Friday, January 31, 2014

Follow Friday - Mister Rogers Kept His Weight at Exactly 143 Pounds

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Words Fueled by Love and A Readers' Sanctuary.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Time for Book Spine Poetry again! Take a picture of your book spines spelling out something epic.

Go to previous Follow Friday: There Are 142 Staircases at Hogwarts

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review - Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Short review: A government official enlists Precious Ramotswe's aid to find out who is trying to poison his brother. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni suffers from an illness and Mma Makutsi has to take over running his garage and handle a difficult case at the same time.

Cases with rancor
And beautiful moral girls
Plus an ill loved one

Full review: The third installment of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Morality for Beautiful Girls delves into the thorny issue of mental illness, the vagaries of family relationships, and the fact that even people who pride themselves on being intelligent can still harbor quite foolish ideas. The story also casts some doubt on the morality of "traditional Botswanan morality", at least insofar as it is applied by Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi.

The main plot element of this book is neither of the two mysteries that inhabit its pages. Rather, the primary plot involves the relationship between Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and how it is affected by Matekoni's struggle with depression. Despite this story line centering almost entirely upon him, Matekoni almost doesn't appear in it, showing up in only a few scenes, and some of those he is merely the voice on the other end of a telephone conversation. But as he is afflicted with depression, this seems entirely fitting, as this is a disease that effectively erases people from their own lives. And Mma Ramotswe responds to this behavior by Matekoni with affection and understanding, even though it is clearly outside of her experience. She visits a doctor to find out what could be wrong, gets a book to try to understand this new and disconcerting disease in her life, and works to try to get Matekoni treatment even though he resists. The book could be criticized for making the treatment of depression seem too easy, but that seems like an unfair criticism given that the author took the issue on in such a respectful way to begin with.

The illness of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni does allow for some substantial character development for Mma Makutsi. Already promoted to assistant detective in Tears of the Giraffe, Makutsi is thrust into the position of assistant manager of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors in conjunction with the move of the detective agency to the garage's offices. Despite her lack of knowledge about automobiles and inability to drive, Mma Makutsi puts the administrative and organizational skills that earned her the oft-mentioned score of 97% at the Botswana Secretarial College to good use, identifying and paying required bills, arranging to get parts delivered from suppliers, and getting the apprentices at the garage to actually work. And soon it becomes clear that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's frequently noted kindness may be more of a liability than one would think, as it seems to be the root cause of the laziness of his two apprentices and the various other problems that seem to have afflicted the garage such as the lack of parts delivery and the petrol supplier's lackadaisical attitude towards keeping the Tlokweng Road's fuel pumps supplied. Under Mma Makutsi's direction, the garage seems to turn all of these problems around, revealing that while it is clear that Matekoni is a superlative mechanic, he has some serious shortcomings as a businessman.

But alongside the everyday stories of the ordinary lives of the characters there are the mysteries. After all, this is a mystery novel, so one would expect that these story lines would be in the book. The primary mystery is handled by Precious Ramotswe, and involves a highly placed government official who is also connected the leadership of the parallel tribal hierarchy that exists in Botswana. This almost dual government that exists in many African nations has been lurking on the outskirts of previous books, but in Morality for Beautiful Girls it comes to the fore in the form of the "government man" (who is never more specifically identified in the book). He has a much younger brother that he says he loves very much, but who has married a woman he believes is trying to poison her husband. After first protesting that such a serious matter should be reported to the police, Mma Ramotswe agrees to go to the large and prosperous farm where the government man's family lives and investigate to find out if his suspicions about his sister-in-law are true. Once there, Mma Ramostwe uncovers the truth using her usual method of paying close attention to the people around her, and treating the staff and servants with respect and getting them to divulge the things they have seen to her. And as usual, the truth isn't quite what anyone thought it would be.

While Mma Ramotswe is away solving her case, Mma Makutsi is required to deal with a case of her own involving the selection of a winner for the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. After being approached by the organizer of the contest, Mma Makutsi undertakes to make a moral evaluation of the four finalists to ensure that none of them have skeletons in their closet or propensities to behavior that would embarrass the contest should they win, with an implication that Mma Makutsi should pick the "correct" winner and the organizer will make sure she emerges victorious. Though Mma Makutsi seems to stumble to the "correct" answer, her handling of the case reveals that being practical and hard working is no defense against prejudice and pseudoscience, and "Botswanan morality" may not be as benign as the reader had been told in the previous two books. After settling on the possibility the phrenology would help her determine which contestants are "good" girls, Mma Makutsi is foiled by the fact that she can't see the exact shape of their heads due to their hair and has to fall back on her alternative of having them fill out a questionnaire using the ruse of being a newspaper reporter. Though the case reveals Mma Makutsi's ingrained prejudice against the kinds of women she decries as "bad" girls, and her investigation is almost farcical at times, she has the good fortune to find a candidate who we are meant to see as clearly being deserving of victory in the contest, and she is able to make a recommendation to her client.

The core theme of Morality for Beautiful Girls is the intersection of Botswanan culture and morality with the modern world, and how that intersection can find them serving complimentary roles, or find them coming into conflict. Despite the repeated praises bestowed by Mma Ramotswe on traditional Botswanan morality (which seems to encompass Botswanan culture as well), when Mma Makutsi finds herself investigating on her own, the somewhat darker and off-handedly judgmental side of Botswanan morality is revealed. The book also contains an interesting subplot involving a feral child found in the wilderness and transported to Mma Potokwane's orphan farm, but this seems to lead nowhere, left as a mystery to be solved in the future, if ever. The novel shines the most when it brings the African landscape into the story as an often foreboding but sometimes loving character, setting the doings of the book's human characters against its starkly beautiful vista. In the end, this novel, like the others in the series, is a gentle stroll through the ordinary lives of ordinary Africans trying to make their way in a dry and often uncompromising land.

Previous book in the series: Tears of the Giraffe
Subsequent book in the series: The Kalahari Typing School for Men

Alexander McCall Smith     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review - Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

Short review: Precious Ramotswe returns, and in addition to the usual array of suspicious husbands and missing persons, she has to deal with a jealous maid and the addition of two young children to her life.

A long missing son
A deceptive professor
A grateful mother

Full review: Tears of the Giraffe is the sequel to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which manages to have both deeper mysteries, and spend more time focused on the day-to-day lives of the characters that inhabit the story. This novel has a more substantial detective story than its predecessor, which was mainly a collection of short vignettes, and it also explores the relationships between the characters more extensively. The novel also delves into the questions of selfishness and generosity, and what they mean for Botswanan society.

