Friday, September 23, 2016

The Abominable Showman - Robert Rankin


    2015; 326 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Absurdism; British Humour; Time Travel; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The year is 1927.  Her Madge, Queen Victoria is about to feted at her Double Sapphire Jubilee, which means she’s been on the Royal Throne for 90 years.  The celebration will take on Count Ilya Rostov’s spaceship “The Leviathan”, orbiting in space high above the Earth.  Dignitaries and Luminaries from all four planets in Queen Vic’s empire will be there.

    What?  You say Queen Victoria died in 1901 and there weren’t any such things as spaceships in the 1920’s? And that furthermore you can prove it because this is all historical record from almost a century ago?  I’m sorry, you must be living in an alternate universe.

    But there are those who say that things are (were) going to go amiss during the event, and that somebody needs to go back in time and put things aright again.

    And whoever agrees to do this ought to have a time-traveling sprout in his head, to lend him sage advice.

What’s To Like...
    The Abominable Showman is Robert Rankin’s most recent effort, and, as is true of any of his books, is chock full of absurdity, wit, plot twists, and clever dialogue.  The hero of the story is – well, we don’t really know, since his name is never revealed - and that takes some deft writing by Rankin.  But the plotline is easy to follow: he uses a 1st-person POV when the protagonist is involved, a 3rd-person POV for everyone else.

    As in any Rankin offreing, the dialogue and peripheral craziness take precedence over the main storyline.  A lot of the recurring gags appear again here, including the lady in a straw hat, Lazlo Woodbine, Fangio’s bar, and the mystical martial art, Dimac.  But the story’s events are ambitious and fascinating too.  The reader will take a walk in the Garden of Eden, play 3-D Clue, learn the secret of the Sun, travel through time and dimensions, meet God (his first name is Terrance, FYI), and last and probably least, save the World.

    There’s a MacGuffin, some great mixed drinks (rum and cocaine, mescaline and lemonade, etc.), and a bunch of sounds-dirty-but-isn’t euphemisms, such as buffing the landau, biffing the badger, and chasing pinky around the garden lady.

    The characters are fun to meet as well.  John ‘Boy’ Betjeman will entertain you with his little odes, and the three owls (Owl Jolson, Owl Capone, and Owleister Crowley) all contribute to the amusing antics.

    Despite all the literary tangents, everything builds steadily to an exciting, twisty and well-conceived ending.  This is a standalone novel, and a worthy addition to several series in Robert Rankin’s repertoire.

Kewlest New Word...
Catspaw (n.) : a person used to serve the purposes of another.
Others : Tumescence (n.); Beadle (n.); Tannoy (n.).

Excerpts...
    “Well,” said the chap.  “You’ll be kept busy.  Just about every high-falooting swell on the four worlds will be attending the Jubilee ball.  The celebrations will be like nothing on Earth.”  The chap laughed loudly at what he considered to have been a rather witty remark.  I laughed too, but out of politeness.
    “Ninety years is a very long time for a queen to be on the throne,” I said.
    “Her bum would be rather sore,” said the chap and he laughed once more, and louder.  (loc. 1043)

    “Armadillos,” said Sir Jonathan Crawford once again.  “Crusty little nubnunks that scuttle about like bandy-legged butlers.”
    “Know the fellas well,” said the roguish Atters.  “Bagged a few in the Americas on a big game hunt last year.  “Had a motor cycle helmet made out of one.  Can vouch for their inefficiency in regards to cushioning the head.  Came a cropper, terrible business.”
    “You wore one on your head whilst riding a motor bicycle?” queried John ‘Boy’ Betjeman.
    “Me?  Heavens no.  Had the mater test it out for me.”  (loc. 2508)

Kindle Details...
    The Abominable Showman sells for $8.99 at Amazon, a decent price for the latest release by this author.  Robert Rankin has a slew of other books for the Kindle, all in the $4.99-$7.99 range, and most of them going for $6.99.

“If you are going to destroy our planet can I be on your side?”  (loc. 535)
    There’s nothing to quibble about in The Abominable Showman, with ample humor although it didn’t reach out and grab my funny bone the way a lot of other Robert Rankin books I’ve read did.  Still, it is a worthwhile read and we're really just nitpicking between a good book by the author and an excellent one.

    FWIW, a number of Amazon reviewers seemed a tad bit peeved that Mr. Rankin self-published this book and thus it is only available in the Kindle version.  My reading happens to be about equally divided between e-books and “real” books, so this didn’t make any difference to me.  I can’t say I prefer one over the other; both have their assets and drawbacks.

