Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Friday, January 27, 2023

Killer Angels, Mr Roberts and Sharpe


The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara A-

I’m rather late to the game with this book from 1974, but better late than never. Sometime back in the 1960’s I picked up Avalon Hill’s Tactics ll, and played a lot of wargames in my high school and collage years, and off and on since then, including a decade of playing Napoleonic miniatures. Over that period I have read some military history, but not extensively so. The thing about military history is that no matter what book you read about a battle or campaign, nothing ever changes. The same mistakes are made every time, so that what interest me more than the battles is the story of the leaders, and that is what The Killer Angels is about. I am somewhat familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg, I’ve gamed it a couple of times, so I had no need to read about it again. What Shaara does is touch on the overall situation and some of the key points of the battle to set the scene, but his main focus is on Generals Lee and Longstreet, with a few other Confederate generals, and the Union general Buford, and a Union colonel Joshua L Chamberlain who commanded a brigade that defended Little Round Top on the second day of the battle. Using extensive research and the memoirs of the people involved, he fictionally recounts the events of the three day battle from the viewpoint of these men. The fictionalization of the memoirs makes them more alive to readers a century after the event then the more “stilted” writing of another era by the men themselves. It was a compelling read.

Mister Roberts by Thomas Heggen A-

This was a reread, probably my third reading of this book. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s of the last century, we watched a lot of war movies on TV. Mister Roberts was certainly one of them, and one of the best of them. The book is just as good, if not better. It humorously recounts life aboard a US Navy cargo ship in the South Pacific during World War Two. Plying the backwaters of the conflict, boredom and indifference was the crew’s biggest enemy. The book is composed of short stories that mix humor, character studies, and philosophy based on Heggen’s three years of sea duty during the war. It’s an entertaining book, that seems to have some special appeal to me, for reasons I can’t place. My father served in the Pacific with the US Navy during the war, but it’s not like he ever talked about his service life. So I don’t know where the appeal comes from – but I did write my own set of stories set in a tropical ocean. It’s that powerful. In any event, you don’t need that affinity to the South Pacific to enjoy the book Recommended.

Sharpe’s Sword by Bernard Cornwell C+

This is book number 14 in Bernard Cornwell’s 23 book series concerning the doings of one Richard Sharpe, a soldier in the British Army from 1799 to 1821. There is a TV series based on these books, that I’ve not seen. The books largely concern themselves with the war against Napoleon, as Sharpe rises through the ranks from a private of an officer. This book concerns the British Army’s Salamanca Campaign in Spain in 1812. This is the first Sharpe book I have read, and the only one as an ebook from the library, which is why I’m jumping in at book number 14.

Cornwell writes very well researched and authentic stories of war, with a great deal of detail. Perhaps too much, for my taste since as someone who has read a number of books on the this type of battle, I am familiar with the horror involved. I found myself skimming parts of the descriptions of battles. A more significant sticking point for me, is the character of Sharpe. Sharpe is brave, resourceful, determined, adored by his subordinates, valued by his superiors, loved and bedded by the most attractive woman in the book, but nevertheless, I found him to be a rather colorless character. He is neither witty, nor clever, or entertaining. But what I really did not like most of all, is that Cornwell has Sharpe do something subtle in the battle, that swings the battle in the favor of the British. Without Sharpe, the battle might have been lost. I really dislike when authors have their fictional characters save the day in a historical battle. I've encountered that before. All in all these are minor quibbles, but they all add up. I will not be continuing on with Sharpe. However, next up is Cornwell’s non-fiction recounting of the battle of Waterloo. I expect it to be quite readable.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Monsters and Marches


