Saturday, May 27, 2017

Sharpe's Rifles - Bernard Cornwell


    1988; 304 pages.  Book # 6 (story-wise) out of 24 in the “Sharpe” series; Book #9 (published date-wise). New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

Nothing is worse when you’re in the army than to have to retreat across a foreign country with the enemy nipping at your heels.  That’s what Sir John Moore’s British troops are doing in the opening months of 1809.  They’re trudging through northwest Spain  (Galicia province), trying to stay ahead of Napoleon’s dreaded dragoons, and hoping they make it to Portugal before the French catch up to them.

    It’s even worse if you have the bad luck to be part of the rearguard of Moore's army.  You have to turn around, give token resistance to the French dragoons chasing you, then turn tail yet again, and hope that not too many of your comrades (including yourself) get killed carrying out the delaying action.

    And even worse than that is if you’re a lieutenant in that ragtag rearguard group, lacking the loyalty and support of the soldiers you’re giving orders to.  After all, you’ve been promoted from within the ranks, and everyone knows that leadership skills are something that only highbred men from the upper classes possess.  And you aren't one of those.

    So they've made you a quartermaster to keep you from mucking things up.  Procuring food, clothing, and other supplies for the honest-to-goodness fighting men.  Let’s just hope the other officers stay alive so that you don’t have to be put into any meaningful command.

    Welcome to Lieutenant Richard Sharpe’s daily hell, quartermaster for the British 95th Rifles unit.

What’s To Like...
    Sharpe’s Rifles is set in what is known as the “Peninsular War” (the Wikipedia article on it is here), which, quite frankly, I’d never heard of.  This is embarrassing since I’m a history buff.  There’s lots of action, and it starts immediately.  The brutality is vivid, with plenty of blood and gore, but hey, war is dirty, and this one was especially nasty.

    There are two main story lines: Sharpe (British) and his crew trying to escape the French, and Vivar (Spanish) and his crew trying to safeguard a mysterious trunk (which I thought was a macguffin at first). while also being pursued by the French  Vivar's and Sharpe’s paths cross pretty quickly, which is not a spoiler, then continue as an on-again/off-again alliance.

    The character studies are as fascinating as the warfare.  Sharpe is a great anti-hero: hated by his men and inferior in leadership skills to both Vivar and Rifleman Harper.  Heck, even Sgt. Williams commands more respect than Sharpe.  And the chief bad guy, the French Colonel Pierre de l’Eclin, is a worthy enemy, outthinking and outfoxing Sharpe every step of the way.  I like it when an antagonist is on equal footing with the hero.

    The story is written in “English” as opposed to “American”, so you get words like waggon, sabre, ageing, picquets, grey, foetid, and doxie.  That's always a plus for me.  There’s also some cussing, but hey, war is hell.

    There is also a secondary religious motif throughout the story.  Catholic France is brutalizing Catholic Spain, and Protestant England finds itself an uneasy Spanish ally.  Sharpe himself can best be called an Unbeliever, and some of his Irish underlings are Catholic to boot.  Bernard Cornwell treats all these religious viewpoints with remarkable balance, something you rarely see in novels nowadays.

    The ending has some nice twists, including the revealing of the contents of the strongbox, and everything ends with a climactic battle.  Despite being part of a 24-book series, this is a standalone novel.

Kewlest New Word...
Doxie (n.) : floozy
Others :  byre (n.); rumbustious (adj.).

Excerpts...
    They were the sting in the army’s tail.  If they were lucky this day no Frenchman would bother them, but the probability was that, sometime in the next hour, the enemy vanguard would appear.  That vanguard would be cavalry on tired horses.  The French would make a token attack, the Riflemen would fire a couple volleys; then, because neither side had an advantage, the French would let the greenjackets trudge on.  It was soldiering; boring, cold, dispiriting, and one or two Riflemen and one or two Frenchmen would die because of it.  (pg. 16)

    “Mind you, I knew an officer in India who converted the heathen to Christianity,” Sharpe said helpfully, “and he was most successful.”
    “Truly?” Mr. Parker was pleased to hear this evidence of God’s grace.  “A godly man?”
    “Mad as a hatter, sir.  One of the Royal Irish, and they’ve all got wormscrew wits.”
    “But you say he was successful?”
    “He threatened to blow their heads off with a musket unless they were baptized, sir.  That queue went twice around the armoury and clear back to the guardhouse.”  (pg. 111)

“I’m sure God did his best, but where was the sense in putting Ireland plum next to England?”  (pg. 262)
    For some reason, I thought this was the opening book in the series, but instead I wallowed into the storyline at Book 6.  Bernard Cornwell gives bits and pieces of the backstory, mostly Sharpe’s prior wartime activities in India, and his unwanted promotion to lieutenant.  It was also obvious that several of Sharpe’s Riflemen comrades had been introduced in earlier books.  But I never felt like I was missing crucial background information, and that was a real plus.

