Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hoka - Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson


1984 (but three of the stories are actually from 1955-57); 253 pages. Genre : 50's Sci-Fi. Overall Rating : C+.
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What if the initial humanoid contact for those cute furry Ewoks in the Star Wars series, instead of being Darth and Luke and Death Stars; had been terran Movies, Books, TV, and History? This book explores that, save that the living, breathing teddy bears here are called Hokas. The book is a compilation of four stand-alone stories (There's a fifth one, but it's a 10-page exercise in self-promotion and is eminently skippable) starring these ursine creatures, who love everything about our culture, and who completely immerse themselves in role-playing, including uniforms, earthly accents, and literary/cinematic dialogue.
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What's To Like...
Three of the stories are take-offs of (literary) Casey At The Bat, Sherlock Holmesian mysteries, and Kipling's The Jungle Book. The fourth one draws upon (historical) Napoleonic Europe, as seen in the cover art. The compilation is a fun read, and a quick one. The stories have neat drawings in them done by one Phil Foglio. The Hokas can drink all other creatures in the universe under the table, and in one story (written in the 1950's) a curiously stimulating herb of some sort is smoked.
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There's not much depth here, but that's typical for the genre. There are two instances of cussing, albeit mild ("H*ll and d*mnation" and "a h*ll of a request"). Which seemed needless to me, since the salty-mouthed alien spouting these phrases had just engaged in about 10 pages of ersatz swearing. For example, "Go sputz yourself" and "Sput Meowr. Meourl spss rowul rhnrrr!"
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Cool/New Words...
Encardined : reddened. Ineluctable : unavoidable. Aquiline : with the characteristic of an eagle or the beak of one. Sui Generis : in a class of its own. Mangel Wurzel : a large beet used for cattle feed (although here it was a term of endearment). Brobdingnag : a land where everything is huge (taken from Gulliver's Travels, and definitely one bodacious word). Autochthones : indigenous people.
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Excerpts...
"It may be sheer accident," Brob suggested. "Mortal fallibility. There is a great deal of wisdom in the universe; unfortunately, it is divided up among individuals." (pg. 178)
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The Hoka France had never had a revolution, merely an annual Bastille Day fête. At the most recent of these, Napoleon had taken advantage of the chaos to depose the king, who cooperated because it would be more fun being a field marshal. The excitement delighted the whole nation and charged it with enthusiasm. Only in Africa was this ignored, the Foreign Legion preferring to stay in its romantic, if desolate, outposts. (pg. 201)
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"I was born with a dull, sickening thud..." (Hoka-penned literature)
Hoka was a nostalgic visit to the sort of book I used to read in my early teens. A lot of Poul Anderson's books reportedly deal with time- and dimension-travel; similar to my favorite writer from those years - Andre Norton. The Hoka series seems to be a comedic side-project by Anderson and Dickson.
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I liked the clever and subtle introducing of higher lit to young readers. Unfortunately, science fiction has come a long way in the past half-century, so this book came off a bit dated. It was a pleasurable read, but there wasn't much substance to it. We'll give it a "C+" and resolve to read at least one of Anderson's mainstream sci-fi books, to see how it compares to Norton.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues - Tom Robbins


1976; 416 pages. Genre : Modern Lit. A Counter-Culture Classic. Overall Rating : B.
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ECGTB is the story of one Sissy Hankshaw, who's the Tiger Woods of hitchhiking, thanks to two super-sized thumbs and a love for the open highway. In her travels, she crosses paths with the all-girl Rubber Rose Ranch, the last flock of migrating whooping cranes, the author posing as a psychiatrist, a lust-crazed Japanese guru that everyone thinks is Chinese, a full-blooded Mohawk whom she marries, a peyote queen, and a Countess who's a "he".
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What's To Like...
When he's advancing the plot, Robbins has the rawness of Bukowski, the humor of Vonnegut, the word-weaving wit of Plath, and the simile and metaphor magic of Pratchett. Wow. In addition, he sprinkles in some interesting ancedotes (some maybe even factual) such as Robert Schumann doing finger-stretching exercises, and F. Scott Fitzgerald dying while eating a Butterfingers candy bar. He also occasionally engages in "verbing" (which I still think should be called 'verbalizing').
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There is a lot of sex here, and all sorts of it - straight, gay, bi, group, and auto. The sex passages fit in well, but this is not a book for the kiddies. Robbins takes on religion and all sorts of hippie-days issues, such as "finding oneself". He doesn't have much use for us westerners getting into Eastern gurus, suggesting that we instead should reconnect with our pagan past.
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Alas, after a stellar first third of the book, Robbins starts halting the storyline to go Dan-Brown preachy on us, often for 20 pages or so at a pop. Most notable and lengthy are the Sissy-and-the shrink and Sissy-and-the-Ch*nk diatribes. Hasn't he heard of "show, don't tell"? Some of his philosophical mush is probably good, but there are also things like "I believe in everything, nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing, everything is sacred." That reminds me of Inspector Clousseau's (Pink Panther) line : "I suspect everybody. I suspect nobody." Yeah, they both have equal merit as far as life-guiding advice goes.
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Excerpts...
In the evenings, light from an ever-increasing number of television sets inflicted a misleading frostiness on the air. It has been said that true albinos produce light of similar luminescence when they move their bowels.
Middays, the city felt like the inside of a napalmed watermelon. (pg. 42, describing South Richmond)
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"You're either for us or a Guinness." (pg. 311)
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New/Cool Words...
Atavistic (the reappearance of a characteristic in an organism after several generations of absence); Pellucid (crystalline, transmitting light); Limbic (of the interconnected brain structures involved with emotions, motivation, etc.); Impastoed (applied via thick layers of pigment to a canvas or other surface); Gloaming (twilight); Extirpate (to pull up by the roots). There was also "mambaskin" which means, straightforwardly enough, "the skin of a mamba". For some reason when I read it, I broke it down into "mam - baskin" and drew a total blank.
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"Ha ha, ho ho, and hee hee"
This seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it book for most readers. I found it to be both. When he was moving the storyline forward, it was a great read. But the philosophical exegesis and the ending were both self-indulgent. I give it a "B"(or one giant Sissy Hankshaw 'thumbs up'), since the good parts are more prevalent than the bad parts.
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Even Cowgirls Get The Blues broke new ground when it came out in 1976, especially regarding lesbian and bisexual relationships. But it's written by a heterosexual male, and I wonder whether today Robbins' views would seem dated to GLBT readers.

