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Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Book Name: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
First Published: 1889

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Missouri, two weeks after Halley’s Comet appeared in 1835. After his father died of pneumonia, young Clemens apprenticed at the age of 12 as a typesetter for his brother’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. It is there that he gained his first writing experiences by creating articles and funny sketches for the newspaper. Instead of attending school, he learned by reading at the public libraries. He claimed that he found more information at the library than he ever would at a traditional school.

When he was 18, he left Hannibal and went to work as a printer in New York City among other places. He joined the newly formed International Typographical Union. He moved around a great deal, traveling on the packet Keokuk in 1854 and lived in Muscatine during 1855. The Muscatine newspaper published eight of his travelogues.

During a journey to New Orleans down the Mississippi river, steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby talked Clemens into becoming a pilot himself. Clemens studied for two years before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859. A steamboat pilot eclipsed the prestige and authority of the captain of the vessel due to the extensive knowledge that was needed to guide the boat down the ever-changing river and knowing the hundreds of ports to access. A pilot also earned a rewarding salary for his efforts. It was during this time when Clemens developed the pen name of Mark Twain, taken from the cry “mark twain” for a measured river depth of two fathoms. He might have remained a riverboat pilot but for the start of the American Civil War. When war broke out in 1861, all traffic along the Mississippi was curtailed.

At the start of the war, Clemens enlisted briefly in the Confederate military, but soon left for Nevada to work for his brother Orion, the Secretary to James W. Nye, the Governor of Nevada Territory. Eventually, Clemens settled in Nevada as a miner on the Comstock Lode. He did not make a good living as a miner and soon returned to writing. He wrote under his new pen name, Mark Twain, for the first time at a Virginia City newspaper called The Territorial Enterprise. Later, his experiences on the American frontier would inspire his famous short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County which was published in The Saturday Press, a New York weekly. Twain continued to write and travel all across American and even to the Hawaiian Islands, as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. His travelogues were popular and would become the basis for his future lecture series.

During a trip to the Holy Land, Clemens met Charles Langdon and the man happened to show Clemens the picture of his sister. Later, Clemens would admit that he had fallen in love with Olivia Langdon that day solely on viewing her image. He later met and pursued Olivia until she agreed to be his wife. They moved to Hartfort, Connecticut and lived there for almost two decades. It is at the home in Hartford where Clemens wrote most of his popular novels including: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, features a time traveler from his contemporary American, using the knowledge of science to introduce modern technology to Arthurian England. This type of storyline would later become a common feature of the science fiction sub-genre, alternate history. It also reads as a good fantasy novel.

Clemens grew wealthy from his writing, but due to several poor investments, such as the Paige typesetting machine and by buying into a publishing house that picked poor performers, his gains all but disappeared. In 1895, Clemens organized a world tour with the help of his friend, Henry Rogers, where he gave lectures about his travels and of his famous stories. It was a five year journey, but would prove to be a hit. He was able to repay his debts and to continue to support his family.

Disaster struck the Clemens’ household in 1910, a decade after his successful world tour. One by one, his wife, two of their daughters and his friend Rogers all died within a short time span. This put the author into a spiral of depression that he never quite recovered from. All his life he had told of having visions of the future. Clemens predicted that he would die on the return of Halley’s Comet and he was right – he died on April 21, 1910, a day after the comet reappeared.

My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. – Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court begins with Hank Morgan, a 19th century gunsmith from Connecticut, gets hit on the head during a fight and wakes up in Camelot. He thinks that he should run things since he is the most advanced man in the world, but instead he is ridiculed for his odd appearance and is sentenced to be burned at the stake. Hank knows from his study of history that his execution date coincides with a famous solar eclipse. He threatens the king that he will make the sun disappear if he executes him. When the eclipse occurs, the people are convinced of Hank’s power and the King appoints him as chief minister.

