Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold and Larry Niven



    1971; 320 pages.  New Author? : Yes (David Gerrold), and No (Larry Niven).  Genre : Classic Science Fiction; First Contact; Humorous Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    The new magician literally fell from the skies.  Well, technically he was in his nest, and the nest fell from the skies.  He wields powerful but strange magic.  And he seems more interested in testing the rocks and collecting samples of plants and animals than calling upon the gods to do marvelous things.

    Needless to say, the present magician, Shoogar, is none too pleased with the appearance of this interloper.  The magicians’ code demands a duel.  But the new guy seems totally ignorant of such protocol, and laughs off Shoogar’s threats of spellcasting.  Perhaps it’s more appropriate to place of curse upon him.

    And you know what they say.  “A land with two magicians will soon have only one.”

What’s To Like...
    The Flying Sorcerers is a standalone novel (without chapters), set on an alien planet with two suns and eleven moons, and inhabited by sentient humans in a more-or-less “Bronze Age plus bicycles” stage of development.  The basic theme is how they deal with a visit from a Space Age astronaut/explorer, aka “Purple”, the new Wizard on the block.

    The story in told from a first-person POV, a guy named Lant, who is kind of a mediator between the Shoogar and Purple.  It is written in “classic sci-fi” style, with a dash adult situations and cussing added in.  My favorite cussword was a made-up one, yngvied”.  You can also get high by drinking Quaff, or eating Raba-Root.  But beware the Dust of Yearning, it is a potent potion indeed.

    I liked the world-building details.  Things like a cultivation ceremony, homes that hang from trees (“nests”), and the “finger gesture of fertility’.  The inherent language issue is solved via one of Purple’s magical devices, a “Speakerspell”, and I liked that it had its own learning curve which led to some hilarious translating difficulties at first.

    The secondary themes are ambitious: Magic vs. Science, Purple introducing the natives to "civilized" things such as Assembly-Line Manufacturing, Money, and Possessions; and the Role of Women. There’s also some chemistry (the splitting of water to make Hydrogen and Oxygen) and Mechanical Engineering (flying machines) in the story, and since I’m a chemist, that's a delight.

    Finally, it seems like David Gerrold and Larry Niven were seeing how much wit they could weave into the story.  You’ll meet Lant’s sons, Wilville and Orbur; and be sure to note the names of the gods, they are actually a tribute to various Science fiction writers: “Caff” (Anne McCaffrey); “Virn” (Jules Verne), “Peers” (Piers Anthony), and even ‘N’Veen” (Larry Niven).

Kewlest New Word…
Antipathy (adj.) : a deep-seated feeling of dislike; aversion.

Excerpts...
    “You, Lant.  You Speak for us.  You have been an Advisor as long as anyone.”
    “I can’t,” I whispered back.  “I have never been a Speaker.  I do not even have a Speaking Token.  We buried it with Thran.”
    “We’ll make a new one.  Shoogar will consecrate it.  But we need a Speaker now.”
    One or two others nodded assent.
    “But there’s the chance they might kill me if they find me too audacious a Speaker,” I hissed.
    The rest nodded eagerly.  (loc. 1004)

   I took another sniff – was it possible that this gas made people light-headed?  I wondered about that.  The other gas made things light – this gas made people light.  No, I’d have to think about that.  I took another sniff.  This new gas made people’s view of things rise above other things.
    Another sniff – how strange!  I knew what I meant.  Why weren’t there words for it?  I lowered my head again.
    Abruptly I was pulled away by Shoogar. (…) “What are you doing?”
    “Um, I was investigating the bubbles.”  (loc. 2750)

Kindle Details...
    The Flying Sorcerers sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  David Gerrold’s other e-book offerings are in the price range of $6.15-$12.76.  Larry Niven’s e-books sell for $5.99-$9.99.  For the record, I borrowed The Flying Sorcerers for free via my local library.  I really can’t say enough good things about this resource.

 “We don’t need your guilty-of-incestuous-rape sails!”  (loc. 2813)
    The were some minuses.  The storyline was not compelling and seemed a bit forced to accommodate the punny title.  The pacing was slow.  It took forever for Shoogar to invoke his curse, even longer to build the flying machine and make a trip in it.

    The Role of Women issue was unconvincing.  While it’s true that Purple inadvertently raises their status a bit, it seems like it’s only to get them from brainless animals to being capable of menial tasks.  The gods forbid that women should ever have any leadership qualities, or come up with any problem-solving ideas.  But hey, The Flying Sorcerers was written in 1971, so maybe this was a sign of the times.

    I also was amazed that Lant and his fellow Bronze Agers could quickly grasp the chemistry aspects of splitting water so easily to make two gases, but maybe that’s just the scientist in me coming out.

    Finally, there was an abundance of typos.  It looked like someone ran the hardback version through a scanning program, but never checked to see if everything came out okay.  That’s both sloppy and lazy.