The novel can be divided into three broad stories. The first is the mystery brought to Mma Ramotswe by a distraught American woman seeking to find out what happened to her son who has been missing for a decade. Despite the time lapse and the fact that the matter had already been unsuccessfully investigated by both the police and previous private investigators, Ramotswe is taken in by the pleadings of a mother with nowhere else to turn for answers and accepts the case. Following the whisper thin trail left behind by the inhabitants of a failed agricultural commune, and using her now familiar method of extracting information by paying attention to the "invisible" people that populate the world - the secretaries, the house maids, the old women - Botswana's leading lady detective burrows her way to the man who knows the answer, and then compels him to tell her what happened so many years before. In the end, Ramotswe is able to provide answers for her client, and even a somewhat happy, although undoubtedly bittersweet resolution.

The second story running through the book concerns Mma Ramotswe's impending marriage to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. The story first deals with the negotiations between Ramotswe and Matekoni over which of their two houses they will settle in as their residence once they are married, and right away McCall Smith begins establishing what may be Matekoni's most prominent character trait other than his kindness: He is exceptionally easy to manipulate. Ramotswe almost immediately declares Matekoni's house unsuitable, and he immediately acquiesces to using her house on Zebra Drive as the couple's permanent home. But this is only the first indication that Matekoni's well-established kindness may simply be a product of wishing to avoid conflict. The reader is introduced to Matekoni's housekeeper, who Ramotswe notices hasn't been doing a very good job keeping the house clean, and who in turn takes an instant dislike to Ramotswe as a threat to her hold upon Matekoni. And it soon becomes clear that Matekoni's housekeeper has been taking advantage of him, and soon the full extent of her jealousy becomes clear when she starts seriously plotting against Mma Ramotswe. The only disappointing part of this thread is that it builds up a moderate head of steam before evaporating in a remarkably convenient manner.

But the manipulation of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is not done only for nefarious purposes, a fact demonstrated when he is maneuvered into adopting two orphaned children by the formidable Mma Potokwane, the matron of the local orphan farm. Almost without realizing what he has done, Matekoni has adopted a disabled girl and her younger brothers and committed himself and his intended bride to becoming parents even before they are married. And without consulting Mma Ramotswe either. This plot line also exposes one of the deficiencies of McCall Smith's writing, as the situation clearly holds the potential for some personal conflict - after all, a man who agrees to adopt two children without consulting his fiance, not matter how well-intentioned his actions are, is likely to find that he has somewhat taxed his intended's tolerance. However, when Mma Ramotswe finds out what has happened via a chance meeting during a shopping trip Matekoni had taken the children on, she immediately accepts that his decision was the correct one, and takes on the role of mother for the pair, even though she had no input into the decision to bring them into her family. But although this almost instant acquiescence to the new situation may seem odd to Western readers, it fits perfectly with Mma Ramotswe's insistence that "Botswanan morality" is a superior means of organizing one's life, because one of the tenets of that morality which is emphasized repeatedly in Tears of the Giraffe is the importance of being selfless and aiding others less fortunate than oneself.

The third story in the book focuses on Mma Makutsi, who Mma Ramotswe promotes to assistant detective at the agency and hands over one of the agency's cases to her. In this case, a man suspects that his wife is cheating on him, although he doesn't have any clue who it might be with. Mma Makutsi relies upon the same sort of methods for solving her case as Mma Ramotswe does for her - following the wife to find out where she goes and then talking to the housekeepers at her destination. The mystery turns out more complex than anyone originally thought, and poses a moral dilemma for Mma Makutsi, who isn't quite sure how to tell her client the news. In the end, she settles upon a solution that is innovative to say the least, although it doesn't seem entirely appropriate, a sentiment Mma Ramotswe vaguely shares, although she is too distracted by other concerns to address the matter.

The repeated theme that runs through all of these stories is what appears to be a fundamental tenet of Botswanan morality: One must act selflessly to a certain degree for the benefit of others. This is most clearly on display in the storyline involving the adoption of the orphaned siblings, but it also comes up in the resolution of Mma Makutsi's case in which she advises her client that he should accept his wife's actions because they allow for his son to gain the benefit of an expensive private education. When Mma Ramotswe arrives at Dr. Ranta's house, her belief that he is a reprehensible man is confirmed by his untidy yard and unswept house - indications that he does not employ a maid or gardener as all reasonably well-to-do Botswanans should so as to provide jobs for those less fortunate then themselves. Over and over the reader is confronted with the simple declaration that selfishness runs counter to Botswanan morality, and generosity, even when painful, is to be lauded and praised - even on the final pages where a metaphor using the tears of a giraffe is used to drive this point home. This thinking falls in line with Mma Ramotswe's general approval of traditional ways of thinking - traditional greetings, traditional deference given to elders, an affinity for traditionally built ladies (like herself), and traditional ways of handling agriculture. Overall, in most cases, Mma Ramotswe is in favor of traditional cultural mores, except where it comes to women's equality, and even there, her views are an amalgam of stereotypical prejudices and forward thinking, perhaps reflecting the views of a nation as a whole trying to find its place in the modern world.

As with its predecessor, Tears of the Giraffe is a set of interesting, although somewhat muted mysteries involving an array of ordinary people. Even the most "exotic" inhabitants in these stories are ultimately mundane: A college professor, a banker's wife, a missing son, a German farmer, and so on. Throughout the book shows how societal and familial bonds can survive even tragedy, and how those same bonds can be rotted and frayed through selfishness and disdain. Some people have criticized The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series as being simplistic, and on that point I must disagree. Though the stories are told in a straightforward manner using simple language, they deal with deep questions concerning human relationships and how they are structured, even though the humans involved are ordinary people doing ordinary things. Especially because the humans involved are ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Previous book in the series: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Subsequent book in the series: Morality for Beautiful Girls

Alexander McCall Smith     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, January 27, 2014

Musical Monday - Let Her Go by Passenger

Watch the video first, and then read the rest. I promise it makes sense by the end.

Today is something of a gloomy day from a couple of different perspectives. Today marks the forty-seventh anniversary of the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee when a fire broke out in their command module during on-pad testing of Apollo 1. This tragedy almost destroyed the U.S. manned spaceflight program, and remained the most deadly disaster in NASA history until the loss of the Challenger space shuttle. The twenty-eighth anniversary of that disaster is tomorrow.

But as tragic as those losses were, they are in the past and are now a matter of sad history. Humans, for better or worse, must live in the present, even if we can learn from history. The husband of an old family friend of mine has been battling cancer for the better part of the last year. Just a few days ago, she announced that they had been told by his doctors that there was nothing more they could do other than play for time. And that reminded me of the story told in the video of a girl named Amanda, who I never met, and who I didn't even know existed until well after she had passed away. And even though it is a story told via tweets, it is a real story, which gives it power. She was living her life worrying about the everyday things that everyone worries about: Her annoyances at her job, making cookies, getting a Christmas tree, the fights with her family, and so on. And then she found out that her life had a visible end date. And she made the most of her remaining time, which is all we can do.