    It should also be mentioned that Cornwell didn’t pen this series in chronological order, so even those who have read the books in the series as soon as they were published have had to do some jumping around timeline-wise.  Wikipedia gives the chronological and literary order of the books here).   Since I plan to read some more of the series, it is nice to know that I don’t have to worry about which order I read them in.

    9 Stars.  I’ve been meaning to check out Bernard Cornwell for quite some time, and it was a real treat to finally get acquainted with his works.  He is a prolific writer of Historical Fiction, and I have two more of his books, set in England during the Dark Ages, awaiting my attention on my Kindle.  I doubt it will be long before the next review of one of his books appears on this blog.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Voyage Long and Strange - Tony Horwitz


   2008; 437 pages.  Full Title : A Voyage Long and Strange: On The Trail Of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; U.S. History; Travelogue.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    “Hey, tell me everything you remember about the earliest days of Europeans exploring what is now the United States.”

   “Okay, ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in fourteen hundred ninety-two’.  Oh yeah, then the Pilgrims or somebody landed on Plymouth Rock.  Around 1620, as I recall.”

    “Very good.  But there’s a 128-year gap in between those two dates.  What was going on during that century-and-a-quarter after Columbus and before the Pilgrims?”

    “I dunno.  Cortez and Pizarro, maybe.  But that was down in Mexico and South America.  Say, what was going on up here in North America during that time?”

    That’s what this book is all about.

What’s To Like...
    A Voyage Long And Strange chronicles Tony Horwitz’s  efforts to answer the question posed above.  Its 13 chapters are divided into three logical and by-and-large chronological sections: Discovery, Conquest, and Settlement, plus a great Prologue that details the Norsemen (there was more than one) stumbling onto Newfoundland a half a millennium before Columbus, but not staying.

    Tony Horwitz will inevitably remind you of Bill Bryson: both recount travels they have taken, with wit and information that will keep your interest in high gear.  But Horwitz mostly drives while Bryson mostly walks, and Horwitz focuses more on History, whereas Bryson seems more into Local Culture.  I enjoy both authors, and being a History buff, I really liked riding along with Horwitz here as he sought to travel the same paths of explorers, conquistadors, and settlers.

    You’ll learn lots of fascinating bits of trivia along the way.  For instance, Plymouth was not the first English colony here (Fort St. George was); the Pilgrims were not the first to settle in Massachusetts (Cuttyhunk was, in 1602); and Ponce de Leon wasn’t looking for the Fountain of Youth (he was searching for gold, like every other conquistador).

    The sections alternate between Historical accounts about the brave and the foolish who came in search of gold and glory; and Horwitz’s Personal accounts, as he tries to “feel what they felt”, adjust to local culture, and sift through the tourist-drawing myths and legends that have sprung up since then.  You’ll chuckle as he experiences a sweat lodge, endures the tropical weather in the Dominican Republic, and gasp as he tackles the mighty Mississippi River in a rickety canoe.

    The text is sprinkled with some very kewl maps and pictures.  You’ll meet lots of park rangers, museum guides, tourist shop owners, and Historical Society reenactors.  They all have stories to tell.  A couple cuss words do occasionally arise in Horwitz’s conversations with these folk, but I thought it set the tone quite aptly.

Kewlest New Word ...
Skraelings (n., pl..) : Inuits, or other indigenous inhabitants of Greenland or Vinland (a Vikingism)-
Others : Prolix (adj.); Benighted (adj.); Orotund (adj.)


Excerpts...
    “Ate some street food.  Not sure I should have.”
    Caonabo looked alarmed.  “What was it called?”
    “Don’t know.  Chimichanga, or something.”
    “Chicharrones?”
    “That’s it.  Chewy and greasy.”
    Caonabo shook his head.  “This is very bad.”  Chicharrones, he said, were deep-fried pork skins with gristly flesh and fat attached, flavored with road fumes and flies.  Though popular with the Dominicans, the dish was famously lethal to foreigners.  “Eat just a little bit and you regret it for the rest of your life, which isn’t long,” Caonabo said.
    “I ate two plates.”  (loc. 1907)

    I wasn’t sure I followed his argument.  “So you’re saying we should honor myth rather than fact?” I asked.
    “Precisely.”  The reverend smiled benignly, as I imagined he might at a bewildered parishioner.  “Myth is more important than history.  History is arbitrary, a collection of facts.  Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate.”
    He spooned up the last of his succotash.  “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  It’s like religion – beyond facts.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”  (loc. 6569)

Kindle Details...
    A Voyage Long And Strange currently sells for $9.99 at Amazon, although Santa Claus brought it to me as a gift last Christmas.  Santa’s remarkably up-to-date, technology-wise.  Tony Horwitz has a number of other books of the same genre, all in the range of $9.99-$12.99, including Blue Latitudes, which Santa also brought me this past Christmas.

