Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Railsea - China Miéville


   2012; 424 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : YA; Steampunk; Fantasy; “Weird Fiction” (per the author).  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    On a far-in-the future Earth, things are markedly different.  The ground, and there’s a lot of it, is lethal.  No, it's not poisonous, but it's full of burrowing animals of enormous size, all of which have a taste for human beings.

    Mankind and his civilization are confined to stretches of rocky outcroppings.  Burrowing beasties may be deadly, but they can’t dig through solid rock.  Crops are grown on the patches of ground that lay on top of the rock formations.  But it still would be pretty much a hopeless existence.  Except for the railsea.

    Crisscrossing the predator-laden ground are innumerable sets of railroad tracks, going here, there, and anywhere, but never in a straight line.   An expert railsea crew is essential to navigate them, for there’s a lot of switching, doubling-back, braking, and maneuvering through perilous curves along the way.  There are also a few lighthouses to help guide the trains to far-flung towns, where goods can be traded.

    But trade is not the only activity on the railsea.  There are forlorn wrecks of ancient trains, whose salvage is a profitable business.  And a speeding train with a crew of skilled harpoonists can reverse the roles of predator and prey.  Killing a giant moldywarpe can furnish meat for weeks on end for a hungry train crew, and is in huge demand at any port of call.

    So come along with young Shamus (“Sham”) Yes ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice on the good ship/moletrain “Medes”, and get a taste of the thrill of the hunt.  You never know what surprises might turn up.

What’s To Like...
    Railsea is another masterpiece of YA steampunk fiction from China Miéville, who I consider to be arguably the most talented author around nowadays.  As with all of his books, the world-building is fantastic, the storytelling superb, and the writing masterful.  Miéville is at his finest here – confident enough to break down the fourth wall at times, and replacing the word “and” by an ampersand (“&”) every time it appears.  This last nuance apparently annoyed some readers, but I thought it was great, and its rationale does get explained on page 163.

    Miéville also tips his hat to some great classics from the past.  You’ll easily recognize the influences of Moby Dick, Dune, and Treasure IslandRobinson Crusoe gets a brief nod towards the end of the story, and so does Shikasta, which I’m assuming is a quick bow at the great Doris Lessing.

    There are predators aplenty, both in the sky and beneath the soil, and each section starts with a way-kewl drawing of one of them, including my favorite – the blood rabbit.

    I loved the attention to detail.  The futuristic world may be bleak, but it is also rich and complex.  Although this is a steampunk world, there are submarines (which burrow through the underground, just like the critters), and even a few vintage-WW1 era airplanes.  The captains of the ships/trains aspire to have a “philosophy”, which is a nemesis akin to Captain Ahab’s Moby Dick, and it is considered a high honor if one’s philosophy has cost one’s captain an arm or a leg.  Literally.

    The chapters are short: 87 of them for 424 pages.  Those illustrations are an added bonus.  Railsea opens with an exciting moldywarpe chase, which helps the reader instantly get caught up in the daily life of the crew on a moletrain.  Somehow, despite all the attention to detail, the pace of the story remains brisk.

    The ending is superb.  Just when you think we’re going to wander around forever, the focus shifts to a quest for understanding the situation, something that’s been tickling the back of Sham’s mind for most of the book.  In the end everyone, including the reader, is given an inkling of who built the railsea, and why the terrain is the way it is. Railsea is a standalone story, and although it leaves room for a sequel, I don’t think China Miéville has any plans to do one.

Kewlest New Word...
Pootling (n.) : moving or traveling somewhere slowly and with no real purpose.  (a Britishism)
Others: Bolshy (adj.); Phonemes (n., pl.); Chthonic (adj.); Strigine (adj.); Sett (n.); Snaffled (v.).

Excerpts...
    From beneath came a dust-muffled howl.
    Amid strange landforms & stubs of antique plastic, black earth coned into a sudden hill.  & up something clawed.  Such a great & dark beast.
    Soaring from its burrow in a clod-cloud & explosion it came.  A monster.  It roared, it soared, into the air.  It hung a crazy moment at the apex of its leap.  As if surveying. As if to draw attention to its very size.  Crashed at last back down through the topsoil & disappeared into the below.
    The moldywarpe had breached.  (pg. 6)

    Their antique & reclaimed wares were set on stalls on the dockside, according to various taxonomies.  Pitted & oxidized mechanisms from the Heavy Metal Age; shards from the Plastozoic; printouts on thin rubber & ancient ordinator screens from the Computational Era: all choice arche-salvage, from astonishingly long ago.  & the less interesting stuff, too, that discarded or lost anything from a few hundred years ago to yesterday – nu-salvage.  (pg. 109)

 “Sentiment & moletrains don’t mix.”  “There is nowhere,” Fremlo said, “more sentimental than a moletrain.  Thankfully.”  (pg. 319)
    I can’t really think of anything to quibble about for Railsea.  It took me a while to get the hang of the author’s use of whaling/shipping terms for adventuring aboard a land-bound train.  But I blame that mostly on me.  Miéville does stop to give explanations at times (“there are two layers to the sky, & four layers” – page 30), but usually I was like: “Yeah, whatever. Now what happened next?” And one can always consult Wikipedia for a concise synopsis of the Railsea world.

