Saturday, June 26, 2010

In The Garden of Iden - Kage Baker


1997; 294 pages. Genre : A mixed bag (see below). New Author?: Yes. Book #1 (out of 8) in Baker's "Company" series. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
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In 1541, a five-year old girl called Mendoza is about to die in the Spanish Inquisition, when she is rescued and turned into a cyborg immortal via drugs, hormones, implants, and training. She now works for the Company, a shadowy 24th-century organization who has mastered time-travel and is into acquiring lost works of art and relics, as well as extinct plants and animals.
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After 15 years of prepping to be a botanist, Mendoza is part of a team of operatives sent to England during the time of the Counter Reformation (the 1560's). Her assignment is to acquire a number of valuable (and soon to be extinct) plants, without the pitiable mortals knowing it. But at the estate of Sir Walter Iden, Mendoza discovers several things : lousy English weather, lots of priceless plants, a unicorn, unsanitary food, religious fanaticism in several colors, and one Nicholas Harpole, who makes her cyborg heart (other other bodily parts) go all a-twitter.
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What's To Like...
The book starts out being a sci-fi time-travel story. After about 50 pages, it decides instead to be historical fiction. And after another 75 pages, it morphs into a romance novel instead. So if you don't like the genre, just wait a few pages and it will change. There are also some adult themes (violence, sex, etc.), despite this being classified a YA book. And it has both serious and funny moments.
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The characters are likeable. Besides Mendoza, the cyborg team consists of animal-collector (and confidante) "Nef", technical pro Flavius (who stays in London and issues some hilarious radio reports), and wise-but-cyinical team-leader Joseph. Sir Walter is a clueless hoot, and Nicholas is a troubled-yet-lovable soul.
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The time-travel and immortality rationale is cleverly done. But for me, the best thing about the book was the attention to the historical setting. In the Garden of Iden made me feel like I was there in 16th-century England. Not many alt-history books do that.
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If you're looking for lots of sci-fi, killing and bloodshed, or graphic sex; you might be disappointed. This is "drama" (except for the very beginning and very end), and a set-up to the rest of the books in the series. Even romance-lovers may feel a bit let down.
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Kewl New Words...
There were a bunch. Prognathous : having a projecting lower jaw. Settle (n) : a long wooden bench with a high back. Gibbet : a gallows. Catamite : a boy kept by a pederast (this in a YA book??). Pomander : a mixture of aromatic substances, enclosed in a bag and used for protection against odor or infection. Caitiff : a cowardly or despicable person. Biretta : a stiff cap with ridges across the crown, such as worn by Roman Catholic clergy. Sophistry : plausible but false argument. Quondam : former; erstwhile. Here : "quondam countrymen". Maunder : to wander aimlessly. Dandle : to playfully dance or bounce a child up and down on one's knee or in one's arms. Pullulating : swarming or teeming (like a hive of bees). Posset : sweet, spiced milk curdled with ale or beer.
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Excerpts...
It was a good decision because I really loved the things I grew. The leaf that spreads in the sunlight is the only holiness there is. I haven't found holiness in faiths of mortals, nor in their music, nor in their dreams: it's out in the open field, with the green rows looking at the sky. (pg. 46)
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"I remember one of mine once. Golly. She was a sweet thing, you know, and I was just nuts about her, but she had this devotion to Ishtar and you simply could not argue with her. I had to become an initiate, go the whole route. When she finally died, I was heartbroken, really, I just moped around for weeks, but on the other hand - it was so nice not to have to paint my ass blue and go whack the heads off doves at the temple every night. Always date atheists, that's my advice." (pg. 173)
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"Funny thing about those Middle Ages," said Joseph. "They just keep coming back. Mortals keep thinking they're in Modern Times, you know, they get all this neat technology and pass all these humanitarian laws, and then something happens: there's an economic crisis, or science makes some discovery people can't deal with. And boom, people go right back to burning Jews and selling pieces of the true Cross." (pg. 192)
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A few words about Kage Baker...
Born in 1952, Kage Baker burst into the sci-fi spotlight in 1997 with In The Garden of Iden, and her "Company" series garnered several sci-fi awards over the next decade. Alas, the light has gone out; she passed away in January of this year.
