Monday, March 19, 2018

Doughnut - Tom Holt

   2011; 344 pages.  Book 1 (out of 4) in Tom Holt’s (completed) Doughnut series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; British Humor, Multiverses.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Decimal points are such small things.  A mere dot on the spreadsheet.  A period.  A ‘full stop', if you happen to be British.  So easily overlooked.

    Theo Bernstein was supposed to move the decimal point one place to the right.  Instead, he moved it one place to the left.  If he was an accountant, that would probably cost somebody a few dollars.  Or give somebody a few bucks extra.

    But Theo operates the VVLHC.  That stands for “Very Very Large Hadron Collider”.  He was hoping to generate and detect some new subatomic particle.  Instead he generated an explosion.  Which wiped out an entire mountain in Switzerland.  Along with the VVLHC.  His mistake was detected by all sorts of people.

   No VVLHC means Theo Bernstein no longer has a job.  And you know what they say:

    “The world is an unfair place.  Blow up just one multi-billion-dollar research facility, and suddenly nobody wants to be your friend.”

What’s To Like...
    Doughnut is chronologically the first book in Tom Holt’s 4-volume “YouSpace” series, aka the “Doughnut” series.  I’ve read the other three books and this one follows the standard format.  Theo, our hapless protagonist, finds himself at a new job, with a bunch of bizarre coworkers and strange, nonsensical rules to follow.  The first half of the book is utter mayhem, and the second half of it works slowly but diligently to straighten things out.

    Doughnut is divided into five sections, with some imaginative titles such as “Doughnut Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “One Empty San Miguel Bottle To Bring Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them”.   There are no chapters, but you can always find a good place to stop: they’re signaled with a cute little doughnut icon.

    The main motif of both this book and this series is Tom Holt having fun with Quantum Physics, with particular emphasis on Multiverses.  The titular doughnut is explained on page 78, although I was already familiar with it, since I read the series out-of-order.   I chuckled at the VVLHC, as well as the “Rope Theory”, a playful poke at Stephen Hawking’s “String Theory”, which seems hauntingly timely, since Hawking just passed away last week.  If you’re a lover of calculus, you’ll enjoy the Ultimate Doomsday Equation, which poor Theo has to solve on page 35.

    Most of the critters to meet are cartoon characters.  Yes, a goblin makes a cameo appearance early on, and a talking bird shows up a short time later.  But the real fun starts when one of the multiverses is inhabited by Disney characters with decidedly unfriendly attitudes.  Ditto for the beasties from A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh stories.  Still, Theoretical Quantum Physics dictates that when there are an infinite number of parallel universes, at least one of them will feature Minnie Mouse looking for a fight and packing an automatic rifle.

    As always, there is an abundance of dry humor and British wit.  Indeed, this is the main reason to read any Tom Holt book.  The ending has a couple of twists and adequately addresses all the bizarre things that happen to Theo.  Doughnut is a standalone novel, as well as being part of a mini-series.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Secateurs (n.) : a pair of pruning clippers for use with one hand.  (a Britishism)
Others : Whinneting (v., a made-up word).

    In the beginning was the Word.
    Hardly likely, is it?  In order for it to be a word, it would’ve had to belong to a language; otherwise it’d just have been a random, meaningless noise – zwwgmf, prblwbl, bweeeg.   You can’t have a one-word language; words need context.  Therefore, of all the things that could possibly exist in isolation at the Beginning, a word is the least plausible.  All right, back-burnerise the Word for now, let’s try something else.  (pg. 199)

    He’d never really thought about death before, except in a vague, objective kind of way.  He was aware that it existed, but so did Omsk; both of them were distant, irrelevant and not particularly attractive, and he had no intention of visiting either of them.  The thought that he might die alone, pointlessly, unnoticed, unaided and quite possibly at the paws of a viciously predatory cartoon character would never have occurred to him, and he was entirely unprepared to deal with it.  (pg. 207)
 Sucrofens, ergo est; it’s sticky; therefore it exists.  (pg. 84)
    I enjoyed Doughnut, although I admit that reading Tom Holt books is an acquired taste.  You have to be ready for a convoluted plotline, which meanders hither, thither, and yon, often seemingly without any literary control by the author.  You can rest assured that Tom Holt will eventually pull it all together, but the fun in each story is in seeing how long it takes him to do so.

        Holt's books also invariably contain some cusswords, which may seem an awkward fit with all the tomfoolery and satire going on.  But somehow, it always works.  Doughnut is no exception, and bear in mind that the cussing in sot excessive.

    Finally, it should be noted that Tom Holt writes in English, not American.  So you will meet words and spellings like colour, realise, Selloptape, maths, whisky, sceptic, and storeys.  This may be off-putting to some (Spellcheck certainly doesn’t like it), but I find novels written in 'English' to be fascinating.

    8 Stars.  There is no such thing as a poor Tom Holt book, although my favorite ones are from his earlier years, when he uses themes from myths and legends, such as the ones reviewed here and here .  All his works are highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin

   1974; 387 pages.  Full Title (in the original version) : The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.  New Author? : Yes.  Laurels : Locus Award – Best Novel (1975, won); Nebula Award – Best Novel (1974, won); Hugo Award (1975, won); John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1975, nominated).  Genre : Utopian Fiction; Science Fiction; Political Science; Quantum Physics Fiction; Middlebrow.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    There’s little love between the planets Urras and Anarres, despite the fact that they serve as each other’s moon.  It’s been that way for more than a century, after a group of dissenters left Urras to resettle on Anarres and set up a Anarcho-Utopian society.  Since then, the two worlds have been almost completely isolated from each other.

