Friday, October 21, 2016

Reliquary - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   1997; 464 pages.  Book #2 (out of 15) of the Agent Pendergast series.  New Authors? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Beneath the sidewalks of New York City – indeed, beneath the sewers of New York City – lies a whole new unmapped world.  In some long-abandoned subway tunnels, as well as other old excavations, live the mole people.  Most of them never see the daylight, although a few – they’re called ‘runners’ – surface occasionally to scavenge for food, drugs, and other necessities.

    The life expectancy of the moles is short – on the average they die about 22 months after they begin living belowground.  But lately, something’s been lowering that average still further, by brutally murdering and decapitating some of the subterranean dwellers.  Mephisto calls them “the wrinklers”.

    Well, no big deal, eh?  If a few of the houseless (they prefer that term because they consider the underground their ‘home’) get murdered, why should anyone up where the sun shines care?

    But when the daughter of a wealthy New York socialite is the next victim, things change.  And suddenly the mayor and the chief of police are under tremendous pressure to stop these killings.  So who wants to volunteer to go crawling around down below?

What’s To Like...
    Reliquary is the sequel to the original book in the series, Relic, which I read a long, long time ago, and which is reviewed here.  All the characters I remember from Relic are back, most notably Margo Green, Lt. Vinnie D’Agosta, Sergeant Laura Hayward, and of course, Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast.  The four of them share the spotlight somewhat equally; this will of course change as the series progresses and the authors come to realize Pendergast is by far the most charismatic character.

    Structurally, the two books are very similar: the pacing is fast, there’s lots of thrills & kills, and everything builds to an exciting, protracted ending in a “confined space” setting.  There will be no running away by anyone involved in the final showdown.

    The chapters are short, and there’s a kewl Authors’ Note at the end of the book, addressing what is and isn’t true about the NYC subterranean setting.  You’ll enjoy the “track rabbit” cuisine, but be wary of the NYPD “rousters”.  One of the characters is a journalist named Smithback, who I didn’t remember, but who apparently was also in Relic.  For the most part he’s your stereotypical newshound, but I liked the “swimming” scene with him and D’Agosta.

    If you haven’t read Relic (or, as in my case, waited eight years to read the sequel), Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child give the backstory on pages 103-04.  The book’s title is explained on page 432.  This is both part of a series and a standalone novel.

Kewlest New Word ...
Mephitic (adj.) : foul-smelling; noxious (especially of a gas or vapor).
Others : Attenuated (adj.); Animicule (n., and apparently a variant of “animalcule”)

    “Did you visit the Pitti Palace?”
    “Pity who?”
    “It’s an art museum, actually.  Quite exquisite.  There’s an old medieval map painted as a fresco on one of its walls, done the year before Columbus discovered America.
    “No kidding.”
    “In the place where the continent of America would later be found, the map is blank except for the words Cui ci sono dei mostri.
    D’Agosta screwed up his face.  “Here there are … mostri.  What’s that?”
    “It means, ‘Here there be monsters.’”  (pg. 133)

    ”He’d painted the inside of the windows black, but one of them got broken somehow and I got a look inside before it was repaired.”  He grinned.  “It was a strange-looking setup.  I could see microscopes, big glass beakers, boiling and boiling, gray metal boxes with lights on them, aquaria.”
    “One aquarium after another, rows upon rows.  Big things, full of algae.  Obviously, he was a scientist of some kind.”  Kirtsema pronounced the word with distaste.  “A dissector, a reductionist.  I don’t like that way of looking at the world.  I am holist, Sergeant.”
    “I see.”  (pg. 189)

 “The thought of a journalist with a grenade launcher makes me very nervous.”  (pg. 395)
    I had some quibbles with Reliquary.  First and foremost, the timing of the moles surfacing exactly when and where the “Take Back Our City” protest was occurring seemed remarkably convenient.  Second, I don’t recall there ever being an explanation of where and why Pamela Fisher died.  These are not spoilers, since they aren’t crucial to the plotline.  But the former seemed contrived and the latter was for me a loose end.

    It also seemed like if you were fat and/or obnoxious, you were a candidate for being offed along the way.  You might get away with being one or the other, but not both.