 “Estamos jodidos.”  (“We’re f*cked.”  (loc. 1307)
    I was pleasantly surprised that I knew of most of the main characters that roamed around American in 1492-1620.  Coronado, De Soto, John Smith, etc.  But there were also a bunch that I’d never heard of – Bjarni, Onate, Narvaez, Jean Ribault, Pedro Menendez, and Bartholomew Gosnold, to namedrop a few of them.  And there was a whole section of the French vs. the Spanish duking it out to the death, from the Carolinas and Florida, respectively, that was totally new to me.

    I also thoroughly liked the way Tony Horwitz wraps up A Voyage Long and Strange,  wherein he weighs the pluses and minuses of telling the true facts about these early explorers (warts and all) versus promoting the legends and mystique that have cropped up long afterward.  While he (and I) naturally lean towards historical accuracy, he nevertheless admits he can see some merit in the fanciful tales.

    9 Stars.  Tony Horwitz came highly recommended by one of my bosses who is also a History buff, and I was in no way disappointed by this, my introduction to his books.  Subtract ½ star if you’re not particularly keen of Bill Bryson books, but still like to read Historical Non-Fiction.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paratime - H. Beam Piper


    1981; 295 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Classic Science Fiction; Anthology.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Ah, multiverses!  They're such a wonderful new device for writers of science fiction, particularly those who want to explore what alternate timelines would entail.  And modern-day Quantum Physics predicts such a thing, although, since we can theoretically never detect them, much less travel to them, their existence or non-existence is rather moot.

    And since they’re such a hot new sci-fi topic, the question arises: who was the first author to incorporate them into a science fiction novel, and how long ago did it happen?

    Well, Wikipedia indicates the concept was first proposed by Erwin Schrodinger, he of the cat fame, in 1952 during a lecture in Dublin.  And who are we to argue with Wikipedia?

    So it is curious that, as far back as 1948, H. Beam Piper was writing short stories and novellas featuring multiverses galore wherein a few of them (well, only one of them, to be exact) had succeeded in finding the trick jumping from one dimension to another.

    H. Beam Piper had his own word for this phenomenon; he called it Paratime.  And just like the Prime Directive in the Star Trek series, rule Number One is: Don’t ever EVER let the less-technological universes (which is all the other dimensions) know that such a thing as Paratime exists.  Cuz if you do, the Paratime Police will be called in, and you don’t want to mess with them.

What’s To Like...
    The book is actually an anthology of five short stories, ranging from 25 to 112 pages, that H. Beam Piper wrote in the 1948-1955 years, all set in his Paratime multiverse.  This is “pure” dimension hopping; there’s no time-travel or geography-jumping.  You can land in another timeline, but you’ll still be at the same spot on Earth, and at the same time it is now.

    H. Beam Piper divides the infinite alternate universes into five “levels”.  Level One is where the Paratimers originate from, and our dimension is a Level Four universe.  Which means we’re one step up from the bottom rung of the civilization ladder.

    Briefly, the five stories are:

    “He Walked Around The Horses”(1948).  Epistolary in style, and based on the historical Benjamin Bathurst incident.  See below.
    “Police Operation”(1948).  Introduces two recurring characters - Tortha Karf and Verkan Vall.  Also includes a Venusian nighthound, which you can see on the book cover above.
    “Last Enemy”(1950).   An interesting look at reincarnation, and introduces the other main recurring character, Hadron Dalla.
    “Time Crime"(1955).  The longest story in the book, it focuses on slave trading and has the most detailed look at the Paratime’s First Level world.
    “Temple Trouble”(1951).  The Paratime folks exploit Uranium deposits on a different universe using the cover of a religious sect.

    My favorite story was “Time Crime”, which is also the longest one.  There is a general introduction to the book at the very beginning, which I found to be quite skippable.  But the shorter introductions at the beginning of each story were fascinating.  The details in the stories reveal their age.  Cigarette-smoking is a common habit, “futuristic” videos still need a projector and a screen, and the slave-trading in alternate dimensions only involve white overseers and black slaves.  Just once I’d like to see that color combination reversed.

