Sunday, March 26, 2017

Just Needs Killin' - Jinx Schwartz

   2014; 338 pages.  Book 6 (out of 8) of the “Hetta Coffey” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Hetta Coffey is going to a party.  And a posh affair it’s going to be, too.  Which is quite unusual, given the locale is the Baja California peninsula of Mexico.  Hetta’s going as the guest of her best bud, Jan, who’s been hired for the night by the host of the party, a chap named Hiro Ishikawa.

    Ishikawa’s paying Jan to be his “escort” during the party.  Hmm.  That sounds like there’s some strings attached.  Bedroom strings.  But Jan assures Hetta that no such extracurricular activity is included.  Instead, Ishikawa will be paying her $50,000 just to be his companion as he mingles with the partygoers, with the money going towards funding Jan’s boyfriend’s search for a sunken galleon.

    Man, that seems an exorbitant price to pay for one night’s worth of “everything’s above the board” escorting, doesn’t it?  Is Ishikawa out of his mind?!

    Well yes, as a matter of fact, he is.  Actually, he’s completely out of his head.  Someone has just decapitated him.

What’s To Like...
    I liked the setting for Just Needs Killin’: everything takes place in various towns and marinas up and down the two sides of Baja California..  A lot of it is aboard Hetta’s modestly-sized yacht.  The author’s Amazon blurb indicates she lives on a boat in the same area, and the literary maxim of “write about what you’re familiar with” is put to good use here.

    There are some Japanese phrases thrown in, which I thought was kewl since I know virtually no Japanese.  And some Spanish as well, which I have some familiarity with.  I learned what a “panga”  and a “hotel de paso” are, and appreciated the brief tip-of-the hat to the Kingston Trio, one of my favorite folk groups.  Also, I thoroughly liked the fact that Hetta's an engineer by vocation, even more so that she’s probably a chemical engineer who until recently was working with a copper mine in Mexico.  My company in real life sells chemicals to copper mines in Mexico, so this was a pleasant, unlooked-for tie-in.

    The story is written in the first-person POV, and Hetta reminded me a lot of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum.   This POV means, however, that a lot of the action – the killings and abductions, for instance – takes place off-stage, so the book verges on being a cozy.  To boot, there is a lot of over-the-top stuff: things like a secret corridor on a boat (huh?), a bad guy brandishing a rather non-lethal weapon and hoping no one notices (oh, come on, now), and the whole idea of two little amateur ladies deciding to take out a Mexican gangster on his home turf (don’t try this in real life).   However, it’s no more far-fetched than the stuff Clive Cussler writes, so if Dirk Pitt’s your idea of a hero, you’ll probably enjoy meeting Hetta Coffey.

     Just Needs Killin’ is a standalone novel while also part of a series.  This was my first Hetta Coffey novel, but I didn’t feel like I missed much by not having read the first five books.  The pacing is fast, the dialogues are amusing, and there were no slow spots.  It’s all about the action.

Kewlest New Word…
Panga (n.) : a modest-sized, open, outboard-powered fishing boat common throughout much of the developing world.

    “Now, there you go, I am no longer a witness, but a full fledged co-conspirator.”
    I gave her a high-five.  “Thelma and Louise!”
    “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!”
    “Bonnie and Clyde!”
    Jan lost her grin.  “Uh, Hetta.  Didn’t all of them, like, die?”
    “We all die.”  (loc. 1869)

   “You two lost another anchor?” Chino said at dinner that evening.
    “Lost is such a harsh word.”
    Chino grinned at me.  “What word would you use to describe cutting two anchor lines in less than two months?”
    “Uh, temporarily misplaced?”  One thing for sure, both anchors were incriminating evidence that we were somewhere we were not supposed to be.  “You can dock my pay.”
    “You aren’t getting paid.”
    “See, problem solved.”  (loc. 3579)

Kindle Details...
    Just Needs Killin’ sells for $3.99 at Amazon, which is the standard price for all of Jinx Schwartz’s e-books, including the other seven books in the series, and two other books outside of it.  The 8-book Hetta Coffey series is also available as two 4-book bundles for $9.99 each, which is a nice bit of savings if you intend to read the whole set.

 “When seconds count, the cops are only minutes away.”  (loc. 1184)
    There are a couple quibbles.  I struggled to determine the overall plotline.  It seemed like it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.  The story starts out as a murder-mystery, but that fades away,  its place is taken by a plot concocted by the heroes to kill the big bad baddie.  Soon afterward, it moves on to “find the treasure”, then pops back to kill the baddie again, and finally switches to a  “find a different treasure” theme.  Mixed into this was a “what to do about dear Aunt Lillian” tangent which never did seem to have any impact on any of the other plotlines.

    All this hopping around of the storylines made for a rather disjointed read.  But I’m new to the series, so maybe this is the norm for a Hetta Coffey tale.