    5½ Stars.  Add 1 Star if you hate books that make you keep track of dozens of characters.  Here, Shoogar, Purple, and Lant are all you need to keep straight, plus maybe Wilville and Orbur.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids - Michael McClung


   2012; 231 pages.  Book 1 (out of 4) of the “Amra Thetys” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Crime Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    There’s honor among thieves.  Camaraderie too.  So when Amra’s fellow thief Corbin asks a small favor of her, it is not unreasonable to accept.

    It’s such an easy thing, too.  Just hang on to a piece of stolen loot, a small statue of an ugly-looking  toad for a couple hours, while Corbin finalizes his getting paid for his service.  It seems he doesn’t entirely trust his client, and wants to hold back this key item as “life insurance”.

    Amra obliges, but unfortunately Corbin’s ploy doesn’t work.  He’s brutally murdered that very night.  Still, since nobody knows what Corbin did with the statue, Amra’s safe, right?

    Hmm.  Then why did a dreaded shape-changer try to break into her room soon afterward, and who sent the beast?

What’s To Like...
    The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids is a fantasy novel set in a city called Lucernis.  The protagonist is Amra Theys, is a young female thief, well respected for her burglary skills.  The sub-genre falls under musket-&-magic.  You’ll run across  bloodwitches, daemonists, shape changers, grohls, and mages, but no elves, dwarves, or unicorns.  There are also a slew of gods, each with their own temple and followers.  I liked the theological setup in the world-building here.

    There’s no Thieves’ Guild per se, such as is found in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, but there are similarities.  Thieves can be hired via a “fixer”, a go-between who determines the price of a job and what percent of that sum the thief is entitled to.

    This is a dark book, with lots of violence and bloodshed; balanced by lots of magic, and I mean that as a plus.  The cussing is a mixture of familiar epithets and citing various body parts of the myriad gods, such as “Kerf’s balls!” and “Isin’s creamy tits!”  I thought these inventive invectives were great.

    The story is told from a first-person POV (Amra’s), and Michael McClung develops some fascinating supporting characters.  I particularly liked the mage Holgren, the detective Kluge, Lord Osskil, and of course, the dog Bone.  The baddies are capable foes.

    Everything builds to a suitably-exciting ending, which also sets up the next book in the series.  This is a standalone, self-contained story, and that’s important for me.  The book’s title comes from a brief description of Amra at 69%; and I like all the other titles in this series.

Kewlest New Word…
Ensorcelled (adj.) : enchanted, fascinated, bewitched.
Others : Moil (n.).

Excerpts...
    “I think I know you well enough to say that you’re wrong.  It’s become fairly plain that you, Amra Thetys, given the choice between fighting and capitulating, will pick a fight every damned time.”
    “So you’re saying I’m stubborn.”
    “Oh, yes, very much so.  Contrary as well.”
    “No I’m not.”
    “Don’t look now, but you’re being stubborn.  And contrary.”
    “I know you are, but what am I?”  (loc. 2881)

   “I don’t doubt you have the Sight.  But I’d make a distinction between seeing the future, however cloudily, and knowing what fate has in store for someone.  If fate even exists.”
    “Oh, it does, though I won’t bother trying to convince you of the fact.  But you are right in believing seeing the future isn’t the same as knowing what fate has in store.”
    “I wouldn’t have expected you to agree.”
    She shrugged her thin shoulders.  “To see the future is to see the likeliest route of a journey.  To know fate, my dear, is to know the destination.”  (loc. 3196)

Kindle Details...
    The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other three books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  You can also buy the whole series in a bundle for $12.96 which, if my math is correct, saves you absolutely nothing.  Michael McClung has two other e-books available, a short story collection (horror tales) for $3.99, and the first book in a new series (“Tarot Quest”) for $2.99.

 One of the privileges of being a mage, I suppose, is that you can be as strange as you like, and nobody dares comment.  (loc. 739)
    The quibbles are minor.  The action aspect of The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids is excellent, but the murder-mystery part is so-so and not very twisty.  The fantasy elements are great, but the setting is pretty much limited to the city of Lucernis.  However, I imagine the geography expands as the series progresses.

    The last 7% of the e-book is details the history, magic system, and god-&-critters list of Amra’s world.  This avoids a lot of tedious backstory telling, but I was content to just skim through it.  I didn’t feel hamstrung by not knowing all these details as I read the book, but I can see where other readers/reviewers would want this section if it weren't there.

    But I pick at nits.  TTWPoTB had a brisk pace, which kept me turning the pages.  Book 2, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye is on my Kindle, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    8 Stars.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Little Bee - Chris Cleave


    2008; 271 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Middlebrow Lit; Book Club Book; Contemporary Literature.  Laurels : #1 NY Times Best Seller; shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Book Awards, nominated for a 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Editors’ Choice - NY Times Book Review, Indie Next pick for February 2009, and a few more.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It really was an odd occurrence.  A 12-year-old African girl, Little Bee, crosses paths with a career-oriented Englishwoman, Sarah O’Rourke, on a beach outside a Nigerian resort.  It's a moment of deep crisis for both parties, and a time of great loss as well.