Monday, December 14, 2009

You Suck - Christopher Moore


2007; 328 pages. Full Title : You Suck, A Love Story. Sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, reviewed here. Genre : Romantic Comedy Vampire Spoof. Awards : #6 on the NY Times Best Seller List in February 2007. Overall Rating : A-.
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After more than a decade, Christopher Moore pens a much-asked-for sequel to his first vampire story. You Suck opens romantically : our fanged heroine, Jody, kills her lover, Tommy Flood. Kinda. He's not dead, he's just now a fellow, undead vampire. She was lonely.
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Moore mayhem (pun intended) ensues. Since they're now both creatures of the night, Tommy and Jody need to find a daylight minion. Meanwhile, the 800-year old vampire that "turned" Jody gets loose, vowing to terminate both of our protagonists. And Tommy's turkey-bowling supermarket night-shift cohorts, led by a smurf-colored hooker named (appropriately enough) "Blue" who took all their easy-earned money, are out to put a stake in him as well.
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What's To Like...
Once again, the humor is profuse and laugh-out loud funny. The storyline is well-paced. The great cast of characters from BSF are back : the Emperor and his dogs, Lazarus and Bummer; the sinister Elijah Ben Sapir; the Keystone Koppish Animals, and the gay cop duo of Rivera and Cavuto.
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Ah, but Moore also introduces us to a whole slew of cool, new ones - the aforementioned Blue; the teenage Goth minion Abby Normal; her moony friend Jared; and Chet the Shaved Cat. This is more than a cheap, low-effort, feed-the-readers-any-old-tripe story yawned out by Moore.
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Be forewarned, there's a lot of cussing, potty humor, and sex in the book. If such things aren't your literary cup of tea, steer clear of YS. And although the book is a stand-alone, it will make a lot more sense if you read BSF first.
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Some found the ending to be meh, but I thought it was good enough. Moore seems to keep it sufficiently "open" to allow for at least one more book in the series.
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Cool/New Words...
onomatopeed (verb, pg. 7) : "onomatopeia" is one of my favorite words, but this is the first time I've seen it turned into a verb. punani (adj., pg. 101) : well, these are "family" book reviews, so we won't give the definition here. You can google it. I had never heard of this word before. Sheltered life and all that.
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Excerpts...
"Ha!" Jody said. "I am a finely tuned predator. I am a superbeing. I--" And at that point she bounced her forehead off a light pole with a dull twang and was suddenly lying on her back looking at the streetlights above her, which kept going out of focus, the bastards.
"I'll be back to get you," Tommy called.
He's so sweet, Jody thought. (pg. 45)
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"I could be a slave to your darkest desires," Abby said. "I can do things. Anything you want."
The vampire Flood commenced a coughing fit. When he had control again, he said, "Well, that's terrific, because we have a lot of laundry piled up and the apartment is a wreck."
He was testing her. Seeing if she was worthy before bringing her into his world. "Anything you desire, my lord. I can do laundry, clean, bring you small ceeatures to quench your thirst until I am worthy."
The vampire Flood snickered. "This is so cool," he said. (pg. 96)
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You b*tch, you killed me! You suck!
Those are the opening lines of the book. Sequels (with the exception of Mad Max 2), always struggle to catch the magic of their predecessors. You Suck actually does a pretty good job of that. We'll give it an "A-", and a bloodthirsty recommendation. It kept me laughing and kept my interest. That's good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Gunpowder Empire - Harry Turtledove


2003; 286 pages. Genre : Sci Fi - Parallel Universes; Young Adult. Book #1 of the "Crosstime Traffic Series". Overall Rating : C.
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The Solter family has a novel way of spending their summer vacation - they travel to a parallel universe where the Roman Empire never collapsed. Technology-wise, that world has evolved up to muskets and cannons, so the "this-worlders" can trade common items from here - mirrors, mechanical watches, Swiss army knives, etc. - for much-needed grain.
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What's To Like...
Turtledove does a nice job comparing the two Roman Empires, and portraying how history might have changed if the Barbarians had never seriously threatened Rome. He also paints a detailed picture of the parallel medieval city, its government, and its daily life.
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OTOH, the "this-world" timeframe is set at 100 years from now, and it isn't much different from the present day. No one wears furs (but we still eat meat), our computer understands our voice commands, and of course, we can dimension-hop. That's about it. Not a lot of progress for an entire century.
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As usual, our dimension conveniently happens to be the most advanced one around. Just once, I'd like to see some more-evolved chrono-hoppers land in our world, and be condescending to us primitives. The ending isn't very climactic, and there's too much "telling not showing". See the "sexism" section on page 60.
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Excerpt...
But people were people, in her timeline or any of the alternates. Knowledge changed. Customs changed. Human nature didn't. People still fell in love - and out of love, too. They still schemed to get rich. They squabbled among themselves. And they needed to feel their group was better than some other group. Maybe they had more money. Maybe they had blond hair. Maybe they spoke a particular language. Maybe they had the one right religion - or the one right kind of the one right religion. It was always something, though. (pg. 43)
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And the target audience is...
It's important to know for whom Turtledove is writing this series . It quickly becomes obvious. The Solter kids are a pair of teenagers. The names of the parents are given once, then thereafter, it's "Mom said so-and-so" and "Dad did such-and-such".
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There's no romance, let alone sex. The characters are cardboard thin and their actions predictable. After a couple chapters, the kids have to fend for themselves in the parallel Rome. War comes, and there is some bloodshed, but the horror of conflict - raping, pillaging, and plundering - is only hinted at. The emphasis at all times is how different the parallel world is from our own.
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So this is an ideal book for a young boy - say, 7-12 years old - who is interested in alternate worlds. The lack of depth means there's not much here for an adult, unless you used to enjoy the 50's sci-fi books by Andre Norton. I did, so an occasional book like this is okay. We'll give it a "C", and stress that this isn't your typical Harry Turtledove series.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett


