Saturday, June 16, 2018

Judas Unchained - Peter F. Hamilton


    2006; 1,008 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book Two (and final book) of the Commonwealth Saga series.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Space Opera; Epic Science Fiction; First Contact.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Round Two of the galactic Armageddon is imminent!

    The first round, covered in the Pandora’s Star and reviewed here, resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for mankind.  Yes, the invasion by the evil force called the Prime was beaten back.  But we lost 23 planets (in a single day!) to the aliens, along with most of our star fleet.  One more “victory” like that, and we will surely be obliterated into space dust.

    Moreover, we’ve learned that their wormhole capability is more advanced than ours, and that the concept of coexistence doesn’t exist in their annihilation-only mindset.

    But there is still a chance for us.  Our galactic navy is working on a couple new types of mega-bombs.  Those are still in the development stage, but they have obviously been moved up to Priority One.  They’re also designing some  improved FTL (Faster Than Light) starships, and Wormhole Technology.  It’s all a matter of whether we have enough time before the Prime strikes again.

    And if all else fails, we can always do like the rich-and-powerful dynasties are doing.  Build your own FTL spaceships and hightail it out of this end of the galaxy to a much more remote section f it.

    Of course, for us peasants, bumming a ride with them may be a life-or-death challenge.

What’s To Like...
    Judas Unchained is not a standalone novel; it’s really just the second half of a 2,000-page epic that starts with Pandora’s Star.  There are a bunch of complex and interweaving storylines, which are listed in the linked review above, so instead of repeating them, here’s a list of who’s fighting who:

    1.) The Commonwealth vs. the Prime
    2.) SI (Sentient Intelligence) vs. the Guradians vs. the Starflyer vs. maybe the Commonwealth
    3.) The Barsoomians vs. anyone fighting the Guardians
    4.) The Guardians vs. the Institute
    5.) The Raiel and the Silfen don’t seem t care who wins, but they enjoy watching us fight for our lives.

    There is a Dramatis Personae at the start of the book.  Mark it, as you’ll be referring to it a lot.  I kept a separate list of characters in my notes.  It turned out to be 2½ pages long, and that didn’t include a bunch of minor characters. 

    The writing is once again topnotch.  The storylines are complex, but Peter F. Hamilton keeps switching from one to another, so things never get boring.  There are 20 chapters covering 1,008 pages, but frankly, you can stop anytime there’s a switch in the plot threads, and those are indicated by a line of four dots at the end of a paragraph.

    There’s a fair amount of both cussing and sex.  A bunch of characters die, although that’s a rather nebulous term since most humans can be “re-lifed”, along with selective memory erasures and genetic enhancements.  But for all the warfare and killing, I don’t recall a lot of gore., and it should be noted that Peter F. Hamilton mixes in a mild but persistent strain of humor throughout the story, most of it coming during the long side-trek undertaken by Ozzie, Orion, and Tochee.

    I liked the all-purpose cuss phrase, “Dreaming Heavens”, which, for some reason, replaced the “Jesus Wept” epithet used in Pandora’s Star.  Hypergliding returns here, a recreation which makes hang-gliding seem like a sport for wussies.  The first half of Judas Unchained is mostly about and games of deadly intrigue perpetrated by the various factions.  But after the Prime launches its second invasion (page 544), the last half of the book is almost all space opera action and adventure.

    The ending is simply superb.  The tension keeps building throughout the book, and, like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, we’re treated to an epic final struggle lasting more than 100 pages.  There’s even an epilogue-like “whatever happened to so-and-so…” addendum that I really liked.  The series may be over, but I still wanted to know what happened to a bunch of the characters. 

Kewlest New Word...
Sulci (n., plural) : grooves or furrows.  (the singular is 'sulcus'.)
Others: Triturated (v.); Decussation (n.).

Excerpts...
    “So far so good,” he muttered.
    “Absolutely.  Here’s hoping we don’t have a Fermi moment.”
    “A what?”  Mac rally didn’t like the uncertainty in her voice.
    “During the Trinity test of the very first atom bomb, Fermi wondered if the detonation would ignite the Earth’s atmosphere.  They just didn’t know, you see.  We think the quantum disruption won’t propagate.  If it does the whole universe gets converted into energy.”
    “Oh, great, thanks for sharing.”  (pg. 342)

    “Who are you?” Ozzie asked.
    The Silfen’s circular mouth opened wide, allowing the long slender tongue to vibrate between his rows of teeth.  “I am the one who dances in the endless wind streams which flow along the tumbling white clouds as they circle in eternal orbit within the star of life.”  He gave a sharp whistle.  “But you may call me Clouddancer.  I know how you humans have to be so quick and shallow.”
    “Thanks.”  Ozzie tipped his head to one side.  “Why the German accent?”
    Clouddancer’s tongue quivered.  “Authority.  I look like one of your legendary demons.  If I start talking like some stoner hippie then I’ve got a serious credibility problem, right?”  (pg. 579)

“Humm, remind me.  How many angels have we counted on that pinhead now?”  (pg. 616)
    I can’t think of anything to quibble about.  Some reviewers grumbled at the length of the book, but hey, you know going in that it’s gonna be a long read.  And it’s more interesting than Russian Lit.