    But life moves on, and that was two years ago and far away.  Today, in her house in Kingston-Upon-Thames on the outskirts of London, Sarah is trying to come to grips with a new loss, while struggling to keep the tragic details from traumatizing her 4-year-old son, Charlie.

    So imagine her surprise when Little Bee shows up on her doorstep, asking for help.  What are the odds of their paths crossing this second time, on a different continent, with both of their lives once again undergoing desperate upheavals?

    Well, the odds aren’t quite as long as it would seem.  Somehow, Little Bee has Sarah’s husband’s driver’s license with her, which lists their home address. 

What’s To Like...
    Little Bee (aka “The Other Hand” in the UK) is first and foremost a study in the contrasts between the two main characters.  In a broad view, this includes “rich vs poor”, “white vs black”, “resident vs illegal”, and “African vs European”.  These differences are intensified by the narrator alternating between Sarah and Little Bee with each new chapter, and it is interesting to see how each of them tries, with varying success, to understand the other.

    The underlying theme is the horrors faced by refugees seeking asylum in the UK, in particular those fleeing the “oil wars” that brutalized Nigeria beginning in the 1990’s.  But getting to England is hardly the end of their woe, as Chris Cleave gives insight into their lives in Immigration Removal Centers where, after much suffering, things usually end with deportation to their home countries and certain death.

    The writing style is unique.  The story opens with Bee going to meet Sarah, and with the reader thinking “WTF is going on?”  Chris Cleave then fills in the backstory, seemingly one incident per chapter.  That may sound clunky but it works to perfection here.  There are only a few characters to keep track of, which also seemed unusual.  You’ll love meeting 4-year-old Charlie, who has a Batman complex and tries to reduce every problem to a “baddies vs goodies” situation that can be effortlessly remedied by a superhero.

    The book is written in “English Lite”, meaning there weren’t many instances of spellings like programme/program and gray/grey.  But I had to think twice about what a “glasshouse” and "windscreen wipers” were.  I also enjoyed the “Notes” and “Discussion Guide” sections at the back of the book.  It was enlightening to read about a true incident that inspired Cleave to write Little Bee.

     In subject matter, the book reminded me of Dave Eggers’ What Is The What (reviewed here), and even the schmaltzy movie Driving Miss Daisy.  But the tone here is markedly darker and cussing, adult situations, including rape and torture abound.  Nevertheless, the ending is superb and sobering and for me, a bit of a surprise.

Excerpts...
    “You don’t ask for advice, Sarah.”
    “No?”
    “No.  Not ever.  Not about things that matter, anyway.  You ask whether your tights look right with your shoes.  You ask which bracelet suits your wrist.  You’re not asking for input.  You’re asking your admirers to prove they’re paying attention.”
    “Am I really that bad?”
    “Actually you’re worse.  Because if I do ever tell you gold looks nice with your skin, you make a special point of wearing silver.”  (pg. 118)

    “A dog must be a dog and a wolf must be a wolf, that is the proverb in my country.”
    “That’s beautiful,” said Sarah.
    “Actually, that is not the proverb in my country.”
    “No?”
    “No!  Why would we have a proverb with wolves in it?  We have two hundred proverbs about monkeys, three hundred about cassava.  We talk about what we know.  But I have noticed, in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country.  Then people will nod their heads and look very serious.”  (pg. 180)

Kewlest New Word…
Vespertine (adj.) : relating to, occurring, or active in the evening.
Others : Y-Fronts (n.).

“Charlie has extraordinary eyes, doesn’t he?  (…)  They’re like ecosystems in aspic.”.  (pg. 136)
    I don’t really have any quibbles about Little Bee.  Some reviewers think the characters are too contrived.  I find that absurd.  Of course they’re contrived.  That’s why they call it “fiction”.

    I’ve been wanting to read a Chris Cleave book for quite some time, but all the copies of his books/e-books seem to be always checked out at my library.  I assumed that was because they’re a popular “Book Club book”, akin to The Kite Runner or Water For Elephants or even, oog, Marley And Me.  I’m not a big fan of that genre.  They tend to be heavy on the drama, and light on thrills and spills.

    But Little Bee breaks the mold.  Yes, there’s still a lot of emphasis on personal relationships.  But there’s also blood and violence, and a fair amount of human suffering.  Heck, if this is the norm for Book Club fare, I might even consider joining one.

    8½ Stars.  A powerful-yet-short book that'll challenge your preconceptions about illegal immigrants, whether you're living in the USA or the UK.  And if you happen to be in a book club, shake up things by suggesting Little Bee to the group.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Dead Red Cadillac - R.P. Dahlke



   2011; 291 pages.  Book 1 (out of 5) of the “Dead Red Mystery” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Women Sleuths.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Someone has trashed Lalla Bains’s spiffy, cherry-red Cadillac.  Stole it right out of her garage, and plowed it headfirst into Turlock Lake, with the shiny fins left sticking up into the sky.  Who could’ve done such a dastardly deed?

   Hey, I bet it was that mean old Patience McBride.  She just won a blue ribbon for her homemade jam, beating out Lalla’s entry, after the latter had publicly challenged her to a jam-making duel in front of everybody at Roxanne’s Diner.  What a sore winner!