    Last and admittedly least, our adventurers “smell methane” on page 385.  I’m sorry, but methane is odorless.  Trust me, I’m a chemist.  You may certainly have smelled natural gas, of which methane is a substantial part.  But what you’re really smelling is a small amount of mercaptans that are added to natural gas, so that it does stink, whereby you smell it and hopefully avoid asphyxiation.

    8 Stars.  My quibbles notwithstanding, Reliquary is a worthy complement to Relic.  If you liked the latter, you’ll like the former.  But you might not want to read them one right after the other, since they’re so similar in setting and structure.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Harvard Psychedelic Club - Don Lattin

   2009; 272 pages.  Full Title : The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Narrative Non-Fiction; The 60’s.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    Ah, the 60’s.  I remember them.  Peace, love, dove, man.  Long hair and beads; eating organic foods and protesting the war.  Smoking pot and taking acid trips.  

    Of course, the 60’s didn’t start out that way.  1960 began with John F. Kennedy, “Camelot”, and a new sense of optimism, especially among the young.  Everyone’s hair was short, drugs were unheard of, and the only armed conflict was some sort of police action in some faraway place in Southeast Asia.

    So what happened?  How’d things change so much in a mere 10 years?  Why’d all those young people start getting high on drugs?

    Don Lattin proposes that it was due in a large part to four academicians whose paths crossed at Harvard University in 1960, when one of them initiated a psychology research project where large doses of LSD were given to test subjects, under carefully controlled conditions, to see what would do things like decrease recidivism, cure alcoholism, and even promote spiritual enlightenment.

    Yeah, you can pretty much bet those "carefully controlled conditions" didn’t last long.

What’s To Like...
    The four members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club are:  Timothy Leary, aka “The Trickster”, and heavily into any and all hallucinogens;  Richard Alpert, aka “The Seeker”, who changed his name to ‘Ram Dass’ after finding his guru during a trip to India; Huston Smith, aka “The Teacher”, who was fascinated by any and all world religions; and Andrew Weil, aka “The Healer”, for whom a passion for holistic health and natural foods quickly overrode experimenting with drugs.

    I liked the book’s structure – a chapter for each phase in the life of the HPC members, and in more or less chronological order.  There’s one on their backgrounds, ‘first trips’, the inevitable falling-outs, migrations to the West Coast, pilgrimages (or in Leary’s case, ‘exile’), “where did they end up”, etc.  Each chapter is divided into four parts – focusing on each member's personal odyssey at that point.

    Don Lattin uses the phrase “narrative non-fiction” to describe the book, which means lots of simulated dialogue based on interviews with friends, family, and acquaintances of the four, as well as conversations with the three of them that were still alive when he penned this book.  It works convincingly.  Besides the fascinating biographies, the reader will learn a lot of other trivia – the origin of the word “psychedelic”, tidbits about Aldous Huxley (one of my lifelong favorite authors) and Carlos Castaneda, and the CIA’s clandestine parallel LSD research project, where they tried to see if it could be used as a truth serum for interrogations, or sprayed from the air on enemy combatants to render them senseless.  Yeah, good luck with that, CIA.

    These are “warts and all” biographies.  Lattin neither idolizes nor vilifies these four trailblazers.  They fight among themselves, thumb their noses at the authorities, and run when said authorities react in a predictable, forceful manner.  Oh, and if you ever wondered how the prestigious Ivy League colleges fill their professorial positions, the mechanics here will open your eyes.

    The book closes with Don Lattin giving his personal story about doing hallucinogens.  Some readers found this off-putting, but I thought it worked very well.  He apparently took two acid trips – one of which was very good, the other of which was very bad.  Of the latter, he offers this sage advice: “It’s not a good idea for hippies to drop acid at hunting lodges”.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Antinomianism (n.) : the belief that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary; the rejection of established morality.
Others : Ex-cathedra (adj.); Ontological (adj.)

    Hoffman had the world’s first intentional LSD trip late in the afternoon of April 19, three days after getting the accidental dose.  About fifty minutes after taking the drug, the chemist scribbled in his notebook what he was feeling in his mind, reporting “slight dizziness, unrest, difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh.”  Hoffman was soon too stoned to write.  (loc. 941)

    Social and political activism was never a priority with Leary or Alpert.  They were not out marching to stop the war in Vietnam, not even talking about it.  In fact, they helped set the tone for the political disconnectedness of much of the human-potential and New Age movements, whose politics – or lack of it – were reflected in that line from the Beatle’s (sic) tune “Revolution.”  If you want true freedom, the song suggests, “You better free your mind instead.”  (loc. 2869)

Kindle Details...
    The Harvard Psychedelic Club sells for $13.99 although I’m pretty sure I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted.  Don Lattin has three other e-books available, ranging in price from $7.99 to $11.49, and all seemingly dealing in one way or another with the topic of spirituality.