But the point here is that all of us will face this someday. We don't know when - we could be like Amanda and have it happen when we are young and still trying to figure life out. or we could live to a ripe old age before the reaper comes looking for us. The brutal fact is, sooner or later, we will all find ourselves in our last moments. From a certain perspective, Amanda was lucky: She got notice that she was careening towards her final day. Many of us won't have that. The husband of a woman I used to work for collapsed while they were out shopping, and was dead before he reached the hospital. He never got the chance to take a last trip, put his affairs in order, make amends with people he was estranged from, or say goodbye to loved ones. All of the threads of his life were left hanging, unfinished in the air. And for many of us, this will be how our lives end, suddenly, and without warning. Others will know that their death is coming for them.

The thing I think it is important to take away from this is that life is for living, and you better go ahead and live it in the best way you can, because you don't know how much of it you will get. Spending your time doing things you don't love, living with people you dislike, carrying grudges, and so on is simply time that you won't get back. Once it is spent, it is gone. Spend your life well. You owe it to yourself to do that.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Dimetrodon by The Doubleclicks

Passenger     Musical Monday     Home

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Blogger Hop January 24th - January 30th: 39 Is the Atomic Number of Yttrium

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews asks (via Billy): Do you think you will ever read every book in your TBR stack?

Realistically, no. I read reasonably quickly - in a good year I'll read through 150 novels or so - but with a little over six thousand books in my "to-read" pile, I am very far away from the bottom of the stack. When you couple this with my tendency to acquire more books on a regular basis, the pile seems to be growing faster that I am reading, so I'll probably end my life with even more unread books in my house than I have now.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, January 24, 2014

Follow Friday - There Are 142 Staircases at Hogwarts

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Words Fueled by Love and A Readers' Sanctuary.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What books are you looking forward to reading in 2014?

I don't really look forward to new releases. I'm just not able to get myself organized enough to keep track of what books are due to be published in the upcoming months. I also don't really care that much either, as most of my reading tastes tend to be mired in the books of the past. So in the upcoming year, I am most looking forward to reading an assortment of books that were mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s. My first real project (after I clear off my review shelf) is to reread the three novels that make up  The Lord of the Rings, and by doing so complete my read through of the Best Book winners of the International Fantasy Award. After that, I'm going to focus on the Hugo Winning books of the later 1950s through the mid-1960s, reading or rereading A Case of Conscience, Starship Troopers, A Canticle for Liebowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High Castle, Way Station, and The Wanderer. if I make it through all of those, I'll be happy with my reading year.

Go to previous Follow Friday: K-141 Sank in the Barents Sea

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Short review: Mma Ramotswe is the only lady detective in Botswana. She uses hard work and cunning to solve cases ranging from insurance fraud to missing and possibly murdered children.

Lady detective
From village to Gabarone
Solves all the cases

Full review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the story of Precious Ramotswe and how she came to be the first (and only) lady detective in Botswana. It is also the story of how she solved several cases along the way, but to a certain extent these are almost an afterthought appended to the greater story of exploring who Precious Ramotswe is, what Botswana is like, and how she came to be the person we meet in the book. The story is excellent in so many different ways that it is impossible to list them without sounding overly effusive.

The first thing I will say is that I lived in Africa for nine years, a continent that feels unlike any other place in the world. My experience in Africa was in many ways fairly superficial, as I was a relatively insulated as a result of living on the continent as the dependent of an American diplomat, and it is very difficult to get a feel for a landmass as huge as Africa while only living in a few different countries, but with that said, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency feels authentically African. As I never lived in Botswana, I can't verify that the book feels Botswanan - I have to simply accept that McCall Smith's representation is reasonably accurate - but it does evoke the same feel for me as I remember from my time spent in Tanzania and Zaire. There is no specific element that I can point to in the book that gives this book this authenticity - it is more of an inchoate feeling that can only be described as "rightness".

Early in the book Precious (or as she is referred to in the book Mma Ramotswe) gives an account of the life of her father Obed Ramotswe, a man she says was unable to tell his own story so others must tell it for him. Obed is dead by the time the main events of the book take place, his body finally giving out after a life working in the mines of South Africa, bringing up a daughter as a single father, and raising a respectable herd of cattle. This plain, simple life of a kindly but illiterate farmer would be swallowed up and forgotten by history but for the account given by his daughter. But this sentiment seems to be true for most of the characters of the book. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is filled with shopkeepers, mechanics, rural villagers, secretaries, and all of the other ordinary people who move through life and would normally go almost unnoticed.

And to a certain extent, noticing people who would normally go unnoticed is how Precious Ramotswe makes her small detective agency work. The book doesn't contain murder mysteries or other sweeping and "important" cases - in fact, one suspects that Precious would scoff at the idea that a private detective agency would handle such matters. Those are, she would say, matters for the police to handle. Her clients are people who simply need help with the every day questions that crop up in their lives: A woman who suspects the new car her husband brought home is a stolen vehicle. A women whose husband has gone missing. A business owner who suspects that a former employee is trying to defraud him. And so on. But even though these stories aren't important in the sense that they will change the fortunes of nations, or even the movers and shakers of history, they are important to the people involved in them, a fact that McCall Smith makes painfully clear.

It is this attention to the ordinary that gives this book its magic. While a lesser novelist might be inclined to smirk at the mundane concerns and earnest attitudes of these characters, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency treats them with a respect and honesty that gives them a gentility and dignity. Throughout the books the characters are referred to (and refer to one another) formally, usually with the honorifics "Mma" and "Rra" and are addressed by their last names. Precious Ramotswe is never referred to as Precious once she is an adult, but rather as Mma Ramotswe. Even when Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (who is always referred to in exactly that way) proposes marriage to her, he proposes to her using the formal address and honorific. Mma Ramotswe's somewhat precocious secretary is always referred to as Mma Makutsi. The Detective Agency's clients are always treated with a formal respect, and their concerns, no matter how small or petty they seem, are treated seriously by both Mma Ramotswe and by the author.

It is somewhat emblematic of the theme of the book that the long-running underlying mystery within it involves a client who is a simple villager who considers himself unworthy of Mma Ramostwe's attention, but who despairingly sends her a letter after his child goes missing. But even though he is poor and almost powerless, the story insists that he and his request be regarded with respect as befits his basic humanity. On the other hand, the villainous characters in the book are people who believe themselves to be more important than others to the extent that they think nothing of using those around them to suit their own selfish ends. The government official who uses items of witchcraft, even though he knows that children suffer and die so that it can be provided to him. The witch doctor who inflicts the suffering so as to be able to earn a profit. His wife who assists his grisly work. The brutal husband who beats his wife and turns his back on his dying child. They all share the same characteristics of callousness, self-importance, and selfishness that is the face of evil as presented by McCall Smith.

