Review of “Assassin’s Fate” by Robin Hobb

Note: No spoilers for this book, although because it is the third in a trilogy, there will necessarily be spoilers for the previous two books.

This book, by no means a standalone novel, is the conclusion to the “Fitz and the Fool Trilogy.” The story continues the tale of FitzChivalry’s efforts to get revenge on the Servants of the White Prophet for the kidnapping and presumed murder of his daughter Bee. He is aided on his quest by his long-time friend The Fool; The Fool’s attendant Spark; Lant, who is the son of Fitz’s old mentor Chade; Bee’s friend Perseverance (or “Per”); and Per’s companion crow Motley. They complicate matters for Fitz and put him in even more danger, but Fitz of course only feels guilty for not taking better care of them all.

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As this third and final volume of this trilogy begins, the group is in Kelsingra, a place where the Skill-magic runs strong.

The Fool decides (based on interpreting dreams) that Bee is still alive, and moreover, that she has been taken to Castle Clerres, the stronghold of the Servants. He also wants to go there to get his own revenge on them, demanding that Fitz “go to Clerres and kill them all.” The Servants, originally meant to help set the world on a better path, got corrupted over time and, as Fool contends, “care only for enriching themselves and their own comfort.” Now they breed those who have precognizant dreams, and profit from “disasters and windfalls.” Moreover, they cruelly tortured Fool for “disobedience.”

Fitz and his group learn that the dragons want revenge on Clerres as well, so they must speed there to rescue Bee, if indeed she is there and alive, before the dragons destroy everyone and everything in Clerres. The leaders of Kelsingra, who feel a debt to both the Fool and Fitz, arrange for their transportation. Part of the trip is accomplished by “liveships,” living ships made of wood formed from dragon cocoons and enhanced by the memories of those who served and died on the ships. A subplot running through the story is the desire of at least some of the dragons at the heart of the liveships to be released to realize their natural forms and destinies.

In alternate chapters, we follow the progress of Bee, who is in fact still alive, and her captors, a warped group from Clerres led by the evil Dwalia. Dwalia and her coterie had originally set out from Clerres to follow The Fool (known to them as “Beloved”) in the hope he would lead them to the Unexpected Son foretold in dreams. They decided Bee was this person, and, killing most of the people at Bee’s home in Withywoods, are now taking her to Clerres for interrogation (and presumably for Dwalia to be rewarded). [It should be noted that The Fool believes Fitz is the Unexpected Son, in addition to being Fool’s “catalyst” to change the world. Fitz, for his part, believes himself to be the foretold “Destroyer.”]

Bee, though weak and sad, is aided by the inner guidance of her wolf-father, Nighteyes.

Bee is put in a prison cell in Clerres, and there meets Prilkop, another prophet who has fallen out of favor with the Servants. She asks him, “Prilkop, just tell me. Do I break the future?” He tells her: “Oh child. We all do. That is both the danger and the hope of life. That each of us changes the world, every day.” Indeed.

Bee decides that the stored memories at Clerres harm the world:

“The problem is not that we forget the past. It is that we recall it too well. Children recall wrongs that enemies did to their grandfathers, and blame the granddaughters of the old enemies. . . . hates are bequeathed to [children], taught them, breathed into them. If adults didn’t tell children of their hereditary hates, perhaps we would do better.”

Thus she resolves to do something about the chain of vengeance. This will be her destined Path.

Meanwhile, Fitz and his group finally arrive in Clerres, and all the plot strands come together. The readers know at least some will not make it out alive, because the dreams have foretold as much. But the dreams are conveyed in symbols and allegories, and moreover refer to the Unexpected Son and the Destroyer, whose identities we also don’t know for sure.

Discussion: We know that in Fitz’s world, “Nothing is really lost. Shapes change. But it’s never completely gone.” But it’s not always clear in what ways this happens. Even the characters in the book aren’t always sure what is real, and what they just wish to be real.

