Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Damnation Game - Clive Barker

    1985; 433 pages.  New Author? : Nope, but this is only my second book by him.  Genre : Horror; Suspense.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Marty Strauss is getting out of prison early!  Well yes, it is a conditional parole, and he’ll be confined to the grounds of Joseph Whitehead’s sprawling estate.  But it's better than sharing a cell at te penitentiary, and he’ll even get paid for his new job: he'll be the personal bodyguard of Mr. Whitehead himself.

    The work itself looks easy enough.  There’s a wall around the perimeter of the estate, and barbed wire atop of that.  There’s a pack of Alsatian guard dogs trained to tear into any intruder.  There are several others on the staff who will keep an eye out for strangers as well.  And there are cameras monitoring the entire house and grounds.  The Devil himself couldn’t get into Joseph Whitehead’s mansion without being detected and intercepted.

     But you’d better be careful, Marty.  Old Man Whitehead may be crazy, but there’s a reason for his paranoia.  And if the Devil does come calling, you’re expected to sacrifice your life for the sake of your employer.

What’s To Like...
    The Damnation Game was Clive Barker’s debut full-length novel, but he had already established himself as a promising author of Horror tales via his set of six short stories, Books of Blood.  The settings in TDG are sparse, and the first, World War 2 Warsaw, is almost entirely confined to the Prologue.  The rest of the book takes place at various spots in the greater London area.

    There’s about a hundred pages of world-building to plod through at the beginning, but this was also true of the other Clive Barker book I read, which is reviewed here.  Structurally, the book is perfect, evolving steadily from a relatively peaceful, if somewhat dysfunctional, start to abject terror, as Joseph Whitehead’s adversary lays siege to Marty and company and everyone else at the mansion.  The tension builds throughout the story to an exciting showdown at the end.  Clive Barker knows how to write a horror story.

    I liked the UE (Ultimate Evil), he is incredibly powerful, and yet is neither omnipotent nor omniscient.  His henchman are also suitably scary, and, in the case of his two missionaries, also a bit funny.  The backstory for the UE also gets recounted, which I appreciated.  He is a resourceful chap (aren’t all well-crafted UE’s?), and his way of “scouting” Whitehead’s mansion was quite innovative.

    The Damnation Game is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, but it’s hardly noticeable.  R-rated stuff abounds, but hey, wouldn't “cozy horror story” be an oxymoron?  This is a standalone novel, and ANAICT, there is no sequel, although I am certainly not an expert on Clive Barker’s bibliography.  Finally, the last chapter is a way-kewl epilogue that wraps things up nicely.

Kewlest New Word...
Doggo (adv.) : remaining motionless and quiet to escape detection.
Others : Welter (n.); Baize (n.); Farrago (n.); Unblenched (adj.); Peristalsis (n.).

    She picked up the receiver and dialed nineteen, the number of Marty’s bedroom.  It rang once, then again.  She willed him to wake quickly.  Her reserves of control were, she knew, strictly limited.
    “Come on, come on . . . “ she breathed.
    Then there was a sound behind her; heavy feet crunched the glass into smaller pieces.  She turned to see who it was, and there was a nightmare standing in the doorway with a knife in his hand and a dogskin over one shoulder.  The phone slipped form her fingers, and the part of her that had advised panic all along took the reins.
    Told you so, it shouted.  Told you so!  (pg. 185)

    The Deluge descended in the driest July in living memory; but then no revisionist’s dream of Armageddon is complete without its paradox.  Lightning appeared out of a clear sky; flesh turned to salt; the meek inheriting the earth: all unlikely phenomena.
    That July, however, there were no spectacular transformations.  No celestial lights appeared in the clouds.  No rains of salamanders or children.  If angels came and went that month – if the looked-for Deluge broke – then it was, like the truest Armageddon, metaphor.  (pg. 277)

“You call me ridiculous.  You.  A talking fog.”  (pg. 314)
    The Damnation Game came highly recommended to me by a friend who considers it Clive Barker’s finest effort, and it did not disappoint.  It didn’t leave me cringing in fear, the way some J.A. Konrath’s books do (such as the one reviewed here), but I did keep worrying the whole way through about how Marty could possibly defeat such as powerful UE.

    The quibbles are minor, and by and large mirrors those I had with the other Clive Barker book I’ve read.  The plot is interesting, but not particularly twisty.  The character development is superb, but it felt like everyone got their predictably just desserts.  The storytelling is great, yet this is by no mean a quick read.

    But I pick at nits.  I enjoyed The Damnation Game, and that says something about the author’s writing skills, since I am not a big fan of the Horror genre.  I have one more Clive Barker book on my ever-expanding TBR shelf, Abarat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I read it later this year.

