Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flapjack - Daniel Ganninger


   2014; 296 pages.  Book 1 (out of 6) of the Case Files of Icarus Investigation” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime-Mystery; Action-Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Doctor Edward Sloan has been busy lately, working on an interesting scientific project – a kind of “super battery” that would significantly impact energy consumption in everything from driving cars to supplying electricity in your home, even to powering up your e-reader.  That would be fantastic, and everybody wins, right?

    Well, not everybody seems to be pleased about it.  A team of commandos just hit his laboratory in the Engineering & Physics building at Dartmouth University, stole two of the battery prototypes, and blew up the place.  Talk about making a statement.

    Maybe they were greedy, and want to cash in on the breakthrough discovery.  Maybe they work for the electric company or a car battery manufacturer.  Nobody, including the FBI, knows for sure.

    Funny thing though.  Doctor Edward Sloan is blissfully unaware of all the ruckus.  He left Dartmouth just before everything went kablooey, and is currently MIA.  Someone ought to go find him and make him aware of his precarious situation.

    Oh, and he took the latest working model of the super battery with him.  So, about those two prototypes that were stolen from the now-demolished laboratory?  Yeah, they’re practically worthless.

    Somebody evil is going to be very, very angry.

What’s To Like...
    Flapjack follows two guys as they endeavor to get their own Private Eye enterprise up and running.  Dan Galveston brings his sleuthing experience to the venture, while Roger Murphy brings the business savvy.  The story is mostly, but not completely, told from the first-person POV, Roger’s.  It is an ambitious mix of several genres: about equal parts of Action, Romance, Intrigue, and Humor.

    There’s a nice variety of settings, both overseas and domestic.  The local spots are San Diego, Memphis, Washington DC, and Chicago.  The exotic spots are Mexico, London, and Brazil.  There’s a kewl “Behind the Scenes Look on Making Flapjack” section appended after the end of the story, which I found really enlightening.  Think of it as an “Author’s Afterword”.

    There are 74 chapters covering the 296 pages of the story (James Patterson would be proud), so  there’s always a good place to stop for the night.  The enigmatic book cover and title are explained in Chapter 69 (87% Kindle).  I liked the MO used to kill off one of the baddies.  Gotta watch out for those statues.

    Everything builds to a suitable climax.  Daniel Ganninger’s infuses an abundance of wit throughout the tale, and that's always a plus for me.  He only stoops to giving us his personal opinion once; apparently he is not keen on “eco-friendly” politicians.  Flapjack is a standalone story, without cliffhanger or teaser for the next book in the series, which is greatly appreciated.

Excerpts...
    He stopped and smiled.  “Also, I need someone who doesn’t have anything else going on.”
    “Oh, thanks.  Does my life have that little meaning?”
    “Right now it does.  I mean, come on, I’m offering you low wages, unpredictable prospects, terrible hours, days of uncertainty, and a wish you had never come into contact with me.  Who would pass that up?”
    “Well, when you put it like that.”
    “Yes, and don’t forget the travel.  Piss poor hotel rooms, little sleep – that just sweetens the pot.”
    “How can I possibly say no?”  (loc. 350)

   “Do you see that man over there?” Galveston asked, awaiting a response.
    “Yes,” Placer answered slowly.
    “He practices the ancient art of Kilim.  If you don’t talk, he’ll get you to talk.  He can break a man’s legs with just his hands.  I would prefer not to resort to using him.  Do you understand?” Galveston threatened, and then looked at me.
   “Yes, okay.  Please don’t hurt me, I’ll answer whatever you want,” he pleaded.
   The ancient art of Kilim?  I had no clue what he was talking about, but I went along with it.  Unbeknownst to me, a Kilim was a Persian or Turkish woven carpet.  (loc. 4564)

Kindle Details...
    Flapjack presently sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Its sequel, Peeking Duck, goes for $0.99.  The other four books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  Daniel Ganninger has a second series, non-fiction, with four books in it, called Knowledge Stew, focusing on trivia, and its books sell for $3.99 each as well.

 “Who pissed in her Wheaties?”  (loc. 3612)
    Unfortunately, Flapjack felt like a “diamond in the rough” to me, in dire need of some rigorous editing and polishing.

    Editing issues.  There were far too many typos, to the point where they got distracting.  The entire “pre-Icarus” section was irrelevant and could’ve easily been omitted.  I kept waiting for it to tie back in to the main story, and it never did.  There’s lots a repetition of various thoughts and dialogue, particularly in regard to Roger sussing out the “who” and “why”.  And both the plotline and the ending, while reasonably exciting, are devoid of twists.  I like it when things don't go as planned for the good guys.

    Polishing issues.  The characters come in three colors: black, white, and gullible green.  I prefer it when the characters are gray.  There’s way too much luck involved in investigating and foiling the baddies.  Even the protagonists notice that and comment about it.  Finally, the first-person POV gets clunky at spots.  It's a plus when it allows the reader to “hear” Roger’s thoughts on matters, but a first-person POV also is inherently limiting when it comes to telling the story.