    There are some exceptions.  One spaceport on Anarres, Abbenay, allows Urrasti freighters to dock several times a year, and goods are exchanged.  Anarres is a barren world and needs manufactured goods; Urras is a lush, but heavily resource-exploited world and needs minerals and other raw materials.  In addition, there is limited communication by radio.

      So it is a truly historic and unprecedented event when Urras agrees to allow Shevek, an Anarresti “rebel”, to come visit their world.  Of course, the fact that he’s also a renowned physicist who can work with their scientists to develop the next leap in Quantum Physics figures into their decision.

  But beware, Shevek.  You think that while you’re there, you’ll be able to extol the virtues of Anarchism to all sorts of people.  Perhaps the government officials on Urras are planning to do the same sort of thing through you.

What’s To Like...
    The Dispossessed is a clever blend of three genres: Science Fiction, Political Science, and Quantum Physics.  The Poli-Sci angle was truly groundbreaking.  Ursula K. Le Guin contrasts the political ideal of Anarchy to that of Capitalism and Communism; the latter was still a dominant force back in 1974.  Utopian Fiction (not to be confused with its Dystopian cousin) had already been infused into Science Fiction, but it always was presented as an ideal.  Here, Ursula K. Le Guin presents a Utopia with its own set of warts and blemishes, a never-before-considered concept.

    The Dispossessed is the story of our protagonist, Shevek, but it is not told in a linear fashion.  More on this in a bit.  Shevek is an interesting character study – brilliant in some ways, incredibly na├»ve in others.  There are a bunch of his friends, family, and professional associates to meet and greet, and Kindle has a new feature called “Shelfari” which was a handy resource in determining which of these characters were important enough keep make notes about.

    The world-building is fantastic.  I loved the attention to the two languages, Iotic on Urras, and Pravic on Anarres.  Ursula Le Guin invents some words for these languages, but the important ones are footnoted.  I liked the epithets, such as “Propertarian”, “Profiteer”, “Egoizing”, and “Archist”, the latter being the opposite of “Anarchist”.  And I chuckled at the mention of Dr. Ainsetain, a physicist from long ago on Terra, whose Relativity theories are regarded now as quaint but outdated.

    The book is a primer on Anarchism.  I had only a rudimentary understanding of what that was about (Down with Government!), so it was enlightening to have it presented in a practical manner.  There’s a recurring motif of “walls”, which basically embody anything – physical or otherwise – that separates people from each other.  If you’re a fan of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, you’ll have no trouble with this idea.

    The boys “playing prison” early in the book is a particularly riveting event.  But there are also some lighter moments, such as Shevek “exploring a bathroom” when he first gets to Urras.  The Pravic language doesn’t recognize bodily functions as being dirty, nor does it view any words as “cussing”, so be prepared to be shocked a bit by some of the language here.

    I found The Dispossessed to be a slow read, but not a difficult one.  The chapters are fairly long – thirteen of them for 387 pages of text.  The ending is okay, but not spectacular.  This is a standalone novel, despite being set in the author’s “Hainish Cycle” world.

Kewlest New Word ...
Apocopations (n., plural) : words formed by removing the end of a longer word.  (Examples:  “street cred”; "bro"; "sis")

Kindle Details...
    The Dispossessed sells for $6.99 at Amazon.  Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific science fiction/fantasy writer, and her full-length novels are in the $5.99-$14.99 range for the Kindle versions.  She also wrote several short books for children, which are even cheaper.   

    “The singular forms of the possessive pronoun in Pravic were used mostly for emphasis; idiom avoided them.  Little children might say “my mother,” but very soon they learned to say “the mother”.  Instead of “my hand hurts,” it was “the hand hurts me,” and so on; to say “this one is mine and that’s yours” in Pravic, one said, “I use this one and you use that.”  (loc. 870)

    “I used to want so badly to be different.  I wonder why?”
    “There’s a point, around age twenty,” Bedap said, “when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
    “Or at least accept them with resignation,” said Shevek.
    “Shev is on a resignation binge,” Takver said.  “It’s old age coming on.  It must be terrible to be thirty.”  (loc. 3661)

 “You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them.  You can only crush them by ignoring them.”  (loc. 2399)
    Despite all its awards and plaudits, I did not find The Dispossessed to be a compelling read.  I think this was because I was expecting a science fiction tale, filled with excitement and ET’s, and exotic worlds.  It isn’t.

    Shevek visits.  Shevek contemplates.  Shevek expounds upon the merits and challenges of Anarchism.  Shevek points out the shortcomings of both Capitalism and Communism.  At one point Shevek gives a speech at a demonstration.  Ho hum.

    I also found the Quantum Physics parts to be an awkward fit, although it has to be said that QP was in its infancy at the time Le Guin was writing this, and it has evolved significantly since then.

    The book’s structure was also a challenge.  It opens smack dab in the middle of the storyline.  The chapters then alternate between Shevek’s present situation on Urras and his past history on Anarres.  But the reader has to suss this out for himself.

    To be fair, there’s a handy Study Guide at the end of the book, which will help you make sure you don’t miss anything important.  Also, I consulted Wikipedia after finishing the first chapter in a confused state of mind, and it helped straighten things out considerably.

    So here's my advice.  Read The Dispossessed as a Political Science treatise, not as a tale of galactic adventure.  Skim over the Wikipedia entry beforehand; then make use of the Study Guide after each chapter.  You’ll enjoy the book a lot more if you do.