    8½ Stars.  Add ½ star if you’re a fan of Dean Koontz.  I found the tone of The Damnation Game to be quite similar to his.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Doctor and the Kid - Mike Resnick

   2011; 323 pages.  Book 2 (out of four) of the “Weird West Tales” series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Steampunk; Western; Alternate History.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    There are so many things that are different in this Alternate History of the Old West.  Unfortunately for Doc Holliday, his terminal illness – tuberculosis, or as they called it back then “consumption” – is not one of them.  He has a year or so to live, if he’s lucky, and he’d like to spend his final days in peace at a sanitarium in Colorado.

    That takes money, something which he doesn’t have much of anymore, thanks to one of his vices, gambling.  Ah, but there’s a $10,000 bounty on Billy The Kid, dead or alive, which is more than enough to cover the sanitarium costs.  And Doc’s a retired (or so he says) gunslinger.

    But Billy The Kid’s mighty fast on the trigger, and some say he can even outdraw Doc.  To boot, there are rumors that he’s protected by some medicine man magic that renders all weapons used against him useless.

    Maybe it’s time for Doc Holliday to get some magic of his own.  And who better to seek out and ask for it than that great inventor, Tom Edison?

What’s To Like...
    I liked the world-building.  In this alternate timeline, the US Army is prevented from crossing the Mississippi River due to the powerful magic spells laid down by two Native American medicine men, Geronimo and Hook Nose.  Some towns apparently are allowed – among them Tombstone, Denver, Leadville (Colorado), and Lincoln (New Mexico).  But nary a single soldier can cross over.

    Mike Resnick likes to namedrop, and I mean that in a positive way.  So in addition to the O.K. Corral boys: Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, we meet Oscar Wilde, Susan B. Anthony, Billy the Kid, Sheriff Part Garrett, Geronimo, Kate Elder, Ned Buntline, and Thomas “Tom” Edison.  Those last two are buddies of our protagonist, Doc Holiday.

    This is also a steampunk novel.  Think The Wild, Wild West – either the old TV series, or the more-recent movie version.  Tom Edison and Ned Buntline supply a bunch of really neat inventions, among which are robotic bartenders, horseless stagecoaches, monorails, robotic cooks, tasers, and last but not least, robotic hookers.  I’m not quite sure how the latter work, but customer satisfaction is high.

    There are some kewl drawings scattered throughout the book, which I really liked.  There is some cussing, which is certainly realistic, but I didn’t think was absolutely necessary.  More on that in a moment.  There are also five appendices in the back, to wit: a list of “further reading”, movie stars who played played the various characters we meet in the book, some brief, “non-alternate” biographies of the main characters, an account by Pat Garrett concerning Billy the Kid’s  escape, and an account by Bat Masterson about his acquaintance with Doc Holliday.  Of the five, I liked the biographies one the best.

    The ending is okay, but not very twisty.  Doc squares off against Billy the Kid; and Geronimo and Hook Nose do the same.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.

    “Are you the notorious Doc Holliday?” asked the man.
    Holliday checked to make sure the man was unarmed.  “I am,” he replied.
    The man extended a hand.  “I am the notorious Oscar Wilde.  I wonder if I might join you?”
    Holliday shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”
    Wilde sat down opposite him.  “I didn’t see you at my lecture last night.”
    “Good?” repeated Wilde, arching an eyebrow.
    “It means you’re not hallucinating.”  (loc. 57)

    “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” he said.  “All I have to do is destroy men and buildings that are impervious to arrows, bullets, cannonballs and fire, and in exchange for that, a sick, dying man gets to face the greatest killer in the West on even terms, is that your offer?”
    “That is my offer.”
    “Give me a minute to think about it,” said Holliday, staring down at the ground.  (loc. 692)

Kindle Details...
    The Doctor and the Kid sells for $9.99 at Amazon right now.  The other three books in the series all go for that price as well.  Mike Resnick has been writing Sci-Fi stories for a long time, sometimes alone, sometimes as a co-author, and sometimes as a contributor of short stories for sci-fi anthologies.  So there are a slew of e-books at Amazon that bear his name, usually in the $0.99-$9.99 spectrum.

 “(T)he next argument I win with a woman will be the first.”  (loc. 2487)
    The Doctor and the Kid isn’t perfect.  There are some annoyingly repetitive themes, such as Doc reminding everybody that he’s terminally ill, everybody wanting to hear him tell about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Billy the Kid mentioning to Doc how much he likes him.

    Also, while there’s an adequate amount of action, the plotline itself doesn’t progress much.  For most of the book, Doc keeps tabs on Billy, and Edison tries to figure out how to combat the medicine man magic.  The “Science vs. Magic” theme may be realistic: keep trying ideas until one of them works, but in a storyline, it makes for a lot of spinning of one’s wheels.

    I was confused as to the target audience.  The story was simplistic enough to make me think it was aimed at teenage boys, but then why have all the cussing?  Finally, for all the kewl appendices, why not also have one with a map of the settings?