    5½ Stars.  Despite the quibbles, Flapjack was still an enjoyable read for me.  The talent that Daniel Ganninger has, and and effort that he put into creating this story and series are evident, and some slack has to be cut for anyone’s debut novel.  Books 2 and 3 (Peeking Duck and Snow Cone), are on my Kindle, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the author hones his technique each time.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Long War - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter



   2013; 422 pages.  Book #2 (out of 5) in The Long Earth series.  New Author? : No, and No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Multiverses.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    The Colonials are revolting!  Some of those “steppers” who have transported themselves ("stepped") into parallel universes have sent a sort of Declaration of Independence back to this world (aka “Datum”).  It seems they’re tired of being taxed by the Datum government for some very minimal services.

    The Datum government is reacting!  They’re sending a bunch of military airships, including the Benjamin Franklin commanded by Maggie Kauffman, on a “goodwill tour” to those uppity otherworlds, reminding them of their taxation responsibilities and showing them a sample of the armed protection it provides.

    The trolls are retreating!  Apparently being used as cheap and menial beasts of labor, they’re stepping away to other multiverses.  Or maybe just one specially-chosen dimension.  Nobody is quite sure where they’ve gone to hide out.  Hey, someone should talk Joshua Valient√©, the original stepper and a living legend, into heading out to find them trolls.

    But Joshua’s retired now, happily married and raising a kid out in the sticks in some piddling little town called Hell-Know-Where.  And while he still might have a wanderlust bone or two left in him, it’s a good bet that his family won’t be thrilled if he gets talked into to travel again.

    Especially since it’s an old lover who comes knocking on his door, calling him to adventure.

What’s To Like...
    The Long War is part of a “hard” Science Fiction pentalogy that explores the popular Quantum Physics concept of multiverses.   It is a collaboration of the talents of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, two of my favorite authors.  It feels like Baxter contributed a lot more to this book than Pratchett, possibly due to the latter’s health issues, and it's set in 2040 AD, 25 years after the first “Step Day”.

    The reader is introduced to a slew of characters right away, and it is advisable to take notes of who’s doing what and traveling where with whom.  The characters quickly separate themselves into 4 or 5 storylines, mostly dealing with exploring the millions of other dimensions, which was also the main theme of Book One, The Long Earth.

    The main topics addressed whilst everyone goes exploring are: Slavery – using the trolls as the persecuted race; Colonization – presented with a rather balanced viewpoint; and Sentience – when is a species intelligent enough to be communicated with instead of eaten?

    The chapters are short – 69 of them for 422 pages, and the book is written in English, not American.  There are lots of creatures to meet – the aforementioned trolls, elves (who are baddies here), kobolds, bipedal wolves, walking tortoises, some nasty beagles, and crest-roos.  Oh yeah, and a talking cat named Shi-Mi.  I also liked the music references – Jim Steinman, John Lennon, Bonnie Tyler, The Kinks, and Buddy Holly.  And I appreciated the tip-of-the-hat to Robert Heinlein and the esoteric Ginnungagap.

    It would’ve been nice to have a brief “The Story So Far” section at the beginning, and even a Cast of Characters, since it’s been a while since I read Book One.  I liked the thread of a western child prodigy exploring with a Chinese expedition, even if there was a bit of trite stereotyping of Chinese culture.

    Pratchett’s wit shines through at times – such as the naming of one of the characters Bosun Higgs, and the concept of “the Outernet”, sort of a multi-world Internet.  But Baxter’s influence predominates in epic sci-fi fashion.  It should be noted that there is some cussing.   The focus is on the diversity of the multiverses, and it was a joy to watch Pratchett/Baxter describe the various worlds.  I never got tired of visiting a new world.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Glebe (n.) : a piece of land serving as part of a clergyman’s benefice, and providing income.
Others :  Irruption (n.); Scry (v.).

Excerpts...
    “Lobsang did this to you.”
    “He did,” she said warningly, “though he used some careless talk from you as an excuse to do it, young man.  We’ll have to have a serious chat about that.”
    “How?  I mean-“
    “Either I was downloaded from my poor dying brain via some kind of neural scan into a bucket of gel, or I was brought back by Tibetan monks chanting the Book of the Dead over my already interred corpse for forty-nine days.  Lobsang tried both ways, he says.”
    Joshua smiled weakly.  “That’s Lobsang, all right.  Always have a backup.”  (pg. 164)

    He knew how she felt.  It was the way he felt, sometimes, if he woke in the small hours, at three a.m., a time when the world seemed empty and stripped of comforting illusion.  A time when you knew you were a mote, transient and fragile in a vast universe, a candle flame in an empty hall.  Luckily the sun always came up, people stirred, and you got on with stuff that distracted you from the reality.
    The problem for Roberta Golding was that she was too smart to be distracted.  For her, it was three a.m. all the time.  (pg. 343)

Humanity … was nothing but the thin residue left when you subtracted the baffled chimp.  (pg. 238 )
    The Long War gets low marks from lots of reviewers over at Amazon, and deservedly so.  First and foremost of the issues is what I call “PWP?”, or “Plot?  What Plot?”  Basically, there is none.  Our various teams of protagonists traipse all over the multiverse, but mostly they're just on sightseeing trips.  Some token action befalls Joshua late in the story, and there’s a seismic occurrence (on several dimensions) at the very end, which is essentially a cliffhanger (I hate cliffhangers) and presumably serves as a teaser for the next book.

