Book Review: Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past

I don’t want to get spanked, so again I have to inform you I received an advanced copy with the quid pro quo of writing an honest review.

It’s logical to make the assumption that something written by Sharyn McCrumb would be a mystery. As someone who was a huge fan of her Elizabeth McPhearson series, but not so much her more serious work, I was willing to give it a shot simply because when a writer has been so entertaining in the past, you give them the benefit of the doubt.

So I won’t try to deny that it was very disappointing to find there was no mystery to be solved in this novella. I was about halfway through when I realized that, and though I enjoyed the story once I reset my expectations, I am forced to admit the assumption does color my experience with this tome.

My favorite feature about Ms. McCrumb’s writing is the humor, particularly that inherent in the Appalachian region (and make sure you pronounce that right!). I don’t know if these are old sayings or she comes up with them herself, but stuff like “I swear that part of the county is only on the map two days a week” just make my day. Another example is when Nora is daydreaming, but since only kids do that, she calls it “woolgathering.” Another one that made me giggle was “Colder than a penguin’s butt.”

So the novella consists of two stories, and never the twain shall meet. The title refers to Nora being asked by her non-native neighbors to do a sorta exorcism–on a pink metal Christmas tree–in their new home, while the other has the Sheriff and his top deputy heading out on a cold and soon-to-be-snowy night to arrest a hit-and-run driver, having to do so NOW for political reasons. As always Sheriff Arrowwood is sunshine personified and LeDonne his usual dour self; this passage encapsulates the characters perfectly: His cheery attitude did nothing to ease LaDonne’s vigilance; as he was fond of saying, “Crocodiles smile.” There’s also a very humorous description of how to get cows to do what you want them to, even when they don’t want to, and LaDonne definitely does not like being thought of as an angel. Unfortunately, I figured out where this was going about halfway through.

As for the other story–I hesitate to call either plots–the newly-neighbors couple of Shirley and Bill are too cool to believe in ghosts and such, but figure it can’t hurt to have someone of Miss Bonesteel’s rep come in and give advice as to why the Christmas tree is behaving so ornery. As Shirley pondered, “Nothing and nobody in these mountains took well to following rules. She was willing to believe that around here scientific logic might get outvoted.” In addition to seeing ghosts, Nora is also precognitive, which any oracle from ancient literature can tell you is a curse; bad enough that people refuse to believe, but then they like to blame the messenger when it comes true, calling her a witch or worse. We see that when we get a flashback to World War Two, which has a direct bearing on what’s going on now.

So again, no mystery to solve here. Perhaps if you go in knowing that, without expectation, you’ll enjoy it more, as I’m sure I would have. Possibly it would serve as a good introduction for those who’ve never read this fine author.


This did not play a part in the review or the rating, but feel like I have to mention it. As far as the ebook proof I was given to read, this is the second book that has trouble with ff, fl, and fi, and the way it seemed to be resolved was to ignore it completely, which turns sheriff into sheri; I have no doubt he would love that. . . except “th” is also missing. Slows down the reading while you figure out what was meant.



Poetry Tuesday: Lovelight

by Gysbert Japicx (b. 1603)

Dear Lyltsen, when I’m with thee
(My light, my flame, my sun, my eye)
As dark as may be the deep of night
When stars steer their course through the sky,
No matter how much dark may be,
It’s light as daytime sun for me.

But when your flares flare not toward me,
I have no star to steer my turning;
I move then blind as a stick, a stone,
Even though midday sun is burning.
What use if the sun in my eyes is bright?
Lylts is all my dark and light.


Book Review: Undercity

(As always, required to state that I got an early copy in exchange for an honest review. I’d write “etc. etc.” but I’m in more of an ibid. mood right now. . .)

This upcoming novel by Dr. Catherine Asaro is the first in a new series, though it originally came into being as a novella for a collection that combined science-fiction and mystery, then known as City of Cries. (I took that title literally the first time, though “Cries” is actually the name of the city. Ha.) Here it’s been expanded to book length, with the first third or so the original story and the rest taking off from a loose end that had no bearing on the climax of the short story.