2009, 400 pages. The latest book (#37) in the Discworld series. Genre : Fantasy, Comedy. Overall Rating : B.
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Per some fine print tied to a sizable financial donation to their University, Ankh-Morpork's wizards find themselves forced to learn the plebeian sport of foot-the-ball. Or football to you Old Worlders. Or soccer to us Yanks.
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Meanwhile, the University's night kitchen has a new scullery maid, Juliet. A naive girl, slow of wit, but with looks that make even celibate Wizards turn sweaty. And from those two plot starting points, all mayhem eventuates.
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What's To Like...
If you like new characters, there's lots of them. Glenda, Trev, Juliet, Pepe, Nutt, and more. If you don't like new characters, a lot of your old favorites - including Rincewind, the Luggage, and Sam Vimes - are here, at least making cameo appearances. And, "ook!", the librarian's back as well. There's even a new ...er... species introduced.
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Pratchett's themes this time are football. hooligans, fashion models, cooking, (as usual) racial prejudice, and the esoteric "crab bucket philosophy". For the ladies, there's even some romance.
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Unseen Academicals is not as uproariously funny as the early Discworld books. Yet it's still full of wit, and Pratchett deftly weaves all those themes and a bunch of plotlines into a cohesive tale. One of my favorite characters, the benevolent tyrant Vetinari, plays a larger-than-usual role here. Some critics say he's "differently portrayed", but I see it as "character development". My only personal quibble is that 95% of the story takes place within the walls of Ankh-Morpork. It's a great city, but I always enjoy visiting other parts of Discworld.
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New Words...
There were a bunch of them : Concomitant (occurring the same time as another related event); Catenary (the natural curve of something flexible hung between two fixed points); Eventuate (to ultimately result (in)); Abseil (to descend by rope); Chatelaine (a chain worn around the waist, which holds all the castle's keys); Louche (of questionable taste and/or morality); Turbot (a European flatfish); Reticule (a lady's drawstring purse); and last but not least, Bledlow, which is some sort of chap that even Google and the Internet can't define. Perhaps Pratchett made this last one up.
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Excerpts...
"Oh he was quite healthy," said the Archchancellor. "Just dead. Quite healthy for a dead man."
"He was a pile of dust, Archchancellor!"
"That's not the same as being ill, exactly," said Ridcully, who believed in never giving in. "Broadly speaking, it's stable." (pg. 30)
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Sator Square was where the city went when it was upset, baffled, or fearful. People who had no real idea why they were doing so congregated to listen to other people who also did not know anything, on the basis that ignorance shared is ignorance doubled. (pg. 250)
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Apes had it worked out. No ape would philosophize, "The mountain is, and is not". They would think, "The banana is. I will eat the banana. There is no banana. I want another banana." (pg. 76)
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Is this Pratchett's Swan Song?
In 2007, Pratchett posted online that he had been diagnosed as having a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Naturally, every reader of Unseen Academicals has an opinion as to how much this affected the book. My 2-cents is, "not very much". It is an excellently penned book.
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However, there is a touching scene at the end, where Nutt asks his mentor, Lady Margolotta, "do I have worth?" She assures him he does. To which he replies, "Thank you. But I am learning that worth is something that must be continuously accumulated."
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He then asks her, "Have I become?", and she tells him he has "become" as well. Both questions have to do with whether the world is now a (slightly) better place because of one's having existed in it. And although the person in question here is Nutt, I wonder if perhaps this isn't Terry Pratchett self-reflecting about his time in this world, and whether Unseen Academicals is perhaps the swan song of the Discworld series and his writing career.
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If so, all I can say is, "Terry, you have worth. Terry, you have become. The world is a better place for you having passed through it."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Roseanna - Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo


1965 (Swedish); 1967 (English). 212 pages. Genre : Crime Fiction. Book #1 in the Martin Beck detective series. Overall Rating : B.
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The nude body of a young woman is pulled out of Sweden's Lake Vattern. There are no identifying marks or any other clue as to her identity. Detective Martin Beck checks on all the Missing Person reports throughout Sweden, but none of them match the victim's description; even after a couple months have gone by. There's not a lot for him to go on.
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What's To Like...
It's cool to see how the detectives go about trying to solve a case so devoid of clues. The plot moves along nicely, and if anything, the book was over too soon. This is a "police procedural" story, so the emphasis is on perseverence and dogged detective work. There are a couple lucky breaks, but they make the story work, so that's okay.
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It's also neat to read a story based on 1960's technology. There are no e-mails or cell-phones. Long-distance phone conversations have poor reception and tenuous connections, and snail-mail is the only way to send written communication. And when the snail-mail is coming from overseas, the delays are significant.
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There are a couple "holes" in the story. Most notably, nobody seems too concerned about where the girl's clothing and personal effects might have ended up. And the ploy used to catch the killer smacks of Police Entrapment, although maybe this was allowed in Sweden way back then.
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Martin Beck is to a certain degree, the stereotypical p0lice detective. He smokes too much, his marriage is on the rocks, and he doesn't sleep well. Oh well, at least he 's not an alcoholic. Yet.
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Cool new words in the book...
Only one - décolleté. Meaning (in fashion) : leaving the neck and shoulders uncovered.
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Excerpt.
"Don't think so much about that case. It isn't the first time we have failed. It won't be the last either. You know that just as well as I do. We won't be any the better or the worse for it."
"It isn't just the case I'm thinking about."
"Don't brood. It isn't good for the morale."
"The morale?"
"Yes, think what a lot of nonsense one can figure out with plenty of time. Brooding is the mother of ineffectiveness." (pg. 42)
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Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo
Roseanna is the first of the 10-book Martin Beck series. Sjowall and Wahloo were a husband-&-wife team, who wrote alternating chapters of each book. Bizarre.
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Sjowall and Wahloo blazed the trail for Swedish noir police procedurals. Their influence on Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson is profound. FWIW, the most famous book in the Martin Beck series is probably The Laughing Policeman, which was made into a Hollywood movie, starring Walter Matthau. I enjoyed Roseanna, and will probably end up reading a couple more of the series.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Fourth Bear - Jasper Fforde


2006; 378 pages. Book #2 of the Nursery Crime series. Genre : Umm... Nursery Crime. Overall Rating : A.
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Golidlocks is dead, but was it an accident or murder? Jack Spratt is on the case, and there's a lot more on his plate than that. The Scissor-man is afoot, trying to separate thumb-sucking children from their digits. The homicidal Gingerbreadman is running as fast as he can. Punch & Judy have moved next door to Spratt, and the noise they make while fighting would keep the dead awake. Jack's sanity is in question, since he claims he has a self-repairing car, sold to him by Dorian Gray. 50-kilgoram cucumbers are being blown up, and someone is supplying illicit porridge to the bear community.
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What's to Like...
TFB is punnier and funnier than the first book in the series, The Big Over Easy. Every cliché and plot deivce imaginable is deliberately used. There's a multitude of plots, and part of the fun is figuring out if and how Fforde intends to wrap them all up.
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The prologues that start each chapter are great. And as usual, Chapter 13 is a study in efficiency. There's a fun-filled theme park called Somme World, where visitors can relive the horrors of World War One trench warfare. The bear society is a hoot.
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There aren't many negatives. It does take a while for the story to get around to The Three Bears tale. But you're rewarded by learning how three bowls of porridge, all poured at the same time, can have three different temperatures, and why Mr. and Mrs. Bruin sleep in separate beds.
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Cool words in The Fourth Bear...
Pedantic (ostentatious concern for details). Probity (complete, utter integrity). Moggy (a domestic cat). Sparrow's Fart (dawn). The latter two are Britishisms. I simply have to incorporate Sparrow's Fart into my daily vocabulary somehow.
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Excerpts.
"I was one of the first," (Hoffman) muttered sadly, following her gaze. "A life lived in fear is a life half lived. A life half lived is fear lived in half. A life half feared is a fear half lived."
Some people have a way wth words, but Hoffman wasn't one of them. (pg. 14)
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"When did (the Gingerbreadman) escape?"
"Ninety-seven minutes ago," replied Copperfield. "Killed two male nurses and his doctor with his bare hands. The other three orderlies who accompanied him are critical in the hospital."
"Critical?"
"Yes. Don't like the food, beds uncomfortable, waiting lists too long - usual crap. Other than that they're fine." (pg. 54)
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The Fourth Bear is another ffine efffort by Fforde. I liked it a bit better than The Big Over Easy (reviewed here). He seems to be hitting his stride in this series, and it's a bit of a shame that it is planned to be only a trilogy. But Jack Spratt's loss is hopefully Thursday Next's gain.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan


2009; 766 pages. Genres : Epic Fantasy; Neverending Series. Book 12 in the "Wheel Of Time". Overall Rating : A.
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The series-ending trilogy begins. Brandon Sanderson takes over for the late Robert Jordan, reportedly using RJ's copious notes and emulating Jordan's style.
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TGS focuses on the two main characters in WoT. Rand tries to rally the kingdoms he's conquered and forge alliances with those he hasn't, all in order to resist the looming invasion by the Dark Lord.
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Egwene continues undermining the The Amyrlin Seat (Elaida) in the White Tower, while also trying to heal the deep divisions within Ajahs of the White Towers.
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What's To Like...
For a long-awaited change, there's great action and plot advancement. The other two ta'veren, Mat and Perrin, are being drawn towards The Dragon Reborn. Some loose ends (such as Sheriam and the Prophet Masema) are tidily wrapped up. There are a number of MIA's - Moiraine, Morgase, Elayne, and Loial - that presumably will get their due in the remaining two books. The ending of TGS is quite good.
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And if you're one of those readers who liked the plodding aimlessness of the last half-dozen books in this series, then some of the chapters here will make you happy too. A lot of pages are expended on Aviendha's recurring "punishments" and her incessant musings about their cause; and Rand traipses from one kingdom to another, brooding, b*tching, and generally being a PITA to be around.
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There are some minor drawbacks. The Gathering Storm is not a stand-alone book, and the Glossary won't help you much make sense of who's who and what the various fantasy world phrases mean. So newcomers are looking at 10,000 pages (2½ million words) as background reading before they can hope to make sense out of TGS.
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There is also some Jordanesque repetitiveness. There are umpteen "smoothing of the dress", "arms folded beneath the breasts", and "skirts divided for riding". Further, you are reminded a couple thousand times of the allegorical "coming storm".
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Excerpt - The bad guys' viewpoint.
"He has failed before and will fail again," Rand said. I will defeat him."
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Moridin laughed again, the same heartless laugh as before. "Perhaps you will," he said. "But do you think that matters? Consider it. The Wheel turns, time and time again. Over and over the Ages turn, and men fight the Great Lord. But someday, he will win, and when he does, the Wheel will stop.
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"That is why his victory is assured... When you are victorious, it only leads to another battle. When he is victorious, all things will end." (pg. 238)
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Excerpt - The good guys' viewpoint.
Thom chuckled. "We can't go back, Mat. The Wheel has turned, for better or for worse. And it will keep on turning, as lights die and forests dim, storms call and skies break. Turn it will. The Wheel is not hope, and the Wheel does not care, the Wheel simply is. But so long as it turns, folk may hope, folk may care. For with light that fades, another will eventually grow, and each storm that rages must eventually die. As long as the Wheel turns." (pg. 404)
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There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time...
For me, The Gathering Storm was a great read. Sanderson has continued, as he should, to pay homage to Jordan every chance he gets. But personally, I think RJ had lost control of WoT. The plotlines just continued to spread out further and further, and whenever RJ did try to rein them in, the result was stagnation. A fresh touch was needed, and Sanderson supplies it.
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So we'll give TGS a solid "A", and give Sanderson a heartfelt "Thank You" for his efforts. It will still take all his resources to bring everything together for the final showdown ("Tarmon Gai'don"), but Sanderson has two books to do it in, and a fair chance of pulling it off.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse


1962, 221 pages. Genre : Fiction, Humor. Awards : None, although Playboy magazine ran a condensed version of it. Overall Rating : B.
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Bertie Wooster faces a fate worse than death - marriage. The engagement of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett is on the rocks, and Madeline has made it clear that Bertie is the back-up beau. So he's forced to return to Totleigh Towers, (where most of the folks think he's an unsavory thief), either as a raisonneur or a groom-to-be.
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What's To Like...
There are engaging characters, witty dialogue, and lots of pratfalls and tangled plotlines. There's a hideous Alpine Hat with a pink feather and a black amber statuette. The whole book is written in "English" (as opposed to "American"), which is always a delight to read. And of course, there is Jeeves.
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It is a sequel to The Return of Jeeves (reviewed here), and some of the references will make little sense if you haven't read that book. Also, there aren't really any new places to visit or new people to meet.
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Excerpts.
I marmaladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don't suppose I have ever come much closer to saying "Tra-la-la" as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning. (opening sentence)
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"She's one of those soppy girls, riddled from head to foot with whimsy. She holds the view that the stars are God's daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance of the Fairy Queen, and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born, which, as we all know, is not the case. She's a drooper." (pg. 21, describing Madeline Bassett)
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Another frisson passed through my frame. I had the unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that centipedes in large numbers are sauntering up and down your spinal column. I feared the worst. (pg. 59)
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Kewl Words...
P.G. Wodehouse books are a treasure trove of great words. In SULJ, we meet : niffy (stinky); to biff off (to depart); pukka (superior); the banns (a wedding announcement, and there is no singular 'bann'); abstemious (moderate in food and drink consumption); diablerie (devilish); desultory (haphazard); beazel (a chick); foregather (to collect in one place); sedulous (zealous); blancmange (a sweet custard-like dessert); costermonger (one who sells fruits and vegetable from a cart); peccadillo (an indiscretion); distrait (distracted due to stress); and betimes (early).
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...but if the call comes, he can buttle with the best of them. (pg. 10)
I've yet to read a dull or medicore "Jeeves" book. These are fast-paced, light-reads. We'll give it a "B" only because it doesn't really tread any new ground. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

War Trash - Ha Jin


2004; 350 pages. Awards : Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award (2005); Pulitzer Prize nominee. Genres : Historical Literature; Fictional Memoir. Overall Rating : C+.
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War Trash offers a unique view of the Korean War from the Chinese perspective, which is : "MacArthur's army would have crossed our border and seized Manchuria if we hadn't come to Korea. We had no choice but to fight the better-equipped aggressors." The title refers to the lot of the Chinese POW's (and tangentially, the North Korean POW's) and the choices they will have when they are repatriated at the end of the war. Both the Communists and Nationalists view them as traitors, yet both sides want to use them for propaganda purposes. Once their propaganda value is used up, they can and will be discarded.
.
The book is told in first-person by Yu Yuan. Because he speaks English and isn't a card-carrying member of the Communist party, he has enhanced value to both sides. OTOH, he trained at a Nationalist Military Academy, but served in the Red Chinese Army, so neither political side trusts his loyalty.
.
What's To Like...
The story is fiction (Ha Jin was born in 1956; the Korean War ended several years before that), but many of the events are grounded in history. For instance, the ingenious kidnapping of an American general by the POW's actually occurred.
.
The book is written in memoir style - "First I did this; then that happened." Adjectives and adverbs are few and far between. Ha Jin wrote War Trash in English, so there is no fall-off due to translation.
.
But the memoir-style has some inherent limitations. Although it is superbly written, it remains a piece of fiction. It's kinda like if you were to read a novel called "The Thoughts of Mother Teresa". Even if it was a literary masterpiece, you'd most likely still prefer to read her actual words.
.
Also, the plot doesn't build to any sort of climax. Yu Yuan goes to war for 50 pages; spends 270 pages in a POW camp; then the next half-century of his life is covered in 20 pages. Throughout everything, he doesn't give a fig about political ideology. All he wants to do is survive and return home to his aged mother and his fiancée. The book aptly closes with this paragraph :
.
"Now I must conclude this memoir, which is my first attempt at writing and also my last. Almost 74 years old, I suffer from gout and glaucoma; I don't have the strength to write anymore. But do not take this to be an "our story". In the depths of my being I have never been one of them. I have just written what I experienced."
.
I give War Trash a C+, even though it is worthy of its Pulitzer Prize nomination. History buffs and lovers of Chinese culture will find it enlightening. Everyone else may find it slow-go.
.
Excerpts...
The Americans had taken us to be an army of peasants, more like cattle than men. The play seemed to have changed their perception of us a little. Later I noticed the guards would treat the few actors somewhat differently from the regular prisoners, with more respect. They would no longer curse them. (pg. 133)
.
"History has shown that the Communists always treat their enemies more leniently than their own people. Only by becoming their significant enemies can you survive decently." (pg. 128)
.
High-falooting word from War Trash...
Raconteur. A fancy word for a "story-teller".