    I kept waiting for the titular “Long War” to start, and was informed with about 50 pages to go that it had come to an end, which totally astounded me  There wasn’t any shooting and killing in this “long war”, and I’ve yet to figure out if the title refers to the uppity colonists or the disappearing trolls.

    Maybe this is an inherent drawback from two authors collaborating on a novel.  Perhaps Pratchett thought Baxter would provide the plotline and Baxter thought Pratchett would.  In fairness, it should be noted that Baxter epics are sometimes light on the action and long on the drama, but that’s Hard Sci-Fi for ya.  It’s also possible that Pratchett’s health issues prevented him from adding a ton of his trademark wit to the series.  He did a much better job of that when he collaborated with Neil Gaiman in Good Omens (reviewed here).

    6½ Stars.  The somewhat-blah storyline is saved by the masterful writing skills of both Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, but just barely.  I’ve read the first two books in this series, and have #4 and #5 on my Kindle.  Now it’s just a matter of deciding whether to skip Book 3, The Long Mars, and "step" directly to the last two books in this series.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Why Me? - Donald E. Westlake


    1982; 240 pages.  Book #5 (out of 14) in the Dortmunder” series (plus 11 other short stories, according to Wikipedia).  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime Fiction; Humorous Crime.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The Byzantine Fire is a huge ruby, worth a quarter million dollars as a gemstone, and even more for its historical value.  At Kennedy Airport, the US was about to hand it over to Turkish officials as a goodwill gesture amid tight security, accompanied a couple of NYPD’s finest, when a team of commandos, speaking Greek, up and robbed them of it.

    Needless to say, this very much embarrassed and angered the Americans and the Turks, to say nothing of the New York City Police Department.  But wouldn’t you know it, someone in turn robbed the robbers of this precious jewel.  Now all sorts of others are enraged – Greeks, Armenians, Lebanese, Bulgarians, a bunch of religious zealots, and even the NYC criminal element when the cops started putting the heat on them because of the heist.

    Whoever stole it from the Greek thieves will find the Byzantine Fire impossible to fence, and will be lucky if he/she/they survive at all as soon as they show it.  Who would do such a stupid, suicidal thing?

    Well, they don’t call this the Dortmunder series for nothing.

What’s To Like...
    Why Me? is book 5 in Donald E. Westlake’s immensely popular “Dortmunder” series, which chronicles the heists perpetrated by the inept, yet lovable, and ultimately successful light-fingered thief, John Dortmunder.  I’ve read five other books in the series, but four of them are from late in the series, so this one was kind of a treat for me.  Most of John’s “gang” have only slight roles, with the exception of Andy Kelp.  And “Tiny” Bulcher, is more of a threat than an ally here, which was an unusual twist.

    Why Me? was published in 1982, and it was kind of weird to see Dortmunder struggling with his first encounter with someone’s (landline) telephone hooked to an answering machine.  I remember those days; they are thankfully long gone.

    The chapters are short – 46 of them covering 240 pages, so you can always find a good place to stop.  The pacing is good; there are no slow spots.  There’s a bunch of cussing; I don’t recall as much in the later books in the series, but it fit in with the tone of the story.  However, the use of the N-word did disturb me, as well as several other ethnic slurs.  I recognize that at one time these were acceptable in a book (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath uses the N-word a number of times), but it grates on my reading nerves, and isn’t necessary nowadays.

    What I did like were the various intellectual debates among the patrons of the O.J. Bar and Grill; those were simply hilarious.  And of course, Donald Westlake’s wit is here in abundance, which is always a treat.  This is a standalone novel, as are all the Dortmunder tales.  I am not reading them in order, and I don’t feel like I’m missing much.

Excerpts...
    “But the main problem right now, “ Cabot said, “aside from the loss of the ring itself, of course, is all the foreign gunmen running around New York, hunting the ring and one another.  This theft is enough of an international incident as it is; Washington would be very displeased if New York were turned into another Beirut, with shooting in the streets.”
    “New York would be displeased, too,” Freedly said.  (loc. 1034)

   “It was circumstantial evidence.”
    “Don’t tell me about circumstantial evidence,” O’Hara said.  “I did a nickel-dime once for hitting a lumberyard safe, and all they had on me was sawdust in my cuffs.”
    “That’s terrible,” Kelp said.  “Where’d they nab you?”
    “In the lumberyard office.”  (loc. 3570)

Kindle Details...
    The Flying Sorcerers sells for $7.99 at Amazon, although I got my copy for free as a library loan.  The other books in the “Dortmunder” series are in the price range of $6.99-$9.99.  Donald E. Westlake also has a bunch more “hard-boiled” crime-mystery  e-books available.  They go for $4.60-$12.99.

