Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Voynich Cypher - Russell Blake


   2012; 268 pages.  Book 2 (out of 2) in the Dr. Steven Archer Cross series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action-Thriller ; Suspense; Conspiracies; Puzzle-Solving.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    They had one job.

    To guard an insignificant canister (about the size of a thermos) that’s in a secret room inside a sleepy, nondescript abbey in Italy.  It should've been an easy task for three heavily-armed commandos – one inside the room, one outside its door, and one on the grounds of the abbey.  It doesn't matter that they’ve never been told what the canister holds.

    The job's not new; it's been going on for four centuries now, and no one's ever tried to steal the object.  After a while, even the best-equipped protectors can let down their guard just a tad.  Take a short nap.  Listen to music on an iPod.  There's never any excitement.

    Until tonight, when someone somehow has stolen the canister.  And now the Order of the Holy Relic, who own and occupy the abbey, who hired these guards, and who have been entrusted by the Pope himself to safeguard the canister’s mysterious contents, are in a high dudgeon over the theft.

    And when you steal from the Church, there’s going to be hell to pay.

What’s To Like...
    The storyline of The Voynich Cypher is built around a real document called the Voynich Manuscript, and which can be justifiably called the "Holy Grail of Cryptography".   You can read the Wikipedia article about it here.  The story's structure is very similar to that of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: the Roman Catholic is guarding a centuries-old secret, somehow it gets compromised, our heroes unwittingly fins themselves in possession of the secret, and they spend the rest of the book going from place to place, solving riddle after riddle, getting ever closer to uncovering the cosmos-changing secret, while also trying to stay one step ahead of bad guys and other rivals.

    For the most part, The Voynich Cypher takes place in various cities in Italy, and I was particularly impressed with the vividness with which Russell Blake portrayed that country.  Maybe he’s lived there; in any event, it certainly didn’t feel like a Wikipedia cut-&-paste job. Our two protagonists, Dr. Steven Cross and Natalie Twain, are fun to tag along with, and there are enough thrills, spills, chases, and puzzles to keep the reader turning the pages.

    The author lists  the place and time settings for the first couple chapters at their start, which was quite helpful.  I enjoyed the (obligatory) Knights Templar tie-in, and was pleasantly surprised by the brief nod to Mithraism, a long-forgotten religion.  Russell Blake blends the historical background of the Voynich Manuscript into the story in bits and pieces.  To a certain extent, this felt like an info dump, but I suppose it was necessary, since most readers will be unacquainted with it.  The author apparently doesn’t think much of tattooed Goth girls, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, and I got a chuckle out of that.

    I’m a big fan of situational ethics, so I was intrigued by the stealing of the “secret”.  Despite the excitement which ensues, I couldn’t help thinking that ultimately the Church had every right to try to recover the property that was stolen from it.  Curiously, the storyline sides with the thieves (the secret is said to be “liberated”, not “stolen”), and at times I found myself rooting for the agents of the Church to foil our heroes.

    The ending is adequately exciting, though not overly spectacular.  It had one interesting plot twist, but I was expecting it, since the reader knows all of the bad guys have to eventually be accounted for.  Some of the baddies are dispatched with a bit too providentially.  Ultimately, nothing in the world changes, but that sort of letdown is inherent with any book in this genre, including The Da Vinci Code.

    There are 42 chapters covering the 268 pages, which works out to roughly 6 pages per chapter.  The R-rated stuff is mostly cusswords, plus a couple of adult situations.   The number of secondary characters felt “just right” to me; not too many, not too few.  The Voynich Cypher is a standalone story, as well as the second book in a series.  It was published in 2012, and Russell Blake has never since added another installment to the series.  Inquiring minds would like to know why.

Kewlest New Word ...
Dispositive (adj.) : relating to or bringing about the settlement of an issue (such as the disposition of property)(Heh.  I thought it was a goofy way of saying “negative”.)
Others : Dongle (n.).

Excerpts...                                
    “I think it’s him.  I trailed him from the flat.  I wish we had some photos so we could be sure,” the man muttered into the mouthpiece between puffs.
    “We’re trying to get access to the motor vehicle database for a license photo, but there’s nothing else I’ve been able to find.  The man obviously isn’t much for social media.  Pity.  Facebook’s made everything easier…”  (loc. 1618)

    “Where have you been?  It’s like you’re miles away.  Hello…”
    “I’m sorry.  I’m probably still tired, as well as a little surprised by …well… by this.”
    “Are you complaining?”
    “No.  Quite the opposite.  I mean it’s-“
    “If you find my company too distracting, we can always go back to being platonic colleagues,” she offered.
    “I’m not sure that would work,” Steven countered.
    “It had better not.”  (loc. 3424)

 “That’s the price of a soul these days?  I would have sold mine a long time ago if I’d had any idea you could get that kind of money for one.”  (loc. 4533)
    There are some quibbles.  All the characters are predominantly black or white; I like gray characters.  I felt there were a couple of missed opportunities for thrills and spills, most notably the demises of a pair of the “white-hat” secondary characters.

    There were one or two showing/telling issues, although not to where it got annoying.  And the author and his editors never could decide whether it’s a “duffel bag” or a “duffle bag”(Hint: it’s “duffel”.)