    7 Stars.  I am a fan of the main genres that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in: Science Fiction and Fantasy.  She was also an ardent Anarchist, which fascinates me.  I am at a loss to say why I haven’t read any of her books before this, particularly the Hainish Cycle and the Earthsea series.  She passed away recently (01/22/18) at the ripe old age of 88, so reading this book is kind of a small tribute on my part to her.  Two more of her books reside on my Kindle, including the first Earthsea novel, so I intend to read more of her stuff.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Guardian of the Red Butterfly - D.S. Cuellar

   2013; 294 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book 1 (out of 2, so far) in the “Guardian” series.  Genre : Action-Thriller; Martial Arts.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    The wonderful city of Portland, Oregon has not one, but two undergrounds.  There is a literal one, a labyrinth of passageways leading from various hotels and bars to the dockside on the Willamette River.  A long time ago, they were used to move cargo from ships to various establishments without having to deal with urban traffic.  Wikipedia has an article about this; you can find it here.

    Portland’s other underground is more figurative.  It refers to the clandestine and forced transport of human beings out from the city to waiting ships, to be used as slave labor.

    Sometimes the two undergrounds overlapped into one operation.  In the early days, able-bodied men were kidnapped and moved via these tunnels onto ships, and forced into grueling manual servitude.  This practice was nicknamed “shanghaiing”, hence the local name for the underground, the “Shanghai Tunnels”.

     Now a new, modern-day enterprise has sprung up.  Someone is using the Portland underground for sex trafficking, sneaking underage girls from the city to overseas destinations.  And the Shanghai Tunnels have inherited a new moniker because of this.  The perpetrators now call it “The Unheavenly City”.

    The Portland Police Department really needs to infiltrate this despicable operation and shut it down.  But how?

What’s To Like...
    The action in Guardian of the Red Butterfly starts immediately and never lets up.  I suspect D.S. Cuellar made a conscious to do this, and he succeeded nicely – simply put, there are no slow spots.  The writing style is story-driven; things are presented in a very straightforward manner, with sparse descriptions and little or no philosophical musing.  I call it the “Clive Cussler” approach.

    This is a “sex and thrills” story, so expect a lot of both, along with the concomitant cussing.  I liked the characters; even the bad guys were interesting.  There are 32 chapters covering the 294 pages, so there’s always a convenient place to stop for the night.   The formatting of the text is not justified, which bugged my OCD mind.  But it probably won’t bother most readers.

    The core idea for the novel is very good: sex trafficking and the toll it takes on its victims makes for a powerful theme.  I enjoyed learning about medieval Japanese culture – the geisha, samurai, and a pair of “companion” swords.  You’ll learn who the “guardian” is on page 75, and who the “Red Butterfly” is on page 208.  I chuckled at the cultural nicety of using two hands to present something politely to another person.  Years ago, I had to learn to do this when giving my business cards to customers on a week-long business trip in the Far East.

    Everything builds to a suitably tense climax.  There were some parts of it I had trouble visualizing, and a couple details strained my believability limits.  But I say that about Dirk Pitt novels too.  And oh yeah, I liked the cat!

    Guardian of the Red Butterfly is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.  The sequel, Guardian of  the Monarch Moon is already available, as is a D.S. Cuellar book with a separate storyline, Dead To Rights.  All three are available as e-books at Amazon, as well as paperbacks.  

    “I need you to connect me to Captain Frank Morrell.”
    Steven observed a startled reaction in Karina’s body language at the mention of the name.
    Karina spoke in a hushed voice.  “Frank Morrell was one of the names I saw on my husband’s files.  Victor only kept a file on you for one of two reasons; either Frank is a sworn enemy or he is corruptible.”
    “Hello, this is Captain Morrell.”
    In a hesitant voice Steven said, “Hey, Dad, I think I need your help.”  (pg. 39)

    “What is it about this sword?”
    “This sword may not have any meaning to you but it is one of three swords that represent our family’s legacy.  To have the set restored as one would be a priceless treasure.”  Aiko gave Kyle a heartfelt look.  “Until you find what gives your life meaning, you too will be lost.”  (pg. 212)

“If you don’t officially exist, who’s going to miss you when you’re gone?”  (pg. 207)
    For all the positives, Guardian of the Red Butterfly also has some issues that can't be overlooked.  Most notable is the editing, which, to be blunt, is atrocious.  There are wrong words, misspelled words, paragraphs aren’t indented, and commas and semicolons are abused.  I  don't usually mention these things, since indie authors rarely have the luxury of professional editors to peruse their manuscript.  But here the frequency of these errors was distracting.

    Similarly, the book could do with a fresh round of proofreading.  Eye colors change and some of the fight scene details seemed hard to fathom.  Ditto for the never-any-fun task of polishing the manuscript: inserting info dumps into the tale smoothly, and improving the telling/showing ratio.

    All of this is fixable, and I certainly hope it is done before the next edition of Guardian of the Red Butterfly comes out.  This is a good first effort by a promising new writer; it just needs some rough edges sanded down.

    6 Stars.  Add 2 stars if-and-when an updated version of the book is developed.  I have heard rumors that it is in the works.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Wizard of Time - G.L. Breedon

    2011; 291 pages.  Book 1 (out of 3) of The Wizard of Time series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Time-Travel; Fantasy, YA, Coming of Age.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    13-year-old Gabriel Salvador has dreams.  Strange ones.  Bad ones.  Frightening ones.  And the worst part is, they always come true, usually within 24 hours.