    One reader/reviewer offered some interesting insight into his displeasure in this regard.  He said he owns every one of Robert Rankin’s books, and they stand proudly in his bookcase.  But this one can’t take its place alongside the others, because it only exists in electronic form.

    SMH.

    8 Stars.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cybill Disobedience - Cybill Shepherd


   2000; 275 pages.  Full Title : Cybill Disobedience: How I Survived Beauty Pageants, Elvis, Sex, Bruce Willis, Lies, Marriage, Motherhood, Hollywood, and the Irrepressible Urge to Say What I Think.  New Author(s)? : Yes.  Genre : Autobiography; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Hey, do you remember that great comedy-drama (aka: “dramedy”) series, Moonlighting, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis?  Man, I loved that show.  You could tell that there was great chemistry between the two stars.  That’s what made the series so funny.

    Well if you happen to be a fellow fan of Moonlighting, there’s a whole chapter in Civil Disobedience that focuses on that series, with Cybill Shepherd giving the reader a behind-the-scenes look at the goings-on of a hit show.  She devotes even more ink to her subsequent series, the eponymously titled Cybill.  Cybill-holics will be both enlightened and amazed.

    Oh, and BTW, that chemistry between Bruce and Cybill?  It’s strictly in the mind of the beholder.

What’s To Like...
    Cybill Disobedience chronicles the life of Cybill Shepherd from birth up through the cancellation of her series, “Cybill”, in 1998.  The book is divided up into 12 chapters, whose lengths vary considerably.  This is a “tell-all” book; Cybill doesn’t hold back on her family, her fellow Hollywood celebrities, and especially not on herself.

    Other than the Prologue, the book is chronological.  A new chapter indicates a new stage in Cybill’s life, with some of the topics being : Family Tree, Teenage Sex, Beauty Pageants & Modeling, Making Movies, and Hollywood Sex.   Mixed into all this busy-ness are several marriages and divorces, a role as a mistress, a couple of kids and an abortion. 

    The sex passages aren’t lurid, but are detailed as to who and when.  There is a lot of name-dropping, which I liked.  Among the people we get to meet (warts and all): Elvis, Dustin Hoffman Ryan O’Neal, Charles Grodin, Joey Bishop, Don Johnson, and many more.  The degree of interaction ranges from flirting, to making out, to rolling in the hay.

    OTOH, if you’re more interested in the life of a movie star, the book doesn’t disappoint either.  Shooting on location in Thailand may sound exotic, but not when there’s no running water or decent food.  Trying out for parts means you’re in competition with other attractive and desperate actresses, and it can be quite humbling when you’re passed over for someone else.  Even more crushing are the soul-killing, negative reviews

    The writing is good, and it is nice to see the ghostwriter getting due credit for her efforts.  I loved reading the details, both personal and professional.  Barbra Streisand refusing to cut the fingernails on one of her hands for What’s Up Doc?, leading to wardrobe and prop challenges.  The “duck walk” at the Peabody Hotel (I’ve seen it!).  How she came to get her unusual first name.

Kewlest New Word…
Cynosure  (n.)  :  a person or thing that is the center of attention or admiration.
Others : Sobriquet (n.)

Excerpts...
    (W)omen who represent the cultural gamut of sizes and ages aren’t too welcome in any media.  After nearly a decade of murmuring “I’m worth it” for L’Oreal, I was fired because my hair got too old – approximately as old as I was.  It’s okay for Robert Mitchum to get up early in the morning and look like Robert Mitchum, but it was not okay for me to wake up in the morning and look like Robert Mitchum.  Fans are always asking why Bruce Willis and I don’t reprise our Moonlighting roles for the big screen.  The answer is: studio executives would consider me too old for him now.  (loc. 58)

    An old Hollywood joke (often repeated with the substitution of different names) lists the five stages of an actor’s career.  First: Who is Dustin Hoffman?  Second: Get me Dustin Hoffman.  Third: Get me a Dustin Hoffman type.  Fourth: Get me a young Dustin Hoffman.  Fifth: Who is Dustin Hoffman?  (loc. 1849)

Kindle Details...
    Cybill Disobedience sells for $0.99 at Amazon, which is a remarkably reasonable price for a tell-all book by a Hollywood headliner.  Unsurprisingly, this is Ms. Shepherd’s only literary offering.

 Perhaps I have karmic dues to pay for my participation in the cult of emaciated buffness.  (loc. 3616)
    If you read the reviews at Goodreads and Amazon, Cybill Disobedience gets savaged quite a bit.  At both sites, the overall rating barely clears 3.0, which is abysmal, particularly for a non-indie published book.  Words like “bitchy” and “spoiled” abound.

