Friday, June 23, 2017

Men At Arms - Terry Pratchett

   1993; 377 pages.  Book 15 (out of 41) of the Discworld series.  Book #2 (out of 8) of the City Watch subseries.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Laurels : #148 in the Big Read.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Sam Vimes is getting ready to retire from the Night Watch.  It’s a good career move since he plans to marry the Lady Sibyl Ramkin, who is merely the richest woman in all Ankh-Morpork.  Sam will be moving up in social status, and up in money.

    There is one little thing that Sam would like to clear up before he retires.  It seems a lot of people (and we use that term loosely) are dropping dead in Ankh-Morpork lately.  That in itself is not unusual, but the means of their demise is.  Lead poisoning.

    But not just any kind of lead.  Lead in the form of little pellets.  And which seem to make big holes in a victim’s body when they enter it at great speeds.  Whatever weapon was used, it is new to Sam Vimes and his Night Watch.  What kind of contrivance could wreak such damage?

   Maybe the word “gonne” found on a stray piece of paper is a clue.  Maybe there’s a clue on the book’s cover.

What’s To Like...
    Men At Arms centers around Ankh-Morpork’s Night Watch, and that’s always guarantee of a fun read.  Three significant new recruits are added here – Lance-Constables Detritus, Cuddy, and Angua, and all play major parts in the storyline.  This is the book where the Night Watch takes over prominence from the Day Watch.  It was also nice to see Gaspode The Talking Dog again; he is an infrequent guest in the series.

     The main plotline is of course figuring out who is behind the killing, and why, and how.  But there are also lots of subplots.  Sam retires, gets married, and gets promoted.  Carrot finds his heritage, loses it, and gets promoted.  Gaspode gets a home, and leaves a home.  As always, Terry Pratchett subtly weaves several more-serious themes into the tale.  Here they are Affirmative Action, Racial/Species Bigotry, the role of Royalty, and Gun Control, with that last topic being given a different spin than what you’d expect.

    Men At Arms has the usual Pratchett format – no chapters, but lots of witty footnotes.  If you like dogs and clowns and dwarfs and trolls, you’re in for a treat.  Synesthesia makes a brief appearance, and even my Gnostics get some ink, which is an incredible work-in when you think about it.  And if you’ve never attended a clown funeral, you don’t know what you’re missing, and here’s your chance.

    I don’t recall any other Discworld novel featuring so many Ankh-Morpork guilds.  To wit: the Assassins’ Guild, the Fools’ Guild (the clowns), the Alchemists’ Guild, the Beggars’ Guild, the Thieves’ Guild, the Butchers’ Guild, the Teacher’s Guild, the Bakers’ Guild.  Hey, there’s even a Dogs’ Guild.

    I thought the ending was excellent and tied things up nicely.  As always, this is a standalone novel, despite being part of a 41-book series.  It’s nice not to have to read them in order, and it’s nice to discover where some characters made their debut.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Berk (n.) : a fool; a twit  (Britishism)
Others : Toff (n.; Britishism); Stroppy (adj.; Britishism).

    “I’ll tell you,” said Vimes.  “A monarch’s an absolute ruler, right?  The head honcho-“
    “Unless he’s a queen,” said Carrot.
    Vimes glared at him, and then nodded.
    “OK, or the head honchette-“
    “No, that’d only apply if she was a young woman.  Queens tend to be older.  She’d have to be a … a honcharina?  No, that’s for very young princesses.  No.  Um.  A honchesa, I think.”
   Vimes paused.  There’s something in the air in this city, he thought.  If the Creator said, “Let there be light” in Ankh-Morpork, he’d have got no further because of all the people saying “What color?” (pg. 64)

    “I think we’re going to have to go and have a word with the Day Watch about the arrest of Coalface,” Carrot said.
    “We ain’t got no weapons,” said Colon.
    “I’m certain Coalface has nothing to do with the murder of Hammerhock,” said Carrot.  “We are armed with the truth.  What can harm us if we are armed with the truth?”
    “Well, a crossbow bolt can, e.g., go right through your eye and out the back of your head,” said Sergeant Colon(pg. 244)

 Sometimes it’s better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.  (pg. 253)
    I have nothing negative to say about Men At Arms, but there are a couple things to note.