With engaging and likable characters, some light mysteries, and the stories of the lives of ordinary people told in simple, yet beautiful language, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is a very good book. When one adds in the majestic and serene depiction of Botswana to the mix, the book climbs to being outstanding. Precious Ramotswe and her compatriots are sure to entrance almost any reader with their charming, almost quaintly honest tales.

Subsequent book in the series: Tears of the Giraffe

Alexander McCall Smith     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review - Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien

Short review: Twenty-three years of illustrated letters from Father Christmas to the Tolkien children.

Tolkien's children wrote
Letters to Father Christmas
And then he wrote back

Full review: Before The Lord of the Rings, before The Hobbit (read review), when Middle-Earth itself was nothing more than an embryonic idea that manifested as a handful of unpublished poems, Tolkien was writing for an eager audience. Like many children, Tolkien's offspring wrote letters to Father Christmas every year, but unlike the experience of many other children, Tolkien's offspring received letters back. Beautifully written and illustrated letters that tell tales of whimsy, adventure, and love. Most of these letters and all of the paintings and drawings that accompanied them are collected in this volume, meaning that Tolkien's labor of love and affection can be read and enjoyed by everyone else.

The letters themselves span the period between 1920, when Tolkien's oldest son John was three, and 1943, when his youngest child Priscilla was fourteen. In between, Tolkien crafted a masterfully creative series of characters and adventures to delight and entertain his children, starting with simple missives showing Father Christmas and his house next to the North Pole, but quickly escalating to silly tales involving the Great Polar Bear of the North doing well-meaning but rather foolish things and Father Christmas cleaning up the resulting mess. The letters respond to what would seem to be typical concerns expressed by children in their letters to Father Christmas: Letting them know what gifts had been brought for them, answering questions as to Father Christmas' home and appearance, and so on. But Tolkien was not content to write only about such mundane matters, and went on to craft increasingly elaborate stories involving an increasingly large cast of characters. And although the Tolkien children probably mostly looked forward to the model trains, books, and other toys, it is these stories that were the real treasures in their stockings.

The first letter is quite short, more or less just telling John that Father Christmas is on his way to deliver gifts to Oxford and includes a picture of both him and his house at the North Pole. But the letters quickly became more elaborate - within five years the annual letter included a story involving the Great Polar Bear climbing (and breaking) the North Pole to retrieve Father Christmas' hat, and in the process wrecking "Christmas House", prompting the construction of a new dwelling for Father Christmas perched upon a conveniently nearby cliff resulting in the name "Cliff House". And from this beginning the stories and accompanying cast of characters grew every year. Father Christmas soon had a gardener - the Snow Man. The Great Polar Bear soon had a name, Karhu, and mischievous nephews underfoot - Paksu and Valkotukka. Eventually Father Christmas had red gnomes helping him package gifts and fend off goblins, and enlisted an elvish secretary named Ilbereth to help him manage his household. Eventually even penguins briefly join the menagerie, having swum from the South Pole to see if there is anything they could do to help out.

An interesting element to these letters is that they were written before the modern mythology surrounding Father Christmas has solidified, giving Tolkien a little bit of room to define the character as he wished. Hence, Father Christmas is aided by Karhu the polar bear, and the reindeer, while needed to pull his sleigh, aren't named at all, and for the most part do not show up in the stories as active characters. Even the count of reindeer is not set, as the letters suggest that Father Christmas varies the number of reindeer hitched to his sleigh, and that he prepares several different sleighs for Christmas so as to be able to handle the enormous volume of presents to deliver. Eventually Father Christmas had an array of helpers, and also the black goblin adversaries, some of which rode giant bats to attack Cliff House, and while the Polar Bear served as a powerful guardian, Father Christmas also got into battle, firing off gunpowder rockets at his enemies - a decidedly different vision of the character than current lore presents. Many of the elements that show up in Tolkien's vision of Father Christmas and the magical North Pole landscape he inhabits are clearly the seeds of things that ended up in later works such as The Hobbit. As an interesting aside, despite his obvious love for Father Christmas and his attendant mythology, Tolkien, unlike C.S. Lewis with Narnia, resisted inserting the character into his secondary world of Middle-Earth.

The letters end on something of a melancholy note. In addition to the sadness of the last of the Tolkien children growing older and leaving behind the wonders of childhood, the last four years worth of letters were written in the shadow of World War II. Among the most touching letter is a short note dated December 23rd, 1940, in which Karhu assures Priscilla Tolkien that Father Christmas has received her note letting him know that she had moved. Given the timing of the note, it seems possible that the Tolkien's had left their home to escape from the specter of German bombers (although there is no evidence one way or the other that this was the reason for their move). But from 1939 through 1943, the letters are clearly the effort of a parent to reassure a bewildered child who was attempting to make sense of the overwhelming insensibility of a world at war.

From the very first letters and illustrations to the very last, Letters from Father Christmas is a testament to the love of a father for his children. The care, attention, and affection that is evidenced in this collection is touching and endearing. The imagination and creativity that fills the pages shows Tolkien's mastery of myth, language, and storytelling which is all woven together into an adorable and engaging twenty-three year long story. Without even knowing it, merely by trying to entertain his own children, Tolkien ended up writing one of the best Christmas books ever put on paper. Tolkien's children were exceedingly lucky because they got to read this story before anyone else, but now that the letters have been published in this volume, the rest of us are now lucky enough to be able to enjoy them as well.

J.R.R. Tolkien     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, January 20, 2014

Musical Monday - I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper by Sarah Brightman (featuring Hot Gossip)

Let us stop and consider the landscape that faced a science fiction fan in 1978. On the one hand, Star Wars had been released the year before, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture was in production, but this was the look that most people associated with the science fiction genre. Silver clothing! Spandex! Bare chests! Smoke machines! Mysterious lighting! Falling glitter! Planets!

There is also the odd composition of the video to consider. Why, for example, did it seem like a good idea to have the lead singer sitting or lying down in several scenes, her face completely obscured by the omnipresent smoke from the smoke machine? Why does the dance troupe do a significant portion of the routine apparently holding little barbell weights? Is this supposed to be an aerobics class?

Of course, this only leads into the lyrics, which are a confused jumble of science fiction references that seem to have been placed in a blender and then dumped onto the page almost at random. In addition to the fairly obvious reference to Heinlein in the title and chorus, Darth Vader has been banished to Mars, and Captain Strange is asked if he is devoid of emotion like a droid. The singer's body needs a "close encounter three", and she begs for someone to "take me, make me feel the Force". In addition, Flash Gordon has left her for the stars, and she's fighting for the Federation. Remember through this all that this song was reasonably a successful hit, topping out at number six on the U.K. charts. In short, this is what passed for "good" science fiction music in the late 1970s.