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Storm Front - Jim Butcher


2000; 322 pages. Genre : Urban Fantasy (so sez Wikipedia), or Semiautomagic (so sez Butcher). I like Butcher's choice better. Book #1 (out of 11, I think) in the "Dresden Files" series. Overall Rating : B-.
.
Harry Dresden is a Wizard. He's in the Yellow Pages, where his ad reads : "Harry Dresden - WIZARD. Lost items found. Paranormal investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment."
.
Harry's main activity is finding enough money to pay the monthly rent. Today's his lucky day. A woman wants to pay him to find her husband. And the Chicago police want his professional opinion as to whether any magic was used in a double homicide. Where the hearts of two lovers exploded out of their chests (shattering ribs on the way out) and splotched all over the ceiling. Yeah, there might be a tad bit of paranormalcy involved here.
.
What's To Like...
There's a vampire or two. There are black mages and white wizards. There are pizza-loving fairies, and a wise-cracking spirit caged in a skull on Harry's desk. There are slow-witted demons, 6-foot-tall scorpions, some hookers, and some mobsters. There's a strong female police detective named Karrin Murphy.
.
It's a murder-mystery, but with AD&D-ish magic blended in. Spells are cast, but one is never quite sure what they'll do and how effective they'll be.
.
Buzzword for this book : "Thaumaturgy" (pg. 19).
.
Magic. It can get a guy killed.
Storm Front is Butcher's debut effort, and it shows. There are some trite metaphors, some "roll your eyes" scenes, and some telegraphed plot twists (is that an oxymoron?). For example - he concocts two potions - an Escape Potion (which he plans to use), and a Love Potion (which he has no discernible plans for). Things go awry during a battle with a demon, and he calls for his female companion to drink the Escape Potion. Yeah, guess which one she drinks.
.
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face.
You can nitpick the storyline to death, but that misses the point that it is meant to be a light-hearted read with an entertaining stream of humor running throughout. Several reviewers say that Butcher gets a lot more polished with each book, so I'm looking forward to reading more from this series.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut


1961; 268 pages. Genre : Contemporary Lit. Overall Rating : B.
.
On the surface, Harold W. Campbell is a World War 2 "Lord Haw-Haw", an American who broadcasts propaganda for Nazi Germany to the Allied soldiers fighting in Europe. Only a select few know he is actually a hero, a double-agent transmitting vital war secrets via coded phrases in his radio diatribes.
.
What's To Like...
It's Vonnegut; it rocks. There's a fascinating storyline, superior writing, and a bunch of interesting characters, most of whom turn out to be not what they seem.

.Vonnegut gives us the moral on the first page of the introduction : "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." A couple pages later, his dedication to Campbell reads, "a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."

.There's a brief reference to a great, obscure historical figure - Tiglath-Pileser (pg. 4), and a cameo appearance by one of my favorite words - susurrus (pg. 177). Oh, and I swear each of the 45 chapters ends with a storyline "twist". Try pulling that off every 3 or 4 pages.

.Underneath all the absurdity, Vonnegut examines a fundamental question - what constitutes the "real" you? Is it your innermost being, or is it the summation of the effect your actions have on Humanity?

.If the theme of Slaughterhouse Five is the insanity of war; then Mother Night is its sequel, with a theme of the senselessness of post-war. MN is not quite up there with S-5 and The Sirens of Titan, but it's still a superior book, and highly recommended.

.Excerpts...
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. (pg. 160)

."Any news of my parents?" I said.
"I'm sorry to tell you-" he said, "they died four months ago."
"Both?" I said.
"Your father first - your mother 24 hours later. Heart both times," he said.
I cried a little about that, shook my head. "Nobody told them what I was really doing?" I said.
"Our radio station in the heart of Berlin was worth more than the peace of mind of two old people," he said.
"I wonder," I said.
"You're entitled to wonder, " he said. "I'm not."
(pg.187)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feet of Clay - Terry Pratchett


1996; 357 pages. Genre : Fantasy Satire. #19 in the Discworld Series (out of 36, oops, out of 37, since "Unseen Academicals" just came out this week). Overall Rating : A-.

    An old priest and a dwarven baker are murdered; someone is poisoning the Patrician in a very slow fashion; amd no one is sure how. This would be a typical day in Ankh-Morpork, except that the Assassins Guild isn't involved in any of these dastardly deeds. So it's up to Sam Vimes and the City Watch to find and arrest the miscreants. The trouble is, those pesky things called clues keep getting in the way of blind justice.

What's To Like...
This is Pratchett's nod to mystery stories in general, and Sherlock Holmes stories in particular. We are introduced to a number of cool chartacters. There's Cheery Littlebottom, just one of the dwarven boys, until he starts wearing lipstick, earrings, and a kilt. There's Wee Mad Arthur; a ratter by trade, 6" tall, with the fighting power of a stick of dynamite. And for us techno-geeks, Sam is equipped with an unorganized organizer; consisting of an imp in a small pocket-sized box, who can manage his calendar, alert him to appointments, take memos, and give him inspiring daily quotes, but can't do any of this competently.

Oh, and there's also a bit of synesthesia; see an excerpt of it below.
.
Themes...
There are always themes in any Discworld book after about #5. Besides murder-mysteries, the themes here are The Monarchy (Pratchett finds little use for it), Racial and Gender Prejudice, Labor Unions, and Evangelists (meet Constable Visit, short for Visit-The-Infidel-With-Explanatory-Pamphlets). Pratchett also tackles the question of what constitutes Life itself.

.The storyline in Feet Of Clay is well done, and all the threads get tied up nicely. Sam is gradually coming to grips with his inter-species bigotry. By the end of the book he decides that Golems and Zombies can now be part of the City Watch, although Vampires are still excluded.