    So the real question is – is this 2,000-page duology (how come no one wants to call this a 'bilogy'?) worth your time and effort?  I asked myself that same thing back in 2011 when I tackled Peter F. Hamilton’s 3,600-page Night’s Dawn trilogy, and my answer is the same.

    If you’re a fan of science-fiction, especially space opera, and you don’t have a book report due tomorrow, and reading something a thousand pages long doesn’t make you break out in a cold sweat, then yes, both of these series are well worth your time, and are highly recommended.  I thought they were great.

    9½ Stars.    Subtract 2 stars if you didn’t read Pandora’s Star first.  You’ll still be drawn in by all the fascinating things going on, but you will probably find yourself lost as to the “why” of them.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Eclective - The Celtic Collection


   2017; 130 pages.  New Authors? : Yes for four; No for two.  Genre : Short Stories; Anthology; Ireland.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    “Hey, I’m in the mood to read something set in Ireland.  Whattaya recommend?”

    “How about a Harlequin Romance, maybe with a Highlander setting?”

    Oh, good yucky graciousness, no!  I don’t want anything with even a trace of Romance in it.”

    “Okay, then I suggest the book “The Celtic Collection”.  Six short stories, all with an Irish tinge, and all from the twisted minds of a group of writers that call themselves “The Eclective”.  I’ve read anthologies by them before.  They’re quite the talented group.  But I must tell you, there is a trace of Romance in it.”

    “Hmm.  I don’t know then.”

    “Did I mention: it’s a free download at Amazon?”

    “Really?!  Well, I’ve just changed my mind.  I think I can tolerate a bit of the lovey-dovey stuff.”

What’s To Like...
    The six tales in The Eclective: The Celtic Collection are:

01.)  Irish Kiss (by Shéa MacLeod)
    Fantasy; Leprechauns and Larceny.
02.)  The Luck of the Irish Brigade (by M. Edward McNally)
    Historical Fiction; Whiskey and Warfare don’t mix.
03.)  Song of the Banshee (by Heather Marie Adkins)
    Paranormal; A wail of a love story.
04.)  The Red Veil of Vengeance (by Jack Wallen)
    Horror; Fangs be to God.
05.)  Zombies Eat Leprechauns (by P.J. Jones)
    Faerie Tales; You can take it with you, but you have to sign for it.
06.)  Five Shamrocks (by Alan Nayes)
    Romance; How long will you wait for me?

    Appended to each story is a short, witty, tongue-in-cheek blurb about each author, as well as a plug for their book(s).  That might sound like a cheap advertising gimmick, but I thought it was a kewl touch.

    For a mere six stories, there is a remarkable variety of tone (anywhere from light and silly to dark and heavy) and  genres (listed above).  I enjoyed all the tales, but my favorites were #2, #3, and #6.  Your faves will almost certainly differ from mine.

    I’ve read full-length books by two of these authors, so I knew what to expect from their contributions.   M. Edward McNally has penned an epic, 5-book sword-&-sorcery series called The Norothian Cycle, which I am totally enthralled by.  The first book in the series, The Sable City, is reviewed here, and it is a free download over at Amazon.    P.J. Jones gives a whole new twist to things like Fairy Tales, Vampires, Pride and Prejudice, and the mentally unstable.

    It should be noted that P.J. Jones’ story here is actually (I think) from her book Attack of the Fairytale Zombies, which I've read and is reviewed here, so if you enjoy this excerpt, and want more of it, her novel awaits you.  M. Edward McNally is well-known for his attention to historical detail, so if you’re a history buff –be it fiction or non-fiction – you’ll find his story here a pleasant read.

    For me, Alan Nayes’ Five Shamrocks was the highlight of the book, which is amazing since it is essentially a love story, and my reading maxim about romance is “the less the better”.  It is a powerful piece of writing, and if it doesn’t leave a lump in your throat when you finish reading it, there’s something wrong with you.  I have two of his full-length novels on my Kindle, but haven’t read them yet.  Perhaps this is a wake-up call for me to rectify that.

Kindle Details...
    The Eclective: The Celtic Collection is free at Amazon, as are five of the other six anthologies penned by the group.  Only their most-recent offering, The Eclective: The Time Collection will cost you anything, and it’s only $0.99.  You can’t beat those deals.  All of the authors also have solo novels at Amazon.

Excerpts...
    He shouted “Aye!” when the sergeant called for “Corcoran, Francis,” though outside of roll call no one in the regiment called Corcoran by his given name.  He had become “Corky,” predictably, though that had changed when it turned out there was a James Corcoran over in Company D.  So he had become “Corky II,” which over the months had become “Corky, too,” and finally, “Corky, also.”  Now, even his mess mates tended to call him “Also.”  (loc. 368)

    Mattie sensed a soft breeze blow over her – whoosh – and then she was standing beside him.  No aches, no pains, and when she looked at her hands, the skin was smooth and vibrant.  All the blotches and age spots had vanished.  She reached up.  Her hair was thick and full.  I’m young again.
     When he kissed her, she felt carried away by a tidal wave of passion.  “I am ready, Joe.  I am!”  (loc. 1319)

“I don’t understand how a mermaid and a Leprechaun can possibly have a relationship.”  (loc. 141)
    The quibbles are minor.  First, there are only six stories, yet two of them involve leprechauns and their pots of gold.  I’ve seen such an overlap before in anthologies; I think this can be avoided by having some sort of editor-in-chief who keeps track of who’s writing about what, and squelches any  similar or duplicate storylines.
  