    7 Stars.  Don’t get me wrong, The Doctor and the Kid was still an enjoyable read, and part of my problems with it may be the fact that I didn’t realize it was book 2 of a series.  I struggled to understand the details of the alternate history, and perhaps all this was already given in the first book, The Buntline Special.  I’ve added that to my TBR shelf (which has a couple hundred other books), and will probably read it in the next few months.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Myth-Fits - Jody Lynn Nye

   2016; 305 pages.  Book #21 (out of 21) of the “Mythadventures” series.  New Author? : No, but the first one where she’s not just a co-author.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor; Dimension-Travel.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Business has been a bit slow lately at Myth Inc.  Some of that is due to the competition undercutting their prices – Myth Inc. is the best at recovering priceless artifacts, and generally they only take the top-dollar cases.  They still have a healthy amount of money in reserve.

    So when a man named Looie approaches them to find something for him in an alternate dimension, and wants a price-break to boot; they turn him down.  Even when the head of Myth Inc., Bunny, wants them to take the job.

    But when they find out just where Looie’s artifact is located – in Winslow- attitudes change.  Winslow is the most luxurious vacation spot in the dimension, and it prides itself on never saying “no” to any request from any of its customers.

    What’s wrong with combining business with pleasure?

What’s To Like...
   Myth-Fits is the 21st, and latest, entry into (the late) Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures series, and I espied it in my local library’s “Recent Additions” section the last time we were there.  I recently read another one of the later entries (reviewed here), and was rather disappointed.  I am happy to say this one does a much better job of catching the initial spark in the series.

    I liked the choices of the Myth Inc. characters here.  It was good to see Aahz get some major ink, as well as my favorite MacGuffin, Gleep, tagging along.  The rest of Skeeve’s crew: Tananda, Bunny, Chumley, and Markie, all lend their unique slants to the story, and happily, my three least-favorite characters, Guido, Nunzio, and Uncle Bruce, get either scant or zero attention.

    Winslow was a neat new dimension to explore, a whole city dedicated to providing for you as if you were on a cruise or lounging around at Club Med.  There are four main plotlines: (1) find the Loving Cup; (2) find out why the lines of magic at Winslow are so hard to draw power from; (3) figure out who the “other magician” is that evidently is also searching for the Loving Cup; and (4) get Bunny to tell why she's suddenly so worried about the business's bottom line.

    As usual, the story is told from a first-person POV (Skeeve’s); and as usual, there are witty pseudo-quotes to start each chapter.  I enjoyed going on the scavenger hunt with Skeeve and Company, and it’s always neat to come across that delightful British phrase “and Bob’s yer uncle!”

    There is a decent, slightly twisty, stutter-step ending.  As always this is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.  It does help if you’ve read the initial book though, just to understand the Aahz/Skeeve relationship.  There’s a bevy of various beasties vacationing on Winslow, a couple of way-kewl artifacts to search for, lots of magic, and plenty of Asprin-inspired wit.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Fleering (v.) : laughing imprudently or jeeringly.
Others : Dirndl (n.); Ambit (n.);

    “(She) must be looking for the Loving Cup, too.”
    “Why do you say that?” I asked.  She could have been looking for anything!”
    “Occam’s razor, kid,” Aahz said, wearily.
    “Was he a barber?” I asked.  (pg. 52)

    “They threw me out of the Central Help Desk!”
    “No reason!”
    “No reason?” she asked, with a little smile.  “You managed to provoke Winslovaks into making you leave the courtesy desk instead of letting you do what you want?  Jeopardizing their dimension-wide reputation for never saying no to any request?”
    Aahz pursed his lips until he managed to squirt the words out.
    “I was just trying to push them a little.  The sooner we get that cup back, the sooner we can get out of here.”
     “And by push you mean bully, cajole, and harass the staff and probably everyone who was waiting in line. Maybe even random passersby who were minding their own business?”
    “. . . Maybe.”  (pg. 182)

 “Stop trying to make me have fun!”  (pg. 190)
    The quibbles are minor.  For a fantasy series that is rooted in the concept of dimension-travel, we don’t travel to a lot of places in Myth-Fits.  There are three: Myth Inc’s headquarters in the bazaar on Deva, Winslow, and a brief-but-perilous detour to a dimension called Maire.  Still, both Maire and Winslow are new places for the reader, and they’re the setting for at least 90% of the book.

    Some of the plays on words are overused and get tiring very fast; in particular the Pervect/Pervert witticism.  There are some footnotes, but they’re just cheap plugs for earlier books in the series.  Terry Pratchett’s Discworld footnotes have me spoiled, I guess.

    But these pesky things are minor.  Myth-Fits is a fun, fast, easy read, and it was a pleasure to discover that this series has regained some of its pizzazz.

    7½ Stars.  Some authorship data, gleaned from Wikipedia.  Myth-Fits is Book 21.  The first 12 books were penned by Robert Asprin alone, and the next 7 were co-authored by him and Jody Lynn Nye.  Only the last two (Books 20 and 21) are attributed solely to Ms. Nye.

