view of the show from the likes of consummate champion Ken Jennings, rogue Austin Rogers, and other various and sundry individuals who participated in the Jeopardy! experience. The lesson here for the most part is that the challenge of proving to oneself that one has the mettle to achieve trivia noteworthiness is the goal, and that being a member of the Jeopardy! extended family far outweighs any monetary gain that might be earned. Another element that makes for a good read is learning about much of what goes on behind the scenes at Jeopardy!. The author provides an excellent account of how contestants are picked and the various people who make the game seem so seamless on television. There are some truly remarkable people behind the Jeopardy! curtain, including producer Maggie Speak, whose welcoming personality calmed the nerves of many of the introvert (would-be) contestants or senior coordinator Corina Nusu who relaxed everyone with a rendition of "Sweet Caroline." There are also times when author McNear turns the focus to herself. There's a nice anecdote where she visits a bar in Santa Monica which showcases some of the most brilliant trivia masterminds in a Pub Night Trivia thing, and it offers some insight into the author as well. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Claire McNear was meticulous in her interviews, and I really enjoyed learning about past participants. Jeopardy! is a timeless game show that often brings families together to watch the episodes, but as the book shows, there is a Jeopardy! family made up of the various contestants that is quite tangled in its relationships at times (and yes, romance has also occurred between contestants as a result of their appearance on the show!), but that has an esprit de corps that makes it unique among game shows. This book is a highly enjoyable, relatively quick read, and I recommend it for both die-hard Jeopardy! fans, but also to those who want to take a quick peak behind the scenes of this game show and its institution. And finally, one last statement: Rest In Peace, Alex Trebek (1940-2020).
Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy by Gareth Wronski
Holly Farb is not the Princess of the Galaxy. She may be top of the class in every subject, but she can't even win a school election, never mind rule the Milky Way. The aliens who kidnapped her have gotten it all wrong. Unfortunately, Holly's alien pirate kidnappers believe that she's the princess they've been looking for, and so she finds herself hurtling through space on an alien pirate ship together with her teacher, Mr. Mendez, and Chester, the most annoying boy in her class. Now all she has to do is escape the pirates, find the missing princess, and get back to Earth in time for her big test on Friday. But it turns out that space is a pretty big place, and before they can go home, Holly, Chester and Mr. Mendez must face down space cruise liners, bounty hunters, giant worms, perky holograms, cosmic board games, sinister insectoid librarians, and a robot who is learning how to lie. Between running from space pirates, defying the President of the Universe, and meeting a host of rather unusual new friends, Holly starts to wonder if there might be more to life than being top of the class after all. One of the reasons I decided to check this book out was because of the comparisons made between it and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, I know that's an odd thing to say in terms of a book written for kids and young adults. And the book does live up to that hype, believe it or not. This space adventure for young readers is full of exactly the type of ridiculous but intelligent humour that Douglas Adams brought to his series, but Gareth Wronski (an author that I've not heard of before) works his own magic in that sense here. The president of the galaxy is a squirrel, the robot who's along for the ride insists he can only tell facts (fact is, this is not entirely true), the department of justice is named after a soda company that provides it funding (and gets to mandate all its policy in return)...and...and so much more. However, when it comes down to it, the book is an interesting mix of deadpan and frantic. On the frantic side, the reader is given a plot that never lets up and keeps Holly constantly on the move. A new, weird creature shows up every few pages and the twists and turns just keep coming. But Holly's game for it and she's resourceful, so she just keeps rolling with the plot punches. On the other hand, though, there's a lot of sly, deadpan humour sprinkled about. It's not all lurking and escaping and taking flight. Holly has some interesting and witty conversations with these nutty creatures, and there are some set pieces (a needy robot with issues, a crowded space travel terminal, a robot who's learning how to lie, the story's narrator (who's sarcastic and rather dismissive of Earthlings), fellow student Chester), that are much more amusing and sharply drawn than the antics and premise would suggest. There's even some nice sub-text about friendship and being your own person. This is a rousing space adventure, but it's more tightly crafted and slyly constructed than just that, and ends up being a rewarding and entertaining ride. I recommend this book, both to younger readers and adults.
Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
In 1912, history was changed by the Miracle, when the old world of Europe was replaced by Darwinia, a strange land of nightmarish jungle and antedeluvian monsters. To some, the Miracle is an act of divine retribution; to others, it is an opportunity to carve out a new empire. Leaving an America now ruled by religious fundamentalism, young Guilford Law travels to Darwinia on a mission of discovery that will take him further than he can possibly imagine...to a shattering revelation about mankind's destiny in the universe. This book is my first re-read of the month, and in many ways is an amazing novel. Portraying an alien ecology gaining a foothold on Earth, Darwinia is reminiscent of other books, for example, Ian McDonald's Evolution's Shore. The book harks back in tone to the works of Burroughs and Lovecraft, as author Wilson paints a relatively fluid, enthralling picture of unearthly wildlife, as well as one of humans struggling to understand this bizarre, enigmatic squatter in their midst. This tale is interlaced with the story of the ambitious, yet kindly, Guilford Law. He yearns for a normal life, feeling that the reward of his work with the expedition will give his family the security he desires, although his doubts about Finch's theory give him pause. Thus, the young man is a fascinating, complex figure with which to carry the story. Other characters, including a spiritualist/con man, a frontiersman, and a skeptical scientist, prove equally fascinating and make the book a fun, solid read. This novel is full of surprises, turning as it does in a direction quite different from that which it seems to take in the beginning. That said, this twist makes for a highly satisfying, enjoyable science fiction adventure read. I highly recommend this book.