    My rule thumb is if I can’t think of any negatives, even trivial ones, about a book, and if the storyline and writing resonates with me, then there’s only one rating to give it.  Hence:

    10 Stars.  I’ve enjoyed every China Miéville book I’ve read, my favorite being another YA novel of his, Un Lun Dun (reviewed here).  I’ve still got 4-5 of his books to go.  I don’t have any good explanation for why I’m behind reading his stuff, except to say that his books rarely show up in used-book stores.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Bite On The Line - Simon Cantan


   2014; 291 pages.  Book 1 (out of 5) of the “Bytarend” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Steampunk (sort of); YA (maybe) .  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Prince Tondbert is on the run.  Castle Latraio has fallen, and the rest of the royal family is either dead or fleeing for their lives, and his bodyguard has been slain doing what bodyguards get paid to do.  It’s time to disguise himself as a “thief king”, and seek safety in the neighboring town of Wikeadward.  Maybe he can find a job there, since his princely career seems to be over

    Sergeant Osric Ward has a job.  But his career is on the line yet again.  This is not the first time he’s punched a partner in the nose, and he’s getting to be very unpopular with his fellow city guards.  But this time that’s not what’s got him in hot water in Wikeadward.

    Indeed, both Tondbert and Osric share an unhealthy talent: pissing off the nobility in Wikeadward.  Something needs to be done about that.  Hey, no one’s heard anything from the town of Bytarend for a long time.  Why not send these two troublemakers up there to investigate?  If they can solve whatever’s the matter there, so much the better.

    And if they fail, well a suicide mission also takes care of a couple of problems for the nobles now, doesn’t it?

What’s To Like...
    The Bite On The Line is the debut book in a fantasy series by Simon Cantan.  It is a quick and easy read, with sufficient wit to keep the overall tone lighthearted, much like in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.  Indeed, the whole “city guard” setup reminded me of Sam Vimes and the Night Watch in Ankh-Morpork.

    There are a slew of characters to meet and greet, a lot of which have only cameo roles here, but perhaps will play greater parts as the series progresses.  I enjoyed meeting the humanoid varieties too: the blue-skinned desertmen, and the larger, more technically-advanced greymen.  The “critters” are limited to lifeleeches, animal leeches, and the lifeless, but when coupled with baddies, that's plenty to keep the story's pace a-hopping.  And I suspect other beasties will be introduced in the subsequent books

    The book is written in English, not American, so you will encounter word spellings like metres, labourers, sceptically, and storeys, not to mention the new (for me) slang word, taffer.  I liked the Author’s Note at the end of the book; Simon Cantan lists Harry Harrison, Robert Asprin, Terry Pratchett, and Piers Anthony as inspirations for his choosing to pursue a career as an author.  I’ve read books by all of those, and it is a great set of writers to emulate..

   The writing style is a mixed bag.  Overall, it reads like a YA tale aimed at boys – the storyline is straightforward, the romance is minimal, the action is non-stop, and there’s plenty of humor, but not to where it smothers the action.  I chuckled at the “Gallant Mayoral Medal of Gallantry”.  OTOH, there are some whores and prostitutes, a chin-to-brain sword thrust, and even a cross-dresser.  So I’m not 100% sure the author intended this to be YA.

Kewlest New Word…
Taffer (n.) : a common criminal; any sort of lowlife person.  (a made-up word, per Google)

Excerpts...
    “Be very afraid, Budic,” Osric said.  “I have a long, pointy sword, and I know how to use it.”
     Budic stared at Osric for a moment, then spun on his heels and ran away.
    “What’s wrong with him?” Osric asked.
    “You catch more flies with honey, Captain,” Lewelin said.  “You asked me to come with you to talk to people.  Why not let me?”
    “Why would I want to catch flies?” Osric asked.  “What a waste of honey.”  (loc. 2201)

    “Alright Captain, hop up here,” the professor said, indicating the seat at the end of the catapult arm.
    “You’re going to shoot me at the castle, aren’t you?” Osric said.
    “Of course not,” the professor said.  “You’d never get there with just the energy of the catapult.  We have to boost the launch with explosives.  Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.”  (loc. 3204)

Kindle Details...
    The Bite on the Line sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other four books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  Simon Cantan has a dozen or so other e-books available, some of which are parts of a couple other series, and they range in price from $2.99  to $6.99.  He also has one novella, the first book of one of those series, for free.

 “Bodies should have the common sense to stay still after they’re dead.”  (loc. 387)
    Alas, The Bite On The Line has a couple issues, besides the “Is it or isn’t it a YA novel?” conundrum.

    Most notably, the storytelling, while action-packed, suffers from a lack of focus.  Things start with a quest to find a small, grey box.  Then Nick and Harry enter, as apparently major players, only to exit soon afterward, never to return.  Then our dynamic duo investigates a serial killer, but this is merely a prelude to the forced exile to Bytarend.  So the main plotline doesn’t begin until we’re more than a quarter of the way through the book.

    The character development seemed weak to me, although this would be excusable if the target audience was YA boys.  And while everything builds nicely to an exciting ending, the defeat of the Ultimate Baddie was somewhat of a letdown.  After putting up a staunch fight, he just sort of suddenly quits.

    And lastly, I never did figure out what the book’s title meant.  One of the chapters  is similarly named, and I went back and reread it, but even then, I couldn’t see a tie-in.  Maybe I’m getting to be too dense for a YA plotline.