    It was therefore a happy surprise to read this latest work, and find it to be the equal of the earliest works in the series, which happen to be my favorites.  My two-cent opinion is that Jody Lynn Nye has basically saved this series from the dustbin, similar to the fine job Brandon Sanderson did for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series after the latter passed away.

    Bravo, Ms. Nye!  May you be inspired to write many more adventures for Skeeve and Aahz.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

   2012; 287 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Magical Realism  (one of Amazon’s designations, and I kinda like the term).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    For Clay Jannon, any job is better than no job at all.  And while no one working in a bookstore ever gets rich quick, it is kind of a neat place to pass the time.

    The hours suck though.  Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is open 24 hours a day, and Clay is unfortunate enough to draw the midnight to 8:00 AM shift.  OTOH, how many customers are going to wander in at three in the morning?

    However, the few nocturnal patrons that do show up are a curious bunch.  First, they treat the bookstore like a library: they “borrow” some very obscure books, and it’s always with utmost urgency.  Second, they all seem to borrow the same few books.  It’s almost like they know each other.  And third, if you peek inside those books, they’re all in gobbledygook.  No words, just random letters.

    Hey, maybe Clay Jannon has stumbled onto a den of spies ending each other coded messages via those books!  After all, Mr. Penumbra told him not to look inside the tomes.  Or maybe they’re a bunch of nut cases, who are under the delusion they’re reading words from random letters.  In any case, it’s worth investigating further.

    But prudently, Clay.  After all, we can’t afford to lose this job now, can we?

What’s To Like...
    Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a phenomenally popular bestseller.  It's garnered more than 2,000 reviews at Amazon, and is one of their Top 10,000 sellers, despite being almost 3½ years old. The Goodreads stats are even more insane – over 19,000 reviews and more than 118,000 ratings.  That’s a lot of readers & buyers of this book.

    The settings are a bibliophile’s delight.  Most of the story takes place in two bookstores/libraries.  The plotline is heavy on the intrigue and light on the action.  This usually makes for a dull read, but Robin Sloan’s writing style is engaging, and the characters he creates are richly 3-D.  This may be an easy read, but it’s also a fun read.

     It helps if, like me, you’re a techno-geek.  There are numerous plugs for geeky things, such as XKCD, Wall.E, Google, Kindles (and other forms of e-readers), Jackson Pollock, the blue screen of death, and Visicalc.  Jeez, I haven’t thought of that last one in decades, and once upon a time it was the cat’s meow of spreadsheets.

    You’ll also learn a lot about a fascinating man named Aldus Manutius, who is real (wiki him; I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy), and the Gerritszoon font, which is not.  My Gnostics get a brief mention, that’s always a plus.  Other neat things : Matropolis, GrumbleGear, the Waybacklist, Singularity Singles (speed dating for nerds), and OK/TK.

    The book was shorter than I expected, and is told from a first-person POV (Clay’s).  This is a standalone novel, with ANAICT no sequel, although there is a 60-page prequel, giving Mr. Penumbra’s backstory, for $2.99, which seems steep to me, but I suppose is to be expected for a novella by a top-tier author.  This is why I don’t read Amazon singles.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Colophon (n.) :  a publisher’s emblem or imprint, especially one on the title page or spine of a book,
Others : Proscenium (n.)

    “I did not know people your age still read books,” Penumbra says.  He raises an eyebrow.  “I was under the impression they read everything on their mobile phones.”
    “Not everyone.  There are plenty of people who, you know– people who still like the smell of books.”
    “The smell!” Penumbra repeats.  “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell!”  He smiles at that – then something occurs to him, and he narrows his eyes.  “I do not suppose you have a … Kindle?”  (loc. 873)

   Kat gushes about Google’s projects, all revealed to her now.  They are making a 3-D web browser.  They are making a car that drives itself.  They are making a sushi search engine – here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner – to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free.  They are building a time machine.  They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.  (loc. 2898)

 Fingers of thought are raking the space behind the cushions, looking for loose ideas, finding nothing.  (pg. 43)
    The writing is superb, the character-development is top-notch, and I’m not the type that needs someone to die in a book that I’m reading.  So why not a higher rating?  Well, if you brush aside all the good stuff, you discover that the storyline itself is hit-and-miss. 

    Clay “breaks” the initial code by discovering that the patrons make a strange pattern if you plot their comings and goings in the bookstore in 3-D.  However, you subsequently find that it’s pretty …erm… meaningless.  Mr. Penumbra and his cohorts are waiting for something, and whether it’s God, Godot, or something else is a fascinating enigma.  But the ending falls flat.  

    There’s a rather nice epilogue to the story, about the various characters and what happens to them, but honestly, I thought it would’ve been more powerful if those details were fleshed out and incorporated as part of the ending itself.

