The cowboying way of life

Monte WalshMonte Walsh by Jack Schaefer

I simply disappeared between the covers of this book. Hilarious, heart-breaking and oh so real, this isn’t just a story about a cowboy and the cowboying way of life, it’s about a strict code and living up to it especially when it ain’t easy, it’s about the settling of the American West, and it’s about the progress of civilization and what gets left behind.

People like Monte exist anywhere there is a frontier, they are the loners who go out ahead of the rest of us, and when they’re done, there is no place left for them. If you don’t cry at the end of this book, you aren’t human.

There is also a pretty good film adaptation starring Tom Selleck.

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How Geography is Destiny



Brisk, well written, continent by continent (excluding Australia) survey of how geography is destiny, beginning with Putin going down on his knees every night to ask God why He didn’t put mountains in Ukraine. I really liked the way Marshall organized it, too. The first chapter is Russia and how so much of their actions are dictated by the eternal quest for a warm-water port, the second is China’s equally eternal quest of finding water routes unobstructed by the island archipelago likes of the Philippines and Japan, Russia and South Korea, all except Russia firm American allies, although Russia has as much interest in keeping China within bounds as the US does.

The third chapter is about good old US, and it had not previously occurred to me that geography is why we are who we are. I mean, yeah, I understand about the insulating effect of being between two oceans, but Marshall says that if someone had sat down and drawn the perfect base for world domination, they would have come up with, you guessed it, US. Partly this is because of all that wonderful farmland but it’s also partly because we’re home to the world’s longest navigable rivers, so we can get all that grain to market.

He lays out why the entire continent of Africa is becoming a Chinese colony, and the chapter on India and Pakistan is a pocket history of the region and it will not cheer you to learn that, again, geography dictates that nothing is resolved there anytime soon, or ever. One Indian politician is even on record as saying they ought to just nuke Pakistan and deal with the literal and figurative fallout so India can move on without the Pakistani thorn in their sides. Jesus. Marshall is also amusingly shirty about the Arab Spring, which he pretty conclusively demonstrates was romanticized by Western writers into a transformative event that was no such thing on the ground.

Marshall is a BBC journalist who knows how to get to the meat of the story in efficient, competent prose that still makes for enthralling read. Not a needless word anywhere. Highly recommended.

My other Goodreads reviews here.

Novik figured out a way to tether Napoleon that Metternich himself would have envied



I’m slightly annoyed that Novik left the introduction of one of her greatest characters to the last book in the series–I’m talking about Temeraire and Izkierka’s egg, Ning, who has some, I must say, very sensible ideas about war.

“Certainly the war must be halted,” Temeraire said. “That is precisely why we mean to defeat Napoleon.”

“That would stop this war,” the dragonet said. “But I am quite certain that it would not end all war. I dare say you and your allies would all quarrel among yourselves straightaway, and start a new one.”…

“I would be very happy to see war come to an end, myself, although a neat little skirmish now and then, with a prize after, no-one could really object to, I think,” Temeraire said. “But I should like to know a great deal how you suppose anyone should accomplish that.”

“Well, I don’t know, yet,” the dragonet said, “but I mean to find a way: just because the business will be difficult is no excuse for not making the attempt.”

Certainly not. And Novik figured out a way to tether Napoleon that Metternich himself would have envied–the restoration of the Bourbons was never going to end well–although Novik makes you fully understand Laurence’s mixed emotions for that solution.

And then what? The war is over, and Laurence and Temeraire’s partnership was entirely predicated on war. Ah, but Novik’s got an answer for that, too.

A satisfying albeit slightly melancholy ending to a truly wonderfully written series about the Napoleonic War, with dragons. I can’t recommend it enough, and l’ll be first in line for Novik’s next book, whatever it is about.

Nuts and bolts sf when it’s done right? There is just nothing better.



I really liked the first book in this series (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…), liked the next three, and then came this one. Wow, is it good.

*Spoilers. Can’t talk about this book without them.*

After we’ve had four books to get fully invested in the lives of armed space freighter Rocinante’s crew, Earther Captain Jim Holden, Belter XO Naomi Nagata, Martian pilot Alex Kamal and Earther mechanic (and oh, please do invest other meanings into that job title) Amos Burton. Together they have shepherded an alien protomolecule into a fractured Solar System already hanging onto peace by a thread. Earthers are doling out the goodies far too parsimoniously, Martians are preoccupied with terraforming their planet into having atmosphere, and Belters are just generally pissed off at not getting what they regard as their share of the pie.