    5½ Stars.  It is an added bonus whenever a YA book can entertain both youngsters and adults alike.  Unfortunately, The Bite On The Line seems likely to only keep the interest of young-teen boys.  Let’s be clear, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  I read the Hardy Boys books with a passion back in my salad days, and that series, along with Nancy Drew for young girl readers, were immensely popular at the time.  But I cringe at the thought of having to read a Hardy Boys book as an adult.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Confession of Brother Haluin - Ellis Peters


   1988; 196 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 15 (out of 20) of the “Brother Cadfael” series. Genre : Murder-Mystery, Historical Fiction, Cozy Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Ah, yes.  Those deathbed confessions.  They’re good for your soul.  Especially when you’ve been carrying around an unconfessed sin for close to 20 years.

    Such is the burden Brother Haluin’s bearing.  But he’s slipped from the icy roof of the abbey’s guest hall while trying to clear the snowfall off.  It was a 40 foot drop, and now he lays at death’s door.  Best to confess the grievous transgression that drove him to take up the cloth in the first place.

    As head of the abbey, Abbot Radulfus is duly called to hear Brother Haluin’s final confession.  Brother Cadfael is also present, since Haluin says the sin was also against him, even though Cadfael was unaware of it.  And it is indeed a vile misdeed, something that definitely needed to be gotten off one's chest before approaching the pearly gates.  There’s just one problem.

    What do you do about it when, against all odds, Brother Haluin makes a dramatic recovery?

What’s To Like...
    The Confession of Brother Haluin is the ninth book I’ve read in this series, so I’m about halfway in completing it.  The plotlines are by-and-large formulaic: there’s always a heartwarming-but-forbidden love, somebody gets murdered, one or the other of the lovebirds gets accused, and Brother Cadfael saves the day via 12th-century sleuthing.

    This book is no exception to this format, but the first half of the story is mostly about Haluin resolving to undertake a pilgrimage of penance, despite being unable to walk without crutches.  By page 100, I was muttering “Where’s the Murder?”  and “Where’s the Romance?”  I shouldn’t’ve fretted.  Both show up shortly thereafter, and things hum along swimmingly through the rest of the pages.

    Ellis Peters tackles some controversial issues here – abortion and incest – and I was wondering how she planned on resolving both while still maintaining the “cozy mystery” style.  Well, she managed this quite successfully and with impressive plausibility.

    All Brother Cadfael books are a vocabularian’s delight.  The best words of the bunch are listed below, and I was proud that my brain is retaining some of the medieval words, such as “lief” and “assart”.  The use of the word “solar” as a noun was totally new to me.

    The settings for the story are somewhat unusual in that very little takes place at the abbey and the nearby town of Shrewsbury.  Haluin makes his pilgrimage to a place somewhat removed from the abbey, and Cadfael accompanies him.  So most of the regulars are either missing or have only minor roles.  Ah, but this meant meeting lots of new people and going to lots of new places, and I enjoyed that.

   I also liked that none of the characters were totally black or white, not even those who perpetrated the murder.  Even Cadfael has some moments of self-doubt, such as when he reflects on his “meddling” in the past.  Everything builds to great, and somewhat surprising ending which, like any cozy should, will leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling, despite a loose thread or two.

Kewlest New Word...
Solar (n., Middle English) : a loft or upper chamber forming the private accommodation of the head of the household in a medieval hall.
Others: Chilblained (adj.); Elegiac (adj.); Garth (n.); Colloquy (n.); Advowson (n.).

Excerpts...
    “You do know about my marriage – that Jean comes here today?”
    “Your brother has told us,” said Cadfael, watching the features of her oval face emerge softly from shadow, every plaintive, ingenuous line testifying to her youth.  “But there are things he could not tell us,” he said, watching her intently, “except by hearsay.  Only you can tell us whether this match has your consent, freely given, or no.”  (…)
    “If we do anything freely, once we are grown,” she said, “then yes, this I do freely.  There are rules that must be kept.  There are others in the world who have rights and needs, and we are all bound.”  (pg. 106)

    It is a terrible responsibility, thought Cadfael, who had never aspired to ordination, to have the grace of God committed to a man’s hands, to be privileged and burdened to play a part in other people’s lives, to promise them salvation in baptism, to lock their lives together in matrimony, to hold the key to purgatory at their departing.  If I have meddled, he thought devoutly, and God knows I have, when need was and there was no better man to attempt it, at least I have meddled only as a fellow sinner, tramping the same road, not as a viscount of heaven, stooping to raise up.  (pg. 114)

 Murder brings out into the open many matters no less painful, while itself still lurking in the dark.  (pg. 128)
    The quibbles are negligible.

    I‘m getting to the point, having read so many of these Brother Cadfael books, that I can anticipate the plot twists coming up.  But I still marvel at how plausible Ellis Peters makes them seem.

    Also, the pacing of the first half of the book kinda dawdles for a while as Cadfael and Haluin traipse around, and the reader waits for someone to get killed.  Plus, there were one or two incredible coincidences that strained my bridge of believability, but it has to be said they served to move the story along.

    Last, and least, if you like cozies but don’t like historical fiction, this series may not be your cup of tea.  Cadfael and the sheriff Hugh Beringar spend about 10 pages at the beginning discussing the ongoing civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud (yes, England did have an Empress once upon a time).   I love history, and so for me this was fascinating.  But for those who aren’t history buffs, it may be a bit tedious.