Hank observes the medieval ways of the people and sees the rampant ignorance and suffering of the poor. He clashes with Merlin, the king’s previous chief adviser and top sorcerer in the land. In a fit of jealousy, Merlin spreads rumors that Hank is a fraud. To combat this, Hank rigs Merlin’s tower with explosives and a lightning rod, causing a fire that Merlin fails to prevent with his magic. In another incident, Merlin declares that a fountain has dried up and will never work again because of a demon haunting it. Hank fixes the leak and gets the fountain flowing again.

Hank also uses his knowledge and his authority as the king’s minister to modernize the country and contradict medieval teachings. Assisted by a young boy named Clarence, he sets up secret schools and factories of tools. Hank only allows his hand-picked open-minded people to enter. He goes on to construct modern infrastructure and goes on an adventure with a girl named Sandy. One day, Hank and King Arthur disguise themselves as peasants in order to see how the poor people really live. They get arrested and sold to slavery, and are about to be hanged. Sir Lancelot and the other knights rescue them but the king, horrified by his experience, promises to abolish slavery, which delights Hank.

Sir Sagramore, challenges Hank to a duel to the death upon his return from his Holy Grail quest. Hank wins the day by enlisting the help of a dozen other knights, a lasso, and a revolver. He then reveals the modern infrastructure he has created. He later marries Sandy and they have a child together.

Strangely enough, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first Mark Twain novel that I ever read. I was inspired to pick up the book after seeing the movie by the same name starring Bing Crosby. Later, due to prodding from English teachers, I would go on to read his more famous works, but this novel has always stuck with me. The satire about the politics of his day reminded me of other classic authors such as Lewis Carrol, Charles Dickens and others of that time period. It is an early novel of alternate history and a true child of the speculative fiction genre. I fully believe that by reading the classics in a genre, you learn the conventions and gain a stronger understanding of it as a writer. That is why I would recommend this novel to be on a must-read list, in addition to his other more well known titles.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court Book CoverMark Twain was more than an author, he was an inventor, an adventurer, a steamboat pilot and more. His writing and wit inspires me as an author, but his life inspires me as well. Samuel Clemens did not succeed at everything he attempted, but he never gave up and continued to search for what worked for him. Now he is remembered for being one of the best American authors in history.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is available for free download at Project Gutenberg.

Book Review: The Children of Men

Book Name: The Children of Men
Author: P.D. James
First Published: 1992

Phyllis Dorothy James, commonly known as P.D. James, was born on August 3, 1920 in Oxford. She studied at the British School in Ludlow and Cambridge High School for Girls. Her father, Sidney James, was a tax inspector.

Due to financial constraints and her father’s belief that girls did not need higher education, James left school when she was 16 years old. She worked for several years before she married army doctor Ernest Connor Bantry in 1941. The couple had two daughters, Jane and Claire, but when her husband returned from World War II, he was mentally ill and was placed in a psychiatric institution. James was forced to be the family breadwinner until her husband died in 1964. She studied hospital administration and worked in the National Health Service from 1949 to 1968.

James began writing in the mid-1950s. Two years after her first novel Cover Her Face was published, she began working in the criminal section of the Home Office in the UK. She continued being a public servant until her retirement. James used her work experience in many of her novels. Much of her work feature UK’s bureaucracies, such as the National Health Service and the criminal justice system.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Literature. She has won several awards for her writing and was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1983. She became a life peer in the House of Lords in 1991 and President of the Society of Authors in 1997. In 2008, she was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame at the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards.

P.D. James is most popular for her detective series starring the policeman Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. In the 1980s, several of James’ mystery novels were made into television shows and aired in the UK as well as in other countries such as the USA. Her dystopian novel, The Children of Men, was adapted into a 2006 feature film starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine.