    Of course, Gabriel has learned not to tell anyone about the dreams.  His friends would think he’s weird.  His parents think he’s just making up stories after something’s happened.  A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.  The shrink would think he’s just looking for attention.

    But today’s dream has him scared out of his wits.  It had a new theme – drowning.  And if it follows the pattern and comes true within 24 hours, there’s only one conclusion he can arrive at.

    In less than a day, Gabriel Salvador will be dead.

What’s To Like...
    If you like your time-travel books to visit oodles of new locales and eras, then you’re gonna love The Wizard of Time.  G.L. Breedon is obviously a history buff, and so am I.  The story starts in present-day Great Britain, and Gabriel (and the reader) get to go jumping to all sorts of places/times, including: Cretaceous Era (dinosaurs!), Scotland (at several points in history), Venice, Samos (300 BC), Beijing (12,000 BC), the Battle of Gaugamela (Alexander the Great), the Grand Canyon, and World War 2.  I was in history bliss!

    The storyline grabs your attention immediately – see the introduction teaser, above.  There are 27 chapters covering 291 pages, which means they are relatively short.  The book’s tone had a “Harry Potter-esque” feel to it for me:  a young boy is the chosen one, and lots of people around him want to control or kill him.  It’s also a coming-of-age tale with only a smattering of mild cussing.  There’s no sex, and I don’t recall any booze or drugs, so I’d also put this in the YA genre.  Vocabulary-wise, it’s an easy read.

    I chuckled at the title of the one book considered essential to Gabriel’s study: The Time-Traveler’s Pocket Guide To History.  It makes sense.  If you’re gonna go chrono-hopping, you’d best be knowing what sort of sh*t you’re getting into.  I also liked the nod to Thus Spake Zarathustra, the book by Nietzsche, not the music by Richard Strauss.  The Fantasy genre takes a backseat here.  There’s plenty of magic (more on that in a bit), but the only otherworldly critter we meet is a lone dragon.  But I have a feeling that the fantasy element may get amped up as this series progresses.

    G.L. Breedon’s two favorite words in The Wizard of Time are “concatenate” ("linking") and “bifurcation” ("a branching off into two parts").  The latter refers to the Quantum Physics hypothesis of multiverses, and here it is something that the good guys try to avoid at all costs, though I never did figure out why.

    The Wizard of Time is a standalone story, as well as the first book in an already completed trilogy.  Some Amazon reviewers apparently have issues with a 13-year-old repeatedly thinking like an adult.  The criticism is valid, but it didn’t bother me.  I'll cut Gabriel some slack since he is, by definition, the Chosen One.  You probably grow up fast when that sort of thing's thrust upon you.  The ending is not very twisty, but it's suitably climactic, and is sufficient to set up the next book in the series.

Kewlest New Word...
Matryoska Doll (n.) : a part of a set of Russian nesting dolls. (*)

    “Dinner was my favorite time.  Everyone there all at once.  All the voices all at once.  My Grandfather and his big booming voice, swearing in Spanish for quiet and my mom insisting that everyone speak English at the dinner table.  And my youngest brother wanting to know if it was okay to swear in English at the dinner table.”   (loc. 532)

    “The branch must be severed within thirty-seven hours of its creation.  Preferably by the hand that created it.”
    “Why thirty-seven hours?” Gabriel asked.
     “Who knows, who know?” Akikane said with a wide grin.  “There are people who like to make theories to explain it, but I prefer to think that it is simply the way it is.  Why is the universe here at all?  Why is time travel even possible?  Why is the speed of light exactly what it is, never slower or faster?  Some people question too much.  It is as it is.”  (loc. 2156)

Kindle Details...
    The Wizard of Time sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The other two e-books in the series sell for the same price.  They are also available as a bundle, for $4.99, which is quite a good deal.  G.L. Breedon has four other e-books available, including the starts for two more series, ranging from $2.99 to $4.99.

“How do you manage to turn every triumph into an excuse for drinking?”  (loc. 4417)
    The issues are negligible.  The magic system is rather convoluted and the author spends considerable time detailing how it works.  I recognize this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of thing, but for me, the mystical minutiae got tedious, and that made for some slow spots.

    I only have two other nits to pick.  First, there was a huge info dump in Chapter 9 about Aztec civilization, and halfway through the lecture, even I was ready to get back to the plotline.  Second, Nefferati’s ancestry seemed ambiguous.  When introduced, she’s said to be from the Euphrates (16%).  But later on, she’s described as being African (54%).  Sorry, those aren't synonymous terms.  I'm also a geography buff.

    But I quibble.  Time-Travel is one of my favorite genres, and G.L. Breedon’s The Wizard of Time is a worthy entry in this field.  I’d been going through time-travel withdrawals, and this book satisfied my craving just fine.

    7½ Stars(*) We’ll close with a trivia question, and leave the answer in the comments section: What's the record for the most Matryoska dolls nested within each other in a single set?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Grouchy Historian - Ed Asner

   2017; 262 pages.  Full Title : The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Politics, Commentary.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Quick.  Tell me everything you know about the United States Constitution.

    Hmm.  Well, it was given by God Herself to our Founding Fathers.  It starts out “We, the People”.  No, wait; that was the Declaration of Independence.

    Not bad.  When was it written?

   A long time ago.  I think they wrote it the same time as they did the Declaration of Independence.  In fact, now that I think about it, I think the Declaration of Independence is the preamble to the Constitution.  Whatever a preamble is.