    8 Stars.  At Book 15 out of 20, The Confession of Brother Haluin comes rather late in the series, and most of the ones I’ve read so far are earlier entries.  So it was a nice surprise to see the series hadn’t lost any of its luster as it aged.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Drunken Botanist - Amy Stewart


   2013; 400 pages.  Full Title : The Drunken Botanist – The Plants That The World’s Greatest Drinks.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Reference, Science, Chemistry, Booze, Botany.  Laurels : NY Times Bestseller, Amazon Best Book of the Month (March 2013); Winner, International Association of Culinary Professionals Judge’s Award (2014).  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Hey, I’ve got a great idea.  Let’s make our own booze!  I don’t care if it’s beer, wine, or whatever kind of hard liquor that floats your boat.  We can customize it to make it a truly unique microbrew.

    Of course, we will have to learn how to make it.  Grab some grapes or something and ferment them, or distill them, or whatever it takes create to a concoction that'll give you a buzz when you drink it.

    Hmm.  I wonder where you go to find out how to produce your own hooch.  Hey, I bet any book that’s titled “The Drunken Botanist” will give us some great tips.

What’s To Like...
    I liked the way Amy Stewart structured The Drunken Botanist.  The sections address topics in descending order of importance, and also kinda chronological.  You make the alcohol first, throw in additives to suit to taste, then adorn your creation with garnishes or mixers.  A brief outline:

Part A : Apertif (1%)
    Author’s Introduction.   
Part B : About The Recipes (2%)
    Tips about choosing glasses, ice, tonic water, etc.
Part 1 : Fermentation & Distillation (2%)
    “The Classics” (from Agave to Wheat)
    “Strange Brews” (from Bananas to Tamarind)
Part 2 : Additives (31%)
    Herbs & Spices, Flowers, Trees, Fruit, Nuts & Seeds
Part 3 : Mixers and Garnishes (65%)
    Herbs, Flowers, Trees, Berries & Vines, Fruits & Vegetables
Part C : Digestif
    Author’s Afterword.

    There’s a drawing included for each plant being spotlighted, and the pictures are all smoothly expandable.  Some of the subsections included are: “Bugs in Booze” (a guide to the critters that might infest those plants); “Grow Your Own” (tips on how to best ‘start from scratch’ when making ingredients yourself), and a slew of drink recipes that will appeal to the bartender in you.

    Amy Stewart also warns the reader of poisonous lookalike plants, should you be tempted to “pick your own”, and cautions you about crazy ideas such as importing some of the cited substances that happen to be illegal here.  She also sprinkles all sorts of historical trivia throughout the book, such as George Washington being the dominant force in the rye whiskey making market in early America, wine making that started as early as 6000 years ago, and the fascinating story of quinine.  A nice added feature is: if you want to look up something, there is a huge Index section at the back of the e-book.  Seriously.  It goes from 72% to 100% Kindle.

    Several of the anecdotal topics resonated with me personally.  Caramel coloring is mentioned as an additive in beer and soda.  My company supplied one of the reactants in this process for many years.  Pennsylvania Dutch country, which is where I grew up, is cited for loving its sarsaparilla.  The amygdalin cited in the apricots section is something I was once hired to develop a process for.  And I laughed at the mention of Theobroma; it played a key role in a book I read recently (reviewed here), and I thought at the time it was a figment of Kage Baker’s imagination.

Excerpts...
    Around the world, it seems, there is not a tree or shrub or delicate wildflower that has not been harvested, brewed, and bottled.  Every advance in botanical exploration or horticultural science brought with it a corresponding uptick in the quality of our spirituous liquors.  Drunken botanists?  Given the role they play in creating the world’s great drinks, it’s a wonder there are any sober botanists at all.  (loc. 103)

THE PERFECT PASTS
1 plane ticket to Paris
1 summer afternoon
1 sidewalk café
    Upon arrival in Paris, locate a café that appears to be frequented by actual Parisians.  Secure a seat and order un pastis, s’il vous plaît.  If it is served neat with a jug of cold water, you are expected to mix it yourself, drizzling the water in until you have achieved a satisfactory ratio – usually 3 to 5 parts water to 1 part pastis.  (loc. 2709)

Kindle Details…
    The e-book version of The Drunken Botanist sells for $9.15 at Amazon.  There are two other books in this series, Wicked Plants and Wicked Bugs, which go for $9.99 each.  Both of them await me on my Kindle.  Amy Stewart has written a number of other e-books, including a 3-volume “Kopp Sisters” mystery series.  Those sell for $9.99-$14.99 apiece.

 Next time you pull a piece of silk from between your teeth while you’re eating a fresh ear of corn, remember that you’ve just spat out a fallopian tube.  (loc. 827 )
    The quibbles are minor.  There are a couple links to pages, but since the e-book isn’t formatted to display page numbers, you find yourself at an unknown location when you use the link.

    Also, reading the “mixers and garnishes” sections gets a little bit tedious in spots, when they all start to sound the same.  I think Amy Stewart realized that though, and covers a lot of the most humdrum subsections via mercifully concise data tables.