 “To fathom hell or soar angelic; just take a pinch of psychedelic.”  (loc. 993)
    For me, The Harvard Psychedelic Club was a fantastic read.  The 60’s were my teenage years, although I did not become acquainted with the subject matter until the early 70’s.  Those days were indeed consciousness-altering times for all concerned, and an era that probably will never be repeated.  A couple of minor points should be made however.

    First, the focus here is very narrow: our four Harvard Psychedelic Club members and their hallucinogenic and spiritual life paths.  Other major events, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the massive protests, are barely mentioned at all.  I think this is a plus here, but you may disagree.

    Second, while I have no way of correlating the amounts of LSD given to test subjects in the book compared to my own experiences, I will say that some of the hallucinations described herein (palaces, courts, arcades, gardens, a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot, or camel caravans – location 591) never happened to me.  Yes, everything looks different on acid, and yes, prismatic colors will pop out all over the place.  But no, discrete apparitions will not appear out of nowhere and you won't receive any celestial messages from God.

    But maybe I just needed to up my dosages.

    10 Stars.  This is fantastic read for anyone who lived through the 60’s, or is fascinated by old flower children reminiscing about that time.  Subtract 1 star if you frankly get tired of hearing old hippies blather on about their psychedelic sillinesses.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Quozl - Alan Dean Foster

   1989; 344 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction; First Contact; Satire. Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    For the interplanetary travelers aboard the settlement spaceship Sequester, it’s been a long, long journey from their home planet, Quozlene.  In fact, this is now the sixth generation that’s spent their entire life on the Sequester.  But at last their destination is in sight, a planet they’ve named Shiraz, and which long ago their scientists determined might support Quozl life.

    The good news is that more detailed observation from the Sequester detects abundant life on Shiraz.  There’s plenty of water, and lush plant life on a pair of supercontinents.  There’s even lots of trees, and the Quozl revere wood.

    The bad news is that animal life has been detected as well.  Sentient beings.  With powerful weapons and a proclivity for ceaseless, intertribal warfare.  This is quite a shock, since up until now, the Quozl had assumed they were the only intelligent species in the universe.

    Hmm.  I wonder if Shiraz is a planet we’re familiar with.

What’s To Like...
    Alan Dean Foster does a fabulous job of building a detailed picture of Quozl society.  The book cover shown above gives a good rendition of their physical characteristics, and the concept of bipedal, human-sized, sentient rabbits is certainly refreshingly innovative in the sci-fi genre.  Quozl are heavily into meditation, ritual and ersatz combat (they have long since transcended their warlike ways), apologizing profusely for almost everything, and of course, as all rabbits are wont to do, coupling.  The first half of the book is set in the wilds of Idaho; the second half moves down to sunny California.

    There are a slew of Quozl to meet, and they all have three-part names, such as Looks-at-Charts, Stands-while-Sitting, etc.  The book also comes with a “flip-a-mation” cartoon sequence in the upper right-hand corner of the pages.  I haven’t seen one of those in a book since I was a kid.  There’s a smattering of cussing, and of course, a lot of coupling; but none of this is in any way lewd.  I liked the Disneyland goons; you really don’t want to run afoul of their legal department.

    The book cover made me think this was going to be a barrel-of-laughs tale.  It isn’t.  There is satire throughout, and some the tone is for the most part light-hearted.  But some characters get killed, and others die from natural causes; the latter due to timespan of the book – a human lifespan or a couple Quozl lifespans. I am still not sure who the target audience is.

    Beyond all the satire and silliness, Quozl tackles some serious themes, among which are maintaining the environment, xenophobia, and the US Immigration policy.  The ending gets a bit preachy in this regard, but the epilogue (the final chapter) leaves the reader with a nice twist.  This is the second book I’ve read recently where a society under extreme stress (in this case, the Quozl) adopt a “hive mentality” in order to cope .  The other book with this motif is reviewed here.