    Despite the slavery, the stories are essentially G-rated, with the lone other exception being the use of the word “phallic”.  It helps to remember that the target audience for 1950’s science fiction was almost exclusively juvenile-YA boys.  The stories are all standalones, and apparently all appeared in various sci-fi journals way back when.

Kewlest New Word...
Antiphonally (adv.) : in a musical manner which consists of two semi-independent choirs in interaction, often singing alternate musical phrases.

Excerpts...
    In November 1809, an Englishman named Benjamin Bathurst vanished, inexplicably and utterly.
    He was en route to Hamburg from Vienna, where he had been serving as his government’s envoy to the court of what Napoleon had left of the Austrian Empire.  At an inn in Perleburg, in Prussia, while examining a change of horses for his coach, he casually stepped out of sight of his secretary and his valet.  He was not seen to leave the inn yard.  He was not seen again, ever.
    At least, not in this continuum...  (pg. 14, and based on a historical occurrence.  Wiki him.)

    “At least, you’ll be getting away from police work.  I don’t suppose they have anything like police on the Dwarma Sector?”
    “Oh, no; they don’t even have any such concept,” Bronnath Zara said.  “When somebody does something wrong, his neighbors all come and talk to him about it till he gets ashamed, then they all forgive him and have a feast.  They’re lovely people, so kind and gentle.  But you’ll get awfully tired of them in about a month.  They have absolutely no respect for anybody’s privacy.  In fact, it seems slightly indecent to them for anybody to want privacy.”  (pg. 156)

“What sharp, furry ears you have, Mr. Elbraz!”  (pg. 245)
    There are a couple quibbles.  First, there are a slew of annoying typos – heresies/hersies; They/Then; into/inot; chained/cahined; and so on.  But this is the publisher’s fault (Ace Science Fiction), not H. Beam Piper’s.  I haven’t seen such atrocious editing since the last “Tor” book I read.  Maybe Ace Sci-Fi was an earlier incarnation of Tor.

    Second, Piper seems to like to inject his personal viewpoints on various topics into the stories, and it is, quite frankly, clunky.  He was apparently anti-socialism, anti-ACLU, and anti-pot-smoking.  None of which fit very well in science fiction tales.

    Finally, the storylines themselves are neither complex nor twisty, and to be honest, they didn’t hold my interest much at all.

    But it should be remembered that these stories were written in a different era.  The late 40’s and early 50’s were at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism, and we wouldn’t want little Timmy exposed to anything leftist whilst he’s reading a sci-fi story.

    5½ Stars.  Science-Fiction has come a long way since its heyday in the 40’s and 50’s.  Some stories from way back then have worn relatively well over the years, such as those by H.G. Wells and Andre Norton.  Alas, these H. Beam Piper ones have not.  But this is not his best stuff; for that it's best to stick with his Little Fuzzy novels, reviewed here and here.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Snowman - Jo Nesbo


    2011; 530 pages.  Book Seven  (out of 11) in the Inspector Harry Hole series  New Author? : Yes.  Murder-Mystery; Police Procedural; Scandinavian Crime Noir.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Birte Becker, wife of Professor Filip Becker, and mother of a teenage son named Jonas, has disappeared.  Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo police suspects foul play, although the possibility of her running off willingly, say, to be with a lover in an affair, cannot be dismissed, since there’s no sign of a forced entry or of any violence in the Becker household

    The only thing out of the ordinary in the case so far is Birte’s pink scarf.  Someone, maybe Birte herself, has draped it around the neck of a snowman in the front yard.  The snowman’s nothing special, a carrot nose, a stick for an arm, and some black stones for the eyes and mouth.  But curiously, Jonas says he didn’t build it.

    So who did?  And why?

What’s To Like...
    The Snowman is a police-procedural murder-mystery set in the greater Oslo, Norway area.  There is some jumping around of the timing – 1980, 1992, and 2004 (the present) – but it doesn’t get confusing because Jo Nesbo alerts you to any change in the “where and when” at the beginning of each chapter.

    Harry Hole is your standard antihero protagonist.  He drinks too much, smokes too much, has his moments of arrogance, and can be lippy to superiors and bossy to subordinates at ill-advised times.  But he’s also the best detective on the police force, and there’s even a possibility that the murderer is deliberately baiting him with clues and messages in order to make this a personal duel.