The book opens on a textbook assault on a ship repair base and leaves us hanging–why the hell did they do that and what are they going to use that for? Don’t worry, you’ll find out in a truly horrific payoff. Meanwhile, the Rocinante, about wrecked from her last mission to one of the new planets, is in dry dock at Tycho undergoing repairs. It’s going to be months before she can fly again, so during the wait Alex decides to go back to Mars to dot some i’s he left behind, Amos returns to Earth to find out how an old friend actually died, and Naomi gets a mysterious message from an old lover, leaving Holden behind supervising repairs and feeling more than a little abandoned. The book then follows each of the crew on their individual journeys, which are, shall we say, slightly interrupted when the alien gates leading to a thousand new worlds that already have atmosphere, magnetosphere and water finally triggers the war that (my favorite character) UN bigwig Chrisjen Avasarala has long seen coming and has been trying desperately to avert.

Busting up the crew so we can discover each crew member’s backstory is just a great way to reinvest the reader in the series. Maybe there were clues to all of these narratives in previous books and maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention, but the reveals about Natalie took my breath away. While I knew Amos was a stone cold killa I had no idea where that came from. One of my favorite moments in this book is when another character says to him, “So why take them?” meaning why rescue the servants of the family from whom they are stealing a ship to get the hell off a wrecked Earth (just go with it), Amos replies

“Seems like the sort of thing Holden’d do.”

Yeah. It’s why this crew is together, it’s because they are literally better people together than they are apart, even when they are apart.

Alex’s story is the most fun, as nothing on Mars turns out like he expected (loved that scene with Talissa), and then that cumulative scrambling tumble of events that leads to Naomi’s rescue is just a rollercoaster of a delight. When Bobbie (Bobbie’s back, yay!) looks at him and grins and says

“How good’s your control on those missiles?”

I let out a whoop that Corey should have been able to hear in Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, back on Tycho, the revolution nearly does for Jim in about sixteen different ways and when the Roci is finally cleared for takeoff and en route he’s still looking over his shoulder and so he should be. Jim is the heart of the crew and the heart of this story.

“What did you do?” Fred asked.

“There was a button,” Holden said. “I pushed it.”

“Jesus Christ. That really is how you go through life, isn’t it?”

It sure is. The reunion of the crew on Luna, the conversations between Alex and Amos and then Jim and Naomi, just fabulous. These guys need each other so much, and through fire and storm they have reunited, and no matter what the universe throws at them (and oh yeah, shit is coming) they’re going to be okay. It’s also a reminder of my dictum, “Everything is personal.” Here it is, in spades. Marco is a great villain specifically because he is so recognizable as a narcissistic megalomaniac. I can’t wait for him to get his, and while my heart breaks for Naomi over Filip, Avasarala is right. For some acts there can be no forgiveness. Although, Clarissa Rao, everyone’s favorite sociopath, is back, too! Yay!

“She is responsible for a lot of dead people,” Jim said. “She blew up the Seung Un. Took out a quarter of the crew. And that one body they found? The one she was carrying around in a toolbox?…That guy was a friend of hers.”

Yep, Jim, she tried to kill you and now she’s on the crew. Deal with it.

This book is so well plotted and well timed that it reminded me of Don Winslow’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z, for me until now the gold standard in plots. Yep, they would all do exactly those things and it would put them all in exactly those places. Never once did I hold my nose and think “Oh come on.” This one stays on the shelf, because it’s destined to be a comfort read for years to come. Nuts and bolts sf when it’s done right? There is just nothing better.

“Like a wasp eating marmalade,” whispered Mrs. Havelock.”



Young Katie Steelstock, back in her home village of Hannington from her TV role in London as Britain’s sweetheart, is brutally murdered after a small-town dance. Her lover stands accused but not so fast, as other bodies begin to pile up. One of Gilbert’s grimmer efforts, as in maybe he went one death too far (or maybe I mean one death short), but exquisitely well written as per usual and the scenes in the courtroom are simply superb.

