Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton

   1908; 121 pages.  Full Title: The Man Who Was Thursday - A Nightmare.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Satire; Philosophical Conjecture; Middlebrow Literature; Surreal Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme are poets.  They are also self-styled philosophers which means they love to have debates just for the fun of it.  Right now (in Edwardian-era London) they’re discussing the philosophy of the anarchist movement, a subject which they are pleased to have opposing views about.

    Gregory feels that anarchy is the highest form of poetry.  Bombs going kerboom! and revolting peasants are the ultimate expression of any of the arts.  Syme disagrees.  The embodiment of poetry is the Law, not Revolution; and his fellow poet deceives himself when he thinks he’s a serious anarchist.

    This upsets Gregory, and he feels compelled to prove his point.  He takes Syme to a secret anarchist meeting, but first makes him swear by everything sacred not to reveal what he is about to witness to anyone else.  Syme complies but in turn requires Gregory to swear not to tell anyone else a secret Syme’s about to tell him.

    Syme is an undercover detective for Scotland Yard, working in their anti-anarchy department.

What’s To Like...
    The Man Who Was Thursday is a bizarre piece of classic literature, first published in 1908, which defies being pigeonholed into any single genre.   I initially thought it was going to focus on the honor of keeping one’s word, no matter what.  Later I thought that it would give me a good idea of what the turn-of-the-20th-century world thought about anarchists.  Alas, neither of these expectations panned out.

    The story is filled with G.K. Chesterton’s wit, which was my main motivation for reading this book.  He might not offer any deep insights into the anarchist movement, but I enjoyed his sardonic views on revolutionaries, law enforcement agencies, honor, and putting on airs.  The settings are minimal – the greater London area and a brief excursion to the coast of France - but I have visited, and thoroughly enjoy, both of those places..

    I liked the “feel” of life back then.  Skyscrapers were a new phenomenon, motor-cars were around but much less common than horse-drawn carriages, and you went by ship to get from London to France because, well, commercial flights didn’t exist.  The philosophical debate in chapter one was fun to listen in on, and I always enjoy learning a new French phrase, in this case: “Pagens ont tort et Chretiens ont droit.”

    The book is written in English, so you see navvies at work, find yourself disorganised yet cosy, push a perambulator (and only now did I realise that’s the longer form of “pram”), study at Board Schools, and entertain guests in your parlour.  I never did figure out what a man described as “somewhat of the type of Mr. Tim Healy” was like, nor why the phrase “what about Martin Tupper now?” was uttered.

     The pacing felt uneven.  The philosophy debate went by fast, but the recruitment section seemed to drag.  The first chase (the good guys running from the bad guys) zipped along just fine, but it was immediately followed by a second chase (the bad guys running from the good guys), and by then I was ready for the storyline to get going again.

    The book is short – only 121 pages – which barely qualifies as a novel.  There is a poem at the beginning which, although well done, didn’t seem to contribute to the story at all.  The ending is positively surreal, which I liked, and there's an offbeat “Row, row, row your boat” twist in the epilogue.  I’d attribute these to the ingestion of LSD by Chesterton, but acid wouldn’t be discovered for another 20 years.

Kewlest New Word ...
Bally (adj.) : a euphemism for bloody; a Britishism used as an intensive, as in “a bally stupid idea.”
Others : Falneur (n.); Cicerone (n.); Badinage (n.).

Kindle Details...
    You can get the e-book version of The Man Who Was Thursday for anything from free to $7.99 at Amazon.  Needless to say, I opted for the cheapest option.  Quite a few of G.K. Chesterton’s e-books at Amazon go for $0.99, and you can even get a 50-book collection of his works, which includes The Man Who Was Thursday, for a mere $1.99.  These things happen when the copyright protection has expired.

    Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.  That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. (loc. 1293)

    “He insulted my mother.”
    “Insulted your mother!” exclaimed the gentleman incredulously.
    “Well, anyhow,” said Syme, conceding a point, “my aunt.”
    “But how can the Marquis have insulted your aunt just now?” said the second gentleman with some legitimate wonder.  “He has been sitting here all the time.”
    “Ah, it was what he said!” said Syme darkly.
    “I said nothing at all,” said the Marquis, “except something about the band.  I only said that I liked Wagner played well.”
    “It was an allusion to my family,” said Syme firmly.  “My aunt played Wagner badly.  It was a painful subject.  We are always being insulted about it.”  (loc. 1662)

 “If you’d take your head home and boil it for a turnip it might be useful.”  (loc. 1038)
    The main problem with The Man Who Was Thursday is its incoherent storyline.  It starts off as a Philosophical treatise (what is anarchy?), then switches to a tale of Intrigue (who’s a cop, who’s not?), then does the Chase trope, not once but twice, and finishes up with a Surreal get-together that would’ve made Salvador Dali get all misty-eyed.

    There are some plot twists but they all seemed either telegraphed or forced.  Finally, one of the protagonists, Lucian Gregory, goes MIA after a few chapters, and doesn’t reappear until the very end.