    First, there are quite a number of killings.  Someone getting offed is not unprecedented for a Discworld novel, but I counted eight of them here.  That's a bunch.  The good news is that means DEATH gets to show up a lot.  But it also means impressionable young’uns might be a bit stunned by it all.

    Second, there is one case of “jumping into the sack”, and I don’t remember encountering that in a Discworld novel before.  Yes, it is tastefully done, but adult readers will have no doubt about what took place.  And little Tommy or Susie might ask questions.

    But hey, I’m not a juvenile, so none of this bothers or offends me.  It was enlightening to see how Terry Pratchett handled both the multiple murders and the sex in a manner acceptable even to YA readers.

    9½ Stars.  Published in 1993, Men At Arms is from the “Golden Age” of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  It completely lived up to my high expectations, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide - Peter Cave

   2014; 240 pages.  Full Title: Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Philosophy; Reference.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Ah, Philosophy!  Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge and wisdom IMO, defines it as “the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language”.

    Well that’s just fine and dandy.  But if you find yourself trapped in an elevator with a philosopher, just how do you talk the talk with him/her?  “Yo, bro!  To be or not to be”, perhaps?  Or how about, “I think therefore I am.”  Maybe the more metaphysical, “Can God make a stone so heavy that even He/She can’t lift it?”

    Hmm.  Perhaps we should read a book about Philosophy.  Preferably one aimed at newbies to the subject.  You never know when you'll find yourself stuck in an elevator with a philosopher.

What’s To Like...
    Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide has 10 Chapters (12, if you add in the Prologue and the Epilogue).  Briefly, they are :
P. Take Your Time.  What is philosophy?
1.  What is it to be human?  I think, therefore I am.
2.  Are we responsible for what we do?  Free will, determinism.
3.  Surviving.  Does the “I” change as we age?  Who are “you”?
4.  What – morally – ought we to do?  Situational ethics.
5. Political philosophy: what justifies the state?  What is legally/rightfully mine?
6. Mind, brain and body.  Is pain psychological or physical?
7. What, then, is knowledge?  How do we “know” something?
8. How sceptical should we be?  Science and skepticism.
9. God: For and against.  Big Bang vs. Intelligent Design.
10. The arts: what is the point?  Aesthetics and “the message”.  How do we judge art?
E.  Mortality, immortality and the meaning of life.  What is the meaning of life?  What is immortality worth?
    My favorites were Chapters 4, 5, 8, and the Epilogue.  Yours will probably be different.

   The book is written in English, not American, so you encounter words like scepticism, defence, programmes, and skilful.  MS-Word’s spellcheck program just went crazy over that sentence.  The author points out that it isn’t necessary to read the chapters in order, but I did anyway.

    This is also a book to read in “small bites”, as my brain rapidly got weary trying to keep straight all the “isms” that Peter Cave examines.  Really.  Here’s a fairly complete list: Utilitarianism, Deontology, Virtue Theory, Particularism, Dualism, Free Will, Determinism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Voluntarism, Egalitarianism, Libertarianism, Logical Behaviorism, Materialism, Cartesian Dualism, Epiphenomenalism, Functionalism, Skepticism, Fallibilism, Phenomenalism, Naturalism, and Instrumentalism.  Whew!  And I may have missed a couple that appeared before I started to make a list of them.

    Peter Cave presents lots of muse-worthy scenarios and examines the various ways to judge them.  I often started out with a first-thought conclusion, then had to reexamine it in the face of Cave’s arguments.  The “two lobes of the brain” one was especially fascinating.

    I also encountered some neat people and things that I was already familiar with, such as the Turing Test, Novalis, Nietzsche, Ockham’s Razor, and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.  Cave includes “mini bios” of almost every philosopher he cites in the book, often with some ironic and little-known “twist” in their life.  Way kewl.

    What is it like to be a bat?
    However much we may learn about the bat’s echo system, however much we may examine the bat’s neural structures – whatever flights of fancy we may engage, when hanging upside down from the chapel’s rafters flapping our arms – we may still feel that there is something forever elusive; the bat’s consciousness, its perspective on the world.
    What, indeed, is it like to be a bat?
    Even if bats could talk, we could not understand them.  (loc. 1792)

    Scepticism can be traced to the ancient Greek Pyrrho of Elis.  Some sceptics would claim nothing can be known – not even that nothing can be known.  Ancient anecdotes abound of Pyrrho ignoring precipices, dangerous dogs and other hazards for he had no good reason to trust his senses.  Fortunately, he had good friends who were not so sceptical; they steered him away from disasters in waiting.  (loc. 2089)

Kindle Details...
    Philosophy:A Beginner’s Guide sells for $6.15 at Amazon.  Peter Cave has written at least two other books for the Beginner’s Guide series, Humanism (which is on my Kindle, waiting to be read) and Ethics (which I have not yet purchased).  The former is also priced at $6.15.  The latter goes for $9.99.  The author also has several of his own books on Philosophical Puzzles, which are more light-hearted, and which are in the $8.49-$11.50 range.