    But let's not dwell on the minor minuses.  The Drunken Botanist is a fascinating read, and I’m looking forward to exploring the other two books in the series.  We’ll close this review with a quick trivia question to tickle your fancy:

    What is the oldest domesticated living organism?  Answer in the comments section.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you love partaking of mixed drinks and/or beer.  My alcoholic taste buds confine themselves to wine, which means a lot of the sections in The Drunken Botanist weren’t personally relevant.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cosmonaut Keep - Ken MacLeod



   2000; 336 pages.  Book One of the “Engines of Light” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science-Fiction; Space Opera; First Contact; Romance.  Laurels : Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee (2001); Hugo Award Nominee (2002, Best Novel).  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It’s 2040 AD, and the excitement level in Matt’s life have just escalated quickly.  One moment he’s living a somewhat mundane life as an outlaw computer programmer (“hacker” has such a negative connotation), and a minor member of the Resistance.  A moment later, he finds himself on the run: a wanted man by the government, and all because of some classified information he’s procured by practicing his craft.

    He’s also romantically involved with a fellow resistance member, Jadey.

    Meanwhile (and we’re using that term loosely), a couple centuries in the future and halfway across the galaxy, Gregor is trying to develop a trade agreement on behalf of the port city of Kyohvic, located on the backwater planet Mingulay.

    He’s also romantically involved with the daughter of Esias de Tenebrethe, a Nova Babylonian business magnate,

    Well, it doesn’t really seem like the two storylines have much in common, as Matt and Gregor are separated by hundreds of years and hundreds of light years.  But the two men do have one thing they share.

    They have the same last name.

What’s To Like...
    Cosmonaut Keep is Space Opera at its finest, with fabulous descriptions of faraway worlds, a kewl species of sentient raptors (the “saurs”), and of course, lots of sex.  The chapters alternate between Matt’s adventures and Gregor’s, with different POV’s (Matt’s: 1st person; Gregor's: 3rd-person), so there’s no confusion as to who, where and when you’re reading about.  The writing is superb.  This is a vocabularian's delight.

    The chapters are of moderate length – 22 of them to cover 336 pages.  The book has its share of cussing and sex, but we'd expect that from Space Opera stories.  The Romance consists of a pair of love triangles: Matt/Jadey/Camila and Gregor/Lydia/Elizabeth.  But don't worry about things getting mushy.  One person in each triangle pretty much disappears in the second half of the book, leaving the remaining pair to have lots of guilt-free, weightless rolls in the proverbial hay.

    Outside of the saurs, there aren’t a lot of alien critters to meet:  a few gigants (an alternate word for giants), and some pithkies.  All the saur characters are richly developed, and I always enjoy meeting species who are intellectually and ethically superior to humans.  To boot, their limited tolerance to the effects of cannabis makes for some hilarious interludes in the story.  I also chuckled at the “Scoffer’s church service” and the appreciated the smattering of French phrases thrown in.

    The first half of the book was a bit of a slog and suffered from “PWP?” (“Plot? What plot?”) as well.   Matt’s on the run with some secret flying saucer information (which may or may not be bogus), but his mode of fleeing is via a slow boat to America, so there’s not much tension.  Most of Gregor’s problems stem from his blithely naïve approach to the love triangle.

    But things pick up in the second half of the tale, when Matt makes it into outer space and Gregor goes searching for the “First Crew”.  So fear not, fellow readers, Cosmonaut Keep is heavily science-fiction, with just a thin veneer of Romance.

Kewlest New Word  ...
Anhedonic (adj.) : pertaining to a lack of pleasure or the capacity to experience it.
Others : Bolide (n.); Pong (n.); Bravura (n.); Noachic (adj.); Mole (n., its ‘harbor’ definition ).


Excerpts...
    “Okay,” she said.  “What next?”
    “I pull together a small company to investigate this thing.”  I turned back to the screen.  “I have a lot of good contacts for this.”
    “Maybe you do,” she said.  “But not tonight.”
    “What?”
    She stared at me, then reached out and caught my hand.  “Come on.  I’ve had a murderously long day.  Let’s go down to the bar, then I’ll take you up on the offer of a bed for the night.”
    First I knew of the offer, but I didn’t refuse.  (pg. 67)

    The saur’s superior intelligence and honesty would make him, as any trader as experienced as this one was sure to know, unlikely to bullshit.  (Salasso had once explained to her, with perfect aplomb, that the qualities of intelligence and honesty were linked: with sufficient intelligence one could see the ramifying consequences of a lie, the sheer cost in mental processing-power of sustaining it, and draw back from it.  “Perhaps this relationship does not hold for the homidae,” he’d added, with wounding tact.)  (pg. 139)

 “The dream you guys have of treating the Solar System as raw material for orbital mobile homes, guns, and beer cans is right out.”  (pg. 196)
    There were a couple disappointing aspects to this book, which were directly related to the fact that Cosmonaut Keep is the first book in a trilogy.  I was drooling over the trilobites, tethys, krakens, and ichthyosaurs that show up in the first couple pages, but then they leave the stage, never to be seen again.  Perhaps they play a bigger role in the next two books.

    More importantly, there’s the problem with the ending, or rather, the lack of one.  The two storylines do finally converge (page 302), and a case can be made that the tale ends at a logical point.  But none of the story’s threads are resolved, and I kinda got the feeling that the only purpose of the ending was to set up the sequels.

    That may be fine if you have all three books setting on your TBR shelf, but I don’t.  I found my copy of Cosmonaut Keep at a used-book store, and Books 2 and 3 weren't available there, or at my two local libraries, in any form: hardback, paperback, or as an e-book.  So my options are to either fork over $7.99 apiece for the next two books in Kindle format, or wait patiently until I come across them as used books.

    I don’t begrudge Ken MacLeod for writing this saga as a series or wanting to be paid his fair share for his stories, but I do expect each and every book to have a self-contained, complete story.  Cosmonaut Keep doesn’t, and I was frankly surprised that it got nominated for two prestigious awards despite this.

