Monday, December 26, 2011

Wizard and Glass - Stephen King

1997; 694 pages.  Book #4 in the Dark Tower series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Epic fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The ka-tet of Roland, Eddie, Jake, Susannah, and Oy continue their quest to reach the Dark Tower.  Alas, as the story opens, they're trapped on a psychotic monorail train called Blaine, bound for an otherworldly Topeka, Kansas.  They will either arrive in peace, or in pieces.

What's To Like...
    At last we get some much-needed background about Roland the Gunslinger.  Specifically, he tells the rest of the band the saga of his first true love, Susan Delgado.  We are also introduced to his two bestest buds, Alain and Cuthbert.

    The backstory is a fantastic piece of story-telling by Stephen King.  The bad guys are formidable and cunning; the good guys make mistakes (especially Roland), particularly in underestimating the baddies.  There is romance and sorcery, and a kewl Alt-History world.  There is plenty of action and unexpected plot twists; and a few nuggets of wit and humor are scattered about amongst the drama.

    The ending is an improvement over the cheap cliffhanger device used to close out Book #3.  The cast of characters in Roland's tale, even the secondary ones, are fully-developed and fun to get to know.

Kewlest New Word...
Ruction : an unpleasant reaction to, or a complaint about something.

    Jutting from the center of the falls, perhaps two hundred feet below the point where the river actually went over the drop, were two enormous stone protrusions.  Although Jake had no idea how a sculptor (or a team of them) could have gotten down to where they were, he found it all but impossible to believe they had simply eroded that way.  They looked like the heads of enormous, snarling dogs.
    The Falls of the Hounds, he thought.  There was one more stop beyond this - Dasherville - and then Topeka.  Last stop.  Everybody out.  (pg. 33)

    Roland looked up and saw Susan sitting in her window, a bright vision in the gray light of that fall morning.  His heart leaped up and although he didn't know it then, it was how he would remember her most clearly forever after - lovely Susan, the girl at the window.  So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all.  The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds.  Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.  (pg. 376)

Argyou not about the hand you are delt in cards or life.  (pg. 179)
    The weird thing about Wizard and Glass is that the backstory is literally 3/4 of the book.  It is therefore not surprising that the main story - the quest for the Dark Tower - hardly progresses at all.

    Blaine-the-train is quickly dispatched; our heroes land in a parallel-world Kansas that has been laid waste by some sort of plague; Roland tells his story; and that's pretty much it.  There is a closing, climactic encounter with some baddies, but it doesn't resolve much.  One wonders when Stephen King is going to get around to advancing the main plotline.

    Still, the merits of the backstory far outshine the slow-moving main tale.  So let's sit back and enjoy an enchanting saga from Roland's youth, and we'll worry about the Dark Tower some other day.  8½ Stars.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Pilgrim of Hate - Ellis Peters

1984; 198 pages.  Book #10 of the Brother Cadfael series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Cozy.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Someone has stabbed a noble knight to death on a street in Winchester, which lies several days away from Brother Cadfael's abbey in Shrewsbury.  It is also time for the Feast of St. Winifred at the abbey, and that will attract pilgrims from all around.  Is it possible that the murderer will be among them?  Hmm.  Well if not, we wouldn't have much of a story to tell, would we?

What's To Like...
    The sleuthing will certainly be a challenge.  There's no description of the perp, and by the time word reaches Brother Cadfael of the deed, there is no longer a body or crime scene to investigate.  Anyone among the hundreds of pilgrims could've done it, or none of them.

    The historical setting is great.  There really was a St. Winifred (the Wiki link is here) and at the time the story is set in (1141 AD) the Abbey at Shrewsbury had just begun enshrining the (supposed) bones of St. Winifred (she died about 500 years earlier) and commemorating it with an annual Feast.