    I sort of got the feeling G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) had some fascinating and adventurous ideas for our two philosopher-poets to experience in the world of anarchists, but tried to jam them all into a single hundred-page story.  Personally, I think it would've been better to spread them out into a series.

    5½ Stars.  I found The Man Who Was Thursday to be witty, but oftentimes confusing and incoherent.  If I had to describe it in one sentence, it would be: “How Monty Python’s The Holy Grail would sound like if it had been written in 1908”.  That may sound fantastic, and the book certainly has its moments, but in the end it just doesn’t hold together well.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Aye, Robot - Robert Kroese

    2017; 267 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book Two (out of 4, if you include the prequel) in the Starship Grifters series.  Genre : Spoof; Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Something’s wrong with Rex Nihilo lately.  His trusty robot sidekick, Sasha, is sure of it.  He’s too nice, and way too generous.  He doesn’t miss a chance to freely give some possession of his to anyone and everyone he meets.  And for a wheeling-dealing, what’s-in-it-for-me shyster like Rex, that’s totally out of character.

    This has been going on ever since they landed here, on Beltran Prime.  Maybe it’s due to something in the air, or in the water, or in the booze.  Maybe it was going on sometime before they landed, but curiously, neither Sasha nor Rex can recall anything from before Beltran Prime.  It’s strange that this bout with amnesia has affected them both, since Sasha, being a robot, doesn’t eat, drink, or breathe.

    Things are getting serious.  Rex has just given away the last of their money, so who knows where they’ll stay or how Rex will pay for his next meal.  It’s time to jump in their spaceship, and get out of here.

    Oops.  Rex just gave away their spaceship to a couple of religious cultists passing by.

    Now what?

What’s To Like...
    Aye, Robot is the sequel to Starship Grifters, which I read last year and reviewed here.  Rex and Sasha, our two protagonists, are back, along with the sexy Pepper Mélange and the dastardly Heinous Vlaak.  There are a slew of new characters as well.  Ensign Boggs joins Rex’s crew; so do a pair of robotic constructs, Donny (who likes to talk in the third person) and Steve-the-Parrot (just call him “Squawky”).  There are new baddies as well.  Space pirates.  Lots of them.

    If you read Starship Grifters and liked it, this is more of the same.  The pace is frenetic, the action is non-stop, the wit is Monty Python-ish, and the antics are over-the-top.  The plot meanders all over the place.  I was almost halfway through the book before I figured out what the main storyline was.

    Like any good space opera, the reader is treated to a bunch of planetary settings, including: Xagnon, New Borculo Nova, Schufnassik Six, and the ambiguously-labeled Secret Pirate Lair.  The spaceships also have intriguing names: Coccydynia, our heroes’ Flagrante Delicto, and the Chronic Lumbago.  Acronym lovers will thrill to learn the meanings of SLACS, WACS, IGA, HIM, and most-importantly, SASHA.

    The Sp’ossels are back, and I gather they will be recurring adversaries for Rex and Sasha, which I think is great.  Ditto for Heinous Vlaak.  There’s a new cult called the "Collective of the Inverted Ego", but I suspect they’re limited to being in this story only.  The "Retbutlerian Jihad" made me chuckle, and as a chemist, I’m interested in seeing where I can get some of the elemental "Zontonium".  Rex’s extended banter with the vendor about four arms and forearms is as hilarious as any Abbot & Costello routine.

    The story is told in the first person POV (Sasha’s), and 40 chapters cover the 258 pages, meaning there's a good place to stop about every 6½ pages.  The closest this book comes to being R-rated are a couple uses of the word “hell”, the galactic drug, Pheelsophine; and a mention of pain meds.  Aye, Robot is a standalone story, part of a 4-story series, and reading the books in order does not seem to be a requisite.

    The ending is suitably over-the-top, with everything working out for the good guys.  The main story thread is resolved, and there’s a teaser for Rex and Sasha’s next adventure, The Wrath of Cons, which was published last October.  The prequel, which is actually the third book in the series that Robert Kroese wrote, is called Out of the Soylent Planet, and awaits my attention on my Kindle.

    “What are you seeing, Rex?” HIM asked.
    “It’s … it’s so beautiful,” Rex gasped, staring into empty space above the box.  His eyes were welling with tears.
    “We can’t see it, Rex,” said HIM.  “What is it?”
    “It’s… I can’t even describe it,” Rex said, his voice barely above a whisper.
    “Please try.”
    “It’s like someone mixed matter and energy together in a cosmic cocktail mixing glass, filled the glass with cubes of time, and then strained it into a martini glass the size of the universe.”
    HIM frowned.  “You’re seeing…”
    “A cosmic martini,” said Rex, still wide-eyed.  “My God, it’s full of olives.”  (loc. 403)

    “Mister Primate, sir,” said Rex, “If I may interject a moment, I think you’ll find once you’ve reviewed the evidence in my possession that Vlaak’s actions were fully justified and that he is, in fact, a bona fide hero of the Malarchy, deserving of medals and suchlike.”
    “Who are you?” the Primate demanded.
    “Rex Nihilo, Your Poignant Vibrancy.  And can I just say what an honor it is to meet an unquestioned despot such as yourself?  The way you subdue the entire galaxy with an iron grip is truly inspirational.”  (loc. 3608)

Kindle Details...
    Aye, Robot currently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Books One and Three are also $4.99, while Book Zero, the prequel, but the third book written, goes for $0.99.  Robert Kroese offers three other fantasy/sci-fi/satire series (Mercury, Iron Dragon, Land of Dis) and a couple of standalone mystery/sci-fi novels.  Most of his books are in the $0.99-$4.99 range, but the two mysteries are $7.99 and $13.99.