Charm is often despised but I can never see why. No one has it who isn’t capable of genuinely liking others, at least at the actual moment of meeting and speaking. Charm is always genuine; it may be superficial but it isn’t false. – P.D. James

It is the year 2021. The world population is steadily decreasing and there is mass infertility. People last gave birth in 1995 and humanity is facing imminent extinction. In desperation, people are treating newborn animals as their babies. The members of the youngest generation, called “Omegas”, are now all adults but are spoiled, violent, and contemptuous of their elders. Nevertheless, they are prized for their youth and are thus treated to luxurious lifestyles and are never punished. The British Omegas are prohibited from leaving the country but workers from poorer countries are lured and made to do the undesirable work then sent back once they reach 60. The old and the sick are considered a burden, with only the privileged ones given care while the rest are encouraged or even forced to kill themselves in a legalized mass drowning called Quietus.

The rich and influential Xan Lyppiatt is the self-appointed Warden of England and has replaced democracy with an egalitarian regime due to the people’s lack of interest in politics. Dr. Theodore “Theo” Faron, a historian at the Oxford University and Xan’s cousin, is approached by Julian, a female dissident who belongs to the group Five Fishes. The group wants Theo’s help in asking Xan to implement reforms before they start a revolution. The rebels want Xan to bring back democracy, to shut down the isolated penal colony on the Isle of Man, and to stop the mass suicide of the old and the infirm. Theo agrees but his meeting with Xan ends up being a meeting with all the five members of the Council of England, the country’s governing body. The meeting is a failure as Xan does not agree with the demands. Xan suspects that Theo’s suggestions come from others and plans to move against the dissidents.

The State Secret Police visits Theo and the latter tells Julian about the visit before traveling around Europe for several months to see the continent before it becomes overrun by nature. When he returns, he finds out that the dissidents have continued the revolution by distributing pamphlets and sabotaging wharves and that one of them has been arrested while attempting to blow up a mass suicide facility. Theo also learns that Julian is pregnant. At first, he thinks Julian is just delusional, but changes his mind when he hears the baby’s heartbeat. The group now struggles to keep Julian and her baby safe during their flight.

My first exposure to PD James was via the motion picture The Children of Men starring Clive Owen and Micheal Cain. I found the storyline and concept of the movie to be unique and later, I went on to read the book that the movie was based on. I discovered that the film and the book are rather different. The movie had plenty of suspense and action, while the book delved more into the political makeup of this futuristic England and had long passages of description that perhaps could have been shorter and to the point.

The Children of Men Book CoverThe idea of the Omega generation is chilling. The thought that this was the end of humanity and no more after us, is heartbreaking. I can see some of the behavior of the women in this book in today’s culture. Many people are child-free and do dote on their pets as if they were children, just as the characters in James’ book would push dolls around in prams or christen their cats. After I finished the book, I confess that it was good to see our neighborhood kids playing outside as usual. Global infertility has not quite reached us yet.

Dystopian science fiction lets us see into a dark possible future, but shining a light into those shadows is often a way to avoid the pitfalls ahead. I recommend reading The Children of Men, it is a classic that should be experienced.

Book Review: The Eternity Brigade

Book Name: The Eternity Brigade
Author: Stephan Golden
First Published: 1980

Stephan Golden was born in Philadelphia. When he was 13, his parents moved to California and he has been a resident of the Golden State ever since. He studied Astronomy at UCLA and this was the time when the first of his science fiction short stories began to publish. After he earned his Bachelor’s degree, he took work with the U.S. Navy as a civilian space scientist. The steady paycheck was good with the Navy, but his writing continued to take off. He began to publish his first novels at this time. After a few years with the Navy, he decided to write full-time. He took a job working as a writer and editor for a pornographic humor paper known as the San Francisco Ball. He has also worked as a game designer and manual writer for games. Mr. Golden has served as the editor of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Bulletin and has been their Western Regional Director. He is still busy writing novels and has over 40 titles to his name.

Mr. Golden has been married twice, first to Kathleen Sky and then to fellow author Mary Mason. He has co-written books with both of them and he and Mary are still working on a series of novels today.