 “Valuable things get stolen, am I right?  That’s what they’re for.”  (loc. 755)
    Let’s be frank, Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books are formulaic.  Dortmunder acquires some larcenous loot, sometimes by accident (such as is the case here), more often via some hare-brained but effective scheme he cooks up.  Mayhem ensues, and somehow karma prevails.  The ill-gotten gains are lost to Dortmunder,  but either returned to their rightful owner or given over to some charitable cause.

    Why Me? is no exception to this, and that’s okay by me.  After reading 6 of the 14 books in the series, I’m still not burnt out on it.  FWIW. I’ve read several of Donald Westlake’s “non-Dortmunder” books and have enjoyed them almost as much.  I have not, however, read any of his serious-&-gritty detective stories.

    8 Stars.    It’s a shame Donald Westlake passed away in 2008 after a prolific, nearly writing career spanning nearly 50 years.  Sadly, no one has picked up the mantle and continued the Dortmunder series.  I, for one, would welcome it.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Nolander - Becca Mills


   2013; 363 pages.  Full Title : “Nolander – A Novel of the Emanations”.  Book 1 (out of 2, so far) of the “Emanations” trilogy.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Fantasy (so sez I); Urban Fantasy (so sez the author).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Someone is photobombing Beth Ryder.  In order to cope with her panic attacks, Beth has taken up photography.  Which in Dorf, Wisconsin, means small-town pictures, such as the local J.T.’s, or a headstone in the local cemetery.

    But Beth’s picture of J.T.’s has a black guy streaking past it.  And the gravestone image has what can only be described as a “monster foot” plopping down right beside her camera.  The trouble is, Beth didn’t notice either anomaly when she was taking the photographs, and those things are pretty difficult not to see.

    So maybe, someone photoshopped the pictures.  Except that Beth developed them herself.  Hmm.  Maybe Beth should show the pictures around Dorf, see if anyone else saw these oddities.

   Maybe.  But if they don’t recognize them they’re gonna think you’re crazy, Beth.  And if they do recognize them, you might find yourself getting drawn into something that’s going to royally freak you out.

What’s To Like...
    Nolander is the tale of 23-year-old Beth Ryder, as she gradually discovers the reasons behind her panic attacks.  The genre is best described as Dark Fantasy, since the otherworldly beings – demons, body-snatchers, and “not-dogs” - are by-and-large not the sorts of creatures you want to meet in a dark alley.  The tree-‘puses are better, but they’re still a tad bit creepy.

   The story is told mostly in the first-person POV (Beth’s), although beginning at Chapter 19, some third-person POV chapters appear.  The settings are pretty "ordinary America" for a while (which I think is deliberate) – a swath of states from Wisconsin to New York, but things pick up when Beth finally reaches Lord Cordus’s estate, and get even better when she gets transported away via a kewl device called a Carven Strait.

   The book is written in English, as opposed to American, which is a bit odd, since the Amazon blurb on Becca Mills indicates she teaches at a university in California.  There’s a bunch of cussing, which I didn’t find offensive, but I do question whether it added to or detracted from the storyline.  There were also a couple typos along the way.  “Schumaker” became “Shumaker”, and at one point the phrase “since last Friday – so nine days” was used, which is mathematically impossible.  But overall, the editing was quite good.

    I enjoyed the fact that Beth develops her own film.  I used to help my dad do that, and it brought back some great memories.  The secondary characters are fun to meet, and I liked Ghosteater, even if Beth thought less highly of him.

    Nolander is not exactly a standalone novel.  There are a slew of loose ends left wafting in the wind: the mouse, Justine, the Eye of the Heavens, and Lord Limu’s stolen weapon.  Presumably these are resolved in the next two books of the trilogy.  Also, the story ends at a logical place, which is far better than a cliffhanger ending.  So I didn’t feel like this was a freebie “bait book” – something only intended to lure you into paying for the whole series.

Excerpts...
    “Is there a way to test for the more unusual gifts?”
    “Not specifically.  There are literally thousands of them, and some of them are pretty hard to pin down.  It’s possible that many of us have one or more that we never find out about.  For instance, one guy I knew could put anything up his left nostril, so long as he could pick the item up and push it in that direction.  But he didn’t know about it for the longest time.  I mean, who really tries to put a chair up their nose, right?”
    “Yeah.  Wow.”
    I hoped that if I had any quirky gifts, they didn’t involve bodily orifices.  (loc. 2084)

   “Is she someone important?”
    “She controls the Caribbean and the Gulf – Florida, eastern Mexico, Central America, northern South America.”
    Wow.  I wondered if she was more powerful than Cordus.  I felt chilled.
    “She just offered to trade Florida for me.”
    Williams turned and looked at me.  Perhaps I’d actually surprised him.  Or maybe not.  After a few seconds, he shrugged and said, “Florida’s gonna be underwater in fifty yeas, anyway.”  (loc. 3915)

Kindle Details...
    Nolander is a free download at Amazon, and you can’t beat that.  It’s sequel, Solatium, sells for $3.99.  Becca Mills also offers a short story set in this series, Theriac, for free.  The third and final book, has not been published yet.  ANAICT, these are the only books Amazon offers by the author.

