The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga: Book 4)

The second book published in the Vorkosigan saga, the fourth in chronological order, is the entrance of Miles Vorkosigan – the young, deformed yet brilliant child of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith (the heroes of Shards of Honor). At first, it may seem like you’re reading a book about any old SF wunderkind, but Bujold skillfully raises Miles to extraordinary heights without making it seem farcical. By the end of this one book, you know that you’re reading about a hero that will be a favorite to many including yourself. This book is a must read. I would recommend beginning with Shards of Honor for a full character arc, but it’s not necessary. Enjoy this first encounter with Miles.

Miles Vorkosigan’s story begins with trying to get into the Barrayaran Officer’s Academy, but he is unable to qualify due to his malformed body caused by an attack when his mother was pregnant with him. To console himself from the disappointment, he travels to his mother’s home planet of Beta Colony with his bodyguard Sergeant Bothari and Bothari’s daughter, Elena. Along the way to deal with his overactive mind and curiosity – and maybe to help impress Elena, Miles starts an adventure of commerce, piracy, rebellion that grows at every turn. Where it ends, nobody knows, but Miles and his crew are caught in the whirlwind until it does.

The super brainiac kid is an overused trope in writing in general. Some handle it well, such as Card with Ender’s Game, but most do not. Bujold’s strength lies in her ability to write characters that you care about and make them true to themselves. You want to root for the brilliant Miles, you hurt for the embattled Bothari, you want Elena to be happy. All the while she crafts a story of many pieces and brings them together to great conclusions. Her books don’t usually end with one resolution but many. This book is no exception. Bujold has four Hugo Award winning books, but this book was written before her first win. I think it may be her best – award or no.

If you want to read a great storyteller bring together layers of story arc so well that you don’t realize what’s happening, then read Shards of Honor then The Warrior’s Apprentice. The two books are mirrors to each other and have a powerful symmetry in story and emotion. You will not regret the time spent.

8 stars out of 10

photo: jaymantri.com

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Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga: Book 2)

As a Science Fiction reader, there are few classics, celebrated authors, important series that I have not taken a dip into at some point or another. However, I’ve always kind of avoided the Vorkosigan Saga. When looking for the next thing to read, it always gets touted as “the best” or “in the top SF series ever written.” I don’t know if it’s the sheer number of volumes, the reviews it gets as space opera, or – just being honest – that it has a female author that has kept me so reticent all these years. Probably it’s because I’ve never had a friend of mine – and this is amazing due to its popularity – never tell me I should read them. Well I finally broke down and started the series, and guess what? It’s good.

One of the difficult things about the Vorkosigan Saga is where to start. I would avoid trying to decipher the reading order initially from all the fan sites and reviewers. The books are now being put into chronological order instead of publication date. While this is fine and dandy, I don’t know if it does the series any favors. Shards of Honor was the first novel in the series published (even though now it gets called Book 2), and I think it’s a great place to start to get the tenor of Bujold’s writing. It’s pre-Miles, the hero that drives most of the following books, but it situates the universe well. And, it provides the historical backdrop for most of the following stories.

Cordelia Naismith is a captain in a planetary survey for Beta Colony. Her goal is to scientifically chart new worlds and their natural characteristics. Unknowingly she stumbles into intrigue that involves Barrayar – a military based society that is trying to flex its muscles. She finds herself united with Aral Vorkosigan, a Barrayaran commander, that is fighting his own internal political battle with members of his planet’s ruling elite. Together they walk a knife’s edge of loyalty, subterfuge, and honor while the fate of planets hangs in the balance.

There is a lot going for this book. Great action sequences, large scale interplanetary strategy, traitors, and spies, but at the heart what wins the day is the relationship between Naismith and Vorkosigan. Bujold expertly writes the “human” factor. While the heavens may be in chaos, she makes sure to keep the story honed in on the thoughts and feelings of her main characters. This is why the series is so well liked. You relate to the characters. You become enmeshed with their lives and hope for their good. Sure there are many well crafted meta-storylines creating the high drama, but it’s the drama of the heart that makes this book a winner.

Shards of Honor is not the best book in the series, but it’s a great introduction. Fast paced, witty, and grand in scope, I bet you, like me, will have to read more.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: realisticshots.com

Lord of All Things by Andreas Eschbach (Samuel Willcocks, translator)

Every four or five books, I like to take a chance on a book I’ve never heard of. It gets me out of ruts. Such was the case with Lord of All Things – originally written in German and then translated into English. The reviews I saw promised “The Book of the Year!” and “A Celebrated Achievement” and yada yada. Sometimes they are, but this one wasn’t. This is a book that was about three times longer than it needed to be and yet didn’t tell the whole story. There were some really great parts, but on a whole it was just an okay read. It needed a good editor.

