THE NEBULY COAT by John Meade Falkner

Another turn of the (20th) century novel.  You know how much I love work from this period.  Written in 1903, this interesting and poignant work, possibly because of its rather formal style, common of writing of that period, was compelling in a way that is seldom found (at least by me) in today’s modern offerings.

It is the story of an old, deteriorating church and its awkwardly built bell tower, the architect in charge of restoration, the aristocratic family who is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the church, and the churches officials and townspeople.

The seaport of Cullerne was once a bustling place, but silt closed the harbor, the marshes overtook the beaches, and the town found itself stranded rather more inland than was useful, the young people moved to other parts, and the town was left to sleep away its days.  The great church of Saint Sepulchre dominated the village square. The first part of the building was erected in 1135,  and its Norman arches supported an overburdening weight of the bell tower which was added on several centuries later.

When young architect Westray is sent by his firm to inspect the building and oversee what little restoration the church has money for, he notices an ominous crack in the tower, and is reminded of the old architectural saw, “The arch never sleeps”, meaning that when an arch is forced to support too heavy a load, it eventually will shift.

We meet the old, broken down organist, a fine musician, forced to make do with a decrepit organ and barely passable singers for his choir.  Westray takes lodgings in the same poor establishment as the organist, and they become friends.

The old Lord of the area has died, and his son and daughter-in-law drowned in a boating accident, and the remaining family member, the grandson, has been traveling and living abroad for twenty years, and even before the old guy died, he could not be induced to spend a penny on the church, the townspeople are not very prosperous, and so the building has been sinking into decay for decades.

The title of the book refers to the coat of arms of the aristocratic family, the Nebuly, which is a bunch of clouds.  A lot of the plot revolves around this coat of arms and around the chain of inheritance of the family manor and money.

So, anyway, the church’s officials cannot put off the repair of parts of the roof any longer, and have contracted to have the work done at last.

But lo! and behold!   The young grandson returns home, and what is great about this novel is that at every turn where you think you know where it is going, it isn’t.  It does something completely unexpected, so I am not going to tell you any more of the plot, except to say, the arches never sleep.

The enjoyment of this book is not just in the plot.  It is in the various side trips of musings on the life of those in lodgings, of single men, of decaying gentry, of poverty and penury, on the workings and maintenance of the great church organs, and of course, on the various points of architecture.

Side note:  In the lodgings lives the niece of the landlady, who is an avid reader and aspires to someday be an author.  At one point, she is reading when the doorbell sounds.

She had thrust a pencil into the pages of “Northanger Abbey” to keep the place while she answered the bell….

hahaha  She is reading Jane Austin.  I love it.

Meade wrote two other novels, The Lost Stradivarius, and Moonfleet, written in 1898, a tale of adventure, and which was made into a movie.  If you wish to read The Nebuly Coat or the other two books, they are free on Project Gutenberg.

 

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CYTEEN by C. J. Cherryh

I almost didn’t read this book.  My Dearly Beloved downloaded it and since we have a linked Amazon account, it ended up also on my Kindle.  I thought it would be about a cyber teen, you know, another YA where the teenager has special powers suddenly overnight?  Right?  No.  Wrong.

It is about genetic engineering, and politics and clones, called replicas, and bossing everybody around even after you are dead. Gee.  That notion holds a certain appeal, doesn’t it.  It won a whole bunch of awards in 1989 – Hugo Award for Best Novel: winner,  SF Chronicle Award, Best Novel: winner,  British Science Fiction Association Award, Best SF Novel: nomination,  Locus Award, Best SF Novel: winner, and in 1998, the Locus Award, All-Time Best SF Novel before 1990: position 38.

Let me see if I can narrow down the plot description from Wiki’s 18 paragraphs to a  more manageable length.  Whew.  OK. Diving in.

Founded in 2201 by a group of dissident scientists and engineers, the Cyteen star system includes the planet Cyteen and Cyteen Inner and Outer Stations. Cyteen declared its independence from Earth in 2300 CE and now serves as the capital of Union.