 Kewlest New Word...
Xenologist (n.) : a person engaged in the scientific study of alien biology, cultures, etc.  (chiefly in science fiction)
Others : Sybaritic (adj.); Philology (n.).

    “You called me what?”
    “A Shirazian.  That is our name for your world.”
    “Kinda nice.”  Chad rolled the alien sounds around his tongue.  “Has more flavor than ‘Earth.’”
    “You must not think very much of your world to call it dirt.”  (pg. 171)

    There were some problems with certain religious groups.  After all, if God had made man in his own image, where did that put the Quozl, who were clearly at least as intelligent as any human?  The debate was not restricted to one side of the relationship, for certain Quozl philosophers had difficulty accepting the fact that not only weren’t the Quozl not the only intelligent creatures in the universe, the other ones were bald giants with tiny eyes and nonexistent ears and feet.  (pg. 333)

 “One can plan forever, but individuals make fools of us all.”  (pg. 504)
    There are a couple quibbles.  First, the pacing for me was incredibly slow for much of the book.  We’re fifty pages through the book before touchdown on Shiraz, and except for a brief (and inconsequential!) bit of violence soon thereafter, the reader has to wait until a third of the way through Quozl before “first contact” is made.

    Second, there’s very little action and intrigue in the storyline,  so for the most part, we’re left with drama.  The excitement is limited to things like Looks being late for a rendezvous, or Chad needing to sweet-talk his parents into letting him camp out in the wilds overnight.  This may work for readers who like Marley and Me, but not for those looking for a thrilling sci-fi tale featuring first encounters with extraterrestrials.

    The pace does pick up once the setting moves to Los Angeles, and it becomes positively frenetic towards the end, as the Quozl become assimilated into the world societies.  To me, that would have been the more interesting part of the tale.  It was almost as if Alan Dean Foster had planned to make this Book 1 of a series, and then decided after writing most of the book to instead just make it a standalone.

    7 Stars.  Alan Dean Foster is a prolific sci-fi writer, best known as the author of the novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I’ve been meaning to pick up one of his books for quite some time now.  Perhaps I just selected one of his lesser efforts.  Quozl was an okay read, but it won't keep you up late at night reading "just one more chapter".

Monday, October 3, 2016

Coyote Waits - Tony Hillerman

    1990; 368 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #10 (out of 18) in the “Leaphorn and Chee” series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Native American Fiction; Police Procedural.  Laurels : Winner of the 1991 Nero Award.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s something that will haunt Officer Jim Chee for the rest of his life.

    Fellow Tribal Officer Delbert Nez radioed him to tell him he was about to catch the pesky graffiti artist who had recently started dabbing the nearby sacred mountains with white paint.  The radio transmissions were patchy – which was nothing unusual in among all the mountains in the area.  But Nez sounded relaxed, and even chuckling as he told Chee he’d be a couple minutes late for their nightly rendezvous at the local coffee shop.

    But when “a couple minutes” started stretching out to a much longer time, Chee realized he should’ve immediately have supplied back-up for Nez, despite the vandalism seeming to be a minor misdemeanor.  And when he belatedly tore down the dark road, all his fears became nightmares when he came across Nez’s police car, in flames, with Nez still in the driver’s seat, dead from a gunshot.

    Why would some petty paint-sprayer resort to killing to avoid arrest?

What’s To Like...
    Coyote Waits is my third “Leaphorn and Chee” novel, the first since 2014.  It has the usual Tony Hillerman literary structure: a mystifying murder on the Navajo reservation, and a methodical investigation by the two Native American policemen, in this case, working separately for most of the book.   Indeed, in this story, they don’t think too highly of one another, their limit apparently being grudging respect.  Chee is still heavily into “the Navajo way” (he wants to become a shaman), Leaphorn has long since dismissed the tribal mysticism as a bunch of hooey. 

    The murder-mystery is well-crafted.  The reader rides along as both investigators gradually find clues as to who did it, and why.  There are an adequate number of twists and red herrings, yet everything unfolds in a sensible order.

    As usual, the story takes place in the Four Corners area of the US, and I was happy to see one of my alma maters – Arizona State – get a brief mention.  Also as usual, the reader learns Navajo words (“Ya’eh t’eeh!”), Navajo culture, and the Navajo mindset, as well as some entertaining interplay between mystical forces and cold, hard evidence.  This is true for all of the books in the series, and that’s a real treat.

