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.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Doctor Who - The Wheel of Ice - Stephen Baxter

   2012; 339 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Episodic Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Times are tough at the Mnemosyne Cincture, a mining operation on one of Saturn’s moons.  The parent company, Bootstrap, Inc., is not pleased with the falling profits, nor at the delays in getting the precious Bernalium ore from there to Earth.  Equipment keeps coming up missing, and sabotage is suspected. Then there are the hallucinations that the younger children claim to be seeing, which they’ve labeled the “Blue Dolls”.

    But something down there has attracted the attention of the TARDIS, and that means that the police box that is not a police box, along with its passengers - Doctor Who and his sidekicks, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Heriot - are about to be  transported there (and then), and get drawn into all the strange events and politics.

    Maybe our protagonists can straighten everything out there.  Or maybe they’ll bring about the end of the world.

What’s To Like...
    Full disclosure: While I’m vaguely aware of the (British) television series “Doctor Who” and its cult following, I’ve never watched an episode of it, and had no idea exactly what the TARDIS was when I bought this book.  It caught my eye primarily because its author, Stephen Baxter, is one of my favorite sci-fi writers.

    The three protagonists – the Doc, Zoe, and Jamie – are all well-developed and fun to meet.  This apparently is set in the “Doctor Who #2” timeline, which will mean something to fans of the series.  The pacing is brisk, and the storyline sufficiently complex to keep my interest.  The chapters are short and there are some kewl “Interludes” interspersed throughout the book.  Doctor Who – Wheel of Ice is written in English, not American, and I'm always partial to that.

    The main storyline – the mystery surrounding the Blue Dolls – was engaging, although not particularly twisty.  Beyond that. there were a couple of interrelated themes running  through the book.  The first – when is a species sentient enough to where we coexist with them instead of eating them? – is fairly common for the sci-fi genre.  But the other – does Artificial Sentience have any inherent rights? – was a new (to me, at least) and fascinating concept.

    The ending is good enough, although I found it to be a bit too convenient when the Ultimate Evil got her just desserts.  I liked the tip-of-the-hat to one of my favorite classics – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  I also enjoyed the catchphrases – “Resilience, Remembrance, Restoration”, “Community, Identity, Stability”, and my personal favorite “It’s good to be a B!”

Kewlest New Word ...
Cludgie (n.) : a toilet or bathroom (a Scotticism).
Others: Nous (n.; British); Swotting (v.; British); Allohistorical (adj.); Kettling (v.).

    “Surely this ship has an automated defence system!”
    “Oh, Zoe, of course it has.  But if it wasn’t disabled, don’t you think I’d have activated it by now?”
    “I have been meaning to get around to looking into it ...”   (pg. 13)

    Every day started with a decision: which end of the makeshift colony’s shabby little recycling plant to visit first.  The plant was a rough row of hoppers and processing machines, white boxes joined end to end by pipes and ducts, all the components pinched by Sam and his cronies from Utilities up on the Wheel.  You did your personal business at one end, and then let the engines process the waste, extracting nutrients and adding Titan meltwater and tholin chemicals to flavour.  And out the other end came breakfast, things like biscuits that weren’t biscuits, bowls of stuff like mushroom soup that wasn’t mushroom soup.  It was a little factory with a cludgie at one end and a soup dispenser at the other.  Charming.  (pg. 179)

“Isn’t this what life is for, granddad?  Skiing on a moon of Saturn!”  (pg. 91 )
    Although he did a creditable job in penning Doctor Who – The Wheel of Ice, I don’t think anyone is going to call this Stephen Baxter’s finest literary effort.  This is not his fault; it is inherent to the nature of the undertaking.

    Overall, the story reads like a television script.  Think of any episode from, say, one of the Star Trek series.  Fun, entertaining, but hardly epic.  And the makers of the Doctor Who series certainly would want nothing that would outshine their BBC series.  So perhaps these sort of constraints were imposed upon Stephen Baxter going into the project.  I felt the same thing when I recently watched the “Rogue One” Star Wars movie.  It was enjoyable, but I felt like it was taking care not to steal the spotlight from Episodes 1-7.

