THE GHOST BRIGADES by John Scalzi

I have embarked on the Old Man’s War series,  and this is the second volume.  The first was Old Man’s War, which I discussed here.   This is not exactly a sequel, because none of the characters appear in it except one, in a totally different story arc, so although there is a connection, they can be read in either order, more or less.

The first volume explained in depth the concept behind the Old Men soldiers, see my earlier post on that volume.   This one features a scientist who goes mad when his little daughter is killed in a station take over by a hostile species, and because his superior had not allowed him to bring her with him to his current duty, which is why she was killed on that other station, he blames the commander and the Colonial Defense Forces for everything, has found a way to save a person’s consciousness, has recorded his and saved it, then created an illegal and secret clone of himself, which he killed in a manner that appeared as suicide, so everything thinks he has died.

But!  Of course, he has not, and has escaped to a far planet in service of the aliens in a deal to give them consciousness or a soul, which they do not possess, in exchange for their cooperating with two other usually enemies to make war on the Colonial Defense Forces and wipe them out.

But the powers that be have come to the conclusion that that dead scientist is not the real scientist and that he is still alive.  So using the technology to build Special Forces soldiers by using dead people’s dna, they make one specifically so that can implant the scientist’s copy of his consciousness into it, hoping it will BE the scientist or enough so they can find out where he is.

The consciousness doesn’t take, so the guy is integrated into Special Forces as a soldier, but gradually the memories etc begin to emerge, and he has the consciousness of both.

Pretty nifty, right?  So anyway, there is lots of space opera-y action and whatnot as they figure they know where he is and determine to go extract him.  Turns out, the young daughter of the scientist was not killed but abducted by the aliens to get the scientist to do the work for them to get them consciousness.

Maybe just this side of hokey, plot-wise, but a lot of interesting concepts about genetics, genetic engineering, consciousness, etc., that made it a fun read.

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SONIA by Stephen McKenna

Set in the time of La Belle Époque England, beginning in 1898, and ending in August of 1915, this first person narration is supposedly a small history written by a friend of a man who was killed in the war, for his son whom he would never see.    He says:

I am sensible of a difficulty in attempting to sketch for the benefit ogf an eight-weeks-old godson the outlines of a world that was clattering into ruins during the twelve months anterior to his birth.  Even were I desirous of writing a social history of England for the last thirty years, I should be placing myself in competition with men more able and better equipped than I am to describe the politics, the diplomacy, the economics, the art and the social habits of the past generation.  It is wiser to attempt nothing so comprehensive, but to limit myself to those facets of English life which I have been compelled to study.

Our writer, George, is a member of the wealthy elite, an Englishman with estates in Ireland, and his account is of the times before the First World War.  Fully the first half of the book is about his time in a posh public school (which Americans would call a private school), where we first meet the characters who will populate the remainder of the book.

At its heart, the book is a romance, a love story.  But it is clothed in detailed discussions of British politics at the time, which meant less than zero to me, an American, but might have some interest for British readers, and detailed descriptions of the social life of the upper crust, where being invited to the best houses, to the A-list parties, to the most prestigious clubs, was of paramount importance, (all of which held a great deal of interest for me).  No one believed the war would come, the politicians believed that a European war was too big to be contemplated by Germany and Russia, and so carried on, Jeeves, with their normal lives.

The last third or so of the book was about life after war was declared and Britain had entered the fray.  All of the men and boys of the writer’s childhood and young manhood have died in the war except two or three.  Oh, and by the way, the love story was not about the writer, but about another school friend.   Our writer was a bachelor at 30-something, and I am not sure why he was never in the armed services.

Although one would think from the title that the book would be all about Sonia, that was not the case.  She was one of the least characters. It was much more about the writer’s friend from school days.

Anyway, a long book, and for today’s reader would benefit from a ruthless excising of long-forgotten political names and the minutia of early turn of the century political maneuvering, but otherwise, a fine read.