    The storyline is laid out perfectly, and I greatly appreciate that in any murder mystery.  There’s a slew of characters to meet and grow suspicious about, and numerous red herrings to trip up Hole and the rest of the police department.  Indeed, both they (and I) frequently jumped the gun in thinking they’d caught the killer, only to have to eat their words when it turned out to be not so.  These “false trails” are essential for keeping a 500-page novel from suffering from slow spots, and it worked nicely here.

    There are some neat details.  Harry’s (and/or the author’s) musical tastes are excellent, with some quick nods to Slipknot, Michael Stipe (REM), the little-known Jason and The Scorchers, and the overture to Also Sprach Zarathustra.  You’ll learn about Fahr’s Syndrome (wiki it), and the obscure winter sport of Curling.  I also became aware of a culture twitch in Scandinavia – apparently they like to pride themselves for being too civilized to have a serial killer running around.  Such savagery is confined to the more primitive parts of the world, like America.

    The ending might be called "standard" – the real killer is found out, but escapes for an action-packed finale.  Yet it was done so well, I didn’t mind that it was formulaic.  There is some cussing, as would be expected in a gritty police procedural, and some sex, so you probably shouldn’t let little Jimmy and Susie read The Snowman.  The is a standalone novel, as well as part of an 11-book series.

Excerpts...
    “Anyway, where did he get hold of this loop gizmo?  If it isn’t approved, I mean?”
    “We can start looking there,” Harry said.  “Would you check that out, Skarre?”
    “I said I don’t believe all that stuff.”
    “Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear.  I meant to say: Check it out, Skarre.  Anything else, Holm?”  (loc. 1643)

    “You didn’t like Starship Troopers?”
    “That’s because it’s a crap macho film.”
    “It’s satire,” Harry said.
    “Of what?”
    “American society’s inherent fascism.  The Hardy Boys meet Hitler Youth.”
    “Come on, Harry.  War on giant insects on a remote planet?”
    “Fear of foreigners.”  (loc. 2208)

Kindle Details...
    The Snowman sells for $9.99 at Amazon, although I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted.  The other books in the series go for $5.99-$13.99.  Jo Nesbo also has a series of e-books for kids, all involving, of all things, farts.  These go for $6.99-$7.57.

If every baby was a perfect miracle, life was basically a process of degeneration.”  (loc. 6922)
    I’ve been wanting to check out Jo Nesbo’s series for quite some time now, since I’m a huge fan of Scandinavian Police Procedurals, and the Swedish contingent thereof – Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo, are sadly all dead or retired.

    It is every bookaholic’s delight to discover a new author that fully meets his hopes and expectations, and Jo Nesbo was exactly that sort of find for me.  The writing, translating, and storyline in The Snowman were all great, and I’m thrilled to pieces to have a whole new series, with a burnt-out protagonist and a detective team that isn’t above squabbling, to solve cases alongside.

    9½ Stars.  Time to hit my local library and see how many Jo Nesbo book/e-books they have.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Lickety Split - Marlin Williams


   2017; 35 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Suspense; Thriller; Short Story. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

Note : This review is cross-posted from a my review for this short story at Amazon.  Hence, my standard template wasn't used.  Hamilcar.  

Lickety Split is a standalone, 35-page short story concerning Miss Coaly Banks, who at best can be described as "very full-figured". Marlin Williams blends a number of genres into the story - some terror, some suspense, and even some humor - but at its heart, this is a situational ethics story, examining what a person will do to gain, and keep, his/her fondest wish.

Coaly is, of course, the primary character, but it's fun to meet the couple other ones as well. They're all "gray" in character, and I liked that. I thought Mr. Simon was a hoot, I wouldn't mind meeting him again in some future story by the author. Structurally, the fun starts immediately, the pace is fast, and it has a Marlin Williams trademark "double-twist" ending, with a nice moral-to-the-story thrown in as a bonus.

8½ stars. Lickety Split does everything a short story should, including keeping me entertained from beginning to end.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Djinn Rummy - Tom Holt


    1995; 277 pages.  Full Title:  “Djinn Rummy; A Work of Comic Genies”.  New Author? : Not by a long shot.  Genre : Mythopoeia; Humorous Fantasy; Spoof.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    “In an aspirin bottle, nobody can hear you scream.” (pg. 231)

    Ah, but after he’s been freed from that glass prison, it seems like everyone, especially his liberator, Jane, would just as soon have the genie, Kiss, shut up.  Indeed, despite now being entitled to three wishes (with some “fine print” limitations), Jane seems to be a tad bit disappointed by the turn of events, as she was looking to end it all with an overdose of aspirin pills.

    But Jane is persuaded to stick it out for at least a few days longer, since her first wish is to have an infinite number of wishes, which, frankly, will clear up a number of problems in her life.  And since Kiss is a Force 12 genie, which is an uber-powerful sort, when he says “your wish is my command”, there’s not much he can’t do.

