Monday, April 24, 2017

Mourningtide - Diana Wilder


   2014; 378 pages.  Book 2 (out of 4) of the Memphis Cycle” series, aka the “XIX Dynsaty” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Is there any sorrow so profound as that of a parent when a son or daughter unexpectedly dies?  It can happen at any moment, no matter what the age of the child; no matter what the social status of the parent: rich or poor, peasant or powerful, young or old.  Even the ruler of an empire is not immune.

    In this case, Nakhtamun, heir to the throne and the eldest son of the Pharaoh Seti I, is ambushed and slain during an excursion into Canaan, to the north of Egypt.  Seti is far away to the south, in Nubia, when it occurs.  To boot, an inept messenger sent to inform Seti of his son’s passing, neglects to tell him, so it is weeks before he returns to the palace and learns of the tragedy.  It means he didn’t even make it to the entombment of Nakhtamun, and thus never had a chance to say his goodbyes.

    The result is a devastating grief for the Pharaoh.  But hey, there’s no time for mourning; he’s the head of a powerful kingdom, and has to soldier on with affairs of state.

    Or does he?

What’s To Like...
    Seti I is a historical figure who ruled Egypt from approximately 1290-1279 BC.  He had some notable military victories (see the Wikipedia article on him here), but not much is known about him beyond that.  So this is fertile ground for storytelling.  I assumed, based on the other Diana Wilder book I’ve read (reviewed here), that Mourningtide was going to be a Murder-Mystery, but it’s actually a pleasant piece of Historical Fiction.  Not to worry; I like both genres.

    There are only 4 discrete settings: Canaan, Memphis, Thebes, and the area around the town of the tomb-makers, Deir el Medina, but once again I liked the “feel” that the author creates for daily life, both courtly and common, in ancient Egypt.  I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the interactions between underlings and royalty.  The Pharaoh is, after all, considered to be a god.

    The chapters are short, so you always have a good place to stop.  The Cast of Characters is now placed in the front of the book, a small but appreciated improvement over Pharaoh’s Son.  Bookmark that page; you will be using it a lot to keep track of the characters you meet.

    There’s some action at the beginning and some more close to the end, but not a lot in between.  However, this is Historical Fiction, not Action-Adventure, and the writing was good enough to keep my interest.  There aren’t very many plot twists either; it’s pretty obvious how the Seti/Djedi training thread was going to turn out from the get-go.  There is some Romance for the female readers, but this is not a romance novel, so that’s okay.

    The ending is similarly untwisty, but at one point it did put a lump in my throat.  The epilogue was both solemn and satisfying.

Excerpts...
    The man was down on the ground, curled into a tight ball, his arms shielding his head.  Seti could see blood.
    “Kill him!”
    “Stand back, all of you, or fight me!” Djedi snapped.  “Twenty against one!  And he armed only with a staff!  Were you sired by dotards, that you should fight like this?  Were you trained to arms by old women?  Or half-wits?”
    “You trained us!”  The words had come from the edge of the crowd.  (loc. 5794)

   Seti eyed the amusement in Ptahemhat’s expression and swore again.  “So I am to be saddled with you!”
    “It would seem so,” Ptahemhat said.  “His Holiness thought it shouldn’t be too difficult for you.  He says, in fact, that I have grown up to be a fine and sensible man after being such a pain in the ass as a youngster.”
    “Did he actually say that?” Seti demanded.
    “Well, words to that effect.”  (loc. 5873)

Kindle Details...
    Mourningtide sells for $3.98 at Amazon, which is the same price for each of the other three books in the series.  Diana Wilder has two other e-books available, and they, too, go for $3.98.

 “I’ve never known an ass to do anything but bray.”  (loc. 969)
    Some of the reviews at Amazon and Goodreads were critical of how Diana Wilder portrayed the female characters in Mourningtide.  They felt they weren’t “strong” enough.

    I think this is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.  The role of women in ancient times was quite different than that of the 20th-21st century, and trying to instill modern-day ethics into a piece of Historical Fiction, while laudable, diminishes its believability.

    Moreover, I thought the women in Mourningtide were strong, at least in the context of the time.  Seti gets ogled by a group of them, and they’re not particularly worried whether he’ll overhear their remarks about his bod.  And when he does strike up a conversation with them, they respond as equals, not subordinates.  So personally, I thought it was done well.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if reading about dealing with the loss of a son or daughter resonates with you, or if you like being immersed in an ancient setting.  Subtract 1 Star if you love plot twists and/or thrills-&-spills in your readings.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon


    1973; 776 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Highbrow Lit; Satire; Contemporary Fiction; American Literature.  Laurels : Co-Winner, 1974 U.S. National Book Award (Fiction); Nominee, 1973 Nebula Award (Best Novel); one of Time Magazine’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels for the period 1923-2005; #5 on Buzzfeed’s 25 Most Challenging Books You Will Ever Read”.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s a most extraordinary gift that the young American intelligence officer, Tyrone Slothrop has.  He’s stationed in London, during the closing weeks of World War 2, when the Germans are trying one last, desperate tactic – blitzing London with as many V-2 rockets as they can launch.