This was published in 1917, and I snagged it from the list of 100 Best Sellers of the last 100 years.  Stephen McKenna was an English novelist, author of over 40 books of fiction and non-fiction, starting with a romance, The Reluctant Lover (1912), published whilst he was still at Oxford.  It is interesting that such a prolific writer is totally unknown today.  Yes, fame is fleeting.

THE BOOK OF EBENEZER LE PAGE by G. B. Edwards

This is a love letter to an island, a paean to Guernsey, which you probably know is an island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. It lies roughly north of Saint-Malo and to the west of Jersey and the Cotentin Peninsula. With several smaller nearby islands, it forms a jurisdiction within the Bailiwick of Guernsey, a Crown dependency. The jurisdiction is made up of ten parishes on the island of Guernsey, three other inhabited islands (Herm, Jethou and Lihou), and many small islets and rocks.

The official description:  “Ebenezer Le Page, cantankerous, opinionated, and charming, is one of the most compelling literary creations of the late twentieth century. Eighty years old, Ebenezer has lived his whole life on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a stony speck of a place caught between the coasts of England and France yet a world apart from either. Ebenezer himself is fiercely independent, but as he reaches the end of his life he is determined to tell his own story and the stories of those he has known. He writes of family secrets and feuds, unforgettable friendships and friendships betrayed, love glimpsed and lost. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is a beautifully detailed chronicle of a life, but it is equally an oblique reckoning with the traumas of the twentieth century, as Ebenezer recalls both the men lost to the Great War and the German Occupation of Guernsey during World War II, and looks with despair at the encroachments of commerce and tourism on his beloved island.”

As Ebenezer ages, to allay the lonely nights, he gets the idea to write a book.  He writes in French patois and English patois, and his story begins before the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is), with his young boyhood, and takes us through the changing fortunes of the island, to the losses and fears of the First World War,  and through the German occupation during the Second World War.  Guernsey was the only British soil to be occupied by the Germans, and the privations of that time were daunting.  Britain did not want to send food, because it would feed the Germans, and the French tried to send food, but their boats were attacked by the Germans.  He tells a story about a pig who was transported from house to house so the Germans could count it, as they were not permitted to butcher their livestock, but to raise it for the Germans.  This same tale appears in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I talk about here.

He rails against tourism, and the greed of the island people, and how although for all its past the island has been a lovely resort for the British people, and the French, now the tourism is focused purely on the relics of the German occupation, which has become quite a claim to fame.

His feelings are those of all older people, I think, that of the grieving of the passing of the old life, of the old ways, but always in praise of the friendliness and openness of the true Guernsey people.

The last portion of the book is about his search for someone to leave his money to.  He is an old bachelor, never married, although something of a ladies man in his day.  So he spends his time going around visiting a raft of extended family members trying to find someone worthy of his money and little house and property.  He has told us earlier that most of Guernsey is related to the rest of Guernsey in one way or another, and speaks often of fourth cousins, or somebody’s somebody’s aunt.  He has a number of gold sovereigns buried under the apple tree in his yard, put there when the Germans came, and he feels that their value is now pretty great.  Plus he has stashed current cash in several spots throughout the house.  He finally finds someone to whom he wants to leave his estate, and goes to a lawyer to draw up the papers.  The lawyer advises him that the ownership of the sovereigns is not legal, and surely illegal to pass them on to anyone.  He is probably OK with any that are marked before 1836, but after that, they are historic property of the state.  But the lawyer promises to do what he can, because the cash and the house and land are certainly of some nice value.

So a story of laying up treasures where moth and rust do not corrupt and thieves do not break in and steal, but the government regulates instead. lol

A great book.  A bit long, but interesting nevertheless.   I think this was Edwards’ only work of any value, and even then it was published posthumously in 1981.  It got a lot of fine reviews and has since been translated into French and Italian.