The Rival Monster by Compton Mackenzie C+

This was the third novel in Penguin’s The Highland Omnibus I purchased a while back. I believe that I had read this story before, but remembered nothing of it. The story takes place four or five after Whisky Galore, and the end of World War Two. It includes many of the characters from both Monarch of the Glen and Whisky Galore. This story is focused on a rather farcical premise, namely that the Loch Ness monster was seen being struck by a flying saucer, and if not killed, it had been scared out of Loch Ness, since it had not been seen for months afterwards. However, a spade “monster” sighting by various people on the two Todday Islands of Whisky Galore fame, suggest that it may have fled to the islands. And I think the story suffers for this change of focus. The subtitle of the omnibus is “Three fine, furious farces from the forerunner of Tome Sharpe.” While all three may indeed be viewed as farces, the first two were focused more on the characters of the story, all of whom were “characters” in their own ways. The Rival Monster, on the other hand, is more focused on the premise of the story, how all the locals take it seriously, and the newspapers have a field day with the story. And such, I think it loses a lot of the charm of the first two stories, and becomes much more of a farce than the first two stories. I found it a less enjoyable story than the first two because of that. There are three more stories in this series, Keep the Home Guard Turning (1943),which was written before Whisky Galore (1947), and Hunting the Fairies (1949), written before The Rival Monster (1952), and Rockets Galore (1957). I am not certain if I have read the remaining three, save for Keep the Home Guard Turning, which I know I did read. I’m not sure if I will continue on or not. I have a number of long books on the TBR this days, so it won’t be for quite a while, if I do.

Dead Man’s Walk by Larry McMurtry C+

I enjoyed McMurtry’s writing, though he does buzz around like a bee flirting between characters, sometimes giving us what they’re thinking and other times not. Still you get to know them pretty well, and so, as a character focused reader, I was pretty happy with the characters, as each of them was a “character.” Where this book loses points is in the story itself. It is largely a one note symphony. And that note is foolish men doing stupid things, over and over again, paying a steep price each time, and eventually, for most of them, the steepest of prices. The story concerns two expeditions into the wilds of Texas in the early 1840’s by bands of Texas Rangers. These expeditions are ill led, ill prepared, and with one damn thing happening after another, one stupid decision after another, things don’t end well. I found that the reading gets a bit wearisome after awhile, despite McMurtry’s writing. In addition you have the sadistic Comanche war band leader who they meet time and again, and who bests them every time they meet. I believe that Texas is a big place, but no matter where they travel, he turns up. The main expedition is inspired by an unsuccessful invasion of New Mexico from Texas, and having gotten a handful of characters 700 miles away from Austin Tx, McMurty had to get the heroes of Lonesome Dove home again. And he does so in a sort of deus ex machina way. I’m hoping that the next book, set 20 years in the future is a bit more expansive and less repetitious.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Reading in 2023, The Beginning of the Trail

 As I have blogged previously, I’m on the lookout for new genres to read, having abandoned science fiction and fantasy. I have gone back to reading some of the old books I remember reading and enjoying years ago. In addition I have tried a new author from the first half of the last century. There are other authors from that era or a bit earlier that have books that I haven’t read, and which are easily accessible on the Gutenberg website. Tabot Mundy springs to mind, as one such author. There a plenty of H Rider Haggard books I’ve not read as well. And that best selling author, whose name escapes me at the moment…

Nevertheless, I have decided to start my 2023 reading with Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove series. Now I have read some Zane Grey westerns, so these won’t be the first westerns I’ve read, but they will be the rare westerns I’ve read, if I get through them. The reason for this decision is that in my journeys through YouTube’s booktubers, Lonesome Dove has come up several times, mostly as one of the best book everyone had read. So I decided to investigate it.

What I discovered is that while Lonesome Dove is the first book McMurty wrote with these characters, he returned a decade or so later and wrote three more books, two prequels to Lonesome Dove; Dead Man’s Walk, and Comanche Moon, and one sequel, Streets of Laredo with the same main characters. I looked up Dead Man’s Walk on Amazon and read the sample. It seemed pretty good – interesting characters and a touch of humor, which is a requirement for me. And seeing that the series has a 4.8 star rating on Amazon, it would seem that you can’t get better than that. So I decided, what the heck, I’d read the series in chronological order, rather than written order, as that seemed to make the most sense, and well not having read Lonesome Dove when it came out, I could at this late date.