    Then there was the repeated use of ethnic-based wit.  Mexicans and Japanese get stereotyped to death, and even Canadians get poked fun at on one occasion (40% Kindle).  I recognize that some ethnic bantering is inevitable in a setting like this one, but does it have to be the major source of wit?  I’d think Hetta would have a greater appreciation of Mexican culture, being immersed in it as she is.

    7½ Stars.  Setting the quibbles aside, I found Just Needs Killin’ to be a fast-moving, fun, light read, one that’s ideal for an afternoon at the beach or for a stretch on an airplane.  For me personally, it was the perfect reading balance as I continue to slog my way through Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity‘s Rainbow opus.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Eats, Shoots and Leaves - Lynne Truss

   2004; 209 pages.  Full Title : Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Punctuation; Reference; Humor.  Laurels : Winner: “Book of the Year” – British Book Award 2004; New York Times #1 Bestseller for three straight weeks (May 30 thru June 13) in 2004.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Are you a punctuation stickler?  Does it grate your nerves when people mess up using its/it’s?  If you saw the sign: “Come inside for CD’S, VIDEO’S, DVD’S and BOOK’S!” would you have the desire to run screaming into the store, telling the proprietor to correct that atrocity immediately?!

    Do you yearn to know the eight different uses of the apostrophe, the six uses of the comma (plus a couple of situation where they’re optional), and the ten (count ‘em, ten!) various uses of the hyphen?

    Do you worry that the semicolon is heading toward extinction?  Do you have an opinion about the Oxford comma?  What about double possessives (“a friend of the couple’s”)?  Are you aware that brackets come in no less than four different forms?

    If your answers to one or all of these questions is “Yes!  Damn right!”, then Shoots, Eats & Leaves is a must-read for you.  Prepare to be excited! Motivated!  And join with others of us in shouting the slogan coined by the author of the book :

    Sticklers unite!  You have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion (and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with).

What’s To Like...
    Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ sole subject is punctuation.  Normally, this is an yawn-inducing topic, but Lynne Truss keeps you entertained with fascinating anecdotal history, eyebrow-raising trivia, and dry, British wit that will have you chortling.

    But don’t be lulled into a false sense of hilarity; this book will also answer any questions you may have about proper punctuation.  I was particularly keen on this because commas have always been daunting to me.  When do you use them?  Where do you place them?  Are there “gray areas” where their use is a matter of opinion.  This book answered all my questions.

    The anecdotes are great.  You’ll learn about the Jameson Raid telegram and its disastrous consequences due to ambiguous punctuation.  You’ll discover that the Bible in its original form has no punctuation marks, leaving some critical passages open to Catholic-vs-Protestant interpretation.  And I’m eager to get my membership in the Apostrophe Protection Society, which really exists.

    I liked the book’s structure.  A whole chapter on the apostrophe, followed by a whole chapter on commas.  Then one detailing the finer points of colons and semicolons; followed by one on a bunch of the “lesser” bits of punctuation: exclamation points, question marks, italics, quotation marks, the dash, brackets, “sic”, and the esoteric ellipsis (three dots).  After a short chapter about hyphens, the book closes with the author’s  “where do we go from here?” speculation.  Yes, emoticons get some ink, but it was the interrobang that really caught my eye.

    It should be mentioned that, like grammar, the rules for proper punctuation change with time.  And that the British rules for punctuation are sometimes different than the American rules.  Lynne Truss points out these variances along the way, but Eats, Shoots & Leaves is written, and punctuated, in English, not American.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Solecism (n.) : a grammatical mistake in speech or writing.
Others :  Loudhailer (n.); Naff-all (adj.).

    The stops point out, with truth, the time of pause
    A sentence doth require at ev’ry clause.
    At ev’ry comma, stop while one you count;
    At semicolon, two is the amount;
    A colon doth require the time of three;
    The period four, as learned men agree.  (loc. 1100)

    (T)here will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen: if it’s not extra-marital sex (with a hyphen), it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts.  Phrases abound that cry out for hyphens.  Those much-invoked examples of the little used car, the superfluous hair remover, the pickled herring merchant, the slow moving traffic and the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party would all be lost without it.  (loc. 1568)

Kindle Details...
    Eats, Shoots & Leaves sells for $11.99, although I snagged it when it was discounted for a short time.  Lynne Truss has three other reference books; they are in the $10.99-$14.99 range.  She also has written several humor-fiction novels, and they are more modestly priced in the $0.99-$3.99 range.

 “Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation.”  (loc. 521)
    The quibbles are minor.  My main gripe is that the book is very short.  There are only  209 pages, and the first 24% of the book is consumed by a Forward, a Publisher’s Note, and Preface, and an Introduction.  Also, the “reference” links didn’t work and worse yet, didn’t give you an option to get back to your original page.

    But that’s about it for the quibbles.  The bottom line is, I was looking for a book that would amuse me to no end, teach me the right and wrong usages of punctuation, and most importantly, tell me where I have options.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves did all of this, and more.