The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow
Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world's population. Seventeen-year-old Janelle "Ellie" Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. With humans deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, emotional expression can be grounds for execution. Music, art and books are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library. When a book goes missing, Ellie is terrified that the Ilori will track it back to her and kill her. Born in a lab, M0Rr1S was raised to be emotionless. When he finds Ellie's illegal library, he's duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. They're both breaking the rules for the love of art - and Ellie inspires the same feelings in him that music does. Ellie's - and humanity's - fate rests in the hands of an alien she should fear. M0Rr1S has a lot of secrets, but also a potential solution - thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous road trip with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while creating a story and a song of their own that just might save them both. This is a very good, wonderful young-adult novel of alien invasion with a touch of Fahrenheit 451 added for good measure. An alien race called the Ilori invade and then start to colonize Earth, and the first thing they do is ban humanity's literature, music, and culture. The human heroine, Janelle ("Ellie" for a lot of the book) is a secret librarian of sorts, spreading a little hope and knowledge among the now-subjugated humans by lending out illicit novels to her friends and neighbors. Janelle is a pretty memorable character - she's distinctive, introverted, creative, thoughtful, and brave despite her self-doubts. M0Rr1S is a labmade, exactly what it sounds like, designed in this case to be able to live on Earth and among humans, with the mission to prepare the planet for final colonization. (However, what the Ilori have in mind for Earth is much worse than mere colonization, but that would be spoiling things!) However, unlike the supposedly un-emotional true Ilori, Morris (I'll use Ellie's name for him) is much more than he seems - and he has fallen in love with Earth's music, books, and culture, and is highly emotional, though he hides it well among his fellow labmades and when dealing with true Ilori. Needless to say, Janelle and Morris's path come smack together when he finds her trove of books, and the two become involved in a relationship that slowly, over the course of the novel, develops into love. However, Morris has a lot of secrets - including some he doesn't even know about). But their relationship is what powers this book, which quite deftly intertwines the social tensions of alien occupation with the real-life, contemporary social tensions of our already-stratified human society. When it's said and done, this book is about the power of storytelling, and art as a tool for resilience and resistance in the face of alien invasion. There's a few unexpected developments towards the end of the book that in retrospect I should have seen coming, but I found them to be pleasant surprises. While the novel starts somewhat slowly, I highly recommend this book to readers of all ages. And I really hope there will be a sequel!
Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker (r)
In the 24th Century, the Company preserves works of art and extinct forms of life, for profit, of course. It recruits orphans from the past, renders them all but immortal, and trains them to serve the Company, Dr. Zeus. One of these is Mendoza the botanist. The death of her lover has been followed by centuries of heartbreak. She spends a period of time in early Twentieth Century Hollywood in the days of D.W. Griffith, and then Mendoza is in the midst of the Civil War, and runs into a man, Edward Alton-Fairfax, who looks disturbingly similar to her lost love. She is about to find love again, and be in more trouble than she could ever have imagined. This is the third book in The Company series by the late Kage Baker, and is my third re-read of the month so far. Time continues to move forward (has it ever moved backward?) in this third book in the series. The illustrious, immortal Mendoza has to deal with some tough, hard issues in this installment. When we last left her in Sky Coyote, Mendoza had gone off into early 18th Century northern California where she could be alone and study her plants, away from the strange and disgusting mortals (that would be us normal human beings) that surrounded her. This third book is a masterpiece, giving the reader everything from social commentary to fascinating characters to mystery and more. The reader gets a brief glimpse of the future, but sees nothing but agonizing hints as to what is going on. Yet the story is quite simple in its complexity. The name of the game in Mendoza in Hollywood is character interaction, and Baker provides us with a wonderful group of characters. They are each portrayed in loving, vivid detail, from the young Juan Batista, who is tasked with collecting rare birds but becomes too attached to them, to the film buff Einar, who brings in the entertainment for the staff at the outpost; this usually consists of rare movies, including the original 8-hour cut of Erich Von Stroheim's Greed and D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. The latter movie is a wonderful character set piece, as the soundtrack is gone and Einar (along with Imarte, who actually lived in ancient Babylon) does the commentary for the entire film. The entire sequence is a magical bit of comedy and character development, and gives the reader everything that Sky Coyote (though I still love that book) didn't. Other cast members are equally well developed and portrayed, with Porfirio (the outpost's security officer and commander) being the most bland. Still, he is given some history that helps define Mendoza's character, as she finds out that not all immortals have cut their familial ties with the mortal world. Oscar is a real treat, though - he's a salesman who is supposed to study living conditions of people in the area. He goes door to door, trying to sell items and get a look inside the domestic life of his customers. Mendoza accompanies him on some of his jaunts, and the scenes are just delightfully funny. While there is a running sub-plot of a British conspiracy with the Confederates for control of California (sparked by the neglectful act of leaving his briefcase by one of Imarte's johns), most of the story is about Mendoza and her interactions with these characters. Every page of this book builds up her sense of isolation and her desolation over the death of her lover 300 years ago. She despises mortals because of how weak they are and how ideological they can be. Yet every one of her companions loves interacting with them and has their own way of dealing with them. As Mendoza observes, she feels more and more alone. The author does a wonderful job of illustrating the burdens of immortality. Some people can deal with it (Joseph, Mendoza's mentor who isn't actually in this book, has been alive for thousands of years), but she can't seem to. The book loses a little bit of steam when the conspiracy plot takes center stage, though the author keeps the focus clearly on Mendoza and what's happening with her lover's doppelganger. Their interaction becomes the highlight of the book, and the mystery of who and what Edward Alton-Fairfax is keeps the book fresh and entertaining. Baker really has brought Mendoza to life in this story, and her ultimate fate is heartbreaking, yet slightly uplifting. This book is a winner, readable on its own, but will benefit from the reader taking on the first two novels in the series first. I highly recommend the book and of course, the series.