    But I pick at nits.  Overall, The Voynich Cypher kept my interest from start to finish, and didn’t strain the limits of believability, like some Action-Thriller do.  If you're looking for something to satisfy your "Dan Brown" itch, this book will do the trick nicely.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 2 stars if you don’t like books that are knockoffs of bestsellers like, say, Jurassic Park, Sherlock Holmes, Fifty Shades of Grey, or The Da Vinci Code.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I personally like such derivative efforts, provided they are well-done.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Brentford Chainstore Massacre - Robert Rankin


    1997; 366 pages.  Full Title: The Brentford Chainstore Massacre : The Fifth Novel in the Now Legendary Brentford Trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Absurdism; British Humor; Fantasy; “Far Fetched Fiction”; Running Gags.  Laurels: Nominee, British Fantasy Society “Best Novel” (1997).  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The year is 1997, and the world is starting to make plans to welcome in the new millennium.  Of course, it’s still a couple years away, so there’s lots of time to form committees, schedule celebrations, and come up with whatever other festivities are appropriate for welcoming in a new thousand-year stretch of time.

    But in quaint little Brentford, the time schedule is different.  They're planning for the  millennium to arrive two years early, and that means it’s just around the corner.  They’re entitled to this, they claim, because of some sort of document, issued by some Pope way back when, as a Papal Bull and called “the Brentford Scrolls”.  In it he bequeathed Brentford two extra days per year.  And as everyone knows, you can’t rescind something the Pope writes.

    Well, that might sound pretty silly, and it doesn’t help that no one remembers exactly where the Brentford Scrolls are located anymore, or indeed if it still exists.  Maybe it’s all a hoax, or an urban legend.

    But what if the Brentford way of calendar-reckoning is correct?  What if they’re the only ones who will be ushering in the new millennium at the precisely correct moment?  It might unleash something really cosmically good into the world.

    Or something really diabolically evil.

What’s To Like...
    The Brentford Chainstore Massacre is the fifth novel (out of ten, at last count) in the oxymoronically titled “Brentford Trilogy”, and that should give you a hint that the book will be full of the usual absurdities that run through anything penned by Robert Rankin.  The two main characters are Jim Pooley and John Omally, a pair of world-saving antiheroes who love to drink beer at the local pub called “The Flying Swan” and engage in witty repartee.  They are recurring Rankin characters, although I don’t think they are in every book in the quasi-trilogy.

     The storyline is convoluted and nonsensical.  There are two Ultimate Evils: Fred, who’s sold his soul to the Devil, and Dr. Steven Malone, who wants to clone Jesus Christ.  They are joined by a couple of brutish but somewhat dense thugs, Clive and Derek, so our two heroes will have to watch their step.

    The book is written in English, not American.  So you’ll run across words and spellings such as: lino, programme, marvellous, judgement, chilli pepper, and hoovering.  I love books written in English.  You’ll also be introduced to a pair of obscure (but real) medical terms, Idrophroisia and Sacofricosis, neither of which I had heard of before.  Google them at your own peril.

    I loved the ersatz Cockney rhyming schemes, such as “Sandra’s Thighs” standing for “eyes”, and laughed at acronyms such as SUCK (“Secret Unification for the Coming King”).  I was impressed by the two-page run-on sentence (shades of Jack Kerouac!) and another page devoted to F-alliteration.  And the secrets to traveling faster than the speed of light and “de-entropizing” will certainly come in handy. 

    There are 33 chapters (plus three short snippets of stories at the beginning) to cover 366 pages in the book.  There’s even a smidgen of a love story, which is somewhat rare in a Robert Rankin story, but don’t worry, this is not a Harlequin Romance.  The book’s title is referenced on page 242, but frankly, it's a very tenuous tie-in.

    The book’s ending is kind of a stutter-step affair.  The search for the Brentford Scrolls is resolved first, then the millennial celebration begins, with all its looming consequences.  It is all suitably climactic, exciting, and absurd; and you’ll get a new appreciation of the term deus ex machina”.  Somehow it works out quite well.

    Which is what you’d expect from a gifted wit like Robert Rankin.

Kewlest New Word...
Shufty (n.) : a look; a peep; a peek  (a Britishism).
Others : Dosh (n.; a Britishism); Fractious (adj.); Calumny (n.); Picaresque (adj.); Scrofulous (adj.).

Excerpts...
    A lady in the straw hat sat down beside him.  “Are you lost?” she asked Jack.
    Jack clutched his package to his chest.  “Certainly not,” he told her.
    “Only I get lost sometimes.  I have who’ja vu.”
    “What’s that?”
    “It’s the opposite of déjà vu.  I can be in the middle of the supermarket and suddenly I get this feeling, I’ve never been here before.”
    “I have to go,” said Jack.  “I have a very important package to deliver.”
    “The doctor put me on a course of placebos,” said the lady in the straw hat.  “But I don’t take them.  I’m saving them all up for a mock suicide attempt.”  (pg. 65)

    “I come from a very musical family.  Even the dog hummed in the warm weather.”
    “How interesting,” said the Englishman.
    “Oh yes, very musical.  When I was only three I played on the linoleum.  We had a flood and my mother floated out on the table.  I accompanied her on the piano.  Talking of pianos, the cat sat down at ours once and played a tune, and my mum said, “We must get that orchestrated,” and the cat ran out and we never saw it again.  Now my father, my father died from music on the brain.  A piano fell on his head.”
    “Was that the same piano?” asked the Irishman.
    “Same one,” said Old Pete.  “I never played it myself.  I was going to learn the harp, but I didn’t have the pluck.”  (pg. 332)

“Crop circles are the stigmata of the Corn God.”  (pg. 249)
        There aren’t really any R-rated parts, but there are all sorts of double-entendres and ethnic jokes.  Those easily offended and/or prudish might have some uncomfortable moments.  If little Susie or Timmy reads this book, they might ask embarrassing questions.