    What about the Amendments?

    I forgot about those.  Despite being an infallible document, God, in Her Graciousness, allowed us to make some changes to the Constitution.  The most important Amendment allowed us to get drunk again, after an earlier one said we couldn’t.  The other important one is the Second Amendment, which says everyone should carry an assault rifle with him at all times.

    You’re amazing.  One last question.  What about the Bill of Rights?

    Oh, I forgot about those too.  I’m pretty sure it was written at the same time as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It gives us the right to Life, Liberty, and the Happiness of Pursuit.  And a couple other things.  Including assault rifles.  And slaves.

    You are truly in a class by yourself when it comes to American History.  Can I interest you in Ed Asner’s new book, The Grouchy Historian?

What’s To Like...
    Ed Asner is an outspoken and unashamed voice for the Political Left, and The Grouchy Historian details his study and research into the history and content of the United States Constitution.  In fairness, he admits at the very beginning of the book that he is politically biased, and thus he is not presenting “both sides” of the debate.  Instead, he is an unabashed apologist for the Left, addressing and refuting the various skewed assertions proffered to us by the titular Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs.

    The book consists of 24 chapters covering 262 pages of text, plus another 73 pages of extras that includes notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and the full text of the Constitution itself and all the Amendments.  If you want to double-check anything that Ed Asner asserts, it is easy to do.

    The main topics are separated into seven sections, namely:

    1. The Constitutional Convention – Who was there and when they met.  (Chs. 2-3)
    2. God and the Constitution.  (Chs. 5-6)
    3. The Writing of the Constitution.  (Chs. 7-9)
    4. The Amendments: Ed’s Open Letters to prominent Right-Wing Nut-Jobs.  (Chs. 11-14)
    5. The Bill of Rights.  (Chs. 15-16)
    6. The Supreme Court Right-Wing Nut Jobs.  (Chs. 18-21)
    7. The Second Amendment: Guns and the NRA.  (Ch. 23)

    The other chapters are dribs and drabs of information that Ed Asner found intriguing, but which didn’t fit into any of those seven broader categories.  The book lists one Ed Weinberger as a co-author.  It is unclear what role he plays; I suspect he took the points Asner wanted to make and polished them into a readable form.

    I enjoyed the writing style – it’s a folksy, easy-to-read sort, that kept the contentious subject matter light and oftentimes amusing.  This also made the book a fast read, so if you need to do a book report for Civics class, and it’s due tomorrow, this may be your saving grace.

    The literary format is varied, which kept things from bogging down.  The writing of the Constitution is presented as a diary of one of James Madison’s slaves.  The Amendments section includes Ed presenting some of the right-wing proposals, balanced by some of his own.  The section about the American eugenics experiment (pg. 180) and the chapter about how often the Bill of Rights failed to protect citizens are both sobering and scary.

    For the record: I do not pretend that what I say here is an objective study of the Constitution and the men and events that went into its creation.  I come to the subject as a citizen with my own strong point of view, believing that “objective historian” is a contradiction in terms, like “compassionate conservative” or “Fox News”.  (pg. 5)

    An early example of how natural law was used can be found in Bradwell v. Illinois (1873), a Supreme Court case in which Myra Bradwell had been denied admission to the Illinois State Bar because she was a woman.  The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, its Chief Justice stating:
   “ …that God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action, and that it belonged to men to make, apply and execute the laws, was regarded as an almost axiomatic truth.”
    Which goes to show how stupid you can be when you’re sure you know what God is up to.  (pg. 212)

 “Scalia’s cultivated vision of the Constitution made him unquestionably one of the great minds of the thirteenth century.”  (pg. 208 )
    There are some quibbles.  First, while I enjoyed learning the author’s points-of-view, if you happen to be of the right-wing persuasion, you will probably hate those very things.  However, you can’t say Ed doesn’t warn you about this, and right at the very beginning.

    Similarly, he can get quite snarky at times, particularly when talking about the nut-jobs.   Since that’s the right-wingers’ favorite strategy when dealing with us liberals, there is a certain amount of karmic satisfaction here.  But it also feels a little like we’re mud-wrestling with pigs when we adopt their same dirty tactics.

    Finally, Chapter 8, wherein Ed gives short biographies of all 55 Framers of the Constitution, can get tedious and repetitive.  See the next paragraph for why.  Ed recognizes this, and gives the reader permission to skip this chapter if it bogs down.  I read the whole chapter anyway, but feel free to take him up on this offer after reading the first couple bios.  They don’t vary much from there on.

    8 Stars.  Highly informative and highly recommended.  If I had to sum up Ed Asner’s main hypothesis in The Grouchy Historian, it would be that those who wrote the Constitution did so to further their own fortunes (they were all rich white businessmen, whose fortunes depended heavily on speculating on frontier lands and near-worthless IOUs from the Revolutionary War).  And that the right-wingers who champion it today are doing the same.

Monday, February 19, 2018

White Fire - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   2013; 470 pages.  New Author? : No, and no.  Book 13 (out of 17) in the Agent Pendergast Series.  Genre : Thriller; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It was the opportunity of a lifetime.  Okay, the opportunity of a deathtime, if you want to get technical about it.  Corrie Swanson’s looking for a topic for her Forensic Criminology thesis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, so this is a godsend.