Previous Musical Monday: Monsters of the Cosmos by Symphony of Science
Subsequent Musical Monday: Let Her Go by Passenger

Sarah Brightman     Hot Gossip     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Book Blogger Hop January 17th - January 23rd: The Crest of the Hardrada Clan Was 38 Ravens Around 38 Arrows

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Judy of Musings and Ramblings asks (via Billy): Do you blog for a living or for fun?

If I could write this blog for a living, I would. Of course, if I wrote this blog for a living I'd starve within a few months, mostly because I make no money from it. I probably have enough traffic on the blog that I should look into placing advertisements on it, but right now I don't earn any money through this blog. Even if I were to monetize this blog in some way, I probably couldn't blog for a living, because it would extraordinarily unlikely that I could make enough money from blogging to be able to remain solvent for any appreciable length of time.

Go to subsequent Book Blogger Hop: 39 Is the Atomic Number of Yttrium

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, January 17, 2014

Follow Friday - K-141 Sank in the Barents Sea

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Mystifying Paranormal Reviews and Worn Down Glories.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Who is your blogger BFF? Tell us a little bit about him or her? If not tell us why you need or don’t need a blogger BFF.

I don't really have a "blogger BFF". Not that I don't like many of my fellow bloggers, I just don't have one that I would single out as my best blogging friend. I also don't really think any other blogger would single me out as their best blogging friend, which would be the kind of mutuality that I think claiming someone as your "BFF" requires. I mean, I probably interact with Julia Rachel Barrett more than with any other blogger, but even still, I don't think our relationship could, under any definition of the term, be considered to be one of being "BFF's". For the most part, I don't really think I need a blogger BFF. I have someone I could call a BFF in my life, they just aren't a book blogger. And I'm happy to have them.

Go to previous Follow Friday: There Are 142 Staircases at Hogwarts

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review - Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

Short review: A beautifully illustrated, but ultimately unsatisfying story exploring the nature of heroism using the Book of Revelations as a framing device.

Superman retires
The world goes to Hell, and then
Superman comes back

Full review: There can be no denying that Kingdom Come is a beautifully illustrated book. The artwork that is used to tell this Revelations-inspired story using super-heroes as a metaphor for divine and infernal powers is, in a word, stunning. Unfortunately, the story that these illustrations tell simply isn't worthy of being told with such beautiful images. The subtitle on the cover says that this is "The Greatest Super-Hero Epic of Tomorrow", but while it is clear that the authors intended to write a grand and epic tale, they seem to have been given only enough space to tell a medium sized story, and the strain of packing the grandiose amount of story intended into the inadequate space available is apparent on almost every page, to the detriment of the book.

The story, such as it is, is told through the eyes of Norman McCay as he is whisked from event to event by the Spectre to serve as a mostly unseen and unnoticed observer to the doings of the mighty beings that walk across the Earth. In this future world, the cadre of super-powered heroes that DC comic fans are familiar with has mostly died, retired, or withdrawn to the sidelines, and a new crop of meta-humans has risen to replace their forbears. But these new super-powered beings, unlike their predecessors, seem to have almost no regard for the fragile and weak humans they share the world with, and their uncaring demeanor makes their internecine fights terribly dangerous for their mundane neighbors. Against this backdrop of random conflict, the Spectre shows Norman how the chaos is swirling towards a dangerous and destructive conclusion.

But the book simply isn't substantial enough to tell the full story that would do justice to the idea behind it. The story, concerning the return of Superman to the world stage, the resurrection of the defunct Justice League, the taming of the miscreant younger meta-human generation, the plots against the meta-humans as a whole, and all of the other sweeping epic elements, is stuffed into too few pages to actually tell a coherent tale. Not only that, because the story is set into the future, the book must also spend time establishing the landscape of the super-hero world of tomorrow, and at the same time explain how the present DC universe got there. As a result, the book isn't so much a coherent tale as it is a collection of climactic highlights. But without the build up to support them, the climaxes that the reader is treated to simply fall flat. Without needed context, the reader simply doesn't care who Magog is, and it is simply difficult to be concerned when the incarcerated pseudo-hero Von Bach is struck down.

Superman is the centerpiece, and in many ways exemplary of the problems with, this book. Most of the plot hinges upon Superman withdrawing from the public eye for an extended period of time, and then after a crisis occurs, returning to try to set things right again. But while Superman's withdrawal to a virtual farm is talked about several times, it is explained in a brief handful of panels that give only the most cursory outline of the circumstances that led him to turn his back on humanity. And Superman's decision to return is covered in a similarly brief set of panels and is similarly glossed over. Further, the critical interregnum during which Superman is absent from world affairs takes up a relatively tiny portion of the book. As a result of the cursory way that these portentous events are described, Superman's supposedly momentous decisions to leave and then return seem almost to be careless in nature. By covering only the decisions themselves, and failing to provide more than an outline of the context in which they take place, the book drains any potential weight out of these choices.

In many ways Kingdom Come feels more like a well-illustrated outline of a story than an actual story. Time and again the reader is presented with the end result, often via a brief flashback or one character telling another what happened, rather than being allowed to see the story unfold for themselves. After he returns, Superman goes to visit a retired Bruce Wayne, who is presented as a man confined to an exoskeleton who enforces a draconian order in Gotham via security robots. How Wayne got to this point is never explained. We are told that Wonder Woman had been stripped of her royal status and ambassadorial post by her Amazon sisters, but instead of seeing this as part of the story, we are told of these events by means of a conversation between Clark and Diana. We are told that the new generation of meta-humans has run riot over the world, and we are even shown a little bit of the mayhem they have caused, but the story of how these meta-humans got to the point where nearly all of them felt free to engage in wanton destruction is skipped over. Over and over the book jumps past telling an actual story and simply tells the reader the ending instead.

Even when the book give the reader some actual story to read, it does so in the most perfunctory way. Magog precipitates the crisis that results in Superman's return by devastating and irradiating Kansas, but this entire plot takes up only a few panels. Lex Luthor has organized many of the DC universe's super-villains into the "Mankind Liberation Front", but we only get a scant glimpse of their machinations via a handful of board meetings. Superman restores the Justice League and converts or incarcerates the new generation of meta-humans, almost magically waving a wand to create a prison to keep them in, but this radical transformation of the world is dealt with mostly by offstage fiat. We are shown that Luthor has brainwashed Captain Marvel, but the book takes little more than a single page to show this. Bruce Wayne sides with Luthor, reassuring Luthor of his good intentions by saying little more than "trust me", and then Luthor is shocked (and unprepared) when the former Batman turns on him. There is a lot of plot crammed into this book, but it is unsupported by the amount of story necessary to contain the volume of moving pieces that are presented, and the resulting product is disjointed and unsatisfying.