The planet’s atmosphere is moderately toxic to humans, necessitating enclaves, or semi-encapsulated city-states, which drives Union’s political outlook. Cyteen is seen as the antithesis of Earth; the heart of Union is the research facility Reseune, the center of all research and development of human cloning.

Cloned “azi” provide the additional population Union needs to exist and expand, a policy which Earth and the Alliance, Union’s main rival, deplore and refuse to sanction. Azi are incubated in vitro in “womb-tanks”, but citizen (or “CIT”) babies can also be cloned the same way, for example to replace a dead child. The fundamental difference between azi and regular humans is that they are educated from birth via “tape”, a computer-controlled combination of conditioning and biofeedback training. This technology is not limited to azi; it is used by normal humans as well, though to a lesser extent and after they have a chance to develop (i.e. usually after the age of six). This results in profound psychological differences; for example, CITs are much more capable of handling new and uncertain situations, while azi are able to concentrate better.

The overall educational program of an azi is referred to as his or her “psychset”. Designing tapes is an extremely complex discipline, since a badly designed psychset can cause azi to become emotionally unstable.

OK, that’s the basic background. Onto this scene we encounter Ariane Emory, one of fourteen “Specials”, Union-certified geniuses. In addition to her research on azi, she runs Reseune (founded by her parents) with the assistance of Giraud and Denys Nye. Emory is also a member of the Council of Nine, the elected, top-level executive body of Union. Two political factions vie for power in Union: the Centrists and the Expansionists. The latter, led by Emory, seek to enlarge Union through exploration, building new stations and continued cloning. Her political enemies, headed by Mikhail Corain, prefer to focus on the existing stations and planets. The Expansionists have held power since the foundation of Union, a situation fostered by “rejuv”, which extends lifespans and staves off the effects of old age. Emory herself is 120 years old at the start of the novel – and only just beginning to show signs of aging – and has been the Councillor for Science for five decades.

Emory’s former co-worker and now bitter longtime rival, Jordan Warrick, is also a Special. Jordan has created and raised a clone of himself named Justin. Justin has grown up with and is very close to Grant, an experimental azi created by Emory from the slightly modified geneset of another Special. When Justin goes to work for Emory, she threatens to use Grant, who is Reseune property, for research. Using drugs and tape to overcome Justin’s remaining resistance, she rapes the inexperienced seventeen-year-old. This trauma causes him to experience periodic debilitating “tape-flashes”, similar to the flashbacks that PTSD sufferers experience. Justin does his best to hide the sordid matter from his “father”, but Jordan eventually learns of it. He is furious and confronts Emory.

She is found dead later that day. Though it could have been accidental, there is strong suspicion that she was murdered by Jordan. He protests his innocence, but agrees to a confession in order to protect both Justin and Grant. Because of his Special status, he has legal immunity and is only exiled to an isolated research facility far from Reseune.

Emory’s ultimate goal was to clone herself, with her successor reliving her life as closely as possible, down to her hormone levels and including two longtime bodyguard azi and companions, Florian and Catlin. Emory also created a sophisticated and powerful computer program to help guide her replacement. With her death and the resulting disruption to both Reseune and Union, the second project is begun immediately.

And the rest of the book is all about the replica Ari growing up and the events that happen to her and to the political situation.  Full disclosure — a lot of that plot description was lifted whole from Wiki.  OK, most of it.

You will be as pleased as I am to learn that C. J. Cherryh is a female.  I LOVE sci fi written by women, and so much of her wondrous oeuvre was written during a time when the field was dominated by male writers.  Cherryh (pronounced “Cherry”) appended a silent “h” to her real name because her first editor felt that “Cherry” sounded too much like a romance writer. Her initials, C.J., were used to disguise the fact that she was female.  Cherryh, has written more than 80 books since the mid-1970s, including the Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) also set in her Alliance-Union universe. She is known for her world building, depicting fictional realms with great realism supported by vast research in history, language, psychology, and archeology. Her series of fantasy novels set in the Alliance-Union universe, the Morgaine Stories, have sold in excess of 3 million copies.