    Women find Slothrop disarmingly attractive, and he has no trouble finding plenty willing to go to bed with him.  Anytime, anyplace; it doesn’t matter.  He’s even tacked a map of London above his desk, and pasted colored stars on it, showing where his “conquests” have taken place.  Does the man ever sleep?

    But his British intelligence agents have detected a pattern in those stars.  Whenever Slothrop adds a another one (along with the girl’s name) to the map, within a day or two, a V-2 rocket hits that very spot.  Curiously, Slothrop seems unaware of his “gift”.  So the prudent thing to do is send out a team of shrinks to tail him, to find out exactly how his "talent" works.

    But be very careful, shrinks.  After all, Slothrop is an intelligence officer, and if he catches you following him, it may trigger an outbreak of paranoia.

    Of course, you aren't paranoid if they really are out to get you, are you?

What’s To Like...
    Gravity’s Rainbow is divvied up into 4 unequal parts and covers the time period from December 1944 through September 1945.  The settings are late- and post-war Europe.  There are no chapters, but Thomas Pynchon inserts “breaks” (in my edition, a row of squares) to indicate breaks in scene or time.  These vary in length from 1 to about 25 pages, and provide timely places to stop to give your brain a rest.

    You’ll need these because there are 400+ characters introduced by name (per Wikipedia), a slew of run-on sentences, uncountable plot tangents, and flashbacks galore (plus one flash-forward) with no warning whatsoever.  FWIW, I found it very helpful to read the Wikipedia article on it first, to know which characters are important, and to distinguish between the main plotline(s) and the tangents.

    This may sound like I’m bashing the book, but Pynchon’s writing style, like Kurt Vonnegut’s, is superb enough where he can break all the literary rules and get away with it.  Gravity’s Rainbow is a vocabularian’s delight (I’ll let you look up “smegma” for yourself; it appears multiple times), and I am in total awe of the magic worked by the punctuation used to make those run-on sentences coherent.

    This is not a book for the kiddies; R-rated topics and passages abound.  Wikipedia claims Gravity's Rainbow lost the 1974 Pulitzer Prize because of a couple pages dealing with coprophilia.  There’s lots of sex and drugs, and rockets roll; and metaphysics (séances, tarot cards, etc.) gets a fair amount of ink too.  It helps if you have some command of the German language.  Pynchon inserts lots of songs which, while I didn’t find them impressive, did provide refreshing breaks in the narrative.

    The tangents can be distracting: I still don’t see any relevance about killing dodo birds, a trip down a toilet, lightbulb babies, and some choreography by lab rats.  But they are also well thought-out and interesting, and I enjoyed things like the Rossini-Beethoven debate (pgs. 447-8), and the cameo appearance by Mickey Rooney (pg. 388).   Moreover, there is a tinge of absurdism that runs throughout the story, such as a trained octopus assailant, and hashish-laced hollandaise.

    The book builds to a dramatic ending, wherein a number of threads/characters get resolved, although it would be silly to think that everything in an 800-page epic would be completely tied up.  It goes without saying that this is a standalone novel, with no sequel, and I pity any poor fool who tries to make a movie out of it.

Excerpts...
    Her name was Amy Sprue, a family renegade turned Antinomian at age 23 and running mad over the Berkshire countryside, ahead of Crazy Sue Dunham by 200 years, stealing babies, riding cows in the twilight, sacrificing chickens up on Snodd’s Mountain.  Lots of ill will about those chickens, as you can imagine.  The cows and babies always, somehow, came back all right.  Amy Sprue was not, like young skipping Dorothy’s antagonist, a mean witch.  (pg. 334)

    “Beethoven was one of the architects of musical freedom – he submitted to the demands of history, despite his deafness.  While Rossini was retiring at the age of 36, womanizing and getting fat, Beethoven was living a life filled with tragedy and grandeur.”
    “So?” is Saure’s customary answer to that one.  “Which would you rather do?  The point is,” cutting off Gustav’s usually indignant scream, “a person feels good listening to Rossini.  All you feel like listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland.  Ode to Joy indeed.  The man didn’t even have a sense of humor.”  (pg. 447)

Kewlest New Word…
Fairing (v.) : (of the weather) becoming fair.  (logical, but I’ve never seen ‘fair’ used as a verb before)
Others : too many to list.

Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.  (pg. 61)
    I read Gravity’s Rainbow as a result of a Christmastime-initiated reading challenge, and it took me 42 days to get through it.  I read several “light” e-books as well during that time (you’re crazy if you try to slog straight through the 776 pages), and it helped that my wife is taking an online class on Sunday afternoons, which provided me 3-4 hours of quality reading time every weekend.

    Yes, it is a difficult read, and I had to fight the urge to “skim” through major parts of it.  Yes, there are lots of paragraphs that I still have no comprehension of.  Yes, I’m sure I’d have a better understanding of those passages if I were to reread it, but that’s not going to happen.

    No, I don’t think, as some propose, that Gravity’s Rainbow is the greatest American novel ever.  My vote in that regard would be Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but you’re allowed to disagree.  Yes, my main feeling upon completing it was a sense of accomplishment.

    But to be clear, I did enjoy reading this book, I do think Thomas Pynchon is a gifted writer, and I will recommend it to anyone who wants to be both challenged and entertained by an epic piece of contemporary fiction.