    When I was about 75% through the book, I still couldn’t see the cause of all the negativity.  Yes, there were some cutting remarks earlier, a couple even bordering on being snarky.  But nothing really vicious.  Then I hit the chapters on the show Cybill.  Then I understood.

    Cybill Shepherd has some serious bitterness over the handling of that show.  Just about everyone – from co-stars to directors to network suits – is viewed as being back-stabbers at best, traitors at worst.  Whether this was true or not, I cannot say.  But the harshness of Cybill’s words significantly detracts from the classiness of the first 9 chapters.

    Finally, and e-book contained a staggering number of typos.  It seemed like someone scanned the hardcover book, then didn’t bother to see if the text conversion was accurate.  Cybill has no control over this, of course, but you’d think a publishing company could afford at least one editor to proof the electronic version, and fix the errors.  Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

    8 Stars.  Despite the typos throughout, and the rancor at the end, I really enjoyed Cybill Disobedience.  I rarely read biographies, and can’t recall ever reading an autobiography before.  This one is worth your time.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Grave Peril - Jim Butcher


   2001; 436 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 3 (out of 15) in the Dresden Files Series.  Genre : Urban Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Something’s gotten into the ghosts around Chicago.  Not literally, of course, ghosts have no substance to them, at least not over here in our world.  But they seem to have grown more powerful, and meaner too.

    So Chicago’s only practicing wizard, Harry Dresden, and his thinks-he’s-a-knight pal, Michael, have their work cut out for them as they do battle with a particularly big and beastly shade who's making mayhem in a nursery wing at the local hospital. Don’t let her name – Agatha Hagglethorn – lull you to sleep, Harry.  She can pack a mean wallop.

    But ghosts can’t beef themselves up, can they?  Something – or someone – has to be behind all this.  And besides all that, there seems to be a sudden increase in the sheer number of undead creatures crossing over from Nevernever into the real world.

    And that’s perhaps the scariest aspect of all.

What’s To Like...
    Grave Peril is the third book in Jim Butcher’s incredibly popular Dresden Files series, which I’ve enjoyed immensely so far, despite only reading it sporadically.  The action starts immediately, and really doesn’t let up until the final page.  It’s been a couple years since I read Book 2 (reviewed here), and I’d forgotten some of the supporting characters, but I quickly became reacquainted with everyone.  Bob’s back , who I do remember, and I liked meeting a new guy, Thomas, a vampire of the White Court.

    There are a bunch of nasty critters for Harry and Michael to deal with, from ghosts to hellhounds, from vampires to demons.  Perhaps the most dangerous of all is Harry’s godmother, Lea, who keeps trapping both our heroes in increasingly desperate “deals” in exchange for bailing them out of difficult scrapes.  Some of these are still unresolved at the end of the story, and no doubt will spill over into Book 4.  Nonetheless, Grave Peril is a complete story in itself.

    As always, there is an abundance of Butcher's/Dresden's wit and dry humor.  I also liked the Kenny Rogers reference, and the concept of Cassandra’s Tears.  The writing is good, and the storytelling is tight.  There are no “wasted” characters; if Butcher takes the time to develop someone, take note, because they will figure into the tale somewhere down the line.

Kewlest New Word ...
Sidhe (n) : the faerie people of Irish folklore.
Others : lambent (adj.); surcease (n.); demesne (n.).

Excerpts...
    The male vampire opened his mouth, showing his fangs, and laughed.  “Peace, wizard.  We’re not here for your blood.”
    “Speak for yourself,” the girl said.  She licked her lips again, and this time I could see the black spots on her long, pink tongue.  Ewg.
    The male smiled and put a hand on her shoulder, a gesture that was half affection, half physical restraint.  “My sister hasn’t eaten tonight,” he explained,.  “She’s on a diet.”
    “Vampires on a diet?” Susan murmured beneath her breath.
    “Yeah,” I said back, sotto voce.  “Make hers a Blood Lite.”
    Susan made a choking sound.  (pg. 67)

    Thaumaturgy is traditional magic, all about drawing symbolic links between items or people and then investing energy to get the effect that you want.  You can do a lot with thaumaturgy, provided you have enough time to plan things out, and more time to prepare a ritual, the symbolic objects, and the magical circle.
    I’ve yet to meet a slobbering monster polite enough to wait for me to finish.  (pg. 146)

“Holy brillig and slithy toves, Batman.”  (pg. 377)
    I don’t really have any quibbles with Grave Peril, and I can see why the series is so popular, especially among teenagers.  There is some cussing, which prudes may find offensive, but it isn’t excessive, and I feel it adds to the tone of the tale.