“Don’t get philosophical with me, you clockwork Kierkegaard.”  (loc. 225)
    The last 60 pages of Aye, Robot is a novella titled The Yanthus Prime Job, which starts at 77% and stars Pepper Mélange as a daring jewel thief.  The tone is darker and there are fewer yuk-yuks.  This is more of a “how’s she gonna pull the heist off” tale.

    The gem to be stolen is called the “Emerald of Sobalt Prime”, and the story is still set in the Rex Nihilo universe.  Pepper of course has lots of futuristic gadgets at her disposal, such as contact lenses that double as video-recording devices.  But the museum's security department also has access to that level of technology and builds some pretty sophisticated defenses for the gem.  The drug “Uforium” replaces Pheelsophine, and the ending has a couple of neat twists.

    I found The Yanthus Prime Job to be a great “extra” to Aye, Robot, and now wonder if some of Robert Kroese’s other series are more serious in nature.  I just assumed they were all as crazily over-the-top as the Rex Nihilo ones.  Fortunately, I have at least one book from each of his series on my Kindle, so I have no excuse not to investigate.

    7½ StarsAye, Robot is a lighthearted book that isn’t intended to be taken seriously.  It’s aim is to be delightfully absurd and hold the reader’s interest, and it succeeds nicely on both of those counts.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Liandra and the Dream Reader - Belart Wright

   2015; 86 pages.  Full Title: Liandra and the Dream Reader, An Average Joe Extraordinary Tale, Part 0.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Young Adult Urban Fantasy Adventure (according to the Amazon blurb); Novella).  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Liandra Keyrouz suffers from recurring nightmares.  She’s been having them for six years now, ever since she was ten years old.  They leave her drained, waking her up with dread feelings of panic and terror.  Needless to say, her total exhaustion is having a negative impact on her grades in high school. 

    Curiously, she never can remember the details of the nightmares, just the emotional trauma afterward.  Liandra and her parents are at their wits’ end as to what can be done about this.

    Liandra’s tried amphetamines.  They keep her awake all night, which means no nightmares.  But she has to come down sometime, and then there’s hell to pay.

    Her parents have also sent her to a number of psychologists.  They cost a lot of money, but their help to Liandra has been minimal or nonexistent.  As a last resort, they now want to send Liandra to some sort of New Age quack, who wears funny clothing and cheap trinkets on his fingers, wrists, and neck.

    No doubt he’s just another shyster who wants to take some of her parents’ money.

What’s To Like...
    Liandra and the Dream Reader is a prequel to Average Joe and the Extraordinaires, which I read some years back and is reviewed here.   Liandra is an enigmatic supporting character there, with some amazing supernatural powers.  A number of readers, including me, found her to be more fascinating than Joe, which is not a slam against him; he is, by definition “Average”.  Alas, her backstory isn’t given in AJE, and this book addresses that.

    I liked the two settings – London, England and Stockholm, Sweden.  The latter was mostly in Gamla stan, which I’d never heard of, but is the “old town” section of Stockholm.  Belart Wright is born and raised in Detroit, so it was a bold step to use faraway settings for L&tDR, and it works quite well.

    The target audience is teenage readers who are into Urban Fantasy.  There is a mystical ambiance to the book, with things like “Craftes” and “Life Force”, and that resonated with me.  I liked the reference to Baalbek, since I’m a history buff.  Doing amphetamines, aka “Dexies”, was realistically portrayed, which added to the dark tone of the book.  And I had to google the word “Habibti", a term of endearment used by Mr. Keyrouz.

    The dialogue is punctuated weirdly, the format being the name of the speaker, a colon, and then the quote.  The excerpts below give some examples of this.  Belart Wright also used this in AJE, so I was used to it.  For some reason, the format wasn’t used when the doctor and the beast were speaking.  I have no clue why.

Kindle Details...
    Liandra and the Dream Reader currently sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  Belart Wright has nine other e-books available at Amazon, most of which are full-length novels.  They all sell for $0.99, which is a pretty good deal IMO.  Belart Wright often credits the illustrators of his book covers as co-authors at Amazon, which I think is way kewl.