    It seems that, way back in the 1870’s, a man-eating bear went crazy around the Colorado town of Roaring Fork, killing 11 miners, and even eating some of them, before the rampage finally stopped.  Of course, that was more than a century ago, the victims have been buried for a long time, and no one would dream of allowing them to be dug up so some forensics analysis could be run on them for a thesis.

    Ah, but Roaring Fork was just a mining town back then; it’s now a posh ski resort, where people look down their noses at you if you’re “only” a millionaire.  All the caskets in the old graveyard have been unearthed to make way for a new housing development.  Money trumps dignity every time.

    The coffins presently repose in a warehouse, awaiting reburial in a new, still-to-be-determined location.  Surely no one would object to Corrie looking at the aftereffects of a man-mauling, man-eating bear.

    Yet for reasons unknown, some of the residents of Roaring Fork do object.  Even to the point of threatening Corrie’s life.

    Now why would someone do that?

What’s To Like...
    There are three main threads in White Fire, namely: a.) Who killed those miners way back when, b.) Who’s trying to kill Corrie nowadays, and c.) Who’s setting fire to various mansions in Roaring Fork and why?  That makes for a busy storyline, but as usual, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are up to the task.

    The settings are limited, with most of the story taking place in and around Roaring Fork.  The book opens briefly in New York City, and later on Pendergast makes a brief trip to London.  That's it.  Despite this, there are a bunch of people to meet and suspect of assorted skullduggery.

    Reading a tale with Aloysius Pendergast in it is a plus, and here we also have a backstory featuring Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde.  The highlight of the book is a 40-page “missing Sherlock Holmes story” penned by Preston & Child, and it’s the only one I’ve read thus far that does a great job imitating an Arthur Conan Doyle tale.

    I enjoyed the nod to Watership Down, also to The Hound of the Baskervilles.  I also liked the info-dump about mining chemistry.  Here it was in regard to extracting silver from ore.  The company I work for sells chemicals into the mining industry, albeit mostly to copper and gold mines, but the chemistry is quite similar, and it was fun to read about a process I'm familiar with.

    Proctor, Constance Greene, and Lt. Vincent D’Agosta are all absent from White Fire, and to be honest, I’ve never found Corrie  to be an exciting character.  The storyline therefore dragged a bit for me for about 80 pages while Corrie once again gets herself into trouble.  But Pendergast shows up, saves the day, and everything zips along just fine thereafter.

    The ending is both exciting and twisty, with a great, albeit contrived, chase scene thrown in.  All threads are tied up, although the resolution of the arson crime spree seemed a bit rushed.  There’s lots of cussing, and some gruesome ways to die, but that’s true of any book in this series.  This is a standalone story, as well as part of the series.

Kewlest New Word ...
Titubating (v.) : reeling or stumbling, as if tipsy; staggering
Others : redounded (v.) bolus (n.) descant (n.).

    “It took them rather longer than I’d hoped to complete the paperwork,” said Pendergast, perusing the list.  “Fortunately, the Sebastian’s dining room is open late.  I think the Chateau Pichon-Longueville 2000 will do nicely – don’t you?”
    “I don’t know jack about wine, sorry.”
    “You should learn.  It is one of the true and ancient pleasures that make human existence tolerable.”  (pg. 98)

    “I beg your pardon, Mr. Wilde.  Do you mean to say that these men were … cannibals?”
    “Indeed I do.  American cannibals.”
    Doyle shook his head.  “Monstrous.  Monstrous.”
    “Quite so,” Wilde said.  “They have none of the good manners of your English cannibals.”  (pg. 374)

Effing?  I see your penchant for charming euphemisms has not abated.”  (pg. 99)
    There are some quibbles, which was surprising since I’m an avid fan of this series.

     First of all, most of the characters seemed black-or-white to me; I prefer “gray” ones.  The lone exception to this was Capt. Stacy Bowdree, who hopefully will be developed into a recurring character.

    Second, while Corrie’s impulsiveness getting her once again into needless trouble can be tolerated (it’s part of her character), here some of her actions border on being just plain stupid.  For instance, at one point, she knows she’s being followed, yet instead of hightailing it to safety, she deliberately heads for a mine, knowing full well that entering it is a dead-end.

    Third, one of the earlier traits of an Agent Pendergast tale – “Is the evil natural or supernatural?” – isn’t utilized here.   Nor is there anything even remotely “epic” about the storyline.  Corrie gets into a fix, Pendergast uses his position (working for the FBI has its perks) and Holmesian sleuthing skills to bail her out, and a century-old cold case is put to rest.  The world will little note what was accomplished here.

    8 Stars.  I don’t think that White Fire will ever be anyone’s favorite Agent Pendergast book, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dud.  This was still a page-turner for me, and the Sherlock Holmes story alone makes it a worthwhile read.  And a so-so Preston & Child book is still a better read than most of the other thrillers out there on the market.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Monkey Wrench Gang - Edward Abbey

   1975; 422 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction; American Literature; Eco-Political How-To Manual; Middle-Brow.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Meet the Monkey Wrench Gang.

    George Hayduke.  A Vietnam vet and ex-Green Beret.  25 years old and hails from Tucson, Arizona.  Has a habit of measuring distances in units of six-packs.  Tucson-to-Vegas: 3 six-packs.  Phoenix-to-Los Angeles: 4 six-packs.  Etc.

    “Seldom Seen” Smith.  A Jack Mormon who was born in Utah and still lives there.  Has three wives, all of which are kinda cool with that.  Earns a living as a river guide, and longs for the world he grew up in.  Don’t we all, Seldom, don’t we all?