    Alas, Patience has been removed as a suspect for the vandalism.  The police say her body was found seat-belted in the driver seat of the Caddy, dead as a drowned doornail.  Now who would do such a thing?

    It looks like Lalla has some sleuthing to do.

What’s To Like...
    A Dead Red Cadillac is a cozy murder-mystery set in the greater Modesto, California area.  I presume this is the author’s stomping grounds and she’s adhering to the Creative Writing maxim of “write about what you know best”, and I like the choice.  My company sells quite a lot of Ag chemicals in that area, including some that are foliarly applied, so Lalla’s job as a crop-duster hit home, and is quite accurately portrayed here.

   There is a definite “Stephanie Plum” influence on the Lalla Bains character, and I view that as a plus.  Both are sassy females and amateurs in the sleuthing field.  They both have two romantic interests, one being a cop, the other being kind of a rogue, and both series are told from the first-person POV.  This is certainly is a popular niche genre, and  I read another book of its kind recently, which is reviewed here.

    There are lots of characters to meet and be suspicious of.  I really liked Eddie McBride; I hope he is a recurring character in this series.  R.P. Dahlke throws in a couple of plot twists to keep you on your toes, and everything builds to an exciting and satisfying ending.  The writing is straightforward, and in a “storytelling” style, which keeps the plotline moving at a brisk pace.

    A Dead Red Cadillac is a standalone novel, as well as part of a 5-book series.  I gather this is the author’s debut book, and if so, it is a fine first effort.

Kewlest New Word…
Kludge (v.) : to use poorly-matched parts to make something.

Excerpts...
    I opened the front door and was greeted by sharp high-pitched barking.  Tiny nails skittered across the wood floor of the foyer, and with a toothy snarl, a small brown dog launched itself at my leg.  I kicked out, trying to dislodge its hold on my pant leg, then realized that this slathering miniature Cujo was really a tiny Chihuahua and I knew him – not that we were ever on speaking terms.
    “Spike?  Spike.  Let go now, that’s a nice doggy.”  He growled, working his teeth deeper into the material.  (loc. 859)

   I had time for that early lunch after all and, remembering to put on my turn signal, looked over my shoulder before changing lanes and took the exit to Roxanne’s.  My exit was uneventful: no horns honked, no tires squealed as irate drivers were forced to brake at my passing.  Not one middle finger salute accompanied my exiting the freeway.  Gee, maybe I should drive like this more often.  (loc. 2991)

Kindle Details...
    A Dead Red Cadillac sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other four books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  The first three books in the series are also available in a bundle, which is actually how I acquired this one.  The bundle sells for $5.99, which’ll save you four Washingtons.  R.P. Dahlke also has two books to offer from another trilogy, titled “Pilgrim’s Progress”.  They go for $2.99 each, or you can get them bundled with the first three books in the Dead Red series for only $7.99.

 “Sometimes I just open my mouth to change feet.”  (loc. 1041)
    The quibbles are negligible.  There is some mild cussing in the book (“hurt like hell”, “jackass”, “shit”), which cozy purists might object to.  But I am not a cozy purist, so for me, it just helped make the setting seem real.  There was at least one deus ex machina (the newspaper),  and some obvious clues that the police, but not Lalla, seemed a bit slow to pick up on.

    My main challenge was getting used to the Kindle percentage-read, location, and “time left in book” when reading a story in a book bundle.  Everything was based on the sum total of all three books, so it was difficult to gauge just how much further I had to go in Book One.  I know this will bug me even more when reading the middle book in the bundle.

    But this issue is solely the product of my OCD, and I’m sure I’ll get used to it as I start reading stories from more bundles.  Talk about a “First World Problem”.

    8 Stars.  This trilogy has been sitting on my Kindle for quite some time, as I’ve been avoiding it and several other bundles.  All in all, A Dead Red Cadillac was an unexpected treat, and I doubt it will be too long before I read its sequel, A Dead Red Heart.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Collapsing Empire - John Scalzi



   2017; 329 pages.  Book One of a yet-to-be-named series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Epic Science Fiction; Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s all about the Flows.

    The Flows are a galactic “stream” (for lack of a better term) that allow interstellar travel.  They’re not a wormhole, nor are they magic.  You don’t instantly transport to some way-out-there corner of the galaxy.  But a trip that would normally take thousands of years now can be done in weeks, months, or just a year or two, all by entering a Flow at one of its portals.

    If the exit portal of a Flow is close to a planetary system, then galactic exploration and settlement are possible.  Of course, most planets do not sustain life, so “settlement” usually entails building and living in a complex underground.  To date, only one planet beside a Flow, a far-flung place called “The End” sustains terrestrial life.  But all the Flows have a portal close to one planet, appropriately dubbed the “Hub”. Alas, it is uninhabitable, so an orbiting space station, Xi’an, has been constructed above it, in addition to the underground metropolis.

    Once in a great while the Flows “shift”.  The Flow to Earth did just that, quite some time ago, cutting our mother planet off completely from the rest of the colonies.  Its civilization collapsed in short order.  Since then one other colony has also lost its Flow.

