Worth Reading (Fiction)

  • Mike Resnick: A Club in Montmartre: An Encounter with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
    Something different from this SF great's facile pen: An historical novel about Toulouse-Lautrec and the creation of his famous Moulin Rouge poster, seen from the point of view of a waif sheltered by the troubled artist. One in a series called Art Encounters, aimed at YA's but instructive and entertaining for anyone. (*****)
  • Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
    Ostensible children's book that will also appeal to adults. The education of a young witch — far more "realistic" than Harry Potter. (*****)
  • Harry Turtledove: After the Downfall
    Magically plucked from Berlin in 1945, a Nazi soldier finds himself in a parallel world that challenges his cultural assumptions. A well delineated picture of conflict between widely disparate civilizations, with a reminder that backwardness is not the same as stupidity. (****)
  • Connie Willis: All Seated on the Ground
    Connie Willis's annual Christmas story; a comedy about alien visitors who act much like annoyed maiden aunts. Making contact is a twin triumph of civility and true love. The story is also a good test of your knowledge of Christmas carols. 2008 Best Novella Hugo Award nominee. (*****)
  • Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost
    Mystery set in Restoration England. The murder of an Oxford don is recounted from four widely different viewpoints. Heavy on period detail. Metamorphoses into theological fantasy at the end, which may displease some readers. (****)
  • Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys
    Calling this comic novel a "sequel" to American Gods conveys the wrong impression. Anansi Boys is smaller in scope, funnier and more humane, though it likewise tells a story of dwindling gods adrift in the contemporary world. Anti-hero "Spider" steals the show and begs to be played by Will Smith in the movie version. (*****)
  • Neal Stephenson: Anathem
    If you have not a smidgen of interest in how Platonic philosophy relates to the "many worlds" version of quantum mechanics, you still may like this novel, though you'll probably wish that the characters talked less. Persevere. After a slow start, the story grows compelling, and the intellectual dialogues turn out not to be digressions. (*****)
  • E. Viollet-Le-Duc: Annals of a Fortress: Twenty-Two Centuries of Siege Warfare
    The history of a fictional French fortress from the 4th Century B.C. through the Napoleonic Wars, featuring detailed accounts of seven sieges. (****)
  • Richard Calder: Babylon
    A teenage girl in an alternative Victorian England, where the cult of Ishtar remains a living force, escapes her unhappy home for the fantastic world of "Babylon". She is to be trained as a sacred whore but is soon caught up in a secret war between the Illuminati, who dominate Earth, and their vicious enemies, the "Black Order". Her ultimate fate is bizarre indeed. (****)
  • Peter Watts: Blindsight
    The exploration of a giant alien artifact twists that familiar subgenre with a plausible, though ultimately unconvincing, argument that human self-awareness is a deleterious evolutionary accident. Characters include a vampire, a linguist with multiple personalities, a couple of cyborgs and a narrator whose special skill is absence of empathy. 2007 Hugo Award nominee (****)
  • James Patrick Kelly: Burn
    In a galaxy-spanning future, the planet Walden is a self-proclaimed "paradise" founded on simplicity and rejection of high technology. It also faces the problems of terrorism and disillusion, recounted through the story of a firefighter with a soul-corroding secret. A well-wrought picture of a distinctly odd society, with a plot whose moral dilemmas evade pat answers. Nominated for the Best Novella Hugo Award for 2006. (*****)
  • Tobias S. Buckell: Crystal Rain
    An inventive tale of a human colony isolated from galactic civilization, split between warring cultures and caught up in a vast conflict between alien races. Characters include an amnesiac ex-hero who wants to spend a peaceful retirement with his family, a quasi-human killing machine, a spy desperate to betray his masters, and a harried female dictator. Deserving of Hugo consideration. (****)
  • Charles L. Harness: Cybele, With Bluebonnets
    A touching, understated fantasy featuring Depression era Texas, youthful romance, chemistry, a ghost and love beyond death. (****)
  • Connie Willis: D.A.
    Connie Willis sends up overfamiliar "space academy" stories with this one about the only girl on Earth who has no desire to enroll. Then she is informed that her "application" has been accepted. Is it a weird mistake? A devious plot? Can she get out? Funny, though the moral is rather pat. (*****)
  • Tim Powers: Declare: A Novel
    An intricate Cold War fantasy that seems so plausible that one wonders whether it is the true story of why the Soviet Union rose and collapsed. (*****)
  • Dan Simmons: Drood: A Novel