     This is not a complaint.  I came away with a better understanding of the Doctor Who cosmos, and DW-TWoI kept my interest from beginning to end.  But it can’t compare to some of Baxter’s major novels, such as Evolution or the Manifold trilogy.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 Star if you’re already familiar with the Doctor Who universe.  And even if, like me, you’re a Doctor Who newbie, it's a nice way to learn the basics of the series.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Driving Me Nuts - P.J. Jones

    2011; 206 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dark Humor.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Ruckus and Fred sure are a couple of guys who like to live life on the wild side.  For a good time they drive over to the used-book store and then to the Dairy Queen for ice cream.

    Yeah, I know, that doesn’t exactly make you hear “Born To Be Wild” as background music.  But Fred and Ruckus are both inmates at the Shady Grove Home for the Mentally Insane, and leaving the premises is a major no-no.

    To boot, their choice of wheels is a ’69 Mustang convertible, which belongs to Mr. Otis, one of the caretakers at Shady Rest.  And when he’s neck deep in triple tequila peach lime smoothies, he’s in no condition to tell whether anyone is joyriding around in his automobile.  So while Mr. Otis is snoozing, the boys can go cruising.

    But when one of the female inmates horns her way in on the action, you can bet it’s gonna lead to trouble, Especially since she’s got an agenda of revenge.

What’s To Like...
    Driving Me Nuts is a fast and easy read.  The action starts immediately, and continues throughout the whole book.  For the most part, we see things from Ruckus’s POV, with Fred and Apple (the female femme fatale) also getting prominent ink.  There aren’t a lot of other characters to keep track of, but they're an interesting bunch, especially Preacher and Mama Louise.

    Except for the Epilogue, the entire storyline consists of a single night of avenging antics, as Apple squares things away with a number of tormentors from her past.  Fred is little more than a drooling puppy, so it is up to Ruckus to somehow get the threesome, and the ’69 Mustang convertible, back to Shady Grove in one piece and with no one the wiser.  Yeah, like that has any chance of happening.

    This is my third P.J. Jones book; the other two are reviewed here and here.   Of the three, I liked this one the best.  The tone is darker here, and at just over 200 pages, it is the longest book I’ve read by this author, with the most complex storyline of the three.  For me, it was a “broadening” of Ms. Jones’ literary repertoire, even though it predates the other two books.

    There is a lot of cussing, and a bunch of unsavory and/or adult topics such as child molestation, rape, oral sex, jerking off, and erections.  If these offend you, you would be well-advised to stay away from Driving Me Nuts. or any of P.J. Jones’s stories for that matter.  It is her natural genre to write in an R-rated manner.  To do differently would be akin to asking Allen Ginsberg to only write G-rated poems.

    There is a way-kewl Author’s Note at the front of the book.  Despite the multitude of mayhem, the ending ties everything up in a relatively happy manner.  This is a standalone novel; AFAIK, P.J. Jones has not written any series.  Some of us think that’s a plus.

    Mr. Otis didn’t always break the rules.  Lights out at nine-thirty.  That was one rule Ruckus wished he would bend.  No pissing on lunch trays.  That was another rule.
    One of Ruckus’s biggest pet peeves was inconsistency.  Either break all the rules or none at all.  People and their ‘socially acceptable behavior’ bothered him.  (loc. 69)

    “Are you sure you’re not my dad?”
    “Fred,” Ruckus grumbled.  “Your dad has your green eyes.  Garth Vader has brown eyes.”
    Vader straightened his bony shoulders and puffed up his chest.  “Do you find fault with my anatomy?”
    “Brown is nice,” Fred interjected.  “Brown is the color of tree branches.”
    Vader nodded.  “And the stain in my intergalactic underpants.”  (loc. 1022)

Kindle Details...
    Driving Me Nuts sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  P.J. Jones has a number of other books available for the Kindle, ranging from $0.99 to $3.99.  She is also part of “The Eclective”, a group of short story writers, and many of their anthology offerings are free.