 Dead is dead, even if you’re killed by a crazy person for a crazy reason.  (loc. 678)
    The target audience for Nolander looks to be college-aged girls, and I am far-removed from that category.  So I appreciated there being no Romance in this book.  The explaining of the parallel world (The “second Emanation”) got a bit tedious at times, but the upside was that I (and Beth) had a good understanding of what it was and how it worked.

    All-in-all, I didn’t have high expectations when I started this book.  I think I was anticipating yet another Twilight wannabee, and so it was a pleasant surprise when it turned out to have an original plotline, where no one “sparkles”.  It kept my interest from the first page to the last, and that’s all I ask of a book.

    7½ Stars.  Add 1 Star if you are in the target audience.  Nolander will be a real treat for you.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The History Buff's Guide to the Civil War - Thomas R. Flagel



   2003; 366 pages.  Full Title : The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War – Top Ten Rankings of the Best, Worst, Largest, and Most Lethal People and Events of the Civil War.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Military History; Lists.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Hey, did you know that almost 30 years before the Civil War, South Carolina had already threatened to secede from the United States? (pg. 60).  Or that some other names proposed for the Confederate States were (among others) Chicora, Columbia, and Alleghenia?  (pg. 65).  How about the fact that they used to use Mercury in the manufacture of hats?  (pg. 117).  Or that General Ambrose Burnside, one of the many incompetent Union commanders, would later become the first president of the NRA?  (pg. 280).

    If you like cluttering up your brain with trivia such as that, and I do, The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War will be a sheer delight to you. OTOH, if you’re a serious History buff, well, this book is still for you.  And if you really like the “mystique” of the Civil War – the “Dixie” mindset of diehard Southerners, the “Lincoln the Great Emancipator” mindset of diehard Northerners – you may want to avoid this book.  Thomas Flagel’s objectivity is going to shatter your illusions.

     Okay, one trivia question to whet your appetite.  What was General Robert E. Lee’s overall record in the major engagements in which he commanded the CSA forces?  Useless hint : the total number of these battles was 23.

   The answer is given in the comments section of this post.

What’s To Like...
    The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War is done in the same style as the previous Thomas R. Flagel book  I read (reviewed here): all sorts of aspects of the conflict presented in “Top Ten Rankings” format.  These are not merely “Top Ten Lists”; each entry is usually several paragraphs of in-depth facts and analysis, and each entry finishes up with some fascinating bit of trivia.  One example that I really enjoyed was learning about the origin of Memorial Day, which, once upon a time, was known as “Decoration Day” (pg. 361).

    I liked the balanced approach employed by the author.  Sorry, Johnny Reb, but the war really was, first and foremost, about slavery, although there were lots of other reasons as well.  But also sorry, Yankee Doodle, Lincoln’s motivations for going to war had little to do with emancipation, at least initially.

   The book is divided into 7 sections listed below.  My favorite topics in each section are listed; “T10” stands for “Top Ten”.

1. Antebellum
   T10 Causes of the Civil War.
2. Politics
   T10 Differences between the USA & CSA Constitutions.
3. Military Life
   T10 Weapons.
4. The Home Front
   T10 Acts of Dissent.
   T10 Songs (including pacifist/protest tunes).
5. In Retrospect
   T10 Best Commanding Generals.
   T10 Worst Commanding Generals.
   T10 Military Blunders (#4 is Pickett’s charge).
6. Pursuing The War
   T10 Ways to be an accurate reenactor.
7. Epilogue
   Some final thoughts from Thomas R. Flagel (and well wroth the read).

    Section 5 is the “meat” of the book – the fighting itself.  Naturally, it was my favorite part.  There are also plenty of pictures scattered throughout the book, both etchings/drawings and actual photographs.

Excerpts...
    Before a march began, foot soldiers were instructed to pack three days’ rations including salt pork, which they habitually ate in one sitting.  This wolfing was sometimes a matter of weak willpower but usually an act of practicality.  Stuffed in a haversack or in pockets, sowbelly oozed grease, gathered lint and dust, jumbled with the other contents, and rotted quickly.  Better to eat it all, figured most soldiers, and take one’s chances with foraging or resupply than to wait a few days and watch the rations become even more repulsive than they already were.  (pg. 102)

    Most reenactors spend a pretty shinplaster on their replicated duds, subsequently treating their uniforms better than a Sunday suit.  Even those attempting to represent the mismatched nature of Civil War outerwear, sporting a homespun shirt or a hand-me-down hat for example, still appear pristine compared to the real campaigners.  To an actual soldier, there were four kinds of clothes: lost, tossed, dress, and damaged.  (pg. 313)

 An ardent oversimplifier with freakish stamina, John Brown failed at everything save breeding children and agitation.    (pg. 22)
    There are a couple quibbles.  For starters, a full one-third of the book (pgs. 367-497) is taken up by the sections “Notes”, “Bibliography”, “Image Credits”, and “Index”.  I recognize the need for these, as nitpickers and dissenters-of-opinion are going to try to tear apart the points made in The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War that chafe their undies.  But come on, now.  We live in the Digital Age.  Can’t all this be listed on-line and readers/arguers simply given a link to that stuff?  Save the trees!!