    Also, if you’re looking for compelling storyline that will suck you into the tale, Robert Rankin probably isn’t for you.  His books are all about showcasing his delightful writing style, chuckling at running gags and zany happenings, learning all sorts of obscure trivia, admiring the author’s tastes in music, and wondering how in the world he’s going to wrap all the plot threads up.

    The Brentford Chainstore Massacre is my twelfth Robert Rankin book, and I have yet to be bored or disappointed by any of his works.

    9 Stars.  If you happen to be a Facebook member, you might consider following Robert Rankin.  Besides keeping you updated on the latest book he's working on, he also recounts all the bizarre events in his life.  And he seems to have a lot of them.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Spider Woman's Daughter - Anne Hillerman


    2013; 416 pages.  New Author? : Yes, but she’s Tony Hillerman’s daughter, and I’ve read his books.  Book #19 (out of 22) in the Leaphorn and Chee (and Manuelito)” series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Native American Fiction.  Laurels : Winner of the 2014 Spur Award for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America; New York Times Best Seller list.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Someone has just shot retired Navajo Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn!  Right there in the parking lot of the Navajo Inn in Window Rock, Arizona, as he walked to his car after a breakfast with several of his former police colleagues.

    Who would want to do such a thing?  After all, he’s retired now.  Most likely it’s someone he helped put away in prison years ago.  If that’s the case, the list of suspects may be pretty long.  Or maybe it has to do with some job he’s working on at present.  He still does consulting work as a freelance investigator.

    It certainly wasn’t an accident.  The perpetrator jumped out of a blue car with Arizona license plates, pulled a gun, plugged Leaphorn right in the head, then jumped back in the car and sped away.  We know all this because Officer Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito watched the whole thing unfold from the restaurant’s lobby.

    That bit of serendipity may have saved Leaphorn’s life for now.  But it might only be temporary, since the Window Rock medical facilities are not equipped for the immediate surgery and follow-up intensive care that Leaphorn desperately needs.

    But we may be overthinking all this.  Leaphorn’s live-in girlfriend, Louisa Bourebonette, recently left town after a spat with him, reportedly heading for Houston.

    And she’s not taking phone calls, and not making her present whereabouts available to anyone.

What’s To Like...
    Spider Woman’s Daughter is the 19th book in Tony Hillerman’s “Leaphorn and Chee” series, and the first one to be written and published after he passed away, with his daughter, Anne Hillerman, taking over as author.  I’ve read four of Tony’s books, and I was curious to see how closely Anne would stay true to the style, content, and storytelling of her father.

   The action starts off right away.  Leaphorn gets shot in the first couple pages, and the fact that his fellow police officers were at the scene when it happened means the hunt is on almost immediately.  As always in this series, the setting for the book is the Four Corners area of the US Southwest, with a lot of the events taking place in Window Rock, Arizona, and Shiprock, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    The main storyline of course is trying to figure out who shot Joe Leaphorn and why.  But there are a bunch of secondary threads as well.  Why are Jackson and Nez so hard to locate?  What is Louisa hiding?  How the heck does the cat tie in with things?  And how does AIRC (the “American Indian Resource Center”) fit into all this?

     I enjoyed the various Navajo phrases that are scattered throughout the book.  “Yah Ta Hey”, I’m familiar with from my college days.  Here there was also the greeting  “Ya’ at’ eeh”, which I presume is a variant of Yah Ta Hey; Diné (“the People”); “hataalii” (a medicine man); “bilagaana” (anyone who is non-Navajo), and several others.  I’ve skipped most of the accent marks in these words.

    It was fun to learn about Hosteen Klah, a famous Navajo artist, weaver, and medicine man that I’d never heard of.  Wikipedia has a page devoted to him, which helped enlighten me.  And I enjoyed sitting in on the healing ceremony that takes place at the hospital for Joe Leaphorn.

    Since I live in Arizona, the reference to the local grocery chain called Basha’s brings back memories, since I'm pretty sure it’s no longer around.  The musical nods to Bruno Mars and Janis Joplin were also neat, although it appears the author is not a big fan of the latter.  And when it’s hot here in Arizona, you really don’t want to mess with other people’s Fudgsicles.

    The 416 pages are divided up into 22 chapters.  Spider Woman’s Daughter is both a standalone novel and a part of a 22-book series.