 ‘Tis better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.  (loc. 1004)
    Full disclosure #1: I am not a big fan of Philosophy.  I find it mostly a bunch of gobblety-gook, and those who expound upon it to be filled with themselves and hot air.  Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide did not change my views on this.  The book poses lots of great questions and issues, and offers the reader no conclusions.  But hey, that’s philosophy for you.

    Full disclosure #2: I am a big fan of Peter Cave.  I’ve read two of his other books on Philosophy, namely: Do Llamas Fall In Love? and Can A Robot be Human?  They are reviewed here and here, and I enjoyed both those books.  P:ABG was still a good read, it's just that the constraints of writing a worthwhile reference means that it isn't the author's best stuff.  If you want to see Peter Cave at his best, pick up DLFIL?

    7 Stars.  FYI, there apparently are a slew of books, on all sorts of different subjects, in the Beginner’s Guide series.  They are listed in the back of this e-book, albeit without links, and are published by Oneworld Publications.  I suspect they are meant to be a rival of the “(Such and such) For Dummies” series.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Harvest Of Stars - Poul Anderson

   1993; 531 pages.  Book One (out of four) in the “Harvest of Stars” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science-Fiction; Dystopia; Speculative Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    A few centuries from now, Earth is a quite different place.  Canada, Mexico, and the USA are no more; they’ve all be conglomerated into one totalitarian entity, ruled by the Avantists, a decidedly leftist-leaning group.

    Rebellion isn’t exactly boiling over, but it simmers in places; one of which, surprisingly, is the mega-corporation called Fireball Enterprises.  Its CEO is a download (more about those later) named Anson Guthrie., and it’s just a matter of time before the Security Police (“Sepo”) arrest him on some trumped-up charge.

    But Guthrie’s in hiding in North America, and ace spaceship-pilot Kyra Davis has been dispatched to smuggle him out of there.  That is no small task since Orwellian technology exists and it has to be assumed that the Sepo can see and hear just about anything they want to within the Avantist realm.  We hope Kyra succeeds, but the question arises: Where on Earth will Guthrie be safe?

    Well, let’s think outside the box, er… sphere.  How about the Moon?

What’s To Like...
    Harvest of Stars is divided into three discrete sections.  Part 1 (“Kyra”) is the longest (40% of the book), and is mostly a dystopian thriller.  Part 2 (“Eiko”; 30% of the book) focuses more about political intrigue, and Part 3 (“Demeter”; 30% of the book) is where speculative Science Fiction finally kicks into gear.

    There’s a Dramatis Personae list at the very beginning, which I found very useful.  Not a lot of time is devoted  to the backstories of the characters, but both minor and major ones receive names, and often pop up again hundreds of page later.  So it is nice to be able to flip to the start of the book whenever someone reappears, and get refreshed about who they are.  There are some flashbacks, but the author signals this by inserting the word “Database” into the chapter’s header.  I thought this was an innovative way to avoid confusion.

    The settings are somewhat limited for the first two sections: Earth, the Moon (“Luna”), and an orbiting space colony called “L-5”.  The settings in the Demeter section are much more interesting: three planets circling a binary set of suns in the faraway Alpha Centauri cosmos.

    The story takes place far enough in the future to where a separate race, the Lunarians, has evolved on the moon.  The newly-evolved Metamorphs on Earth were also neat to meet.  Poul Anderson mixes in some Arabic and French vocabulary, and a slew of Spanish expressions.  In this future world, we’re all polyglots.  There’s only a smidgen of cussing, and even a couple of new euphemisms: “MacCannon” and “flinking”.  I liked those.
    The thing I enjoyed the most about Harvest Of Stars were the “downloads”.  By the time of the storyline, technology allows you to “clone your brain” into a mechanical body.  Indeed, you can make multiple copies of your mental/psychological self.  This adds a certain amount of mayhem to the plot, and also gives some innovative new options for coping with the dilemma of intergalactic voyages, and of course, immortality.