    Second, it seemed to take a long time to get to the “war” parts of the book.  The non-tree-killing parts covered 366 pages, and really interesting parts about the fighting itself were limited to pages 206 to 301.  While there were some kewl lists in the other sections, there were aome boring parts too.

    I don’t recall as many slow sections in The History Buff’s Guide to World War 2, although it’s been a while since I read that one.  Maybe the innovative way of presenting history was fresher when I read the WW2 book.  Or maybe the author became more polished between writing the two books.  “Civil War” was written nine years before “WW2”.

    But let’s not overemphasize the few negatives.  As the title implies, this book will appeal to any and all history buffs, and there’s enough interesting stuff there to more than compensate for a couple of slow stretches.  I enjoyed “Civil War”, even if it didn’t quite measure up to “WW2”.

    7½ Stars.  Above all, I appreciated this book addressing a question that puzzled me way back in 5th-grade, which was: If the Civil War was all about freeing the slaves (I grew up in Pennsylvania), and the fighting started in 1861, how come Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t issued until 1863?.  Thank you, Thomas R. Flagel.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Black Harvest - Alex Lukeman


   2012; 229 pages.  Book 4 (out of 14) of “The Project” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action Thriller.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Three experts on crop viruses, including one who worked for the CDC (Center for Disease Control) are murdered in a very short time.  Someone apparently thinks they knew too much about something, and it seems to concern what’s written on some cuneiform inscriptions on some ancient clay tablets.

    This all happened here in the US, and there's some evidence that the killers have ties to the CIA and the Pentagon.  So who ya gonna call?

    No, not Ghostbusters.  How about a secret group called “The Project”, a black ops intelligence unit that answers directly to the President?  Sounds like a plan.

    But this time, they may be in over their clandestine heads.  Whoever is behind these killings semms to know the Project’s every move, even before they take a step.

What’s To Like...
    Black Harvest is an action-thriller, kind of in the Jason Bourne style, but with the emphasis on the team, not the individual.  There’s also a history/mythology angle like you'd find in a Steve Berry novel, but that peters out rather quickly.  Still, it was neat to see Alexander the Great, and the Greek goddess Demeter worked into the storyline, to say nothing of the cuneiform tablets.  I had never heard of “Erinys”, the vengeful aspect of Demeter.  I also enjoyed learning the origin of the word “nightmare”.

    The action starts right away and the pacing is incredibly fast.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of, but I have a feeling that the Americans are all recurring ones.  The good guys are developed nicely, but all the Russians are portrayed as goons, even the women.

    Some of the setting are way kewl.  Greece is always a treat for me, and when’s the last time you’ve read any book that had part of the story set in Bulgaria?  The Texas panhandle setting will bore most readers, but my company had several chemical plants there, which I visited numerous times, so it was sort of nostalgic to “see” the area once again in this story.

    There’s a bunch of cussing, a bunch of sex, and one case of torture, so you probably don’t want little Suzy and Jimmy reading this.  The chapters are of “James Patterson” length, so you’ll always find a convenient place to stop reading for the night.  Indeed, the 229 pages are split into 69 chapters; so on the average, there’s a break every 3 pages or so.

    This is only a “semi-standalone” novel.  The ending was so-so, as it leaves a slew of loose major plot threads, involving things like containing the blight, Korov’s possible turning, and AEON.  Some of these, especially AEON, may be resolved in the next book in the series, but then I have to wonder why they weren’t combined into a single book.

Excerpts...
    Gelashvili had risen to power in the criminal underworld of Moscow by emulating his idol and fellow Georgian, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, otherwise known as Stalin.  If Zviad suspected treachery, someone died.  If someone failed to carry out their assigned tasks, they died.  If someone opposed him, they died.  Something could always be done to encourage motivation.  (loc. 377)

   “This sucks, Kemo Sabe.”
    “Kemo Sabe?  You going native on me?”
    “I always wanted to say that.  Tonto always said that to the Lone Ranger when the shit was about to hit the fan.  Kemo Sabe.  Has a nice ring to it.”
    “What does it mean?”
    “You don’t want to know.”  (loc. 1463)

Kindle Details...
    Black Harvest sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  Most of the other books in the series sell for $4.99, and Book 1, White Jade, and which I haven’t read, is free.  Alex Lukeman also has two non-fiction books available, about the meaning of dreams and nightmares, which both sell for $9.99.

 Not many people could recite Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon.  Not many would want to.  (loc. 158)
    There were quibbles besides the dangling plot threads.  Some of them were WTF’s, such as the Pentagon’s computers seeming to be incredibly easy to hack into.  Also, Ronnie is a Navajo, yet has no qualms about crawling around in a crypt.  Sorry, I know several Navajos.  There’s no way they’d be caught in a room full of dead people’s bones.

    More serious is the lack of focus in the storyline itself.  Our heroes start out trying to solve the mystery of the ancient tablets and fighting the evil Russkies.  But the latter gets resolved about a third of the way through, and the historical intrigue of the former just kind of evaporates into thin air.  The Russian baddies are replaced by American baddies, who are again quickly disposed of, and after that, the new evil peeps are the mysterious AEON folks.