    The Pilgrim of Hate is unique (at least so far) in the series in that Brother Cadfael seems to have a mystical link with St. Winifred and there is a bona fide miracle that takes place.  The events in the other books have all been this-worldly.  At slightly less than 200 pages, the story moves at a good clip, and as always, Ms. Peters is a master at giving a vivid rendering of 12th-century England.

Kewlest New Word...
Neum : any of various notational signs used in medieval church music; they were put above the words to be sung to show approximate pitch, melody line, etc.

    "Where the sun shines," said Hugh ruefully, "there whoever's felt the cold will gather.  My cause, old friend, is out of the sun.  When Henry of Blois shifts, all men shift with him, like starvelings huddled in one bed.  He heaves the coverlet, and they go with him, clinging by the hems.  (pg. 1)

    "It is a right and a wise desire," said Radulfus.  "One thing tell me - are you asking for absolution for failing to fulfill the oath you swore?"
    Luc, already on his knees, raised his head for a moment from the abbot's knee, and showed a face open and clear.  "No, Father, but for swearing such an oath.  Even grief has its arrogance."
    "Then you have learned, my son, that vengeance belongs only to God?"
    "More than that, Father," said Luc.  "I have learned that in God's hands vengeance is safe.  However long delayed, however strangely manifested, the reckoning is sure."  (pg. 189)

"As long as the saints have money ... rogues will never be far away."  (pg. 39)
    I got the feeling that Ellis Peters' main reason for penning TPoH was to advance the background stories of both England in general (it was historically a very unstable time) and of Brother Cadfael personally.  She does a good job of this, but it comes at the cost of the murder-mystery itself.  And the solving of the crime is the raison d'etre for any murder-mystery.

    There may be hundreds of pilgrims, but it quickly becomes clear that there are only 5 or 6 suspects, and it doesn't take long for that to dwindle to just two.  Also, the side-story - involving the miracle - never really gets tied into the main storyline.  Even Peters' trademark romance angle comes off as being thinner than usual.

    In short, The Pilgrim of Hate doesn't quite measure up to the other three books I've read in this series.  It's still a worthwhile read, but more for the history therein.  I'd give it 6 Stars, maybe a bit more if you are reading these in order, which I'm not.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Knees Up Mother Earth - Robert Rankin

2004; 439 pages.  Book #7 of the Brentford Trilogy (yeah, I know); Book #2 of the Witches of Chiswick trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Humor; Fiction.  Rating : 9*/10.

    Armageddon approaches!  The Dark Lord not only walks the earth; he owns a huge corporation headquartered in Brentford.  He's recruited Cthulhu and other demons, who are now ensconced in his penthouse.  All that remains is to free the Beast, who curiously enough, is imprisoned beneath the Brentford soccer field, aka Griffin Park.

    Of course, the Brentford soccer team has prior claim to the field.  But they're the Bad New Bears of English football.  How hard could it be to buy them out, disband the team, and begin the excavations?

What's To Like...
    You'd think that saving the world from the Ultimate Evil would be the main theme here, but frankly Knees up Mother Earth is primarily about the friendship between bestest buddies Jim Pooley and John Omally.  They get drafted to be the coach and manager, respectively, of the bumbling Brentford ball club.  Their assignment : to take this bunch of perennial losers and guide them to winning the FA Cup, which is the equivalent of winning the World Series in baseball.

    Of course, this being a Robert Rankin book, you also get lots of running gags, wacky humor, pints-in-a-pub scenes, and witty dialogue.  The cast of characters that Rankin dreams up are a fun bunch to hang out with, and there's even a weee bit of Time-Travel.  Oh yes, and something incredibly kewl called a Hartnel Grumpiness Hyper-Drive.  I definitely want one of those.

Kewlest New Word...
Prial : a corruption of "pair royal", and which strangely enough, means 'three persons'.

