Thursday, August 25, 2016

One Summer - America, 1927 - Bill Bryson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hour of the Octopus - Joel Rosenberg

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

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

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

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

    Someone like you, Kami Dan’Shir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Provençal Mystery - Ann Elwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And flying around on broomsticks is incredibly kewl.

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

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Dark Inheritance - W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear

   2012; 579 pages.  New Authors? : Yes.  Genre : Thriller; Genetics Gone Wrong.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    Really, for an anthropologist like Jim Dutton, it’s a dream job: raising and monitoring Umber, one of Smyth-Archer Chemists’ genetically augmented chimpanzees (bonobos, actually) in his own household.

    It’s not just the scientific research.  Umber seems more human than ape; she watches television, goes shopping for groceries, and cooks dinner.  Furthermore, she’s grown up alongside Jim’s 13-year-old, Brett, and the two have bonded like sisters.  They read Teen magazine together, and drool over Leonardo DiCaprio.

    So it’s easy to forget Umber is still the property of Smyth-Archer Chemists.  But she is, and when SAC comes knocking one day on Jim’s door, with the stated intention of taking Umber to Africa and rintroducing her to the wild, there’s not much he and Brett can do.  It’s either never see Umber again, or at least accompany her to Africa and be part of her forced transformation of habitat..

    Guess which one they choose.

What’s To Like...
    Dark Inheritance is a thriller about genetic tinkering gone awry, so if you enjoyed the premise in books like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, you’ll like this one as well.  The book divides into two halves.  The first half is mostly set in the USA, and develops the background story.  To keep it from getting too dry (this is a thriller, after all, not a drama), the Gears sprinkle in some mayhem taking place in both Africa and Texas.

    The second half of the book has plenty of action, and is mostly situated in a small African country called Equatorial Guinea.  I liked the descriptions of the place; you get a feel for it without getting bogged down in an avalanche of details.

    There are gobs of characters to meet and keep straight, both of the human and simian variety.  It’s gotta be a challenge to develop several augmented apes into believable, 3-D characters, but the authors do a good job here.

    There’s plenty of blood and gore, particularly in the second half, plus a couple attempted rapes, and even some diarrhea to contend with.  The Africans are pretty much stereotyped, but the storyline plods along to an acceptable climax.  I very much liked the way the character of “Sky Eyes” was resolved.

Kewlest New Word…
Benighted (adj.) : in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance.

    “Good God, Jim, after all these years, you’re still in love with her.  What any other woman on earth would give for that kind of devotion.”
    He shrugged.  “She’s the mother of my daughter.  I owe her something.”
    “That, or you’ve got monogamous genes.”
    “No, I like Levi’s, thanks.”  (loc. 1077)

   “God help you, don’t you realize that eventually the press is going to learn about this?  The professional community is already whispering about it.”
    “True.”  Godmoore laced his hands together.  “Fortunately, few people pay attention to scientists.  They’d much rather worry about athletes and movie stars.  We expect a rather slow building of interest.  When reporters start sniffing around the SAC apes, we will take the appropriate steps to defuse their interest.”  (loc. 2328)

Kindle Details...
    Dark Inheritance presently sells for $5.99 at Amazon.  This is kind of a one-off book for the Gears, but they have a slew of other e-books available, including their better-known “People of the” historical fiction series set in pre-Colombian Native America.  Most of their books are in the $5.99-$8.99 price range.

 “You wouldn’t believe what happened at the last faculty meeting.  We caught one of the archaeologists digging up dirt about people’s pasts.”  (loc. 1046)
    There’s nothing wrong with Dark Inheritance, but by the same token, nothing really excited me about it either.  The plotline has almost zero twists to it; once the Duttons get to Africa, you can pretty much predict everything that’s going to happen.

   Worse, the plotline is almost a duplicate of a book I read a while back, Robin Cook’s Chromosome 6 (reviewed here).  Indeed, the two tales are so alike – to the point of where both involve bonobos running amok in a man-made compound in Equatorial Guinea, that I’m surprised cries of plagiarism didn’t arise.  Oh well, at least the ending here is better than Cook’s, which remains at the top of my list for the worst ending ever penned by a recognizable, published author.

    6½ Stars.  Yeah, I know, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a review.  Alas, I had some serious heart trouble in early July, and I am only now getting back to reading for extended periods.  But every day gets slightly better, and hopefully the worst is behind me.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

McNally's Dilemma - Lawrence Sanders

   1999; 309 pages.  Book #8 (out of 13) of the Archy McNally series.  New Author? : No, and Yes.  Genre : Crime-Humor.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    There really isn’t anything for Archy McNally to investigate.  Geoffrey Williams, a local tennis pro – and known womanizer – has been shot to death, his naked body (corpse, I guess) sprawled across the floor in his house.