    9½ Stars.  I remember Borders Bookstores promoting the heck out of Eats, Shoots & Leaves when it first came out.   For quite a few months, that cute, homicidal panda on the book cover would beckon to you as you stood in line waiting for the next available cashier.  I regret now that I didn’t give in to that bit of enticement.  <Sighs>  RIP, Borders: b. 1971, d. 2011.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Ringworld - Larry Niven

    1970; 342 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book One of the Ringworld series, which subsequently grew to 4 sequels and 4 prequels.  Awards : Nebula Award (1970); Hugo Award (1971); Locus Award (1971).  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Space Opera; Classic Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Louis Wu is the Chosen One.  An artificial Dyson sphere (ring, actually) circling a faraway sun has been detected, and someone needs to go check it out.  If habitable, it could solve a coming cosmos-wide crisis.

    Well, truth be told, he’s actually only one of four Chosen Ones, and one of the others is doing the choosing.  Still, for a jaded, Boosterspice-using, 200-year-old human, it is a chance to once more venture into unknown portions of the universe, see new things and, if he’s lucky, meet new beings.  Maybe even new species.

    Of course, the recruiter is a Pierson’s puppeteer, and they are known to be master manipulators, always with ulterior motives.  And since there will only be four of them making the journey, if the Dyson sphere is inhabited by hostiles, this will probably be a suicide mission.

    But Pierson’s puppeteers are known to manufacture spaceships with hulls that are almost impregnable, and if by chance Louis does perish in the adventure, well, it’s been a good life.

What’s To Like...
    Ringworld is a groundbreaking “hard” science fiction epic that was published in 1970 and garnered a number of sci-fi awards and generated oodles of scientific debate that year and the next.  The story is awash with futuristic devices – slidewalks, transfer booths, a Kemplerer (sic) rosette, a hyperspace shunt (which gets around that pesky “can’t travel faster than the speed of light" issue), and the aforementioned Dyson sphere.  I’m a science geek and a sci-fi geek, so I ate it up.

   The world-building and species-building are fantastic.  I learned a neat new expletive, “Tanj”, which is an acronym for “There ain’t no justice!”  And the use of a tasp instead of a taser is a marked and curious development.  There is also plenty of wit and humor, including selecting Lying Bastard as the name of the expedition’s ship, and a coitus interruptus incident involving a rabbit.

   If you’re tired wading through dozens of characters in a novel, then Ringworld’s your book.  The four members of the team are the only ones you need to keep track of, and each of them is a fascinating study.  The Pierson’s puppeteer is called Nessus, and I always like it when humans aren’t at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.  In fact, here, they might not even be #2.  Speaker-to-Animals is a kzin, and he supplies the muscle for the group.  Teela is a young human who, Nessus claims, brings genetically-enhanced luck to the party.  And Louis, well, he’s not sure why he was selected, but he’s happy to be along.

    There “cussing” is kewl.  Instead of the standard expletives, which can be off-putting to some, we  are treated to phrases like “Tanj”, “Tanjit”, “Finagle knows”, and the somewhat insulting-but-in-a-friendly-way appellation “Leucote”.

    The ending is a double feature.  There’s a prosaic one, wherein our explorers figure out a way to get off Ringworld.  And there’s surprising one that I didn’t see coming at all.  Along the way, Larry Niven gives us some fascinating insight about interspecies cooperation, religion as a natural consequence of a collapsed civilization, and the proper precautions to take when initiating a “first contact” situation.

Kewlest New Word...
Particolored (adj.) : having a predominant color broken by patches of one or more other colors.

    “You’re going to chase them down?”
    Speaker did not recognize sarcasm.  “I am.”
    “With what?”  Louis exploded.  “You know what they left us?  A hyperdrive and a lifesystem, that’s what they left us!  We haven’t got so much as a pair of attitude jets.  You’ve got delusions of grandeur if you think we can fight a war in this!
    “So the enemy believes!  Little do they know –“
    “What enemy?”
    “-that in challenging a kzin-“
    “Automatics, you dolt! An enemy would have started shooting the moment we came in range!”
    "I too have wondered at their unusual strategy.”  (pg. 123)

    In the asteroid belt of Sol, men spend half their lives guiding singleships among the rocks.  They take their positions from the stars.  For hours at a time a Belt miner will watch the stars: the bright quick arcs which are fusion-driven singleships, the slow, drifting lights which are nearby asteroids, and the fixed points which are stars and galaxies.
    A man can lose his soul among the white stars.  Much later, he may realize that his body has acted for him, guiding his ship while his mind traveled in realms he cannot remember.  They call it the far look.  It is dangerous.  A man’s soul does not always return.  (pg. 161)

“Remember the Finagle Laws.  The perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum.”  (pg. 142)
    Ringworld is not a perfect book.  Between the “sciency” technical details and the interactions amongst the four protagonists, the plot sometimes stalls.  In a book 342 pages in length, we don’t land on Ringworld until page 133, don’t see the first sentient Ringworlders until page 159, and don’t make “first contact” until page 170, which is the halfway point.

    Indeed, for a while I wondered just where the storyline was going.  The various stops on Ringworld were interesting, but I kept waiting for something epic to occur.