    7 Stars.  Let’s be clear, this is still a well-written piece of sci-fi Space Opera, and readers looking for an entertaining book in that genre will not be disappointed.   But a reader is entitled to self-contained storyline in any and every book he guys, even if it is part of a series.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gilgamesh The King - Robert Silverberg


   1984; 404 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Myths & Legends.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    I know what you’re thinking: just who the heck was Gilgamesh?

    Well, he's a legendary hero of an ancient (Akkadian) epic called The Epic of Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets and in cuneiform somewhere around 2100 BC.  That in turn was based on an earlier (Sumerian) account about presumably the same guy, although in that version he was called Bilgamesh.

    The Akkadian version is quite complete; the Sumerian version is fragmentary.  You can read about all this by looking up ‘Gilgamesh’ in Wikipedia.  

   Although the Gilgamesh in the ancient story is legendary in nature, there is evidence that there really was also a historical Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, and that the clay tablet tales are just legends that cropped up about him as time went on.  The case can be made, therefore, that The Epic of Gilgamesh is in fact the earliest work of fiction that has ever been found.

    But using cuneiform to write a book on clay tablets is a PITA, and there is a practical limit to just how long such a tale of fiction can be.

    It almost screams for an enterprising modern-day writer to come along and flesh out Gilgamesh’s story.

What’s To Like...
    Make no mistake about it, Robert Silverberg is a revered and renowned Sci-Fi writer, but Gilgamesh The King has zero science fiction and zero fantasy.  It is 100% Historical Fiction, and Silverberg does a wonderful job of making you feel at home in the Mesopotamia of 4,000 years ago.  The details of the settings flow smoothly, without any hint of being an info-dump.  Some of them did seem like anachronisms to me – antimony, planets, steel, the phalanx, and beakers – but I’ll trust in the author’s research that such things really were around way back then, albeit probably viewed and spoken of in different terms than we do nowadays.  I do have some serious doubts about a vampire working its way into the story though, which does occur here.

    There’s a lot of holy sex going on, as well as a lot of not-so-holy sex; and a lot of nakedness to boot.  The chapters are short (41 of them to cover 404 pages), and the Introduction and Afterword, although similar are well worth your time to read.  The story is told in the first-person (Gilgamesh’s) POV.  I seem to be reading a lot of those lately.

    I’ve never read the historical version of this story, but in reading the Wikipedia entry for it, it is obvious that Robert Silverberg’s rendering of it sticks closely to the Akkadian version.  Still, I also enjoyed the ways in which the modern story goes its own way.  While Gilgamesh sees gods, goddesses and demons in just about everything, Silverberg carefully presents how natural events could just as easily explain everything.   I especially liked the alternate version of the Flood narrative, and of Ziusudra’s supposedly “eternal life”.

    The main themes that Gilgamesh seeks enlightenment about are : a.) what happens after you die?, b.) can you avoid death if you’re partly divine?, c.) the roles that gods seemingly play in the daily affairs of the world, and d.) are gods and demons real or not?  Those questions are still asked today.  Gilgamesh receives answers to some of these, but not all.

    The ending is good, and the epilogue is even better.  Gilgamesh The King is a standalone novel, a one-off effort by Robert Silverberg in a genre quite foreign to him, and AFAIK, he’s never contemplated a sequel to it.

Excerpts...
    “We are a free city!” I cried.  “Are we to surrender?”
    “There are wells to dig and canals to dredge,” said Ali-ellati.  “Let us pay what Agga demands, and go about our business in peace.  War is very expensive.”
    “And Kish is very mighty,” said Enlil-ennam.
    “I call for your pledges,” I said.  “I will defy Agga: give me your support.”
    “Peace,” they said.  “Tribute,” they said.  “There are wells to dig,” they said.  (loc. 1994)

   I sat upon my high throne, thinking, Enkidu has died and shuffles about now within that place of dust, cloaked like a bird in gloomy feathers, making his evening meal out of cold clay.  And soon enough I must go to that dark place too.  One day a king in a grand palace, the next a mournful creature flapping his wings in the dust – was that the fate that awaited me? (…)
    Flies, flies, buzzing flies: we are nothing more than that, I told myself.  What sense in being a king?  King of the flies?  (loc. 3700)

Kindle Details...
    Gilgamesh The King sells for $7.99 at Amazon.  Robert Silverberg has been a prolific writer of science-fiction since the 1950’s, and there are a slew of his novels available for the Kindle, ranging in price from $5.99 to $13.19. There are also a number of his short stories and novellas available for a lesser price.  If you are patient, though, a number of his works are periodically discounted at Amazon, which is how I snagged this book.

 (T)here are times when it is perilous to think.  (loc. 1811)
    I had some difficulties with Gilgamesh The King.  There were some significant slow spots, particularly in the early going, when Gilgamesh is telling us how wonderful he is at everything.  As a protagonist, I found him to be a royal a$$hole, but I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the good citizens of Uruk felt likewise.

    Also, as a storyteller, Gilgamesh leaves a lot to be desired.  Spoilers abound, and he tends to “telegraph” the plot twists that are coming down the pike.  I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been better to tell the tale in the 3rd-person POV.  Then again, I also wonder if I would’ve appreciated the story more if I had read (a translation of) the Akkadian version, or at least the Wikipedia article first.