Jack Hawker is an American soldier who has lived and fought in a war during a time near to our present day. He has no one to come home to, so when he is offered a chance to join a new army program where the soldiers are cryogenically stored until they are needed for the next war, he volunteers. When Hawker awakens, he is years in the future and disoriented, but he fights with his unit, bonding with his fellow soldiers. At the end of the war, he and the other soldiers of the brigade are stored again.

The story moves on through centuries of time where the methods of warfare and civilization itself changes beyond reason. The soldiers of the brigade are no longer frozen, their patterns and memories are captured in giant databases where they can be called upon at will to fight for who ever holds the keys to the machines. Eventually, the database is duplicated and Hawker finds himself fighting against versions of himself. Life and death loses its meaning since whenever a soldier falls in battle, he or she is recreated for the next battle with only the memories of that one battle lost.

Hawker has no life and he has been cheated of death. He longs to die for real, to end the madness of being a soldier at war for all eternity. He devises a plan to cheat the system and find his way out of the madness.

The Eternity Brigade Book CoverI understand that Mr. Golden has reworked this novel and has published a “final edition” of the novel in 2010. I have not read this edition of the book, but instead remember the original novel that was published in 1980. It is a story that has stayed with me all these years and one that I feel is worth re-reading today. It reminded me of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and indeed, Mr. Golden does credit this author as inspiration for his own book.

The Eternity Brigade is a fast read with a chilling concept at its core. There is combat on Earth, in space and on other planets, plenty of sex, and the certain loneliness that soldiers in any time period faces. Sometimes the aliens seem more out of an episode of Star Trek than what we think of aliens in fiction today, but for all its small flaws, somewhat weak world building, and flat secondary characters, the story of Hawker and what he faces is a story that will grip you while reading and then stay with you for years. Give The Eternity Brigade a read. I believe it should be on the must-read list of science fiction aficionados.

Book Review: The Lost World

Book Name: The Lost World
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
First Published: 1912

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1859. Both of his parents were of Irish descent. Given support by wealthy uncles, Doyle went to a Roman Catholic Jesuit Prep School and then onto college. Despite attending a Jesuit school, he would later reject religion and become agnostic. After college, he went on to medical school. It was during this time that he began to write short stories. He enjoyed writing adventure stories set in far away locations such as Africa or South America. He also wrote many non-fiction articles, his first was titled Posion and published in the British Medical Journal (1879).

Doyle went on to practice medicine as a doctor on a Greenland Whaler named Hope of Peterhead in 1880 and after his graduation from university, became a ship’s surgeon on the SS Mayumba that journeyed along the West African coastline. In 1882, he joined a former classmate to practice medicine in Plymouth, but eventually opened his own practice. He was unable to find many patients at first and to pass the time, he once again took up writing short stories. It was at this time that he began to develop the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, a fictional series for which he is very famous and was later knighted for.

In 1885, Doyle married his first wife, Mary Louise Hawkins, who was the sister of one of Doyle’s patients. They had two children together. Mary suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1906. Doyle met and fell in love with Jean Elizabeth Leckie years before his wife Mary died, but had simply remained friends with Jean out of faithfulness to his first wife. Once he was free, he married Jean after a year’s mourning period. They had three children together. Jean passed in 1940.

Doyle was active in the politics of his day. One of his many causes was being a supporter for the reform of the Congo Free State led by the journalist E.D. Morel and diplomat Roger Casement. During 1909 he wrote The Crime of the Congo, an article where he denounced the horrific goings on at this colony. It is thought that these two men, along with Bertram Fletcher Robinson, were the inspiration for the characters in his serial novel The Lost World. Later, Doyle turned away from Casement and Morel when they joined the pacifist movement during the Great War. When Casement was later found guilty of treason during the Easter Rising and faced the death penalty, Doyle attempted to save him, but his arguments that Casement had been driven mad by his circumstances went unheeded.

