Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

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.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Happy Holidays To All!


Above are a couple of views from our deck on the first sunny day in almost two weeks. Strangely enough this storm came from the southeast, which is a very rare direction for weather to arrive in Wisconsin. Needless to say, we'll be having a white Christmas, as its currently -1 F with our high temps predicted to be in the single digits (F) and lows below zero for the coming week, along with 3 days with more light snow - maybe another 6 inches. Ah, winter, what a wonderful time to hibernate! (And write novels.)

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season for whatever holiday you celebrate, or just survive!

Below is a scene from the winter holidays in the imaginary country I rambled about in for several decades painting.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Whisky, Cakes, Ale, and the Moon


The Movie Poster rather than the book cover

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie A-

He wrote this book in 1947, six years after Monarch of the Glen. It features all new characters, but refers to characters in the fist book in his loose set of Highland stories. It is set in 1943 on two small, fictional islands, Greater Todday and Little Todday, that lay off the west coast of Scotland. It concerns the everyday life on those islands through the lens of two marriages and a drought of whisky, and then a flood of it. It opens with Sargeant-major Odd returning to the islands after a stint in North Africa, eager to meet his fiancée and set a date for their wedding. Her widowed father, however, is not eager to see her married, and drags his feet about setting the date. In the meanwhile a mild mannered school teacher also wants to get married, but he must find the courage to overcome the opposition of his domineering mother. As the story opens, the war has disrupted the supply of scotch to the island there’s no whisky on the island for 15 days and counting, to the dismay, and despair of the inhabitants of both islands. Toss in a number of colorful characters, the wreck of a ship carrying 50,000 cases of scotch whisky bound for the US to pay for the war on the rocks of Little Todday in a fog, the concerns of the non-native captain of the Home Guard (Dad’s Army) and Mackenzie has his canvas to paint his humorous picture of rural life in the Scottish highlands and the home front in the midst of WW ll. I have often said that I like small stories – that I don’t need someone saving the world – to make a story interesting, and Whisky Galore is a perfect example of one such story.

I have the third story in the omnibus edition I purchased, The Rival Monster yet to read. I’ll probably get to it before the end of the year.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham B+

I came across this book in a review by Michael Graeme, here . He does it more justice than I can. It is a story about writers, and being one myself, I was curious enough to read the “Look Inside” sample on Amazon, which I found to be just the sort of writing I love. That is to say, clever, witty, satirical. If nothing else, just read it. The story concerns the narrator, an author, who is asked another author to jot down his memories of yet another now famous and dead author, that the narrator knew in his youth. The central question is how much can he tell about the early career of this famous writer and his first wife? The story was rather controversial in its day, as Maugham based his fictional characters rather closely, and rather unflatteringly, on real authors, the live one being Hugh Walpole with the dead one being Thomas Hardy.

As for the story itself, it tells its story more than shows it, as it is the fashion of today. Maugham uses the story to talk about writing and the social life writers of the late Victorian period, as the spins his fictional memoir of his youth and the goings on of his fictional writer, Edward Driffield and his wife of that period, their sins and virtues as well as his. While it is not my ordinary style of story or writing, I enjoyed the change of pace, and in fact, went on to read his The Moon and Sixpence.

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham B

In his introduction Maugham says that he has no problem using real life event, places, and things he comes across as the basis of his novels. In this case he uses the life of the painter Paul Gauguin who famously went off and painted his masterpieces on the island of Tahiti. Maugham spent some time on Tahiti during the first world war. In the novel, Charles Strickland, the fictional Gauguin is a stockbroker that leaves his wife and two children to take up the life of painting first in Paris and then in Tahiti. Strickland is portrayed as a man totally committed to creating beauty, as he sees it, without any regard for anyone else. He comes across as rude, cruel, thoughtless, selfish, and careless of the harm he inflicts on everyone around him. The major part of the story is set Paris as told by the first person narrator, a writer like Maugham who also lived in Paris for a time – after leaving his wife. Strickland’s life on Tahiti is told by people who encountered him during his years on the island since the narrator arrived on the island after the artist’s death, and after he became famous.