    Like remodel Jane’s apartment.  Or wash the dishes.  Or whip up something fancy for dinner.  And in his spare time, perhaps he can even save the world from being destroyed by another Force 12 genie.

What’s To Like...
    Djinn Rummy is one of Tom Holt’s earlier novels (#10 out of – to date – 33 of them), and from the Mythopoeia stage of his career.  Being a fan of mythology, these happen to be my favorite books by the author, and a couple others from this sub-genre are reviewed here and here.

    The author again employs his trademark storytelling format.  He invents a whole new spin on the Aladdin “genie-in-a-lamp” story, and mixes in copious amounts of his wit and zaniness.  He examines the consequences of what would be my first wish upon encountering a genie – to have a zillion more wishes, and also comes up with a clever rationalization for why omnipotent genies don’t destroy the world.

    As always, there are multiple plotlines running concurrently through the tale.  Among them are: Kiss & Jane, Kiss vs. Philly, Asaf & Neville, Kevin the Frog, Armageddon, and Asaf and the Dragon King.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this would turn out to be contrived and confusing, but Tom Holt brings them all together nicely for a boffo ending, and order is restored in the Universe.

    The requisite flying rug plays a pivotal part, and weird critters abound.  My favorites were the carnivorous telepathic vegetable intelligences.  Let’s just say you’ll think twice before calling anyone a “pansy” again.

    The only R-rated stuff is some cuss words strewn among the crazy goings-on, and I thought it fit in well.  Tom Holt is British, and I was lucky enough to find a “UK version” of Djinn Rummy at my local used-book store, meaning it was written in English, not American.  There was also a smattering of French, a brief cameo by Druids, and the fascinating British expression, “Bob’s your uncle!”  All these are plusses for me.

Kewlest New Word...
Bonzer (adj.) : excellent; first-rate.  (an Aussieism)
Others :  sarny (n.); bludge (v.); jip (n.); doddle (n.); recidivist (n.).

Excerpts...
    A plague of locusts.  The phrase trips easily off the tongue.  But consider this.  The average locust needs a certain amount of food each day, or it dies.  Nine hundred million locusts, gathered together in one spot awaiting distribution in plague form, need nine hundred million times that amount.  Neglect to provide nine hundred million packed lunches, and before very long you’ll have a plague of nine hundred million dead locusts, untidy, but no real long-term threat to humanity.  (pg. 111)

    There is a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation of how genies manage to transport themselves from one side of the earth to the other apparently instantaneously; it’s something to do with trans-dimensional shift error, and it is in fact wrong.  The truth is that genies have this facility simply because Mother Nature knows better than to try and argue with beings who only partially exist and who have all the malevolent persistence and susceptibility to logical argument of the average two-year-old.  Let them get on with it, she says; and if they suddenly find themselves stuck in a rift between opposing realities, then ha bloody ha.  (pg. 228)

“Well, stuff me for a kookaburra’s uncle.”  (pg. 158)
    There aren’t really any quibbles to speak of.  At one point a character named Justin becomes “Julian” for a page or two, but I blame that gaffe on the publishing company, not the author.  And some of the threads are tied up rather loosely, but hey, at least they were knitted together.  Just you try keeping things together when the Earth is 90% underwater, one of the protagonists can’t swim, and Romance is only halfway up in the air due to Cupid-turned-hitman.

    Overall, Tom Holt once again delivers exactly what I was looking for – a light, enjoyable read without any slow spots, bizarre characters to meet, and a plethora of plot threads to keep me wondering how he was going to prevent the storyline from getting out of control.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract ½ star if myths aren't your cup of tea.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Voyage of the Pale Ship - Greg James


   2017; 89 pages.  Book 2 (out of 2, so far) of “The Chronicles of Willow Grey” series, presumably, soon to be a trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Young Adult Fantasy Adventure (per the author).  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Destiny awaits Willow Grey, the Chosen One.  Sooner or later, she has to face the Lamia.  But not just yet.  For she's just a novice when it comes to magic and weapons, and when to use them and when other means of persuasion are a more prudent solution.

    It’s a good thing Henu the Wealdsman is with her.  He knows the land of Tirlane, and he has the magic elixir, stardraught to help him with his spells.  Sad to say, they’re about to leave Tirlane, and journey out into the Bound Sea, and this is new territory for both of them.