The one thing I’ve noticed from reading Dr. Asaro is that all of her heroines are incredibly stubborn, from Roca and Soz to Jess Fernandez and Kamoj. That list now includes Major Bhaajan. (On the other hand, no one is more stubborn than Eldrinson, so it’s not just the ladies.) Another note is that they’re all beautiful, though some more than others; Roca appears to be the Marilyn Monroe, in terms of popularity, of her time. But when I read City of Cries I didn’t get much of a picture of the Major, probably because this is told in first person and there was never a convenient mirror around. The only note I can see is when she says her nanomeds give her the health and appearance of a woman in her late twenties, though she’s well into her forties. So if you imagine characters in your mind like I do as you read, you can select your own; as for me, I’m binging on the TV show Continuum right now, so I’m picturing a brunette Rachel Nichols.

So the first important point to the new story is how it connects to its older version, in this case the loose end mentioned above. More importantly, even though I loved Cities, I hated the ending, the villain’s motivation for the huge crime that sent Bhaajan into the narrative in the first place. But now with the expanded story the motive makes a lot more sense.

Besides the major–pun intended–character there are a lot of others, and for me the most important are the royal family of the planet. The Majdas had usually looked bad in previous books, especially with all the arranged marriage stuff, though in “Stained Glass Heart” you get a sense that’s not entirely their fault. In military conflict they come out well, but it’s the fact they’re so socially rigid, living in the past as to how they treat their men and really everyone–the worst traits of royalty– that makes them come off as villains at times. There’s also a whole bunch of them throughout all the stories, which makes it hard to keep them straight. In this book that reputation changes; as described here, they were “scrupulous in their relationships. They treated everyone with the same distant professionalism.” In fact there’s a part where the Major herself is surprised, first by Lavinda and then Vaj, as to how understanding and flexible they can be. Makes me want to go back and read their previous appearances to see if I missed any hints. Though I do admit the little dig Bhaaj got in at the end, comparing Cries to Selei City, made me feel good. . .

Another mention from the literary past but chronological future–it’s tough with stories that take place before so many others–is the drug phorine, which is a minor plot point in The Final Key, when Eldri the Younger is . . . will be hooked on. See what I mean? It leads to a small but intriguing bit that in the end helps the Major’s ultimate goal of helping her people.

As to the undercity of the title, in City of Cries it consisted of Jak’s place, Scorch’s cave, and a description of the aqueducts; never imagined it would become so much more, to the point where even someone who grew up there might get lost. The same goes for Bhaajan; there’s a paragraph about her helping an anthropologist study the ruins as a kid, where he bribed her with cocoa bars to show him artifacts. It makes the hardass major much more human when we find out she’s such a chocolate lover, and for having the sense of humor to say that maybe he should have given her healthy food instead.

Asaro has always been great at characterization, but in this novel she shows how well she can do description. . . not that she couldn’t before, but often I was lost in the futuristic setting of it all, especially when she used math terms. This time she’s depicting ancient ruins and doing so beautifully, some of it artwork–complete with gargoyles–but even more so the architecture of the underground city, built around canals and aqueducts. Another example is at the end, in one of the Majda rooms: “We went to an alcove tiled like a sunrise, with a border along the floor like the horizon of the desert. Above it, the wall shaded from rose hues into lighter blue.” Beautiful.

Asaro has always had a fair amount of humor in her novels, but this one levels up, so to speak; my favorite example is when the Major gets bored during a stakeout and plays a video game while waiting for something to happen. There’s also a love interest unlike anything seen in her previous writings, and the complications of that–is he there to help or hurt her investigation? Or does he just want to sleep with her again?–add a delicious layer to the goings-on, at least in the original short story part.