Once again, Maugham uses his story to speculate on a wide range of subjects as well as art. He carries on a conversation with the reader as he tells rather than shows the story, though, like in Cakes and Ale, there is always scenes with dialog interwoven in the telling of the story. I don’t usually like unpleasant characters, and this book hasn’t changed my mind on that, but it was interesting enough – and described life a hundred plus years ago vividly enough to keep me reading, and mostly enjoying the story. I have no idea how closely this piece of fiction traces the life and personality of Paul Gauguin, though I suppose the answer is just 12 key strikes away. I just haven’t done that yet.

There are four more novels in the omnibus edition of W. Somerset Maugham I purchased. I might give The Razor’s Edge a try at some point in the future. We’ll see. But for now, I think I have all the Maugham I care to sample.

Friday, December 9, 2022

The Making of the Girl on the Kerb (Part 3)


The Girl on the Kerb, my new standalone for 2023, will be released sometime in Q1 2023. In this series of posts I recount the struggle to come up with a new story to write. You can find the first two parts here:

Part 1

Part 2

In those first to entries regarding this book, I discussed some of the story ideas that went into creating The Girl on the Kerb, since it is very much of a Frankenstein novel, i.e. one made up from parts of other, failed, story ideas. The short version of those entries is that I wanted a story set in a far future/post new ice-age Europe with a civil war looming over it that included the possibility that the advanced technology from the pre-ice-age might have been discovered and was going to be used as a weapon.

Fast forward to the summer of 2021. After spending several years writing short novels – I considered them more as stories and full novels, I wanted to write a real, standalone novel. And I thought that having written Keiree, set on Mars 1500 years after a deadly plague swept across the solar system, destroying Earth’s space traveling solar system wide civilization, that it might be interesting to see how Earth itself fared, after a similar time had passed. So I spent the summer daydreaming up Earth 1500 years after the plague.

The Earth I came up had all its natural resources exhausted in the building of its solar system spanning civilization, so the survivors of the plague had a finite limit to their resources, i.e. the recycled remains of the Solar Age civilization that remained on earth, since space travel was no longer possible.

Drawing from my discarded stories, I had the Yellowstone super volcano erupt shortly after the plague wiped out 75%-80% of the population, its earthquakes devastating the largely deserted cites of North America and burying the land in ash. Fifteen hundred years later, the surviving North American population, fiercely independent, is divided into small nations/tribes and living at a 19th century agricultural level. It is now considered a special cultural reservation by the world wide government, with limited trade, and travel with the rest of the world. In the past I've toyed with an America like this for a story, but in this one I’ve used this setting only for the background experience of the narrator. He is an analytical engineer who spent several years as an archaeologist in the “wilds” of North America excavating Solar Age cities and tech buried in the ash. This experience made him a desirable candidate  as a volunteer secret agent, as the various regional governments of the world do not employ spies to spy on each other. Not officially, anyway.

Meanwhile the rest of the world – the parts that are still inhabited, and many remote parts aren’t since population growth is very slow – are governed by a world wide bureaucracy, as it had been in the Solar Age. This government is without leaders or politicians. Rather everyone and every aspect of the society is codified under an all-encompassing decision-tree known as the “Code.” The Code is so elaborate that it specifies how the society runs without recourse to new ideas or grey areas. For example cases in business or the law are determined by taking each aspect of the case down through an “if this than that” decision tree until the final decision is reached. Every alteration of a product must go through a similar process to determine it impact on the finite resources left on Earth. The remaining Solar Age technology allows the police to examine the memories of possible criminals to determine guilt, so that people accused of criminal action are examined and their guilt or innocence established by these machines, their punishment determined by the Code.

Much of the Solar Age buildings and technology being redundant, due to the much reduced population, has been torn down and stored away for recycling as needed – since it must last the life of humanity on Earth. To that end, the society’s technology is much reduced from the Solar Age, to something resembling the mid-20th century with trains, cars, newspapers, radios, but not things like full scale computers, or cell phones, etc. This gives me the opportunity to write the old fashioned stories I enjoy, while also giving me the freedom to treat them as I care to.