    But the plusses outweigh the minuses, and I’m always partial to a story that makes you wonder through most of the book whether the cause of the oddities are natural or supernatural phenomena.

   7½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you find any book without at least a couple thrills and spills to be somewhat of a tedious read.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Gideon's Corpse - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   2012; 449 pages.  Book #2 (out of 4) of the Gideon Crew series.  New Authors? : No.  Genre : Action-Adventure; Thriller.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Things couldn’t get any worse.  One of Gideon’s fellow nuclear scientists goes crazy, taking a family hostage in New York City, and Gideon, who’s in the city at the time, is asked to assist in the stand-off negotiations.

    Alas, the coworker is delusional, claiming that he’s been a test rat subjected to all sorts of radiation experiments, perpetrated by all sorts of evil people, and that Gideon is in cahoots with them.  There’s only one way this hostage situation can resolve itself.

    But the investigation in the aftermath reveals that radiation did indeed play a part in the ordeal.  A plume of it hovers above a nearby warehouse.  There’s evidence of a nuclear bomb having been made there, and apparently the hostage-taker actually suffered a massive exposure to the radiation during its construction.  Serves him right, since he just recently converted to Islam, and was undoubtedly a jihadist.

    Ah, but the bomb and the other baddies are gone, and it seems they are intent on detonating it 10 days from now, somewhere in the United States.

    Well, I guess things can get worse after all.

What’s To Like...
    The action starts immediately, and the thrills and spills run rampant throughout the final page.  The chapters are short, so there’s always a good point to stop.  The settings are comfortable, and, for me at least, familiar: New York City, New Mexico, and Washington DC.  Gideon’s somewhat reluctant partner, Special FBI Agent Stone Fordyce, is kinda kewl.

    If you liked the first book in this series (reviewed here), then you’ll be equally happy with Gideon’s Corpse.  Ditto if you’re a Dirk Pitt fan; I still get the impression that Preston and Child are trying to horn in on the Clive Cussler reading market with this series.  It should be noted that the book’s title has no relevance to the storyline that I could fathom.

    There’s lots of cussing in the book, and a couple of sex scenes.  Every woman that crosses Gideon’s path seems to eventually end up in the sack with him.  Fortunately, there’s only one female lead here, and her relationship with Gideon would be listed as “complicated” if she were on Facebook.

    Gideon’s Corpse is a fast, easy read.  Most of the characters are paper-thin, ideal for reading on an airplane or at the beach.  It has a standalone storyline, which I always like when reading a series.  Finally, I liked the crowd-control tactic on page 27, called “kettling”.  I first ran across this term just a few books ago.

Kewlest New Word ...
Raddled (adj.) : showing signs of age or fatigue.  (curiously, there’s no root verb “raddle” for this meaning; it only exists in the past tense as a modifier).
Others : Desuetude (n.); Dissembling (v.)

    “Didn’t it seem strange to you that he converted to Islam?”
    “Not at all.  When we were married, he used to drag me to the Zen center for meditations, to the pseudo-Indian Native American Church meetings, EST, Scientology, the Moonies – you name it, he tried it.”
    “So he was sort of a spiritual seeker.”
    “That’s a nice way of putting it.  He was a pain in the ass.”  (pg. 147)

    (H)e had to do something about the man downstairs.
    He watched the man for a while.  The man didn’t look sleepy, he wasn’t drinking, and – what unnerved Gideon most of all – he was reading James Joyce’s Ulysses.  This man was no dumb hick cowboy.  The outfit was all show.  This was a sophisticated and intelligent person who would not be easily fooled.  (pg. 290)

 “Oh *now* I get it. … Investigating with your glands, I see.”  (pg. 188)
    I’m a big fan of Preston & Child’s Agent Pendergast books, but I have to say that Gideon Crew is shallow and over-the-top compared to Aloysius.  He’s never wrong, has amazing talents (here, his previously unrevealed background in fencing comes in handy), and has a nerdy machismo that continues to make any and all females drool.

    But the main problem I have with the series are the WTF’s.

    Gideon just happens to be in New York City when a coworker from New Mexico goes postal just a short distance away.  What are the odds?  In one of the many chase scenes, a hand car in an abandoned mine just luckily has some blasting caps in it.  The baddies sabotage an small airplane that Fordyce and Gideon are flying in, both engines flame out, and yet both agents are able to walk away from the landing.  Curiously, they don't think to go back and find the saboteur, they just continue on their merry way.  When it's Gideon with a pistol shooting it out with a team of spec ops guys in a helicopter with fully automatic weapons, who do you think wins?  Yep, you guessed it.

    6 StarsGideon’s Corpse is a better read than Gideon’s Sword, but just barely.  If Gideon Crew ever teamed up with Dirk Pitt, they could probably exterminate all of the evil-doers in the world.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Game of Battleships - Toby Frost

    2013; 320 pages.  Book Four  (out of 5) in the Space Captain Smith series  New Author? : No.  Genre : Sci-Fi Spoof; Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The cosmos needs saving!  Again.