Between the ground and the underground is an interesting place called The Concourse, a kind of Neutral Zone though not really, because the denizens of the underworld aren’t allowed there. It has shops and nightclubs and stalls, all the stuff tourists would want, as well as a rec center that plays a major part toward the end of the book. Asaro mentions that the tourists think they’re experiencing what it’s like in the “exotic underside of Cries. Yah, right. The Concourse was a glossy cheat.” Immediately I thought of Tijuana, the fake sanitized moneymaking version of a place everyone expects tourists not to go to. . . and I’m gonna keep on going so I don’t end in a preposition. (That was a damn awkward sentence, I know.)

Since I’m a sucker for details, I gotta give a shoutout to the flying spy bug; I remember on Max Headroom the computer genius had such a bug–meant both ways–which worked great until it got squashed. At least this one survives, and plays a big part in what I consider the best scene not only of the book, but that Asaro has ever written. It takes up a lot of pages, but at every point it’s gripping, without any need for action sequences. Quite frankly, this is what creative writing is about. This scene is so amazing I reread it every night; I read it waiting to see the doctor, and when he saw me the first thing he said was, “Why are your eyes red?”

The last thing I expected as I read this was SOCIAL triumph.

And though that’s the climax, it ain’t over. The next-to-last scene–probably too long to call a single scene, but I’m a rebel–is the Major taken to the Majda compound to meet up with who she thinks will be Lavinda, but instead talks to three other members of the royal family. The part with Vaj is the most interesting, as the general spins what happened the previous day–the aforementioned climax–so Bhaajan can see what might have happened instead, how it looked from other eyes. As I said before, the Major is quite stubborn, but not only does she see what the General is saying, but finds a way to assuage those fears and work with her. As the lit professors like to say, story happens when an individual experiences growth, and that’s certainly what occurs here.

The operative word for this tome is HOPE.

There are also some hints of what I hope is to come in the series, especially with the appearance of a new character I instantly loved, Digjan, who has gone from an undercity teen to being considered for the Jagernaut military academy. Hope to see more of her in upcoming books. There’s also a vision by Bhaajan–there’s a note where it’s intimated she might be precognitive–where she sees the Dust Knights as a force of protection throughout the empire: “A chill swept over me, and I had the oddest sense, as if I saw a time centuries beyond this day, an age when the knights had become a legend that served an empire. They were revered throughout the Imperialate, a secret order of protectors even more difficult to join than the Jagernauts, an order based in an exquisite mythical place hidden beneath the oldest city in the Imperialate.” The thought itself is uplifting, and will be all the more so if she does indeed write about them in the future. And hey, it’s got me so hopeful that I volunteer to help train the Dust Knights. . .

Okay, I’m not going to kid you: as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I’m a huge Catherine Asaro fan. I haven’t read much of her fantasy/romance series, but I’m pretty sure I’ve gone through everything else. City of Cries was my favorite story before this came along, so to see it expanded of course made me want to read it all the more. And with all that I can honestly tell you this is the best book/story Dr. Asaro has written. Obviously it’s science-fiction, and the first part is mystery, but in the end it’s also–like good science fiction is supposed to be–social commentary at its finest. The fact that it doesn’t beat you over the head with an anvil is a huge plus.

On a scale from 1 to 5, this is a 6. . .


Travel Thursday: A Walk in Temple City

Temple City is a town in the San Gabriel Valley east of downtown Los Angeles. Hadn’t been there in ages, but after visiting a friend I walked along the newly redone big street–they took out all the parking and made bike lanes–and on the sidewalk they put stuff like this.


Not as old as a Roman mosaic, but nice to see this beautiful art form is still in use.


And now you know how it was named. Isn’t history fun?


Book Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

Great title, huh? It leaves the author, Chris Taylor, with a helluva lot to live up to, but I was more than willing to give him a chance. As usual, most of my review will be through quotes, but I can tell you there’s lots of playful trivia, not just about the movies themselves, but plenty on the making of. There’s a whole chapter on its opening, and how no one expected it to do anything money-wise, all stuff I didn’t know. Even the insights on George Lucas’s early career were fascinating, with the funniest part being the merchandising chapter.