“I don’t recall proliferating any life forms on this planet.”  (loc. 1022)
    There are some minor quibbles.  I thought there were a couple sections that could've been strengthened by "showing” instead of “telling”.  And the writing style might best be described as “very straightforward”.  Some additional polishing would’ve made this a really delightful read.

     But, as with the R-rated stuff, this is all inherent to the author’s writing style.  The added polishing and showing would be technical improvements, but perhaps in the end, it just wouldn’t be the real P.J.

    7 Stars.  Don’t let the quibbles dissuade you from reading Driving Me Nuts.  The bottom line is that I found it to be fast-paced, both dark and funny (a somewhat dicey combination of genres), and the most ambitious literary effort yet that I’ve read by P.J. Jones.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Century Rain - Alastair Reynolds

   2004; 623 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Paris, 2266 AD.  In a setting devoid of any life, archaeologist Verity Auger leads a team looking for priceless relics from a bygone age: a page from a newspaper, a piece of a map, or perhaps even a bit of printed matter ripped from an ancient (21st century) book.

    Risks are inherent in the toxic environment.  But when one of her underlings nearly dies in an ill-advised mishap, Verity finds herself facing a trial where, if she’s lucky, all she’ll lose is her job and career.

    Paris, 1959 AD.  Private detective Wendell Floyd (call him “Floyd”) and his partner André Custine are asked to investigate the death of an American tourist named Susan White (from Dakota) who died after a 5-story fall from her apartment balcony.  The police call it an accident.  But maybe she was pushed.  Or maybe the balcony railing was defective.

    Well, since the person wanting to hire them is the landlord of the apartment, let’s hope that that last scenario is not the cause.

    But the space-time continuum can be a quirky thing.  The paths of Floyd and Verity are about to cross, with confusion running amok since they have different agendas for resolving the mystery of Susan White’s demise.

    And of course, it doesn’t help that someone’s trying to kill both of them.

What’s To Like...
    Alastair Reynolds is a top-tier “Hard” Science Fiction writer, and Century Rain is clever blending of Murder-Mystery with his forte genre.  There’s even a bit of Romance in the story, but don’t worry, this is first and foremost a Sci-Fi tale.  It takes a while for Verity and Floyd to meet up, and until then the storyline flips between the two perspectives.  There’s also a kewl mystery that involves trying to figure out why someone wanted three giant, precisely-fabricated aluminum spheres set up – one in Berlin, one in Paris, and the third in Milan.

    You’ll run across a slew of acronyms and catchphrases.  The former includes ones like “UR” (Universal Restorative). “USNE” (The United States of Near Earth), and my favorite, “ALS” (Anomalous Large Structure).  The latter includes The Forgetting, The Nanocaust, Silver Rain, Neotenic Infantry, and the fascinating “Amusica Virus”.  Reynolds usually defines each of these when he introduces them, but jot them down anyway, because he expects you to remember what they mean when they pop up again 50 pages later.

    I thought the world-building was fantastic and delightfully detailed.  The 23rd-century solar system is divided into warring factions: the Slashers and the Threshers, and it is also obvious that some vastly technologically superior beings were here many millennia in the past.  You’ll enjoy the “language app”, a nanobotic way to instantly learn a new language, although it degrades with time (a tip of the hat to Flowers For Algernon?).  And you’ll discover what Guy de Maupassant thought of the Eiffel Tower, and how he expressed his feelings about it.

    The book is written in “English”, not “American”, and I always enjoy that.  Cuss words are common in the dialogue, as would be expected in the real world.  As with any Hard Sci-Fi novel, Alastair Reynolds spends a lot of time explaining the Quantum Physics of the 23rd-century cosmos.  I found it mesmerizing, but if you find technical tangents tedious, a book in the  Space Opera subgenre may suit your fancy better.