    The forces of Evil: The Yull, the Lemming Men, the ant-like Ghasts, and the religiously-loco Edenites have joined forces, albeit uneasily, to conquer the galaxy and rid it of all that is good, including the British Space Empire and its tea.

    The good guys can use all the help they can get, even from the incredibly advanced, but creepily non-corporeal Vorl.  They’ve arranged a peace conference to attempt to sway the Vorl to their side, and the number one fear is an incursion by the bad guys, especially since it seems that one of the baddies has developed a lethal spaceship with a super-effective cloaking device.  And said warship just mauled a convoy of space freighters that was being protected by our hero, Captain Isambard Smith.

    Hey, Smith.  How’d you like to get another crack at that cloaked-up dreadnaught?

    Yes, we thought so.

What’s To Like...
    After a four-year hiatus following Book 3 (reviewed here), reportedly to successfully pursue a law degree, Toby Frost comes back with another solid addition to the Space Captain Smith series.  All of Smith’s crew are here, including the M’Lak headhunter Suruk, the android pilot Polly Carveth, the 25th-century flower-child Rhianna, and my favorite MacGuffin, Gerald the hamster.  Ditto for everyone from the British spy cadre – Major Wainscott, “W”, Susan, and bounty hunter extraordinaire Rick Dreckitt.

    Frost also introduces us to a bunch of new characters, among them Captain Felicity Fitzroy (look out, Rhianna!) and the mysterious and charismatic Le Fantome.  Quite a few new peeps are thrown at the reader at the start of the book, but I think that’s a plus in that it shows that the author isn’t just rehashing past tales. 

    There are three main plotlines.  Smith chases the cloaked warship; Wainscott protects the peace conference, and the baddies make plans to disrupt it.  Everything converges seamlessly.  The Ghasts are back, but they play a lesser role here, which I thought was a good move.  It’s always kewl to do battle with new Black Hats.

    A Game of Battleships is written in English, as opposed to “American”, and that always makes for entertaining reading.  There’s a slew of puns, and plays-on-words, which is the main reason I love this series.  A bunch of these involved the French language (“someone regretting Ryan”), which was an added treat.  I also liked the various tips-of-the-hat, including ones to Kraftwerk, Asterix, and Dave-&-Hal, they of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame.

    There really aren’t any slow spots, which is a Toby Frost trademark.  A Game of Battleships is a standalone novel, as well Book 4 of what appears to be a 5-volume series.  See Kindle Details, below.

Kewlest New Word...
Nobble (v.) : to obtain dishonestly; to steal.  (informal, a Britishism)
Others : Aspidistra (n.); Scrumpy (n.); Smalls (n., plural, a Britishism, informal); Lidar (n.).

    “Status report, revised,” she announced.  “We’re stuffed.”  She closed the logbook and sat down.
    “Any details?” Smith asked.
    “Alright then.  Basically, I’d say we’ve passed the stage of being merely inconvenienced and are now moving into the realm of being totally buggered.  Should the buggeration continue, I’m anticipating us losing not just paddle but canoe very shortly, leaving us floundering helplessly in the filthy rapids of a certain malodorous creek.”  (loc. 397)

    “Many years ago, when I was a mere spawn, impressionable and technically incapable of criminal responsibility, the elders of my tribe told me of a land beyond the great waterfall that plummets over the cliffs of Bront.  He who recited the correct charm and then leaped through the waters, would emerge in a land of wonders.  So I travelled for nine days, until the waters were in sight.
    Speaking the charm, I sprang through the waterfall.”
    ”What did you see?”
    “Stars, Mazuran.  I knocked myself out on the cliff.  The elders were lying through their mandibles.”  (loc. 2826)

Kindle Details...
    A Game of Battleships sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  The other four books in the series go for $4.99-$7.99.  The latest book in the series, End of Empires, was published in 2014.  I suspect it is the series’ finale.  Toby Frost issued Straken, the first e-book in a new series called Astra Militarum in 2016, and co-wrote a second book, titled eponymously, in that series last year as well.  But they are both only available for the Kindle at Amazon-UK, and neither has garnered any reviews yet.  Straken is available at Amazon as a paperback, but it goes for $16.00.  There are no reviews for that version either.

“Do you know Beethoven’s Ninth?”  “Really?  At what?”  (loc. 777)
    The ending was good, but not great.  It had an interesting twist to it, but I felt like I’d seen it used before in other stories, and it seemed a somewhat awkward fit here. 

    The big problem with A Game of Battleships is the formatting.  Typos abound, especially of two types: possessives and words with double L’s.  I tend to blame the publisher, Myrmidon Books, not the author for this.  Since my library carries the first three books in this series, I presume Toby Frost did not self-publish this.