.The story is formulaic, but that's okay for a series of this genre. The characters evolve from book to book, and Pratchett comes up with new themes each time.

.Excerpts...
Afterward, she always remembered the odors as colors and sounds. Blood was rich brown and deep brass, stale bread was a surprisingly tinkly bright blue, and every human being was a four-dimensional kaleidoscopic symphony. For nasal vision meant seeing through time as well as space: man could stand still for a minute and, an hour later, there he'd still be, to the nose, his odors barely faded. (56)
.The barman leaned over to Sergeant Colon. "What's up with the corporal? He's a half-pint man. That's eight pints he's had."
Fred Colon leaned closer and spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Keep it to yourself, Ron, but it's because he's a peer."
"Is that a fact? I'll go and put down some fresh sawdust."
(145-46)
.
"Slab : Jus' say 'AarrghaarrghpleassennonononoUGH'." (Slab is an illicit drug in Discworld) (26)
.
T'dr'duzk b'hazg t't!" ("Today is a good day for someone else to die!") (311-12)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Come On In! - Charles Bukowski


2006; 279 pages. Genre : Modern Poetry. Dewey Decimal Number : 811.56 B869C. Cost (new) : $27.50; Cost to check it out from the library : free. Overall Rating : A-.
.
The prologue to Come On In! reads : "These poems are part of an archive of unpublished work that Charles Bukowski left to be published after his death." Although he is best known for his 5 semi-autobiographical novels (Ham On Rye, et. al.), most of Bukowski's books are either poetry or poetry/short stories.
.
What's To Like...
The poems are broken into four sections. The first part is his reflections on growing old; the second is about women; the third is about the writing profession; and if there's a unifying theme in the fourth section, I didn't catch it.
.
The poems have no meter, no rhyme, and no structure. I usually struggle with this form of prose, but these were quite readable. There are even two poems referencing Li Po, who happens to be my favorite classical Chinese poet. It's amazing that Bukowski was familiar with and influenced by him.
.
I found the "Aging" section especially poignant. It should be rated PG-50 : anyone younger than that has to read it with their parents. Towards the end of his life, Bukowski was battling leukemia; and he offers a lot of insight regarding his mortality. His point in one poem is that a poet is never allowed to retire. His public expects him to keep following his muse and composing poems, even when he's dying.
.
The "Women" section is revealing, but less inspiring. Bukowski's philosophy on the opposite sex seems to be : Live with them, even marry them if need be. But when they get to be irritating, it's time to move on. He chides couples that have been married 60-70 years, writing, "either of whom would long ago have settled for something else, but fate, fear and circumstances have bound them eternally together".
.
In the "Writing" section, he cuts through the BS associated with his fame, laughing at aspiring authors who butter him up, then send him their unpublished manuscripts for him to read and forward along to his publisher.
.
I give Come On In! and A- because it resonated with me. There's nothing high-brow here - indeed, he mocks poets who feel compelled to work Greek and Roman gods into their prose, or who try to impress with a line or two of French or Italian. Instead, Bukowski is a poet for the proletariat, a Robert Frost with an attitude. Read Come On In! when you're tired of social snobbery and just want some honest, down-to-earth insight.
.
Excerpts...
I can't think of another poet who makes people as
angry as I do.
I enjoy it
knowing that we are all brothers and sisters
in a very unkind extended
family
and I also never forget that
no matter
what the circumstances,
the park bench is never that far away
from any one of
us.
(last part of "the x-bum")
.
peace of mind and heart
arrives
when we accept what
is:
having been
born into this
strange life
we must accept
the wasted gamble of our
days
and take some satisfaction in
the pleasure of
leaving it all
behind.
cry not for me.
grieve not for me.
read
what I've written
then
forget it
all.
drink from the well
of your self
and begin
again.
(last part of "mind and heart")

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Pegasus Secret - Gregg Loomis



2006; 369 pages. Genre : Cri-Fi (Crichton Fiction). Book #1 of the Langford Reilly series. Ballyhooed like crazy at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. Overall Rating : C-.
.
After an explosion in Paris kills his sister and her son, ex-CIA and now-lawyer Langdon Reilly vows to find the perpetrators and take his revenge. But his investigation uncovers a much deeper mystery (of course), involving an ancient mystical order, the Holy Grail, and a hidden message in a painting, a jpeg of which is at the end of this review.
.
What's To Like...
TPS has the standard Crichton formula - start out with a bang (okay, it's more of a "boom"), and deliver non-stop action from then on. There actually is a lot of speculation about a hidden meaning in this painting (see Wiki's article here), and Loomis puts a novel spin on it..The flashbacks to the 1300's offer a nice contrast to the storyline, and Loomis refrains from getting "preachy" (take note, Dan Brown). Finally, the Gnostics are in it, which is always a plus for me.
.
Goodness me. Then why the low rating?
Because there were a lot of irritations and plot weaknesses. Here are the major ones :
.
Footnotes. Loomis uses them abundantly in the flashback chapters. But he puts them at the end of the chapter, so you're constantly flipping back and forth to read them. They ought to be at the bottom of each page. Critical? No. Annoying? Yes.
.
Castigation versus Castration. Reilly's GF is a sexy German who constantly misuses English words. At one point she means to say "castration", but comes up with "castigation" instead. Folks, castigation is not a common word. If you're fluent enough in a foreign language to know this verb, you're not going to confuse it with castration. I'm sure this is supposed to be comic relief, but after 50 of these mix-ups, it gets old. You get the tip. I mean 'point'. Yeah, she used that one, too.
.
Sniper Gender. For some reason, Reilly hides the sniper's gender (via ixnay on the pronouns), so that you're supposed to be in the dark about the identity. But it serves no purpose and it's obvious who he/she/it really is.
.
T&I. (Torture & Interrogation). The bad guys are going to T&I our hero. But clever Reilly is really clever - he asks them questions instead. And they answer him. Then they give him an electro-shock to scare him into telling all. But after one jolt, they leave to go do some chanting for a couple hours before renewing the T&I. Didn't they watch those Austin Powers movies?
.
Paging Dr. Moriarty. The UE (Ultimate Evil) guy isn't developed at all. He makes a late entrance, blows it for the whole mystical order, and is disappointingly incompetent. Sorry, I like it better when the UE is a worthy opponent.
.
The ending is clunky. The fact is, Reilly doesn't have any bargaining chips, but the bad guys acquiesce anyway. "Hey, I know where the Grail is!" (So we'll move it.) "I'll expose your secret organization." (Sorry, the blaring police raid last night did that already) "I'll blackmail you about your blackmailing operation." (Do you realize you have no evidence of that?).
.
Finally, there's a superfluous epilogue, unless Reilly is going to give up lawyering to become a tent revivalist.
.
Bottom line - I just couldn't buy into the story, and that meant it wasn't exciting to read. Interestingly, the first four killings all took place off-screen, and for a while I thought Loomis was going to write this in "cozy" style. Now that would've been something. But then the bodies start dropping on-screen, so there went that possibility.
.
Maybe I'm expecting too much for a debut novel to be equal to Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code. There are 4 or 5 books in the series now, and it's quite possible that Loomis hits his stride with time. The Amazon reviews are more or less evenly split from 5* to 1* (the overall rating is 3½ stars). The few Book Blogs that review it are mostly positive. So while I don't personally recommend The Pegasus Secret, it should be noted that there are other fans of this genre who rate it higher.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows


2008; 274 pages. Genre : Modern Literature; Historical Fiction. Overall Rating : A-.