    But now there is an astrophysicist who's doctoral thesis claims the rate and degree of shifting is about to speed up.  Her calculations indicate that poor old, out-of-the-way End will soon be the new Hub for all the Flows.  A sobering hypothesis.

    Maybe someone should peer-review that thesis.

What’s To Like...
    The Collapsing Empire is the start of a new series by John Scalzi, which will at least be a trilogy.  There’s a lot of worlds-building to be done, and a lot of characters to meet and greet.  In a nutshell, there are three main protagonists – Kiva, Cardenia, and Marce, and three main antagonists – the Nohamapetan siblings – Ghreni, Nadashe, and Amit.

    The overarching storyline concerns how the collapse of the Flows is going to affect civilization.  The hypothesis presented about this is that everyone is interdependent for survival.  Indeed, the confederation of all the colonies is called the Interdependency.  The character development is superb, as is the storytelling.  If you’ve read other books by Scalzi, you’ll expect this of him, and he does not disappoint.  The baddies are just as resourceful as the good guys.  Well, some of them are, and if you’re one of the less-resourceful ones, at least make sure you can follow instructions.

    There’s a nice balance of Action and Intrigue, and the Science Fiction is, for the most part, “Hard”.  There are no extraterrestrials (at least, so far), and the only exotic fauna/flora I recall is haverfruit.

    I liked the “network seed implantations”, which allow the reigning emperox to communicate with computer projections of all the past rulers.  This same sort of concept was used in Harvest Of Stars, which I read recently and is reviewed here.  The names of the spaceships were also really kewl: “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”, “No, Sir, Don’t Mean Maybe”, “Some Nerve!”, et.al.  And the importance of Peer Review is rarely seen in sci-fi stories; its appearance here was a nice touch.

    The Collapsing Empire is a quick and easy read, despite having a complex plotline.  There’s a new cosmos with lots of new people to get acquainted with, and John Scalzi kept my interest from beginning to end.  There’s also quite a bit of sex, mostly initiated by one character, but I found that to be amusing, not objectionable.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Squick (v.) : to cause (someone) to feel intense disgust; to cause psychological discomfort.  (the word has only been around since the 1990’s.)
Others : Heuristic (adj.);Assonant (adj.); Cockwomble (n.; a Britishism).

Excerpts...
    “You’re traveling light.”
    “My other bag got boosted.”
    Ndan nodded.  “Sucks.  When you get squared away go to the quartermaster and get a new kit.  You’ll be charged extortionate rates but that’s your problem.  You got marks?”
    “A few.”
    “If you’re short, come find me.  I can lend.”
    “That’s very kind.”
    “No it’s not.  It’s business.  My interest rates are also extortionate.”  (pg. 177)

    ”You want to risk a lot on a doctoral thesis, sis.”
    Nadashe shrugged.  “Worst-case scenario, we’re wrong about the shift.  The result is you’re the Duke of End and I’m the Imperial consort.”
    “Actually the worst-case scenario is you don’t marry Rennered and Ghreni is arrested for treason, and the shift happens anyway,” Amit pointed out.
    “You’re not helping,” Ghreni said, to his brother.  (pg. 226)

 I am emperox of all humanity, and my life sucks.  (pg. 258)
    There are some negatives.  There is an abundance of cussing, mostly from the mouth of Kiva.  I wasn’t offended, but it did feel overdone.  Also, the publisher is Tor Books, and that seems to always mean a poor job of editing.  Here, a character’s name “Jansen” becomes “Jensen” a mere eleven pages later.  And pluralizing “emperox” becomes “emperoxs”, not “emperoxes”.  These are sloppy things, but minor.

    A more serious issue is one raised by a number of reviewers at Amazon: that there isn’t really an ending, just a pause in the storyline.

    Well, that’s a valid criticism, but to be fair, the book does end at a logical point.  The Collapsing Empire is not a standalone novel, but at least it doesn’t close with a cliffhanger scenario.  It kind of reminded me of the way The Fellowship of The Ring, Book 1 of LOTR, finishes.  Phase 1 is done; read the next book for Phase 2.  I suppose if Tolkien can get away with it, so can Scalzi.  But it is disappointing.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you can’t stand novels that aren’t standalones.  My advice is: wait three or four years until the series is complete, then borrow the books from your local library.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Map Of Bones - James Rollins


   2009; 715 pages.  Book #2 (out of 12) in the Sigma Force series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It was an outright massacre that took place during the midnight High Mass at the main cathedral in Cologne, Germany.  Parishioners and priests alike were slaughtered, down to almost the last man.

    The motive seemed obvious – there’s a gold sarcophagus in the cathedral, worth millions, and it was the goal of the assassins.  What doesn’t make sense is why they chose to go after it when the place was packed.  It would’ve been a much easier heist if they had waited until no one was at the church.