It is clear that Waid and Ross had an incredibly expansive vision for a story, and for some reason decided to box that story into a contained that was simply too small to tell it properly. And so instead of seeing Superman unable to stop the Joker murdering his way across Metropolis and finally assassinating Lois Lane before the Joker is himself executed by Magog, we are told that these events happened in a flashback to the trial of Magog that followed. Instead of seeing the back and forth cat an mouse game between Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor as they engage in cloak and dagger intrigue, we see Bruce ally with Luthor on one page, and see him announce that he's figured out Luthor's plan and betray his erstwhile ally on another. Instead of giving the reader a story, the authors gave the reader plot points. The book is, in effect, the skeleton of a story entirely lacking in any flesh or muscle.

Even though they confined themselves to nothing more than plot points, the authors gave a short shrift to some of the most interesting questions raised in the volume - even though we are told that Lois died, this is not the catalyst that spurred Superman to withdraw into seclusion. Rather, the acquittal of Magog for the Joker's murder was the crucial event. But given that Lois (along with the presumably deceased Ma and Pa Kent) was a critical humanizing influence on Superman, shouldn't her loss have meant something more to the Man of Steel than it seems to have? Given that Superman dances around the idea of, and eventually enters into a romantic relationship with the stern and warlike Diana, why does this not affect his ideals? Why is it that without Superman the world inexorably devolves into chaos? Kingdom Come wants to cover some of the same territory that Alan Moore covered in The Watchmen, specifically the responsibility of power, and how to keep a nearly omnipotent being from ruling over the world according to their personal moral code - as Superman does in this book once he returns from his self-imposed exile. But although Kingdom Come wants to raise these subjects, unlike The Watchmen, it doesn't want to make any statements about them, or even really explore them, confining itself to saying little more than "Superman is humble and self-critical, so no one would ever have to worry about his unstoppable power". While the story glosses over many of the plot developments that it presents, it completely ignores many others, leaving the reader wondering why such seemingly critical elements were alluded to if they were simply going to be passed over.

Kingdom Come is a masterfully drawn and incredibly ambitious failure. There is an epic story to be told here, and the reader is given a collection of excellent storyboards outlining that story. There are interesting questions involving competing visions of morality and justice that are raised here, but which are never really dealt with in any meaningful way. By attempting to cram this epic story into a two hundred page graphic novel, Waid and Ross created a stunted and incomplete work that doesn't actually tell a story, doesn't allow its plots or characters to develop, and doesn't deal with the huge questions that it raises. There was a really great story to be told using the ideas that are represented in this books. Unfortunately, this book doesn't actually tell that story so much as it merely outlines it, and as a result, it isn't anything more than average.

Mark Waid     Alex Ross     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman

Short review: Delirium wants to find Destruction, so Dream decides to humor her. But Destruction means change, and for the Endless, change is dangerous.

Delirium seeks
Dream is morose but he helps
Destruction means change

Full review: After spending six volumes establishing the permanence and indispensability of the Endless, Gaiman reverses field in Brief Lives with a story that suggests that the Endless may not be necessary at all, and not being necessary, may not be eternal. The story itself takes the form of a travel tale, with Dream and Delirium setting out on the road (literally) in search of their long lost brother Destruction. Along the way, the pair come across some individuals that we might count as extraordinarily long-lived, but for Dream, Death, and the other Endless, are merely ephemeral beings of minor consequence.

The volume starts and ends with Andros, the patriarch of the family charged by Dream with the task of guarding his son Orpheus' severed but immortal head. For him and his clan, their vigil has been interminably long, but it becomes clear that for Dream, their watch has been nothing more than the blink of an eye. The book shifts away from the main story several times to interludes featuring those who walk among mankind living lives that span vast numbers of generations of ordinary people. But as Death remarks when the fifteen thousand year old Bernie Capax finally dies and looks to her for reassurance that he managed to do well by living so long, he only got what everyone else gets - exactly one lifetime. Compared to the supposedly serene and unchanging lives of the Endless, no matter how long a mortal lives, one life is pretty much just as brief as another.

But Dream's journey in this book calls this alleged truth into question. In a moment of odd clarity, Delirium manages to gather her thoughts enough to start trying to seek out the missing member of the Endless, first asking Desire and Despair to help her, and when they refuse her, she turns to Dream for help. Even though she does not expect him to consent to aid her, Dream is in a funk after being dumped by his most recent love, and decides to use the quest to find Destruction as a diversion from his moody misery. And so this odd, but strangely well-matched pair set out on the road in the waking world.

Although Dream is most often matched with Death in the Sandman series, probably as a reference to the Greek myth that posits dreams as the only thing that makes sleep something different than a temporary death, pairing him with Delirium seems to be the natural match-up. The somewhat random free-association that Delirium engages in seems to be very much like the chaotic and bizarre landscape that most people find in their dreams. The two of them together find the mundane waking world to be a strange landscape, and react in very different ways. Dream regards all of those he encounters with disinterest and mild disdain, while Delirium wanders through like a careless child caught up in the excitement of a strange new place. But hidden within their characters is a common callousness, as Dream's concern after the death of their guide Ruby is that some force may be trying to impede their quest rather than remorse for the woman's death, while Delirium's only reaction is the gleeful realization that she will be allowed to drive their car. Later, Delirium's casual cruelty manifests when she off-handedly condemns a police officer who was doing nothing more than his job to a life of torment, an action that Dream does nothing to prevent or ameliorate. To the Endless, mortal lives are of no import.

The key to the story, however, is the mortal characters that populate the story. From the guardian Andros, to the long-lived but ultimately unlucky Capax, to the diminished deities Ferrell and Ishtar, to the ambitious and ill-fated Ruby, to the disembodied Orpheus, and even to the melting chocolate lovers left on Delirium's plate when she decides she isn't hungry, it is the frantic and hurried actions of the mortals that create meaning in the world. And that is the secret that Destruction seems to have discovered, and the truth that Dream knows but does not want to acknowledge - the mortals do not need the Endless, but the Endless need the mortals. Destruction is change, and Dream fears change as evidenced in this volume by his extended brooding over a love-affair gone wrong. Despite this, Dream is forced to acknowledge change, resorting to meeting with his son Orpheus for advice, even after he said he would never see him again.

Ruby, short-lived though she is, serves as a metaphor for the entire book. Despite her very short existence, she is one of the few individuals in the book who express a desire to actually do something more than continue to exist. Despite his fifteen thousand years of life, Capax has left almost no mark on the world. When he senses danger approaching, the Alder Man is content to erase his own existence in order to ensure his personal survival. Ishtar lives on faded memories of a distant past. And so on. Only Ruby wants something more than she has, wants to do something with her life, because she realizes that she only has so much time to accomplish something, and that gives her actions a sense of urgency. Despite her untimely death, she is one of the few characters in the book who seems to have truly lived instead of merely existing.