    Second, any anthology that only contains six short stories will be inherently a brief read.  I was disappointed that there weren’t more stories, but hey, the book is free, the writing is witty no matter what its tone, and if it leaves you thirsting for more, well, the authors have accomplished their task.

    Finally, if you happen to have a book report due tomorrow, and haven’t even started reading one yet, well shame on you, but The Eclective: The Celtic Collection might just be your saving grace.  You can easily read the entire book in less than 2 hours.  For me the book was a welcome counterbalance as I worked my way through a thousand-page piece of epic science fiction.

    7½ Stars.  Sadly, it appears these authors have disbanded as a group.  They put out seven of these anthologies during the 2011-13 years; but none since.   RIP, The Eclective.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Madonna In a Fur Coat - Sabahattin Ali


    1943; 201 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Highbrow Lit; Turkish Literature; Romance.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Never has Raif Efendi had his life touched this profoundly!  Maybe it's her enigmatic smile.  Perhaps it's her eyes, filled with anguish and resolve.  It might even be the fur coat she’s wearing.  Or her plump lips, her slightly swollen eyelids, her long nose, or even her slightly upturned chin.  Probably it’s a combination of all these features.

    Alas, 'tis a pity that this is a painting, not an actual person.  It’s hanging in an art gallery at an exhibition.

    But do not despair, Raif.  There must be some information listed in the exhibition catalog.  And sure enough there is.

    The painting is titled “Maria Puder, Self-portrait”.   So now you have a name, and possibly even a picture of your dream woman.  That’s a start.

    Unfortunately, you’re in Berlin, and you’re a poor Turkish immigrant, here to learn the soap-making trade.  You can barely find your way to the soap factory, and this is post-World War One Germany.  The Yellow Pages haven't been invented yet.

    But where there’s a will, there’s a way, Raif.  So maybe if you just go walking around the city, you’ll run into her.  Your Madonna In A Fur Coat.

What’s To Like...
    Madonna In A Fur Coat is a Turkish novel written in the 1940’s, set in Turkey in the 1930’s, with the main character, Raif, reminiscing about the time he spent in Berlin in the 1920’s.  The story is written in the first-person POV: by our never-named narrator for the first quarter of the book, then by Raif writing in his notebook for the rest of the way.

    The book is a masterful character study of the two protagonists.  Our narrator sees Raif as a mouse of a man, manipulated by the rest of his family, and stoically cowed at work .  He reminded me of Gregor Mamsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman.  But everything changes when he meets Maria, our other protagonist, who’s just as fascinating.  She's a strong female lead, and that may be commonplace nowadays, but not back in the 1940’s.

    The writing is impressive, given that this is an English translation from the original Turkish.  I liked the literary nods Sabahattin Ali gives to other prominent writers , both Turkish and worldwide: Turgenev, Theodor Storm, Jakob Wasserman, Michel Zevaco, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Ahmet Mithat Efendi, and Vecihi Bey.  There were also a couple of kewl art references.  I was introduced to Andrea del Sarto’s painting, Madonna of the Harpies, and was awed by it.

    This is a short book, barely 200 pages.  Wikipedia calls it a novella, but I think it’s too long for that designation.  Paradoxically, this was an easy read, despite the depth of the storyline.  I liked the post-WW1 “feel” of the settings, both in Turkey and in Germany.  These are countries that were on the losing side of that conflict, and their national psyches were impacted by that.  

    There’s not a lot of action in the book, which will turn off some readers.  Overall, this is a very sad tale, similar to classics like Flowers For Algernon and Doctor Zhivago, and that will turn off others.  It is also a Romance novel, which normally would cause me to run away from it.  Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  It is an emotional rollercoaster ride, with incredible highs and lows, and with Fate dealing our two lovers some cruel twists.  Such is life at times.

Excerpts...
    He was rather ordinary, with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.  Indeed, there was no part of his life – public or private – that might give rise to curiosity.  He was, in the end, the sort of man who causes us to ask ourselves, “What does he live for?  What does he find in life?  What logic compels him to keep breathing?  What philosophy drives him as he wanders the earth?”  But we ask in vain if we fail to look beyond the surface – if we forget that beneath each surface lurks another realm, in which a caged mind whirls alone.  (loc. 39)

    All my life, I’d shied away from human company, never sharing my thoughts with a soul.  How pointless this seemed now, and how absurd!  I’d thought that it was life itself that had ground me down, that my sadness stemmed from spiritual malaise.  After spending two hours with a book, and finding it more pleasurable than two years of real life, I’d remember again that life had no meaning and sink back into despair.
    But since first setting eyes on that painting, everything had changed.  (loc. 1271)

Kewlest New Word…
Pension n.; European) : a type of guest house or boarding house.
Others : Contretemps (n.).