   But it should be remembered that Ringworld was written in 1970, and science fiction in those days was a somewhat tame affair.  For its time, Ringworld was outstanding and probably derivative of both hard science fiction and space opera.

    8½ Stars.  There's a reason why it won all those awards listed in the header of this review.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Dragon's Breath - Jamie Sedgwick

   2013; 327 pages.  Book 3 (out of 4) in the Aboard The Great Iron Horse series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    It’s desperation time for Socrates and the crew of their locomotive, The Great Iron Horse.  They are out of their vital fuel, Starfall, and thus reduced to scrounging for their fallback energy sources, wood and coal.  These are not readily available, due both to the surrounding landscape and the fact that their train is a half mile long.

    So their hopes are lifted when late one afternoon they pull into a quaint town called Stormwatch, with an overlooking castle, Dragonwall, and find an indication that there may be some Starfall nearby.  The townsfolk don’t seem hostile, which is a welcome relief.  They do have a rather odd parting phrase though.  “Beware the dragon’s breath!”

    Ah, but I don’t see any dragons around; do you?  And if one does appear, and has a bad case of halitosis, well so what?  We have a good fighting crew, and we can always pop a breath mint in the reptile’s mouth.

    But hey, the sun’s about to set, the locals are scurrying to their houses, and time’s a-wasting.  So let’s get scouting for Starfall without further ado.

What’s To Like...
    The Dragon’s Breath is the third book in a series set in a wonderful post-apocalyptic steampunk world.  Socrates is a mechanical ape, and the head of a band of train-riding explorers tasked by their far-distant home base of Sanctuary with finding the indispensable, life-saving Starfall.

    This book is similar in style to the first two in the series.  The action starts immediately, and doesn’t let up.  There’s lots of bloodshed and violence, and there are simply are no slow spots.  The writing is not spectacular, but it’s sufficient for making you keep turning the pages.  If you like your stories with lots of mechanical details (if you fancy Tom Clancy), this book’s for you.  And if sand worms are your favorite beastie (if you’re a Dune loon), you’ll not not be disappointed.  Finally, if your tail’s a-waggin’ for dragons, you’re in for a treat.

    The backstory of this world is given at 54%, and I always appreciate that.  As with the previous book (reviewed here), the plotline, while exciting, is not very twisty.  Jamie Sedgwick mixes in enough wit and humor to keep you entertained; I found Kale’s attempt to ride a mechanical horse (18%) to be hilarious.  A holdover thread from the previous book (Burk) is resolved here.  

    Everything builds to a properly tense ending.  This borders on being a standalone novel, despite being part of a series.  The target audience seems to be adventure-reading YA boys, except that there’s an attempted rape (again) at one point.  So I’m not sure.  There are also a number of annoying typos.  I don’t normally mention these unless they are excessive, but at one point here, Sir Elbereth temporarily becomes Sir Elberone.  That’s kinda unforgivable.  The proofreaders should be shot.

    “What are you working on?”
    “It’s a portable submersible oxygenation apparatus.”
    “A what?”
    “After our trip through the Forgotten Sea, I thought it might be useful to create some sort of portable breathing system, in case we’re ever trapped underwater again.”
    “So it’s an air mask?” Micah said.
    River looked at him.  “No, it’s a portable submersible oxygenation apparatus.”  (loc. 58)

    At last, Dane sat up and said, “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter.  I can’t spend my nights worrying about rocks falling from the sky when I have very real dragons in my own backyard.  Believe me, there’s nothing worse than waking up face to face with a dragon.”
    “I know the feeling,” said Kale.
   Dane looked at him.  “Is that so?”  (loc. 1916)

Kindle Details...
    The Dragon’s Breath sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  As is usual for most of Jamie Sedgwick’s series (and he has a bunch of them), the first book, The Clockwork God, is free, and the second book, Killing The Machine, is $0.99.  I find this to be a most effective marketing device.  There is now a fourth book in this series, Clockwork Legion, and it sells for $3.99.

“She’ll be fine as soon as she remembers she’s not a rooster.”  (loc. 1019)
    There are weaknesses.  The dragons may be mean and nasty, but they’re not very resourceful.  This allows the strategy for Socrates and his cohorts to basically be: “I came, I plotted, I conquered”.  It’s a bit boring when the baddies can’t come up with anything surprising.  Similarly, the titular “dragon’s breath” is easily avoided.  And after Burk gets sprung, it was immediately obvious, who done it.  So why did it take Socrates so long to figure things out?

    More serious were the storytelling WTF’s.  The townspeople give our heroes the sage admonition “Beware the dragon’s breath!” but then fail to provide any details about what exactly  that danger is.  WTF?  And when River tries to deal with an undetonated artillery shell, she ties a noose around it and drags it along behind her speeding vehicle.  Holy explosive situation, Batman!  WTF?