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This is the purpose of my life. Men burned; flowers were rescued. (pg. 236)
Although In The Garden Of Iden teetered on the edge of too much "icky romance", it never quite fell off. Genre-mixing is always a risk, but somehow it works here. The big question is whether the rest of the series reverts back to its sci-fi roots (that's where I found it at my local library) or instead devolves into a two-bit pulp romance, like Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear series did. We shall see. 7½ Stars.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Florida Roadkill - Tim Dorsey


1999; 362 pages. Book #1 of Dorsey's "Serge Storms" series. Genre : Florida Crime Fiction. New Author?: No. See here. Overall Rating : 5½*/10.
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Everyone would kill to get their hands on a suitcase containing five million dollars of stolen money. Everyone, that is, except the two guys that are unknowingly carrying it. The result is a wild chase down the coast of Florida, with the chasers often finding themselves the chasees. The whole thing is to die for.
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What's To Like...
For those who just have to know how serial-killer Serge and stoner Coleman hooked up together and what their respective childhoods were like, this book is for you. But there are a host of supporting characters as well : spouse-offing Sharon, three bikeless bikers, a devil-worshipping singer in a heavy metal band, a Caribbean drug cartel hit team, and a half a dozen completely evil types competing for the role of UE.
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There is the usual Dorsey love for Florida history and trivia; and a variety of diabolical ways to eliminate someone (including the unique "death by Levi's 501"). Not all of them are prepetrated by Serge. Dorsey also touches on things like the sad state of Healthcare, crappy retirement communities, Mark Fidrych, and methyl bromide. And he even gets serious for a moment with a moving father/son scene.
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Nevertheless, there are some weaknesses. The story takes a while to get going, mostly because Dorsey is introducing you to all the characters. It also has a "to be continued" ending, which just plain sucks. Some of the deaths seem to be there just to meet some sort of body-bag quota. And one of them is going to require a major resurrection somewhere down the road.
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Kewl New Words...
Trivet : a metal stand with three short feet, used under a hot dish on a table. Nacelle : the streamlined enclosure for an aircraft engine. Fronton : a jai alai court. Spansule : a medicinal capsule designed to release drugs at a steady rate over a period of hours. Guayabera : a short-sleeved, lightweight sport shirt with wide pockets and pleats down the front (wiki it).
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Excerpts...
She was maybe twenty, a student at Key West Community College, majoring in flirting her way onto expensive boats with prowler parties. She was thin, with a deep tan, sun-lightened brown hair, and a cute Georgia face. And she'd learned nothing in life is free when she'd gotten thrown overboard by an Argentinean tycoon on whose yacht she had been partying and whose knee she had been grabbing before she said, "Sorry, I have a boyfriend back at school." (pg. 14)
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Two blocks east of Tampa International Airport the death metal band Crucifixion Junkies blew an electrical fuse. The bass player accidentally spilled a beaker of chicken blood into his amp during a song urging violence against pacifists. (pg. 168)
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"One day it's meth, another day psilocybin; you drop acid on Sunday and Percodan on Monday," said Serge. "Then it's Thai sticks. And what about the time you boiled those flowers that were supposed to be like Aborgines' curare darts? Can't you just pick a drug and stick with it?"
Coleman said, completely serious: "I don't want to get hooked." (pg. 199)
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Think globally; act criminally locally (pg 80)...
I got the impression that Dorsey was still feeling his way into this series when he wrote Florida Roadkill. Serge and Coleman compete with others for the spotlight here, even when it comes to doing drugs and orchestrating diabolical executions. The storytelling and writing seem a bit raw, although it is easy to see that the talent is there. Happily, everything is much improved by the time Dorsey wrote Hurricane Punch. This isn't a bad book by any means, but I'm glad it wasn't my introduction to this series. 5½ stars.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Orphan's Tales - In the Night Garden - Catherynne Valente


2006; 483 pages. Genre : Fantasy Mythpunk (huh?). Awards : 2008 Mythopoeic Award - Adult Literature; nominated for the 2006 James Tiptree Jr. Award; nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Award. New author?: Yes. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
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In the Sultan's garden, a quiet little girl lives a lonely existence. Everyone thinks she's a demon due to her eyelids being inked black with a zillion tiny letters. The Sultan's young son befriends her and in exchange for bringing her food, she gives him the only thing she's has - the tales that are minutely inscribed on her eyelids. Alas, the prince's older sister is determined to keep the two youngsters apart. But the girl's tales utterly captivate the boy, and he has to find ways to continue seeing her.
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What's To Like...