    There is an antidote for the virus, but I don’t recall it ever being clear that the good guys acquired it.  Indeed the whole raid on the Utah facility is little more than a small side story.  And funnily enough, of the three onstage Ultimate Evils (one Russian, two American), none of them are dispatched by our intrepid heroes.

    But maybe I’m overthinking all of this.  The bottom line is: Black Harvest was an entertaining book from the first page to the last, ideal for a day at the beach or for an airplane trip.  Just remember to put the analytical lobe of your brain on hold when you go to start reading it.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 Star if you like Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series.  I overthink those stories too.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold and Larry Niven



    1971; 320 pages.  New Author? : Yes (David Gerrold), and No (Larry Niven).  Genre : Classic Science Fiction; First Contact; Humorous Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    The new magician literally fell from the skies.  Well, technically he was in his nest, and the nest fell from the skies.  He wields powerful but strange magic.  And he seems more interested in testing the rocks and collecting samples of plants and animals than calling upon the gods to do marvelous things.

    Needless to say, the present magician, Shoogar, is none too pleased with the appearance of this interloper.  The magicians’ code demands a duel.  But the new guy seems totally ignorant of such protocol, and laughs off Shoogar’s threats of spellcasting.  Perhaps it’s more appropriate to place of curse upon him.

    And you know what they say.  “A land with two magicians will soon have only one.”

What’s To Like...
    The Flying Sorcerers is a standalone novel (without chapters), set on an alien planet with two suns and eleven moons, and inhabited by sentient humans in a more-or-less “Bronze Age plus bicycles” stage of development.  The basic theme is how they deal with a visit from a Space Age astronaut/explorer, aka “Purple”, the new Wizard on the block.

    The story in told from a first-person POV, a guy named Lant, who is kind of a mediator between the Shoogar and Purple.  It is written in “classic sci-fi” style, with a dash adult situations and cussing added in.  My favorite cussword was a made-up one, yngvied”.  You can also get high by drinking Quaff, or eating Raba-Root.  But beware the Dust of Yearning, it is a potent potion indeed.

    I liked the world-building details.  Things like a cultivation ceremony, homes that hang from trees (“nests”), and the “finger gesture of fertility’.  The inherent language issue is solved via one of Purple’s magical devices, a “Speakerspell”, and I liked that it had its own learning curve which led to some hilarious translating difficulties at first.

    The secondary themes are ambitious: Magic vs. Science, Purple introducing the natives to "civilized" things such as Assembly-Line Manufacturing, Money, and Possessions; and the Role of Women. There’s also some chemistry (the splitting of water to make Hydrogen and Oxygen) and Mechanical Engineering (flying machines) in the story, and since I’m a chemist, that's a delight.

    Finally, it seems like David Gerrold and Larry Niven were seeing how much wit they could weave into the story.  You’ll meet Lant’s sons, Wilville and Orbur; and be sure to note the names of the gods, they are actually a tribute to various Science fiction writers: “Caff” (Anne McCaffrey); “Virn” (Jules Verne), “Peers” (Piers Anthony), and even ‘N’Veen” (Larry Niven).

Kewlest New Word…
Antipathy (adj.) : a deep-seated feeling of dislike; aversion.

Excerpts...
    “You, Lant.  You Speak for us.  You have been an Advisor as long as anyone.”
    “I can’t,” I whispered back.  “I have never been a Speaker.  I do not even have a Speaking Token.  We buried it with Thran.”
    “We’ll make a new one.  Shoogar will consecrate it.  But we need a Speaker now.”
    One or two others nodded assent.
    “But there’s the chance they might kill me if they find me too audacious a Speaker,” I hissed.
    The rest nodded eagerly.  (loc. 1004)

   I took another sniff – was it possible that this gas made people light-headed?  I wondered about that.  The other gas made things light – this gas made people light.  No, I’d have to think about that.  I took another sniff.  This new gas made people’s view of things rise above other things.
    Another sniff – how strange!  I knew what I meant.  Why weren’t there words for it?  I lowered my head again.
    Abruptly I was pulled away by Shoogar. (…) “What are you doing?”
    “Um, I was investigating the bubbles.”  (loc. 2750)

Kindle Details...
    The Flying Sorcerers sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  David Gerrold’s other e-book offerings are in the price range of $6.15-$12.76.  Larry Niven’s e-books sell for $5.99-$9.99.  For the record, I borrowed The Flying Sorcerers for free via my local library.  I really can’t say enough good things about this resource.

 “We don’t need your guilty-of-incestuous-rape sails!”  (loc. 2813)
    The were some minuses.  The storyline was not compelling and seemed a bit forced to accommodate the punny title.  The pacing was slow.  It took forever for Shoogar to invoke his curse, even longer to build the flying machine and make a trip in it.

    The Role of Women issue was unconvincing.  While it’s true that Purple inadvertently raises their status a bit, it seems like it’s only to get them from brainless animals to being capable of menial tasks.  The gods forbid that women should ever have any leadership qualities, or come up with any problem-solving ideas.  But hey, The Flying Sorcerers was written in 1971, so maybe this was a sign of the times.