    Last but not least, is the epilogue.  A goodly supply of the vital Starfall is recovered.  Yet somehow, after three books of harrowing adventures traveling aboard the Great Iron Horse, including a trip underneath an ocean, the precious cargo is dispatched back to Sanctuary, with nary a detail about just how this was accomplished.  WTF?  I wonder if they shipped it by USPS (United SteamPunk Service)?  That tale could’ve been a great addition to this series.

    6 Stars.  Overall, this felt like a “let’s crank another one out” effort.  All the requisites for a steampunk thriller are here, but without much of a creative spark.  This is probably as far as I’ll go with this series.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

   1992; 344 pages.  Book 13 (out of 41)  in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor; Satire.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    It must be Brutha’s lucky day.  Om, the patron god of his hometown Omnia has designated him, a mere novice, to be his “Chosen One”.

    Unfortunately, Om has fallen on hard times lately, and for the last three years he’s been stuck in a most humiliating manifestation – a turtle.  Still, he is a god, and one of the miraculous things he can do as a turtle is speak to his Chosen One.

    For Brutha, this is a mixed blessing.  On one hand, it’s kind of nice to be able to chat with a deity, even if the god-given advice  is rather worthless.  On the other hand, being the only one who can hear Om, Brutha looks like a crazy man when he’s speaking to the turtle.  And others notice this kind of eccentricity

   Such as Deacon Vorbis, who speaks for Om, even though he’s never ever spoken with Om.  And Deacon Vorbis also happens to be the head of the Inquisitors, which means he has ways of seeing what’s inside your head.

    Such as drills, and tongs, and fire, and other extremely uncomfortable implements.

What’s To Like...
    Small Gods is kind of a one-off tale in the Discworld Universe.  The only “regulars” we meet are DEATH,  the librarian (who only makes a cameo appearance), and Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah, a take-off of the ubiquitous Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler.  But not to worry, the new characters are fun to meet, including a host of philosophers, religious figures, and gods.  My favorite was St. Ungulant, an anchorite who dwells way out in the desert, although the eagle is pretty kewl too.

    The “small gods” concept is explained early (page 6), and is basically this: a god has power(s) proportional to the number of his followers, and what those believers are.  So being god over a bunch of humans is much better than being one over a bunch of bacteria.  And when your following dwindles to, say, zero, you cease to exist.  Om is down to his last believer, and so is relegated to being a turtle.

    Small Gods is Terry Pratchett at his finest.  There are footnotes, but no chapters.  The wit and silliness abound.  And yet he tackles a sensitive subject in the form of organized religion, and handles it evenly and subtly enough to where I don’t think anyone would take offense.  Structurally, the storyline is perfect, with everything building to a great, twisty ending.  There’s even an unusual (for Discworld tales) epilogue, wherein we learn the rest of Brutha’s story.

    Balanced against the serious themes of torture and war in the name of a god, Pratchett gives us some interesting views on things like the art of Philosophy, the worth of libraries, and the assets and liabilities of learning to think for yourself.  We even get the “creation story” behind Discworld (page 25), which was quite the treat.

    As usual, there are lots of smaller details to enjoy.  My favorite religion, Gnosticism, gets a brief mention.  So does eidetic memory and the shadowy History Monks.  Small Gods is an easy and fun read, which is no small feat when addressing topics such as the Inquisition.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Soughing (v.) : making a moaning, whistling or rushing sound (such as the wind in the trees)
Others : Baulks (n., plural); Anchorite (n.); Sophistry (n.)

    “If you’re really Om, stop being a tortoise.”
    “I told you.  I can’t.  You think I haven’t tried?  Three years!  Most of that time I thought I was a tortoise.”
    “Then perhaps you were.  Maybe you’re just a tortoise who thinks he’s a god.”
    “Nah.  Don’t try philosophy again.  Start thinking like that and you end up thinking maybe you’re just a butterfly dreaming it’s a whelk or something.”  (pg. 101)

    “I’m reminded of the time when old Prince Lasgere of Tsort asked me how he could become learned, especially since he hadn’t got any time for this reading business.  I said to him, ‘There is no royal road to learning, sire’ and he said to me, ‘Bloody well build one or I shall have your legs chopped off.  Use as many slaves as you like. ‘  A refreshingly direct approach, I always thought.  Not a man to mince words.  People, yes.  But not words.”
    “Why didn’t he chop your legs off?” said Urn.
    “I built him his road.  More or less.”
    “How?  I thought that was just a metaphor.”
    “You’re learning, Urn.”  (pg. 208)

 The trouble with being a god is that you’ve got no one to pray to.  (pg. 11)
    Small Gods has been on my TBR shelf for a number of years now.  I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading it – I knew going in it was often considered Terry Pratchett’s best effort from his most creative era.

    I don’t have anything negative to say about the book, and I was impressed by how evenly the author, an avowed humanist, handled the whole touchy subject of religion.  So go out and find the book, and treat yourself to a fascinating tale, and remember the mantra: “The Turtle Moves”.