Not only are there interviews with Lucas and others who worked on the movies, especially the special effects people, there’s also talks and info on some of the fans,like the guy who came up with the stormtrooper brigade that’s seen just about everywhere.

The book starts with a quest to find someone–anyone–who hasn’t seen any of the movies, or doesn’t know any of the references. The author finds himself on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, where the movie has been translated into that language. He thinks he found his target with a Code Talker (and if you don’t know what that means, go Wiki it–the review will wait, you really need to find out).

   James’ wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him. But there was something else about him that was almost as incredible. George James was the first person I’d met, in a year of searching, who seemed to genuinely not know the first thing about the movie we were going to watch: something called Star Wars.

   “When I first heard the title I thought, ’The stars are at war?’” James shrugged. “I don’t go to the movies.”

Sadly. . .

Here’s an example of what the author means when he states that Star Wars had become general knowledge the way no other entertainment in any form has.

   I began to notice how Star Wars-saturated modern life is; references crop up in the oddest places. If you’re into yoga, you know that the technique of ujjayi breathing is commonly described by teachers as “breathing like Darth Vader.”

There’s also a story about a Facebook executive explaining how Yoda would see different Facebook posts from Luke as opposed to what Darth and Leia would see on theirs, and nobody thought this was strange. Love it. And by the way, the founder of Facebook had a Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah; now THAT’S a geek!

Trivia break: the roar of TIE fighters is actually a slowed-down elephant call.

In an interview Lucas said, “I was afraid science fiction buffs and everyone would say things like ‘you know there’s no sound in space.’ I just wanted to forget science. That would take care of itself.”

In space, everyone can hear you go pew pew.

Yes, I like this writer. . . we would be friends. . .

In talking with one of the first to make a Stormtrooper outfit, there’s a story about the first attempt, saying he had no line of sight in that helmet, which leads the author to snark, No wonder Stormtroopers were such poor marksmen.

Yeah, sounds like something I would say, which makes me a little sad. . .

More info I’m glad to know

There’s an annual worldwide contest for the best lightsaber video on YouTube called Sabercomp. (the results are spectacular and well worth looking up.) In Germany I met the Saber Project, a large and earnest group of fluorescent lightsaber makers that performed a mass battle demonstration before a thirtieth anniversary screening of Return of the Jedi.

Something else I didn’t know about, though I’m surprised by this one.

It’s hard to estimate how many people have seen the video, universally known as “Star Wars Kid.” Visit it on YouTube today, and you’ll see it has racked up almost 29 million views, adding a million views every six months or so. It went viral two years before there was a YouTube.

(update: I looked it up and it turns out I had seen it before; not sure if I should be happy about that. And according to the Wiki, it‘s estimated it’s been viewed nearly a BILLION times.)

“To not make a decision is to make a decision.”

Sounds like Yoda, huh? It’s Lucas, though it also sounds like a lyric from Rush’s Freewill.

My two favorite science-fiction writers are both mentioned in this book: Alan Dean Foster–because he ghost wrote the book version of the first movie as well as the first expanded universe offering–and Harry Harrison, who passed away recently. Here’s a quote I love, from the time when Lucas was working on the original Star Wars script:

Lucas had never been a particularly avid reader of science fiction novels. But he made a serious effort now. There was one author for whom he had always made an exception: Harry Harrison, a former illustrator and former Flash Gordon comic strip writer. Harrison offered stories that could be read on two levels: rollicking space adventures and satires of the science fiction genre. Bill the Galactic Hero spoofed Robert Heinlein’s masculine tales of space soldiers. The Stainless Steel Rat was a series of novels whose protagonist, Jim DiGriz, is a charming rogue and interstellar con man: a proto-Han Solo.