    Stylistically, I found Gravity’s Rainbow very similar to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I read for an earlier reading challenge, and which is reviewed here.  They are both monumentally challenging, but well worth the effort.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you have a book report due tomorrow, and have chosen this book as your assignment.  You’re screwed, dude.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hocus Pocus - Kurt Vonnegut



   1990; 323 pages.  New Author? : Heavens, no.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction; American Literature; Satire.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    “My name is Eugene Debs Hartke, and I was born in 1940.  I was named at the behest of my maternal grandfather, Benjamin Wills, who was a Socialist and an Atheist, and nothing but a groundskeeper at Butler University.”

    Thus starts Hocus Pocus, wherein Eugene recounts his life story, with most of the emphasis on the last couple of years, during which he has had some quite severe ups and downs.

    Through a connection with his former CO in Nam, Gene obtained a teaching position at Tarkington College, a private school in Scipio, New York for kids with learning disorders.  Alas, he eventually is fired that position, and takes a similar job at Athena State Prison, just across the lake from Tarkington.

    But a prison revolt leads to bloodshed, and Tarkington College becomes Tarkington Reformatory, upon which Gene is promoted to head warden.  In yet another twist of Fate, he’s now an inmate at the same prison he used to be the warden of.

    And so it goes.

What’s To Like...
    There are no spoilers in the above section; the reader is told all that within the first 4% of the book.  The main plot, and Kurt Vonnegut has never been known to pay undue attention to such a thing, is basically Gene telling you how he arrived at his present state of incarceration. 

    The book is written in the first-person POV (Gene’s), and is mostly stream-of-consciousness with lots of flashbacks.  For unknown reasons, Vonnegut spurned writing out any numbers.  So: “Vietnam was 1 big hallucination” instead of “one big hallucination”.  There are also “code phrases”, such as the titular “hocus pocus” standing for “bullsh*t”.  The Griot™ computer program was way kewl. And it was fun to watch the protagonist as he tries to compare the number of people he killed in Vietnam versus the number of women he’s been to bed with.

    The writing is of course superb, and there’s the anticipated abundance of Vonnegut wit, although for me, it didn’t seem to sparkle as much as usual. Perhaps this was because the themes in Hocus Pocus – the Vietnam war, the social castes in America, the rich vs. the poor class divisions, the broken-down jail system, etc. – are all familiar Vonnegut subjects.

    The book ends with Gene becoming an inmate in his own prison, which is a logical terminus, but I thought it was anti-climactic, since he doesn’t really share any of his experiences from behind bars.  But perhaps that’s covered in another one of his late-in-life books, Jailbird, which is sitting on my Kindle, waiting to be read.  There are some twists at the end, but they aren’t surprising since Vonnegut/Gene tells us of them several times along the story’s way.

    As with all of the author’s books, this is a standalone novel.  Although there are some recurring characters in Vonnegut novels,  he doesn’t do series.  I personally think this is a plus; you don’t miss a thing by not reading them in order.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Absquatulate (v.)  :  to leave abruptly; to flee; to abscond.  (Yankeeism)

Excerpts...
    At least the World will end, an event anticipated with great joy by many.  It will end very soon, but not in the year 2000, which has come and gone.  From that I conclude that God Almighty is not heavily into Numerology.  (loc. 66)

    “Did the letter say why you were named Rob Roy?” I inquired.
    “No,” he said.  “I assumed it must be because she liked the novel by that name by Sir Walter Scott.”
    “That sounds right,” I said.  What good would it do him or anybody else to know that he was named for 2 shots of Scotch, 1 shot of sweet vermouth, cracked ice, and a twist of lemon peel?  (loc. 3680)

Kindle Details...
    Hocus Pocus sells for $6.47 at Amazon.  The rest of Vonnegut’s novels are normally in the $4.99-$9.99 range, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll find that Amazon frequently discounts them, one at a time, to $1.99, which is a fantastic price if you have the patience to wait Amazon out.  I’ve noticed that Amazon quite often discounts books by deceased writers.  I wonder if that’s because the authors are no longer around to protest the pricing policies of their works.

 “Plutonium!  Now there’s the stuff to put hair on a microbe’s chest.”  (loc  2513)
    Kurt Vonnegut was born on 11 November 1922 and died on 11 April 2007.  He wrote 14 novels over the course of his career, plus a dozen shorter pieces of fiction and 9 works of non-fiction.  Hocus Pocus was novel #13, and was published in 1990 when Vonnegut was 68 years old.

    It’s not that this is a bad novel; it’s just that there isn’t anything new for anyone who’s read other books by Vonnegut.  The main themes enumerated earlier will be already familiar to any inveterate Vonnegut fan; they’re just dressed up with different plot details this time out.  Certainly writing about the Vietnam War in 1990 can only be viewed as old hat.

    While reading Hocus Pocus, it occurred to me that Vonnegut might have written this to be kind of his swan song.  For instance, his Elders of Tralfamadore make a cameo appearance, and they have no literary reason to be here.  I even can’t help wondering if the title itself, which we’ve already noted as being code for “Bullsh*t”, isn’t a small, subtle joke by the author to his readers.