    Doctor A. K. “Doc” Sarvis.  A surgeon, and a rich one.  Smokes cigars.  No wives, but has a trophy girlfriend.  His favorite pastime is burning down billboards.  Everyone should have a hobby.

    Ms. Bonnie Abbzug. A nurse by trade, and assistant to Doc Sarvis.  Likes to help him burn down billboards.  Described as a “sexualized feminist”, whatever that might be.  Likes to smoke up.  You know what they say: “Give a girl enough rope and she’ll smoke it”.

    Their paths will all cross on one of Seldom’s guided river cruises.  And they’ll find they all have one thing in common – a strong desire to stop industries – any and all industries – from tearing up the landscape in the Four Corners area of the grand Southwest.

What’s To Like...
    If you’re the kind of reader who hates having to keep track of a slew of characters, The Monkey Wrench Gang is perfect for you.  The story is almost entirely about the shenanigans of our “gang of four”.  The only other people to take note of are Bishop J. Dudley Love and Park Ranger Edwin P. Abbott, Jr.  The settings are also easy to remember, they're all in the Four Corners area.

    I liked the story’s structure.  We tag along with Doc in the prologue as he practices his hobby; then get acquainted with the four main characters, one chapter at a time.  After that, it’s all about the hijinks perpetrated by our heroes, the wit and wisdom of their conversations, and Edward Abbey’s sweeping descriptions of the great outdoors, to let you know what they are trying to preserve.

    The book is an amazingly detailed “how-to” manual for eco-terrorists.  The Wikipedia article quotes several eco-activists describing how great an impact it had on them.  Indeed, Wiki claims that the use of the term “monkey wrench” as a metaphor for sabotaging something springs from this book.  If you want to learn how to disable earth-moving equipment, destroy a bridge, burn down a billboard, or even blow up a dam; this book will teach you everything you need to know.

    The writing is superb, and the book is a vocabularian’s delight.  There’s a slew of cussing, including some in Spanish.  This apparently offended some Amazon reviewers, but it didn’t bother me.  And while Bishop Love is the Monkey Wrench Gang’s bane, the real baddies here are Peabody Coal (mining), Arizona Public Service (electricity), Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad (transporting natural resources), Exxon, Reddy Mix Cement & Gravel Company, and the American Forestry Association (clear-cut logging).  It was weird to see Smokey the Bear cast in a negative light.

    The ending had some twists, and everything built to a satisfying and exciting climax.  But it was also somewhat easy to predict the outcome.  There’s only one way for a four-against-the-world struggle to be resolved.  I thought the epilogue was great, although you could suss out what was going to happen even there.  This is a standalone novel, and there is a sequel.  I  label this a “middle-brow” book, suitable for book clubs. 

Kewlest New Word ...
Apocdictic (adj.) : clearly established and beyond dispute.
Others : Concatenate (adj.) Acedia (n.) Empyrean (n.) Virescent (adj.) Arcologium (n.) Raddled (v.)

    “This here’s ahr air and I reckon we know best what we want to do with it.  We don’t like them outsiders from the Sahara Club tryin’ to tell us what we can do with ahr air.”
    “Okay, but look at it this way, Calvin.  Keep your fscking air here halfways clean and you can sell it to them city dudes by the jugful, like pure-spring drinking water.”
    “We already think of that.  There ain’t enough money in it.”
    “You could put meters on their noses when they cross the state line.”  (loc. 2673)

    Smith sighed.  “Three things my daddy tried to learn me. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘remember these three precepts and you can’t go wrong: One. Never eat (at) a place called Mom’s.  Two.  Never play cards with a man named Doc.’”  He halted.  “Deal me in.”
    “That’s only two,” Bonnie said.
    “I never can recollect the third, and that’s what worries me.”  (loc. 5234)

Kindle Details...
    The Monkey Wrench Gang sells for $8.99 at Amazon.  Edward Abbey has another dozen or so books available for the Kindle, all in the price range of $7.59-$9.99.   

Om sweet om: be it ever so humble …”  (loc. 731)
     I didn’t really have any quibbles with The Monkey Wrench Gang, but if you’re not concerned about things like global warming, the rapid pace with which we’re using up our natural resources, and overpopulation, I can see where this might be a bit of a slog.  And I must admit, the book was initially a slow read for me.  But things sped up once the Gang became activists.

    It also helped that I live in Arizona, where part of this book takes place.  When Edward Abbey mentions The Arizona Republic, hey, that’s my newspaper.  When he talks about McCulloch chain saws, well, that was the company (and the developer of Lake Havasu City) that spurred my parents to move to Arizona from back east.

    8 Stars.  One personal anecdote.  I am not an eco-terrorist, and the one and only time I attended a Sierra Club meeting, I was bored silly.  However…

    Back in my college days, one of my daily activities each summer was to take the family dog for a constitutional up in an undeveloped hill a block behind our house.  He loved it!  I’d let him off the leash, and he had a fine time chasing rabbits, yapping at birds, running and sniffing wherever he pleased.

    One summer I came home to find the whole hill plowed up, the first step in developing it into a subdivision.  The streets and house lots were already staked out.  Ugh.  There goes the ecosystem.  No more rabbit-chasing for my dog.

    So I started my own little rebellion.  Every night when I walked the dog, I’d pull up a bunch of those stakes.  It made me feel good, and since I walked the dog at sundown, long after all the construction workers had gone home, it seemed a safe way to slow down their project.  Until one night, about three weeks into my little campaign of sabotage, what did I espy?  A big, burly guy sitting in a pick-up up on one of those staked-out streets.  Just a-watching.  My small acts of defiance had obviously irked the construction company into taking preventative action.