    Mrs. Keyrouz: “We’ve gotten some good results from your sleep therapist, Dr. Thomas.  He says that you’re actually making progress.  He’s given us a chart here that shows the various chemical fluctuations going on in your body.  He told us that if we regulate the hormones in your body to normal levels that it’s possible for your mind to stop producing these horrible night terrors when you sleep.”
    Liandra: “He’s lying.”  (loc. 976)

    “Have you forgotten about everything else?  Your schoolwork, your college preparation, your future?  Stopping now could derail all your plans.”
    Liandra: “I won’t be able to focus on any of that until I rid myself of these dreams.  I’ll always struggle more than everyone else and will never reach my full potential.  I’ll be too damn tired to do anything.”
    Mrs. Keyrouz: “No cursing in this house.”  (loc. 546)

 “What a foul thing to say, even from a monster.”  (loc. 369)
    I think this book works quite well as an answer for those who read Average Joe and the Extraordinaires and wanted to know more about Liandra’s background.  If you haven’t read AJE, here’s hoping this book piques your interest to read more about her adventures alongside Average Joe.

    Keep in mind this is a novella: only 86 pages long and covered via 14 chapters.  There are only a few characters to follow, there isn’t a lot of complexity or depth, and the action is mostly looking for the cause of Liandra’s nightmares, not taking steps against them.  It’s a quick read (you can finish it in a single sitting), but it’s not a standalone story, and its raison d’etre is to set up, and give background information about, the Average Joe series.  Nothing is resolved here, although I do get the feeling that Liandra will become Joe's main sidekick .

    7 Stars.  The book closes with an indication that, in addition to the Average Joe series (which at this point is a trilogy), there was a Liandra and the Dream Reader, Part Two in the offing, presumably featuring Liandra as the main protagonist.  I don’t see it offered at Amazon, and Belart Wright has lately been concentrating on a pair of LitRPG series, so I’m guessing that means the Liandra series has been either tabled or scrapped.  Here's hoping it gets started again.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Highlander - Zoe Saadia

   2012; 215 pages.  Book 1 (out of 7) in “The Rise of the Aztecs” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Mesoamerica.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Three youths, all of noble blood, all with “sneaky” habits.

    Kuini is of the Chichimec tribe, aka “the Highlanders”, and son of their war leader.  He likes to sneak down from the highlands and observe the neighboring tribes in their huge cities with tall pyramids.

    Coyotl is of the Alcohua tribe, aka “the Lowlanders”, and the son of their Emperor.  He likes to sneak out into the desert, without any bodyguards, just to feel the spirit of adventure.

    Iztac-Ayotl is Coyotl’s half-sister, the First Daughter of the Emperor’s Second Wife.  She likes to dress up as a commoner and sneak out into her city, just for the freedom to do what she wants.

    Each of them will eventually get caught sneaking around, albeit by different persons, and with various consequences.

    And all three will come to realize that being a part of the nobility, while certainly a better lot than being a peasant, also carries duties and obligations to their Empires that none of them can ever shirk or evade, no matter what.

What’s To Like...
    The Highlander is set in central Mexico in the early 1400’s, about a hundred years before Cortez and his conquistadors arrive to obliterate everybody.  We follow the interactions of several tribes: primarily the Alcohua, Chichimecs, Aztecs, and the Tepanecs.  The Mayans are mentioned, but we don’t encounter them.  Surprisingly, the Aztecs are not the dominant tribe at this point in time; the Tepanec are.

    Coyotl, Kuini, and Iztac-Ayotl are the three main protagonists, and they get more or less equal footing in the story.  Each of them faces moral dilemmas that pit their personal wishes against their responsibilities to their tribes.  None of these get resolved here in Book One of this series, but there are another six books to get things sorted out.  Book Seven was published in 2014, so I presume this series is completed.

    This is my second book by Zoe Saadia (the first one is reviewed here), and once again I’m impressed by how well-researched it is.  Cocoa beans are used as money, several Mesoamerican deities are referenced, and it’s neat that the center of attention (at least for now) is not the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan.  I very much liked that none of the tribes, including the Aztecs, are portrayed as pure evil and/or utterly, bloodthirsty.  They each have their own cultures, and each is of course striving to be the dominant force in the region.

    Once again, I thought I’d caught an anachronism in the tale, as the three protagonists pass notes to each other, sometimes on bark, sometimes on paper.  Serendipitously, I’ve just finished reading a book on the history of papermaking (reviewed here), and it confirmed that paper, primarily made from the agave plant, and writing were well developed in Mesoamerica at this point in time, having been developed independently of any European or Asian influence.

    I liked the cusswords employed in the tale: phrases like “manure-eaters”, “filthy bastards”, and the elegantly-lengthened “stinky, dirty, pest-ridden manure-eaters”.  There’s a little bit of bloodshed, a little bit of sex, and the phrase “piss-off” is used once, but really, there's no way I'd call this an R-Rated tale.

    We never learn the names of three of the secondary, but fairly important, characters: the visiting Aztec war leader, Coyotl’s father, and the Chichimec Emperor.  I thought perhaps this was a function of each of these persons’ exalted rank, but both the Aztec  and the Tepanec Emperors’ names are given, so that shoots down my theory.  Maybe we learn their names in subsequent books.

    There are a smattering of “native” words used, and I could suss out the meanings of most of them.  Still, it would’ve been nice to have a glossary to reference, since I never did exactly figure out what “altepetl” and “calmecac” meant.  In fairness, googling both those words as I wrote this review resolved their meanings.  Finally, as with any historical fiction tale as well-researched as this one, it would've been nice to have a “what’s real and what’s made-up” section at the back of the book.