    Harvest Of Stars is a standalone book, as well as part of a series.  I found the ending to be superb; it'll leave a lump in your throat.

Kewlest New Word  ...
Halidom (n.) : something regarded as sacred; a holy relic.
Others : Agley (adj.); Gyrocephalic (adj.); Pollulated (v.); Contumacious (adj.); Fleered (v.); Knaggy (adj.); Asymptote (n.); Apotheosis (n.); Quivira (n.).

    “Sing a song of spacefolk, a pocketful of stars.
    Play it on the trumpets, harmonicas, guitars.
    When the sky was opened, mankind began to sing:
    ‘Now’s the time to leave the nest, the wind is on the wing!’”  (pg. 343)

    ”Eiko, it’s such a forlornly long shot.”
    “Does that mean it is ridiculous?” the other replied.  Her gaze went into the swaying, whispering, light-unrestful green.  “Some fantasies came to me while I sat, often and often, high in the Tree.  Fancies about evolution.  It has no purpose, the biologists tell us, no destiny; it simply happens, as blindly and wonderfully as rainbows.  Nevertheless the scum on ancient seas becomes cherry blossoms, tigers, children who see the rainbow and marvel.”  (pg. 389)

 “Word would leak out like … like electrons quantum-tunneling through any potential barrier I can raise.”  (pg. 22)
    For me, the whole first section of Harvest Of Stars was a slog.  This was probably because I read Poul Anderson books for Science Fiction adventures, and frankly, there isn’t any to be found for quite a while in this book.  Yes, our heroes are running from the Big Brother types, but I never got the sense that they were about to be caught.

    We at last get up into space in the second section, but it’s still kind of a slow go.  Things aren’t helped by Anderson seeming to want to tell you all about his libertarian viewpoints and why leftists are such meanies.  Plus, he never seems to use one word, when a dozen will serve just as well.

    But if you can trudge through all the politics and tediousness, you arrive at section 3, and that, quite frankly, is a masterpiece, and demonstrates why Poul Anderson is considered a top-tier sci-fi writers of all time.

    We’ll rate section 1 at 5½ stars, section 2 at 6½ stars, and section 3 a whopping 9 stars, just to make the math come out even.  Averaging them out comes to:

    7 Stars.  And BTW, the concept of downloading one’s self was extremely timely, as I am also currently reading a non-fiction book about Philosophy.  The author, Peter Cave, gives a number of situational conundrums, including the fascinating one: “what if you could clone yourself?” (*)

    As any good philosopher would, Cave asks all sorts of muse-worthy questions, such as which one is the “real you”?  Further, if you were to kill your clone (or if the clone kills you), would we call it murder?  Suicide?  Or was no crime at all committed?  Food for thought.

(*) : actually, Cave speculates about what would happen to "you" if the two lobes of your brain were put into separate bodies.  But it works out to be the same as being cloned.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Board Stiff - Piers Anthony

   2014; 276 pages.  Book #38 (out of 40) in the “Xanth” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Puns; YA.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    “So here is my wish.  I’m board stiff.  I want Adventure, Excitement, and Romance.”

    Ah, Irrelevant Kandy.  You really should choose your words more carefully when you’re at a wishing well.  Magic wells might grant you what you ask for, but they’re dreadfully dense when it comes to grammar.

    For instance, in your second statement there, “board” is wrong; you meant to say “bored”.  Although just how the wishing well misunderstood this since it was a spoken word remains a mystery.  Nevertheless, that's what you said, and it was right after you declared “so here’s my wish”.

    Now just look at you.  Stiff as a board.  Come to think of it, you are a board. With knotholes for eyes and everything.

    Now how in the bleep are your other three wishes going to be fulfilled?  Can a plank have Adventure?  Excitement?  And goodness me, I don’t think Romance is possible for a piece of wood.

What’s To Like...
    Board Stiff is a pun-lover’s delight, and “puns” in this case includes spoonerisms and malapropisms.  Among the groaners herein are bi-polar bears, boot hill, sequins of events, a com pewter, cyan-eyed, and boot rear.  For me, the best ones were the computer-related puns.  You’ll meet Ms. Dos and her Auto Exec bat, deal with “Macrohard” and its application Macrohard Doors; and try to make sense of the “OuterNet”.

