This page contains reviews of books I've enjoyed recently. I'll try to be careful about spoilers, but any review runs the risk of revealing something that someone feels was best left as a surprise.

The books reviewed here are likely to be fairly eclectic, but in keeping with my theory of the superiority of trash, they're far more likely to be adventure, myth, romance and genre fiction than "serious literature". The reviews are rather personal, and while I will heartily recommend any of these books to anyone, as often as not what I enjoyed about them was that they spoke to me, directly.

Falling Free cover

Falling Free


Lois McMaster Bujold

This novel is hard science fiction, first published in Analog. It takes place 200 years before the birth of Miles Naismith/Vorkosigan, the hero of most of Bujold's novels, but it's definitely part of the same series as her Vorkosigan novels. The world and technology we see in Falling Free provide something of a foundation for the world of the later Vorkosigan novels.

Falling Free tells the story of Leo Graf, an engineer and teacher, and the Quaddies, a genetically engineered race created and exploited by GalacTech, the largest of the Earth-based high-tech conglomerates. The setting is the Cay Habitat, a giant space station orbiting the semi-habitable planet Rodeo. The takes place and is shaped by the emergence of the colony worlds as a leading power of their own. The Quaddies, for instance, owe their existence to the uterine replicator, which is invented on Beta colony, and which will later help shape the lives of Miles and his brother Mark.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this story is that its about an engineer, and Bujold captures the engineer mind set beautifully. It's not at all surprising that her acknowledgements at the beginning of the book indicate that Bujold's father and brother are engineers. She obviously knows and understands engineers, and portrays Leo Graf wonderfully. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is, loves or lives with an engineer.

But please don't take this recommendation as a suggestion that the appeal of the book or of Bujold's writing is restricted to those with an interest in engineers or engineering -- quite the contrary. One of the great qualities of Bujold's writing is her characterization. Each book of hers that I've read has featured characters that are all real people. She has a gift with creating very believable characters and characters that shatter the stereotypes. Politics and the impact of technology on both society and the individual are always themes in Bujold's books, but even more so, her stories are about people.

I read in one review on the net a description of Falling Free as a "feel good story". While it's true that the story is not a tragedy, but rather a heroic romance, that label bothers me. After some thought, it seems to me that I understand why. I have a hard time viewing as "feel good" a story that effectively portrays a threat that is both truly evil and at the same time based in everyday reality. The villainy is a brutal inhumanity that is in many ways nothing more than an extrapolation the mundane evil that threatens corporate America today.

There isn't a long way to go from the dehumanizing trend to view employees not as people, but as "resources", to the view that the quaddies are't people but "capital assets" that can be disposed of if they aren't cost-effective. The violence turned against the quaddies is in many ways a completely natural outgrowth of the view that business is war and ought to be engaged in according to the principles of warfare. While Bujold's villain often seems like an over the top caricature, he is just an exaggeration of people who are all too real today, and the reality of that threat added, at least for me, too much of a visceral edge for me to be able to regard the story as "feel good".

In any event, I recommend Falling Free. It has a lot going for it. It's not only good old-fashioned hard science fiction, but what's more rare "engineering fiction". While not a "feel good story", it is a heroic romance, and serves to remind us how much people can achieve, how important it is to take a stance against evil, and gives us heroes to root for and villains to boo.

Bettie Page: Queen of Hearts


Jim Silke

There have been lots of books, magazines, and articles written about Bettie Page, but this book actually does a credible job of explaining why Bettie is so popular. The author, Jim Silke, is a professional artist, photographer and art director. His credits run the gamut from designing Nelson Riddle record jackets at Capital to publishing and editing Cinema magazine to photographing Sharon Tate to writing and drawing his own comic (a new career he started in his sixties after "retiring") "Rascals in Paradise". Silke is a qualified expert in the area of popular culture and trash.

It's easy to find books with more pictures of Bettie or more details about her life and career, but it is hard to find a book about her with better pictures, more beautiful design, or with a better understanding of her or of the popular culture of the last 50 years or so, or her place in that culture.

Bettie, for those of you who've managed somehow to miss the phenomenon, was a pin-up model in the 50's. Not regarded as famous at the time, she has undergone something of a revival in the last ten years or so, achieving the open recognition that the time denied her. Pictures of Bettie now fill book after book, and artists who weren't even born when she last posed are using her for a model.

I was particularly touched by Silke's view, as an artist, on art, illustration, and "trash", a view rather close to my own. In the last 150 years art has tried to elevate itself intellectually, or more precisely, intellectuals have tried to elevate art, tried both to analyse it and legitimize it. Unfortunately, the intellectual climate of much of the last 150 years has devalued the sensual, the visceral and the animal side of human nature. The manners and morality of the time has seen the human body as something shameful and dirty, and regarded passion as "base passion", something to be overcome.

The truth is, it seems to me, that art is physical, not intellectual, that it is effective specifically when it does affect our viscera, that the very act of creating art is itself sensual. Art may affect us intellectually, it may excite, crystalize and communicate great truths and ideas, but it does so by "making sense of" those ideas, that is by tying them to our senses and making us feel it in our gut. Having given the idea reality and impact it inspires us to think and consider the experience.