As a huge Stainless Steel Rat fan, that gave me chills. . . wonder why it never occurred to me. . .

Trivia break: Did you know the original name for Luke Skywalker was Luke Starkiller? The studio complained that people would assume the movie was about a serial killer who took out Hollywood stars.

The studio’s market research, which consisted of posing 20 questions to passers-by in a mall, also concluded that people would confuse the title with Star Trek.

Nice quote here:

Star Wars remains one of the best examples of the storytelling dictum that it is best to begin in the middle of things.

And if you take into account the three prequels, Star Wars starts at the exact midpoint of the saga!

Collectible alert: there’s apparently a plush puppet of slave bikini Leia. (I could not find it on eBay.)

My fave line from the book:

To be the ultimate fan–yet to still retain a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous. To shake your head at the folly and still love every second of it. This is a big part of the idea of Star Wars.

There’s a piece that explains the famous line in Empire when Leia tells Han she loves him and he answers, “I know.” Lucas didn’t get why people laughed at that, and had to be told, “Laughter was the only way you get an emotional release in what is clearly a very powerful and difficult scene.”

There’s an indictment of USC film school. . . (said the Bruin.)

This is awesome:

James Earl Jones himself, reading Vader’s line “I am your father,” had this reaction the moment he said it: “He’s lying.”

There’s also discussion about the hundreds of books that have been written in what is called the expanded universe. I read some of these a long time ago, so I don’t remember them well, but I do remember Grand Admiral Thrawn, from one of the first books, written by Timothy Zhan: He was a brilliant tactician who studied the art of any species he was in conflict with in order to understand their culture and thus outsmart them.

And you can tell by the name of this blog why I’m a fan of Mara Jade:

With her vibrant RED hair, green eyes, and full-figured leather jumpsuit, Mara is fast becoming one of the more popular Star Wars costume choices for women on the comic convention circuit: she offers all of the feisty fiery personality that Leia should have had but ultimately lacked.

Trivia break: Phantom Menace made more money in foreign markets than in the US. It made most of its money in countries where most of the audience were reading subtitles and didn’t care about the delivery of the dialogue anyway. The gross in Japan alone almost equaled the entire budget.

If that’s a dig as to the quality of the acting. . . actually, what else can it be?

A great moment from the new lady in Lucas’s life:

When he took her to meet the some of the employees at the Skywalker Ranch, she gleefully shouted, “Hello boys, it’s take your girlfriend to work day!”

How crazy is Japan for Star Wars?

This is the country where you can watch Darth Vader hawking Pacific League baseball, Nissan cars, and Panasonic electronics. You can visit Nakano Broadway, a six-floor mall in the heart of Tokyo, and find rare Star Wars toys and trinkets for sale on every floor. When George Lucas came to open the original Star Tours at Tokyo Disneyland, he was chased around the park by hordes of Japanese schoolgirls. {Shades of James Bond 40 years earlier.} Then fifty-five, he joked that he wished he were 20 years younger. Schoolgirls (and the occasional boy, but mostly schoolgirls) are still there, lining up in great numbers for the new Star Tours, which is the most popular exhibit in Tokyo Disneyland.

And we end the quotes with. . .

Visiting the island of St. Maarten in the Bahamas? You’ll want to stop in at the Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit, run by one of the creature shop artists who worked under Stuart Freeborn on The Empire Strikes Back; it’s one of cruise line Royal Caribbean’s most popular destinations on the island.

The book even includes a piece on how Disney bought Lucasfilm, which makes it pretty current.

These were just a few of literally hundreds of awesome behind-the-scenes moments. Even if you don’t consider yourself a Star Wars fan, this book is well worth the read.

P.S. Due to fat finger syndrome, I kept writing “Star Warts.” {Don’t take that as anything more than a joke. . . and don’t catch ‘em, they hurt like hell. . .}


Travel Thursday: A Passage to Redhead, part 5

“You are such a bitch!” I laughed.