    It was also fun to once again cross paths with the titular Coyote god.  The trickster was also featured in books by Christopher Moore (reviewed here) and Kage Baker (reviewed here).  Things are never what they seem when he’s around.  The storyline moves at a nice, jaunty pace, and this was a quick read for me, which was just what I wanted.

    “I haven’t brought up the subject of snakes,” Janet said.  She was brushing the dirt from her hands on her pant legs.  “If I do, I hope you’ll try to say something positive.”
    Okay,” Chee said.  He thought for a minute, catching his breath.  “If you like snakes, this is a fine example of the places you come to find them.”  (loc. 916)

    Pinto’s eyes moved across the courtroom, hesitating a moment when they came to the Navajo panelist, hesitating another moment when they met the eyes of Jim Chee.
    Chee looked away, down at his itching hand.
    No one knew Hosteen Ashie Pinto.  The whites didn’t know him, nor the Hispanics, nor the Apache, nor the Pueblos, nor the Asian.  Nor Janet Pete, nor me.  He is a shaman.  He is a stranger to us all.  (loc. 2309)

Kindle Details...
    Coyote Waits sells for $8.99 at Amazon, which, coincidentally, is the same price you’d pay for the paperback version there.  The rest of the e-books in the series are all in the $4.99-$9.99 range, with the majority of them going for $8.99.

“Things seem random only because we see them from the wrong perspective.”  (loc. 2239)
    There are a couple quibbles.  At one point, a(nother) shooting victim takes time, while dying, to write not one, but two quick messages in his own blood on the wall.  Shades of Sherlock Holmes!  But I find it hard to believe that’s what I’d be doing with my final breaths.

    Equally vexing was what I call the “Perry Mason” ending.  Chee has finally figured out the who-and-why, but frankly, he doesn’t have a shred of proof.  How convenient, then, when the perpetrator fully confesses to the crime without any coercion whatsoever.

    Lastly, and leastly, there are a slew of extra “goodies” at the end of the book, taking up the final 13% of the Kindle, none of which are worth spending any time on.  Most are just plugs for the other books in the series.

    8 Stars.  The quibbles notwithstanding, this was still a very good book.  Add ½ star if you enjoy learning more about the Navajo way of life.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Coalescent - Stephen Baxter

   2004; 527 pages.  Book #1 (out of 4) in the Destiny’s Children series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Drama; Mystery; a smidgen of Science Fiction.  Laurels: Nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2004.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s a somber occasion for George Poole.  His father has just died, and he’s the only one in the family left in England to return home and see to the estate.  Not that there’s much of an inheritance to split with the one other living relative, his older sister, Gina, who’s happily married and raising a family way over in Florida.

    But at least his boyhood chum, Peter McLachlan, is around to help go through dad’s few earthly possessions.  Peter’s kind of a weirdo, being heavily into SETI and other far-out groups who look for anomalies in outer space, to say nothing of extraterrestrials.  But it’ll be good to have someone there to help dispose of the family keepsakes.

    So it is quite to George’s surprise to learn he has a sister he’s never heard about.  A twin sister, no less.  Taken away (or more accurately, given away) soon after birth, and placed in some sort of religious order in Rome.

    Say, wasn’t there some sort of family legend about one of George’s many-times-great-grandmother (and wasn’t her name Regina?) also being involved with a religious order?  But that was 15 centuries ago, back in the days right after the Roman Legions abandoned England.  Surely there’s no connection, right?


What’s To Like...
    Coalescent is yet another ambitious effort by Stephen Baxter, with four storylines and genres involving untold millennia cleverly interwoven into an overarching Poole family saga.  There’s a present-day story, one of Intrigue, that follows George’s efforts to locate his long-lost twin sister. There’s a Historical Fiction account of the legendary Regina.  There’s a Drama plotline involving a girl named Lucia, who wants out of her present-day situation in Rome.  And late in the novel, there’s a very small Science Fiction thread that takes place far in the future. 