  .It's 1946 and World War 2 has recently ended. Juliet Ashton is a one-hit author (of an Erma Bombeck style of book) trying to adjust to a normal life after her London flat was flattened in the war by a V-2 bomb. She crosses paths with some of the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey (a British protectorate, located in the English Channel just off the coast of France) who are trying to adjust to a normal life after having been subject to German occupation for five years. To cover their curfew violation one night, they invented the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, which had the unforeseen benefit of introducing a bunch of the islanders to Classic Literature.

What's To Like...
It's a great epistolary novel. There's a slew of engaging characters, none of whom are entirely black or white (not even the Germans), and most of whom evolve as the book progresses. There's wit throughout and even a subtle thread of humor underpinning the storyline.
.
I liked the first half (where everyone is making acquaintances with one another) better than the second (after Juliet arrives on Guernsey). I had trouble keeping track of who's who. Especially the Londoners, all of whom seemed to have S's (how does one correctly write that?) for initials. There was Sophie and Sidney and Susan; there was Stark and Stephens and Strachan. Sheesh.
.
It's an ambitious book in that it combines the themes of the horrors of war, reading the classics, and ...oog... relationships (romantic and otherwise) into one story. It's hard to say who the target audience is. But I enjoyed it, I give it a high recommendation and an "A-" rating.
.
Oh icky-ewwww! It has romance in it.
True, but the main romance is between Juliet and the island of Guernsey.
.
Yeah, there's the secondary one, where Juliet agonizes whether to choose "wealth, high society, and a life of ease in America" (but with a controlling husband) or "writing & reading, a farmer's small income, and an instant kid in Guernsey" (but with contentedness). Fortunately, not too many letters are devoted to this, so even I could get into the story. And FWIW, any guy could reason his way through Juliet's quandary in about 5 minutes. ;-)
.
Excerpts...
On the afternoon before our wedding, Rob was moving in the last of his clothes and belongings while I delivered my Izzy article to the Spectator. When I was through, I tore home, flew up the stairs, and threw open the door to find Rob sitting on a low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cartons. He was sealing the last one up with gummed tape and string. There were eight boxes - eight boxes of my books bound up and ready for the basement!
He looked up and said, "Hello, darling. Don't mind the mess, the porter said he'd help me carry these down to the basement." He nodded to the bookshelves and said, "Don't they look wonderful?"
(pg 24)
.
"I never want to see you again."
"Juliet?". He really had no idea what I was talking about.
So I explained. Feeling better by the minute, I told him that I would never marry him or anyone else who didn't love Kit and Guernsey and Charles Lamb.
"What the hell does Charles Lamb have to do with anything?" he yelped (as well he might).
I declined to elucidate.
(pgs 213-214)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dave Barry's Greatest Hits - Dave Barry


1988; 289 pages. Genre : Waiting Room Filler. Overall Rating : B-..

    I've had occasion to spend a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms these past three months. I learned quickly to take something to read with me, as waiting rooms have the worst magazines : Belly-Button Lint Illustrated; Oil Filter Digest; Healthy Yawning; etc. You get the idea.

.I never knew if my wait was going to be 2 minutes or 2 hours, so Dave Barry's Greatest Hits was an ideal book to take with me. Consisting of 81 of his 1980's newspaper columns for the Miami Herald, and at an average of 2 pages in length; there was always a convenient place to stop when finally called.

What's To Like...
Dave Barry is kind of an urbanized Bill Bryson. He is laugh-out-loud funny, and covers all sort of themes - current events, sports, politics, TV, history, etc. If you think he can only write about humorous absurdisms, think again. His column about the loss of his father ("A Million Words") will put a lump in your throat.
.
The only drawback to this book is that it's dated. If you remember the 80's it's NBD. But if you don't, then his cracks about people like Gary Hart, Liberace, Caspar Weinberger, Chuck Colson, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band may have you scratching your head. I recommend DBGH for the next time you have to get a physical. Everybody else in the waiting room will be jealous of you when you keep chuckling as you read.
.
Excerpts...
As far as I can tell, our second basewoman is a pretty good baseball player, better than I am anyway, but there's no way to know for sure because if the ball gets anywhere near her, a male comes barging over from, say, right field, to deal with it. She's been on the team for three seasons now, but the males still don't trust her. They know that if she had to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, deep in her soul, she would probably elect to save the infant's life, without even considering whether there were men on base. (218-19)

.So I go in for my last words, because I have to go back home, and my mother and I agree I probably won't see him again. I sit next to him on the bed, hoping he can't see that I'm crying. "I love you, Dad," I say. He says : "I love you too. I'd like some oatmeal."
So I go back out to the living room. where my mother and my wife and my son are sitting on the sofa, in a line, waiting for the outcome, and I say, "He wants some oatmeal." I am laughing and crying about this, My mother thinks maybe I should go back in and have a more meaningful last talk, but I don't.
Driving home, I'm glad I didn't. I think : He and I have been talking ever since I learned how. A million words. All of them final, now. I don't need to make him give me any more, like souvenirs. I think : Let me not define his death on my terms. Let him have his oatmeal. I can hardly see the road.
(145)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bloodsucking Fiends - Christopher Moore


1995; 290 pages. Full Title : Bloodsucking Fiends - A Love Story. Genre : Vampire Satire. Overall Rating : A.

    At last a vampire story I can sink my teeth into. It's set in San Francisco, and look, it's even got the words "A Love Story" on the cover!

Jody is a newly-turned vampire, but somebody forgot to give her an instruction manual. Some things she learns quickly - like stay out of sunlight and go to sleep at dawn. Those hours make doing certain chores - like getting her impounded car back and picking up her severance check from her former place of employment - nigh near impossible. She is looking for love, willing blood donors, and a gofer.

Tommy (more literarily formal C. Thomas Smith) is a 17-year-old wannabee writer newly-arrived from the midwest. He is looking for a money, a job, and wild sex. You can figure out the romance plot-line from there.

What's To Like...
    I found this to be a laugh-out-loud book with some great characters. In addition to our romantic duo, there's a street-person who calls himself The Emperor of San Francisco and Protector of Mexico. His two armor-wearing dogs, Lazarus and Bummer (great names for dogs, eh?) are as street-wise as he is. There's a gay cop/straight cop team investigating the blood-draining slayings. And seven socially-inept co-workers of Tommy's who call themselves The Animals.
.
There are copper-plated snapping turtles; a frozen cadaver in a living room freezer; the great sport of turkey-bowling; and some outrageously funny Lestat-spawned research into what parts of Vampire Lore are true and what parts are myths.