    It was even stranger when the robbers/killers didn’t even try to carry off the sarcophagus.  They just opened it up and stole its contents – a few ancient bones.  Tradition says they were from the three wise men that journeyed to visit the Christ child in the Bible.  It’s a quaint legend, but probably fiction.  How in the heck would you track down those wise men, let alone stick around until they died and then make off with a couple of their bones?  Most likely these relics are medieval forgeries.

    But then why would somebody be willing to kill hundreds of people just to steal them?

What’s To Like...
    The action in Map Of Bones begins immediately (there’s a Prologue), and continues non-stop until the final page.  There are two sets of bad guys (The Guild and the Dragon Court) and two sets of good guys (the Vatican and our Sigma Force heroes), but the lines of trust and loyalty among those four groups can best be described as “fluid”.

    Based on previous books, I thought Sigma Force was just a special-ops unit, but apparently they are picked for their assorted technological and scientific backgrounds.  Indeed, science plays a prominent part here – weird things like superconductors, Meissner fields, and m-state elements.

    The puzzle-solving has a decidedly historical flavor to it, with special emphasis on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  So if you like topics such as Alexander the Great, the Library at Alexandria, Sphinxes, and the Magi, you’re in for a treat.  Even one of my personal historical heroes, Eratosthenes, gets a brief mention.  If history isn’t your shtick, no problem.  The underground city in Seattle gets cited (there really is such a thing), as do the music groups Godsmack and the Pixies.

    The settings are great – Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, and Egypt, and they had the “feel” of James Rollins spending time in each place to make them realistic to readers and locals alike.  Rollins throws in some snippets of foreign languages here and there – French, German, Latin, Italian and Portuguese, and I always like that.  My Gnostics get some major ink here, and I like that they were evenly presented as the early opposition to the Orthodox Church.  Most authors make it a good-vs-evil sort of thing, favoring one side or the other.  Here, both theological stances are presented as having their pluses and minuses.

    There are a bunch of plot twists to keep you on your toes.  Have fun trying to guess who the Imperator is.  I bet you’ll guess wrong.  Hey, so did I.  Everything builds to a great climactic showdown.  Some good guys and bad guys die; some of each also get away.

    There is some cussing and adult situation, and of course, lots of violence.  If this offends you, you’re reading the wrong genre.  There’s also a smidgen of Romance here, but not enough to frighten away the male readers.  Map Of Bones is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.  It was also surprisingly quick-reading, which was a plus for its 700+-page length.

Kewlest New Word ...
Corbeled (v.) : (something) supported by a projection jutting out from a wall (i.e., a corbel).

Kindle Details...
    Map Of Bones sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  The other Sigma Force e-books are in the $2.99-$9.99 range, but if you have patience, you will find some of the older ones occasionally discounted to $1.99.   Rollins’s non-Sigma-Force novels are similarly priced.  All in all, I find his e-book rates quite reasonable.

Excerpts...
    Gray remembered her eyes upon him and her dark curiosity.  But he also remembered Painter’s earlier warning about her.  It must have been plain on his face.
    “Yes, I am going to betray you,” Seichan had said plainly as she pulled on her shirt.  “But only after this is over.  You will attempt the same.  We both know this.  Mutual distrust.  Is there a better form of honesty?”  (loc. 6161)

    She heard a satisfying grunt and the clatter of a gun to stone.  Something heavy followed with a thud.
    Rolling across the floor, she reached Vigor.  The monsignor crouched near the top of the firepit tunnel.  She handed him her gun.  “Down,” she ordered.  “Shoot anybody that comes into view.”
    “What about you?”
    “No, don’t shoot me.”
    “I mean where are you going?”  (loc. 7252)

 Why steal the bones of the Magi?  (loc. 301)
    The negatives are minor.  Parts of Map Of Bones are a bit over-the-top.  Meissner fields and m-state elements are real (Wiki them), but levitation is not.  You will find the puzzles indecipherable here, but our plucky heroes solve each one in no time flat.  And every time someone points a gun at Grayson Pierce’s head, you just know something will go awry for the baddies.

    Still, this is like quibbling over the action details in an Indiana Jones movie.  It may be over-the-top, but good golly, Miz Molly, it sure is entertaining.

    This was my fifth James Rollins novel, and my third of his Sigma Force series.  Three more are sitting on my Kindle, waiting to be read.  James Rollins is gradually replacing Steve Berry as my favorite historical-themed action-thriller author. 

    8½ Stars.  The midnight High Mass scene brought back memories of my freshman year in college,, when my RA was a priest-in-training.  He would occasionally take part in the service, usually sprinkling the incense around.  We freshmen usually had nothing better to do – we were required to live in dorms and forbidden to have cars..  So we would sometimes attend the service, albeit generally in an inebriated state.

    If you’ve never attending a High Mass, I highly recommend the experience, no matter what your religious views are.   Just remember to be respectful, and if you’re not a Catholic (and I’m not), do NOT partake of the wafers and wine.  Who knows, it could be a matter of life and death.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Men At Arms - Terry Pratchett


   1993; 377 pages.  Book 15 (out of 41) of the Discworld series.  Book #2 (out of 8) of the City Watch subseries.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Laurels : #148 in the Big Read.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Sam Vimes is getting ready to retire from the Night Watch.  It’s a good career move since he plans to marry the Lady Sibyl Ramkin, who is merely the richest woman in all Ankh-Morpork.  Sam will be moving up in social status, and up in money.