Kindle Details...
    Madonna in a Fur Coat sells for $8.99 at Amazon.  Amazon doesn’t offer any other books by Sabahattin Ali in English, not even in paperback.  But if you’re fluent in Spanish or German, then there are several more options at Amazon.

“Even when he has a lamb between his teeth, a wolf can hide his savagery behind a smile.”  (loc. 1203)
    A few words should be said about Sabahattin Ali.  He was born in 1907, and died in 1948.  He was arrested in 1933 for writing a poem that was viewed as criticizing the policies of Turkey’s leader at the time, Kemal Ataturk, who's their equivalent of our George Washington.  He was jailed for several months, released, pardoned via amnesty, but required to write a nationalistic poem to prove his allegiance to Ataturk.

    He served in the Turkish military during World War 2, and was imprisoned and released once more in 1944.  He was subsequently denied a passport, and was murdered along the  Bulgarian border in 1948,  either by the smuggler he trusted, or the Turkish National Security Service.

    You might think this is just a product of Cold War mentality, but in 2005, the Turkish author (and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006) Orhan Pamuk was also persecuted by the Turkish government for expressing pro-Kurdish sentiments.  The specific charge was “insulting Turkisnness”.

    Apparently the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” is feared in Turkey.

   You can read the English-language Wikipedia article about Sabahattin Ali here.  There is a more complete Wkipedia article on him in Turkish, but unfortunately my knowledge of that language is limited to about two words.

    8½ Stars.  We’ll count this as my once-a-year highbrow read, even though it is probably more middlebrow (i.e.: “book club”) material.  It is also the fifth Turkish book I’ve read over the years, albeit only the second one since starting this blog.  The others are: Death In Troy, by Bilge Karasu; The Long White Cloud – Gallipoli, by Buket Uzuner; and two books by Orhan Pamuk, Snow and My Name Is Red.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Beyond Hades - Luke Romyn


   2012; 427 pages.  Book #1 (out of 2) of The Prometheus Wars” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Military; Mythology; Action-Adventure.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    There’s been a very unsettling (and secret) archaeological discovery deep beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.  Some say it might be the legendary city of Atlantis, but that's doubtful, since some extremely advanced technological artifacts have been found there.  And they've caught the attention of the US military.

    The most intriguing one consists of a control panel connected in some way to a circle of standing stones, which look kind of like Stonehenge, except on a much larger scale.  There are some sort of runic symbols associated with the control panel, so a scientist has been called in to decipher them.

    The gist of the runes seems to be that the control panel opens a "rift" between here and another dimension, and that opening it will unleash an Evil capable of destroying our world.

    The scientist thinks we should back off and leave things be; we don't know if the warning is metaphorical or actual, and the risk’s too great.  The military thinks such technology could give us a leg up on our enemies in any future conflict, so we should open up the rift and see what happens.

    Guess whose opinion is going to carry the day.

What’s To Like...
   Beyond Hades is an ambitious mixing of mythology with an action-military adventure, plus a dash of dimension-hopping and time-travel thrown in to spice things up.  The heaviest emphasis is on Greek mythology.  Indeed, I think the book may set a record for the sheer number of creatures, people, and places from the Greek legends.  It’s interesting to see how the mythical creatures called forth by Luke Romyn fare against modern-day weapons and special-ops personnel.

    The storyline is straightforward.  An archaeologist, Dr. Talbot Harrison, and an Australian special forces commando, Wes, cross through the rift to try to set things right again, and find themselves up against every mythological entity imaginable.  These range from well-known ones, such as cyclops and minotaurs, to some obscure ones, such as the Hecatonchires and a leucrota.  I'm a huge mythology buff, but there were quite quite a few of these beasts that I'd never heard of.  Luke Romyn changes the spelling of some of these slightly, but if you're wondering whether he made these up (and I did), Wikipedia has postings for all the ones I checked.

    Talbot is main focus of the story, but frankly, Wes is the more interesting (and colorful) of the pair.  The author apparently felt likewise, because ANAICT, only Wes returns for the sequel, Slaves of Valhalla, where the scene shifts to Norse mythology.

    Most of the book consists of our two heroes meeting, greeting, and in many cases, doing battle with one beast or legend after another.  It all starts to blur after a while.  But if you stick around, things pick up around 70% (Kindle) with some nifty plot twists and an exciting climactic battle.  And oh yeah, I much enjoyed the killer puppy; it reminded me of the lethal rabbit in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

    Beyond Hades is an action-packed adventure tale, and I felt like Luke Romyn made a conscious effort to make sure there were no slow spots.  This is a standalone story, as well as part of a 2-book, completed series.   All the main story threads are tied up by the end.  The only R-rated stuff is a slew of cussing, mostly from the mouth of Wes.  I have no problem with cuss words in stories, but here I thought it was overdone, particularly since, what with mythology being the dominant theme, this might have been better penned as a YA novel, with teenage boys being the target audience.

Kindle Details...
    Beyond Hades sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Its sequel, Slaves of Valhalla, is the same price.  Luke Romyn has another dozen or so e-books available at Amazon, including a series called The Legacy Chronicles; all of which fall in the $3.99-$4.99 range.