Excerpts...
    “He shares his house with a lady friend, Louisa.”
    Cordova raised his eyebrows.
    “Louisa Bourebonette.”
    “Bourebonette?  A French Navajo?”
    “Not Navajo,” Bernie said.  “She’s a white woman, an anthropologist.”  Bernie thought of the old joke from Anthro 101: Every Navajo family includes Mom, Dad, four kids, and an anthropologist.  (loc. 203)

    “Isn’t this a new visitor center?”
    “It opened a few years ago.  The old building you remember had to be razed.”
    “Old?  Wasn’t it built in the late nineteen-fifties?”
    “Ironic, isn’t it?  Modern America couldn’t build a visitor center to last seventy years,” Stephen said.  “These Pueblo buildings still stand after more than a thousand.  But this time we did it right.  We brought in an Indian to bless the site.”  (loc. 2923)

Kindle Details...
    Spider Woman’s Daughter sells for $9.99 at Amazon, which is the same price you’d pay for the second and third books that she’s written in this series.  Her fourth and latest book, Cave of Bones, sells for $12.99, and was released last April.

“Life is full of if-onlys.”  (loc. 186)
    The ending has its pluses and minuses.  On the positive side, it’s suitably exciting, with a couple of red herrings to keep you on your toes.  Some parts of it are a bit over-the-top, but that just enhances the thrills and spills.

    On the down side, the perpetrator really needs to watch the Austin Powers movies and learn from them.  When you’ve captured the hero police detectives that have been chasing you, just shoot them already.  And if you’re not going to do that, at least don’t explain to them WHY you did it, and HOW you pulled it off.  Because, in the overwhelmingly likely event that they do escape the diabolical death trap you've created for them, prosecuting you will be an incredibly easy task.

    I call that last part a “Perry Mason” ending if you’ve ever read or watched that Erle Stanley Gardner series.  In fairness, it should be noted that Tony Hillerman routinely used that literary device as well.  It isn’t very realistic, but it does tie up plot threads efficiently.

    7½ Stars.  If you’ve loved Tony Hillerman’s books in this series and are worried about someone taking over the writing task, I have good news for you.  The transition from father to daughter in the authorship is smooth and seamless.  There’s no drop-off in the quality of the writing and little change in the style as Anne Hillerman takes up the pen.  I get the impression that Joe Leaphorn is being gradually phased out and replaced by Bernie Manuelito, but this started when Tony was still writing the stories.  About the only time I sensed a different author was when an entire page was devoted to Bernie musing about how her marriage to Jim Chee was being strained by both of them working on the Navajo Police Force.

    No male author would take that much time to write about that.  Which does not necessarily make it a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling


   1998; 341 pages.  Book 3 (out of 7) in the Harry Potter series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : YA; Adventure; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Summer vacation is over, and it’s time to go back to school.  For Harry Potter and his best friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, that’s a highly-anticipated occasion since they are all now third-year students at the Hogwarts School of Magic.  We’d call them “juniors”, but Hogwarts is a seven-year academy.  But at least they’re getting close to being upperclassmen.

    They’ll all be taking some neat classes this year.  Professor Snape is back to teach them even more about Potions.  Professor McGonagall will introduce them to the art of Transfiguration.  The aptly-named Professor Sprout (perhaps a nod to Robert Rankin’s character “Barry the Time Sprout”?) will bore them to tears with lectures on Herbology.  And none of them sees any future in taking Professor Trelawney’s class on Divination.

    A new professor has joined Hogwarts this year.  Professor Lupin will teach the course called “Defense Against the Dark Arts”; Harry and his companions are all VERY interested in that class.  The class has been offered at Hogwarts for years, but it seems like every professor who teaches it only lasts for one year. 

    Finally, Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper, has been promoted to Professorship, now that his name’s been cleared.  He’s extremely excited about teaching a brand new course, “The Care of Magical Creatures”.

    All-in-all, it promises to be an exciting year for Harry.  Alas, it’s a pity that one of the most dangerous inmates at Azkaban prison has escaped and is coming to kill him.

What’s To Like...
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in J.K. Rowling’s boffo series, is every bit as good as its predecessors.  There’s a new Ultimate Evil to threaten Harry (who’s capable of slipping through the best Hogwarts defenses), a complex storyline that will entertain adult and teen readers alike, and of course, an exciting Quidditch season.

    There are a whole bunch of new critters (some good, some evil, all bizarre) to study and beware of.  You can see one, called the hippogriff, on the book cover image above.  There seemed to be a few less puns this time, but they’re still present : Diagon Alley, Owl Post Again, and the esoteric groaner, Madam Cassandra Vablatsky.  I liked the imaginative names of the Magic textbooks, such as “Broken Balls: When Fortunes Turn Foul”.  Ditto for the names of the various charms that can be cast.

    Besides the main storyline – Sirius Black, the escaped prisoner from Azkaban, coming after Harry, I counted at least six secondary plot threads.  1) Why did the Fat Lady go missing?  2) What’s up between Crookshanks and Scabbers?  3) What about the big shaggy black dog that keeps showing up at critical points in Harry’s life?  4) How does Hermione cope with taking a double-load of courses, several of which are scheduled for the same time slot?  5) Who’s poisoning Professor Lupin?  6) Will House Gryffindor sweep its Quidditch matches with Harry as its seeker?  