    10 Stars.  When you can’t find anything at all to quibble about, what other rating can you give?

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari

   2015; 415 pages.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Anthropology; History; Civilization & Culture.  Laurels : National Library of China’s “Wenjin Book Award” for 2015.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The title says it all.  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (let’s shorten it to “Sapiens” from here on in) is an ambitious attempt to present the entire history, anthropology, and culture of the human race from the day we distinguished ourselves as Homo Sapiens up through the present, and briefly into the near future.

    To do this in just a smidgen over 400 pages is no small undertaking, but Yuval Noah Harari gives us a remarkably concise yet detailed effort, managing to address a wide range of topics from the Neanderthals, “imagined orders”, how science and money worked hand-in-hand with imperialism, and the evolution from polytheism to monotheism.

    But be forewarned.  Prepare to have your core beliefs assailed on every front, with sacred cows given short shrift and everything you’ve taken for granted being open to question.

    And let’s see if, by then end of the book, your prediction for mankind’s future matches up well with Harari’s.

What’s To Like...
    Yuval Noah Harari divides Sapiens up into four chronological sections: The Cognitive Revolution (1% Kindle), where we learn to think differently.  The Agricultural Revolution (16%), where we stop being hunter-gatherers and start being farmers.  The Unification of Mankind (34%), where start banding into larger groups and getting into Imperialism.  And the Scientific Revolution (51%), where we start focusing on learning from other cultures in the hopes that it’ll further our aims.  As can be seen from the Kindle starting points, the sections are not equal in size, probably because we know a lot more about the last 5 centuries than we do about the time before we learned to farm.

    Each of those sections is further broken up into chapters, and frankly, this is the best e-book yet that I’ve found for easy jumping from one chapter to another via the table-of-contents.  Even the footnotes and links to bibliographical sources work slickly.  I thoroughly appreciated that.

    My favorite chapters were :
1.3.  A Day in the Life of Adam & Eve.  What it was like to be a hunter-gatherer.
2.2.  Building Pyramids.  Harari introduces the concept of “imagined orders”.
3.4.  The Law of Religion.  How polytheism evolved into monotheism, dualism, and other isms.
4.4.  The Wheels of Industry.  Consumerism, energy, and the industrialization of agriculture.
4.6.  And They Lived Happily Ever After.  Are we happier now than when we were living in caves?
    Your faves will probably be different from mine.

    The writing is a masterful blend of technical data and the author’s cultural and anthropological opinions.   I found it to be kind of a non-fiction version of Stephen Baxter’s masterpiece, Evolution (reviewed here).  It’s written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, but that wasn’t a distraction. 

    But the best part of Sapiens is the literary style.  Yuval Noah Harari challenges you to re-examine your belief-systems about history, your fellow humans, and society’s ethics.  I think this was deliberate, and among the groups he targets are devout theists, nationalists, bigots, capitalists, communists, Reaganomics adherents, humanists, carnivores, and liberals (in the European sense of the word).   Lots of reviewers seemed annoyed by this; I thought it was great.

    Sapiens is a relatively recent book (February, 2015), but there has been an incredible response to it.  At Amazon, as of this writing, 2,576 people has taken the time to write reviews.  Wowza!  The Goodreads stats are even more amazing: 43,385 ratings, 4,081 reviews, and an overall rating of 4.36.

    The book closes with a couple chapters on Harari’s predictions for the future of Homo Sapiens.  He makes no guarantees or firm prophecies, and apparently this serves as a segue for the book’s sequel.  See the “Kindle Details” section, below.

    The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans.  It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies.  The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman.  (loc. 3321)

    The figures for 2002 are even more surprising.  Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence).  In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide.  It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.  (loc. 5738)

Kindle Details...
    Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind sells for $16.99, which seems steep until you realize it’s a top-tier, recently-released, non-fiction book.  Yuval Noah Harari has only one other e-book available for the Kindle, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (the sequel to Sapiens), and it sells for $17.99.

 Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?  (loc. 6535)
    There are some quibbles.  First, and least-most, there were a bunch of kewl pictures, graphs, and maps, but they were small and didn’t enlarge when you clicked on them.  I guess there are still some advantages to reading a non-electronic book.

    Also, although the first two sections of Sapiens are fantastic, things did slow down a bit as we got into more modern times, and the writing changed from historical and archaeological to cultural and anthropological.  To some degree, this is unavoidable.  Discussing economics and corporate business strategy just isn’t as exciting as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons coming in contact with each other.

    Finally, it has to admitted that Harari gets preachy at times, with personal opinions replacing scientific objectivity.  Among his pet subjects are Buddhism (he likes it), animal rights (PETA would be proud), and blind religious faith (he minces no words).

    But if you don’t mind being prodded into thinking about your beliefs, or about the many “imagined orders” that are drilled into our minds from an early age, you will find Sapiens to be a thought-provoking masterpiece that just might change the way you think about all sorts of things.  And very few books can do that.