And dig this:  the author has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named after her! Referring to this honor, the asteroid’s discoverers wrote of Cherryh: “She has challenged us to be worthy of the stars by imagining how mankind might grow to live among them.”  

Dang. Any of you have an asteroid named after you?  I didn’t think so.

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

OK, I have read Spaceman of Bohemia,  and Nigerians in Space,  and now The Sparrow,  which if you are of a nose-snort sort of mind, could alternatively be titled, Jesuits in Space.

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a SETI listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. (We’ve always known the Roman Catholic Church is the richest institution on the planet.) What the Jesuits find is the partial basis of the book.  An interesting premise, the Jesuit space mission, based as it is on the long history of the Jesuits having first contact with cultures other than their own. Jesuits have always been scholars, educators, explorers, intellectual idealists.

On Rakhat, there are two main humanoid species. The mission party learns that the one species, vegetarians, back in prehistory, were prey of the other species, the Jana’ata, and there is now a precise balance between the Jana’ata, which are a carnivorous herding society that breed their prey, the Runa, for intelligence and adaptability as well as meat.

The mission party lands in a region of the Runa,  who are vegetarians, learn their language, and notice that these people are very thin, and seldom have children.  The mission party is surviving on the supplies they brought with them and on the vegetation that the Runa eat, and decide to improve their diet by planting a garden with the seeds they have brought with them.  The Runa are amazed at this cultivation idea, plant their own, and grow heavier.  The better diet brings the women into oestrus, and they start producing a lot of babies.  Unbeknownst to the mission party, this is not permitted by the Jana’ata, who strictly control the Runa population so that in either population there is never hunger, homelessness, etc.  A Jana’ata control party arrives at the Runa community and slaughters all the babies.

In the year 2060, only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told with parallel plot lines, interspersing the journey of Sandoz and his friends to Rakhat with Sandoz’s experiences upon his return to Earth.

The book has been called a parable about faith, the search for God.   The priest Emilio Sandoz is a deeply religious man, and others see God in him, but his own search lacks completion.  When terrible things happen to his mission cohorts, and then to him, he is faced with the possibility that there isn’t a God, and he is all alone.  If there is a God, God has possibly abandoned him, or has no interest in him, an equally terrifying proposition.

It is the actions of the intruders, the mission crew, which bring danger and violence to a settled and balanced society.  The story subtly raises concerns about the ways in which sophisticated cultures tell themselves cover stories in order to justify actions taken at a terrible cost to others. Does our own cultural values give us permission to judge and act on other cultural norms?   Can we vindicate our being all Judgey McJudgeface about the Jana’ata breeding the sentient Runa for food, while we ourselves have a number of stock species we breed for food?

If my description sounds like the book is all about religion, it isn’t really.  It is about the philosophical mindsets we have, our notions of what is a god, and what are our obligations and responsibilities toward other cultures.  Plenty of action in the book, and while the actual science-y stuff is pretty thin, glossing over a whole lot of issues, such as how the mission party keeps their electronic apparatus functioning on a planet with no electricity, not to mention the idea of the distance travel, with the planet Rahkat being 4 light years away and all, as with all fiction, we have to set some of these nit pickey considerations aside and deal with the larger story arc.

Oh, and the title comes from the biblical reference that God keeps his eye even on the smallest and least consequential.  What Father Sandoz learns that keeping one’s eye on something and actually doing something about it may very well be two different things.

There is a sequel, Children of God, where Father Sandoz is cajoled into returning to Rahkat.  I plan to read that in the near future.

 

WAIST DEEP by Frank Zafiro

“When disgraced former cop Stefan Kopriva is asked by an old high school classmate to find a runaway sixteen year old girl, he reluctantly accepts. Driven by guilt over a terrible mistake that drove him from the force more than ten years earlier, Kopriva battles old injuries, old demons and long ago memories as he unravels the mystery of the missing Kris Sinderling…and seeks his own redemption.”