    But the Pale Ship awaits them, and it will guide them to the places Fate wants them to go to.  And since the ship steers itself (well, technically, the cerulethe does the steering but let’s not split hairs), the lack of a crew is not a hindrance.  So there’s nothing to do but get on with it, and face whatever lies in store for both of them.

    Even if it is their deaths.

What’s To Like...
    Voyage of the Pale Ship continues the chronicles of Willow Grey, a young girl who has stumbled into a strange, and sometimes brutal, fantasy world.  It is 89 pages long, so it’s really a novella, not a full-length book.  Still, it has plenty of action, and will therefore probably appeal to YA boys as well as girls.

    There’s a very handy glossary, listing both the characters and places in the tale, at the back of the book.  For a change, I was savvy enough to bookmark it before I started reading the story.  There’s also a map back there, but I didn’t use it much; the story is essentially Henu and Willow sailing along to wherever the Pale Ship decides to take them.  It would’ve been nice to have a short “The Story So Far” blurb, as it’s been a year since I read the first book.  But I went back and reread the last section of The Door of Dreams (reviewed here), and that caught me up to speed nicely.

    Willow and Henu cross paths with some kewl beasties along the way, among which are a kraken, a giant, some No Men, harpies, and a couple of blokes that reminded me of the trolls that Bilbo Baggins encounters in The Hobbit.  If curses and magic are your cup of tea, you’ve come to the right tale.

    The main storyline is Willow growing into her new-to-her role.  Besides learning what her magical short sword is capable of, Willow also has a bunch of situational ethics thrown her way, and I always like those.  Sometimes you just have to thwack the baddie, other times a bit of compassion is a much better tactic. 

    The book is written in English, not American, so you run across words like harbour, recognisably, no-one, etc.  I’m quite partial to books written in English.  There is some R-rated stuff: a few cuss words, a couple of attempted sexual assaults, and the subject of cannibalism.  I assume these are all okay for YA readers, but I’d think twice before letting a juvenile read it.

    The ending has a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming, and presumably sets up the showdown with the Lamia in the next book.  This is not a standalone book; you really should read The Door of Dreams first.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Cantrip (n.)  :  a mischievous or playful act; a trick.  (a Scotticism)

Excerpts...
    The woman was about to scream when Willow jumped on her and covered her mouth with both hands.  The sound that came out was a muffled squawk.  “Be quiet,” Willow said, “all we want is your clothes.  We won’t hurt you, I promise, okay?”
    The woman bit into the palm of Willow’s hand.  (loc. 293)

    Bhorak told Willow their story as he sharpened the mottled knives.  “An old wizard made us ages ago.  The perfect warriors, so he thought, because when we get hurt, all we need to do is eat someone else’s bits and we grow back what we lost.  See my eyes, my ears, my teeth?  All belonged to some other bugger once.  We are what we eat.”
    That’s so gross, she thought.
    Tharn laughed.  Yeah, the wizard wasn’t too impressed when we ate him.”  (loc. 654)

Kindle Details...
    Voyage of the Pale Ship sells for $2.99 at Amazon, although I snagged it when it was temporarily discounted to $0.99.  The first book in the series, The Door of Dreams also sells for $2.99.  Greg James has a slew of other e-books available.  Most of the novels are $2.99, but if it’s the first book in a trilogy it’s often free.  He also has several e-novellas available, which are in the 50-120 page range, and go for $1.99.

 “What’s with the cats?”  (loc  183)
    Full disclosure: I am not keen on novellas.  I tend to pass on any book that’s less than 180 pages long, and prefer ones that are 250-450 pages in length.  The only other novella I’ve read is reviewed here.

    The inherent problem with novellas (novellae?) is there are just not enough pages to develop any depth – in plotlines, in characters, in the tension.  For instance, here (if I counted correctly), there are 9 action-packed “trials” for Willow and Henu, but in a book with only 89 pages, each one is over before it has a chance to resonate with the reader.

    When you do the pages-per-action math, there’s simply no time for any tension to develop.  And it has to be said, if you’re a baddie facing a wizard with stardraught and a hero with a magic sword, odds are that your demise will come in a very short period of time.  I pity the fiend who  picks a fight with these two.

    To boot, being OCD, I tend to deliberately slow down my reading sessions when I’m reading a short book.  I’m a firm believer in the adage “Read a book in a day; forget it in a week.  Read a book in a week, remember it for months.”  So I read Voyage of the Pale Ship in 10-to-20-page slices.  In retrospect, I have a feeling I should’ve read it in one sitting.