    As always, I loved J.K. Rowling’s attention to detail.  The Sorting Hat, Platform 9-3/4, the Whomping Willow, and the newspaper The Daily Prophet are all back, and you’ll be introduced to things like a Pocket Sneakoscope, a Broomstick Servicing Kit, a Knight Bus, O.W.L.S and N.E.W.T.S., and the ever-popular Dungbombs (they’re always a blast!).  And if you’ve forgotten the bizarre rules of Quidditch, they’re given again on page 143.

    Once again, there are a slew of characters to meet and follow.  Malfoy returns to bedevil Harry, but naturally he gets his comeuppance in the end.  I was particularly impressed by the way Professor Snape was portrayed.  Just because he’s mean and hates Harry, doesn’t mean he’s evil, does it?  Hmm.

    The backstory is given in Chapter One.  There are 22 chapters covering the 435 pages, which makes them of moderate length.  In my edition, each chapter starts with a drawing of the relevant theme of the chapter, which I found to be way-kewlHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a standalone novel, in addition to being part of a series.  Last, and least, the phrase “bated breath” is used, and properly so.   As a part-time editor editor, I’m happy to see that grammatical debate put to rest on this.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Shirty (adj.; slang) : irritable; angry.

Excerpts...
    “Where is dear Professor Lupin?”
    “I’m afraid the poor fellow is ill again,” said Dumbledore, indicating that everybody should start serving themselves.  “Most unfortunate that it should happen on Christmas Day.”
    “But surely you already knew that, Sybill?” said Professor McGonagall, her eyebrows raised.
    Professor Trelawney gave Professor McGonagall a very cold look.
    “Certainly I knew, Minerva,” she said quietly.  “But one does not parade the fact that one is All-Knowing.  I frequently act as though I am not possessed of the Inner Eye, so as not to make others nervous.”
    “That explains a great deal,” said Professor McGonagall tartly.  (pg. 229)

    Their second to last exam, on Thursday morning, was Defense Against the Dark Arts.  Professor Lupin had compiled the most unusual exam any of them had ever taken: a sort of obstacle course outside in the sun, where they had to wade across a deep paddling pool containing a grindylow, cross a series of potholes full of Red Caps, squish their way across a patch of marsh while ignoring misleading directions from a hinkypunk, then climb into an old trunk and battle with a new boggart.  (pg. 318)

 Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.  (pg. 194)
    The ending has a bunch of twists.  All the plotlines cited above are resolved.  It takes a couple chapters to do so, but that means nothing feels rushed.  I’m pleased to say I guessed correctly regarding the resolution of the main storyline, but I still got surprised by how most of the secondary ones worked out.  Hermione’s trick to taking so many courses was a particularly delightful twist.

    I don’t really have anything to quibble about in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  There’s nothing R-rated in it, and no justification for anyone to demand that it be banned from school libraries.  We truly are being overrun by literary ignoramuses.

    Book 4 in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, sits upon my TBR shelf, waiting for my attention.  All 752 pages of it.  I may have to ask Santa to bring me the next couple of books in the series.  I have noted that every book seems to be getting lengthier.  Robert Jordan would be proud.

    9 Stars.  One last, small plus from reading this book.  A long time ago, back in the heyday of Blogspot, I used to follow a blog called Padfoot and Prongs.  I was always clueless but curious as to why it was called that.  Now I know.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Congo, and Other Poems - Vachel Lindsay


   1914 (original) & 2008 (this compilation); 102 pages.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : American Literature; Poetry.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    “Hey, let’s sing a poem together!”
    “Say what?  You read poems; you don’t sing poems.”

    “Sure you do.  The ancient Greeks did it all the time.  But if you don’t feel like singing one, we could chant it together instead.”
    “That’s just as crazy.  Besides, I don’t speak a word of ancient Greek.”

    “No problem.  There’s this American poet who has written poems to be sung or chanted, not read to oneself.  He even writes directions on exactly how loud you’re supposed to do it, and what tone of voice you should use.”
    “Hmm.  Sounds like some sort of 1960’s beatnik.  Or maybe a rap artist.”

    “Nope.  He wrote these poems more than a hundred years ago, in and around 1914.  Back before anybody else was doing this sort of thing.  Except for the ancient Greeks, of course.”
    “Really?!  Well, okay then.  I’m out of excuses.  Let’s give it a try.  What’s this guy’s name, anyway?”

    “Vachel Lindsay.”

What’s To Like...
    The Congo, and Other Poems is a set of 66 of Vachel Lindsay’s poems, although it's not his complete works.  Wikipedia calls Lindsay the “founder of modern singing poetry” but he also wrote a lot of poems in the standard, metered format.

    The book is divided into five sections, namely:

Section 1 : “Poems intended to be read aloud, or chanted.” (14%; 10 poems)
    The “singing/chanting” section.  The poems he’s most famous for.
Section 2 : “Incense” (43%; 17 poems)
    Lindsay reflecting on various themes, including love and all kinds of religions.
Section 3 : “A Miscellany called the Christmas Tree” (59%; 12 poems)
    Light-hearted poems; often short, and with children as the target audience.
Section 4 : “20 Poems in which the Moon is the principle figure of speech” (70%; 20 poems)
    Lindsay apparently had a thing about the moon.
Section 5 : "War – September 1, 1914, Intended to be read aloud” (81%; 7 poems)
    Dark in tone, somber, brooding.  Written about the horrors of The Great War.