 Kindle Details...
    The Highlander (The Rise of the Aztecs Book 1) presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon, as do the other six books in the series.  Zoe Saadia offers a number of other series at Amazon, all set in various locations in pre-Columbian America,  The e-books in those range from $2.99 to $4.99.

    “So what about that princess of yours?  Who was she?”
    “They say she is the First Daughter of the Emperor’s Second Wife.”
    “Oh, the Second Wife.  The cause of the whole war.  Interesting.”  Eyes twinkling, the man watched Kuini over the rim of the goblet.  “Take my advice, kid.  Don’t mess around with princesses.  They are usually an arrogant lot who will cause you much trouble while giving you no satisfaction.”  (loc. 1553)

    He bit his lips, trying to contain his frustration.  So, there would be no silly talk tonight and no kisses.  She might have not been able to make it for a number of reasons, he thought, but his anger grew, thinking that maybe she had just gotten enough of adventures with foreigners and commoners.
    He stood there, undecided.  Maybe it was for the best.  This girl, while being exciting and fun, had brought him nothing but trouble.  He was really better off without her wild, pretty, untamed presence.  (loc. 2536)

“It’s not every day strange warrior-boys go around kidnapping princesses.”  (loc. 1365)
    There are a couple of quibbles, one minor, one not-so-minor.

    The minor one concerns the dialogue style.  Several reviewers at Amazon and Goodreads felt there was too much English vernacular used.  They point out that phrases used here, such as “you are a mess, kid”, “you know?”, “you see?”, the aforementioned “piss off”, and the Wayne’s World-ish “No way!  Yes way!” were not used in ancient America.

     Well okay, I’m sure the 15th-century Mesoamericans didn’t say such things.  But I’m equally sure that they had their own set of street slang, particularly among their teenage crowds.  And since we’ll never know what those sayings were, I’m okay with using the modern-day equivalents.  After all, they didn't speak English back then either.

    The more serious quibble concerns the ending.  Beyond the personal adventures of our trio of protagonists, the overarching storyline concerns an impending invasion by the Tepanecs.  Indeed, most of the actions of the adults center around meting this threat.  The tension builds nicely, the Alcohua gather their warriors and seek allies, the Tepanecs land on the nearby shores, the two armies face off, and…

    … the book ends.  Oh, we get a brief synopsis of what happens.  A half-dozen sentences covering the rest of this war.  But IMO, this book screams for a climactic battle scene, with lots of fighting, bloodshed, tactics, and heroism.  All I can think of is that maybe the author doesn’t like to do battle scenes.

    But hey, at least it wasn’t a cliffhanger ending.  I despise cliffhangers.

    7½ Stars.  The truncated ending notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Highlander.  The pacing was good, the characters were fun to get to know, and there was a nice balance between history, action, antics, drama, and wit.  I didn’t even mind when a bit of romance worked its way into the plotline.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Paper - Mark Kurlansky

   2016; 354 pages (includes prologue and timeline).  Full Title : Paper – Paging Through History.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Technology; World History.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Mark Kurlansky poses an interesting question at the start of Paper:   What do humans do that other animals do not?

    At first thought, that might seem like an easy question, but finding an answer may take a bit more time than you’d think.

    Yes, our opposable thumbs give us all sorts of dexterity advantages, but lots of other animals have them too: apes, of course, but also pandas, opossums, certain frogs; and some birds, although the latter's is merely an opposable digit.  And as for the skills our thumbs enable us to do – carrying, climbing, grasping, holding, etc. – creatures without thumbs can also do all of these.

    We humans can build things, and alter our environment, but the author points out that so does a beaver when he builds a dam.  We wage war against others of our species, but so do ants.  We can laugh, play, and joke around, but so do cats.  We communicate with one another, but so do bees, wolves, and monkeys.

    No, the one thing that sets us apart is our desire, and our ability, to record.  We’ve been doing it since we were living in caves – drawing glyphs on walls, making scribbles on rocks, and eventually scratching grooves into clay tablets.  But those are all painstaking ways of leaving a message.  So it’s not surprising that mankind came up (independently, and in several locations in both global hempisheres) with an easier medium to leave marks on: Paper.

What’s To Like...
    The book’s title might seem misleading to some, as paper has hundreds of uses (gift-wrapping, tissues, toilet paper, etc.) most of which only receive passing mention here.  Mark Kurlansky focuses mainly on paper being used for communicating or for artistic efforts.  He also examines paper’s forerunners (clay tablets à papyrus à parchment à paper), and its purported replacement (paper à e-mail).  Throughout the book, and especially in the chapters covering the distant past, World History gets just as much ink as Papermaking Technology, and I greatly enjoyed that.

    Paper is divided into 18 chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue.  The earlier chapters are a nice mix of chronological and geographical happenings, covering the various places when and where alphabets, writing, and drawing developed.  Such inventions spurred the need for something to write upon and devices to print with.  Once we hit modern times (around Chapter 14) the theme switches to technological advances, such as the birth of photography and the encyclopedia, new raw materials for papermaking, innovative uses for paper, how the paper industry copes with present-day environmental issues, and last-but-not-least, e-books.