    Prudence was therefore called for.  And thus ended my eco-protest.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

   1998; 341 pages.  Book 2 (out of 7) in the Harry Potter series.  New Author? : No; well, yes, if you don’t count reading the French translation of Book 1.  Genre : YA; Adventure; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Yippee!  Summer vacation’s almost over, and it’s almost time to go back to school!

   Well, there aren’t many kids that would have such a sentiment, but Harry Potter happens to be one of the few.  That’s because he has to spend his summers with Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and their brat for a son, Dudley.  Harry’s owl is confined to a cage, his wand is locked away, and he’s forbidden to even utter the word M-word (“magic”), let alone practice it.  For a magician like Harry, living among Muggles (those devoid of any magic powers) can be sheer drudgery.

    So it is a welcome relief from the tedium when a magical being comes to visit Harry.  A sprightly little house-elf named Dobby.  Unfortunately, Dobby bears a message for Harry, and it is not the cheeriest one to receive.

    “Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts.  Harry Potter must stay where he is safe.  He is too great, too good, to lose.”

What’s To Like...
    Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets chronicles the sophomore year of Harry, Hermione, and Ron at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, hereafter known simply as “Hogwarts”.  There’s a short backstory (pages 2-4) which came in handy for me, since it’s been at least 15 years since I read Book 1.  The book is a quick and easy read, which is the ideal for a YA novel.  The pacing is brisk (for the most part), yet somehow the various characters get nicely developed alongside the constant action.

    Speaking of characters, there are a slew of them.  I think most of them are repeats from the first book – Harry’s family members, the Weasley family, his fellow students, and the professors and employees at Hogwarts.  If you have all those already locked in your memory cells, keeping track of the new ones will be a breeze.  Each of the 18 chapters in my book leads off with a kewl drawing, although your version may or may not have those.

    J.K. Rowling spins a variety of neat fantasy critters into the story, including gnomes, ghouls, pixies, a boarhound, ghosts, a poltergeist, and even a phoenix.  The obligatory quidditch match starts on page 107, and I chuckled at things like floo powder, a red howler, a “Deathday Party”, and the pejorative “Mudbloods”.  There are also rib-tickling puns woven into the text; for instance, a pair shady streets called Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley.

    The storyline thread dealing with the titular Chamber of Secrets doesn't get started until page 138.  The main mysteries for Harry to solve are: a.) who opened it 50 years ago, b.) who just opened it again, c.) what sort of evilness has been unleashed, and d.) where dwelleth that evil?  The threads of this plotline are laid out meticulously, with a bunch of clues for Harry (and the reader) to ponder.  For instance, it becomes obvious at a certain point that a trail of spiders is a vital clue, but what exactly does it mean?

    I liked that not everything is as it seems, and that sometimes Harry and his friends are wrong in their suspicions.  The ending will be exciting for both adult and YA readers.  All the threads get tied up nicely.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

    “You’re making fun of me,” she said, silver tears welling rapidly in her small, see-through eyes.
    “No – honestly – didn’t I just say how nice Myrtle’s looking?” said Hermione, nudging Harry and Ron painfully in the ribs.
    “Oh yeah –“
    “She did –“
     “Don’t lie to me,” Myrtle gasped, tears now flooding down her face, while Peeves chuckled happily over her shoulder.  “D’you think I don’t know what people call me behind my back?  Fat Myrtle!  Ugly Myrtle!  Miserable, moaning, moping Myrtle!”
    “You’ve forgotten pimply,” Peeves hissed in her ear.  (pg. 134)

    “Are you crazy?” said Ron.  “It could be dangerous.”
    “Dangerous?” said Harry, laughing.  “Come off it, how could it be dangerous?”
    “You’d be surprised,” said Ron, who was looking apprehensively at the book.  “Some of the books the Ministry’s confiscated – Dad’s told me – there was one that burned your eyes out.  And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives.  And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading!  You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed. And –“
    “All right, I’ve got the point,” said Harry.  (pg. 230)

 “Peskipiksi Pesternomi!”  (pg. 102)
    It’s hard to nitpick a book that has garnered eye-poppingly phenomenal ratings at both Amazon and GoodReads.  But here are a couple:

    It takes a while for the main thread to get going, and that in turn made for a couple mildly slow spots in the early going.  But that also coincided with how far I had read this book in French years ago: up to about page 68.  Once I got to “new” chapters, the slow spots disappeared.  Maybe there’s a lesson there about going back and re-reading books.

    There are several dei ex machina (I had to go look up what the plural of deus ex machina was) in the story, and that may lead to some rolling of the eyes of adult readers.  But methinks YA readers won’t give a Hedwig hoot about those.

    That’s about it.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets turned out to be a fun-filled read, even though I’m not in the target audience.  It brought back great memories of plowing through the first book in French, which expanded my FSL ("French as a Second Language") vocabulary considerably, and which included some head-scratching translations of non-translatable words, such as “Muggles” which become “Moldus” in French.

    9 Stars.  Some review/rating stats for Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsAmazon: 59,756 reviews.  50,252 5-Star reviews (84%).  Goodreads: 2,022,151 ratings, 37,104 reviews.  1,142,526 5-Star ratings (56%).  Note: The Amazon reviews are weirdly identical with the ratings of 4 or 5 of the other ones in the series.  I’m not sure why it’s that way.