    7 StarsHocus Pocus may not be Vonnegut’s best effort, but it doesn’t change my opinion that he is the greatest American author of the latter half of the 20th century.  Don’t agree with me?  Name a better choice.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chronicles of M - Nicholas Forristal


    2013; 330 pages.  Book One  (out of 6) in the Chronicles of M series  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Paranormal; Zombies; Dark Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    For Sam Horn, this is a long-awaited day: it’s his first day of retirement, he’s here at the bank to make a deposit, and he’s feeling good.  For thirty-three years he’s been an agent for various spoiled movie celebrities, catering to their every whim and convincing studios they should put up with his clients’ insane demands.  But that’s all behind him now, and nothing’s going to ruin his day.

    Well, maybe not.  When a gang of bank robbers takes the whole place hostage, things could turn ugly.  But fortunately, Sam’s mastered the art of persuasion during his long career in Tinsel-town.  When his clients won’t be in the latest movie unless they get a gallon jug filled with red M&Ms, a bottle of whiskey made in Scotland between the years 1950 and 1960, and a dressing room with excellent Wifi reception, it’s up to her agent to sweet-talk the studio to feel good about acquiescing.

    It helps, of course, that our would-be robbers are rather dim-witted.  So it’s just another day at the job for Sam.  He just needs to convince them to set the hostages free, give themselves up, all in the belief that the courts will give them a lighter sentence for cooperating so freely.  No big deal.

    It works like a charm, Sam gets a small mention in the news reports, and he once again settles down to begin enjoying his retirement.  So imagine his surprise when he gets a message that someone saw his negotiating skills and wants to Sam to come to work for his company.  The details, however, are hush-hush until he commits.

    Now why would they do that?

What’s To Like...
    The Chronicles of M is the first installment in a 6-book series with the same name.  The series is complete, which is always nice to know.  There's action immediately, although thereafter it becomes somewhat sporadic.  This is a paranormal book, with the primary focus on zombies.

    I liked Nicholas Forristal’s approach to this.  Zombies are generally portrayed as slow-moving, brainless hero-fodder, and that gets old after a while.  Here you’ll learn about the 5-stages of zombie-ism, and maybe even develop a bit of empathy for them.

    I also liked the relationship between the two main protagonists – our hero Sam and our superhero “M”.  Instead of being buddy-buddies from the get-go, things are rather “frosty”.  M’s kind of a butthead, and Sam has few skills to complement his superhero pal.  The story is told in the first-person POV, mostly Sam’s, but a couple chapters are from M’s perspective.  There’s quite a bit of cussing, almost all by M, but hey, he’s just a hot-headed kid, isn’t he?

    There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of – just focus on Sam, M, Thomas, and Marcus and you’ll be okay.  Don’t be fooled by a cameo appearance by someone named Ned; I’m pretty sure that was a pair of typos that should’ve been Todd.  The settings are similarly sparse – once you get beyond the NYC intro, you’re pretty much limited to the United Hero Defense ("UHD") headquarters and an out-in-the-sticks town called Dead Man’s Bluff.

    The ending is okay, but not spectacular.  Sam decides to sign up with the UHD (well, you knew that was gonna happen, elsewise there’d be no series, right?), and the causes of M’s mood issues are revealed, if not resolved.  There are lots more unanswered questions; presumably these are addressed as the series progresses.  Indeed, the ending felt more like a pause than a climax, albeit at a logical point.  But Nicholas Forristal’s writing skills were sufficient to  keep things from bogging down.

Excerpts...
    I sit up in my chair, “Okay, so M is a crime fighter, like a superhero?  And you are his sidekick?  Do you two wear costumes?  Can you fly?”  I let the sarcasm flow out of me.  M is maybe nineteen, at most.  Thomas actually thinks I’ll believe M is as old as I am?
    “Costume?  Have you ever tried to do anything in spandex, or even a suit?  I assure you, it’s no fun.”  (loc. 414)

    An explosion knocks me on my backside.  The door on the left side shoots across the hall and slams into the opposing wall with a thunderous boom.  Fire peeks out of the doorway as black clouds of smoke roll across the ceiling.  A man screams, “I told you not to do that!”
    Another voice responds, “Sorry, forgot the catalyst.”
    “Catalyst?  Are you kidding me?  If you had used the catalyst we’d be dead right now, you idiot!”
    “Don’t call me an idiot, jerk.”
    “Don’t call me a jerk, idiot.”  (loc. 1883)

Kindle Details...
    Chronicles of M sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other five books in the series go for $2.99 each.  You can buy the whole series bundled together for $15.94, but that saves you absolutely nothing.  And finally, you can buy books 1-3 bundled together for $6.99, but if you do that, you need to take a remedial math course.

To steal a line from Vonnegut, M is “unstuck in time.”  (loc. 2062)
    There are some quibbles.  While I wouldn’t call the pacing slow, it certainly isn’t brisk either.  We don’t meet our first zombie until 50%-Kindle.  Everything before that is world-building.  This is necessary, I suppose, for the 6-book series, but it’s going to be disappointing to anyone expecting the usual zombie-must-find-brains mayhem.