    So too with the violence.  Wherever you find vampires, you’ll also find victims, and there is collateral damage whenever you’re fighting the Undead.  And poor Harry gets beat up more times than Bruce Willis in a Die Hard flick.

    It all builds to an exciting ending.  Despite knowing that Harry will prevail (there are after all another dozen books to go in the series), I still kept turning the pages, wondering how he was going to overcome the forces arrayed against him and Michael.  The “key mechanism” by which he turns thing around felt a bit clichéd to me, but I think most readers will have a better opinion of it.

    8½ Stars.  This is actually the fourth book in the series (Books 1, 2, 6, and now 3) that I’ve read and I have yet to be disappointed.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Queen Lucia - E.F. Benson


    1920; 244 pages.  New Author? : Yes, but not a new series.  Book #1 (out of 6) of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series.  Genre : Humor, British Fiction.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Mrs. Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas should like to be properly addressed as “Queen Lucia”.  Don’t take my word for it; ask her.  Oh, her queendom is rather small – a quaint little English village called Riseholme, close to London.   And her realm is limited to the social and cultural goings-on in Riseholme.  Don’t even think about holding a social event without first clearing it with her, and second inviting her.

    Lately some of Lucia’s Riseholme subjects seem to be acting a bit, well, rebellious.  There’s Daisy Quantock with her dabbling in the ridiculous practices of spiritualism.  And even Lucia’s best friend (not including her husband), Georgie Pillson, at times seems to be a bit reluctant in sharing all of the neighborhood gossip.

    But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown when a new socialite moves to Riseholme.  Someone who sings better than Lucia and speaks better Italian than her.  Someone who could seriously threaten the “Queen” in “Queen Lucia”.

    We wouldn’t start a war, of course.  That would be undignified.  But some spirited competition for the title is perhaps called for.

What’s To Like...
    Queen Lucia was published in 1920, so the reader gets a glimpse of life in small-town England a century ago.  The tone is lighthearted and pokes gentle fun at those trying to climb the post-Victorian social ladder.  Most of the characters are likeably obnoxious, which seems like an oxymoron.

    The book is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, and I always like that.  It means the (Yankee) reader will encounter lots of strange words and phrases.  You can ride in a “fly”, which I gather is slang for a 1920’s cab.  And you can compliment someone by calling them a “brick”, which I’d never heard of before.

    Italian gets spoken quite often, a lot of times mangled.  I thought that was kewl.  Yet beneath all the social humor, I thought the reader gets a good glimpse of life back there and then.  You’re going to laugh at the dress codes – Hightum, Tightum, and Scrub.

    There is a running theme on spiritualism, which I gather was quite trendy in those days.  Daisy Quantock bounces from Christian Science to Uric Acid, to an Indian Guru, then to séances, followed by “automatic writing” (directed by a spirit) and from there to palm reading.  It all wraps up with magic pills that will make you grow several inches taller in just a couple weeks.  Let's hope the partaker of the pills remembers to stop taking them before he becomes a beanpole.  One gets the feeling that E.F. Benson took a dim view of all this.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Gladstone bag (n.; phrase) : A bag-like briefcase having two equal compartments joined by a hinge.  (Google-image it).
Others : diffy (adj.); tiffin (n.); truckled (v.); planchette (n.); apophthegm (n.); bibelots (n.); hip-bath (n.).

Excerpts...
    With regard to religion finally, it may be briefly said that she believed in God in much the same way as she believed in Australia, for she had no doubt whatever as to the existence of either, and she went to church on Sunday in much the same spirit as she would look at a kangaroo in the Zoological Gardens, for kangaroos came from Australia.  (loc. 197)

    Georgie rapidly considered what Hermy’s and Ursy’s comments would be if, when they arrived tomorrow, he was found doing exercises under the tuition of a Guru.  Hermy, when she was not otter-hunting, could be very sarcastic, and he had a clear month of Hermy in front of him, without any otter-hunting, which, so she had informed him, was not possible in August.  This was mysterious to Georgie, because it did not seem likely that all otters died in August.  (loc. 482)

Kindle Details...
    The copyright on Queen Lucia has expired so you can always get it for free at Amazon.  There are also a couple versions of it that go for $0.99-$3.99 (including one annotated version) but why pay when you don’t have to?

“Vermouth always makes me brilliant unless it makes me idiotic, but we’ll hope for the best.”  (loc. 2184)
    Queen Lucia is E.F. Benson’s first book in the 6-volume “Lucia” series.  Curiously, I became aware of the series through the author Tom Holt, who I very much enjoy, and who wrote 2 sequels for it in the 1980’s.  The one I read is reviewed here.  Frankly, I think Holt improved things.