I considered reading library copies, since they are all readily available as paper books. Ebooks, not so much. Lonesome Dove had like a 64 person waiting list. And while the local library is 15 minutes away by car and so no great problem to run down and pick them up, it is winter… and I don’t know how long it will take for me to read each book, so I decided to buy them second hand instead, via Abe Books. Being best sellers in many editions, they were easy to find and I picked up all four for less than $21, including (free) shipping, so they are on their way. Hopefully they will live up to their reputation. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 6, 2023

January Writing Update

I guess it time again for another writing update. Back in November I was working on my third and likely final Tropic Sea story, Passage to Jarpara, and thinking about a new standalone novel, Chantiere House that I wanted to start writing, well, now, i.e. right after the new year so as not to waste the long, cold Wisconsin winter. I had written about 25K words of Passage to Jarpara by the first week of November, when I paused work on the story for two reasons. There was going to be a climatic island adventure involving a sleeping god, and I didn’t have more than that title and an idea of how it would work. Sort of. Not much to write a story on. And secondly, I was losing my enthusiasm for the story because I kept having to stop and think about what comes next, and switch things around after I'd written them, rather than having the whole story in mind and just setting it down In short the story was still half baked. On the other hand, I was getting excited about the Chantiere House, and so I wanted to devote my daydreaming to that story rather than working out all the little details of the rest of the I story line.

Unfortunately, though I had a setting, a nose of a story, and two characters I liked, for Chantiere House, I just could not come up with a plot that I could get enthusiastic about. And since I write for fun, I need to be enthusiastic about writing to write. Long story short, I shelved the Chantiere House project in December, took a break and now I’m back to writing Passage to Jarpara at a new and better starting point. And this time, instead of a novella, I intend to make it a full length novel, a long and fond farewell to a setting and characters that I really like. And since it is the third book in the series, I only have to write it for the people who, like me, want to know more about the characters and the Tropic Sea. Thus, I’m not going to worry about making it anything more than an episodic travelogue across the Tropic Sea wherein they meet old friends from the previous stories, meet new friends, and visit new islands, each with a little adventure of sorts. Less a genre novel than a lighthearted literary fiction novel of travel. Nothing deep, lots of color and conversations, hopefully witty and perhaps insightful. It feels like every novel is my last, and this one may well be. We’ll see how it turns out, if it turns out.

My other project is to go through The Girl on the Kerb one last time. You would like to think that you get better at something the more you do it. And that your eleventh novel would be better than your fist published novel, but for some reason, this isn’t the case. I don’t know why I find myself disappointed by The Girl on the Kerb, but I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t all that good. There were some sections that I had a lot of fun writing, but others were more work, than fun. I had to grind them out, and still they left me unsatisfied. Because I have had the time, while waiting to hear from Gollancz, I’ve been able to work on this story far longer than any of my recent novels. I’ve revised the final 1/3rd of the story, adding something like 5.5K words to it in the process, and still, I can’t shake that feeling… So I am going through it one last time, looking to make the writing better. I’m not going to be changing any plot elements, just words and sentences. Hopefully I’m wrong. And you’ll enjoy it. I still expect to release it sometime in March, so I have the time to tinker with it, and make it just a little better, if only for my sake.

Friday, December 30, 2022

My Year in Reading


It was a very good year for reading. (Cue in Frank Sinatra) But I’m not quite sure it was a vintage wine, year, sweet and clear, though I read some very good books.

Just for the record, I have three ring binder in my possession that lists the 100 books I read in 1966, the 56 in 1967, 53 in 1970, and the 25 I read from Jan to April in 1971. After that, the record gets sparse until I started recording the books I read again in 2021, with a total of 18. This year I have more than doubled that to 40 books. Or to be more precise, I started reading 40 books. It, however, has never been my policy to waste my time reading books I don’t like just because I started them. So looking down my list I find that I finished 25 of them, DNF’n 15 of them. Not a bad ratio, at least for me.

For new books, Michael Graeme’s A Lone Tree Falls, earned an A- from me. I had a lot of fun writing a tongue in cheek review of it in something like his style. He writes something like your grouchy, the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart grandpa, but there was an interesting secret service story running through all his grouching that made it enjoyable. John Hadfield’s Love on a Branch Line was a much more lighthearted story that I discovered via a BBC production that is available on YouTube. I had order this book from England, via Abe books, as it is out of print. (And got a very nice hardcover copy as well.) I rated it a B+. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine earned a B, but I find I’ve no desire to read the next book in the series. Sadly, the rest of my more recently written books did not fare as well.