This is a wonderfully-written book, rich in imagery and vocabulary. Although patterned after 1001 Arabian Nights, Valente invents a whole new mythical world, complete with star-gods, creation myths, and a menagerie of beasts - cyclops and monopods, griffins and leucrottas, wizards and papesses, shape-shifting bears and herons. And scattered throughout are marvelous drawings by Michael Wm. Kaluta.
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But it is the stories themselves that take center-stage. They are intricate, many-faceted, and interwoven. The Orphan's Tales is a duology, and both volumes in turn have two books-within-a-book, each with its own self-contained labyrinth of tales.
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That interweaving can get confusing. A particular narrator may tell two tales in a row, then disappear while a tangential storyline (or several) is played out. When the first narrator finally reappears, I'd have to backtrack through the book to figure out who she was.
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There are some loose ends, particularly as to the princeling and the girl with the inked eyelids. I presume these are taken care of in the next book, titled The Orphan's Tales : In The Cities of Coin and Spice.
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Kewl New Words...
Lots of them. Kohl : a cosmetic preparation used in the Middle East to darken the rims of the eyelids. Postulant : a candidate for admission into a religious order. Gloam : twilight. Here, "my body was changed, converted into its charcoal and gloam." Poultice : a soft, moist mass applied to a sore or inflamed part of the body. Amira : a princess. Doulios : a slave; a servant (Greek). Dotard : (adj.) foolish; doddering. Oligarch : a supporter of a form of government in which power rests with a small segment of society. Anchorite : a person who has gone into seclusion for religious reasons. Selkie : a mythical creature who has the form of a seal, but who can also assume human shape. Liminal : relating to the threshold between two different (spiritual) planes.
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Excerpts...
Once there was a child whose face was like the new moon shining on cypress trees and the feathers of waterbirds. She was a strange child, full of secrets. She would sit alone in the great Palace Garden on winter nights, pressing her hands into the snow and watching it melt under her heat. She wore a crown of garlic greens and wisteria; she drank from the silver fountains studded with lapiz; she ate cold pears under a canopy of pines on rainy afternoons. (opening paragraph. wow.)
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"No, no, meat does not offend us; we simply choose to eschew it. It appeals to the highest nature of the self to put aside food which once lived - I do not consider myself food, why should I ask all other creatures to consider themselves so?" (pg. 241)
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Sigrid looked as though she had been slapped. "I have searched my life over for you, for the Saint of the Griffins, of the Boiling Sea, of the Red Ship. I have never tried to repeat your miracles. I have performed my own. I have only tried to be like you in spirit, to be brave, and noble, and to find my place in the world. To find you."
The saint leaned in close to Sigrid, her face as round and ruddy as the day she vanished, and laid one finger aside her nose, her mouth spreading into a conspiratorial smile.
"Gods are always a disappointment," she clucked. (pg. 469)
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"Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a Witch." (pg. 134)
Valente's challenge : to write an epic adventure (with scads of sub-adventures) in a Chaucerian tale-telling style. She succeeds charmingly. There is humor, action, twists, and ethical dilemmas. Both "sub-books" are entertaining, but I liked the second one better, which has a more serious uber-theme of gods and religion. Sub-book One is more of a straight adventure story.
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One last thing. You will find that for the most part, female heroes and adventurers predominate here. Yet it isn't overbearing and makes for a nice switch. Highly recommended, except for chauvinists. 8½ stars.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The House of Thunder - Dean Koontz


1982; 416 pages. Nom de Plume used when originally published : Leigh Nichols. New Author? : No; two others. Genre : I'm not telling. Overall Rating : 7­.75*/10.
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Susan Thorton wakes up in a small hospital in Willawauk, Oregon. She's been in a car accident, suffered a concussion and has been in a coma for three weels. She can't remember much about herself. As her memory gradually starts coming back, she is visited by four frightening guys from her distant past. She testified at their trial after they killed her college boyfriend. Now they're back, looking not one day older, despite the fact that several of them were reported dead years ago. Nobody else in the hospital can see them, and they're looking for revenge.
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What's To Like...
That may sound like a clich├ęd start, but what Koontz does with it is quite novel. Are the threatening beings ghosts? Aliens? Monsters? Magical beings? Illusions? Is Susan going insane?
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Koontz builds the tension smoothly as the story progresses. Each chapter ends with a "hook", and every time you come up with a pet theory about what's going on, Koontz pokes a hole in it. For the most part (see below), this is an excellent example of "show, don't tell".