Hiroshi and Charlotte begin as childhood acquaintances with remarkable gifts. Hiroshi is a extremely smart technical genius with a gift for robotics on a mission to end all want; Charlotte is a diplomat’s daughter with an unbelievable gift for languages and the handy ability to see into the past of any object she touches. Two ordinary children who may, or may not, change the world. They meet throughout their lives to drive each other toward their individual destinies.

This novel read as something between a Frank Capra screenplay and an alternate history textbook. There was a lot of grand vision – which was good – trying to mesh a different past than we’re used to with a future that would be idyllic. The problem is: that if a sci-fi book could figure out how to change the future in a couple hundred pages, we would be hard at work making it a reality. Instead, the author seems as much as a loss as most at getting it accomplished – even in fiction. In some ways, it would have been better for the author to have accepted the idealized Communism that Capra spouted to get a good story than trying to be so nuanced for our modern enlightened age. Robots just can’t overcome the foibles of the human heart. And, let’s not even get started with aliens.

This is a hard book to dismiss or recommend because it had a lot going for it, but there were a lot of inept parts too. Certain characters used as foils shouldn’t have even been in the book, and the author just missed on the ending. The middle of the book was really good with a lot of driving force. Let’s just say, I think the author has some skills, but he needs a good editor to make them shine. Here’s to looking forward.

4 stars out of 10

photo: wikipedia

The Grand Alliance (The Second World War: Book 3) by Winston Churchill

The third volume in the abridged collection of Churchill’s history of the Second World War (confusingly the third volume in the unabridged series goes by the same title) follows Great Britain out of the time of their isolation in the war. From 1939 until the Germans turned their sights on Russia in 1942, England was the sole force providing continual harassment to Hitler’s swelling dominion. While many other countries were friendly and supportive to the cause, there had yet to be formed an allied front against the Axis countries – except in the Atlantic where the US had already committed to help clear shipping lanes near their own shores. With grit and ferocity of will, England stood the onslaught of the German’s might and lasted. There indomitableness was rewarded when, in 1942, both Russia and the US finally entered the war as full allies. In this, Churchill knew that the war was won.

You will never read a war history quite like Churchill’s retelling of these six, almost seven, long years of struggle. No “man at the top” as it were has written about the minutiae of what it takes from day to day to keep a country focussed toward a common goal. Churchill is both witty and serious about his responsibilities. The reader always feels as if the Prime Minister has a sincere empathy with the men that lay down their lives for freedom’s sake. And yet, Churchill was a shrewd if relatively straightforward politician. He pulls and cajoles the Russians to come to the aid of the Western powers. Stalin is supremely concerned about his own nation, yet this warmhearted Brit maneuvers the cold steely Russian into joint operations. The United States military see themselves as foremost in the world, but Churchill guides them to his points of attack. With an unbelievable aplomb, we get to look in on how a historical giant orders the players of worldwide strategy into a successful defense against Hitler’s schemes.

As a good American schoolboy, I was taught how the US came to save Britain’s bacon when we finally entered the European field. This is true – to an extent. What I never knew was how much had been prepared by the continual strategy of the British Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force. The had the ideas; they needed manpower. And the USA could not provide this at first. It took much longer for the war effort stateside to gear up than one might think. Even though America essentially entered into the war on Pearl Harbor day in 1941. The main focus was toward naval operations against Japan. It was only a small percentage of US troops that made it into the European theater before D-Day in June of 1944. Once the US became an active participant, hardly a defeat was handed to the Allied forces in the west, but this was due to the exceedingly important battle plan developed for years by Great Britain.

My grandfather served in North Africa – where the majority of the action of this book takes place. I don’t know a lot about his service as he passed away in my youth. He was an mechanic in support of air based action. It’s amazing that so many operations of vital importance happened off the continent where the supposed heart of the struggle lay. It’s as if Olympian engineers of war decided to fight somewhere that wouldn’t mess up their civilization. But it did, hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives in North Africa. The many battles of Tobruk and Benghazi, the struggle for Egypt, the swift offensive on Tunis. These are magnificent and costly battlefields that most will never walk because they are so far from our cultured world. Churchill does his best to humanize every campaign, but the scars of the war were greater than most perceive. There may not be a finer set of histories for this time, but come knowing it’s not the view that the average man had.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov

The Fold by Peter Clines

First off, if you haven’t read 14 by Peter Clines yet, no need to continue farther. Go read that book now! Yes, it is imperative. Then come back here, and we’ll talk about The Fold.

Good, now that we’ve got that over with you can understand why after reading 14, I quickly purchased a copy of The Fold. I had read a review that said that this book took place in the same world as its predecessor but wasn’t exactly a sequel. A “side-quel” I think they called it. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. I loved 14, but I didn’t know if I was ready for those characters to change a lot from where I left them. The story was so original; I wanted to keep it fresh for a while. So The Fold seemed like a perfect way to get more without spoiling the original. It sorta succeeded.