Excerpts...
    “Have you ever fired a weapon, Doctor Harrison?” asked the captain as they dashed along the empty passageway.
    Talbot shrugged – now probably wasn’t the time to ask if Playstation counted.  (loc. 572)

    “Zeus here-“ began Talbot.
    “You mean like Greek-god Zeus?” interrupted Wes.
    “Yeah.”
    “Hmm.  Cool,” said Wes, appraising Zeus once more.
    Talbot grinned despite himself.  “Well Zeus was just saying that we’re practically on our own for the fight ahead.  They’re still recovering from the last war and need to protect their own borders from the creatures of Tartarus.”
    “What’s a Tartarus?  Isn’t that what Doctor Who travelled around in; you know the telephone box with the flashing blue light on top of it?”  (loc. 3345)

 “So you reckon Prometheus is a starfish, is that what you’re saying?”  (loc. 5990)
    Sadly, as other reviewers at Amazon and GoodReads have noted, there are some significant issues with Beyond Hades.  Besides the aforementioned abundance of cussing, the formatting is sucky and a better font could have been chosen.  Those things are minor.  More serious are the writing and the storytelling.

    To be blunt, the writing needs another round of polishing.  There are telling/showing issues.  The plot gets stuck in a do-loop for the first 70% of the book, as one mythical creature after another pops up out of nowhere, wanting to do harm to our heroes.  After about the third one, I was just wishing the plotline would move along.

    The storytelling is in even more need of attention.  Deus ex machinas and WTF’s abound.  A few examples (of the non-spoiler variety):

    In the WTF category:  How did Talbot and his brother come to be fluent in the mysterious ancient language?  For that matter, why are the beasties from the other dimensions instantly able to find them in our dimension?  How can such huge beasts proliferate in our dimension (and a popular tourist attraction in Australia collapse), yet no one seems to notice?

    In the Deus ex Machina category: How convenient is it that Zeus can instantly make Wes fluent in the Olypmpian tongue?  How timely is it for Prometheus’s eagle to show up at the most critical time and rescue our heroes from beasts-with-evil-intent?  Ditto for the life-saving bulls of Khalkotauroi?

    I got the feeling that, if Wes and Talbot were pitted against some evil entity which could only be killed by sugary snacks, a gray storm cloud would appear on the horizon and it would start to rain marshmallows.

    5 Stars.  I loved the basic concept of Beyond Hades.  But the ending is above-average ending, but it's not quite enough to make up for the writing and storytelling issues.  Another round of editing and beta-reading is called for.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Dead Wake - Erik Larson


   2015; 359 pages.  Full Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania.  New Author? : No.   Genre : Non-Fiction; History; World War 1; Ships.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Everything I know about the Lusitania comes from history classes, either in high school or college.  Here’s what I remember from those classes.

    The sinking of the Lusitania caused an outrage in America that immediately caused us to enter World War 1 on the side of the British and French.  Since we did that in 1917, that means the Lusitania was sunk in 1917 as well.

    It was torpedoed by a German U-boat.  There were two giant explosions.  The Germans say that proves the luxury liner was secretly carrying ammunition from the US to England.  The British say it proves that the U-boat fired not one, but two torpedoes, those dirty dogs.

    The Lusitania was an American ship, so the sinking of it was an act of war.  The attack took place somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  There were some survivors, but a lot of passengers died because there weren’t enough lifeboats.  Most of them were Americans.

    Hmm.  Strangely enough, the only true statement in those last three paragraphs is that the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

What’s To Like...
    Dead Wake is Erik Larson’s most recent book, and is a departure from his usual style of interweaving two disparate stories, such as in The Devil  in the White City, where he tells about the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago (which showcased the a marvelous invention called the Ferris wheel), and a detective's dogged hunt for a serial killer named H.H. Holmes.  Here, no such blending takes place, but the POV does skip around from the perspectives of the U-boat, the Lusitania, President Woodrow Wilson in Washington DC, and Room 40  in London, the headquarters for British Intelligence during the First World War.

    Larson divides the book into five sections, arranged chronologically, and chronicling the voyages of both vessels.  They are :
Part 1. (pg 5) Bloody Monkeys (background and pre-voyage preparations)
Part 2.  (pg 133) Jump Rope and Caviar (the voyages themselves)
Part 3. (pg. 215) Dead Wake (the paths of the two ships meet)
Part 4. (pg. 245) The Black Soul  (the torpedoing, sinking, and rescue efforts)
Part 5.  (pg. 315) The Sea of Secrets  (the aftermath and consequences)


    The torpedo impact takes place at 2:10 PM on May 07, 1915, which, book-wise, is on page 247.  You might think that means a whole bunch of boring pre-explosion stuff to slog through, but Erik Larson did meticulous researching into the lives of the various passengers and crewmen, and their lives and intertwining fates makes for fascinating reading.

    The book isn’t overly technical, but I enjoyed learning about the U-boat technology of World War 1.  Submarines were viewed as a joke at the beginning of the war.  They were small, their torpedoes had a 60% fail rate, and their batteries needed charging frequently.  But after they sank a couple British warships, they developed into a deadly threat.  Indeed, it led to an official British policy forbidding any of their large warships from being dispatched to rescue survivors from a torpedoed ship.  This would have a grave impact when the Lusitania went down.