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The quibbles are few and minor. For me, the book dragged a bit through the first half (all of which takes place inside the hospital), then went by a bit too quickly in the second half, when Susan finally goes outside. However, other reviewers felt just the opposite, so it's a matter of taste. Also, there are about 15-pages of "tell, don't show" towards the end of the book, that were a missed opportunity for action and adventure. Oh yeah, this was apparently written before Koontz started working a golden retriever into each of his books. But these are all minor nits to pick.
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Kewl New Words...
Mezuzah : a piece of parchment inscribed with specified Hebrew scripture, which is posted on the doroframe of Jewish homes to fulfill a Biblical commandment. Invidious : tending to rouse ill-will or resentment. Tremulous : marked by trembling.
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Excerpts...
"He said, 'Show me a coincidence, and when I open it up for you, I'll show you at least two people inside, plotting some sort of mischief.'"
McGee frowned and shook his head."That philosophy might be suitable for a character in a detective story. But out here in the real world, it's a little paranoid, don't you think?" (pg. 67-68)
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She trusted medical science precisely because it was a science. She distrusted psychiatry because, to her way of thinking, which had been shaped by her education as a physicist, psychiatry was not really a science at all; she thought of it as little more than voodoo. (pg. 228).
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Late Thursday afternoon, a fast-weaving loom of wind brought new gray cloth for the rents in the clouds, patching over every last glimpse of blue September sky. (pg. 304)
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You're not paranoid if they really are after you...
The House of Thunder was published in 1982, somewhat early in his career, when Koontz was still writing under pen names. He would hit his stride five years later, when Watchers (see here) came out, but his story-telling skills are already evident here. I'm not much into this genre (I'm still not telling what it is), but this proved to be a real page-turner for me. What more can you ask out of a good story? 7.75 stars.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Jingo - Terry Pratchett


1997; 437 pages. Book #21 of the Discworld series; Book #4 of the City Watch sub-series. Genre : Comedic Fantasy. New Author?: Heavens, no. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
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Commander Sam Vimes, head of the City Watch, has his hands full. First there's the investigation of an attempted assassination, and the assassination of the attempted-assasin. Then there's the invasion of Klatch, the overseas neighbor of Ankh-Morpork. Sam's mighty fighting force? About a half-dozen volunteers from the City Watch. But coppers are the same thing as soldiers, right? And one Ankh-Morporkian is worth a thousand Klatchians, right?
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What's To Like...
All your City Watch favorites are here : Angua, Captain Carrot, Corporal Nobby, Sergeant Colon, and Detritus. For a change, the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, plays a major part in the story. It is always a treat to watch him in action. We're introduced to Leonard of Quirm, a combination of Buckminster Fuller and Leonardo Da Vinci, who creates mind-blowing inventions, but fails to come up with any practical uses for them.
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There's also a flying carpet, a bit of dimension-hopping, and an imp-powered dis-organizer that reminds Sam of his appointments in the most inopportune ways and moments.
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Once again, Pratchett explores a number of themes. The most salient is the senselessness of war. The book opens with a small island popping up in the sea, midway between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch. Neither country has any use for it, but they will fight to keep each other from occupying it.
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The themes of racism and jingoism (hence the title of the book) are also prominent. Klatch obviously represents the Arab/Muslim world, and everyone in Ankh-Morpork knows all Klatchians are stupid, cowardly, have bizarre customs, eat strange food, worship the wrong gods, and collectively need a thorough whupping. You don't need to actually meet a Klatchian to know all this, do you?
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Oh yeah, Pratchett also gives a wink and a nod to the themes of cross-dressing and guys getting in touch with their feminine side.
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Kewl New Words...
Dekko : a quick glance (British slang). Caltrop : an iron anti-personnel device with 4 spikes, which is placed on the ground in such a way that at least one spike is always pointing up (a good weapon to hinder enemy cavalry). Judder : to shake or vibrate rapidly and intensely. Equerry : an official charged with the care of the horses of royalty or nobility. Juggins : a fool; a dupe. Scryer : one who tells the future via crystal-ball gazing.
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Excerpts...
There was a crash somewhere ahead of them, and a scream. Coppers learned to be good at screams. There was to the connoisseur a world of difference between "I'm drunk and I've just trodden on my fingers and I can't get up!" and "Look out! He's got a knife!" (pg. 56)
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"This belonged to my great-grandad," he said. He was in the great scrap we had against Pseudopolis and my great-gran gave him a book of prayers for soldiers, 'cos you need all the prayers you can get, believe you me, and he stuck it in the top pocket of his jerkin, 'cos he couldn't afford armor, and the next day in battle - whoosh, this arrow came out of nowhere, wham, straight into this book and it went all the way through to the last page before stopping, look. You can see the hole."