    The main problem is the action – there is none.  Our characters talk and plan and scheme and gossip.  But very little happens beyond that.  The secondary issue is the writing style. Benson frequently gets quite wordy about trivial things.  All of this leads to slow spots.  The book is short, but it took me a while to trudge through it.  It also doesn’t help that the titular character is not very heroic.

    Still, if you can make it through all the slow spots, you will be treated to an ending that has a twist or two, and is, I thought, very well done.  And that makes up for the tediousness.

    5½ Stars.  Add 2 stars if you really liked movies such as The Breakfast Club and Return of the Secaucus Seven.  They didn't have any action in them either, and some people seemed to love them.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

One Summer - America, 1927 - Bill Bryson



   2013; 456 pages.  Full Title : One Summer – America, 1927.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction; American History.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Hey, do you remember what all went down during the summer of 1927?

    Well, that was a bit before my time.  But as a baseball buff, I do recall that the 1927 New York Yankees kicked butt that whole season, with Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs and Lou Gehrig slugging almost as many.

    And upon further reflection, I think that was the year Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop, transatlantic flight, going from New York to Paris, and all by hiself to boot.   But that’s about all I can come up with.

    Well, Bill Bryson has dug up all sorts of other newsworthy events that happened in America that summer.  Some of them were world-changers, others made a brief splash in the newspapers, then faded quickly from public memory.

    But all of them were important to someone, and, when written about with Bryson's deft pen, are fascinating to read about.

What’s To Like...
    The title tells you everything you need to know about the book: One Summer – America 1927 is all about what made the headlines across the country during a busy time in our nation's history.  There are gruesome murders, historical flights, memorable sports events, idiotic regulations (Prohibition), foolish business adventures, and many more.  Bill Bryson divides the book up into 30 chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue), and clumps them loosely into five main sections that focus on the bigger stories : “The Kid” (Lindbergh), “The Babe” (Ruth), "The President" (Calvin Coolidge), "The Anarchists" (Sacco and Vanzetti), and the catch-all “Summer’s End”.

    The topics in the chapters jump around a bit, which keeps thing fresh.  Bryson’s research is deep, fascinating, and meticulously detailed.  Almost every character encountered in the book has their own idiosyncrasies (aka, skeletons in the closet), and the “dirt” Bryson reveals will keep you turning the pages.  The last chapter in the book, the Epilogue, wraps things up nicely, and is particularly moving.

    The major storylines are of course interesting, but I especially enjoyed reading about events that have long disappeared into the mists or conveniently covered up.  To wit:

    Henry Ford’s insane attempt to build a company community in the jungles of Brazil (“Fordlandia”).
    The US government deliberately poisoning its citizens via industrial alcohol.  If you died from drinking it, well, you got what you deserved.
    Wayne Bidwell Wheeler’s zealous and insane efforts to develop the Prohibition movement.
    The origin of hot dogs.
    The eccentric and rich Van Sweringen brothers.
    The forcible sterilization of 60,000 Americans deemed to be sub-human.
    The cultural silliness of flagpole-sitting.
    The start of the sculpting of Mount Rushmore.
    The rise of the Age of Radio, and the dawning of the Age of Television.

    The book is well-formatted, with an Index, a “Further Reading” section, and some way-kewl photographs.  As always, Bryson’s writing, wit, and attention to minutiae will hold your interest throughout.

Kewlest New Word ...
Farrago (n.) : a confused mixture; hodgepodge
Others : Swart (adj,; archaic)

Excerpts...
    In desperation, lawmakers tried to legislate probity.  In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a local law made it an offense for dancing partners to gaze into each other’s eyes.  In Utah, the state legislature considered sending women to prison – not fining them, but imprisoning them – if their skirts showed more than three inches of leg above the ankle.  In Seattle, a group called the Clean Books League even tried to get banned the travel books of the adventurer Richard Halliburton on the grounds that they “excited to wanderlust.”  (pg. 70)

    The plot of Rio Rita was interestingly improbable.  Set in Mexico and Texas, it involved an Irish American singer named Rio Rita, a Texas Ranger traveling incognito while looking for a bandit named Kinkajou (who may or may not have been Rita’s brother), a bigamous soap salesman named Chick Bean, and a character identified only as Montezuma’s Daughter.  These characters and some others of equal implausibility engaged in a series of amusing misunderstandings interrupted at intervals by songs that had little or nothing to do with the action that preceded or followed.  A cast of 131 and a full orchestra provided a great deal of happy noise and spectacle, if not always an abundance of sense.  (pg. 86)

 “As an author Lindbergh is the world’s foremost aviator’.”  (pg. 229 )
    As fascinating as One Summer – America, 1927 was, it was a slow read for me, mostly because I’m a history buff, and I didn’t want to gloss over any of the details.  But it was also slow because, outside of a couple grisly murders and executions, there’s not a lot of “action”.  This of course, is something Bill Bryson had no control over.  America was in between World Wars, and for the moment everyone was making money on the stock market.