    As usual, Erik Larson throws all sorts of details and trivia into the account.  Arthur Conan Doyle writes a fictional sub story that turns out to be remarkably prescient.  I learned about the long-forgotten “Straw Hat Day” celebrations.  There’s an eerie quote about the horrors of trench warfare by some German soldier named Adolf Hitler.  And you’ll be amazed by how much coal has to be loaded onto a ship that’s about to embark on a transatlantic voyage.  Overall, it was really neat to get a “feel” for life in the 1910’s – in Germany, in the US, and in England.

    The title is explained on page 241.  The ending is great, which is no small feat since most readers will know ahead of time how things turn out for the Lusitania.  The blame-games played in the aftermath will sadden you.  Winston Churchill, then the Secretary of the Navy, comes across particularly poorly.  The “Epilogue” section is in a “whatever happened to” structure, and I greatly enjoyed  that.  The closing paragraphs (pg. 353) about Theodate Pope’s search for her shipboard friend, Edwin Friend, will bring both a tear and a smile to your face.

    There are no pictures in the book, which was mildly disappointing.  I would’ve liked to see a larger-scale map of the watery areas of interest.  The “extras” in the back of the book include 6 pages of acknowledgements, 58 pages of notes, and an 11-page index.  I highly recommend reading the "Sources and Acknowledgements" section, as it details just how much work goes into writing and publishing a book like this.

Kewlest New Word ...
Sequelae (n., plural) : conditions that are the consequence of a previous disease or injury.

Excerpts...
    Men served as ballast.  In order to quickly level or “dress” his boat, or speed a dive, Schwieger would order crewmen to run to the bow or the stern.  The chaos might at first seem funny, like something from one of the new Keystone Cops films, except for the fact that these maneuvers were executed typically at moments of peril.  U-boats were so sensitive to changes in load that the mere launch of a torpedo required men to shift location to compensate for the sudden loss of weight.  (pg. 121)

    He and Pierpoint swam together.  Turner saw the bodies of the ship’s firemen floating nearby, upside down in their life jackets – he counted forty in all.  Seagulls dove among corpses and survivors alike.  Turner later told his son, Norman, that he found himself fending off attacks by the birds, which swooped from the sky and pecked at the eyes of floating corpses.  Rescuers later reported that wherever they saw spirals of gulls, they knew they would find bodies.  Turner’s experience left him with such a deep hatred of seagulls, according to Norman, “that until his retirement he used to carry a .22 rifle and shoot every seagull he could.”  (pg. 296)

 “If you had to jump six or seven feet, or certainly drown, it is surprising what ‘a hell of a long way’ even older people can jump.”  (pg. 272)
    Dead Wake was a riveting book for me, especially the “what ifs” and the subsequent events.  The British navy tries to make Captain Turner a scapegoat, but instead, you, and Erik Larson, have to ask: Why wasn’t there a destroyer escort for the Lusitania as it approached Liverpool?  After all, it was in a war zone, and Germany had sent out explicit communications that they would sink any and all vessels their U-boats encountered there.

    It should also be noted that, by its own shipping records, the Lusitania was carrying much-needed rifle-carriages and shrapnel shells to England, making it fair game in the conflict.  Still, the popular conspiracy theory that it carried another, secret trove of highly-explosive munitions is pretty much debunked by Larson.

   The actions of the United States are also head-scratching.  No matter what your and my 8th-grade teacher told you, we didn’t declare war because of this.  The Lusitania was sunk in May 1915.  We didn’t enter the war until two years later (half the duration of the four-year conflict), and that only after our indignation over the infamous “Zimmerman Letter”.  Wiki it, or read this book.  Talk about skewed priorities.

    9½ Stars.  Dead Wake is a fantastic read for history buffs, and I've never yet been disappointed in an Erik Larson book.

    We’ll close with some of the more poignant stats and trivia given in the book.  764 people survived the sinking of the Lusitania, including the ship’s captain, William Turner.  1,195 people died, including 27 of the 33 infants aboard  and 3 German stowaways, who had been caught at departure snooping around, and were incarcerated below-decks.  The bodies of more than 600 passengers were never found.  123 Americans perished.

    The Lusitania was just 16 hours from arriving at its destination when it was torpedoed.  The total time between the impact and sinking: just 18 minutes.  Although each passenger had been issued a life jacket, many of them died because they didn't know how to put it on and/or where they had stashed it in their cabins.  Think about that last piece of trivia the next time you take a cruise and have to participate in the mandatory life jacket drill.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Burglar In The Rye - Lawrence Block


    1999; 352 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #9  (out of 10, or 11, or 12, depending how you count them) in the Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” series.  Genre : Crime-Humor.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The timing is going to be tricky, but it’s all for a good cause.  Bernie Rhodenbarr, retired burglar, is going to unretire for a bit in order to purloin some highly-sought letters from the reclusive author, Gulliver “Gully” Fairborn to his one-time agent, Anthea Landau.

    It won’t be easy.  Dear old Anthea is a recluse who almost never ventures out from her room at the Paddington Hotel, and Bernie isn’t sure where in her room the letters might be stashed.  In fact, he doesn’t even know which room is hers.