Doyle died of a heart attack in 1930. There was some controversy about where he was to be buried since he was not a Christian and considered himself to be a spiritualist. Eventually, he was interned with his wife in New Forest, Hampshire. The inscription on his grave reads in part:

Steel true
Blade straight
Arthur Conan Doyle
Knight/Patriot, Physician, and man of letters

The Lost World begins with Edward Malone proposing marriage to the woman he loves, Gladys Hungerton. The problem is, she does not love him. To put him off, she bids him to go prove himself in the world, to allow her to inspire him to do great deeds. If he does this, she will consent to marry him. Malone sets off to do this “noble quest” in order to win her heart.

Malone is a reporter for the Daily Gazette and asks his editor to give him a dangerous assignment. He is told to interview Professor George Edward Challenger to discover if the man’s claims of the uncharted territories of South America are true. There is some risk in Malone’s going for the Professor has assaulted other journalists that have gone before him.

After a scuffle, Professor Challenger admits to his discovery of living dinosaurs in South America and he invites Malone to join him on another expedition into the area in order to prove his story. Malone accepts and they set off along with Professor Summerlee, another scientist, and Lord John Roxton, an adventurer and guide. After a great deal of travel, they reach the jungle plateau where Challenger claims the dinosaurs live. As the team enters the plateau, one of their Indian guides, who’s brother was killed by Roxton, destroys the bridge back to the base camp, trapping them with no way back. The other Indian guides, who were superstitious of the plateau and didn’t wish to go further, all leave. Only Zambo, their “devoted negro” remains at the base.

The exploration team meets several challenges in “the lost world” of the jungle plateau. They are attacked by pterodactyls in a swamp, Roxton finds a blue clay that fascinates him, finally part of the team is captured by a race of ape-men. They discover that the Doda ape-men are at war with a tribe of humans, known as Accala, who live on the other side of the plateau. The Doda hold them captive because they are interested in the guns that the team owns. The Doda rightly feel that these weapons would tip the war in their favor.

Roxton manages to escape the Doda, and meets up with Malone. They mount a rescue for their party and the other humans that are held captive by the Doda, and arrive in time to prevent the execution of one of the professors. The reunited team travel to the human Accala tribe and help them defeat the Doda. The Accala now control the entire plateau.

The Accala are as impressed with the traveler’s guns as the Doda were. They do what they can to prevent the team from leaving, however a tunnel is discovered that leads to the outside world. Challenger, Malone, Roxton and Summerlee are able to escape the plateau and return to their base camp where Zambo and a large rescue party awaits.

The quartet return to England and present a report including pictures and the journalism report by Malone. Challenger brings a little more proof for his story this time, a living pterodactyl. It escapes and flies out over the Atlantic Ocean. The quartet meet for dinner some time after the dinosaur debacle. Roxton explains his interest in the blue clay. It was filled with diamonds. He proposes that they split the gems between them.

Challenger plans to open a private museum with his share. Summerlee decides to retire and categorize fossils. Roxton wants to return to the plateau for more research and adventure. Malone returns to Gladys to tell her of his great deeds and new wealth, only to find that she had married a clerk while he was away. Malone then decides to join Roxton’s new expedition since there is nothing left to keep him in London.

The Lost World has been an influential book over the past century. It was one of several novels during this time period that concerned the subject of finding a lost world filled with dinosaurs. Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (1918) are the three main examples. These novels were all very popular in their day and have inspired other novels down through the years including Michael Crichton’s The Lost World (1995) that became the basis of the Jurassic Park series of films. Doyle’s book is credited as being the spark for the television series Land of the Lost as well as several movies down through the decades.

The novel itself has not aged well, but if you are a fan of retro science fiction, it is likely to become a favorite. There are problems with continuity in the book, the lack of female characters except as sexual objects is disconcerting, and the treatment of other races as inferior to whites certainly shows that the Imperialist English mindset is very much part of the narrative of this book. All of these issues are something that you need to keep in mind if you decide to read this novel. I feel that the historical qualities of this retro science fiction story outweigh these issues.