I read two W. Somerset Maugham stories, Cakes and Ale, and The Moon and Sixpence that I enjoyed, Cakes and Ale more than The Moon and Sixpences as it involved writers and had a lot to say about writing that is still relevant today. I also read two Compton Mackenzie books, Monarch of the Glen and Whisky Galore and am reading The Rival Monster, all of which I enjoyed. I am going to continue to look for books from the first half of the last century which seems my spiritual home for reading.

I made an effort to discover good fantasy books, sampling books from the best writers in the genre. I tried two Guy Gavriel Key books, Children of Earth and Sky, and River of Stars, DFN'ed both mainly for the fact that I need a central character to follow though a story. Stories with multiple points of view, especially with so-so characters do not work for me. I then tried Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic, which also had multiple point of view characters, all who seemed to drone on and on about the trivial details of their life, which was I suppose her way of world building, but I didn’t find a character that I cared about. DNF’ed it as well some 43% into it. (I tried...) I did read two Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels that TOR offered for free, Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self that I rated C & D. I had been told that one of the characters that I liked played a larger part in the second book, which is why I continued reading it long after I would’ve DNF’ed it, but sadly this wasn’t the case. I downloaded the third book in the series, but won’t be reading it. Early in the year, I read Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch and rated it a B- but once again, I won’t be reading on with the series. Indeed, I’m not likely to read any more fantasy books.

I read 13 books in the science fiction genre, I finished 7 of them. The worst book I attempted to read was Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer. Wolfe may be a f**k’n genius, but not in my opinion. I sometimes wonder if you make something incoherent enough people people think you’re just too brilliant and after several readings discover their own meanings in it. I also tried a Peter F Hamilton book. I felt that it had way too many points of view and a slog to read, even as far as I did, which was 10%, but it was a long book. I made it all the way through James S A Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, but won’t be continuing on with that series either. Plus I read a few other older SF books, none of which sparked my old love of SF. Long story short, except for an author I know I like, I won’t be reading much if any SF anymore either.

Looking ahead, There is one book I am looking forward to, and that is Redside Story by Jasper Fforde, a sequel to perhaps my favorite SF story Shades of Grey. There were supposed to be two sequels, but they were never written because sales of Shades of Grey disappointed the publisher. However, a year ago I discovered that he planned to wrap up the story in one volume. It was supposed to be released last August, but that was pushed back to now July 2023. Fforde has a history of struggling to finish books, so we’ll see if he can finish it in time for a July release. Other than this book, I’ll probably to continue to explore more old time writers hoping to discover more lighthearted novels from 1900 – 1950’s, which seems to be my cup of tea.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Sunsets of Summer 2022

It is my custom to sit out in the evening at the end of my garage and watch the sunset every day in the summer, when there's one to see. These days we live in a condo on the top of a hill, with a wide view to the west. Below are the highlights of the summer of 2022.

July 5

July 22

July 25

August 2

August 19

Friday, December 23, 2022

A Lone Tree Falls Review


A Lone Tree Falls by Michael Graeme A-

Michael Graeme’s A Lone Tree Falls concerns itself with many things. Set in the rather dystopian world of present day England – at least in the eyes of the story’s narrator – it is a mystery novel, a British spy novel, a mundane fantasy, a dark warning of things to come that speculates on the mystery of life, all woven together in a literate style. If it is not literary fiction, it walks close to the line, interweaving thoughtful commentary on life, change, aging, and metaphysics together with black pebble eyed mobsters, with posh corrupt millionaires, ruthless professional spies, half mad magicians, if you believe in such stuff, and ordinary, everyday, people trying to make a go of life.