    Personally, my favorite thread was Regina’s story, as all of Western Europe, and England especially, fall into the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Stephen Baxter’s attention to detail in this is impressive, and I liked that he went with gritty realism, as opposed to some King Arthur type of fantasy tale. I enjoyed learning about the “Wall Walk”, some nominal contact with Druids, and even a brief mention of an ancient religion near and dear to my heart – Mithraism.

    Life was tough in those first years after the fall of Rome.  So if frequent cussing isn’t your cup of tea, or you find things like rape, oral sex, slavery, homosexuality, and ritual procreation offensive, you might want to skip this book.

    The unifying theme to the book is Baxter’s hypothesis that societies – be they insects, mammals, or even humans – when placed in extremely stressful and existence-threatening conditions, will adapt a “hive mentality”, where everyone has a predetermined role that needs no explaining, and does it without fail or question.  The individual members of such a society won’t even be aware of this collective mentality, they will just naturally coalesce into it, hence the book’s title.  The three favorite maxims within the Order are “Ignorance is Strength”; “Listen to your Sisters”, and (most importantly) “Sisters matter more than Daughters”.

    The ending ties these disparate storylines together, with a twist or two to keep you on your toes.  This is a standalone novel, but several loose threads remain afterward (most notably, the Kuiper Belt Anomaly), which presumably pave the way for the sequel and the rest of the series.

 Kewlest New Word...
Eusocial (adj.) : of an animal species (usually insects) showing an advanced level of social organization, in which a single female or caste produces the offspring and non-reproductive individual cooperate in caring for the young.
Others : Extirpating (v.); Intaglio (n.).

    Rosa leaned forward and said softly, “Mamma- Mamma-“
    Maria looked up blearily, her eyes rheumy grey pebbles.  “What, what?  Who’s that?  Oh, it’s you, Rosa Poole.”  She glanced down at her book irritably, tried to focus, then closed the book with a sigh.  “Oh, never mind.  I always thought old age would at least give me time to read.  But by the time I’ve got to the bottom of the page I’ve forgotten what was at the top …”  She leered at Lucia, showing a toothless mouth.  “What an irony – eh?”  (pg. 232)

    “No Renaissance.  There would have been no need for it.  But there would have been none of the famous Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual liberty and self-determination.  No Magna Carta, no parliaments.  If the Romans had gone to the Americas they wouldn’t have practiced genocide against the natives, as we did.  That wasn’t the Roman way.  They’d have assimilated, acculturated, built their aqueducts and bathhouses and roads, the apparatus of their civilizing system.  The indigenous nations, in North and South America, would have survived as new Roman provinces.  It would have a richer world, maybe more advanced in some ways.”
    “But no Declaration of Independence.  And no abolition of slavery, either.”  (pg. 416)

 “Honesty doesn’t excuse ignorance.  But it helps.”  (pg. 504)
    For all its lofty aspirations, Coalescent doesn’t quite …um… coalesce into a smooth, seamless story.  First and foremost, the pacing is uneven.  The initial storyline, George’s search for his sister, moves much too slow, and takes a hundred+ page sabbatical in the middle of the book while waiting for the Lucia thread to catch up.  The Regina storyline ends early – well, she had to die sometime – and is sustained only by some sparse, interesting, but ultimately unrelated temporal updates about the Order’s activities.  And the futuristic plotline is woefully short, sparsely developed, and seems to exist only to give a glimpse of the sequels.

    To boot, there simply isn’t much Science Fiction here, and those who read Stephen Baxter novels for that genre are going to be disappointed.  OTOH, those, like me, whose favorite Baxter book is Evolution (reviewed here) will find one or more story threads in this book to be quite interesting.

    These would be some serious drawbacks, if it were not for Stephen Baxter being one heckuva an accomplished writer.  Hey, he kept me interested in the Drama storyline, and that’s not a genre that I'm particularly fond of.

    Overall, I found Coalescent to be a good, but not great effort by Baxter.  This may change depending of how well I like the sequel, Exultant, which sits within my Kindle, waiting to be read.

    8 Stars.  Add ½ star if the phrase “Kuiper Belt Anomaly” piques your science-fiction interest.  I have a feeling it plays an integral part in the rest of the books in this series.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Abominable Showman - Robert Rankin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    8 Stars.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cybill Disobedience - Cybill Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 5, 2016

Grave Peril - Jim Butcher

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

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

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

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

    And that’s perhaps the scariest aspect of all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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