    There isn't any question as to who killed him.  His wife, Melva, freely admits she did the dirty deed, after discovering Geoffrey and a mystery woman in flagrante delicto on the floor.  So no investigation is needed, and Melva simply asks that Archy, as a friend, look after their daughter, the ravishing and partying Veronica.

    But a couple nagging questions keep floating around in Archy’s head.  Who was the mystery woman and why hasn't she come forward?  Why was the house security turned off that one particular night?  Why did Melva have the address of where to find the vivacious Veronica conveniently written on a piece of paper for Archy?  And what was it that the maid said about the goings on that night?

What’s To Like...
    There are actually two tasks for Archy to perform here – two plotlines if you will.  One is to poke around in the Geoffrey Williams slaying, keeping in mind that the accused in a client of McNally and Son.  The other is  to find out who is blackmailing John Fairhurst III, and why, since the “dirt”, while embarrassing, is not particularly troublesome.  The reader of course knows that the two storylines will eventually converge, but it’s fun to watch (read) how it’s done.

     This is my second Archy McNally book (the other one is reviewed here), and I am indeed warming up to our protagonist.  Here Archy is a bit more of a wit and a bit less of a fop.  He may still bed the girl, but who’s toying with whom?  And our hero now gets, to a certain degree, his comeuppance for his vanity.  I liked that.

    As always, the story is set in Palm Beach, Florida.  As always, wit and plot twists abound.  I love it when Archy lapses into French.  There are acronyms to learn; it took me a while to realize that “PBR” = “Palm Beach Rumor”, and “PBF” = “Palm Beach Fact”.  Once again, detailed descriptions are given for what everybody is wearing and eating from one day to the next.  And you’ll be amused to discover what “Steak Tartare Medium Rare” works out to be.

    The ending is quite twisty and quite good.  You and Archy both know some sort of subterfuge is afoot, but determining what’s really going on will surprise you.

Kewlest New Word. . .
And Bob’s Your Uncle (phrase.) : “and everything’s all right!”; “et voila!”; “;”and there you go!”  (a Britishism)

    “Do you know who this place belongs to, Archy?”
    “No. Do you?”
    “An old couple who went into hock to get their daughter married to an English title.  Now they have to rent the place every winter and go live with their daughter and son-in-law in his family castle.  No central heat, sixty bedrooms, one loo, and if you want to take a bath you have to order the hot water a week in advance.”
    “You’re kidding.”
    “Would I lie to you, Archy?”
    “Yes.”  (pg. 99)

    Al Rogoff was living proof of the old adage “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”  The only time Al Rogoff watched television was when PBS aired a performance by the New York City Ballet or an opera from the Met.  Al could listen to the William Tell overture without once thinking, “Hi, ho, Silver, away,” and could tell an ’82 Medoc from Chianti sold by the gallon.  He enjoyed Vivaldi and knew that “La Belle Dame sans Merci” was not a French dominatrix.  (pg. 155)

 “As you sue, so shall you reap.”  (pg. 217)
    Archy’s Dilemma was published in 1999, but sadly Lawrence Sanders passed away in February, 1998.  His estate chose Vincent Lardo to write this book, the 8th in the series.  Unfortunately, this switching of authors isn’t mentioned on either the front or back cover blurbs.  The only place it is cited is in the small print on the “Library of Congress” info page.

     This apparently upset no small number of Lawrence Sanders fans, who felt that Mr. Lardo did not fully capture the full inner essence of our hero.  Well, I agree with them to a certain extent, Lardo’s Archy is subtly different from Sanders’ Archy.

    But personally I prefer the “new” Archy better to the old one.  Yeah, a lot of times there’s just no substitute for the original author (see all the Robert Ludlum wannabees), but once in a while the new writer actually improves things.  IMHO, Brandon Sanderson saved Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  And that just might be the case with Lawrence Sanders and Vincent Lardo.  More data (more books read in the series) is needed.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you are partial to the charmingly, rascally Archy McNally that Lawrence Sanders penned.  We shall agree to disagree.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Raucous Time - Julia Hughes

    2013; 246 pages.  Book 1 (out of four) in the Celtic Cousins’ Adventures series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genre : YA Mystery, with a smidgen of Fantasy thrown in.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Right now, life could be better for Rhyllan “Annie” Jones.  Just 15 years old, he has to fend for himself, as his mum, Tricia, is “away on business”; his “Gran” has been attacked and is in the hospital; and Aunt Sarah is unavailable as well.  Even worse, his cousin and best chum, Wren Prenderson (Aunt Sarah’s son), is in the hospital as well, a victim in the same attack that felled Gran.