    I was impressed by just how many raw materials have been used for making paper.  Some of the main ones are: flax, cotton, rags, bark, silk, linen, hemp, jute, bamboo, agave, trees, seaweed, esparto grass, abaca, and scraps from sugar cane harvesting.  Rags may seem out of place in that list, but it was actually the major starting material used in America to make paper for hundreds of years.

    The book is a trivia buff’s delight.  Some of the things mentioned that resonated with me are:

Jackson Pollock, Moses Maimonides, Li Po, and Fibonacci  (four of my personal heroes)
1001 Arabian Nights  (Kurlansky claims it is “essentially erotic literature”)
Pencils  (first made in England in 1565)
Book Fairs!  (first held in 1541)
Haiku and Origami  (I’ve written some Haiku, and am fascinated by Origami)
Calligraphy  (I practiced writing Chinese characters when studying Mandarin)
The Kraft Process and the Sulphite Process  (my company sells products for these)
Baseball Cards!  (I had thousands as a kid)
The Iliad and the Odyssey  (I will probably read one or both of these later this year)
Massachusetts  (named for a dialect of the Algonquin language)
Chiaroscuro  (say what?)

    There are some kewl drawings spread throughout the book.  The extras in the back include a Timeline, Acknowledgements, and extensive Bibliography, and a 25-page Index.  Mark Kurlansky has written a series of historical non-fiction books with one-word titles.  I’ve read two (“1968” and now this one), and have two more (“Cod” and “Salt”) waiting on my Kindle.  Based on Amazon and Goodreads reviews, those latter two are regarded as the author’s best efforts, so I’m looking forward to reading them.

Kewlest New Word…
Xylographer (n.) : a person who makes engravings on wood, especially for printing.

    These small, portable books, which Aldus called libelli portatiles, are credited with changing people’s reading habits.  This, of course, is the technological fallacy at work once again.  Aldus did not change reading habits.  Rather, a change in reading habits prompted him to produce a different kind of book.  He could see that books were too big for the way new readers wanted to use them.  Books were no longer read only by learned monks and scholars at stands in monasteries and castles but by a broad range of people, especially in Italy and France.  People wanted to read while lounging in chairs at a café; they wanted to take books to work to read on breaks or on trips.  (pg. 137)

    The expansion in reading was not simply a by-product of the revolutions in France and America, but a widespread phenomenon.  It could even be argued, as Diderot did, that the spread of reading and its accompanying spread of knowledge led to rebellion against the old order.  This was why that old order, the aristocracies and clergy of Europe, were tremendously fearful of this increasing popularity of books and newspapers and reading in general.  In the late eighteenth century, people of all economic classes, rural and urban, the well educated and the little educated, men and women, young and old – everyone started reading more.  (pg. 237)

 As the scribes of old were keenly aware, literacy is empowering and a threat to despotic rule.  (pg. 186 )
    I don’t really have any quibbles with Paper, but have to admit that at times - mostly during the technical passages -  it was a bit of a slog to read.  I don’t think this is in any way the fault of the author; this is my second Mark Kurlansky book, and his writing skills are fantastic.

    Instead, I blame the subject matter.  I suspect it is difficult to make the manufacture of paper an exciting topic due to its inherently technical nature.

     I can relate.  I once had to write a 200-word essay on “Mining in Siberia”.  I was being disciplined for some sort of transgression in junior high, this was before there was anything like Google, Wikipedia, and the Internet, and it certainly didn't merit a special trip to the city library.  My only resource was the encyclopedia at the junior high school library, which, not surprisingly, had very few words to say about the subject.  It was an extremely time-consuming piece of penance, accomplished only by me getting very wordy and spreading a lot of bullsh*t in my essay.

    That was 200 words about Russian mining.  This book is 350 pages about making paper.  I’d love to know what Mark Kurlansky’s thoughts were as he sat down to write this book.

    8 Stars.  Let’s close this review with a pair of trivia questions from Paper; one serious, the other more tongue-in-cheek.  1.) What was the world’s first novel and when was it published?  2.) What, according to Pliny, are humans incapable of doing that other (similarly equipped) animals can?  (Answers in the Comments section.)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Inspector Hobbes and the Blood

   2013; 308 pages.  Book 1 (of 4) in “Unhuman” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Humor; Crime-Mystery; Paranormal; Culinary (Culinary?!  WTF, Amazon? Where’d ya come up with that one?).  Laurels: Shortlisted for the “Impress Prize for New Writers” (2012).  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    There’s been a strange breaking-and-entering at Mr. Roman’s estate.  Someone smashed open one of the windows, climbed through, and stole one of Mr. Roman's violins.

    It was a good violin; you could even call it an expensive one.  But it wasn’t a collector’s item, and there were many more valuable items in the house that were left untouched.  Apparently Mr. Roman was quite upset about all this; he hanged himself shortly thereafter.

    The police have assigned Inspector Hobbes to investigate the case.  He’s quirky, can be heavy-handed at times, but has an excellent record for solving these kind of perplexing crimes.  And tagging along will be Andy Caplet, a journalist with the local Sorenchester and District Bugle, known for his poor record as a reporter.  It seems no one else at the office wanted this assignment, so they sent Andy.