    The storyline is straightforward, Kandy picks up an intrepid crew of questors along the way, and they try to find an anti-virus for a plague that's destroying all the puns in Xanth.  And trust me, Xanth without puns just would be a sad, sad place.

    Kandy’s main cohort is a nice-but-clueless guy named Ease, who also came away from the wishing well having asked for a Perfect Woman, a Perfect Weapon, or a Perfect Adventure.  His weapon turns out to be Kandy, in board form, although he's unaware of her/its dual nature and she only reverts to a woman when Ease is asleep or unconscious.  Each of the questors has a “talent” and all will have to make use of them before the mission is resolved.

    By the story’s count (and I trust Piers Anthony's math) there are 14 “events” prior to the grand finale, so the action is quick and non-stop.  However, if you look at the pages-to-events ratio, it's evident that each of the challenges gets solved in quick order, so none of the them are very thrilling, let alone epic.

    I had trouble figuring out who the intended target audience was.  On one hand, all cuss words are replaced with a “Bleep”.  On the other hand, Piers Anthony seems to have a fetish for panties and bras, looking up dresses, and girls getting naked in front of boys.  There are no explicit sex scenes, but it is implied that some occur offstage.  And although the details of sex are kept secret per the Adult Conspiracy, the term sado-masochism does get mentioned at one point.

    Board Stiff is a standalone novel, but enough loose threads remain afterward to allow for a sequel, and the next book in the series,  Five Portraits, is exactly that. At the very end, there is a kewl Author’s Note, wherein Piers Anthony cites various and sundry puns that were sent to him by fans of the series.  I gather that if he uses one that you submit, you’ll find your name  in this section when the book's published.  That’s kinda neat.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Bruit (v.)  :  to spread (a report or rumor) widely
Others: Cynosure (n.); Oubliette (n.)  

    “It’s always dawn on Antidote Planet.  The elixir carries the odor.  So when you smell purple waves at dawn, you’ll know you’re close.”
   “Dawn has a smell?” Ease asked.
    “Purple has a smell?” Mitch asked.
    “This is not logical,” Pewter said.
   “No, it’s magic,” Ida reminded them.  (loc. 3477)

    “We are on a Quest to locate the antidote to the virus,” Pewter said.  “But we do not know where it is.  We have been wandering, searching for hints.”
    “An antidote,” she said thoughtfully.  “Could the answer lie in the science of chemistry?”
    “You believe in science?” Pewter asked, startled.
    “It’s a form of magic, less reliable but useful in its place.  But mainly, we know where there is a chemistree, that fruits potion bottles.”  (loc. 5678)

Kindle Details...
    Board Stiff sells for $6.15 at Amazon.  The rest of the books in the series run in price from $2.99 to $9.99, mostly depending on how long they’ve been around.  Piers Anthony has several other series besides Xanth, and their prices are also in the $2.99-$9.99 range.

 “Go poke your finger in your right ear,” the nearest goblin called back.  “And pull it out your left ear.”  (loc.  4959)
    For me. the storytelling in Board Stiff is rather bland; ditto for the writing style.  We go from event to event, but there’s never much doubt as to whether Kandy and her band will succeed, so there’s never any building of tension.  For any challenge, there’s always a questor with just the conveniently right talent.

    Still, I'm not the target audience, and the action may carry the day for juvenile boys, who will also get their jollies from the male questors snatching glances of their female counterparts’ underwear and occasional nudity.  But I think for most adults, who are aware of the secrets of the Adult Conspiracy, this will probably be a tedious read.

    The Xanth series has been around since 1977,  and I think I started reading the series in the early 80's.  I remember being particularly impressed with Book 5, Ogre, Ogre.  But the books soon became repetitive, and the wit juvenile.  The abundance of puns remained, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep my interest.  By book 10 or so, I had abandoned the series.

    6 Stars.  I picked up Board Stiff to see if things had changed for the better over the last 30 books and years.  The answer, at least for me, is sadly “no”. 

    BTW, “board Stiff” is apparently a popular pun.  I found no less than five other e-books at Amazon that make use of the same play on words in their titles.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Sharpe's Rifles - Bernard Cornwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Voyage Long and Strange - Tony Horwitz

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

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

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

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

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

    That’s what this book is all about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paratime - H. Beam Piper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Briefly, the five stories are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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