You need to remember that there are still parts of the Amazon that are uncharted and unexplored even in this modern day and age. Looking at satellite maps of Brazil you see little more than solid green where the national parks are. In these plateau areas, where visitors can only enter on foot, you might look at the photo map and think to yourself “there be dragons”….or perhaps, even dinosaurs! The spirit of adventure is still very much alive in this retro science fiction novel.

The Lost World Book CoverIf you are interested in reading The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you can download a free copy of the novel at Project Gutenberg.

Book Review: Sword-Dancer

Book Name: Sword-Dancer
Author: Jennifer Roberson
First Published: 1986

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, author Jennifer Roberson has lived in the state of Arizona since 1957. She started out in Phoenix, but in 1999, she moved to a home on 2.5 acres of rural land at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. She gained a bachelor of science in journalism from Northern Arizona University with an extended major in British history. While studying at the University of London during her last semester, Roberson was able to visit historical sites in Scotland and Wales. These travels would later inspire much of her historical fiction and influence her fantasy works.

Jennifer Roberson is a prolific author, with two dozen novels completed and more on the way. Her most famous series is the Sword-Dancer Saga, but her Cheysuli series is also extremely popular with fantasy readers. In addition to the novels, she has written numerous short stories and has edited several fantasy anthologies. In 1996, Roberson collaborated with fantasy authors Melanie Rawn and Kate Elliott on a book called The Golden Key that was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards in 1997.

Sword-Dancer starts in a faraway cantina on the edge of the Southron desert, known to the natives as the Punja. The great sword-dancer Sandtiger is enjoying a glass of wine and the cantina girls, when a beautiful Northern woman with silver hair and wearing a sword strapped to her back enters, seeking to hire Sandtiger as a guide. Del is on a quest to free her little brother from slavery and to kill the bandits that took him five years ago. Always up for a challenge and to make a few coins, especially when it comes in a lovely package, the sword-dancer agrees to guide her. He has many doubts that she will succeed in her quest, not so much because of her ability, but simply because she is a woman. The Sandtiger comes from a culture where women are property and have little say in their own destiny. He is not quite sure what to make of an independent woman who can handle a sword as well as he can, but he finds it a bit of a turn-on and so he follows to see where this adventure might lead.

Tiger, while the narrator of the story, is hard to take at first. He is an arrogant womanizer, although not without a sense of humor. The arrogance might be excused due to his master-level skill with the blade, but most women will cringe when they are first introduced to this rascal. Between the flying insults to each other, the two master sword wielders battle sandstorms and sandtigers, taking on each conflict as it comes to them. Tiger begins to recognize that the ways of his world do not quite fit him as it once did. Del also begins to change as she lets down her icy guard and learns to trust the sword-dancer at her side.

The plot of this novel is not the most intriguing, consisting of a great deal of episodic fighting, although the ending will be very satisfying. That is not what makes this sword and sorcery fantasy tale so riveting. It is the powerful character arcs that both Tiger and Del go through that will keep you spellbound and make you a true fan by the conclusion of the first book. Each book in the series gets better as you go along. The fighting is superb, the magic is interesting, and the romance is ongoing and heartfelt, giving the story an edge of reality that few fantasy novels reach.

The first novel by Jennifer Roberson I ever read was Sword-Dancer back when it first came out in the 1980s. She was a relatively new author at that time, but the book captivated me with the remarkable portrayal of its two main characters. I am a writer who is more character driven than plot driven, so Roberson’s writing style appeals to me strongly and I credit her as one of my main writing influences. Sword-Dancer was out of print for a long time, but it is now available once again both as a printed and an ebook. Look for the three omnibus volumes that contain the first six novels of the series. Roberson has not left the Punja as yet. She is busy writing more Sword-Dancer novels even now. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Sword-Dancer Book CoverSword-Dancer Saga:

Sword-Dancer (1986)
Sword-Singer (1988)
Sword-Maker (1989)
Sword-Breaker (1991)
Sword-Born (1998)
Sword-Sworn (2002)
Sword-Bound (2013)
Sword-Bearer – Forthcoming