The Fool continues to exercise a sway over Fitz that is very annoying, and I have to say I shared Bee’s assessment of The Fool, and was gratified that I wasn’t the only one to feel that way, even if it was a fictional person that shared my feelings! But this relationship has always been at the heart of the series, and the author stayed true to it throughout the story.

While I loved Bee and Per especially, as with the previous books in the trilogy, I found that some of the most endearing and unforgettable characters were not human.

Evaluation: Overall, in spite of my quibbles, this series is wonderful. Unlike other books of this length, I did not come away from this one (or any of the author’s previous books in this saga) wishing it could have been edited to be shorter. On the contrary, I was very sad to see it end! When you spend this much time with memorable characters, it’s very hard to let them go!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Del Rey, and imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood” by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell

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This book tells the story of Mira, a little girl who lived “in the heart of a gray city,” but who loved to draw and fill her room with color. She decided to pass her pictures around to share the happiness she got from brightly colored art.

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One day she encountered an artist and he helped her paint bright colors on a wall, making it light up like sunshine. Other people soon joined in, drawing pictures on the bricks, adding “color, punch, and pizzazz!” As more and more people participated, “Color spread throughout the streets. So did joy.”

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Mira and the artist went all around the city, painting bright colors, decorating “with poetry and shine.” The artist told the people, “You my friends, are all artists. The world is your canvas.”

As we learn in the Authors’ Note at the end of the book, a true story inspired this book. In fact, it is the story of the award-winning illustrator, Rafael López. He and his wife Candice helped form the “Urban Art Trail,” seeking volunteers of all ages, races, and walks of life to revive their community through art. The group transformed their neighborhood in San Diego’s East Village into a place of beauty. The movement spread as far away as Canada and Australia.

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The joyous and colorful acrylic illustrations in this book by Rafael López himself have an emphasis on primary shapes and colors. The pictures often take up the whole double-page spread, using fluid shapes and movements to cross the seam between pages.

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At a website based on the book, you can learn more about the Urban Art Trail and about murals used for beautification around the world. The site even includes a montage of pictures showing murals in many cities, including San Diego.

Evaluation: I found the “real” story more interesting than the fictional one. I also thought it was not made clear that random painting on walls is not always legal. But the illustrations are vibrant and interesting, and perhaps will inspire readers to learn more about how they, too, can make a difference in their communities.

From the illustrator's website

From the illustrator’s website

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

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Review of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” by Ronald C. White

This detailed biography of Grant has excellent coverage of Grant’s role in the Civil War, but also a great deal of exposition about Grant’s character. The author presents Grant as someone who consistently surprised both friends and opponents by his humility, modesty, and magnanimity.

The author is trying to rectify the reputation of a man now known primarily for military genius (or at the least, military perseverance). For many years before recent times, however, Grant was regarded as one of the “Trinity of Great American Leaders” along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900, “Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.” In the second rank Roosevelt placed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Moreover, Frederick Douglass himself, who knew both Lincoln and Grant, thought more of Grant in some ways, saying of Grant after his presidential term:

“To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at headquarters in Cold Harbor, Va., June 1864, Library of Congress

And in fact, White spends a great deal of time recounting the problems after the Civil War, with the South trying to suppress blacks in every way they could, and about the measures Grant tried to take (ultimately without success) to prevent that from happening. Both Congress and those in power in the South (many of whom had been Confederates during the Civil War) resisted efforts by Grant to ensure civil equality and to rein in the violence of a new organization, The Ku Klux Klan.

Grant was elected to the presidency in 1868 with a total popular vote of 3,013,421, just slightly over 300,000 more than that received by incumbent President Andrew Johnson. In the run-up to the election, the Democrats boasted of their intent to suppress rights of blacks, highlighting the difference between their stance and that of Grant’s, who was known for his determination to enforce the now constitutionally-protected rights of blacks. Grant was branded a “black Republican” and a “nigger lover.” One of the slogans of the opposition was “Let All Good Men Vote No Nigger.” As the author observes, “it was not lost on the opposition that without the support of approximately 400,000 black freedman, [Grant] would have lost the popular vote.” Whites intended to see that didn’t happen again through a campaign of violence and voter intimidation.