Mike Erikson has an eidetic memory – which means he can remember everything. Absolutely everything. His mind is a constant surveillance device through which not even the smallest grain of information can slip. And he’s a nice guy. Mike was a great character, and I would like to read other stories with him in it – especially if they had a Moriarty to his Holmes. Anyway, he gets convinced to go work on a secret DARPA project called the Albuquerque Door that could possibly be a way to instantaneous travel…but of course, things are not quite what they seem.

If you read 14 (and if not, didn’t I tell you to go do that now!), then let me just float out there that this is basically a retelling of the same story with a different cast, location, and doorways. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s basically 14: Round 2. The characters were good again – they make me like Peter Clines as a person and I know nothing about him. The story twists were fun. I really liked everything about it, but it kind of felt that I was living in the same dimensional gambit used by the two books. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this second helping, but part of the sheer power of 14 was the originality. This story, besides the details, was inherently unoriginal.

Peter Clines, if you read this (first – you’re awesome): I love this world that you’ve set up and I want more. Just next time, let’s not do a lovable bunch of interesting characters stumbling down the adventure of discovering some Tesla-like scientist’s secrets. I mean sure, it’s worked so far…okay maybe one more, but after that, let’s open up this world some.

PS. I’m about to get to your Ex-Heroes stories, I’m sure they’re good. Keep on writing!

Ok to recap, 14 – great, The Fold – good. And spoiler alert: yes, there are green cockroaches.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: wikia.com

Opened Heavens by Jessie Penn-Lewis

In the autumn of 1900, Jessie Penn-Lewis gave a series of addresses at the Quiet Days for Christian Workers gathering in Peekskill, New York. Seven of these talks were collected into the pamphlet Opened Heavens. An additional lecture received its own printing known as Much Fruit. The focus of talks was the need for “Visions of God” to be given to the church to rightly see how one should live. These “visions” were not some height of ecstasy or prophetic dream, but rather they are to be a right understanding of the Scriptures as they pertain to God. In summary, if we rightly perceive the Lord in the Bible, then we will rightly know how to live.

The pamphlet is probably pretty heavy to those who are familiar with the easily accessible Christian writings of today. It starts with a call to the Christian to seek revelation about the persons of the Trinity. It then leads to an urging for a complete denial of self and total service to the will of God. Finally it ends with an exposition on the work of Christ and how the reader should endeavor to partake in it. The language is lofty but the teaching cuts to the quick of an open heart. It has become increasingly harder in a day of instant self-gratification to lay your desires down for others – even more so for a God that calls for your whole life. Penn-Lewis does not ask for a casual faith nor does she want mediocre acknowledgments of the need. Her message is for a total life laid down.

I had the slightly uncanny experience of reading this book on the beach in Puerto Rico during an anniversary trip. Living the high life in the midst of beautiful, rich people gives a perspective to the thrust of this book that was a little unsettling. I was able to relax and get some well-deserved rest, but I was also encouraged by this tract to push deeper in my spiritual life – to get to the point where I could say with Ezekiel, “The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” (Ezekiel 1:1) A stern but ultimately encouraging read for those looking for a clearer grasp of the Godhood.

5 stars out of 10

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

“In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river”

-T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I’ve been avoiding On the Beach ever since I became addicted to Nevil Shute’s novels. Partly because it’s his most acclaimed piece of writing (or at the very least, the most widely read) and partly because of the subject matter. The book takes place in the nebulous time of the late 1960’s after a nuclear war has devastated the world. Fallout has already rendered the Northern Hemisphere completely uninhabitable, and the radioactive cloud is slowly moving southward. The story follows a small group of friends in Australia as they live under the approaching inevitability of death. It is a powerful tale of hope and honesty and love.

I’ll be the first to say that if you are a reader and you’ve let a year go by without reading a Nevil Shute book, then you have missed out on a joy in your life. His books reveal the best parts of humanity in a way that doesn’t make them trite, but instead, noble. Not the kind of nobility that makes you want to rule and lead, but the kind that makes you want to live better and enjoy the every day. On the Beach excels at getting to the heart of who we are. Shute rarely has enemies in his books. It’s like each novel is a refutation of the belief that one must hate something in this world to prove their worth. Even at the end of all things, there is room for love to overcome.

The action follows several naval officers, both Australian and American, as they seek to find a solution to the catastrophe. Now that the world’s purpose can be wholly turned to survival, there is a turn from the day to day struggles of life. Relationships are real and vital. Enjoyment of each hour is what is looked for. It is like a quest for utopia in the darkest hour. The recent Seveneves by Neal Stephenson pushes for an idea that survival is the most important ideal. On the Beach, while not against self-preservation, posits that survival is not the highest ideal. In fact, maybe it’s integrity.

There are solutions to the world destroying itself, and Nevil Shute has done a service in making us think about it. While this book was extremely enjoyable in an eyes half full of water kind of way, I can see why one might not rush out to read it. It will move you if you do.

8 stars out of 10

photo: Forrest Cavale