    I’ve read a number of Bill Bryson’s Travelogue books, but I had never tackled any of his History-themed efforts.  OS-A1927 was every bit as good as books like A Walk In The Woods (reviewed here), and I may have to broaden my Bryson reads.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you’re into hero-worship.  Bryson has never been one to cover up the warts of our sacrosanct historical figures.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hour of the Octopus - Joel Rosenberg


   1994; 263 pages.  Book #2 (out of 2) in the D’Shai series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Kami Dan’Shir is called many things.  Kami Khuzud.  Historical Master.  Eldest son.  Discoverer of Truths.  And there are some of those among the nobility who use much less complimentary terms to describe him.

    He is also very clever when it comes to solving puzzles, which almost everybody likes; and showing up the nobility, which almost nobody likes.  So when a nobleman attending a royal wedding is killed, Kami Dan’Shir is the logical choice to solve the mystery.

    Do give it your best effort, O Discoverer of Truths.  Because someone has to pay for the slaying of the nobleman.  And if you don’t find the perpetrator, the glorious ruling class will pick a scapegoat.  Someone clever.  Someone who they won’t miss at all.

    Someone like you, Kami Dan’Shir.

What’s To Like...
    If you’re the kind of person who likes detailed, complex world-building, Joel Rosenberg’s Hour of the  Octopus is the book for you.  In a nutshell, this is a sword-&-sorcery alternate universe, very similar to Rosenberg’s better known Guardians of the Flame series, which he was writing at the same time.

    Most of the book is written in the first-person (Kami’s) POV; the only exceptions being a couple of short “Interludes” scattered throughout the book.

    Kami is a juggler by trade, having recently departed from his father’s traveling acrobat troupe.  Since there is no such thing as a juggling troupe, he is deemed the founder of the guild.  This allows him to move up one social class, from the lowly peasant class to middle-of-the-pack bourgeois. Such a jump is almost unheard of in the world of D’Shai, where a strict social caste system is rigidly enforced.

    The usual Rosenberg wit is present, and the magic doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the world-building.  The wizards were my favorite characters, much akin to Terry Pratchett’s treatment of them in his Discworld series.  I particularly like the owl-transformation scene.

    The pacing was not to my taste.  The murder doesn’t take place until page 171, so for the first 2/3 of the book, we wander about with Kami, as he hobnobs with the nobility, learns how to socialize and hunt, and generally pisses off everyone around him.  But if you can make it through all that tedium, you will be treated to a well-crafted murder-mystery, with ample twists  and a satisfying conclusion.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Defalcation (n.) : the act of embezzling.
Others :  Solecism (n.); Concatenated (adj.); Delectation (n.); Indition (n., and not found anywhere by googling, so a typo, maybe?).

Excerpts...
    She was in the same robes she had worn earlier, but she had belted them less tightly about her waist; mentally, I worked at untying the seven-bend knot over her belly.
    I smiled.  Silly, silly Kami Khuzud, my sister would have said.  What is the rush?
    You live here now; you will be in Den Oroshtai for the foreseeable future, probably forever.  Take some time; enjoy the moment, the game.  Life is to be eaten one bite at a time so that you can enjoy it, not swallowed whole to curdle untasted in the stomach.  (pg. 68)

    He tilted his head to one side.  “I do hope you know what you’re doing Kami Dan’Shir,” he said.  “It could be … inconvenient if you do not.”
    “The worst they can do is kill me,” I said.
    Dun Lidjun shook his head.  “No, the worst they can do is to kill you slowly.”  (pg. 186)

“Frank speech and long life are not often paired, Lord.”  (pg. 247 )
    This is my second Joel Rosenberg book; the other one is reviewed here.  My criticisms of the two books are pretty much the same.  Besides the main storyline not starting until late in the book, there just isn’t much action such as you’d expect in a fantasy series.  At least Not Quite Scaramouche had dragons; I don’t recall any fantasy critters here.

    I also grew tired with Kami’s/Rosenberg’s fixation with the hypocrisy of an ironclad social caste system.  It’s not that I disagree with the premise; it’s just that I resent being beaten over the head with it time and time again, at the cost of an engaging plotline.  In fairness though, Kami does get his comeuppance about this from Lord Tothtai at the end of the book.