So, yeah, it’s another drunk ex-cop trope.  You know, where he was just a smidge too late to save some little kid while on the force, and either quits in despair or is forced out in disgrace, and turns to alcoholism as a coping mechanism.

I keep waiting for the book about a well-adjusted ex-cop who quit the force because he either got bored, or had had enough of police politics and corruption, and went into some other satisfying business, has a normal love life, and only drinks a beer or two now and then socially.

Oh, well.

Our drunk alcohol-challenged protagonist gets himself into a fight at a ball game, is ejected, and one of the stadium security guys contacts him later to look for his teenage daughter who has disappeared.   The investigation brings to light a smarmy male high school teacher who preys on his female students, a slub making porn flicks in his basement, and a stupid high schooler who thinks making porn movies will bring her stardom.

Not a bad mystery, but I gotta tell ya, this alcoholic ex-cop trope is getting mighty old.

 

THE WHISTLING SEASON by Ivan Doig

Gee, I really like this writer.  This lovely paean to the one-room rural schoolhouse is set in Marias Coulee, Montana, in 1909.  The Marias River was named by Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame, after a cousin with whom he thought he might be in love.   Maria’s River.  Later, the apostrophe was dropped.  Just a little trivia to wider your knowledge base.

A widower and his three boys, 2nd grade age, 5th grade age and seventh grade age, are doing their best to batch it after the death of their wife and mother a year ago.  The boys attend a one room school, taught by the doughty Miss Trent.   It is beginning to be apparent that although the fellows can get along peacefully in their slovenly ways, dad’s pitiful cooking attempts leave so much to be desired.  Dad feels they can spring for maybe a housekeeper who will tidy up and cook for them, and puts an ad in the Minneapolis newspaper.  They receive at last a reply headed “Can’t Cook but Don’t Bite”, submitted by a widow,  Rose Llewellyn, whose finances are afrazzle.  Not exactly what they were hoping for, but they figure she was married, so she has to be able to cook something, even if it isn’t gourmet fare.   It turns out her finances are non-existent. and she requests a three month advance on her salary to settle some issues and pay for her passage on the train.

She arrives with her brother accompanying her.  A striking man,

…lightly built, and an extraordinary amount of him was mustache.  It was one of those maximum ones such as I had seen in pictures of Rudyard Kipling, a soup-strainer and a lady_tickler and a fashion show, all in one.

It has been arranged for the housekeeper to board at a neighboring farm and walk over every day.  And she soon makes it clear that she absolutely CANNOT cook, but she sure was a world class house cleaner.

The father is president of the school board, and has often despaired at keeping a teacher, because the profession back in those days attracted mainly single young women, who soon left to get married.  The teacher turnover was always high, and beginning to disturb the district school authorities, who announce they will be sending an inspector one day.  All that is fine, except Miss Trent elopes with a traveling preacher man, leaving them high and dry.  But not to fret!  It turns out that the housekeeper’s brother is just a font of knowledge, having attending university in Chicago, and is cajoled into taking on the job.

It is all about that year that Rose, who constantly whistled as she worked, made the family ship shape, and Morrie, the brother, brought fun and learning to the classroom.  It was the year of Halley’s Comet, and what changes it brought to the family, the school, and the area.

Fun twist near the end, but we knew something was up, so it was delightful when it came.

The other book of Doig’s which I have read is English Creek, here.

The one-room schoolhouse system no longer exists as far as I know.  I could be wrong, but a brief search does not The students from the areas which would have them now all attend consolidated schools,  which although monetarily more efficient, sometimes puts students on an extremely long  school bus commute.  There is a site listing existing one-room schools, but they are all historic sites, or converted schools into other functions.   There is also a movement afoot to bring back the one-roomer, now being called the micro classroom.