    But where there’s a will, or t least some letters, there’s a way, especially if some money can be made along the way.  And Bernie’s larceny skills are certainly up to the challenge.

    Unfortunately, someone saw him just outside Anthea’s hotel room door.  And someone else can prove Bernie was registered at that hotel under an assumed name.  And someone else must also be wanting those letters, because when Bernie makes it into Anthea’s room, she’s dead, and there are no letters to be found.

    Worst of all, someone’s already called the cops.  They’re at the door, and Bernie’s stuck inside.

What’s To Like...
    The Burglar In The Rye has the usual structure used in the Lawrence Block “Burglar” series, and I mean that in a most positive way.  Bernie gets talked into doing “one last heist”, and this isn't his first relapse.  Things go awry, Bernie gets implicated, and he and the reader spend the rest of the book navigating the many plot twists until Bernie, and sometimes the reader, figure out the whodunit.

    The murder-mystery is well-done.  The clues are there, if you’re astute enough to spot them.  But it’s just as much fun to meet a bunch of zany characters – both new and recurring – and to listen in on the sparkling wit that permeates every conversation in a Bernie Rhodenbarr book.  Lawrence Block also revels in imparting obscure trivia to the reader.  Here, we learn all about Chester Alan Arthur (who?) and the dreaded candiru, aka the “toothpick fish”.  The author doesn’t make this stuff up.  Wiki “candiru” to learn, as Bernie did, why you’ll never want to sneak a pee while swimming in a river again.

    As with any of the Burglar books, the new characters introduced are fascinating studies.  The reclusive Gulliver Fairborn sparkles, but my favorite newbie was Isis Gauthier, the first person I can recall that leaves Bernie flummoxed with her incisive questions.

    It also should be noted that, although the book was published in 1999, Bernie’s best friend throughout this series, Carolyn Kaiser, is gay.  No biggie, I hear you say, but what’s impressive is the way Lawrence Block makes her a three-dimensional character.  Yes, she’s gay, but that isn’t her only raison d’etre.  She owns a dog-grooming business, shares meals and drinks with Bernie, and swaps various insights with him over various relationship issues they both have.

    The Burglar In The Rye is a quick and easy read, told in the first-person POV (Bernie’s).  There is some mild cussing, one instance of aural sex (I’ll let you suss that out), and two, unconnected instances of urination fascination.  Maybe Lawrence Block was on diuretics when he wrote this.  This is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Twee (adj.) : Excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.

Excerpts...
    “The day I moved in he told me he wanted me to stay as long as I wanted, and that he hoped I would never leave him.  But that he would leave me.”
    “He told you that?”
    “He stated it as a fact.  The sky is blue, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and the day will come when you’ll wake up and I’ll be gone.”
    “It could be a country song,” I said, “except that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny would be tough for Garth Brooks to sing with real conviction.”  (loc. 1085)

    For God’s sake, he’s a self-proclaimed burglar.”
    “Actually,” Carolyn put in, I think ‘admitted’ would be a better word for Bernie than ‘self-proclaimed.’  It’s not as though he goes around making proclamations.  If anything, he’s a little ashamed of being a burglar.”
    “Then why doesn’t he stop burgling?” Isis wanted to know.
    “Just between us, I think it’s an addiction.”
    “Has the man tried therapy?  Or some sort of twelve-step program?”
    “Nothing seems to work.”  (loc. 3414)

Kindle Details...
    The Burglar In The Rye sells for $6.49 at Amazon.  All the rest of the books in the series are in the  $3.99  to $5.99 price range.  Lawrence Block wrote several other, less lighthearted detective series, and those e-books are in the $2.74-$9.99 range.  One of them is the “Matthew Scudder” series, which I am eager to check out.

He was a bear, of course, but not the sort whose predilection for sylvan defecation is as proverbial as the Holy Father’s Catholicism.  (loc. 69)
    There’s not much to quibble about in The Burglar in the Rye.  At one point Bernie, desperately fleeing the police, enters a random hotel room, and stumbles across some extremely valuable rubies, They just happen to play a key part in solving the crime.  Yeah, it’s kinda of a “WTF moment”, but hey, without those gems, the whole investigation would come to naught.  So we’ll let it slide.

    The ending is suitably dramatic, albeit a two-stage affair.  Just about everyone you’ve figured was the culprit gets put under the Bernie Rhodenbarr spotlight, but I doubt you’ll have fingered the actual murderer.  That gets wrapped up at 88%, then it’s time to also resolve the matter of the missing and much-coveted letters.  That may sound anticlimactic, but it actually all works out quite nicely.

    8½ Stars.  I borrowed the Kindle version of Burglar In The Rye from my local library.  They carry the complete series, and it seems like very few patrons remember Lawrence Block.  It may be time to read a couple more of these, before the library deletes them due to inactivity.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Tinker's War - Jamie Sedgwick


   2012; 345 pages.  Book 2 (out of three) of the Tinkerer’s Daughter series.   New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The Vangars.  They came, in their dragon ships of death.