    It won’t take you long to notice some anomalies in the 1959 Paris, so it’s not a spoiler to say this is also an Alternate History tale.  Yet all the genres fit together nicely for an epic story.  This is a standalone novel, and is not set in Reynolds’ signature Revelation Space cosmos.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Quincunx (n.) : an arrangement of five objects, with four at the corners of a square or rectangle, and the fifth at its center.
Others : Spivvy (adj.); Neotenous (adj.); Penury (n.); Blancmange (n.); Syrinx (n.); Cladding (n.).

    “The moons offer the perfect strategic platform for defending the planet against Slasher incursions.  Given the existing security measures already in place, they’re also a perfect venue for conducting any sensitive business that might come our way.”
    “Do I count as sensitive business?”
    “No, Auger.  You count as a pain in the ass.  If there’s one thing I hate more than civilians, it’s having to be nice to them.”
    “You mean this is you being nice?”  (pg. 114)

    ”According to the late Mr. Blanchard, and judging by what I saw when he let me into her room, your sister had a mania for collecting things.  Her room was a holding area for huge numbers of books, magazines and newspapers, maps and telephone directories.  It looked as if she collected just about anything she could get her hands on.”  Floyd waited a beat.  “Pretty odd behavior for a tourist.”
     "She liked souvenirs.”
    “By the ton?”  (pg. 313)

 “(Y)ou don’t know a wormhole from your butthole.”  (pg. 429)
    The ending is good but not complete.  The main plotline issue – why did someone kill Susan White? – is answered nicely (the “whodunit” aspect is resolved fairly early), but several threads are left dangling.  The Verity/Floyd relationship is not over, Custine still has the cops on his tail, and the Slashers and Threshers have an uneasy truce at best, all of which is surely good fodder for several more books’ worth of thrills and spills.

    Alas, per Wikipedia, this is a one-off novel, and Alastair Reynolds has stated that there will be no sequel.  So the Furies, the Censor, and the Hyperweb will not be explored any deeper, and the other loose threads will not be tied up.

    I, for one, am disappointed, since I thoroughly enjoyed Century Rain.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you prefer the “Science” in Science Fiction to be downplayed.  Add 1 star if Alastair Reynolds changes his mind and pens a sequel.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Hangman's Daughter - Oliver Potzsch

   2011; 431 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book One (out of five and soon to be six) of the series “The Hangman’s Daughter”.  Translator : Lee Chadeayne.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Poor little 12-year-old Peter Grimmer is dead.  It looks like he drowned in the river, but perhaps it wasn’t an accident.  Say, didn’t he hang out with those orphan kids down at that midwife’s house?  I never liked her anyway, so maybe she killed him.  And she uses strange herbs to heal people, so I bet she’s a witch.  Yeah, that’s why she killed little Peter.  Witchcraft is afoot!

    Let's lock her up and call for the Hangman.  We can’t burn her at the stake until she confesses, and torture is part of the Hangman’s job.

    But what if she’s innocent?

    Really, it’s better that the midwife confesses quickly and is burned at the stake immediately thereafter.  Otherwise the town will work itself into a witch-hunting frenzy, and all sorts fingers will get pointed at all sorts of townspeople.  And who knows how many innocent people will die then?

    So, Hangman, your job isn’t to determine whether or not she’s a witch.  Your job is to get a confession out of her, the sooner the better.

What’s To Like...
    The Hangman’s Daughter is a pleasant combination of historical fiction and murder-mystery.  The setting is a small (and real) town in southern Germany ("Bavaria", back then) called Schongau in the 1600’s, when witch-hunting was rife in both Europe and the colonies in America.  I’ve always wondered how such craziness could flourish, and Oliver Potzsch certainly presents a plausible mindset for it.