    I can’t really say I have a favorite section.  I liked the broad spectrum of moods he could conjure up: – whimsical when writing humorous verse, serious when musing about Death or Heaven, outraged when contemplating war or child prostitution; star-struck when idolizing some of his matinee idols.  Vachel Lindsay is  most famous for his singing/chanting works, but he also wrote poems in the usual meter, and a few with no meter at all.  I was especially impressed by his use of ABAB and ABBA rhyme schemes; most poets use the lazier ABCB format.

    His most famous poem by far is The Congo, which Wikipedia describes as exemplifying his revolutionary aesthetic of sound for sound's sake. It imitates the pounding of the drums in the rhythms and in onomatopoeic nonsense words. At parts, the poem ceases to use conventional words when representing the chants of Congo's indigenous people, relying just on sound alone.”  It is also his most controversial poem, with him being frequently accused of being racist, or at least patronizing, even by 1914 standards.  Personally, I don’t think he was racist, just blithely naïve.

    A lot of his poems have catchy titles, such as: The Black Hawk War of the Artists; A Rhyme About an Electric Advertising Sign; The Alchemist’s Petition; Popcorn, Glass Balls, and Cranberries; An Apology for the Bottle Volcanic; When Gassy Thompson Struck It Rich; and Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight.  I chortled at his mention of hashish.  In this book, along with the recently-read Babbitt, it is evident that the American drug problem was around long before the 60's.

    I read a couple of these poems each night, which is my usual strategy when reading a book of poetry.  But if you have a book report due tomorrow, this is a good choice; you can finish it easily in a single sitting (1-2 hours).  I have to admit, I enjoyed making myself “mentally” chant the poems in the first section according to their instructions.  I did not attempt to sing any of them.

    I had never heard of Vachel Lindsay before reading The Congo, and Other Poems.  My impression now is that he was a 1920’s “Poet of the Proletariat”, the mantle for which would later pass to Charles Bukowski.  No one will ever mistake Vachel Lindsay’s verses with that of Shakespeare, but I found this book to be an enjoyable and thoughtful read, and beamed at the slight broadening of my narrow poetry tastes.

Kewlest New Word ...
Hecatombs (n., plural) : (In ancient Greece or Rome) great public sacrifices, originally consisting of one hundred oxen.
Others : Pennons (n., plural).

Excerpts...
    Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
    Pounded on the table,
    Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
    Hard as they were able,
    Boom, boom, BOOM,
    With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
    THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
     I could not turn from their revel in derision.  (loc. 162, from “The Congo”)

    This is the sin against the Holy Ghost:
    To speak of bloody power as right divine,
    And call on God to guard each vile chief’s house,
    And for such chiefs, turn men to wolves and swine.
    (…)
    In any Church’s name, to sack fair towns,
    And turn each home into a screaming sty,
    To make little children fugitive,
    And have their mothers for a quick death cry.
    (loc. 974; from “The Unpardonable Sin”)

Kindle Details...
    The Congo, and Other Poems sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  There are several other collections of Vachel Lindsay’s poems, most of which include The Congo.  They range from free to $3.39.  I went with the 99-cents version because it seemed like the freebie might just be scanned images of the paperback, in which case, Kindle-highlighting might not have been available.  A dollar for a book isn’t going to break me.

We find your soft Utopias as white
As new-cut bread, and dull as life in cells.  (loc. 500, from “An Argument”)
    A few words about Vachel Lindsay…

    He was born November 10, 1879; and died December 05, 1931.  “The Congo” was written in 1914,  and his most productive period seems to have been the World War One years.

    He was an energetic poet, at one point traveling by foot through several western states for inspiration.  His aim was to restore “poetry as a song art, appealing to the ear rather than the eye.”

    Alas, he was also a  “starving artist” poet.  In 1931, plagued by financial worries and failing health, he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.  Ouch.

    7 Stars.  YouTube has a decent number of videos showing people singing Vachel Lindsay’s works.  I’m not sure if they wrote their own music or if Lindsay composed it.  One thing that made me laugh was the various ways that the video-narrators guessed as to how to pronounce “Vachel”.  According to this book, it rhymes with “Rachel”.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Redliners - David Drake


  1997; 388 pages.  New Author? : No, but this is the first book of his I’ve read where there isn't a co-author.  Genre : Science Fiction; Military; Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    The military has a word for them: Redliners

    It refers to combat troops who have witnessed such horrors, or been subject to such wartime ordeals, that psychologically they’ve been stretched to the point where they can snap any second.  They aren’t fit to be returned to combat duties in the future and placing them back in a civilian environment is just asking for a disaster.

    Major Arthur Farrell’s command, the Company of strikers known as C41, are Redliners.  They were sent into a advance-strike commando raid, suffered jaw-dropping casualties,  somehow and achieved their tactical goals, only to have higher-ups abort the overall mission and recall what was left of C41.  Their losses were in vain, and things got worse when they learned the enemy they had slaughtered consisted of civilian children.

    The conventional wisdom about what to do with Redliners is to send them on some easy and safe missions in the hopes that with time they’ll forget the horrors that caused them to redline.  The success rate of this isn’t impressive, but hey, what are the alternatives?