    The main snag for me was the lack of a main storyline.  The blurb makes it sound like it’s a tale about investigating some zombie killings, and it’s true that there's a plotline involving that.  But it’s almost a story tangent, and from start to finish, it lasts about 10%-Kindle.  Resolving it is neither difficult nor tense.

    All this isn’t helped by a number of side-stories that became a bit tedious.  I counted four of them – the tour of the HQ, the “mad baker”, Marcus’s backstory, and then M’s backstory as well.  Do they add to the world-building?  Yes, definitely.  Do they keep you on the edge of your seat?  No.

    In general, Chronicles of M reminded me of the first Men in Black movie, where Will Smith spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the heck is going on.  But there, a galaxy needed saving.  Here, you have to be content with just figuring things out.

    7 Stars.  I’m unsure how much significance to put on these quibbles.  It could be that Nicholas Forristal intends this first book to simply be an introduction to the rest of the series: get the characters onstage; get the world-building out of the way, and set the tone.  If the next five books are action-packed with compelling storylines, this is a small price (literally and figuratively) to pay.  But if the next five books have more backstories than thrills and spills, then things could drag.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul - Douglas Adams



   1989; 250 pages.  Book Two (out of three) of the “Dirk Gently” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : British Humor; Fantasy; Quasi-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Dirk Gently, proprietor and sole employee of the Holistic Detective Agency, has a job!  It’s even a paying one, and he sure can use the money.

    Mr. Geoff Anstey is convinced that a 7-foot-tall, shaggy-haired, green-eyed monster is trying to kill him.  With a scythe, no less.  And he’s willing to pay Dirk a tidy sum to be his bodyguard.

    Dirk’s on his way to collect his first payment.  But the police cars parked all around the Anstey residence are not a good sign.  Neither is the crime scene tape roping off the area.  Dirk has a bad feeling as he ducks under the tape and enters the home.

    Things get even worse when he finds Geoff Anstey’s head.  On a record, on the turntable.  Without the rest of his body.  It appears Mr. Anstey will not be making his initial payment.

What’s To Like...
    The main theme of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, “when gods are past their prime”, has been done before.  It’s one of my favorite niche genres, and books dealing with it are reviewed here, here, and here.  AFAIK, it was first examined in an old (black and white) Star Trek TV episode, although I wouldn't be surprised to find out there are earlier sci-fi or fantasy examples.

    The first half of the book is pretty disjointed, but I get the feeling this was intentional.  Douglas Adams throws all sorts of threads and tangents at the reader, among them: Dirk’s refrigerator; an eagle with an attitude; a song about a hot potato; a coca cola vending machine; a table that turns into a kitten, mayhem at the airport (including a clueless would-be boarder, a missing check-in girl, and an explosion); and a boy hooked on video games in the same house as the decapitated client.  But the second half of the book is devoted to bringing all these things together and tying them up, which Adams succeeds in doing deftly, with the exception (unless I missed it) of the gamer kid.

    If you’re a Norse mythology buff, you’re in for a treat.  I also liked the electronic I Ching apparatus, the “non-fridge opening contest” between Dirk and his cleaning lady, and the tip of the hat to “The Ride of The Valkyries”, which always induces visions of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in my head.

     The book is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, which means you occasionally have to decipher things like “hoovering” the carpet.  This is a standalone novel, as well as a part of a series, cut short by Douglas Adams’ all-too-soon passing away.

Kewlest New Word ...
Loured (v.) : frowned in a threatening way (often referring to clouds or the sky)
Others : Adumbrations (n., plural); Dordogne (n., proper, an area in France)

Kindle Details...
    Amazon offers the e-book version of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul for $6.99.  But right now, you can get it and Book One of this series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency as a boxed set for only $4.99, thus saving a sizable chunk of cash.  The third and final book in the series, The Salmon of Doubt, sells for $7.99.  There also appear to be a number of fan-books available, starting at $1.99.

Excerpts...
    “You don’t look like a private detective.”
    “No private detective looks like a private detective.  That’s one of the first rules of private detection.”
    “But if no private detective looks like a private detective, how does a private detective know what he’s supposed not to look like?  Seems to me there’s a problem there.”
    “Yes, but it’s not one that keeps me awake at nights,” said Dirk in exasperation.  (loc. 1221)

    The Aries Rising Record Group, which had been founded on Sixties ideals, or at least on what passed for ideals in the Sixties, grown in the Seventies and then embraced the materialism of the Eighties without missing a beat, was now a massive entertainment conglomerate on both sides of the Atlantic.  Dennis Hutch had stepped up into the top seat when its founder had died of a lethal overdose of brick wall, taken while under the influence of a Ferrari and a bottle of tequila.  (loc. 2479)

 What god would be hanging around Terminal Two of Heathrow Airport trying to catch the 15:37 flight to Oslo?  (loc. 798)
    The ending of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul felt a bit forced and anti-climactic to me.  I almost got the impression Adams was so happy about successfully tying all the subplot threads together that he forgot to do the same with the main plotlines – why Geoff Anstey lost his head, and why the gods were so weak.

    The baddies were lethal but not particularly scary.  And reading the book did require patience and trusting that things would eventually come together.  They do, but our two protagonists (Dirk and Kate) don’t meet until 50%, and Kate and Thor don’t cross paths until 58%.