    Mysterious events in the life of Charles Dickens, as told by his friend and rival Wilkie Collins. The plot involves involves mesmerism, violent deaths, an ancient Egyptian cult, specters, brain-eating scarabs, a Wilkie doppelgänger, and a gigantic conflagration beneath the streets of London. Or does it? The opium-addled Collins is the exemplar of the doubtfully reliable narrator. (*****)
  • Michael Flynn: Eifelheim
    A double narrative: the appearance of shipwrecked aliens in a 14th Century German village and the 21st Century discovery of the event. The interaction between a brilliant human theologian and rather ordinary denizens of an advanced civilization challenges chronologically based prejudices. 2007 Hugo Award nominee (*****)
  • John Derbyshire: Fire from the Sun
    Three-decker novel about the contrasting, intersecting lives of a Chinese boy and girl, born in the same mainland village and brought to America by force of circumstances. Romantic and compelling. (****)
  • Terry Pratchett: Going Postal
    A small-time con man must choose between death and the Ankh-Morpork post office - and takes the more dangerous option. Big business, fraud, low-tech hacking, young love and general hilarity. Pratchett's best novel since Pyramids. (*****)
  • Harry Turtledove: Gunpowder Empire
    Debut of a juvenile series set in parallel worlds. 22nd century teen siblings, trapped without adult aid in a besieged city, must cope with the bizarre (to them) customs and prejudices of a never-fallen Roman Empire. [Rating is for 11-17 year olds; adults may find the book too didactic and unsubtle for their tastes.] (*****)
  • Rodney Bolt: History Play : The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe
    A pseudo-history springing from the premise that Shakespeare's flashy predecessor survived the famous Deptford brawl and fled to the continent, where he secretly wrote almost all of the Bard's works. A clever, tongue-in-cheek reworking of literary history, with the bonus of vividly recreating the milieu shared by many real Elizabethan exiles. (****)
  • Kathleen Ann Goonan: In War Times
    The author builds this multiple universes story around her father's World War II diary, which is at least as interesting as the energetic, but not wholly coherent, main plot. The ending is a JFK assassination theory with a Ron Paulian(!) twist. Also included is more than I wanted to read about the WWII jazz scene. Overall, a book I would have liked to like better and that others may enjoy vastly. (****)
  • Connie Willis: Inside Job
    The editor of a paranormal-skeptic magazine and his beautiful assistant encounter a most unlikely ghost: ueber-skeptic H. L. Mencken. Connie Willis in her lightest, funniest vein. Nominated for the Best Novella Hugo Award for 2006. (*****)
  • Shauna Roberts: Like Mayflies in a Stream
    The epic of Gilgamesh, retold with the mythical elements kept to a minimum and an emphasis on how unpleasant it can be to live in the vicinity of a legendary hero. The heroine is well done: a woman who shapes her own life without being an anachronistic proto-feminist. The author's attention to historical and archaeological data is commendable. (****)
  • Alfred Duggan: Lord Geoffrey's Fancy
    Perhaps the finest book of one of England's finest historical novelists. The setting is 13th Century Greece, where Crusaders fought each other and the shattered Byzantine Empire. The history is accurate, the writing graceful and the characters not merely modern people in fancy dress. (*****)
  • Joe Haldeman: Marsbound
    Martian colonies are an old subject for SF, and this novel is in some ways an old-fashioned treatment, with the traditional elements of young settler, contact with Martians, and an alien menace. The plot and characters are so well done, however, that the story is fresh. The flavor is Heinleinesque, but the heroine is no Podkayne of Mars. (*****)
  • Terry Pratchett: Nation
    The first non-Discworld Pratchett in decades has the familiar mix of serious plotting and underlying farce, as an iconoclastic Polynesian lad and a properly raised Victorian lass carry on through tsunami, plague, shipwreck, pigs, pantaloon birds, gods, grandparents and cannibals. A tribute to courage in the face of physical and metaphysical ordeals - and funny, too! (*****)
  • Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides
    The classic tale of piracy and the supernatural. What the Pirates of the Caribbean movies should have been. (*****)
  • H. N. Turteltaub [Harry Turtledove]: Over the Wine-Dark Sea
    First in a series of O'Brian-like nautical adventures set in the tumultuous times following the death of Alexander the Great. The Aubrey and Maturin are merchant cousins, devil-may-care Menedemos and intellectual Sostratos, who roam the Mediterranean looking for profit and girls, while avoiding storms, pirates and jealous husbands. Meandering plot but great fun. (*****)
  • Robert Ferrigno: Prayers for the Assassin
    A combination of suspense novel and a plausible vision of America after a Moslem takeover. It loses a star only because defeating the super-villain is just a trifle too easy. Review. (****)
  • Vernor Vinge: Rainbows End: A Novel With One Foot In The Future