    Well, there is one other option, much more risky and unpopular than the conventional wisdom approach.

    Send them on a suicide mission and hope that most of them get killed, but not before they wipe out lots of the enemy.

What’s To Like...
    If you like lots of fighting, detailed tactics, and a gritty “War Is Hell” depiction of military life, then you’ll love Redliners.  The story could easily be set in Afghanistan or Iraq, but by putting it in a Science-Fiction setting David Drake can create all sorts of additional perils.  Here the plants and the ground are just as deadly as an enemy alien with a laser gun.

    The aliens here are called the Kalendru, and it is said that they ‘understand the concepts of “master” and “slave” but not of “equals”’.  It’s therefore a intergalactic fight to the death, and  sadly, conflicts such as this are a “kill or be killed” situation.  David Drake doesn’t prettify it in any way.  The good guys aren’t perfect, they can make mistakes.  The bad guys have some human qualities, but no matter what, they have to be killed.

    I liked the concept of forcing hardened soldiers and civilians to merge into a single unit, and then watching them somehow learn to coexist and cooperate with each other in order to survive.  It’s a slow, difficult process, but neither group has any choice in the matter.  There are a slew of characters from both groups for the reader to meet and greet.  Don’t get too attached to any of them; quite a few won’t be around by the end of the tale.

    The book is mostly in the 3rd-person POV, although there’s a Prologue, Epilogue, and Interlude sections, which are in the 1st-person.  There’s blood and gore, lots of killing, and oodles of cussing.  The action starts immediately, and never lets up.  It is a standalone novel, and not connected with any other of David Drake’s books.

    I enjoyed learning what calling a war-buddy “snake” means, and I thought the “null sacks” were neat.  It’s always a plus when Tchaikovsky’s music gets some ink.  Via Google, I learned that “Redlining” has several meanings, depending on what field it applies to.  Here, the dictionary definition that is most apt is “beyond the recommended safety limit”.

    Things build to a suitably climactic and exciting ending.  I wouldn’t call it “twisty”, but I did find it to be “bittersweet”, and that’s a plus.  I primarily think of David Drake as a Fantasy writer, but it was a interesting to see what he can do in the Military Science Fiction genre as well.

Kindle Details...
   ANAICT, Redliners is always free at Amazon.  David Drake is a prolific Sci-Fi and Fantasy author, writing both alone and with other authors.  He offers a half-dozen or so of his books for free, which is very generous of him.  The rest of his e-books are in the price range of $5.24 - $9.99, and a couple ‘bundles’  at $8.99.   Finally, it should be mentioned that he offers a 2nd Edition of Redliners for $5.38, and with a note on the cover that it “includes all new content”.

Excerpts...
    “I didn’t understand how quick you had to be to survive,” Lock said softly.  He turned his face from Meyer.  His eyes were on the forest, but she wasn’t sure they were focusing.
    “When the savages came out of the trees I just looked at them,” Lock said to the forest.  “And one of them grabbed Alison.  And I said, I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he cut her head off.  Like that.  And he grabbed me and you killed him.” (…)
    He began to cry.  “You were trying to keep us alive and I didn’t understand,” he said through tears.  “I’m a lawyer, Ms. Meyer.  I don’t belong here and I didn’t understand.”  (loc. 2939)

    Abbado got along better in the forest than Gabrilovitch did.  Both sergeants viewed the vegetation as an enemy, but the fact didn’t particularly bother Abbado.  To him, enemies were something a striker fought or avoided; it didn’t matter whether they had bark or pale gray skin.
    Gabe found the forest’s malevolence unnatural, even supernatural.  Imagination made Gabrilovitch a good scout, whereas Abbado’s two-valued logic – kill it or run – had struck Blohm as simple-minded during the year and a half he’d known the man.  (loc. 3480)

 Life was a series of tradeoffs.  Until you died.  (loc. 2157)
    For all its thrills and spills and realism, Redliners lacks one essential component: an overall, coherent plotline.  In theory this is a story about the colonization of a new planet by us Earthlings; in practice that never gets started because of the life-threatening dangers as soon as the ship lands.  I thought that the non-stop fighting would eventually end and the book would get on with setting up the groundwork of civilization, but that never happened.

    The ending at least brings a closure to the book-long fighting, and does a decent job of that.  But it doesn’t change the fact that there Is. No. Plot.

    David Drake is a Vietnam vet, and I read somewhere that writing Redliners was a catharsis for him in dealing with that experience.  I haven’t verified this, but it would give cause to the prolonged fighting, and the many casualties.  In any case, David Drake is a skilled writer, and I found myself turning the pages despite wondering where the heck the plotline was.

    Hey, if it helped him come to grips with the Vietnam struggle, more power to him and this book.  The fact that this is an always-free book, and that the cover of the second edition promises that it “includes all new content”  indicates to me that Mr. Drake is aware that this book might not resonate with everyone.

    5 Stars.  Add 3 stars if you read Military Science-Fiction stories for the Military more than the Science-Fiction.  You’ll have a blast reading this book.  Literally.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Four To Score - Janet Evanovich


   1998; 313 pages.  Book 4 (out of 24, soon to be 25) of the Stephanie Plum series.   New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime-Humor; Beach Novel.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Stephanie Plum’s going to get rich this month.  She’s double-dipping on her present bounty hunter case.