.A word of caution - there is some profanity, and the sex scenes can be somewhat lurid. Attempted (but failed) necrophilia, anyone? So this isn't a book for the kiddies. And there is a sequel to this ("You Suck - A Love Story"), so there are some loose ends.

.Still, I personally thought it had a good ending. I give Bloodsucking Fiends an "A", because it was a delight to read. Will you find it funny? Well, the best description I can give of the humor here is "one part Charles Bukowski, one part Tim Burton, and two parts Kurt Vonnegut". Highly recommended. I suspect I'm about to go on a Christoper Moore reading kick.

An Excerpt...
She had fifteen minutes before she was supposed to meet Tommy at Enrico's. Allowing for another bus ride and a short walk, she had about seven minutes to find an outfit. She walked into the Gap on the corner of Van Ness and Vallejo with a stack of hundred-dollar bills in her hand and announced, "I need help. Now!"
Ten salespeople, all young, all dressed in generic cotton casual, looked up from their conversations, spotted the money in her hand, and simultaneously stopped breathing - their brains shutting down bodily functions and rerouting the needed energy to calculate the projected commissions contained in Jody's cash. One by one they resumed breathing and marched toward her, a look of dazed hunger in their eyes : a pack of zombies from the perky, youthful version of
The Night Of The Living Dead.
"'I wear a size four and I've got a date in fifteen minutes," Jody said. "Dress me."
They descended on her like an evil khaki wave.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dirty Martini - J.A. Konrath


2007; 324 pages. Book #4 (out of 6 now) in Konrath's Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels series. Genre : Psycho-killer thriller. Overall Rating : B.

  .Chicago cuisine is to die for. Literally, because someone calling himself 'The Chemist' is poisoning food in all sorts of restaurants and supermarkets. The Chicago Police Department tries to keep things calm by not announcing all the deaths. They appoint our hero, Detective Jacqueline Daniels, to head the crime team, and give her two choices. Solve it and be a hero; don't solve it and be demoted to traffic cop.

What's To Like...
    The story is formulaic, but it works. A smug, psychotic killer committing gruesome murders as part of a larger plan; eventually taking on Jack herself. In the meantime, anyone knowing Jack is also a target, including her BF Latham, who seems to end up in the ICU in every book.

  .The action is non-stop. The humor will make you chuckle - especially the repartee between Jackie and her former partner, Harry McGlade. You gotta love any bad guy who goes by the moniker "The Chemist".

  .OTOH, Dirty Martini is the polar opposite of a police procedural story. Clues are routinely ignored, so don't try to solve the case alongside Jack. The Chemist brazenly invades two precinct houses to destroy old records, and the cops somehow don't find that worth looking into. When he releases thousands of cockroaches into a police station, no one stops to ask themselves why. The case-cracking clue comes out of nowhere, and with no explanation as to why the normally meticulously cautious Chemist suddenly gets sloppy.
.
    Read this book for what it is - a page-turner. Turn off the analytical half of your brain and enjoy a story with a strong female lead (with more lives than a cat) and lots of thrills, spills, and chuckles. Ignore the implausibilities and rejoice in the fact that in the end, Jackie won't be directing traffic. Konrath isn't trying to give you a feel for what it's like to be a police detective; he just wants to entertain you for a few hours. He gets a "B" from me for his efforts.

A couple of trivia tidbits...
    Despite several dozen people dying in a variety of ways, not one drop of blood is spilled in Dirty Martini. This is a pleasant change-of-pace from the previous book in this series.
.After Book #3, Rusty Nail, Konrath went on a 3-month promotion tour, visiting 600+ bookstores in 27 states and driving more than 13,500 miles. He met over 1100 booksellers, and takes time at the end of Dirty Martini to thank them all by name. Kewlness.
.
    Finally, if you read the hyping blurbs in the front of this book (OCD readers do), you will note that two of them are David Ellis and Jim Munchel. By strange coincidence, one of the characters in Dirty Martini is named Davy Ellis, and one of the characters in the sneak-preview of Book #5 (Fuzzy Navel) at the end of Dirty Martini is named Jim Munchel. So be sure to write Konrath and let him know how much you enjoy his books. You just might end up seeing your name in the 7th book in this series.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wicked - Gregory Maguire


1995; 519 pages. Full Title : Wicked - The Life & Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Genre : Revisionist fiction. Overall Rating : B.

  .In The Wizard of Oz, the nasty old Wicked Witch of the West is done in by Dorothy and water. Maguire postulates that L. Frank Baum's story is a slanted account; Wicked tells the story from Elphaba, the WWofW's point of view.

What's To Like...
    Maguire creates a wonderful fantasy world of Oz. There are munchkins, dwarves and elves; and rumors even of dragons. There are various competing religions - unionists (with their Unnamed God), pleasure faithists (with their Clock of the Time Dragon) and Lurlinists (waiting for the Fairy Queen Lurline to return) being the most interesting. There are some great political, spiritual, and philosophical ponderings in the book, the main one being how the world determines what is wicked and what isn't.
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    Kewl stuff, but as a story, Wicked leaves something to be desired. Most notable are the annoying gaps in the tale. First we are introduced to Elphaba as a toddler. Then "poof", it's years later and she's heading off to college. "Poof" again, and it's years later, and Elphaba's now a revolutionary. "Poof" once more and she's leaving a nunnery after seven years to become a recluse in a castle in Vinkus. The final "poof" jumps us years ahead again to the fateful encounter with Dorothy.
.Also, the issues Maguire presents (such as Animal/animal rights) are provocative, but never answered. Ditto for the plot details. We never really know why Elphaba came out green; who killed Porfessor Dillamond (he's a Goat, not a goat); whether Fiyiero is really dead; and what happened to Sarima and her sisters.
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    Moreover, while we're introduced to some well-developed and fascinating secondary characters (such as Elphaba's mom Melena, Boq, Glinda, and the flaming twosome of Crope and Tibbett), it's best not to get too attached to them, because most of them don't make the jump across the gaps.
.Finally the sex scenes and cuss words felt ill-fitting and unnecessary. I don't mind such things when they enhance the story (they certainly fit well in anything written by Bukowski), but here they detract. TMI.

.An excerpt...
"You're not wicked," said Boq.
"How do you know. It's been so long," said the Witch, but she smiled at him.
Boq returned the smile, warmly. "Glinda used her glitter beads, and you used your exotic looks and background, but weren't you just doing the same thing, trying to maximize what you had in order to get what you wanted? People who claim that they're evil are usually no worse than the rest of us." He sighed. "It's people who claim that they're good , or anyway better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of."
(pg. 457)
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We're off to see that no-good Wizard...
    Wicked had the potential to be either a superb fantasy story or a superb philosophical treatise. But by trying to be both, it failed to be great at either. It dragged at times, especially the first half. Yet it's still a good book, and there's no denying it's well-written. Perhaps some of the unanswered questions and plot details are addressed in the sequels. Ditto for the engaging, but short-lived characters. So we'll give it a "B", plus kudos to whoever managed to turn this into a highly-successful musical.