The Callahan Chronicals (Callahan’s #1-3)

By Spider Robinson

Rating: 5 stars

I’m a very recent convert to Callahan and his place, but I already adore it. These stories, all centred around Callahan’s Place, its weird and wonderful regulars and how they all go out of their way to help others are a joy to read. Warm, witty and humanist, Robinson shows a depth of feeling and empathy that really resonates with me. And the puns, oh goodness, the marvellous truly awful puns! I love puns (even if I’m not very good at them myself) so seeing them celebrated here was a(nother) wonderful thing about the book.

I’ve read many of the stories here in another collection but this is a superset of that, containing all the stories from there and a few others. This means that I can give away the other book, to let somebody else experience the joy of finding Callahan’s Place while I go on and get hold of both the Lady Sally and Mary’s Place books to continue the journey.

The unofficial motto of Callahan’s Place is that pain shared is lessened while joy shared is increased. I’ll get a glass of something, step up to the chalk line and raise a toast to that any day.

Book details

ISBN: 9780812539370
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 1988

The Tropic of Serpents (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #2)

By Marie Brennan

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed the second of Lady Trent’s memoirs as much as the first. This time, a few years after her first voyage, she is off to what seems to be her world’s Africa to study the dragons of that part of the world. Coming with her is her fellow naturalist Tom Wilker and her benefactor’s granddaughter, Natalie. As before, Isabella and her companions can’t help get caught up in local politics, when all they want to do is to study dragons.

I like that the not-quite-steampunk aesthetic doesn’t blind the book from tackling (to some degree, at least) the issues of colonisation of Africa by Britain (by analogue, at least, as Isabella’s Scirland isn’t exactly Britain and Beyembe isn’t Africa). But the book doesn’t shy away from the repercussions of Scirland’s political meddling in the affairs of the countries of Beyembe, despite being told by Lady Trent, a Scirland national.

I continue to enjoy the tone of voice of the books, both the voice of the Isabella of the time, and the older voice of the Lady Trent who is writing the memoir, and I’m impressed by Brennan’s ability to write two voices for the same character at different periods in her life. I enjoyed seeing the relationship between Isabella and Wilker develop and mature to a point where they’re comfortable with each other, and I have to say that I enjoyed the events that eventually cleared the air.

The last line has left me wanting to dive straight into The Voyage of the Basilisk, but I also don’t want to devour it, as the fourth book isn’t out until next year, and the fifth (and, I understand, the last) isn’t yet written. If I can pace myself, I should hopefully be able to read the last few in fairly quick succession (if!).

Book details

ISBN: 9781783292417
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2014

The Hobbit

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating: 5 stars

It’s difficult to know what to say about The Hobbit that hasn’t already been said. I don’t remember now, to be honest, if I read it before I read The Lord of the Rings. I vaguely seem to recall that I did, but that could just be my faulty memory. Certainly, for me, it’s a much simpler, more straightforward tale than its illustrious successor but there’s still a lot to enjoy. Between Bilbo’s hasty departure from Bag End, without even a handkerchief, to the adventure in Mirkwood, the dealings with Smaug and the way that he handles the Dwarven obsession over gold, the story flows swiftly and cleanly. And, of course, the famous ‘riddles in the dark’ with Gollum. Reading it, with the full knowledge of what is to come, that chapter was an especially enjoyable read.

It’s a shame the Dwarves don’t get much in the way of characterisation, or things to differentiate them from each other. I haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s films of the book, but I imagine that must have been a fairly major challenge to fill out thirteen characters. The lack of characterisation is certainly something that’s repeatedly levelled against Tolkien, but it’s not really something that bothers me. Bilbo is our hero and our protagonist. We see the world through his eyes, as he grows and develops during the course of his adventure and I’m happy to leave it at that.

It’s always fun to look out for hints of things to come in the deeper, more complex works as well. Even though it’s only a couple of sentences, there was a thrill to be had in reading about the White Council expelling the Necromancer from Mirkwood, mentions of the fathers of men and the doings of the Dwarves and of Moria.

Definitely a great introduction to Tolkien’s world and one that I shall be distributing amongst my nephlings and children of my friends over the next few years.

Book details

ISBN: 9780395873465
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year of publication: 1937

Mortal Clay, Stone Heart: And Other Stories in Shades of Black and White

By Eugie Foster

Rating: 4 stars

Like the last collection of Foster’s stories I read (Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice), I really rather enjoyed this one. I first encountered Foster in audio form through the Escape Artists podcasts (probably Podcastle). It wasn’t until her sad death last year that I picked up some of her work in written form, and I’m glad that I did as it seems to work better (for me, at least) on paper than in audio.

There are some lovely stories here and mostly they’re more whimsical than the previous collection, although that doesn’t necessarily stop them from packing a punch, as The Life and Times of Penguin attest. As for the others, knowing what I do about Foster’s own life and death, Running on Two Legs was heartbreaking, while Black Swan, White Swan just bemused me a bit (although I do think I liked it more than when I heard it in audio). The Bunny of Vengeance and the Bear of Death was in equal parts hilarious, horrific and heartbreaking. That’s a combo that Foster is pretty good at, as the cutesy frame reveals a centre with depth and heart. A Nose for Magic is lighter and more fun (and I always love a story where the IT guy saves the day and wins the girl). The Center of the Universe is a story about growing up, moving on and the passage of time. It’s sweet and melancholic at the same time, as such stories often are. The Wizard of Eternal Watch seems like a segment in a large story and I’d love to read that larger story as this really whetted my appetite. Finally, the title story, Mortal Clay, Stone Heart was a story of love found and love lost. Beautifully told, melancholic (there’s that word again) and haunting.

So a great collection of stories. There’s not much more of Foster’s writing left, but I’ll definitely pick up The King of Rabbits and Moon Lake: And Other Tales of Magic and Mischief (although probably not A Vampire Quintet as I’m not a huge fan of vampires). I’d love for someone to collect the novellas and other stories into a final collection though, ideally one that I can get on paper.

Book details

ISBN: 9781492836995
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Year of publication: 2011

The Scottish Nation, 1700-2007: A Modern History

By T.M. Devine

Rating: 4 stars

This is a well-written, readable book, impeccably sourced and researched. It’s taken me quite a while to get through it, although that’s mostly because I’d put it down for months at a time so that I could read something lighter.

Devine takes the history of Scotland over the last three hundred years or so and breaks it down by era and then within the era, he looks at different aspects of the social and political history of the country. So the first is roughly around the Act of Union and its consequences, then the early industrial era, taking us up to the start of the Victorian era. This is followed by the largest section, covering the Victorian and Edwardian eras, bringing us to the edge of the second world war, and the final section brings us right up to the present day (or at least up to when the book was written in 2007, updated to the eve of the Indyref in 2012).

There’s a huge amount of research here, and it covers many subjects, from the ‘traditional’ history of geopolitics, kings and the Great and the Good, to the rise of the lowland cities, the end of clanship, the place of women, migration (both into and out of Scotland) and much more.

As well as covering the Highland clearances, Devine looks at the effects of the underlying causes on the Lowlands as well. He covers the period of Scotland’s (and especially Glasgow’s) ascendency as ‘the world’s workshop’ and ‘second city of the empire’ and looks at its decline and the roots and causes of that.

All in all, the book is very comprehensive, readable and has definitely given me an overview of the modern history of the country that I have chosen to call home.

Book details

ISBN: 9780718193201
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1999

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