Silke's book is effective because it is personal. In many ways it is as much an explanation of his own search and growth as an artist, his own reaction to pictures of Bettie as it is about Bettie herself. Neither Silke, nor Bettie fit readily into the art theory of the fifties. Silke sets the stage thusly:

"In those days, modernists dominated the art schools, even those specializing in representational art, and the model was thought of as an object, a starting place for the artist to create his or her own two-dimensional world. The instructors validated this dogma with more dogmas, claiming that Degas' paintings were not of ballet dancers, horses and nudes, but of geometric shapes, lines and color -- that they were objects of art, not images of women bathing and drying themselves."

But art theory was not the only tradition at the time. There was another, at least as old--the craft and art of illustration. Silke the young man turned to that tradition and Silke the author gives us a wonderful tour of a part of that world, the part that Bettie touches.

Silke traces briefly the early history of this tradition from the founding of La Vie Parisienne in 1863, through work of artists like Dore, Kirchner, and Chabas. He then looks in detail at several schools that arise from this tradition: illustration in both the "pulps" and the "slicks", women's magazines and paperback covers, art books, movie and girly magazines. He presents Bettie in the context of artists like George Petty and Alberto Vargas, Andrew Loomis, Robert Maguire and Robert McGinnis.

He also relates Bettie and her appeal to the European "bad girls", Brigette Bardot, Gina Lolabrigida and Sophia Loren, and to the Jungle girls: Niktoris, Nyoka and Jane, and the women who portrayed them, Maureen O'Sulivan, Hedy Lamar, Maria Montez and Yvonne De Carlo.

But perhaps most of all Silke shows us Bettie in this context, juxtaposed with all the paperback covers and pinups is Bettie herself. He gives us many of the best and most well-known photographs of Bettie, including a large number by Bunny Yager. There are also lots of drawings of Bettie, many of them original for this book. A large number are Silke's own work, but he also has drawings by comic book artists Dave Stevens, Mark Schultz, and Al Williamson and paperback artists William George, Robert McGinnis, and Mitchell Hooks.

Seeing photos of Bettie side by side with the artwork she has inspired and all in the context of the pin-ups, illustration and art history of the last several decades explains a lot. Most obviously it helps us understand the Bettie Page phenomenon. Also, for those of us who are suddenly aware of Jim Silke it explains a lot about just who he is. Perhaps, though, most importantly, it tells us a good deal about ourselves and our society. In explaining Bettie and his artistic reaction to her, Silke tells us a lot about art, fantasy, the sensual, and how our society feels about each of them.

The Oracle Glass


Judith Merkle Riley

In the last couple of years I've started reading romance novels along with the historical adventure, fantasy and science fiction that has long been my main literary diet. While Judith Merkle Riley's The Oracle Glass is found in the "fiction" section rather the "romance" section of the book stores, I suspect that this is only because it is "too good" to be romance.

What caught my eye about the Oracle Glass (other than the very strong recommendation by my friend Krissy) was the back cover. First of all, there's an endorsement by Diana Gabaldon, herself a favorite romance author. Then there's the blurb itself, the first paragraph of which read:

Seventeenth Century Paris. Genevieve is a skinny, precocious girl with a mind full of philosophy and the remarkable power to read the swirling waters of an oracle glass. Left for dead by her family, she is taken in by the ingenious occultist La Voison, who rules a secret society of witches that manipulates the rich and scandalous all the way up to the throne. Tutored by La Voison, Genevieve creates a new identity for herself as the mysterious Madame deMorville, rumored to be one hundred and fifty years old.

La Voison was the Queen of the Paris witches at the time of the "Affaire des poisons", and her recreation of Genevieve as "Madame deMorville" brought to my mind immediately thoughts of the mysterious Comte Saint Germain a hundred years later. What a delicious combination, it seemed, a female Saint Germaine caught up in the affair of the poisons. Too, Krissy and I had just been discussing my researches into the life of La Maupin, who lived only a few years later.

And I was not disappointed.

While the similarities of the immortal Marquise deMorville to the immortal Count may be as much in my own mind as in the intent of the author, her fictional creation is just as full of mystery, intrigue and romance as the historical Saint Germaine. In a way, she's reminiscent of sort the characters that Lois McMaster Bujold creates. Like Miles Naismith, Genevieve is saddled with physical deformity, she is a hunchback with a club foot. And like Miles the rejection that her deformity engenders serves to give her the strength and drive not merely to overcome it but to shine. And like La Maupin, Genevieve is given a masculine education, though whereas La Maupin's is in arts physical, Genevieve's is in literature and the philosophies of the Romans.

The author does a remarkable job both of creating the character of Genevieve, and of weaving an intriguing tale around her. The vast majority of the characters in the book are historical and so far as I know her account of events around the Affair are accurate. Certainly they feel authentic. I suppose the publishers can be forgiven for classifying this book as just fiction, for while it fulfils quite well all the requirements of good romance, it is many other things as well. In addition to being an historical period piece, The Oracle Glass could also be regarded as a true-crime story. (In fact, Jean M. Auel's endorsement of the book so identifies it, comparing it to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.) If one focused on the fact that Genevieve's gift of prophecy is real and runs counter to our common view of reality, you might even classify it as fantasy.

However you classify the book, it is a compelling read, and it works well in all the genres that might lay claim to it. Read it for the romance, read it for the characterization, read it for the light that it sheds on a fascinating time in history, and a real-world crime story that helped set the foundations of modern investigation and police work, read it for the witchcraft and sorcery, but for whatever reason, I recommend you read it.