“Of course he wants to vote the Democratic ticket.” Thomas Nast Cartoon, Oct. 21, 1876,

During Grant’s presidency, he was equally ineffective not only in protecting blacks but in helping Native Americans, though not for lack of trying. But the greed for their land by whites, and racism against them, were strong forces Grant was unable to counter. Even William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, his close friends both during and after the war, disagreed with Grant on the disposition of the Indians. (Grant, to his discredit, did not try to rein in the extermination policies of Sherman and Sheridan.)

And then there was Grant’s cabinet. For most positions he selected old friends and family members rather than people who were necessarily qualified. Many of them came from relatively poor backgrounds, and were enticed by the opportunities that political power offered them for graft. Grant was slow to recognize the corrupt behavior of men he thought were his loyal friends, and had difficulty accepting that they would betray him in that way. Eventually, the chair of his Indian Commission, his personal secretary, his secretary of war, and his secretary of the interior were all forced to resign in financial corruption scandals. In addition there were others around him who participated in a variety of schemes to enrich themselves by the exploitation of others, but managed to escape punishment. Although Grant was guilty of nothing but poor character judgment, the wrongdoings of those in his cabinet contributed to the diminution of his reputation.

President Grant

Indeed, ultimately, as White shows, while Grant was in some senses adored for his fundamental decency, it was also the trait that led to most of his failures. Too often he gave the benefit of the doubt, and too often expected that others would act as he would. Alas, he had quite a few more better angels riding on his shoulders than other people. He also was loathe to engage in the unsavory and extremely contentious political wrangling that Lincoln had relished, and at which Lincoln so excelled. The political process was odious to Grant, an aversion that unfortunately affected his efficacy in the role as president.

Grant never understood, or even wanted to understand, politics the way he did the military. He certainly would never have appointed friends and/or relatives to lead battles; he knew better. And yet it did not register to him that bad leadership in political offices as well as on the field of battle could also inflict severe damage to people’s lives.

After Grant’s two-terms in office, also highlighted by some positive achievements, such as an important peace treaty with Great Britain resolving issues left over from the Civil War, the Grants took off for an overseas tour of many countries. Upon returning, Grant once again was the victim of financial graft by someone he thought he could trust, this time by a Ponzi scheme, that left him and Julia impoverished. Moreover, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer and knew he needed to find a way to provide support for Julia and their family after he died. Thus he embarked on writing his memoirs, which are still considered to be a literary classic.

Ulysses S. Grant, at a cottage in Mt. McGregor, New York, 1885, working on his memoirs

Grant died on July 23, 1885 only a few days after finishing his manuscript. His funeral procession in New York was attended by some million and a half admirers.

One development of which I was unaware was the unexpected friendship, after the deaths of both Grant and Jefferson Davis, of their widows. Julia Grant and Varina Davis met in 1893 in New York, where both had come to live. The two not only became close friends, but their two daughters also became close friends. After Julia died in 1902, Varina publicly defended both Grants for the rest of her life (she herself died in 1906). Julia’s son General Frederick Grant sent an artillery company to escort Varina’s cortege as it made its way out of New York City.

Julia Grant, left, and Varina Davis, right. Library of Congress

Evaluation: White does an excellent job of providing a deeply researched, balanced portrayal of a man whom he clearly admires, while not withholding aspects of Grant’s story that show him in less-than-perfect light. So many books are devoted to Grant’s prowess in military strategy. This book also introduces us to Grant as a boy, a man, and a devoted husband and father. White’s strong emphasis on Grant’s commitment to equal rights, to justice for freed blacks, and compassion about the plight of Native Americans, so unusual for a man of his times, does a great service to his memory. This book will help set the record straight for readers.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover in 864 pages by Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Jim and I went to hear the author do a reading for this book, and his obvious passionate dedication to the restoration of Grant’s reputation in the top pantheon of American heroes had most of the crowd rushing to buy the book afterwards. The narrator, Arthur Morey, sounds a great deal like the author. I also liked that when he read something in the voice of Grant, I found myself thinking, “that sounds just like him!” Ironic, of course, since we don’t know what Grant sounded like, but the narrator totally sold me on the idea that Grant would have sounded just like he rendered him! My only complaint is my usual one of narrators: the mispronunciation of “forte”: “For-tay” is a musical term; the word meaning “strong point” is correctly said as “fort”. On the other hand, one must give him kudos for knowing the correct pronunciation of Cairo, Illinois – that is, not like the city in Egypt, but like the syrup.