    In a near future in which every crank can deploy WMD's that make contemporary Islamofascists look like schoolboys, a poet who has lost his talent and his spunky granddaughter find themselves up against a conspiracy to solve the world's problems by eliminating free will. The careful extrapolation is mixed with some silly ideas and burdened with a sentimental Alzheimer's recovery story. 2007 Hugo Award nominee (****)
  • Simon Montefiore: Sashenka: A Novel
    Both grim and funny, this historical novel peers into the inner world of an upper class Russian girl turned loyal Bolshevik, highlighting her youthful fling at revolution-making in Petrograd, her fall from grace under Stalin, and an historian's effort, after the end of communism, to ascertain her fate. (*****)
  • Robert Ferrigno: Sins of the Assassin
    The middle volume of a trilogy about a near-future, Moslem-dominated U.S. Most of the action takes place in the independent "Bible Belt", where resistance to Islamic domination is sometimes heroic and sometimes pathological. More of a pure thriller than its predecessor but good on its own terms (****)
  • Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays (Library of America, 131)
    Fiction and essays by a black American writer who deserves a wider audience. (****)
  • Joe Haldeman: The Accidental Time Machine
    Maybe all the variations on time travel are played out, but Joe Haldeman makes the old tropes enjoyable in this story of a down-on-his-luck grad student who invents a time machine without really trying. The resolution of the ensuing paradoxes comes very near to being credible. (****)
  • David Selbourne: The City of Light
    Supposedly the journal of Jewish merchant who visited China c. 1270, this historical novel uses an encounter between Judaism and medieval China as a springboard for a lightly disguised examination of contemporary political and moral issues. Since Selbourne is a fascinating thinker, his characters' thoughts are fascinating, too. (****)
  • Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club
    Literary mystery involving Boston's post-Civil War intellectual elite in a series of atrocious murders inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. Weak as a whodunit, strong on atmosphere. (****)
  • H.F.M. Prescott: The Man on a Donkey
    Set during the Pilgrimage of Grace, this is the rare historical novel that captures the mindset of the actors. The hero, Robert Aske, was martyred in a way that makes burning at the stake look merciful. (*****)
  • Harry Turtledove: The Man with the Iron Heart
    Can the U.S. maintain its resolve against a defeated enemy's terrorist campaign? Imagining a post-World War II Nazi insurgency, Harry Turtledove puts this question into a new context. As Reinhard von Heydrich's "werewolves" devastate Germany, war-weary Americans call for withdrawal, regardless of the consequences. (*****)
  • H. N. Turteltaub [Harry Turtledove]: The Sacred Land
    Third volume in a series of seafaring adventures set in the Hellenistic era. Ill-matched merchant cousins Menedemos and Sostratos seek profit in exotic Tyre and Jerusalem. (*****)
  • Steven E. Plaut: The Scout
    Short novel based on the true story of an Arab scout in Israeli service. (****)
  • Jasper Fforde: The Well of Lost Plots
    Thursday Next continues her hectic adventures in a universe where books come alive, literally. Newcomers should start with The Eyre Affair (****)
  • Clark Ashton Smith: The White Sybil and Other Stories
    A slim, representative sampling of Ashton Smith's weird, richly worded fiction. The best pieces are highly readable today; the less good are at least entertaining and will enhance the reader's vocabulary. (****)
  • Tim Powers: Three Days to Never: A Novel
    Time travel, ghosts, Albert Einstein's daughter, ancient conspiracies, a blind assassin, a Mossad agent who will die if he hears the telephone ring: With his customary bravura and skill, Tim Powers fashions a coherent and exciting story out of a strange assortment of materials. (*****)
  • Terry Pratchett: Thud!
    After 30 books, one might fear that Discworld is in danger of fatigue. Au contraire, this witty, vigorous tale of the culmination of an ages-old conflict between dwarfs and trolls, with Sam Vimes and Ankh-Morpork in the middle, is one of the strongest volumes yet. (*****)
  • Jack McDevitt: Time Travelers Never Die
    A pleasant, though insubstantial, addition to an overcrowded subgenre. After inheriting a time machine, an aimless young man and his friend play temporal tourists. Not a whole lot ensues, and there are some silly mistakes (such as Greeks wearing togas). Still, it goes down smoothly, and the inevitable paradoxes are handled quite well. (****)
  • Theodore Odrach: Wave of Terror
    Based on the author's experiences when the Soviet Union occupied his homeland after the Stalin-Hitler Pact, this book melds Chekov and Solzhenitsyn. By stages, the isolated folk of the Pripyet Marshes learn that there are worse masters than their former Polish overlords. (*****)
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Thursday, March 24, 2005