    One typo that deserves special mention was the word “teachest”.  This should of course be two words: “tea chest” (but maybe it’s a single word in “British-speak”?), yet my mind kept trying to make it the superlative form of the word “teach”.  Talk about a brain freeze.

    It reminded me of a book I read years ago, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (reviewed here), which contained the presumably valid word mambaskin”.  Which means the skin of a certain snake.  But my brain kept trying to make it “mam baskin”, evidently a weird flavor at our local ice cream parlor.  Needless to say, this also resulted in a brain fart.

    7½ Stars.  If you liked the first three books in the series, you’ll not be disappointed in this one.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Elantris - Brandon Sanderson

   2005; 615 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Epic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Alas, Elantris!  Once upon a time, it was truly a golden city.  Magic flowed freely within its limits, and among all of its citizens, who were held to be gods, and revered for their healing touch.  If you lived elsewhere, and were very fortunate, the Shaod (the “Transformation”) would fall upon you and you’d be instantly transported to Elantris to live a new and glorious life as one of them.

    But something happened ten years ago.  The Shaod no longer exists.  Now, if you are very unfortunate, the Reod (“the Punishment”) will fall upon you and you’ll be banished to live within the black, grimy , death-filled gates of Elantris.  There is no cure for the Reod, nor any protection against it.  It strikes instantly, without warning, and without distinction.  Anyone might wake up one morning with hair falling out, and black splotches covering his or her skin.

   Even a royal prince.

What’s To Like...
    There are three main characters in Elantris: Prince Raoden of Arelon, Princess Sarene of Teod, and the Derethi high priest Hrathen.  For most of the book, the chapters rotate among the POV’s of this trio, and each has a different “slant”.  The Raoden chapters are mostly Action-oriented.  The Sarene chapters focus on courtly Intrigue.  The Hrathen chapters give some keen insight on the squabblings of Religion.  All three are expertly penned, and the varying themes keep the storytelling from bogging down. 

   There are a slew of supporting characters, all phenomenally developed; and a bunch of secondary storylines to keep you on your toes.  I found the theological debates between Hrathen and Sarene fascinating; and Harthen’s protégé, Dilaf, is a kewl study of “zealous evangelism”.  There is also a lot of wit and humor, such as Sarene’s (lack of) artistic talent.

    I liked the magic system, which is centered around glyph-like “Aons”, and which reminded me of my Mandarin Chinese classes from years ago.  Stroke order and perfect sizing of the glyphs are important, and there’s a handy glossary in the back of the book, giving a bunch of the basic Aon patterns.

    The world-building is somewhat limited, considering this is a 600-page Epic Fantasy opus.  For most of the story, our protagonists are confined to the titular city of Elantris, and its adjoining city, Kae.  The scene then shifts to Sarene’s home kingdom, Teod, for an exciting climax.  The last hundred pages or so are constant action, but overall, I found Elantris to be a character-driven tale, and superbly done in that respect.  I did end up caring about what happened to our three protagonists.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Caliginous (adj.) : misty; dim; obscure; dark.
Others : Revertiss (n., and a word Sanderson invented).

    Raoden shook his head.  “Galladon, that is just a tiny part of it.  No one accomplishes anything in Elantris – they’re all either too busy squabbling over food or contemplating their misery.  The city needs a sense of purpose.”
    “We’re dead, sule,” Galladon said.  “What purpose can we have besides suffering?”
    “That’s exactly the problem.  Everyone’s convinced that their lives are over just because their hearts stopped beating.”
    “That’s usually a pretty good indication, sule,” Galladon said dryly.  (pg. 123)

    Roial chuckled, and Sarene followed his gaze.  Shuden and Torena spun near the center of the dance floor, completely captivated by one another.
    “What are you laughing about?” Sarene asked, watching the fire-haired girl and the young Jindo.
    “It is one of the great joys of my old age to see young men proven hypocrites,” Roial said with an evil smile.  “After all those years swearing that he would never let himself be caught – after endless balls spent complaining when women fawned over him – his heart, and his mind, have turned to mush as surely as any other man’s.”
    “You’re a mean old man, Your Grace.”
    "And that is the way it should be,” Roial informed.  “Mean young men are trivial, and kindly old men boring.  Here, let me get us something to drink.”  (pg. 398)

 Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.  (pg. 1, and the opening line in the book.)
    The quibbles are minor.  The key to removing the curse from Elantris seemed a bit less-than-epic, but at least it wasn’t the banal “find the Ultimate Artifact and deliver/destroy it” solution.  I felt like there was a continuity issue with one of the Elantrian gang leaders, Shaor.  She is identified as being Lord Telrii’s daughter on page 309, yet that never factors into the storyline.  Did the author change his mind as to how to resolve her?