    But if you can hang in there with the story until then, the rest of the book is an utter delight.  And of course, you’re treated to the trademark Douglas Adams wit throughout the book.

    7½ Stars.  Not quite as good as Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (reviewed here), but still a worthwhile read. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Just Needs Killin' - Jinx Schwartz


   2014; 338 pages.  Book 6 (out of 8) of the “Hetta Coffey” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Hetta Coffey is going to a party.  And a posh affair it’s going to be, too.  Which is quite unusual, given the locale is the Baja California peninsula of Mexico.  Hetta’s going as the guest of her best bud, Jan, who’s been hired for the night by the host of the party, a chap named Hiro Ishikawa.

    Ishikawa’s paying Jan to be his “escort” during the party.  Hmm.  That sounds like there’s some strings attached.  Bedroom strings.  But Jan assures Hetta that no such extracurricular activity is included.  Instead, Ishikawa will be paying her $50,000 just to be his companion as he mingles with the partygoers, with the money going towards funding Jan’s boyfriend’s search for a sunken galleon.

    Man, that seems an exorbitant price to pay for one night’s worth of “everything’s above the board” escorting, doesn’t it?  Is Ishikawa out of his mind?!

    Well yes, as a matter of fact, he is.  Actually, he’s completely out of his head.  Someone has just decapitated him.

What’s To Like...
    I liked the setting for Just Needs Killin’: everything takes place in various towns and marinas up and down the two sides of Baja California..  A lot of it is aboard Hetta’s modestly-sized yacht.  The author’s Amazon blurb indicates she lives on a boat in the same area, and the literary maxim of “write about what you’re familiar with” is put to good use here.

    There are some Japanese phrases thrown in, which I thought was kewl since I know virtually no Japanese.  And some Spanish as well, which I have some familiarity with.  I learned what a “panga”  and a “hotel de paso” are, and appreciated the brief tip-of-the hat to the Kingston Trio, one of my favorite folk groups.  Also, I thoroughly liked the fact that Hetta's an engineer by vocation, even more so that she’s probably a chemical engineer who until recently was working with a copper mine in Mexico.  My company in real life sells chemicals to copper mines in Mexico, so this was a pleasant, unlooked-for tie-in.

    The story is written in the first-person POV, and Hetta reminded me a lot of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum.   This POV means, however, that a lot of the action – the killings and abductions, for instance – takes place off-stage, so the book verges on being a cozy.  To boot, there is a lot of over-the-top stuff: things like a secret corridor on a boat (huh?), a bad guy brandishing a rather non-lethal weapon and hoping no one notices (oh, come on, now), and the whole idea of two little amateur ladies deciding to take out a Mexican gangster on his home turf (don’t try this in real life).   However, it’s no more far-fetched than the stuff Clive Cussler writes, so if Dirk Pitt’s your idea of a hero, you’ll probably enjoy meeting Hetta Coffey.

     Just Needs Killin’ is a standalone novel while also part of a series.  This was my first Hetta Coffey novel, but I didn’t feel like I missed much by not having read the first five books.  The pacing is fast, the dialogues are amusing, and there were no slow spots.  It’s all about the action.

Kewlest New Word…
Panga (n.) : a modest-sized, open, outboard-powered fishing boat common throughout much of the developing world.

Excerpts...
    “Now, there you go, I am no longer a witness, but a full fledged co-conspirator.”
    I gave her a high-five.  “Thelma and Louise!”
    “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!”
    “Bonnie and Clyde!”
    Jan lost her grin.  “Uh, Hetta.  Didn’t all of them, like, die?”
    “We all die.”  (loc. 1869)

   “You two lost another anchor?” Chino said at dinner that evening.
    “Lost is such a harsh word.”
    Chino grinned at me.  “What word would you use to describe cutting two anchor lines in less than two months?”
    “Uh, temporarily misplaced?”  One thing for sure, both anchors were incriminating evidence that we were somewhere we were not supposed to be.  “You can dock my pay.”
    “You aren’t getting paid.”
    “See, problem solved.”  (loc. 3579)

Kindle Details...
    Just Needs Killin’ sells for $3.99 at Amazon, which is the standard price for all of Jinx Schwartz’s e-books, including the other seven books in the series, and two other books outside of it.  The 8-book Hetta Coffey series is also available as two 4-book bundles for $9.99 each, which is a nice bit of savings if you intend to read the whole set.

 “When seconds count, the cops are only minutes away.”  (loc. 1184)
    There are a couple quibbles.  I struggled to determine the overall plotline.  It seemed like it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.  The story starts out as a murder-mystery, but that fades away,  its place is taken by a plot concocted by the heroes to kill the big bad baddie.  Soon afterward, it moves on to “find the treasure”, then pops back to kill the baddie again, and finally switches to a  “find a different treasure” theme.  Mixed into this was a “what to do about dear Aunt Lillian” tangent which never did seem to have any impact on any of the other plotlines.

    All this hopping around of the storylines made for a rather disjointed read.  But I’m new to the series, so maybe this is the norm for a Hetta Coffey tale.