Mrs. Bellamy had brought out a pair of old-fashioned pince-nez glasses, which she perched on her nose, alternately looking through them at her notes and over them at the witness. There was something mesmeric about the bobbing up and down of her head. (“Like a wasp eating marmalade,” whispered Mrs. Havelock.”)

Nobody ever did it better than Gilbert. I’m glad he was so prolific that I’m still discovering books by him I haven’t read.

The British actor had to be hustled out of the country for his own safety.



Three centuries after Shakespeare died, across the pond New Yorkers rioted over the relative merits of Macbeth as played by a British actor and an American one. The National Guard was called out, people actually died, and the British actor had to be hustled out of the country for his own safety. America had embraced Shakespeare as one of their own, and he was read so extensively and so intensively that audiences from rural Kentucky to the California gold mines could shout out the correct line when an actor in performance stumbled over it.

Author Cliff concludes, “Once a voice carried a people across a continent and helped forge a brave new world. No other writer has been so powerful, and no one ever will be again.” This book includes a survey of 19th century American history, a history of Western theatre, is peopled with great characters and you-are-there settings, and has a quotable phrase on nearly every page.

“You ranch long enough, you make peace with what you can’t help.”


It’s 1938, and ranch-raised 19-year old Bud Frazer’s family lost first his sister in a riding accident and then their ranch, and after a couple of years following the rodeo circuit he heads for Hollywood to find work riding horses in Westerns.

There are a lot of different things going on here, just for starters the real life Bud lived on Echol Creek Ranch growing up and the vastly different version that Hollywood commemorates in film.

You never saw a movie cowboy hauling salt up to the high pastures or building fence around a haystack or helping a heifer figure out what to do with her first calf. Those movies were full of bank robberies and stage holdups, feuds, galloping posses, murderous Indians, and claim jumpers–nothing I ever saw growing up.

There is the friendship between Bud and Lily, a budding screenwriter, who meet on the bus to Los Angeles and begin a friendship that despite differences and difficulties lasts a lifetime.

I was used to girls who tried to make you think you were smarter than them even if you weren’t, but Lily never in her life cared whether a boy knew she was smarter than he was.

It’s the story of the Depression and its effect on the lives of people struggling to get by, it’s the story of producers who will do anything to get the shot, including kill horses and the stuntmen who ride them, and it is especially the story of Bud and the guilt he feels over his sister’s death, and trying to atone for that perceived sin. She fell from her horse and Bud spends the next three years falling from horses on the rodeo circuit and in Hollywood. It wasn’t an unconscious choice of profession.

…that last week in Arizona, after the lancer charge, I lay in bed every night seeing, over and over, horses and men falling through a veil of dust and shattered glass, turning over in my head my hatred of Cab, and then in the long hours of darkness coming around slowly to knowing I’d been looking for something like this to happen, a big fall — maybe even hoping for it. And knowing if I’d been hurt or killed I would deserve what I’d been given. A settling of accounts for getting my sister killed.

What I find most compelling about this book is the voice, very similar to the voice Gloss used in The Hearts of Horses. It’s an almost canter-like cadence, a sort of run-on, hypnotic rhythm. I even imagine hearing Bud speaking in a monotone.

The pinto whirled and reared up, pawing the steep slope, and I pulled my hand back and the horse came too high–I saw it was too high. I slipped off his tail end, my right hand still clenching the reins which might be why the horse came above me, looming dark. I landed on my feet and tried to throw myself to the side, but I lost my footing on the slope. The ground or the horse rose up and hit me–a white flash behind my eyes–and then we were both sliding downhill, a long slid it seemed at the time, but maybe not more than thirty or forty feet before I hit a bit of flat shelf and the horse rolled over me–incredible red-hot wires of pain flashing through my hips and my legs. The pinto kept going all the way down the hill and came to his feet at the bottom without a goddamn mark on him.

See? The drama of these events is all in the reader’s mind. Bud is just telling his story here. Despair is Bud’s constant companion and it feels that much more agonizing when told in this emotionless, matter-of-fact way. As his father says

“Things just happen and it’s nobody’s fault.” After another pause, he said, “You ranch long enough, you make peace with what you can’t help.”

Highly recommended.