    Now the police are coming around, asking all sorts of questions, and there is a very keen possibility that child services will be called in.  After all, it certainly appears that Rhyllan and Wren have both been abandoned.

     One policeman in particular, Detective Inspector Crombie, has become a major thorn in Rhyllan’s life.  He’s canny and perceptive, and seems to see right through Annie’s lies about his mum’s whereabouts.  But does Crombie really want to help?

    Or is he part of the gang of thugs that assaulted Gran and Wren?
What’s To Like...
    A Raucous Time follows Wren and Rhyllan as they endeavor to find some sort of hidden treasure that Wren claims to know about from an old Welsh manuscript that he was asked to translate.  Naturally, there are also a bunch of bad guys who want to find the treasure as well, and a team of cops, headed by DI Crombie, who seem to always be a step slow due to one or more turncoats in their midst.

    It’s fun to try and figure out alongside Rhyllan where Crombie’s allegiance lies.  It's also a challenge to the reader and Rhyllan to determine whether there’s any treasure at all.  Wren swears there is, but is he psychic, conniving, possessed, or just plain crazy?  In any event, the Wren/Rhyllan relationship takes on a  sort of “Frodo/Samwise” feel, and I like stories where we follow the #2 guy more than The Chosen One.

    The majority of the book is set in Wales, and that’s a plus.  And instead of sunshine and butterflies, we trudge around in torrential downpours and treacherous moors.  I enjoyed getting soaked to the skin with our adventurers.  And even the final setting, the ruins of Tintagel Castle, are more creepy than spectacular.  Utter kewlness.

    This is a YA mystery tale, bordering on Juvenile.  So there’s no romance, booze, sex, drugs, or adult situations.  There's a smattering of mild cussing, but mostly by our two teenagers.  Finally, the book is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, and that’s always a delight for me.

Kewlest New Word ...
ASBO (n., Acronym) : stands for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a civil order made in the United Kingdom against a person who had been shown, on the balance of evidence, to have engaged in anti-social behaviour.
Others : Frowsty (adj.); Toerag (n.); Manky (adj.); Bolshy (adj.); Splodge (v.); Sarky (adj.)These are all Britishisms.

    Crombie decided he’d visit the hospital after lunch, although again he doubted if Mike Stern’s “grandson” had anything to add, but it would look as though he’d been thorough in his report, which would recommend surveillance.
    Shorthand for “I haven’t a bloody clue what to do next.”  (loc. 799)

    “Hey Annie.  You and me are special.  We’re having private lessons.”
    Mr. Robinson sniffed.  “You certainly are special.  Follow me please,” he flicked at Rhyllan’s hair and frowned.  “I thought I told you to get this cut?”
    Wren snapped.  “He can’t.  It’s his religion.”
    Robinson’s eyebrows rose, wrinkling his bald scalp.  “Pray do tell.  And what religion would that be?”
    “Pantheism.”  (loc. 2345)

Kindle Details...
    A Raucous Time is free at Amazon, which, ANAICT, is standard for this book.  The other three books in the series are all $0.99 each.  Julia Hughes has about 8 other e-books available, and they are all in the free-to-$0.99 range.

 “Some of us actually like kids.  Couldn’t eat a whole one though.”  (loc. 1650)
    I had some problems with A Raucous Time.  First and foremost, the storytelling often had me in a daze.  The plotline seemed to assume the reader knows things like: Rhyllan’s mum is MIA and undercover; Wren’s mum is in prison; Rhyllan is Old Man Stern’s grandson (or at least he claims to be), and Wren and Gran had been attacked for reasons unknown just prior to the start of the book.  We gradually glean all these important details, but hey, it would’ve been nice to have a coherent backstory early on, especially since I wasn't looking for one, given that this is the first book in the series.

    The other problem were the protagonists themselves – simply put, they’re neither nice nor believable.  They steal airplanes (WTF?  Teenagers steal airplanes?!), bikes, and food; and break into houses via rocks thrown through the front window.  Are they hooligans or heroes?

    In the end, my favorite character turned out to be DI Crombie, despite his questionable loyalties.  And FWIW, it may be that the author feels the same way, since in researching the rest of the series, it appears that DI Crombie is going to become a recurring major character.

    5½ Stars.  If you can make it through the confusing storytelling that plagues the first half of the book, things eventually straighten out and you're treated to a fast-paced second half “quest” with lots of thrills and spills.  The book’s sequel, A Ripple in Time, is on my Kindle, and I vaguely recall reading that it was actually published before A Raucous Time.  So maybe the elusive backstory resides there.  Or perhaps there was an earlier series that I should’ve read first.  Who knows.  We shall see.  In time.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Last Colony - John Scalzi

    2007; 320 pages.  Book 3 (out of 6) in the Old Man’s War series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Military Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    For John Perry and his wife Jane, life in the colony Huckleberry is just about perfect.  They’ve both retired from the Colonial Defense Forces, which means they had to give up their synthetically enhanced (and green) fighting bodies. But it was worth it, and now they're content to watch their daughter Zoe grow up in a normal environment.