The Dolphins of Laurentum by Caroline Lawrence
The month is October, the year AD 79. The place is Ostia, near Rome. Flavia Gemina, the sea captain's daughter, is at home with her friends Jonathan, Lupus, and Nubia when the arrival of a ragged man shocks them all. To her horror, Flavia learns that her family is in danger of losing everything they own. Events take the children to an opulent seaside villa at Laurentum, a few miles south of Ostia. When they discover a sunken wreck full of treasure, it seems to be the answer to all their problems. But someone else is after the treasure, too. As they try to recover it, they also solve the terrible mystery of Lupus's past. This book is the fifth book in the author's Roman Mysteries series, and is probably my favourite book thus far. In this novel, Flavia Gemina and her three friends must save her father's house from being confiscated by creditors, try to get revenge on a hated slave-trader, and also dive for sunken treasure. And if that's not enough, there are kindly and helpful dolphins! While this novel starts off as the tale of how Flavia's family is about to lose everything to creditors, including their house, but it turns into something else. The real story in this fifth book is about how Lupus's friends (and by extension the reader) learn the story of how Lupus became the mute orphan that he is, and to be honest, there are some shocking revelations in this tale. However, they all fit within the nature and manner of the Roman world. All of the children characters come across well in the story, but the tale is about Lupus, and he undergoes the biggest change in the story in terms of character development. This is exemplified by the final paragraph of the story, which I won't spoil for (potential) readers, and I look forward to seeing how Lupus comes across in future volumes of the series. I will also comment here that Flavia shows some true personality in the story, and the sacrifice that she makes for her family's sake is wonderful and I applaud the author for having the "gun" that we've seen in earlier books pay off dividends in this one. While the dolphins of the book's title don't play a huge role in the story, the book is about what they symbolize and I rather enjoyed the watery sequences involving these wonderful animals that are as intelligent, if not more so, as human beings. I learned several things about the ancient Roman world while reading this book, notably that the Latin word for a sponge- or pearl-diver is urinator (I looked it up, and it really is), and was introduced to a story from from the famous Natural History of Pliny the Elder (who died heroically during the eruption of Vesuvius in the second book of this series). Pliny had told about a dolphin who committed suicide by swimming onto dry land when the boy he had befriended died. While I'm not sure how accurate the whole portrayal of sponge- or pearl-diving is from the book, and whether dolphins really act the way that the ones near Laurentum (hence the title of the story!) do, author Lawrence has done her research pretty well for this story. There's a high "ick!" factor when maggots are used to clean a wound and when a monstrous octopus is dispatched, and there's definitely an accuracy to what's portrayed here that works well. One thing I've noticed about the five books in this series so far is that there's a good degree of cliff-hangers at the end of every short chapter, and some non-stop action, and The Dolphins of Laurentum is no exception. This book is a solid read, and it keeps the reader reading for those very reasons. That said, death is common in these books, reflecting the Roman world in which they are set, and the children are sometimes seriously injured. I had my doubts about one being saved by CPR in the story, but my suspicions were eased by the fact that the boy who performed the CPR is Jonathan, the son of a doctor, and he said that he saved his friend by "breathing part of his own spirit" into him. As I said to start this review, The Dolphins of Laurentum is my favourite book in the series, and while I recommend reading the series, I highly recommend this book, even though it isn't a stand-alone book.
Overall, I managed to read 7 novels, 0 RPG and RPG products, 1 magazines, 0 comics, and 0 graphic novels in August. This brings the year total in 2021 to a set of numbers that look like this: 49 books, 13 RPGs and RPG products, 14 magazines, 37 comics, and 0 graphic novels.
Anyway, thoughts and comments are always welcome. :)