    The historical aspect – life in Bavaria in medieval times – is well done.  The descriptions set the scene nicely, and we learn about things like dwarfs' holes, what the people ate, and the various roles a hangman had to assume to earn his keep.  It’s also enlightening to compare modern medicine with what was practiced in the 17th century.  Finally, in a time of high mortality rates during childbirth, the issue of what to do with the town’s orphans is examined at length.

    The murder-mystery is also handled deftly.  This isn’t so much a whodunit, as it is a “why done it”.  There are lots of questions to probe beyond why someone's started killing kids.  Who burned down the stadel, and why?  Why does someone think there’s something valuable buried on the lot where the leper house is being built?  And why do all the victims have a witch’s mark tattooed on their shoulders?  Hey, maybe there really was witchcraft involved!

    There’s a handy Cast of Characters at the beginning.  Bookmark it, you will be using it more than once.  There’s lots of action, and some torture, adult language, and assault.  There are some way-kewl illustrations, done in black, white, and red, but on the Kindle they are very small in size.

    The three main characters – the hangman, his daughter, and the young physician – are all developed nicely.  I didn’t realize this was part of a series when I picked it up, and if this trio of protagonists becomes a sleuthing team in the books that follow, then count me in for reading more of them.

Kewlest New Word...
Trass (n.) : a light-colored variety of volcanic ash, used in making cement.

    Though autumn had already come, the sun was shining brightly on that part of Bavaria they call the Pfaffenwinkel – the priests’ corner – and merry noise and laughter could be heard from the town.  Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged, and somewhere a fiddle was playing. The aroma of deep-fried doughnuts and roasted meat drifted down to the foul-smelling tanners’ quarter.  Yes, it was going to be a lovely execution.  (loc. 99)

    The hangman looked angrily across to Simob.  “Did you tell?”
    The physician held up his hands trying to calm him down.  “I never!  I only told her about poor Johannes … and that you had examined the fingernails very closely.”
    “You idiot!  You must not tell women anything, above all my daughter.  She’s too good at reading between the lines and figuring things out.”  (loc. 3660)

Kindle Details...
    The Hangman’s Daughter presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon right now.  The other four books in the series all also see for $4.99.  Oliver Potzsch has another half-dozen or so novels for the Kindle, ranging in price from $3.99 to $14.99.  

 “A rumor is like smoke.  It will spread, it will seep through closed doors and latched shutters, and, in the end the whole town will smell of it.”  (loc. 861)
    The ending is a mixed bag.  The tension builds steadily to the final confrontation, but then we miss out of actually getting to watch/read about it.  The Hangman emerges victorious, of course, but his adversary was no slouch, and I was mildly disappointed in only hearing about their last encounter secondhand.  Also, the resolution of the various mysteries is not particularly twisty.  But I suppose from a historical standpoint, that’s a logical outcome.

    OTOH, the epilogue is excellent, and the Author’s Note (Oliver Potzsch calls it “A Kind of Postscript”) is most enlightening.  In the 1600’s, most careers were hereditary, and the author apparently has a number of hangmen in his family tree.

    Lastly, mention should be made of the translating.  Oliver Potzsch’s native tongue is German, and I thought Lee Chadeayne succeeded nicely at putting the “feel” of the writing into English.

    8½ Stars.  The Hangman’s Daughter was a treat – both as Historical Fiction and as a Murder-Mystery.  It’s always nice when a book with multiple genres does them all well.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Monster - A. Lee Martinez

   2009; 295 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Question: What’s a yeti doing in the walk-in freezer at the Food Plus Mart?

    Answer: Anything it wants, but mostly devouring everything in sight, especially the Choc-O-Chiptastic Fudge ice cream.  Well, not quite everything.  It doesn’t seem to like the vanilla.

    For Judy Hines, this is an annoyance, since the beast’s appetite is going to seriously slow down her nightshift chore – to restock the frozen food section.  So, who ya gonna call?