GREAT GRANNY WEBSTER by Caroline Blackwood

Deceptively short, this novel is so dense it is almost a black hole.   The official description says:  This macabre, mordantly funny, partly auto-biographical novel reveals the gothic craziness behind the scenes in the great houses of the aristocracy, as witnessed through the unsparing eyes of an orphaned teenage girl. Great Granny Webster herself is a fabulous monster, the chilliest of matriarchs, presiding with steely self-regard over a landscape of ruined lives.

It is a book of characters, not the least of which are the two estates featured, that of the vast, dim, creepy, cold mansion of Great Granny Webster, in Hove, England, and the other of Dunmartin Manor, in Ireland, a a vast, decaying, wet, slimy, mold-infested house with bad drains and worse roofs, where the footmen and servants wear wellies (boots) inside because of the puddles and swamps within the halls and rooms of the house.   The houses reminded me of Gormenghast,  that awful enigmatic and gothic monstrosity in the fantasy book of the same name by Mervyn Peake.  Look in the search box on this page for my reviews of Titus Groan, Gormenhast, and the third in the trilogy which title eludes me.

The human characters are almost secondary to these old piles:  the 14-year old orphan sent to recover from an illness with Great Granny Webster in Hove;  the old bat herself, the woman’s two children, one a daughter who went gradually or possibly not so gradually, mad, her long-suffering husband, and their children, the father of our orphan, and his sister, totally mad in her own frivolous riotous way, and who eventually commits suicide.

Really a wonderful book, definitely worth rereading, and I say that about so few books.

OLD MAN’S WAR by John Scalzi

Space opera about old farts who become new farts.

Official description:  John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

OK, that’s the official plot.  What happens is you can sign up on your 65th birthday to join the Planetary Forces on your 75th birthday to go fight aliens in outer space.  At the time of your sign up, they take your DNA sample, etc., and then when you are 75, if you still want to join, men and women alike, you take the A Train  hahaha up the space elevator to the station where the Planetary Forces give you a bunch of new super body parts, and gene therapy and put a computer into your brain, and you become a super soldier. Of each group of 1000 new recruits, 400 will die in six months, an additional yada yada yada.  Kinda sounds like one of those Marine speeches on the eve of a big mission.

Well, John’s beloved wife of 42 years dies 8 years before his 75th birthday.  He misses her deeply and figures what has he got to lose, he gets to be young again and maybe will even live long enough to tell about it, so off he goes.

I was going to say it was a teenage boy’s wet dream, but I am wrong.  It is an old man’s wet dream, of being young, and virile and strong, and all that, of getting to live your misspent youth all over again.

Although the sci part of the sci fi wasn’t all that impressive, more along the lines of  …. and then magic happened…, but the point of the series is not the science but the idea of humanity, its hubris, its wishful thinking, and of our desire to live forever.  There were some really great aliens, so that redeemed it mightily, because who doesn’t like a niftily crafted alien?  One bunch is only one inch high, and their best weaponry was actually numbers.  You know, like bees or wasps.  One is an annoyance, a hundred of them can kill you.  So wearing protective gear, the Forces land on the planet and annihilate the buggers by stepping on them, crunch, crunch, crunch, like cockroaches.   See, not every alien looks like lizards or worms or goo.

Lots of fighting, battles, torn off body parts that get grown on again.  Stuff like that.  Basically, if you don’t get your head chopped off, you can be repaired to go out and fight anew.

Nice characterization, although frankly you could tell it was written by a man, because in spite of all his lamentations over his late wife and how much he loved her, it turned out that he had an affair at one time, for which she forgave him, but it was all right because she had one herself a few years later, and it was all right.  See, women never think that shit is all right, and although they may say they forgive you, they never do, really.  Only a man could think like that.

There are like at least six in this series, and yeah, I intend to read them.  In spite of my criticisms, I liked it, and found it a fun read.