    7 Stars.  Listen, despite its brevity, I enjoyed this book, and was happy to read the next segment in this series.  Add 1 star if you’re a Young Adult and have a book report due tomorrow.  Voyage of the Pale Ship just might save your bacon.  Add another 1 star if you happen to like novellas. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Mourningtide - Diana Wilder


   2014; 378 pages.  Book 2 (out of 4) of the Memphis Cycle” series, aka the “XIX Dynsaty” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Is there any sorrow so profound as that of a parent when a son or daughter unexpectedly dies?  It can happen at any moment, no matter what the age of the child; no matter what the social status of the parent: rich or poor, peasant or powerful, young or old.  Even the ruler of an empire is not immune.

    In this case, Nakhtamun, heir to the throne and the eldest son of the Pharaoh Seti I, is ambushed and slain during an excursion into Canaan, to the north of Egypt.  Seti is far away to the south, in Nubia, when it occurs.  To boot, an inept messenger sent to inform Seti of his son’s passing, neglects to tell him, so it is weeks before he returns to the palace and learns of the tragedy.  It means he didn’t even make it to the entombment of Nakhtamun, and thus never had a chance to say his goodbyes.

    The result is a devastating grief for the Pharaoh.  But hey, there’s no time for mourning; he’s the head of a powerful kingdom, and has to soldier on with affairs of state.

    Or does he?

What’s To Like...
    Seti I is a historical figure who ruled Egypt from approximately 1290-1279 BC.  He had some notable military victories (see the Wikipedia article on him here), but not much is known about him beyond that.  So this is fertile ground for storytelling.  I assumed, based on the other Diana Wilder book I’ve read (reviewed here), that Mourningtide was going to be a Murder-Mystery, but it’s actually a pleasant piece of Historical Fiction.  Not to worry; I like both genres.

    There are only 4 discrete settings: Canaan, Memphis, Thebes, and the area around the town of the tomb-makers, Deir el Medina, but once again I liked the “feel” that the author creates for daily life, both courtly and common, in ancient Egypt.  I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the interactions between underlings and royalty.  The Pharaoh is, after all, considered to be a god.

    The chapters are short, so you always have a good place to stop.  The Cast of Characters is now placed in the front of the book, a small but appreciated improvement over Pharaoh’s Son.  Bookmark that page; you will be using it a lot to keep track of the characters you meet.

    There’s some action at the beginning and some more close to the end, but not a lot in between.  However, this is Historical Fiction, not Action-Adventure, and the writing was good enough to keep my interest.  There aren’t very many plot twists either; it’s pretty obvious how the Seti/Djedi training thread was going to turn out from the get-go.  There is some Romance for the female readers, but this is not a romance novel, so that’s okay.

    The ending is similarly untwisty, but at one point it did put a lump in my throat.  The epilogue was both solemn and satisfying.

Excerpts...
    The man was down on the ground, curled into a tight ball, his arms shielding his head.  Seti could see blood.
    “Kill him!”
    “Stand back, all of you, or fight me!” Djedi snapped.  “Twenty against one!  And he armed only with a staff!  Were you sired by dotards, that you should fight like this?  Were you trained to arms by old women?  Or half-wits?”
    “You trained us!”  The words had come from the edge of the crowd.  (loc. 5794)

   Seti eyed the amusement in Ptahemhat’s expression and swore again.  “So I am to be saddled with you!”
    “It would seem so,” Ptahemhat said.  “His Holiness thought it shouldn’t be too difficult for you.  He says, in fact, that I have grown up to be a fine and sensible man after being such a pain in the ass as a youngster.”
    “Did he actually say that?” Seti demanded.
    “Well, words to that effect.”  (loc. 5873)

Kindle Details...
    Mourningtide sells for $3.98 at Amazon, which is the same price for each of the other three books in the series.  Diana Wilder has two other e-books available, and they, too, go for $3.98.

 “I’ve never known an ass to do anything but bray.”  (loc. 969)
    Some of the reviews at Amazon and Goodreads were critical of how Diana Wilder portrayed the female characters in Mourningtide.  They felt they weren’t “strong” enough.

    I think this is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.  The role of women in ancient times was quite different than that of the 20th-21st century, and trying to instill modern-day ethics into a piece of Historical Fiction, while laudable, diminishes its believability.

    Moreover, I thought the women in Mourningtide were strong, at least in the context of the time.  Seti gets ogled by a group of them, and they’re not particularly worried whether he’ll overhear their remarks about his bod.  And when he does strike up a conversation with them, they respond as equals, not subordinates.  So personally, I thought it was done well.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if reading about dealing with the loss of a son or daughter resonates with you, or if you like being immersed in an ancient setting.  Subtract 1 Star if you love plot twists and/or thrills-&-spills in your readings.