    First, there’s the commission she’ll earn by hunting down and bringing in Maxine Nowicki, an FTA (“Failure To Appear” at a court hearing) as an authorized agent for her cousin Vinnie’s Bail Bond business.  Maxine reportedly had a tiff with her then-boyfriend, Eddie Kuntz, and took it out on him by stealing his car.  Eddie retaliated by calling the cops on her, who arrested her, but Maxine didn’t show for her trial.

    Eddie understandably cooperates with Stephanie in her efforts to track down Maxine, and has now given her an added incentive.  He’ll pay her a thousand bucks if she retrieves some love letters he wrote to Maxine in fits of passion.  He says there’s embarrassing stuff in them.

    Eddie is not exactly a lady’s man, so it’s hard to imagine what he’d deem “embarrassing” in those letters.  But hey, for a thousand dollar bonus, Stephanie is more than willing to try to recover them when she successfully brings Maxine in.

    But don’t spend all that money just yet, Steph.  For starters, your cousin Vinnie has hired a second agent to track down Maxine, so you’ve got competition for the commission.  To boot, someone is dead set on scaring, or even killing, people who might know where Maxine is.

    And I don’t think they’d have any qualms about adding you to their list of intended victims.

What’s To Like...
    The action in Four To Score starts immediately, with someone bursting in on Cousin Vinnie and threatening to shoot him.  But since the assailant is Stephanie, we know that’s not the storyline.  I was hsppy to see Grandma Mazur and Lula both getting some major time in this book; they’re two of my favorite characters in the series.  Morelli and Ranger are back, and there are new people to meet and greet as well, the most notable of which are Sally and Joyce.  I’m hoping they're both developed into recurring roles.

    I counted five plotlines to follow:
    a.)  Stephanie chasing down the FTA, Maxine.
    b.)  Morelli working on a secret case for the government.
    c.)  The body-part chopper-offer.
    d.)  The ardent arsonist.
    e.)  Retrieving Eddie’s love letters.
    You might think that means things get confusing, but they don't.

    As usual, the story is told in the first-person POV, Stephanie’s.  The chapters are moderate in length, 16 of them covering 313 pages.  The pacing is quick, despite the requisite “running around in circles” for a while.  As always, the book’s title has nothing to do with the story.

    I liked the phrase “erotica non grata”; I’ll have to work that into a review somewhere down the line.  Ditto for Lula’s favorite phrase “Damn skippy!”  The musical nods to Savage Garden and Metallica were neat.   For me, the real fun in any Stephanie Plum novel is the witty banter and snarky observations, and in that respect, Four To Score did not disappoint.  This was a fun, fast, easy read.

    There’s a bunch of cussing, and one torrid roll in the hay.  If such things offend you, this isn’t your kind of series.  We also should mention the 7-foot transvestite.  I’m reading this series in order, but frankly, I don’t think that’s necessary.  Stephanie and Joe Morelli still have relationship issues, and I'm guessing that will go on for quite a few more books.  Four To Score is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

Excerpts...
    She blinked.  “I lost a finger.  Well, I didn’t actually lose it.  It was on the kitchen counter.  I took it to the hospital and got it sewed back on.”
    I had an instant vision of her finger lying on the kitchen counter.  Little black dots danced in front of my eyes, and I felt sweat pop out on my upper lip.  “I’m sorry!”
    “It was an accident,” she said.  “An accident.”
     “Which finger was it?”
    “The middle finger.”
    “Oh man, that’s my favorite finger.”  (pg. 24 )

    The rain stopped halfway home, and Trenton showed no sign of relief from the heat.  The hydrocarbon level was high enough to etch glass, and the highways hummed with road rage.  Air conditioners were failing, dogs had diarrhea, laundry mildewed in hampers, and sinus cavities filled with cement.  If the barometric pressure dropped any lower everyone’s guts would be sucked through the soles of their feet into the bowels of the earth.  (pg. 200)

 Why deal with unpleasantness today when you could get hit by a bus tomorrow?   (pg. 137)
    The quibbles are minor.  Maxine-the-FTA chooses to tease her ex-boyfriend Eddie by sending him a series of coded messages about the stuff he wants returned.  Neither Eddie nor Stephanie are any good at puzzle-solving so they enlist the aid of others.  It would’ve been fun if the reader could try to decipher those messages as well, but we’re never shown any of the codes.  I was mildly bummed.

    The ending is a mixed bag.  On one hand, the five plotlines all get tied up nicely, and all parties receive their just desserts.  On the other hand, everything gets resolved in one chapter, and that felt a bit rushed to me.

    But enough nitpicking.  Four To Score was a light and delightful read for me, which was exactly what I was looking for.  Books 5 and 6 are on my TBR shelf, waiting their turns.

    8 Stars.  Wikipedia adds a pair of droll statistics to their posts on the early Stephanie Plum books: the number of FTA’s in each story, and the number of vehicles Stephanie manages to ruin each time.  They stop doing so somewhere up in the teens of the book numbers, but here the stats were: 3 FTA’s, 2 Car-Deaths.  I'm thinking of starting to include those in these reviews.