    Wrong, you call Animal Control Services.  Who don’t do yetis, but surprisingly, don’t treat Judy’s call as if it were a prank.  Instead, she gets transferred to some department called Cryptobiological Containment and Rescue Services.  And they say they’ll send a guy right over to take care of things.  Should be there in 15 minutes to so.

    Just one guy, eh?  I can’t wait to see how he deals with a huge, insatiably-hungry, mean-tempered yeti.

What’s To Like...
    The storyline in Monster will remind you of Ghostbusters and/or Men In Black, except that instead of ectoplasmic entities or an interstellar witness relocation program, we’re dealing with infestations of mystical and mythical beasts.  A Lee Martinez throws all sorts of them into the story, so if you’re a critter-lover (I am, and actually, they’re called “parahumans”), you’re in for a treat.

    The title refers to one of our two protagonists – an ordinary chap nicknamed “Monster” – who teams up reluctantly and temporarily with Judy in exchange for her driving him to his parahuman-purging jobs when his van gets trashed.  The secondary characters are well-developed.  Monster’s girlfriend is a demon with a penchant for cussing, but due to her hellish nature, her nasty words are ones like “blessed”, “”Elyisan”, and “sacrosanct”.  Monster’s cohort is a being from the 6th dimension who specializes in shape-shifting origami.  You may not think a paper butterfly is much of an opponent, but just try swatting one.

    I liked the attention to the world-building details.  Things like a “misfortune hex” (a minor, pesky curse), memory glyphs, and a part of our brain called “Merlin’s lobe” which tends to inhibit the belief in magic and fantasy in most adults.  This means that when our mind has to deal with, say, yetis in the freezer, it quickly adjusts our memories of the incident once it’s over to explain things in more realistic terms.  A yeti, you say?  Nah, I think it was just a big raccoon.  Or something like that.

    There is some cussing and sex in the book, but I thought it fit in well.  We learn that humans are divided into “Cognizants”, “Light Cognizants”, and “Full Incogs” (think 'Muggles) when it comes to being able to remember the unexplainable.  And that angels are real.  And easy.

    Monster is a standalone novel, and a quick, fun, easy read.  I picked the hardcover version up at my local library, but I note that they also carry it, and three other books by this author, as free-to-borrow e-books.

    “So you’re married, then?”
    “In a manner.  My true nature is hard to explain in terms you could understand.”
    “Because I’m a monkey,” said Judy.
    “I never said that.”
    “But you were thinking it.”
    “I don’t judge,” said Chester.  “I rather like you lower entities.  You’ve done quite well for transient globs of possibly sentient protoplasm.”
    “Possibly sentient?”
    “The jury is still out.”  (pg. 90)

    “If you’d handled Judy with more delicacy …”
    “Karma, huh.”
    “Karma is just a philosophical construct, a rather simplistic punishment/reward theory that satisfies your egocentric perception of your universe.”
    “I was just about to say that.”
    “You can dismiss my observation with levity –“
    “I just did.”  (pg. 174)

 “My girlfriend is a demon … but I don’t really like her.”  (pg. 141)
    Don’t let the title fool you: this is a witty and humorous book first, and a fantasy tale second.  There is a significant “Christopher Moore” feel to the dialogue and storyline, so if you like that author, you’ll enjoy Monster.

    My only quibble, and it’s minor, is the ending.  The plotline builds steadily to the requisite cosmos-saving final fight, but it seemed straightforward to me.  There were hijinks and mishaps along the way, but no major twists.

    But in fairness, the epilogue – which is actually the final chapter – did hold a nifty surprise for me, and makes me wonder if there is some sort of sequel to Monster either in the works, or that already exists.

    8 Stars.  Listen, if you’re going to emulate someone like Christopher Moore, you’d better do a good job of it, or else the critics at Amazon will eat you alive.  IMNSHO, A. Lee Martinez pulls it off quite nicely.