Your counsel, though generally wise, would lead one to believe that civil disobedience is never called for. There has to be a point at which civil disobedience is appropriate.

Surely you don't think Christians and Catholics who participated in the clearly civilly disobedient Orange Revolution in Ukraine were morally wrong? Surely you don't believe that the Christians, Jews, and Catholics who dominated Martin Luther King's civil disobedience were wrong, and that the moral thing for them to do was acquiesce?

I would think at some point even Paul would acknowledge that injustice done to others rises to a level where an devout Catholic MUST speak out and if necessary, disobey or face the wrath of God for not doing so. The millions of Catholics and Christians who perished along with their Jewish brethren in the Holocaust appear from here to be seated at the right hand of The Father for having resisted vs. those who went along and allowed the bodies to pile up.

Paul's verses from Romans make certain suppositions about the authorities that were not present in the case of Hitler's Germany, the Jim Crow South, or the corrupt Ukraine.

And how DID the Christians come to "triumph" in Rome if that is the right word? They did so when Constantine, a devout Catholic SEIZED POWER with military force in 306 AD and ended the persecutions.

I would submit that an obedient Catholic must prayerfully evaluate the situation to see if disobedience is appropriate. There has to be a point where the impulse and God/Paul's command to obey DULY appointed authority is overridden by the extreme sinfulness and tyranny of those who are NOT duly appointed or who are not properly carrying out their duties.

Of course I have wandered into the realm of the judiciary, which thinks it IS the law, and that its law is more important than that of mere presidents, legislators, and voters. Whether the Schiavo case is the time or the place to disobey these tyrants in robes is debatable. I would submit that someone viewing an abortion body count of 40 million plus and what appears to be a precedent for a new wave of euthanasia should not be dissuaded by Paul's words to the Romans into concluding that the time for the end of acquiescence has indeed come.