And this is what Destruction has come to understand - he isn't necessary. Humans can live their lives without the need for him to manifest change and guide their destinies. This reality is what disturbs and unnerves Dream, because if Destruction is not needed for change to happen, then Dream is not needed to make humans dream. Similarly, without Death things would still die, and without Desire, humans would still indulge their passions. But if the Endless are not necessary, that means that they can be eliminated without damaging the fabric of the universe. And this fact serves to turn the entire series upon its head, because it means that the Endless might not be as endless as the reader had been led to believe to this point.

This volume marks an important turn in the Sandman series. Dream ends up killing his own son - at his son's request - but in doing so he finally kills one of his own family members, which is what some of his siblings have been goading him to do in previous stories. We see what Delirium looked like when she was Delight, and combined with the knowledge that what had been described as the responsibilities of the Endless are not so dependent upon the existence of the Endless, the book foreshadows change in the offing. Not only that, but change that Desire, Despair, and even Dream fear. But most of all, as its title implies this volume highlights that it is not the Endless who are the critical forces in the universe, but rather it is those like Andros, whose lifespans are measured in finite numbers of days, months, and years.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 8: World's End

Neil Gaiman     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Blogger New Year's Challenge of 2014 - What Is Your Blogging Wish List of 2014?

What Is Your Blogging Wish List of 2014?

My first wish is to complete my reading and reviewing of the International Fantasy Award winners make sufficient headway in my reading and reviewing of the Hugo Award winners that I am able to start on the Nebula Award winners. I my original purpose in posting reviews on this blog was to read and review all of the novels that have won the major genre awards (plus a couple of other lesser genre awards). My plan is to eventually work through all of the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, International Fantasy, Clarke, Campbell, Locus, Andre Norton, Mythopoeic, and Prometheus winners and review all of them. Unfortunately, I'm four years into this project and I've made disturbingly little progress.

My second wish is to be able to scrape up enough resources to be able to attend the World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C. this November. I'd like to be able to establish more contacts with authors and editors in the fantasy fiction field for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that this is one of the two genres that forms the backbone of my reading and reviewing. I'd also like to be able to form some connections with other bloggers, as right now essentially all of the interaction I have with other bloggers is the handful of exchanges in comments and on Twitter that I've had. I've got a reasonably full slate this year - I know I'm going to two other conventions and I'll be going to a book festival as well - but this is one of the premiere conventions in genre fiction and I'd really like to be able to take advantage of its proximity to me this year.

My third wish is to finally finish building the architecture of this blog. Although I'm reasonably sure that almost no one sees the background pages that I've built for this blog (because they get so very few hits), but in my mind they are an important part of the blog's structure. I have been slowly adding more author pages, award nominees pages, and cleaning up pages that have outdated formatting. I suppose I could wish for people to notice these pages and use them, but that is a secondary concern for the most part. Much of this blog is written for me, to provide me with a record of the books I have read, the authors who wrote those books, and their place in the genre. If other people read what I write, that's a bonus.

Go to Day 13: Share a Blogger Horror Story

2014 Challenges     Book Blogger New Year's Challenge of 2014     Home

Monday, January 13, 2014

Musical Monday - Monsters of the Cosmos by Symphony of Science

Some black holes are the remnants of massive stars whose fuel ran out and collapsed in on themselves, their own weight crushing them into a single point of infinite mass. Some black holes are the microscopic remnants of perturbations in the early Universe following the Big Bang. At its heart, every galaxy has a super-massive monster of a black hole with a mass equal to between hundreds and billions of solar masses. When our universe grinds slowly to its death, the last sentinels standing watch will be black holes, slowly disintegrating over many billions of years as they lose mass due to Hawking radiation until there is nothing left but a cold radioactive haze.

As powerful a force as black holes are in our Universe, they weren't even imagined by humans until 1916, when Karl Schwarzschild first described one in terms of general relativity. It wasn't until 1958 that David Finkelstein asserted that such an object would be inescapable by anything, even light. For many years, these objects were considered to be nothing more than mathematical curiosities. We still haven't observed a black hole directly, and it is unlikely that we ever will, as they absorb all light that passes their way, making them just a little difficult to see. But we can observe the apparent effects of black holes as they rip nearby objects apart. Once something goes into a black hole, its information is destroyed forever - the mass that enters a black hole is eventually expelled as Hawking radiation, but everything except for the fact that it is mass will have been erased. Black holes consume and destroy everything they touch, making them the true monsters of the cosmos.

But that has made them fodder for numerous science fiction stories. Larry Niven has written several stories featuring black holes. Poul Anderson, Frederik Pohl, David Brin, Arthur C. Clarke, Roger Zelazny, and Gregory Benford have all written stories in which black holes played a role. And, of course, there was the movie The Black Hole, which was kind of silly, but undeniably featured a black hole. Black holes, as the ultimate destructive force in our universe, are terrifying and fascinating at the same time.

You can acquire this song for free (or a donation of your choosing) on the Symphony of Science Collector's Edition.

Previous Musical Monday: Our Place in the Universe by Symphony of Science
Subsequent Musical Monday: I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper by Sarah Brightman (featuring Hot Gossip)

Symphony of Science Playlist     Musical Monday Playlists

Symphony of Science     Musical Monday     Home

Book Blogger New Year's Challenge of 2014 - Share a Blogger Horror Story

Share a Blogger Horror Story

As far as I can tell, I've mostly been lucky as a book blogger. I haven't found anyone plagiarizing my reviews, and have had very little commenting drama crop up here. I haven't had anyone try to bully me, or say that I had somehow bullied them, or had instances of any of the other myriad interpersonal conflicts that seem to plague so many other bloggers, possibly as a result of my avoiding posting reviews in forums like Amazon, which seem to engender bitter responses from authors and fans of authors who are enraged if someone doesn't give a book they wrote (or which they simply like) a glowing review. I haven't had any serious technical problems either with my blog platform or as a result of internet shenanigans caused by hackers or others. Basically, as far as this blog goes, all has been quiet on the Western Front.