    Then there was the repeated use of ethnic-based wit.  Mexicans and Japanese get stereotyped to death, and even Canadians get poked fun at on one occasion (40% Kindle).  I recognize that some ethnic bantering is inevitable in a setting like this one, but does it have to be the major source of wit?  I’d think Hetta would have a greater appreciation of Mexican culture, being immersed in it as she is.

    7½ Stars.  Setting the quibbles aside, I found Just Needs Killin’ to be a fast-moving, fun, light read, one that’s ideal for an afternoon at the beach or for a stretch on an airplane.  For me personally, it was the perfect reading balance as I continue to slog my way through Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity‘s Rainbow opus.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Eats, Shoots and Leaves - Lynne Truss


   2004; 209 pages.  Full Title : Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Punctuation; Reference; Humor.  Laurels : Winner: “Book of the Year” – British Book Award 2004; New York Times #1 Bestseller for three straight weeks (May 30 thru June 13) in 2004.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Are you a punctuation stickler?  Does it grate your nerves when people mess up using its/it’s?  If you saw the sign: “Come inside for CD’S, VIDEO’S, DVD’S and BOOK’S!” would you have the desire to run screaming into the store, telling the proprietor to correct that atrocity immediately?!

    Do you yearn to know the eight different uses of the apostrophe, the six uses of the comma (plus a couple of situation where they’re optional), and the ten (count ‘em, ten!) various uses of the hyphen?

    Do you worry that the semicolon is heading toward extinction?  Do you have an opinion about the Oxford comma?  What about double possessives (“a friend of the couple’s”)?  Are you aware that brackets come in no less than four different forms?

    If your answers to one or all of these questions is “Yes!  Damn right!”, then Shoots, Eats & Leaves is a must-read for you.  Prepare to be excited! Motivated!  And join with others of us in shouting the slogan coined by the author of the book :

    Sticklers unite!  You have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion (and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with).

What’s To Like...
    Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ sole subject is punctuation.  Normally, this is an yawn-inducing topic, but Lynne Truss keeps you entertained with fascinating anecdotal history, eyebrow-raising trivia, and dry, British wit that will have you chortling.

    But don’t be lulled into a false sense of hilarity; this book will also answer any questions you may have about proper punctuation.  I was particularly keen on this because commas have always been daunting to me.  When do you use them?  Where do you place them?  Are there “gray areas” where their use is a matter of opinion.  This book answered all my questions.

    The anecdotes are great.  You’ll learn about the Jameson Raid telegram and its disastrous consequences due to ambiguous punctuation.  You’ll discover that the Bible in its original form has no punctuation marks, leaving some critical passages open to Catholic-vs-Protestant interpretation.  And I’m eager to get my membership in the Apostrophe Protection Society, which really exists.

    I liked the book’s structure.  A whole chapter on the apostrophe, followed by a whole chapter on commas.  Then one detailing the finer points of colons and semicolons; followed by one on a bunch of the “lesser” bits of punctuation: exclamation points, question marks, italics, quotation marks, the dash, brackets, “sic”, and the esoteric ellipsis (three dots).  After a short chapter about hyphens, the book closes with the author’s  “where do we go from here?” speculation.  Yes, emoticons get some ink, but it was the interrobang that really caught my eye.

    It should be mentioned that, like grammar, the rules for proper punctuation change with time.  And that the British rules for punctuation are sometimes different than the American rules.  Lynne Truss points out these variances along the way, but Eats, Shoots & Leaves is written, and punctuated, in English, not American.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Solecism (n.) : a grammatical mistake in speech or writing.
Others :  Loudhailer (n.); Naff-all (adj.).

Excerpts...
    The stops point out, with truth, the time of pause
    A sentence doth require at ev’ry clause.
    At ev’ry comma, stop while one you count;
    At semicolon, two is the amount;
    A colon doth require the time of three;
    The period four, as learned men agree.  (loc. 1100)

    (T)here will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen: if it’s not extra-marital sex (with a hyphen), it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts.  Phrases abound that cry out for hyphens.  Those much-invoked examples of the little used car, the superfluous hair remover, the pickled herring merchant, the slow moving traffic and the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party would all be lost without it.  (loc. 1568)

Kindle Details...
    Eats, Shoots & Leaves sells for $11.99, although I snagged it when it was discounted for a short time.  Lynne Truss has three other reference books; they are in the $10.99-$14.99 range.  She also has written several humor-fiction novels, and they are more modestly priced in the $0.99-$3.99 range.

 “Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation.”  (loc. 521)
    The quibbles are minor.  My main gripe is that the book is very short.  There are only  209 pages, and the first 24% of the book is consumed by a Forward, a Publisher’s Note, and Preface, and an Introduction.  Also, the “reference” links didn’t work and worse yet, didn’t give you an option to get back to your original page.

    But that’s about it for the quibbles.  The bottom line is, I was looking for a book that would amuse me to no end, teach me the right and wrong usages of punctuation, and most importantly, tell me where I have options.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves did all of this, and more.