    5 StarsHour of the Octopus is book 2 of a short-lived series.  I've never seen  Book 1 i at the used-book stores, and according to Wikipedia, a third book was written, but never published.  Wikipedia gives no hint as to why he discontinued the D’Shai series.  Perhaps it was just a matter of “one or the other”, and Guardians of the Flame seemed much more promising.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Provençal Mystery - Ann Elwood


   2012; 233 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Mystery; Murder Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    For California historian Pandora (“Dory”) Ryan, it is an amazing find.  There, in the musty shelves of Avignon’s Archives de Vaucluse, she comes across a centuries-old diary of a local nun.  It is truly a noteworthy find, since nuns were forbidden to keep diaries in the Middle Ages; writing about one’s life was viewed as a sin of pride.

    Unfortunately, the diary cuts off in mid-sentence, almost like someone didn’t want the ending to be read.  Now, hundreds of years later, where could one even hope to find the rest of the narrative?  And besides some strange goings-on in the convent (the Mother Superior is entirely too fond of self-flagellation), the diary speaks of a murder of one of the sisters.

    So it is quite a shock to Dory, when one her fellow, modern-day researchers, Sister Agatha, dies on-the job, since she too was a nun at the still-in-operation Our Lady of Mercy convent.  It happened right there at the Archives, in a back room, while everyone else was engaged in their various research projects.

   Well, except for one of them, who apparently was busy murdering Sister Agatha, since her death is anything but an accident.

What’s To Like...
    A Provençal Mystery is an ambitious tale of murders and mysteries, spanning three different time periods – 1944, 1990, and 1659.  Ann Elwood’s descriptions of Provençe in those three eras is quite good, albeit the 1944 Nazi-occupied one is brief, and the 17th-Century one is by-and-large limited to the confines of the convent.  But I frankly had no trouble following the three plotlines as the story jumped from one to another.

    For both murder-mysteries, Ann Elwood introduces us to a variety of characters, and kind of allows them to take turns being the prime suspects in the two cases.  The book is almost completely in the first person – Dory in 1990, and Sister Rose, the diary-keeper, in 1659.

    The story takes place entirely in the Provençe section of France, and I'm always partial to that setting.  The author sprinkles in a lot of French phrases, which is also a plus, although they felt awkward a lot of the time.  And suspect.  When one character said, “Je suis Martin Fitzroy”, I winced.  The correct French expression is “Je m’appelle Martin Fitzroy.”  True, Mr. Fitzroy is an American, so he might be excused for the slip, but anyone’s who taken French 101 will know the proper way to introduce oneself.

    There is a supernatural element that seems to tie the two murders together.  But while it certainly intrigued me, it is never fully resolved.  Ditto for some plot holes. Including a literal one.  At one point, Dory excavates a wall in the convent. But apparently it gets overlooked by the convent nuns.

Kewlest New Word…
Insouciance (n.) : a casual lack of concern; indifference.

Excerpts...
    Professor Martin Fitzroy.  A handsome and formidable man, who knew he was a handsome and formidable man.  He marched up to Chateaublanc’s desk with what I could only call an “air” – an air of superiority, an air of expecting that superiority to be recognized.  It was clear that he knew all too well that he was eminent.  I had read his books on the history of purgatory and knew that he deserved his eminence.  He had broken new ground and done it with elegance.  (loc. 1177)

   Academics frown on genealogists – they are too interested in the stories of their own families.  Doing history is not supposed to be about telling stories, unless you are an antiquarian, who by definition has no talent for theory, and there is nothing worse than that.  Historians look down upon antiquarians and genealogists because they never, in historians’ minds, wrestle with “big ideas.”  (loc. 2067)

Kindle Details...
    A Provençal Mystery presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Ann Elwood has a bunch of other books available, but most of them are not in e-book format.  Of the few that are available for the Kindle, none appear to be in this genre.

 “There is something strange about a religion that saves the body parts of dead holy people and encases them in boxes.”  (loc. 3608)
    There are some weaknesses.  The ending seems rushed, and lacking any twists.  It’s simply a matter of one of the several plausible motives/suspects panning out in the main plotline.  The perpetrator needlessly leaves a lot of clues around, and seems too easily persuaded to confess.  It's as if he wants to be caught.

   The 1659 murder is never fully resolved, although realistically that’s kinda expected.  Still, this is fiction, the storyline links the two crimes, and as a reader, I was anticipating a resolution of some sort.