    9 Stars.  Subtract 3 stars  if you're comfortably numb in your beliefs, and get insecure if/when someone or something disturbs them.  Add ½ star if you’re an ancient history fan, and the more ancient, the better.  That's me.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Damnation Game - Clive Barker

    1985; 433 pages.  New Author? : Nope, but this is only my second book by him.  Genre : Horror; Suspense.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Marty Strauss is getting out of prison early!  Well yes, it is a conditional parole, and he’ll be confined to the grounds of Joseph Whitehead’s sprawling estate.  But it's better than sharing a cell at te penitentiary, and he’ll even get paid for his new job: he'll be the personal bodyguard of Mr. Whitehead himself.

    The work itself looks easy enough.  There’s a wall around the perimeter of the estate, and barbed wire atop of that.  There’s a pack of Alsatian guard dogs trained to tear into any intruder.  There are several others on the staff who will keep an eye out for strangers as well.  And there are cameras monitoring the entire house and grounds.  The Devil himself couldn’t get into Joseph Whitehead’s mansion without being detected and intercepted.

     But you’d better be careful, Marty.  Old Man Whitehead may be crazy, but there’s a reason for his paranoia.  And if the Devil does come calling, you’re expected to sacrifice your life for the sake of your employer.

What’s To Like...
    The Damnation Game was Clive Barker’s debut full-length novel, but he had already established himself as a promising author of Horror tales via his set of six short stories, Books of Blood.  The settings in TDG are sparse, and the first, World War 2 Warsaw, is almost entirely confined to the Prologue.  The rest of the book takes place at various spots in the greater London area.

    There’s about a hundred pages of world-building to plod through at the beginning, but this was also true of the other Clive Barker book I read, which is reviewed here.  Structurally, the book is perfect, evolving steadily from a relatively peaceful, if somewhat dysfunctional, start to abject terror, as Joseph Whitehead’s adversary lays siege to Marty and company and everyone else at the mansion.  The tension builds throughout the story to an exciting showdown at the end.  Clive Barker knows how to write a horror story.

    I liked the UE (Ultimate Evil), he is incredibly powerful, and yet is neither omnipotent nor omniscient.  His henchman are also suitably scary, and, in the case of his two missionaries, also a bit funny.  The backstory for the UE also gets recounted, which I appreciated.  He is a resourceful chap (aren’t all well-crafted UE’s?), and his way of “scouting” Whitehead’s mansion was quite innovative.

    The Damnation Game is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, but it’s hardly noticeable.  R-rated stuff abounds, but hey, wouldn't “cozy horror story” be an oxymoron?  This is a standalone novel, and ANAICT, there is no sequel, although I am certainly not an expert on Clive Barker’s bibliography.  Finally, the last chapter is a way-kewl epilogue that wraps things up nicely.

Kewlest New Word...
Doggo (adv.) : remaining motionless and quiet to escape detection.
Others : Welter (n.); Baize (n.); Farrago (n.); Unblenched (adj.); Peristalsis (n.).

    She picked up the receiver and dialed nineteen, the number of Marty’s bedroom.  It rang once, then again.  She willed him to wake quickly.  Her reserves of control were, she knew, strictly limited.
    “Come on, come on . . . “ she breathed.
    Then there was a sound behind her; heavy feet crunched the glass into smaller pieces.  She turned to see who it was, and there was a nightmare standing in the doorway with a knife in his hand and a dogskin over one shoulder.  The phone slipped form her fingers, and the part of her that had advised panic all along took the reins.
    Told you so, it shouted.  Told you so!  (pg. 185)

    The Deluge descended in the driest July in living memory; but then no revisionist’s dream of Armageddon is complete without its paradox.  Lightning appeared out of a clear sky; flesh turned to salt; the meek inheriting the earth: all unlikely phenomena.
    That July, however, there were no spectacular transformations.  No celestial lights appeared in the clouds.  No rains of salamanders or children.  If angels came and went that month – if the looked-for Deluge broke – then it was, like the truest Armageddon, metaphor.  (pg. 277)

“You call me ridiculous.  You.  A talking fog.”  (pg. 314)
    The Damnation Game came highly recommended to me by a friend who considers it Clive Barker’s finest effort, and it did not disappoint.  It didn’t leave me cringing in fear, the way some J.A. Konrath’s books do (such as the one reviewed here), but I did keep worrying the whole way through about how Marty could possibly defeat such as powerful UE.

    The quibbles are minor, and by and large mirrors those I had with the other Clive Barker book I’ve read.  The plot is interesting, but not particularly twisty.  The character development is superb, but it felt like everyone got their predictably just desserts.  The storytelling is great, yet this is by no mean a quick read.

    But I pick at nits.  I enjoyed The Damnation Game, and that says something about the author’s writing skills, since I am not a big fan of the Horror genre.  I have one more Clive Barker book on my ever-expanding TBR shelf, Abarat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I read it later this year.

    8½ Stars.  Add ½ star if you’re a fan of Dean Koontz.  I found the tone of The Damnation Game to be quite similar to his.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Doctor and the Kid - Mike Resnick

   2011; 323 pages.  Book 2 (out of four) of the “Weird West Tales” series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Steampunk; Western; Alternate History.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    There are so many things that are different in this Alternate History of the Old West.  Unfortunately for Doc Holliday, his terminal illness – tuberculosis, or as they called it back then “consumption” – is not one of them.  He has a year or so to live, if he’s lucky, and he’d like to spend his final days in peace at a sanitarium in Colorado.