Me: As I said in my original post, civil obedience is not the only Christian duty. I don’t dispute that, under circumstances analogous to those for a just war, disobedience or rebellion can be justified, as they were in the Ukraine and are in Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan and would be in Zimbabwe. The contemporary United States is, however, very far from presenting such circumstances. In general, we live in a decent, civilized, humane and well-governed country, one that most men in most times and places would envy. It does harbor evils, of which the greatest is the legalization of feticide, but all earthly regimes are imperfect, and we have reasonable hopes of gradually reintroducing the protection of unborn human life in America. There is no reason to believe, and much reason to doubt, that violent or extra-constitutional means would bring about faster or better results than “working within the system”. In the absence, then, of strongly persuasive factors on the other side, we should pay heed to St. Paul and feel conscience-bound to obey the duly constituted authorities. (Another correspondent reminds me, in a message not for publication, that civil disobedience does not include exercising the right of free speech to bop the ungodly on the beak. Mocking the irrationality of anti-Schiavo polemics is wholly commendable.)

Religious power plays in the public arena worry me. No, let me restate that. They terrify me. Such exercises of power in government should terrify everyone. Religious assertions in the public arena should unnerve us to the core because of the long sordid history of intolerance, persecution, crusades, lynchings, torture and restrictions on human liberty and freedom such assertions have produced. How is it, I wonder, that our nation in particular seems to have forgotten that these very evils, and freedom from these evils, played the major role in why so many people began settling in this New World 300 years ago?

The people who want to keep Schiavo alive against her physicians’ prognosis, her husbands’ wishes, and the courts’ permissions, have been using terms like “defending life” or “supporting a culture of life” as their reason. Yet everyone knows that “defending life” is certain religious code for the belief in the “holiness,” if you will, of creation. Read Noonan's piece, she says exactly this. Creation is divine, the belief goes, and so its destruction should only be at the hands of its creator, not man.

But this kind of talk gives me the creeps and it should you too. Not because I can prove it wrong, I can’t. But in the United States there are not suppose to be any religious presumptions in the public arena. None. Mr. Schiavo had only a medical burden to overcome in court, not a religious one. Through the expert opinion of the physicians caring for his wife he met that burden. And yet just last week the Congress of the United States of America, in its self-ascribed role as defender of life, passed legislation attempting to enforce its interpretation of a religious principle. That is wrong. That is so far removed from the Republican party I support -- the one that believes in the principle of limited government and individual freedom -- that it's a freak to me, a monstrosity. For Noonan to call the sentiment of people like me "bizarre passion" makes me wonder if she and the people who agree with her have lost their minds.

Me: The fact that “religious power plays” in the Schiavo case have utterly failed does not seem to mitigate this commenter’s terror. I’m not sure that I can say anything to reassure so easily frightened a soul, but let me try:

Making judgements about whether Mrs. Schiavo’s parents should be permitted to take custody of her and keep her from starving to death requires forming an opinion on a number of issues, such as the value of the lives of severely incapacitated human beings, the degree of evidence needed to demonstrate that an individual desired to be killed if her quality of life diminished, and the extent to which one spouse should have unfettered authority to make decisions about the health care of the other. The commenter wants those judgements to be made without “religious assertions” of any kind, “because of the long sordid history of intolerance, persecution, crusades, lynchings, torture and restrictions on human liberty and freedom such assertions have produced”. But purely secular reasoning has its own sordid history, from the Jacobins’ reign of terror through Stalin and Mao. Perhaps the right way to proceed is to jettison all presuppositions and toss dice?

There is no way that anyone can avoid having a moral system that informs his views on public policy. Some of those systems may be so monstrous that a case can be made for expelling them from the public arena. That seems to be the position of many of our more ferocious secular leftists with regard to Christianity and Judaism, and there has historically been a similar strain within the Republican Party. Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), for instance, was a major Republican figure in the 1870’s, whose devotion to his version of “the principle of limited government and individual freedom” led him to regard Baptists and Roman Catholics as freaks and monstrosities. He fit into the Republican mainstream of his day, and his spirit persisted for a long time, one of the elements in the image of the party as the bulwark of hard-hearted materialism.

Anyway, I urge Mr. Ames to buck up and get over his childish fears. The theocrats are, after all, rallying behind the cause of giving too high a value to human life and are carrying out their tyrannical scheme by compelling judicial review of the decision to terminate a life. Would that Stalin had oppressed the kulaks by feeding their children and putting authority into the hands of an independent judiciary!

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Books by Tom Veal

Worth Reading (Non-Fiction)