    Finally, the book is in bad need of an editor.  I tend to forgive spellchecker errors (loose/lose, for/fro, etc.), but when one of the diary entries gets the year wrong, that’s just sloppiness.  And yet…

    For all the negatives, I still found myself staying up late and turning the pages to get in just one more chapter.  The story and its writing may have some flaws, but the fact that it’s so ambitious apparently drew me in.

    7 Stars.  This book wasn’t what I expected it to be.  I sorta assumed it was going to be akin to a Brother Cadfael mystery, entirely set in the distant past.  But it’s still a worthwhile read, especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for all things French, like I do.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett


   2003; 401 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #30 (out of 41) in the Discworld series; Book #1 (out of 5) in the Tiffany Aching series.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Tiffany Aching is only nine years old, and she’s already decided what she wants to be in life: a witch.  This is not surprising – her grandmother, Granny Aching, was a witch.  Even though Granny denied it and said she just had a special way with healing animals, especially sheep.

    This was prudent on Granny’s part, because here in the Chalk, even being suspected of being a witch can be a life-threatening situation.  Just ask poor Mrs. Snapperly, who was accused of stealing the Baron’s son via magical means.

    Even a child like Tiffany could see the evidence was circumstantial, but it cost Mrs. Snapperly her life.

What’s To Like...
    The Wee Free Men is the first book in Terry Pratchett’s YA sub-series, centering on Tiffany Aching.  They are still set in Discworld, and I’ve read two of the five books in the series (reviewed here and here), and found them enjoyable.  But It is nice to read the first book, and find out the the origins of both Tiffany, and the titular Wee Free Men, otherwise known as the Nac Mac Feegles.

    Tiffany’s an ideal role model for young adults – she’s not afraid to question things, and doesn’t blindly accept stories and beliefs put forth by adults.  Most of the characters will be new to the Discworld reader, but Granny Weatherwax and Mrs. Ogg make a cameo appearance, and you’ll be delighted to meet Sneebs as well.

    There’s a ton of new critters to encounter, among them dromes, a talking toad, grimhounds, the bumblebee women, Jenny Green-Teeth, and the scariest beasts of all – lawyers.  There’s a bit of synesthesia, which I always like, and if you liked the “Dream Within A Dream” concept in the movie Inception, you’re going to enjoy this storyline.  The book has chapters, which is unusual for a Discworld novel, and a number of the always-popular Pratchettian footnotes.

    The ending is good – it has a couple of plot twists, and good lessons for both YA’s and adults to ponder.  Keep in mind the target audience is YA, not Juveniles.  There’s no sex or  drugs (or even romance), but the Nac Mac Feegles consume copious amounts of alcohol, tobacco juice is mentioned, and some characters – both the good and the bad - get killed.

Kindle Details...
    The Wee Free Men sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  The rest of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books run in the range of $4.99-$11.99 for the Kindle version.

Excerpts...
    “My name,” she said at last, “is Miss Tick.  And I am a witch.  It’s a good name for a witch, of course.”
    “You mean blood-sucking parasite?” said Tiffany, wrinkling her forehead.
    “I’m sorry?” said Miss Tick, coolly.
    “Ticks,” said Tiffany.  “Sheep get them.  But if you use turpentine -“
    “I meant it sounds like ‘mystic,’” said Miss Tick.  (loc. 501)

    “Wazzup?”
    Tiffany turned him around to face the things.  “What are these?” she said.
    “Oh, doak! Grimhounds!  Bad!  Eyes of fire and teeth of razor blades!”
    “What should I do about them?”
    “Not be here?”  (loc. 1659)

 “Never cross a woman with a star on a stick, young lady.”  (loc. 1174)
    The Wee Free Men contains a goodly amount of Pratchett wit and humor, although since it’s a YA novel, it may feel a bit watered down to an adult reader.  But beyond all the shenanigans and humor, Pratchett examines several serious themes and issues, including:

    Sibling jealousy.
    Blind belief in stories and allegations without evidence.
    Duty – both familial and career-wise.
    Tolerance of others who believe differently.
    What to do when someone gets the credit for something you did.

    Finally, Pratchett presents the concept of witchcraft in a remarkable mash-up that is both literarily-pleasing yet historically-accurate.  The principles of modern-day Wiccans, which are much akin to their ancient forerunners, the Druids, are blended smoothly with the classic “Hollywood" stereotypes – pointed black hats, familiars, and magic so simple even a wizard could learn to use it.

    And flying around on broomsticks is incredibly kewl.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you’ve already encountered the Nac Mac Feegle in one of the other Discworld books, and find them to be your favorite Pratchett characters.