    It seems this heist is just the start of a string of robberies in the Sorenchester area.  A short time later, cups and knives, and even people are going missing.  Will Inspector Hobbes be able to figure out what’s going on, and will Andy’s assistance, help or hinder him?

What’s To Like...
    Andy and Hobbes are an entertaining pair of protagonists – somewhat reminiscent of the Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson team.  But there are lots of differences too, and Wilkie Martin is to be commended for not slavishly duplicating the famous duo.  I’ve read some of the modern-day authors who write “new” Sherlock Holmes series (they can do this because the copyright on that name has expired), none of them yet has come close to matching Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing skills.

     The story is set in the fictitious cities of Sorenchester and Pigton, which are situated in the real Cotswolds area of England, and which I presume is the author’s stomping grounds.  Unsurprisingly, it is written in English, not American, which meant oodles of new words for me.  You can munch on chocolate Hobnobs (I found some of these over here with some help from my friends), get your food via a takeaway, or make a slap-up meal of your own, have a top-up if your drink runs low, and hope that your manky rug isn’t pong.  There were several dozen more of these expressions in the book; a few more of them are listed below.  I was in Anglophile heaven.

    the primary plotline was well-contrived – a string of burglaries of a strange set of artifacts.  Andy and Hobbes know the purloined pieces are connected in some way, the fun is figuring out exactly how.  The secondary storyline concerns the book’s genre itself – are there some paranormal critters scampering around Merrie Olde Englande, or is Andy’s imagination just running wild?  The reader gets a pretty good idea what the answer to that is by the end, yet a sliver of doubt remains.

    I thought the humor was handled very well.  Puns, wit, and tall tales abound, yet it’s not overdone.  The end result is a funny story, but not a silly one.  The ending is suitably climactic and exciting.  The final chapter is essentially an epilogue, with the various plot threads being resolved via Hobbes explaining to Andy how the evildoers did their evil.  Shades of Holmes and Watson finales!

    I loved the use of one of my favorite words, “Daliesque”, and chuckled when “thistledown” made an appearance.  I don't recall ever running across this word before this year, and now this is the third time in 2019 it’s cropped up in books I'm reading.

     The chapters are of moderate length: 19 of them covering 308 pages.  That averages out to around 16 pages per chapter.  Amazon touts the book as being a “cozy” mystery, and for the most part it is.  But it should be noted that there is a fair amount of cussing; I thought it fit in well, but cozy purists may wince at this.  Inspector Hobbes and the Blood is a standalone story as well as the first book in a series.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Shtum (adj.; British; informal) :  silent, non-communicative.
Others: Cagoule (n., British); Hob (n. British); Myxmatosis (n.); Scarpered (v.; British).

    “Right, d’you fancy a cup of tea?”
    “Yes, please,” I said.
    “Good.  Make me one as well, would you?”  A banana-sized finger pointed to the bottle.
    “Oh, right.  Of course.  Umm … do you take milk or sugar?”
    “Two lumps of each, please.”  (loc. 478)

    “What are you here for?  I’ve done nothing.”
    “Nothing?” said Hobbes.  “I’m not sure about that.  Didn’t you knock out a customer’s teeth on Wednesday?”
    Featherlight scowled.  “That’s a lie.  I did no such thing – it was on Tuesday and it wasn’t all of them.  I didn’t hear the customer complain.”
    “He was unconscious.”
    “He was out of order, whinging about a dead mouse in his beer when it was only a bit of one.”  (loc. 1471)

Kindle Details...
    Inspector Hobbes and the Blood currently sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The other three books in the series are all in the $4.07-$4.99 price range.  Alternatively, you can buy the first three books in a bundle; it goes for $6.29 right now. Other than one short story (52 pages) that goes for $0.99, I think that’s all the Wilkie Martin books available at Amazon for now.

 “Your reputation for stupidity doesn’t do you justice.”  (loc.  4451)
    A number of Amazon reviewers totally hated Andy, consequently giving Inspector Hobbes and the Blood some extremely low ratings.  Well, Andy is certainly not the noblest of characters.  He’s insanely jealous of a coworker, even to the point of planting false evidence to implicate him.  He also repeatedly goes snooping around in Hobbes’s house, uncovering secrets he’s not meant to know about.

    Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion, but personally I like anti-heroes.  They are always more interesting than can’t-do-anything-wrong protagonists, and I have a feeling that Andy will mature a bit as the series progresses.

    9 Stars.  I’ve been meaning to read Inspector Hobbes and the Blood for quite some time now, and was pleasantly surprised by the book’s charm, particularly since it is the author’s debut effort.  Here’s hoping he puts out many more books, and that the 4-volume Inspector Hobbes series is not yet completed.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Valhalla - Tom Holt

    2000; 261 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Mythopoeia; Humorous Fantasy; Absurdism; Satire.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Valhalla!  A great hall located in mighty Asgard, administered by Odin, and every Viking warrior’s idea of paradise.  If you die in combat, the Valkyries will personally escort you there to spend the rest of your eternal existence in utter bliss.  But what exactly do dead heroes do to pass the time there?