Written in 2007, it was a Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2006), Locus Award Nominee for Best SF Novel and Best First Novel (2006), and received the Geffen Award for Best Translated Science Fiction Book (2007)

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF HARRIETT FREAN by May Sinclair

Harriett is the Victorian embodiment of all the virtues then viewed as essential to the womanly ideal: a woman reared to love, honor and obey. Idolizing her parents, she learns from childhood to equate love with self-sacrifice, so that when she falls in love with the fiancé of her closest friend, there is only one way to confront such an unworthy passion.  She convinces him to marry the friend.  How could they hurt so deeply the friend and still live with themselves, is her position.

He marries the woman, but never loves her, and the woman, in a probably subconscious attempt to keep him near to her, develops a kind of hysterical paralysis, which eventually leaves her bedridden.  Meanwhile, life drags on for Harriett, her father’s bad investments make him a pauper, and they move from their comfortable spacious home to a dreary small house.  He declines physically and mentally, and finally dies, and later the mother dies of cancer, leaving Harriett alone with her principles and a maid who pities her.

May Sinclair was the pseudonym of Mary Amelia St. Clair, a popular British writer who wrote about two dozen novels, short stories and poetry. She was an active suffragist, and member of the Woman Writers’ Suffrage League. May Sinclair was also a significant critic, in the area of modernist poetry and prose and she is attributed with first using the term stream of consciousness) in a literary context.  This book was published in 1922, but is not from my best seller list, so I have no idea how I came to download it from Project Gutenberg. Just another one of those mysteries of life.

 

THE GREAT IMPERSONATION by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Another great read from my LIST of the best sellers of the last 100 years.  This one was published in 1920.

Set in the years before World War I, a dissolute aristocrat from England apparently kills a man who allegedly attacked him in the woods near his estate.  The body of the man is never found, and when the aristocrat returns home covered in blood, his wife goes into some kind of shock and goes crazy.  Under this cloud, the aristocrat goes to Africa to spree around and shoot game and generally make a drunken nuisance of himself.

After about ten years, he is found, almost dead, by a German operative, a man he went to college with years and years ago.  Curiously, they look almost identical, a fact noted back in college days.  He is nursed back to health, and the two of them spend a night sharing secret stories of their lives and pasts.  Then the German guy must leave on assignment, and the British aristocrat is sent on his way with supplies.  But those supplies do not include water or food, only whiskey, meant to kill him.

He is found dead, and the German goes to England in his stead, claiming to be the aristocrat.  We the Gentle Readers are never quite sure just whose side this German guy is on.  The Germans are using him as a spy to keep them posted on the temperature of the British people and provide him with money to recover his estate, pay his debts, and no long be the debouched cad he was.  His ‘old’ acquaintances are delighted at this change in him, his deranged wife begins to care for him, but claiming he is a different man, not her husband, the Hungarian princess with whom he (the German count) was having an affair still is desirous of him, but feels he has changed dramatically from the cavalier she once knew who killed her husband in a fight, hence his exile to Africa.

War approaches, and we see the struggle of those English who believe war is imminent, and those who believe that the Germans want peace as much as they do, personified in the personage of the aristocrat’s Duchess cousin’s husband, the Duke, and in the personage of a German salesman, a naturalized British citizen, who befriends the guy on the ship home to Britain, and turns out to be his handler.

So.  Who is alive?  Who died in Africa?  Did anyone die in Africa?  Can a tiger change its stripes.

Fun read.  Well written, cleverly plotted.

E. Phillips Oppenheim was the author of 116 novels, mainly of the suspense and international intrigue type, but including romances, comedies, and parables of everyday life, and 39 volumes of short stories, all of which earned him vast sums of money. He also wrote five novels under the pseudonymn Anthony Partridge and a volume of autobiography, ‘The Pool of Memory’ in 1939.

He is generally regarded as the earliest writer of spy fiction as we know it today, and invented the ‘Rogue Male’ school of adventure thrillers.    More than 30 of his works were made into films.

Well, dang, you could spend  a good many years simply reading his oeuvre.