    There is one little thing that Sam would like to clear up before he retires.  It seems a lot of people (and we use that term loosely) are dropping dead in Ankh-Morpork lately.  That in itself is not unusual, but the means of their demise is.  Lead poisoning.

    But not just any kind of lead.  Lead in the form of little pellets.  And which seem to make big holes in a victim’s body when they enter it at great speeds.  Whatever weapon was used, it is new to Sam Vimes and his Night Watch.  What kind of contrivance could wreak such damage?

   Maybe the word “gonne” found on a stray piece of paper is a clue.  Maybe there’s a clue on the book’s cover.

What’s To Like...
    Men At Arms centers around Ankh-Morpork’s Night Watch, and that’s always guarantee of a fun read.  Three significant new recruits are added here – Lance-Constables Detritus, Cuddy, and Angua, and all play major parts in the storyline.  This is the book where the Night Watch takes over prominence from the Day Watch.  It was also nice to see Gaspode The Talking Dog again; he is an infrequent guest in the series.

     The main plotline is of course figuring out who is behind the killing, and why, and how.  But there are also lots of subplots.  Sam retires, gets married, and gets promoted.  Carrot finds his heritage, loses it, and gets promoted.  Gaspode gets a home, and leaves a home.  As always, Terry Pratchett subtly weaves several more-serious themes into the tale.  Here they are Affirmative Action, Racial/Species Bigotry, the role of Royalty, and Gun Control, with that last topic being given a different spin than what you’d expect.

    Men At Arms has the usual Pratchett format – no chapters, but lots of witty footnotes.  If you like dogs and clowns and dwarfs and trolls, you’re in for a treat.  Synesthesia makes a brief appearance, and even my Gnostics get some ink, which is an incredible work-in when you think about it.  And if you’ve never attended a clown funeral, you don’t know what you’re missing, and here’s your chance.

    I don’t recall any other Discworld novel featuring so many Ankh-Morpork guilds.  To wit: the Assassins’ Guild, the Fools’ Guild (the clowns), the Alchemists’ Guild, the Beggars’ Guild, the Thieves’ Guild, the Butchers’ Guild, the Teacher’s Guild, the Bakers’ Guild.  Hey, there’s even a Dogs’ Guild.

    I thought the ending was excellent and tied things up nicely.  As always, this is a standalone novel, despite being part of a 41-book series.  It’s nice not to have to read them in order, and it’s nice to discover where some characters made their debut.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Berk (n.) : a fool; a twit  (Britishism)
Others : Toff (n.; Britishism); Stroppy (adj.; Britishism).

Excerpts...
    “I’ll tell you,” said Vimes.  “A monarch’s an absolute ruler, right?  The head honcho-“
    “Unless he’s a queen,” said Carrot.
    Vimes glared at him, and then nodded.
    “OK, or the head honchette-“
    “No, that’d only apply if she was a young woman.  Queens tend to be older.  She’d have to be a … a honcharina?  No, that’s for very young princesses.  No.  Um.  A honchesa, I think.”
   Vimes paused.  There’s something in the air in this city, he thought.  If the Creator said, “Let there be light” in Ankh-Morpork, he’d have got no further because of all the people saying “What color?” (pg. 64)

    “I think we’re going to have to go and have a word with the Day Watch about the arrest of Coalface,” Carrot said.
    “We ain’t got no weapons,” said Colon.
    “I’m certain Coalface has nothing to do with the murder of Hammerhock,” said Carrot.  “We are armed with the truth.  What can harm us if we are armed with the truth?”
    “Well, a crossbow bolt can, e.g., go right through your eye and out the back of your head,” said Sergeant Colon(pg. 244)

 Sometimes it’s better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.  (pg. 253)
    I have nothing negative to say about Men At Arms, but there are a couple things to note.

    First, there are quite a number of killings.  Someone getting offed is not unprecedented for a Discworld novel, but I counted eight of them here.  That's a bunch.  The good news is that means DEATH gets to show up a lot.  But it also means impressionable young’uns might be a bit stunned by it all.

    Second, there is one case of “jumping into the sack”, and I don’t remember encountering that in a Discworld novel before.  Yes, it is tastefully done, but adult readers will have no doubt about what took place.  And little Tommy or Susie might ask questions.

    But hey, I’m not a juvenile, so none of this bothers or offends me.  It was enlightening to see how Terry Pratchett handled both the multiple murders and the sex in a manner acceptable even to YA readers.

    9½ Stars.  Published in 1993, Men At Arms is from the “Golden Age” of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  It completely lived up to my high expectations, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide - Peter Cave



   2014; 240 pages.  Full Title: Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Philosophy; Reference.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Ah, Philosophy!  Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge and wisdom IMO, defines it as “the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language”.