    Well, Valhalla is a drinking hall, so that’s one activity.  And since the Norsemen there have been fighting all their lives, that’s also what they probably consider to be a fun time.

    But lately Viking warriors dying in battles are few and far between.  So The Valhalla Group Incorporated (they’re a business now) has branched out.  If one has enough money and the right connections, even common folk like you and me can enter Valhalla.  Odin will even tailor an afterlife to suit your fancy, at least to the best of his understanding of the modern way of life.

    For instance, if you've been a cocktail waitress all of your life, you might end up as a serving wench in Valhalla.  For eternity.  Catering to Viking customers with some very outdated ideas about the role of women.

    Or if you loved to play simulated war games with your buddies on weekends (think “paintball” or Civil War reenactments), you could find yourself doing the same sort of thing in Valhalla.  Except with real weapons and ammunition and getting blown to bits every day, then reincarnated every night.

    For eternity.

What’s To Like...
    Valhalla is one of Tom Holt’s mythopoeic stories, and those happen to be my favorite subgenre of his works.  I’ve read his hilarious takes on the Holy Grail myth (Grailblazers, reviewed here) and the Flying Dutchman (Flying Dutch, reviewed here) and found both of those to be quite entertaining.  Valhalla measures up nicely as well.

    As with any Tom Holt offering, there are multiple storylines to follow, meaning readers need to stay on their toes to keep up with all the zaniness going on.  I noted five storylines in Valhalla.  They are:

1.) Carol finds herself wenching in the mead hall, and doesn’t want to do that for eternity.
2.) Her dad, Lin, an agent for the gods, pulls strings to rescue her.
3.) Howard plays real war games each day, every day, whether he wants to or not.  He dies a lot.
4.) Attila the Hun and other famous war leaders watch paint dry.
5.) Vinnie miraculously escapes death in disaster-after-disaster, no matter how long the odds.

     Tom Holt is a British author, so Valhalla is written in English, not American.  You’ll travel on the M5, put on armour, be sceptical, get a flat tyre, become stroppy, put up with cissies, wear pyjamas, and use sellotape.

    I’m a history buff, so I was happy to see the Battle of Chalons cited; it was the turning point for Attila’s invasion of Europe.  Ditto for the nods to Mithraism, Henrik Ibsen, and Robert the Bruce’s spider.  My present residence of Arizona gets mentioned twice, and I recall the Tesco’s stores from my visits to England, but had to look up  what “The Two Ronnies” is.  The “anti-thanaton displacement beam” may not be real, but it is way-kewl.

    At 261 pages, the book is relatively short, and the 15 chapters average out to about 17 pages/chapter.  There’s a fair amount of cussing, but that’s about it for R-rated stuff.  Valhalla is a standalone novel, and not part of any series.

Kewlest New Word (and all of them are Britishisms)...
Mug’s game (n., phrase) : a profitless or futile activity.
Others :  Breeze block (n.); Faffed (v.); Penguin biscuit (n.) .

    It was bathtime; culture shock registering 10.9 on the Richter scale.  Not that old Attila had never got wet.  Far from it.  He could remember days and nights of unspeakable discomfort as the caravan trudged and squelched through snow and driving rain, the water streaming down the inside of his saturated clothes.  He’d always put up with it – no choice in the matter – but it stuck in his memory as one of the most wretched things he’d ever experienced.  Here, for some bizarre reason, they got wet on purpose; these people, with their amazing watertight roofs, had even built a special room just for getting wet in.  Perverts, the lot of them.  (loc. 1667)

    “You hear the voice of Ronald McDonald inside your mind?”
    “All the time.  Actually, he confuses me sometimes.  I remember once, we were besieging this castle in Normandy and nobody could understand why I kept ordering the artillerymen to bombard the walls with sesame seeds and dill pickle.  Still, he’s a bit more lively than the speaking clock.”  (loc. 3358)

Kindle Details...
    Valhalla currently sells for $5.99 at Amazon, which is the price for most of Tom Holt’s e-books there.  You can find a couple going for $4.99, and his half-dozen or so most-recent e-books sell for $9.99.  Most, if not all, of Tom Holt’s novels are now available in Kindle format, which is a great thing, since finding them in the local used-book stores here in Arizona is a rare occurrence.

Your worst nightmare, if you’re a god: humanus ex machina.  (loc. 4560)
    The ending is adequate and twisty, but not compelling.  All the disparate story threads mentioned above are deftly brought together and tied up, but to me things seemed rushed (it’s all done in a single chapter), and a case of humanus ex machina.

    Still, Tom Holt novels are always steeped in absurdism, so this sort of ending should be expected, and might even be deliberate.  I’ve seen Amazon and Goodreads reviewers express difficulty in following the storylines in Tom Holt books, but that’s the essence of the absurd.

    I tend to think Tom Holt books are an acquired taste.  They’re difficult to read at first, but once you get the hang of them, they’re delightful satires..

    8 Stars.  If you end up reading Valhalla, like it, and want more of the same motif, I highly recommend Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (reviewed here).