    They saw.  The lands of the humans, the Elvish Tal’mar, and even the giant Kanters.  All of whom were squabbling amongst themselves.  All of whom failed to realize the danger came from without, not within.

    They conquered.  They focused on the palaces of the reigning kings and queens, dropping bombs of unimaginable size and deadliness, and killing the rulers of each empire.  Then they swept into all the major cities in their, in their dragon ships, protected by gyroplanes, capturing and enslaving most of the civilians before they had a chance to flee.

    Yet a few made it out and went into hiding in the mountains.  Including Breeze.  The half-breed.  The tinker’s daughter.  The pilot.  The healer.  But she’s just one fighter.  What can she do against the overwhelming Vangar invasion force?

What’s To Like...
    Tinker’s War is the second book in a series about a half-elf/half-human girl named Breeze growing up in a bleak, futuristic world that reminds me of China Miéville’s Railsea setting.  This is vintage Jamie Sedgwick - the action starts right away with the Vangars attacking everyone all at once, and doesn't let up until the very end.

    Yet there is more to Tinker’s War than just thrills and spills.  Our half-breed heroine has a pair of suitors vying for her hand – one human, the other elf.  Neither one will take “no” for an answer, and both are jealous of each other.  But be of good cheer, male readers.  While this thread runs throughout the book, the romance never gets in the way of the excitement and fighting.

    I’m also thinking Jamie Sedgwick must be a mechanical engineer in real life, because we get some keen insight (usually courtesy of Tinker) into various mechanisms – the steamwagons, the dragon ships, the gyroplanes with their spring engines, piston motors, spring-loaded revolvers, and the strangest of all, at least to our heroes, the electric light bulb.

    The genre style is much more steampunk than fantasy.  Outside of the elves, it seems the only other magic is the gift of healing.  There is a hint of trolls, though.  And dragons abound in other books set in this world.

    The story is told from a first-person POV, Breeze’s, of course.  There are 32 chapters for 327 pages, plus an 18-page preview of the next book in the series.  Overall, Tinker’s War is a quick and easy read, which was exactly what I was looking for.

    The ending is so-so.  Nothing is resolved, the Tal’mar still are in firm control of their newly-conquered territory.  But there’s a nice tie-in to the conjunctive series Aboard The Great Iron Horse, and the Vangars are a dominant force in that setting.  So their sustained success here is consistent with the overall storyline.

Excerpts...
    “This is no life you have, Breeze.  You’re not living, you’re hiding.”
    I pulled my hands away from him and placed them on my lap.  “I’m doing exactly what I want to do, Robie.  Look at me.  Look at my face, my ears.  Do you think I’m one of your farm girls?  Do you envision me standing at a cook stove all day, my belly swollen with child, our house full of chaos and noise?  Is that what you want?”
    A mystified look swept across his face.  “Cook stove?  I don’t know… you do cook, don’t you?”  (loc. 87)

    I had long since learned that few people possess the kind of fortitude it takes to question their leaders.  Humans and Tal’mar are no different when it comes to this.  The individual is always more worried about calculating his or her personal outcome in a situation than making that situation a success.  Regrettably, I had come to learn that many people would choose to loose (sic) the war if it meant they could be the head slave, rather than win the war and be equal with everyone else.  (loc. 2454)

Kindle Details...
    Tinker’s War is priced at $0.99 at Amazon.  The first book in the series, The Tinkerer’s Daughter is free, and the final book, Blood And Steam, sells for $2.99.  Jamie Sedgwick has a slew of others e-books and series available at Amazon, ranging in price from free to $3.99.  Those are great prices for books of this caliber.

 “The hair in my nose keeps growing back no matter how much I trim it, but lose an arm or leg, or even a finger, and it’s gone forever.”  (loc. 290)
    There are a couple quibbles, none all that serious.

    First, there is little or no backstory, and it’s been two years since I read the first book in this series.  This isn’t all that critical, though, because of the episodic nature of the book.  More on this in a bit.

    Second, while getting into occupied cities is understandably a cinch, I found it curious how easily our plucky heroes could get out of them as well, even when there were a bunch of noisy humans in the group.  It was also odd that the Tal’mar Queen’s name is never mentioned.  I couldn’t recall it.  Maybe Jamie couldn’t either.

    Finally, given that the dragon ships make use of giant balloons containing flammable gas to keep them aloft, the good guys take an incredibly long time to wonder if that might be a weak spot in those airships’ defenses.  

     7½ Stars.  I’m beginning to gain a better insight into Jamie Sedgwick’s intent when writing a story, and more importantly, when he’s writing a series.  It doesn't seem like he's too concerned about furthering the overall plotline in the series.  Here, the main thread is the Vangars kicking butt all over the place, and the author doesn’t appear to feel any obligation to resolve that anytime soon.

    Instead, this book, and others written by him, have a feel of simply being “episodes” in his excellently-constructed post-apocalyptic world.  It’s kinda like watching any of the TV series of, say, Star Trek.  You know you’re in for a fascinating hour-long story.  But if you ask yourself how it furthers the five-year mission to boldly seek out and explore new worlds, well, frankly, it doesn’t.

    If Gene Roddenberry can get away with this, I suppose Jamie Sedgwick should be allowed to as well.