    My biggest quibble is with the number of loose threads the Brandon Sanderson never ties up.  Galladon’s hidden past remains …well… hidden.  The military threat to the kingdom of Arelon is still there, not in the least bit diminished.  Kiin and Eventeo have some interpersonal issues to overcome  And the question of which sect - the Korathi or the Derethi – are blessed with the theologically-correct interpretation of god, is definitely open for further debate and bloodshed.

    All these loose ends scream to be resolved in a sequel, and according to Wikipedia, Brandon Sanderson has promised one.  However, he followed up Elantris with the fabulous Mistborn trilogy (reviewed here, here, and here), and then got the task of finishing up the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  So he has been rather busy of late.

    Still, one can only hope that the sequel to Elantris will eventually be written.

    9 Stars.  Subtract ½ star if you were hoping for a hack-&-slash story.  It’s there, but you have to wait a while for it.  It is worth the wait.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Trunk Music - Michael Connelly

   1997; 438 pages.  New Author? : No, but it's been a while.  Book 5 (out of 19) of the “Harry Bosch” series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Police Procedural.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    It seems pretty obvious.  The victim was killed by two shots to the back of the head.  His hands had been bound behind his back, and he’d been stuffed into the trunk of his Rolls Royce prior to being executed.  This was clearly a case of trunk music (see excerpt, below, for what that is), a telltale sign that it was a Mafia hit.  It’s just a matter of figuring out which city’s mob did the dirty deed, and who exactly pulled the trigger.

    And yet a couple of the minor details don’t quite make sense.  For instance, whatever had been used to bind or cuff the victim’s hands was removed after the slaying.  So were his shoes.  Why would a hitman do that?

    Oh well, whatever the reason, Detective Harry Bosch will figure it out in his investigation.  But tread carefully, Harry.  Sometimes the biggest obstacles to solving a case aren’t the bad guys.

    It’s your fellow law enforcement agents.

What’s To Like...
    The action in Trunk Music starts immediately.  The book opens with Harry Bosch arriving at the scene of the crime, and things don’t slow down at all through the final page.  Harry divides his time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and Michael Connelly is obviously well-acquainted with these cities, as he gives detailed descriptions of Harry’s wanderings through both.

    The book was written in the 90’s, and it was neat to see some of the nostalgia from that decade.  American West Airlines is still in business, although Harry prefers to fly Southwest.  You use a VCR to watch videos, a teletype machine to send documents, and a “cellular phone” to call people.  I also liked Connelly’s tip-of-the-hat to the book “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

    This is both a police procedural and a crime-thriller.  The “whodunit” portion gets resolved at around 70%, and then the book kicks into Action-Intrigue for the rest of the way.  Plot twists abound; so do red herrings; and I liked it that Harry could reach wrong conclusions at times.  He can also be a bit of an a**hole, which is kinda neat.

    There’s a goodly amount of cussing, which would be expected in this type of story; and some sex.  The chapters are long, and of uneven length.  This is a standalone story, although a couple characters, Eleanor Wish and Roy Lindell, who appear in other books in the series, show up here.  The Kindle version ends at 88%, with the rest of the e-book devoted to a preview of the next book in the series.

    “You said he was put in his trunk and capped twice, huh? . . . Bosch, you there?”
    “Yeah, I’m here.  Yeah, capped twice in the trunk.”
    “Trunk music.”
    “It’s a wise guy saying outta Chicago.  You know, when they whack some poor slob they say, ‘Oh, Tony?  Don’t worry about Tony.  He’s trunk music now.  You won’t see him no more’”  (loc. 394)

    “Harry, you want the swag on this?”
    “Scientific wild ass guess.”  (loc. 468)

Kindle Details...
    Trunk Music presently sells for $6.99 at Amazon right now.  The other books in the series are all in the price range of $4.99 to $9.99.  

 “Kenahepyou?”  (loc. 588)
    The quibbles are few.  At one point, while searching a suspect’s home, Harry discovers a potential murder weapon, sealed in a plastic bag, hidden behind the toilet.  He’s excited because it’s another piece of evidence to tie the suspect to the crime.  But I was thinking, “Harry!  For cripes sake, the perp would never keep something like that around.  Someone planted it there!  Don’t even touch it!”

    Also, the ending, although suitably replete with excitement, felt a bit contrived.  There’s a lot riding on one of Harry’s hunches, including a whole slew of cops.  If Harry’s wrong, they’re gonna kick themselves for not staking out other possible sites.  Things work out of course, and Harry’s proven right.  But all the baddies get taken care of in a manner that felt just a tad too convenient.

    But hey, by then the plotline was Action-Intrigue, not Police Procedural, and it made for a thrilling climax.  So I’m not complaining.

    9 Stars.  For me, Trunk Music was a great page-turner.   My only question after finishing it was whether or not all the “bending of the rules” that Harry (and some of his colleagues) get away with really do occur in the real world.  If so, it makes me wonder if we’re closer to living in a police state than we realize.