With respect to the question of whether this book is better in print or audio, aside from my very small quibbles on pronunciation, I had no problem with taking in the details of the book despite not having access to pictures or maps, of which the hardcover book has a great deal. On the other hand, I am familiar enough with the subject that I was able to picture it all in my head in any event.

Published unabridged on 22 CDs (approximately 27 and 1/2 listening hours) by Brilliance Audio, 2016

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Review of “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” by Matthew J. Sullivan

This unusual and disturbing story is part mystery, and part examination of a small, very dysfunctional group of people.

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Lydia was psychologically scarred when she was 10 by being the only survivor of a gruesome murder at the house where she was at a sleepover. She managed to hide, but her girlfriend Carol and Carol’s parents were killed horrifically by someone who was never found, but was known thereafter as “The Hammerman.” The story was sensationalized at the time and retained a certain cult status, so Lydia uses a different last name, seeking to remain anonymous. She has never even told her boyfriend of five years about her past.

Now 30, Lydia has been working for the past six years at Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver. As the story opens, one of the regulars in the store, Joey, just hung himself from the rafters of the top floor. It is Lydia who discovers him, and to her shock, she finds a childhood picture of herself in one of his pockets. She sets out to discover how he got this, and what message Joey intended for her. Her quest is aided by the fact that Joey bequeathed her his meager possessions, among them a set of mutilated books offering her clues, if a bit hard to decipher.

Lydia’s investigations eventually yield a number of shocking secrets, upending everything she thought she knew, and allowing her finally to solve the mystery of what really happened that traumatic night of her childhood she can never forget.

Evaluation: The mysteries in this book weren’t all that well hidden, but the process of their unfolding was interesting. But this isn’t a pleasant or diverting book; nor did it, in my opinion, offer any justification for including such nightmarish and violent images. It’s almost – but not quite – a horror story. I can’t say I enjoyed it enough to have been glad I read it.

Rating: 2.75/5

Published by Scribner, and imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2017

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Review of “The Best of Adam Sharp” by Graeme Simsion

I thought this book was “meh” at best. The two main characters, Adam Sharp and Angelina Brown, are incredibly self-centered. Twenty-two years ago, they fell in love in Melbourne, Australia, where Angelina was in an unhappy marriage and Adam, working on contract, was in the area. They mutually agreed that when it was time for him to return to Manchester, England, they would break it off.

Adam and Angelina seem to have fallen in love based on a shared love of the same music, about which the author writes at length. The problem with music is that it does not evoke the same reaction in all people; so much is dependent on when you hear it, or whom you are with, or what your life is about at that moment. Thus, for example, Adam going on and on about the Dylan song “Farewell Angelina” clearly would be relevant for him but does absolutely nothing for me. Analogously, eating a madeleine only makes me think of Proust the author, rather than the 4,215 pages of memories it inspired him to write about.

When the story shifts to the later period in their lives, Adam is 48 and Angelina is 45. They haven’t changed much. Adam is still endlessly in the throes of introspection about Angelina and their relationship, and Angelina is (also) still all about Angelina.

Thus, I found much of the book boring and often alienating. The immature characters just didn’t interest me in the slightest. This may be because the author didn’t really choose to tell us much about them besides their musical tastes and their manipulative actions.

There are two side characters, who are (inexplicably, in my view) devoted to Adam and Angelina in spite of their flaws and in some instances abusive behaviors.

In the end, not much has really changed, at least on the interior of each of the characters, or rather, what interior there is.

Evaluation: Fans of Simsion’s “Rosie” books may be in for a letdown; I certainly was.

Rating: 3/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2017

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