    I also was amazed that Lant and his fellow Bronze Agers could quickly grasp the chemistry aspects of splitting water so easily to make two gases, but maybe that’s just the scientist in me coming out.

    Finally, there was an abundance of typos.  It looked like someone ran the hardback version through a scanning program, but never checked to see if everything came out okay.  That’s both sloppy and lazy.

    5½ Stars.  Add 1 Star if you hate books that make you keep track of dozens of characters.  Here, Shoogar, Purple, and Lant are all you need to keep straight, plus maybe Wilville and Orbur.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids - Michael McClung


   2012; 231 pages.  Book 1 (out of 4) of the “Amra Thetys” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Crime Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    There’s honor among thieves.  Camaraderie too.  So when Amra’s fellow thief Corbin asks a small favor of her, it is not unreasonable to accept.

    It’s such an easy thing, too.  Just hang on to a piece of stolen loot, a small statue of an ugly-looking  toad for a couple hours, while Corbin finalizes his getting paid for his service.  It seems he doesn’t entirely trust his client, and wants to hold back this key item as “life insurance”.

    Amra obliges, but unfortunately Corbin’s ploy doesn’t work.  He’s brutally murdered that very night.  Still, since nobody knows what Corbin did with the statue, Amra’s safe, right?

    Hmm.  Then why did a dreaded shape-changer try to break into her room soon afterward, and who sent the beast?

What’s To Like...
    The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids is a fantasy novel set in a city called Lucernis.  The protagonist is Amra Theys, is a young female thief, well respected for her burglary skills.  The sub-genre falls under musket-&-magic.  You’ll run across  bloodwitches, daemonists, shape changers, grohls, and mages, but no elves, dwarves, or unicorns.  There are also a slew of gods, each with their own temple and followers.  I liked the theological setup in the world-building here.

    There’s no Thieves’ Guild per se, such as is found in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, but there are similarities.  Thieves can be hired via a “fixer”, a go-between who determines the price of a job and what percent of that sum the thief is entitled to.

    This is a dark book, with lots of violence and bloodshed; balanced by lots of magic, and I mean that as a plus.  The cussing is a mixture of familiar epithets and citing various body parts of the myriad gods, such as “Kerf’s balls!” and “Isin’s creamy tits!”  I thought these inventive invectives were great.

    The story is told from a first-person POV (Amra’s), and Michael McClung develops some fascinating supporting characters.  I particularly liked the mage Holgren, the detective Kluge, Lord Osskil, and of course, the dog Bone.  The baddies are capable foes.

    Everything builds to a suitably-exciting ending, which also sets up the next book in the series.  This is a standalone, self-contained story, and that’s important for me.  The book’s title comes from a brief description of Amra at 69%; and I like all the other titles in this series.

Kewlest New Word…
Ensorcelled (adj.) : enchanted, fascinated, bewitched.
Others : Moil (n.).

Excerpts...
    “I think I know you well enough to say that you’re wrong.  It’s become fairly plain that you, Amra Thetys, given the choice between fighting and capitulating, will pick a fight every damned time.”
    “So you’re saying I’m stubborn.”
    “Oh, yes, very much so.  Contrary as well.”
    “No I’m not.”
    “Don’t look now, but you’re being stubborn.  And contrary.”
    “I know you are, but what am I?”  (loc. 2881)

   “I don’t doubt you have the Sight.  But I’d make a distinction between seeing the future, however cloudily, and knowing what fate has in store for someone.  If fate even exists.”
    “Oh, it does, though I won’t bother trying to convince you of the fact.  But you are right in believing seeing the future isn’t the same as knowing what fate has in store.”
    “I wouldn’t have expected you to agree.”
    She shrugged her thin shoulders.  “To see the future is to see the likeliest route of a journey.  To know fate, my dear, is to know the destination.”  (loc. 3196)

Kindle Details...
    The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other three books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  You can also buy the whole series in a bundle for $12.96 which, if my math is correct, saves you absolutely nothing.  Michael McClung has two other e-books available, a short story collection (horror tales) for $3.99, and the first book in a new series (“Tarot Quest”) for $2.99.

 One of the privileges of being a mage, I suppose, is that you can be as strange as you like, and nobody dares comment.  (loc. 739)
    The quibbles are minor.  The action aspect of The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids is excellent, but the murder-mystery part is so-so and not very twisty.  The fantasy elements are great, but the setting is pretty much limited to the city of Lucernis.  However, I imagine the geography expands as the series progresses.

    The last 7% of the e-book is details the history, magic system, and god-&-critters list of Amra’s world.  This avoids a lot of tedious backstory telling, but I was content to just skim through it.  I didn’t feel hamstrung by not knowing all these details as I read the book, but I can see where other readers/reviewers would want this section if it weren't there.

    But I pick at nits.  TTWPoTB had a brisk pace, which kept me turning the pages.  Book 2, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye is on my Kindle, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    8 Stars.