    But patience is a virtue, and things pick up around 50%, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh become buddies and set out upon their quest.  And the myth-busting portions of the second half of the book will give you pause when any theology wants you to practice “blind faith”.

    6 Stars.  Add 2 stars if you’ve read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and loved it.  You’ll find Gilgamesh The King to be a fascinating book.  For the record, I found Siddhartha to be boring from beginning to end.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Graveyard Game - Kage Baker


   2001; 298 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 4 (out of 9 or 11, depending what you include) of the “Company”.  Series. Genre : Dystopian Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Just how would you go about eliminating an immortal?  Is it even possible to do that?  Joseph and Lewis, two cyborgs who have been working as agents for Dr. Zeus Inc. (aka the “Company”) for thousands of years, are pondering those questions.

     Theoretically, it’s impossible.  Chop a cyborg’s head off, and the nanobots within him are programmed to make repairs and put everything back into tiptop working order.  It may take a while to do the job, but thanks to 24th-cetnury technology, it’s proven engineering.

    And yet…

    Lately, a number of Joseph and Lewis’s fellow cyborgs have disappeared.  Heck, the whole squadron of the “Enforcers”, used extensively by the Company back in prehistoric times, are now nowhere to be found.  The official line is that they’ve “retired”, but to where?  It seems funny that none of them has ever been seen again.

    It behooves Lewis and Joseph to find an answer to this enigma.  After all, they might be the next pair of agents that Dr. Zeus Inc. “retires”.  And for Lewis, it’s also a personal matter.  His fellow agent, Mendoza has gone missing and no one has seen her.

    And he’s in love with her.

What’s To Like...
    It’s always a treat to read an author who can write well  in addition to being able to tell a great story, and Kage Baker had a gift for this.  The Graveyard Game transitions the reader from the recent past (1996) through the present, and then several centuries into the future, ending at 2276 AD.  Overall, the series is closing in on its most critical point in time – 2355 AD, after which nothing more is known, even though time-travel technology is available.

    I loved the details of our future world.  Coffee, cream and chocolate are all illegal, although you can still get Toblerones on the black market, and you can get high on Theobroma, a cacao-like substance.  The Beast Liberation Party was a neat twist: they make PETA look like a bunch of wimps, and are pushing for the banning of silk, out of concern for the silkworms.  And the Yorkshire literary tour was a hoot.

    The Graveyard Game is a complex read, with a number of plotlines interweaving throughout the book.  Where’s Mendoza?  Why does her first love (who isn’t Lewis) seem to keep reincarnating?  What happens in 2355 AD?  Why does it seem like the Company is covering a lot of things up?  What’s become of the Enforcers?

Some threads remain unresolved at the end of the book.  The “little people” are a clear and present danger to the immortals, and while they don’t seem to be of the Company’s doing, all the same the agents are given no help in defending against this threat.  A mysterious “Site 317” is whispered about, but no one seems to know anything concrete of it.

    The Graveyard Game is heavy on the intrigue, with enough action to keep it from bogging down.  It is not a standalone novel; you really should read the books in this series in order.

Kewlest New Word...
Jitney (n.) : a bus or other vehicle carrying passengers for a low fare.

Excerpts...
    “You actually want to go see a necropolis tomorrow?”  (…)
    “It’s psychological,” Joseph said, pushing away from the coping and rotating slowly in his pool float.  “People are designed by nature to need a last resting place.  The idea of one, anyway.  We immortal guys never get graves.  The programming we’re given in school keeps the urge off for the first few millennia, but after a while you find yourself wondering what it would be like to just – lie down in a tomb and stop moving forever.  So it helps, see, to go and look at the reality.  Bones and dust.  Makes you glad to be alive.”  (pg. 131, and the explanation of the book’s title.)

    Religion isn’t illegal, but is increasingly being regarded with genteel horror by most people, except the Ephesians.  Faith is so … psychologically incorrect.
    Sex isn’t illegal, but there isn’t a lot of it going on these days.  There’s talk about how it’s a distasteful animal urge, how it victimizes women and robs men of their primal power.  It creates codependency.  It presents a terrible risk of catching a communicable disease.  Relationships of any kind, in fact, are probably a bad idea.  (pg. 217)

 “Really, Joseph, there weren’t any druids yet when Stonehenge was finished.  I was one, I should know.”  (pg. 17)
    It should be noted, and this is not really a spoiler, that the star of this series, Mendoza, doesn’t make an appearance in The Graveyard Game at all.  The story really revolves around Joseph and Lewis endeavoring to find out what has happened to her.

    On a larger scale, it felt like Kage Baker was using the book to fill in the non-Mendoza details of events that are leading up to whatever climax is coming in 2355 AD.  Since there are at least five more books to go in the series, I’m left wondering whether the timeline pace is about to slow down.

    It’s been five years since I’ve read the previous book in this series, Mendoza In Hollywood (reviewed here).  So I appreciated the short backstory given at the very beginning of this book, which is further fleshed out in the first couple chapters.  I was bummed  that Mendoza didn’t show up, but it was a pleasure getting to know Joseph and Lewis in greater detail.