    Ah, but leave it to the CDF to come calling to try to sweet-talk them into a new adventure.  No, it won’t be in the armed forces again.  All the CDF wants them to do is to head a brand new seed settlement on a brand new world.  There’s really no risk; it’s a planet the Obin have willingly given to the humans in exchange for a different one.

    Of course, the CDF always has an ulterior motive for everything they do.  And they’ve decided to name this new settlement “Roanoke”, after the legendary “lost colony” back on Earth.

    Hmmm.  I wonder why they’d choose the name of a failed colony?

What’s To Like...
    The Last Colony is the third book in John Scalzi’s tremendously popular (just try to get copies of them from your library without putting a hold on them) Old Man’s War series.  Structurally, it reminds me of the first book – there’s not a lot of action at first as Scalzi sets the stage and our two protagonists help their settlers start building civilization from scratch on a new planet.  But just like in the first book – if you are patient, the thrills and spills and kills arise eventually, in abundance, and just keep on going up through the final page.

    The world-building is, as expected with a Scalzi novel, detailed and believable.  I liked the “fur trees” on Roanoke, as well as the new critters – fanties, yotes, and whatever long-clawed things made those scratches on the settlement’s walls.  Once again we are treated to an array of interplanetary races – the Obin, the Arrisians, the Whaid, and four or five others.

    The best part of the world-building is the characters themselves.  John, Jane, and Zoe we already know.  But is Manfred Trujillo a help at Roanoke or a snake in the grass?  Ditto for Generals Gau and Rybicki.  The former is in theory a foe, and the latter an ally.  But those designations get delightfully blurred.  And if Hickory, Dickory, and Savitri don’t make you chuckle at times, something’s wrong.

    Finally, there’s the twists and turns in the plotline and the multiple layers of deception.  Everyone has hidden agendas, and it seems the closer they are to John and Jane – and especially Zoe – the less they can be trusted.  The Obin rules for Hickory and Dickory protecting Zoe may be amusing, but if saving Zoe means killing John and Jane, they will do it.

    Gau’s lieutenant approached him.  “What did he mean when he said you’ll hear his answer, General?” he asked.
    “They chant,” Gau said, and pointed toward the colony, still under spotlight.  “Their highest art form is a ritualized chant.  It’s how they celebrate, and mourn, and pray.  Chan was letting me know that when he’s done talking with his colonists, they would chant their answer to me.”
    “Are we going to hear it from here?” the lieutenant asked.
    Gau smiled.  “You wouldn’t be asking that if you’d ever heard a Whaidi chant, Lieutenant.”  (pg. 167)

    “You don’t trust him, “ Jane said.
    “Let’s just say I have concerns,” I said.  “Rybicki didn’t go out of his way to offer up anything, either.  I asked him if he thought the Conclave would let us just walk away from this planet if we wanted to, and he suggested that they wouldn’t.”
    “He lied to you,” Jane said.
    “He chose to respond differently than total honesty would dictate,” I said.  “I’m not sure that’s exactly a lie.”  (pg. 187)

“There’s a goat in your office.”  “I thought we’d sprayed for those.”  (pg. 4)
    John Scalzi’s writing is once again superb, but this was the first book in the series where I felt the storytelling was at times rushed and disjointed.  Opportunities for excitement were missed, and plot holes developed.

    In the former category, Zoe gets sent on a diplomatic mission critical to Roanoke’s survival.  But she’s just a kid; so will she be in over her head?  Will there be witty repartee?  Will she have difficulty winning over the person she is meeting?  We’ll never know, since Scalzi zips straight to the result of her diplomatic task, skipping all details in between.

    The plot holes are even more vexing.  At least one of the indigenous species on Roanoke’s planet is both sentient and savage; and gave the humans all the trouble they could handle in the first encounter.  Kewlness. But then they completely disappear from the story, and their threat is thereafter totally ignored by the colonists.  WTF?

    But these are afterthoughts that only arose when I was done reading the book.  Overall, The Last Colony is an exciting page-turner that kept me up way past my bedtime as I wondered how the human race was going to avoid being blasted into stardust for their indiscretions.

    8 Stars.  Listen, The Last Colony wasn't quite as good as the first two books, but it still kept me on the edge of my seat.  And frankly, maintaining the level of excellence of Books 1 and 2 (reviewed here and here) borders on the impossible.  So do yourself a favor - read this series in order, so you can see right away Scalzi at his best.