"Pretty miraculous," Carrot agreed.
"Yeah it was, I s'pose," said the sergeant. He looked ruefully at the tattered volume. "Shame about the other seventeen arrows, really." (pg. 181)
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Sergeant Colon cleared his throat. "I know something about seaweed, sir."
"Yes, sergeant?"
"Yessir! If it's wet, sir, it means it's going to rain."
"Well done, sergeant," said Lord Vetinari, without turning his head. "I think it is quite possible that I will never forget you said that." (pg. 269)
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Veni, vermini, vomui. (I came, I ratted, I threw up)...(pg. 213)
As usual, Pratchett deftly interweaves the host of themes. As usual, he tells a fascinating story and ties up all the loose ends. As usual, there is laugh-out loud humor throughout the book. As usual, you come away feeling he's imparted a lesson or two to you, without feeling like you've been preached at.
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This doesn't seem to be one of the more famous books in the Discworld series. I don't know why not. Nine Stars.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gentlemen Of The Road - Michael Chabon


2007; 206 pages (including "Afterword" and "A Note on the Khazars"). Genre : Historical Fiction; New Author?: Yes. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
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Set in 10th-century Khazaria (a real place - see Wikipedia's entry here), two mercenary con-men travel the local roads, doing whatever it takes to make ends meet. One is a giant African warrior with an axe named "Defiler of your Mother"; the other is a scarecrow-framed Frankish itinerant with fencing and healing skills and a passion for hats.
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They get more than they bargain for when they're talked into safeguarding a headstrong, sassy prince in his quest to avenge his slain family. Revolution and adventure spring up; when all they wanted was a few extra dirhams.
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What's To Like...
10th-century Khazaria - is that a kewl setting or what? Chabon's prose is beautiful; new vocabulary words abound; great humor percolates throughout the story; there's a map to help you make heads and tails of our heroes' wanderings; and above all, there are lots of buckles to be swashed.
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Chabon wrote this as a serialized tale (the New York Times ran it over the course of a couple of months). Gentlemen Of The Road is comprised of 15 chapters, all almost identical in length; and each a "story within a story". If you could convert a comic book action series into pure text, this is what it would look like. Well, not quite 100% text. Gary Gianni, who draws the Prince Valiant comic strip, provides an awesome picture for each chapter.
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Kewl New Words...
Chabon likes highbrow vocabulary, so there were a slew of them. Calumny : a false, slanderous accusation. Rheumy : wet, arthritic. Here, "rheumy jargon", so I guess it was used in a figurative sense. Senescence : old age. Ambit : the area in which someone or something operates or has control of. Contumelious : arrogantly insolent. Scabrous : rough, improper, scandalous, shocking. Melisma : a musical passage of several notes sung to a single syllable of text. Affiant : swearing to be true, as in giving an affidavit. Littoral : the shore area of a lake, sea, or ocean. Sukkah : a temporary structure with a roof of leafy boughs. Chiromancy : palm-reading. Dirham : a monetary unit used in the story. Wisent : a European bison. Caparisoned : clothed in finery.
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Excerpts...
For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve. (opening sentence)
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Though only a week earlier the idea would have struck him as heresy, as he lay waiting to become carrion he considered that plump and vivacious Sarah was perhaps unworthy of his suffering and death, when after all, she chewed with her mouth open and her wind, when she had been consuming too much milk, gave off an unsettling odor of brimstone. (pg. 45)
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Filaq wiped the blade on the flap of his tunic and then handed it back, haft first. "Thank you for saving my life," he said.
"I don't save lives," Zelikman said. "I just prolong their futility." (pg. 103)
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A few words about Michael Chabon...
He won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2001 for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay". He won the Hugo, Sidewise and Nebula awards in 2007 for "The Yiddish Policeman's Union". He writes in a variety of genres - drama, alt history, and here, comic book adventure. His books are usually about Jewish life - past or present. Wikipedia's article about him is here.
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"I need you to put me back together," she said. "I have a man to kill." (pg. 154)
There are story-tellers and there are novelists. I tend to read more by the former than by the latter. But once in a while, you run into an author that deftly combines the two, and that's always an unexpected pleasure. Gentlemen Of The Road is such a book. My only gripe is that this literary delight ended way too soon. Nine Stars.