    8 Stars.  Revolution is nigh!  I’m sure I’ll be reading the next book in the series, The Life of the World to Come, in the not-to-distant future.  I’m hooked on finding out what and where Site 317 is, and how the simpleminded but highly focused “little people” figure into all this.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris


   2011;3101 pages.  Book 1 (out of 13) of the “Sookie Stackhouse” series, aka “The Southern Vampire Mysteries”.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Vampires; Paranormal Mystery; Gothic Romance.  Laurels : Winner, Anthony Award for Best Paperback Mystery (2001).  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It was love at first fright for Sookie Stackhouse when Bill Compton came through the door at the restaurant/bar where she works as a waitress.  Not that Sookie’s an authority on the subject, since most guys tend to shy away from her because of her “disability”.

   For it seems Sookie has the ability to read the thoughts of people around her and most guys, when they’re trying to hit up on a girl, really don’t want her to be able to do that.  You could call Sookie a telepath, although sometimes all she can read are emotions and feelings, not words.  Strangely though, she can’t read her boss’s mind, a fellow named Sam Merlotte.

    Nor Bill's.  How her boss manages to mask his thoughts is a mystery, but that’s not so with Bill’s.  He’s a vampire.

    Which is pretty creepy, except he’s a handsome, dashing, well-built hunk of a vampire.  And if nothing else, hanging around Bill is going to give Sookie some much-needed peace and quiet.  Hearing other people’s thoughts all the time can get quite noisy.  And tiresome.

What’s To Like...
    I’m not a big reader of vampire novels, and I’m even less a fan of anything in the Romance genre, but I still enjoyed Dead Until Dark.  The writing is good and the mystery portion of the storyline was well-constructed.  I don’t recall any slow spots.  It’s easy to see why this became a hit series.

    The story is told in the first-person POV (Sookie’s).  The chapters are long – only 12 of them to cover 327 pages, but it’s a fast-read, and there are usually several places in a given chapter where a scene-shift allows you to break off reading.

    There are multiple storylines.  First off, there’s Sookie’s coming-of-age story, including a love triangle that she has to deal with.  But we also get to follow her as she tries to figure out who’s been killing a number of local women.  The victims all were strangled, but they also have bite marks on them, so any and all vampires quickly become suspects.

    The overall tone of the book is light as Sookie starts to fall in love with Bill.  Both the reader and Sookie find the answer to questions such as “Can vampires do ‘it’?”, “Are they good at ‘it’?”, etc.  But there is a more serious theme explored - bigotry, as the residents of Sookie’s hometown of Bon Temps, Louisiana get used to “others” coming to live in their neighborhood.

     There’s a lot of killing-off of characters, almost to a GRRM degree.  Most of the vampires, other than Bill, seemed only 'adequately' developed, but this of course could change as the series progresses.  Similarly, while there are lots of vampires, there’s only two other cases of “otherworldly” creatures.  I’m almost certain that list expands in the subsequent books.  I liked the coining of the word “fang-banger”, and chuckled at the choice of the main vampire’s name.  ‘Bill Compton’ is a revered figure in (my local) Phoenix music lore; as a DJ at the fledgling KDKB radio station, he made this city a national beacon for cutting-edge rock-&-roll music.

    Dead Until Dark is a standalone story, as well as the introduction to a (completed) 13-book series.  The e-book ends at 88%, with the remaining 12% consisting of a preview of Book Two.

Kewlest New Word…
Codicil (n.) : an addition or supplement that explains, modifies, or revokes a will or part of one.
Others : Stertorous (adj.)

Excerpts...
    I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.
    Ever since vampires came out of the coffin (as they laughingly put it) two years ago, I’d hoped one would come to Bon Temps.  We had all the other minorities in our little town – why not the newest, the legally recognized undead?  But rural northern Louisiana wasn’t too tempting to vampires, apparently; on the other hand, New Orleans was a real center for them – the whole Anne Rice thing, right?  (loc. 46, and the opening paragraphs to the book)

   I pulled a dress from the back of my closet, one I’d had little occasion to wear.  It was a Nice Date dress, if you wanted the personal interest of whoever was your escort.  It was cut square and low in the neck, and it was sleeveless.  It was tight and white.  The fabric was thinly scattered with bright red flowers with long green stems.  My tan glowed and my boobs showed.  I wore red enamel earrings and red high-heeled screw-me shoes.  (loc. 1512)

Kindle Details...
    A Dead Red Heart sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The next book in the series, Living Dead in Dallas, sells for $5.99, the rest of the books all go for $7.99 apiece.  This is a completed series, the last book (#13) having been published in 2013.  Charlaine Harris has started several new series since then.

 “You won’t find a vampire in a Ford Fiesta.”  (loc. 3029)
    I’ve been meaning to get acquainted with the Sookie Stackhouse series since eight years ago, when I was in a collaborative group book blog, and one of the other participants gave it a "highly  recommended" review/rating.  For some reason I was under the impression it was a YA series.  It is not.

    There is some cussing and at least a discussion of child molesting.  Sex tapes also get mentioned, and there is a fair amount of sex itself.  So all in all, it is probably not something you want little Susie or Timmy reading at an early age.

    That being said, there is nothing lurid or smutty about the sex scenes.  Indeed Dead Until Dark reminded me of a Stephanie Plum novel, but with vampires thrown in.  I seem to be  unintentionally reading a lot of this niche genre lately.

    8½ Stars.  I concur with my former book blogmate and highly recommend Dead Until Dark.  I bought Book Three in the series, Club Dead, while it was discounted recently, and was happy to see my local library had 7 of its 10 copies of the first book available for the Kindle to borrow and download.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a copy of Book Two, Living Dead in Dallas, available as well.