The first person narrator of this novel is one George Swift. George who is a retired spook. An analyst for the British Secret service. A backroom fellow who shot only one adversary between the eyes – in self defense – during his 30 year career which he served mostly abroad. By exchanging hotel rooms with a diplomat, a common precaution, he gets bombarded with microwave energy – or some such thing – meant for the diplomat that inflicts the foggy brain symptoms known as the infamous Havana Syndrome. No longer sharp enough to do his job, he’s retired early. Having lived largely on his per diem, he has a large bank account to see him through his retirement years, and files to keep him, hopefully, safe.

We get to know George Swift, if not Michael Graeme, pretty well in the course of the novel.

W. Somerset Maugham once wrote about first person singular stories, “As we grow older, we become more conscious of the complexity, incoherence and unreasonableness of human beings; this indeed is the only excuse that offers for the middle-aged or elderly writer, whose thoughts should more properly be turned to graver matters, occupying himself with the trivial concerns of imaginary people. For if the proper study of mankind is man it is evidently more sensible to occupy yourself with the coherent, substantial and significant creatures of fiction than the irrational and shadowy figures of real life. Sometimes the novelist feels himself like God and is prepared to tell you everything about his characters; sometimes, however, he does not; and then he tells you not everything that is to be known about them, but the little he knows himself; and since as we grow older we feel ourselves less and less like God I should not be surprised to learn that with advancing years the novelist grows less and less inclined to describe more than his own experience has given him. The first person singular is a very useful device for this limited purpose.

But I digress. You're reviewing a book, Charlie.

I can’t say if Graeme’s George Swift is much like himself, but George has a lot to say about himself, and the world he finds himself back in, after so many years abroad. Less so, about some of his other characters, as befitting a novel concerning the secret service, and indeed, the even more secret world of mystics and magicians who have explored the universe we live in and have found ways to tap it, and, at the risk of madness, manipulate it. In this shadowy world where magic, or the knowledge of the universe exists that allows for its manipulation, George Swift is merely a mystic. He understands it, a little, and gains insight but does not manipulate it. Though foggy-brained and pushing 60, if not beyond, George is a deceptively dangerous man. He still knows how to play the game, and plays it well, if cautiously.

The story opens with George returning to the midlands town of his youth to settle the estate of his recently deceased father. He finds himself a stranger in a strange land. The England of his golden youth is now uglier, poorer, and far more corrupt than the land he remembered, as we all find when we return, after a long time, to the land of our own golden youth. He has much to say about this dystopian England that he sees around him, and in the first 50 or 60 pages of this novel, the plot thread hangs, almost unseen, on a meadow with an ancient tree decked with ribbons with cryptic runes in cipher, a faceless company trying to buy that meadow in order to turn it to more cheap houses, a black pebble eyed gangster with two vicious dogs who now lives behind his childhood home playing loud music at all hours, and nice girl that serves him coffee. I mention this only because the deeper plot is slow to get started. It starts with a trickle. Patience must be had. And indeed, even as the plot turns into a steam, it still winds and weaves its way through many thoughtful observations, inner thoughts, and conversations with you, dear reader.

At any rate, the secret service, or elements of it, are interested in that meadow, or rather the girl connected to the meadow – who seems to be a rather special girl, a girl with special talents – who George met at the coffee shop and again at the garden shop. She opposes the sale of the meadow, wrote the runes hanging on the tree, and is in some sort of danger. By chance, George’s presence in this part of England, his rambles through his old haunts, including the tree and meadow, are observed by his old employer, tying him to this girl, sparking the interest of his old secret service boss. George is summoned, questioned, and then assigned the task of keeping this girl safe from someone or something unknown.

And that, I think is as far as I will go into the plot. I hate spoilers and reviews that summarize the entire story. All I will say about the plot, is that while this novel serves up much more than just the plot – from speculation about how climate change will alter the very fabric of Britain to how the universe works – do we create it in our own minds, so that a lone tree that falls makes no sound if we don’t hear it, or are we products of a dreaming universe – that there is, in fact, a strong, well constructed plot that leads to a satisfying conclusion. In short, however much this river winds, it finds the sea at last. That said, I suppose that if you stopped reading this review some time back, you probably would find Graeme’s The Lone Tree Falls not to your taste. But if you happen to find yourself still here, I think I can safely say that you will enjoy this novel. I highly recommend it.