    9½ Stars.  I remember Borders Bookstores promoting the heck out of Eats, Shoots & Leaves when it first came out.   For quite a few months, that cute, homicidal panda on the book cover would beckon to you as you stood in line waiting for the next available cashier.  I regret now that I didn’t give in to that bit of enticement.  <Sighs>  RIP, Borders: b. 1971, d. 2011.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Ringworld - Larry Niven


    1970; 342 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book One of the Ringworld series, which subsequently grew to 4 sequels and 4 prequels.  Awards : Nebula Award (1970); Hugo Award (1971); Locus Award (1971).  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Space Opera; Classic Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Louis Wu is the Chosen One.  An artificial Dyson sphere (ring, actually) circling a faraway sun has been detected, and someone needs to go check it out.  If habitable, it could solve a coming cosmos-wide crisis.

    Well, truth be told, he’s actually only one of four Chosen Ones, and one of the others is doing the choosing.  Still, for a jaded, Boosterspice-using, 200-year-old human, it is a chance to once more venture into unknown portions of the universe, see new things and, if he’s lucky, meet new beings.  Maybe even new species.

    Of course, the recruiter is a Pierson’s puppeteer, and they are known to be master manipulators, always with ulterior motives.  And since there will only be four of them making the journey, if the Dyson sphere is inhabited by hostiles, this will probably be a suicide mission.

    But Pierson’s puppeteers are known to manufacture spaceships with hulls that are almost impregnable, and if by chance Louis does perish in the adventure, well, it’s been a good life.

What’s To Like...
    Ringworld is a groundbreaking “hard” science fiction epic that was published in 1970 and garnered a number of sci-fi awards and generated oodles of scientific debate that year and the next.  The story is awash with futuristic devices – slidewalks, transfer booths, a Kemplerer (sic) rosette, a hyperspace shunt (which gets around that pesky “can’t travel faster than the speed of light" issue), and the aforementioned Dyson sphere.  I’m a science geek and a sci-fi geek, so I ate it up.

   The world-building and species-building are fantastic.  I learned a neat new expletive, “Tanj”, which is an acronym for “There ain’t no justice!”  And the use of a tasp instead of a taser is a marked and curious development.  There is also plenty of wit and humor, including selecting Lying Bastard as the name of the expedition’s ship, and a coitus interruptus incident involving a rabbit.

   If you’re tired wading through dozens of characters in a novel, then Ringworld’s your book.  The four members of the team are the only ones you need to keep track of, and each of them is a fascinating study.  The Pierson’s puppeteer is called Nessus, and I always like it when humans aren’t at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.  In fact, here, they might not even be #2.  Speaker-to-Animals is a kzin, and he supplies the muscle for the group.  Teela is a young human who, Nessus claims, brings genetically-enhanced luck to the party.  And Louis, well, he’s not sure why he was selected, but he’s happy to be along.

    There “cussing” is kewl.  Instead of the standard expletives, which can be off-putting to some, we  are treated to phrases like “Tanj”, “Tanjit”, “Finagle knows”, and the somewhat insulting-but-in-a-friendly-way appellation “Leucote”.

    The ending is a double feature.  There’s a prosaic one, wherein our explorers figure out a way to get off Ringworld.  And there’s surprising one that I didn’t see coming at all.  Along the way, Larry Niven gives us some fascinating insight about interspecies cooperation, religion as a natural consequence of a collapsed civilization, and the proper precautions to take when initiating a “first contact” situation.

Kewlest New Word...
Particolored (adj.) : having a predominant color broken by patches of one or more other colors.

Excerpts...
    “You’re going to chase them down?”
    Speaker did not recognize sarcasm.  “I am.”
    “With what?”  Louis exploded.  “You know what they left us?  A hyperdrive and a lifesystem, that’s what they left us!  We haven’t got so much as a pair of attitude jets.  You’ve got delusions of grandeur if you think we can fight a war in this!
    “So the enemy believes!  Little do they know –“
    “What enemy?”
    “-that in challenging a kzin-“
    “Automatics, you dolt! An enemy would have started shooting the moment we came in range!”
    "I too have wondered at their unusual strategy.”  (pg. 123)

    In the asteroid belt of Sol, men spend half their lives guiding singleships among the rocks.  They take their positions from the stars.  For hours at a time a Belt miner will watch the stars: the bright quick arcs which are fusion-driven singleships, the slow, drifting lights which are nearby asteroids, and the fixed points which are stars and galaxies.
    A man can lose his soul among the white stars.  Much later, he may realize that his body has acted for him, guiding his ship while his mind traveled in realms he cannot remember.  They call it the far look.  It is dangerous.  A man’s soul does not always return.  (pg. 161)

“Remember the Finagle Laws.  The perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum.”  (pg. 142)
    Ringworld is not a perfect book.  Between the “sciency” technical details and the interactions amongst the four protagonists, the plot sometimes stalls.  In a book 342 pages in length, we don’t land on Ringworld until page 133, don’t see the first sentient Ringworlders until page 159, and don’t make “first contact” until page 170, which is the halfway point.

    Indeed, for a while I wondered just where the storyline was going.  The various stops on Ringworld were interesting, but I kept waiting for something epic to occur.

   But it should be remembered that Ringworld was written in 1970, and science fiction in those days was a somewhat tame affair.  For its time, Ringworld was outstanding and probably derivative of both hard science fiction and space opera.

    8½ Stars.  There's a reason why it won all those awards listed in the header of this review.