“I know!” she squeaked. “It gives me warm happy feelings in my tummy!” Then really howled when I poked her in said tummy, then tickled it. She ended up even more out of breath, and it took her a while to retain enough oxygen to tell me she really didn’t think she was a bitch. . . while flashing a huge smile.

I yawned, and she found herself satisfied with that. Picking a safer subject, she tried, “How much more of the temples do you have to shoot?”

“Almost done with the outside. Still got the whole inside to go.”

“There’s an inside?” came the yelp I really should have expected. . . right in the ear. Again. Also as usual, rubbing the lobe did not seem to help. “What did I tell you about that?”

Not to do it!” she replied promptly, but her grin mitigated any type of apology. “Please tell me about the insides. Are they as fun?”

Knowing I was going to get yelled in the ear again sometime no matter how I admoshined her, or how often, I relented with a sigh and set the scene, since I had been inside on previous trips. “More depictions of gorgeous women cavorting with deities as light pours from balconies. Shadows are cast seductively over the carved walls, which is good for an imagination like yours but bad for photos.”

“Take what you can get, bub. Tell me more.”

“The Kandariya Mahadev–fat chanced I pronounced that right–Temple is considered the finest, with almost nine hundred statues inside and out. Ganesh and the seven mother goddesses are the most prominent–”

“How do you know so much?” she whispered furiously.

“I read and remember.”


“Not all of the sculptures are about sex, of course, but there’s an exuberance to their daily activities: one lady is stretching so beautifully, another is playing with a ball–which I love–another is admiring her reflection in a mirror. . .” I grinned at her.

“Better,” she proclaimed with a smirk.

“But of course there’s also the kissing caressing couples, bodies entwined in blissful union. . .”

“Poet,” she whispered, nuzzling her head against my shoulder, like she was getting ready for a nap.

“There’s one very graceful lady who’s taking a bath, but is getting out of it to peek at something, I think a wedding procession.”

“I wouldn’t get out of the bath for that,” she yawned.

“You’re not a normal girl.”

“Thank you!” she purred dangerously, then looked chagrined when I chuckled.

“You’ll like this: the images of Parvati and Shiva in the throes of amorous passion are symbolic of the cosmic union that makes the world go round.”

“That is exactly what I’m talkin’ about!”

She lost that famous exuberance when I told her I had another meeting, and since she was in no mood to go back to her hotel, I told her I trusted her enough to let her stay until I got back. Not that one should ever fully trust a redhead, she smirked to herself, then really went crazy when I told her I had a surprise for her later. . .

This meeting worked out a hell of a lot better, but when I got back to the hotel room I found her fast asleep, no doubt having frittered away all her energy in her nervous quest to figure out the surprise. . . though she was right back to hopping around aimlessly like a demented or rabid redheaded bunny when she was woken up. It was the same at dinner, where I forced her not to order soup or curry, since she’d likely miss the target with the spoon. I made a mental note not to go this route again, if the relationship lasted long enough, figuring it would be better to lie than to have her go through this again. . . or have to watch it.

Eventually the smirking driver dropped us off at an elegantly understated mansion, which only deepened the mystery in her eyes. Handing her out of the car, noticing she was still vibrating, I soothed her with voice and hand along her luscious red hair. “Old friend lives here. . . well, not so much an old friend, more like someone who owes me a favor for something from a few years back. Never thought I’d have the chance to collect. . .”

“This is not helping my nerves at all, bub!”

“That’s just because you’re crazy, and you would be even if you weren’t a redhead.”

“Not helping!”

“Can’t you just go along with it?”

“I can try,” she tried, though she sounded dubious.

Having been in the mansion before, it was easy to find the way to the room in question, with Emily surprised that we’d simply waltzed into the place without anyone greeting us, or even seeing them in the hallways. Nah, he’s fixed it so that we’re alone in here. He’s got everything planned. . .

Not to be continued. . . use your imagination