    That takes money, something which he doesn’t have much of anymore, thanks to one of his vices, gambling.  Ah, but there’s a $10,000 bounty on Billy The Kid, dead or alive, which is more than enough to cover the sanitarium costs.  And Doc’s a retired (or so he says) gunslinger.

    But Billy The Kid’s mighty fast on the trigger, and some say he can even outdraw Doc.  To boot, there are rumors that he’s protected by some medicine man magic that renders all weapons used against him useless.

    Maybe it’s time for Doc Holliday to get some magic of his own.  And who better to seek out and ask for it than that great inventor, Tom Edison?

What’s To Like...
    I liked the world-building.  In this alternate timeline, the US Army is prevented from crossing the Mississippi River due to the powerful magic spells laid down by two Native American medicine men, Geronimo and Hook Nose.  Some towns apparently are allowed – among them Tombstone, Denver, Leadville (Colorado), and Lincoln (New Mexico).  But nary a single soldier can cross over.

    Mike Resnick likes to namedrop, and I mean that in a positive way.  So in addition to the O.K. Corral boys: Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, we meet Oscar Wilde, Susan B. Anthony, Billy the Kid, Sheriff Part Garrett, Geronimo, Kate Elder, Ned Buntline, and Thomas “Tom” Edison.  Those last two are buddies of our protagonist, Doc Holiday.

    This is also a steampunk novel.  Think The Wild, Wild West – either the old TV series, or the more-recent movie version.  Tom Edison and Ned Buntline supply a bunch of really neat inventions, among which are robotic bartenders, horseless stagecoaches, monorails, robotic cooks, tasers, and last but not least, robotic hookers.  I’m not quite sure how the latter work, but customer satisfaction is high.

    There are some kewl drawings scattered throughout the book, which I really liked.  There is some cussing, which is certainly realistic, but I didn’t think was absolutely necessary.  More on that in a moment.  There are also five appendices in the back, to wit: a list of “further reading”, movie stars who played played the various characters we meet in the book, some brief, “non-alternate” biographies of the main characters, an account by Pat Garrett concerning Billy the Kid’s  escape, and an account by Bat Masterson about his acquaintance with Doc Holliday.  Of the five, I liked the biographies one the best.

    The ending is okay, but not very twisty.  Doc squares off against Billy the Kid; and Geronimo and Hook Nose do the same.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.

    “Are you the notorious Doc Holliday?” asked the man.
    Holliday checked to make sure the man was unarmed.  “I am,” he replied.
    The man extended a hand.  “I am the notorious Oscar Wilde.  I wonder if I might join you?”
    Holliday shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”
    Wilde sat down opposite him.  “I didn’t see you at my lecture last night.”
    “Good?” repeated Wilde, arching an eyebrow.
    “It means you’re not hallucinating.”  (loc. 57)

    “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” he said.  “All I have to do is destroy men and buildings that are impervious to arrows, bullets, cannonballs and fire, and in exchange for that, a sick, dying man gets to face the greatest killer in the West on even terms, is that your offer?”
    “That is my offer.”
    “Give me a minute to think about it,” said Holliday, staring down at the ground.  (loc. 692)

Kindle Details...
    The Doctor and the Kid sells for $9.99 at Amazon right now.  The other three books in the series all go for that price as well.  Mike Resnick has been writing Sci-Fi stories for a long time, sometimes alone, sometimes as a co-author, and sometimes as a contributor of short stories for sci-fi anthologies.  So there are a slew of e-books at Amazon that bear his name, usually in the $0.99-$9.99 spectrum.

 “(T)he next argument I win with a woman will be the first.”  (loc. 2487)
    The Doctor and the Kid isn’t perfect.  There are some annoyingly repetitive themes, such as Doc reminding everybody that he’s terminally ill, everybody wanting to hear him tell about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Billy the Kid mentioning to Doc how much he likes him.

    Also, while there’s an adequate amount of action, the plotline itself doesn’t progress much.  For most of the book, Doc keeps tabs on Billy, and Edison tries to figure out how to combat the medicine man magic.  The “Science vs. Magic” theme may be realistic: keep trying ideas until one of them works, but in a storyline, it makes for a lot of spinning of one’s wheels.

    I was confused as to the target audience.  The story was simplistic enough to make me think it was aimed at teenage boys, but then why have all the cussing?  Finally, for all the kewl appendices, why not also have one with a map of the settings?

    7 Stars.  Don’t get me wrong, The Doctor and the Kid was still an enjoyable read, and part of my problems with it may be the fact that I didn’t realize it was book 2 of a series.  I struggled to understand the details of the alternate history, and perhaps all this was already given in the first book, The Buntline Special.  I’ve added that to my TBR shelf (which has a couple hundred other books), and will probably read it in the next few months.