    Well that’s just fine and dandy.  But if you find yourself trapped in an elevator with a philosopher, just how do you talk the talk with him/her?  “Yo, bro!  To be or not to be”, perhaps?  Or how about, “I think therefore I am.”  Maybe the more metaphysical, “Can God make a stone so heavy that even He/She can’t lift it?”

    Hmm.  Perhaps we should read a book about Philosophy.  Preferably one aimed at newbies to the subject.  You never know when you'll find yourself stuck in an elevator with a philosopher.

What’s To Like...
    Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide has 10 Chapters (12, if you add in the Prologue and the Epilogue).  Briefly, they are :
P. Take Your Time.  What is philosophy?
1.  What is it to be human?  I think, therefore I am.
2.  Are we responsible for what we do?  Free will, determinism.
3.  Surviving.  Does the “I” change as we age?  Who are “you”?
4.  What – morally – ought we to do?  Situational ethics.
5. Political philosophy: what justifies the state?  What is legally/rightfully mine?
6. Mind, brain and body.  Is pain psychological or physical?
7. What, then, is knowledge?  How do we “know” something?
8. How sceptical should we be?  Science and skepticism.
9. God: For and against.  Big Bang vs. Intelligent Design.
10. The arts: what is the point?  Aesthetics and “the message”.  How do we judge art?
E.  Mortality, immortality and the meaning of life.  What is the meaning of life?  What is immortality worth?
    My favorites were Chapters 4, 5, 8, and the Epilogue.  Yours will probably be different.

   The book is written in English, not American, so you encounter words like scepticism, defence, programmes, and skilful.  MS-Word’s spellcheck program just went crazy over that sentence.  The author points out that it isn’t necessary to read the chapters in order, but I did anyway.

    This is also a book to read in “small bites”, as my brain rapidly got weary trying to keep straight all the “isms” that Peter Cave examines.  Really.  Here’s a fairly complete list: Utilitarianism, Deontology, Virtue Theory, Particularism, Dualism, Free Will, Determinism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Voluntarism, Egalitarianism, Libertarianism, Logical Behaviorism, Materialism, Cartesian Dualism, Epiphenomenalism, Functionalism, Skepticism, Fallibilism, Phenomenalism, Naturalism, and Instrumentalism.  Whew!  And I may have missed a couple that appeared before I started to make a list of them.

    Peter Cave presents lots of muse-worthy scenarios and examines the various ways to judge them.  I often started out with a first-thought conclusion, then had to reexamine it in the face of Cave’s arguments.  The “two lobes of the brain” one was especially fascinating.

    I also encountered some neat people and things that I was already familiar with, such as the Turing Test, Novalis, Nietzsche, Ockham’s Razor, and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.  Cave includes “mini bios” of almost every philosopher he cites in the book, often with some ironic and little-known “twist” in their life.  Way kewl.

Excerpts...
    What is it like to be a bat?
    However much we may learn about the bat’s echo system, however much we may examine the bat’s neural structures – whatever flights of fancy we may engage, when hanging upside down from the chapel’s rafters flapping our arms – we may still feel that there is something forever elusive; the bat’s consciousness, its perspective on the world.
    What, indeed, is it like to be a bat?
    Even if bats could talk, we could not understand them.  (loc. 1792)

    Scepticism can be traced to the ancient Greek Pyrrho of Elis.  Some sceptics would claim nothing can be known – not even that nothing can be known.  Ancient anecdotes abound of Pyrrho ignoring precipices, dangerous dogs and other hazards for he had no good reason to trust his senses.  Fortunately, he had good friends who were not so sceptical; they steered him away from disasters in waiting.  (loc. 2089)

Kindle Details...
    Philosophy:A Beginner’s Guide sells for $6.15 at Amazon.  Peter Cave has written at least two other books for the Beginner’s Guide series, Humanism (which is on my Kindle, waiting to be read) and Ethics (which I have not yet purchased).  The former is also priced at $6.15.  The latter goes for $9.99.  The author also has several of his own books on Philosophical Puzzles, which are more light-hearted, and which are in the $8.49-$11.50 range.

 ‘Tis better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.  (loc. 1004)
    Full disclosure #1: I am not a big fan of Philosophy.  I find it mostly a bunch of gobblety-gook, and those who expound upon it to be filled with themselves and hot air.  Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide did not change my views on this.  The book poses lots of great questions and issues, and offers the reader no conclusions.  But hey, that’s philosophy for you.

    Full disclosure #2: I am a big fan of Peter Cave.  I’ve read two of his other books on Philosophy, namely: Do Llamas Fall In Love? and Can A Robot be Human?  They are reviewed here and here, and I enjoyed both those books.  P:ABG was still a good read, it's just that the constraints of writing a worthwhile reference means that it isn't the author's best stuff.  If you want to see Peter Cave at his best, pick up DLFIL?

    7 Stars.  FYI, there apparently are a slew of books, on all sorts of different subjects, in the Beginner’s Guide series.  They are listed in the back of this e-book, albeit without links, and are published by Oneworld Publications.  I suspect they are meant to be a rival of the “(Such and such) For Dummies” series.