 

 

THE THIRTY NINE STEPS by John Buchan

This  is a 1915 novella by John Buchan. John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC was a Scottish novelist, historian, and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada, the 15th since Canadian Confederation.

I say! What a dashed ripping yarn old chap!  (I stole that from a review on Goodreads.)  I usually like books from this era, but frankly, for me, this one read like a YA boy’s thriller.

A guy returns to England from Rhodesia, and is bored.  There is a spy living in his apartment house, and who ends up dying in Hannay’s apartment, and our boy is on the run from the police who think he did it.  He has found a coded notebook of the spy, and it talks of an important person getting killed which would start off a great war.  There were was something about the counterspies who will escape by means of the thirty-nine steps.

On the run, Hannay decides to go to Scotland, but the police and the other spy guys get wind of him there, and he experiences a lot of hair’s breadth escapes, a lot of which includes improbable disguises.  Makes you think those other spy guys were pretty incompetent.

Well, spoiler time, Hannay is not in time to alert the authorities, and that important guy gets killed, but Hannay is able to thwart the killers’ escape.   What comes to be called the Great War starts two days later.

There are a bunch more books in this series.  But not for me.  I am going to leave improbable disguise thrillers, and get back to improbable space opera thrillers.  Eh.  To each her own, right?

THE RIM OF THE DESERT by Ada Woodruff Anderson

Ada Woodruff Anderson was a well-known Pacific Northwest novelist who wrote The Heart of Red Firs, Rim of the Desert, and Strain of White. She was born in July 1860 in San Francisco, California, and married Oliver Phelps Anderson, son of Alexander Jay Anderson who was at one time president of the University of Washington and later Whitman College.

The Rim of the Desert was first published in 1915, and reissued in 2008, along with the other two works mentioned.  It is basically chick lit (OK, women’s literature), set in Alaska and the Oregon region of high desert east of the Cascade Range and south of the Blue Mountains, in the central and eastern parts of the state.  The author tells us

The desert of this story is that semi-arid region east of the upper Columbia.  It is cut off from the moisture laden winds of the Pacific by the lofty summits fo the Cascade Mountains which form its western rim.

It is the story of Hollis Tisdale, painted throughout as a true hero of romance novels, strong, brave, stalwart, honorable, you know, all those good things.  And of Mrs. Weatherbee, wife of Tisdale’s bestest buddy David.

Weatherbee goes to Alaska to mine to make a grubstake in order to finance his dream of bringing water to the Columbia desert and planting orchards, and creating a town there.  He makes detailed plans, but dies in a blizzard in Alaska.  His friend, the indomitable Tisdale sets off to find him, but is a few days too late, and brings his body back to Seattle for burial.

The wife sets off from Seattle on a trip with friends to see the area in Oregon which her husband had purchased.  She ends up on a train with Tisdale, but she is under an assumed name because she didn’t want the publicity.  As they both surprisingly get off at the same remote train station with the intention of hiring transportation to the same spot, circumstances dictate that they travel together because of lack of transportation facilities.

Tisdale tells her of the fate of his best friend and how he dislikes the wife who he has never met because she was living the good life back in Seattle while Weatherbee was freezing his onions off up in Alaska trying to make money.   Tisdale does not know he is traveling with Weatherbee’s wife.

OK, you got the drift, right?  Nice kind of chick lit, with Tisdale being a man’s man, and a gentleman to boot, and Beatrice Weatherby being such a lovely person, and beautiful to boot,  etc. etc. etc. Kind of puts you in mind of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon,  where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.   Lots of other interesting characters, including a cad.  A cad is what we today would call a douchebag.  What good would a story be without the standard issue cad, right?

Very readable, in that easy style of the times.  If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I have a thing for works written around the turn of the twentieth century.  There is just something about the style that is so different from modern writing.  So I very much enjoyed it, and have acquired The Heart of Red Firs, which I plan to read soon.  These books are available free at Project Gutenberg.