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 fĂȘte. 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."