So I had my setting. The easy part. But what about a story? Always the hard part for me. The story concept that I spent the summer playing around with – unsuccessfully – was that though much of the Solar Age technology was now either buried in the ash of North America, scraped, and/or banned by the Code, there existed a secret society made up of several hundred families who were preserving all this Solar Age technology and knowledge. They were the rich and powerful families of the world, with their members holding the highest positions in the bureaucracy. They kept this knowledge alive with some shadowy end in mind. The characters in the story would get some sort of hint of this society and slowly uncover its secrets. Perhaps one of the characters would discover that they were a member of one such family before they had been initiated into the secret. Or something. Alas, despite a summer thinking about it, I could not come up with any real story line using this premise, and so as the summer drew to a close, I reluctantly shelved this world, only to revisit it in November after working on a sequel to Keiree, and starting a new Nine Star Mystery/Adventure story, The Aerie of a Pirate Prince that I only finished after writing The Girl on the Kerb. But I’ll save how I finally reached the final version of The Girl on the Kerb for the next and last installment.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Woo and Wednesday


This week I thought I would talk about two rather dissimilar TV series that share one feature key feature in common, a central character who is a young women who has considerable trouble expressing her emotions and fitting into society.

Extraordinary Attorney Woo

Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a 16 episode South Korean TV series on Netflix. The extraordinary attorney Woo, played by Park Eun-bin, is on the autistic spectrum. Her father was studying to be an attorney, and from a very young age, she had began reading books on the law. Being very intelligent, and possessing a photographic memory, she grows up to graduate with the highest honors from the finest university in Korea. However, given her limited social skills – and her vast knowledge of whales and dolphins that she is eager to share – she has a hard time finding employment despite her uncanny knowledge of Korean law. The show opens with her landing a job as a rookie attorney at a prestigious law firm, and follows the ups and downs of her career while at the same time, filling in her back story. Her success lies in her uncanny ability to see beyond the obvious elements of the case and find elements of Korean law that apply. In addition, it explores the sometimes iffy relationship between clients and what is right, as well as the price of these highly paid, but highly competitive and demanding jobs, even as it recounts her struggle to fit in, be accepted, and make friendships.

The actress portraying Attorney Woo, Park Eun-bin, does an amazing job of staying within the character of an autistic person, and the show never has her break her autistic character to become more “normal.” Indeed, the series closes with her going off to work, now a full attorney, just like her she did on her first day on the job. I highly recommend this show for not only its appealing star, but for its supporting characters and interesting story lines. In my opinion, stories about growing friendships make for the best stories. This is one of them.


Wednesday is an eight part Netflix series that follows the boarding school career of Wednesday Addams, of The Addams Family fame. The fictional family was originally created as a series of one panel cartoons by Charles Addams, which appeared in the New Yorker magazine over a 50 year period beginning in 1938.

I was introduced to the family in the 1964 TV show, which the family was less evil than in the cartoons which ran for two seasons, and in reruns forever. I haven’t seen any of the film versions.

Wednesday is set in an alternative reality where various archetypes of mythical monsters – vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, telapaths, etc – actually exist and are part of society – sort of. They are the "Outcasts." Wednesday is sent to Nevermore Academy a school for these outscasts, after being expelled from many other schools. For various reasons, Wednesday has a great difficulty expressing emotions – even as she finds friends at Nevermore. The story revolves around a central mystery that involves several murders, and a monster in the woods. The show runner is Tim Burton, and I suspect that set up certain expectations that may not have been met, considering the mixed reception the show has received. I had no expectations – the trailers looked promising, but I have low expectations for American TV, so it was pretty much a wash for me. Plus, I am not a horror fan. However, I am happy to report that I enjoyed the show, with some reservations. Part of that enjoyment may have come from the set and its visual look and feel. I enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix for similar reasons. But over all, I found the story generally enjoyable, for once again it revolved around finding friendship.

That said, the show was far from perfect, in my opinion. It suffered from the basic flaw of mysteries for me, which is to say they lean was to heavily on the theory that more murders you have, the higher the tension, the greater the stakes. It certainly could have been just as atmospheric and menacing with fewer killings, but subtly is not an American virtue. It had several mysteries, one of which was solved rather easily in the middle of the series. And quite frankly, the last episode which tied up the overarching mystery, was both over the top and lame at the same time. Key characters seemed to completely abandoned their previous characteristics, and not just the ones hiding secrets. I’m not going to get into spoilers, but let’s just say that things had to go on off camera to bring certain people together the way they came together that I find it hard to imagine ever happening. This episode. in particular, brought down my opinion of the show but I would watch its next season. And seeing that it is the highest viewed series ever on Netflix, I expect to see a second season, despite its rather mixed reviews.