That is not to say I have not run into some troubles, but they haven't been directly related to this blog. My most memorable conflict was engendered by a review that is now posted on this blog, but was originally posted on LibraryThing for the book Pureheart (read review), which I have described as the worst book I have ever read, an assessment that I still believe is accurate. After I had posted the review, the author got her nose out of joint and wrote me a scathing message in which, among other things, stated that she had gotten Amazon to remove my review. Which was odd, since I had never posted the review to Amazon, in keeping with my general policy of never posting reviews on Amazon. She then got a friend of hers (who had written a virtually incoherent blurb for the jacket of her book) to also start e-mailing me, and as one might expect, his e-mails were at best semi-literate. I infuriated them somewhat by correcting the grammar and spelling in their e-mails, which they responded to by saying they weren't concerned with getting those sorts of things right, because e-mails were just "informal communication" that didn't need a lot of thought. Or apparently accurate spelling or grammar. This went back and forth for a while, and then they stopped, but not before I got in touch with Amazon and confirmed that I had not posted a review on their site, and, as one might expect, they had not removed the review that I had not posted on their site. This was not the only push back I've ever gotten from an author, but it was the most vociferous, and ultimately, the most humorous, especially since her book was so patently awful.

Go to Day 12: How Do You Plan on Getting More Followers This Year?
Go to Day 14: What Is Your Blogging Wish List of 2014?

2014 Challenges     Book Blogger New Year's Challenge of 2014     Home

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Blogger New Year's Challenge of 2014 - How Do You Plan on Getting More Followers This Year?

How Do You Plan on Getting More Followers This Year?

To be honest, other than participating in the Follow Friday hosted by Parajunkee and Alison, and the Book Blogger Hop hosted by Billy Burgess, I don't really do much to get new followers, and I don't really plan on doing anything new. I post links on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook, but that really seems like alerting people who are already followers to new content rather than an attempt to garner new followers. For the most part, I have built up what following this blog has simply by posting the best content I can on a regular basis and trying to keep the past posts organized and reasonably accessible for anyone who wants to go back and see old reviews and comments.

My philosophy is that it is better to attract readers with the quality of the blog itself rather than to engage in a collection of giveaways, contests, or other marketing efforts, and I am more likely to generate good quality content if I focus on that rather than ginning up follower totals. I suspect that those may generate some short term interest, but if the quality of the content is not high enough, you won't keep those new readers long. Like taping bacon to a cat, high profile posts that don't relate to the material you produce seem like they can generate a lot of hits for a day or two, but don't really appear to translate into long-term readership.

I am planning on going to CapClave again this year, and possibly the World Fantasy Convention, and if I get my act together, I may try to generate some readers while I am there, but that is a somewhat less than well-thought out plan at this point. I guess the short version of this post is simply that my plan to get new followers this year is to just continue doing what I have been doing for the last four years.

Go to Day 11: How Many Books Are On Your To-Be-Read Shelf?
Go to Day 13: Share a Blogger Horror Story

2014 Challenges     Book Blogger New Year's Challenge of 2014     Home

Book Blogger Hop January 10th - January 16th: Channel 37 Is Reserved for Radioastronomy in the United States

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Judy of Musings and Ramblings asks (via Billy): Are you a book blogger purist? Do you only have book related posts or do you review and post on anything/everything that catches your eye?

I am decidedly not a book blogger purist.  The primary focus of this blog is not necessarily book, but is rather genre fiction in all forms. Although I mostly review books, I have also reviewed movies and television programs, and at some point I may also review video games, board games, and role-playing games. I also have a moderately long-running regular feature called Musical Monday where I mostly discuss music that has influenced me as a science fiction and fantasy fan, or music that I simply want to talk about for some reason that seems interesting to me. I have also been known to occasionally include posts about economics, government, and imaginary music wars. Basically, I write about whatever interests me, because if I write about things that interest me, I am more likely to actually write about them, and probably more likely to write well about them too.

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Book Blogger New Year's Challenge of 2014 - How Many Books Are On Your To-Be-Read Shelf?

How Many Books Are On Your To-Be-Read Shelf?

The answer to this question depends to a certain extent on what you count as a to-be-read shelf. If you just count the review copies that I have, then I have thirty-six books on my to-be-read shelf. If you count the books that I have sitting in the numerous stacks that I have put the books that I'd like to get to "soon", the number increases by an addition three hundred and twelve books. And then if one counts all of the books that I have in my house that I have not read yet, the total number rises to six thousand one hundred and fifty-three.

If I apply myself, I can probably get through the review copies by the end of March or April. I might be able to get through the "soon" pile in the next two years or so. But the pile of unread books is likely to occupy me for the rest of my life. The entire publishing industry could vanish tomorrow and I'll have enough reading material for the next fifty plus years. I don't think publishers will stop publishing books though, so I suppose I'll be running the Red Queen's race for quite a while.

Go to Day 10: What New Things Will You Be Doing This Year?
Go to Day 12: How Do You Plan on Getting More Followers This Year?

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Follow Friday - 140 Characters Is the Maximum Length of a Tweet

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The Little Blog of Geek and Dandelion Wine Book Blog.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Put together your blogger resolution list for all of us to see!

I put together a list for Day 1 of the Book Blogger New Year's Challenge, which I will replicate here for anyone who missed it. In no particular order, my resolutions are:

Convert to Wordpress: My first resolution for 2014 is to convert Dreaming About Other Worlds to Wordpress. Using Blogger as a platform has worked reasonably well, and I've learned to work around a lot of its limitations to do things that I want to do with the blog. But doing odd things to get around the limitations of the platform you are using can get a little tiresome, and I suspect that some of the things I have done serve to make this blog a little unstable. At the very least, I'm straining the limits of Blogger's capabilities. And so my primary goal for the upcoming year is to move this blog to more congenial grounds.

Clear My Review Shelf: My second resolution for 2014 is to make a dent in my review shelf. I have a substantial backlog of review copies that I need to read and review. For a variety of reasons, 2013 was not a good reading year for me, and I was unable to get to several of the books that have been sent to me for review. I aim to rectify this situation in the upcoming year and read and review every one of the review copies that have been languishing on my shelves.

Advance Blogging Projects: My third resolution is to make progress on, and possibly complete, some of the large number of blogging projects that I have started but not completed. I started blogging about the episodes of the HBO series Cathouse a couple of years ago, and never finished getting through the series. I have also begun projects to blog about Farscape and Star Trek: The Original Series, both of which have stalled. And of course, I have my long-term project of trying to read and review all of the winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards. My goal for 2014 is to make substantial progress in all of these projects.

Build Blog Infrastructure: My fourth resolution is to get more of the background work done on the blog. Although I have been slowly filling in the gaps in the Authors A-Z page and the Book Award Reviews page over the course of the last couple of years, the progress has been going very slowly. For 2014, I plan to complete the projects of getting them up to date.

Fix Blog Issues: My fifth resolution is to fix a number of niggling issues with the blog, mostly involving formatting of older posts and some of the fixed pages. For example, the Book Reviews by Series page is woefully incomplete at this point, and needs substantial work. I hope to take care of this, and issues like this in 2014, even though I am reasonably certain that no one but me will notice the changes.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: K-141 Sank in the Barents Sea

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