    "As you know, I am compiling a book, The Complete and Absolute History of Brentford.  You would be surprised by the many interesting facts that I have turned up regarding the borough."
    "No we wouldn't," said Jim, taking out his pack of cigarettes.  "There can be few places on Earth more interesting than Brentford."
    "You've never travelled widely, have you Jim?" asked the professor.
    "Jim gets a nosebleed if he goes on the top deck of a bus," said John.  (pg. 56)

    That creature is unthinkable," said Jim.  "And impossible, too.  This is Brentford, Professor, the real world.  This kind of stuff does not belong in the real world.  The real world is buses and babies and bedtime.  It isn't this.
    "Bedtime?" said John.
    "I couldn't think of anything else beginnign with 'b'."
    "Breasts," said John.  "Boobs, bosoms, b-"
    "Shut up, John.  This is serious."
    "I know, my friend, I know."  (pg. 218)

"He who dines with the Devil must do so with a very long fork."  (pg. 223)
    Griffin Park is real.  The Brentford soccer team is real.  Their ineptitude is real; they are a Fourth Tier team, which we'd call a "D" League.  To boot, Robert Rankin based this story on a real-world experience - he was actively involved in working to save Grififn Park from being bought up by developers and turned into a subdivision.

    Because of this, Knees Up Mother Earth has more of a plot than a number of other Rankin works.  Granted, Rankin stories don't absolutely need a storyline to be entertaining, but it's a big plus anyway when one shows up.  So we'll give this a rating of 9 Stars, and close by saying,  "Knees Up, Fellow Readers!"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Avatar - Poul Anderson

1978; 404 pages.  Genre : Sci-Fi.  New Author? : Kinda.  I've read the "Hoka" books he co-wrote with Gordon Dickson, but never one that he wrote alone.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Ah, T-machines!  A.k.a.  portals, star-gates, wormholes, etc.  If you enter them via the carefully-placed guidance beacons (placed there by the mysterious "Others"), you will come out at a pre-selected, terra-compatible planet many light years away.

    But if you enter it haphazardly, as the spaceship Chinook and her crew did (the alternative was to be obliterated by rapidly-approaching missiles), you will come out at any one of thousands of other time-space points.  And the odds of you ever finding your way back to present-day Earth are ...ahem... astronomical.

What's To Like...
     The Avatar is a nice blend of space opera and "hard" science fiction.  Poul Anderson held a degree in Physics, so it is not surprising that he works a lot of Quantum Mechanics into the story.  Which is timely, given that I just got done watching a 4-part PBS/Nova special ("The Fabric of the Cosmos", hosted by Brian Greene) on that subject.

    Being part Space Opera means that there are lots of worlds to visit, some of which have strangely different life-forms.  It also means there is lots of sex.  Too much sex.  Free love with lots of partners.  Poul either was writing out his own fantasies, or else those of the teenage boys that would presumably be his target audience.

    The crew of the Chinook are interesting enough - there's the rugged captain, a "hippie" first mate (with emphasis on "mate"), a holothete (huh?), etc.  Most interesting of all is the alien ("Betan")  dubbed Fidelio, who is there as an emissary to try to understand human beings.  The book cover captures his description nicely.

    Finally, it's nice to have to deal with alien races that are actually more advanced than us.

Kewlest New Word...
Sophont : an alien being, with a base reasoning capacity roughly equivalent to or greater than that of humans.

    "You're being a government, Aurie," he remarked.  When she gave him an inquiring glance, he explained, "The single definition of government I've ever seen that makes sense is that it's the organization which claims the right to kill people who won't do what it wants."
    He could have gone on to admit that he was oversimplifying, since she was obviously acting on behalf of a group whose own behavior might well be unlawful, but he didn't think it was worth his while.  (pgs. 27-28)

    "We could stay here, in spin mode and a wide orbit," Weisenberg suggested.  "Apparently we've a reasonable chance that a ship will come in before we starve.  I daresay her civilization can synthesize food for us and won't mind doing that.  Her crew won't be able to guide us home, but doubtless we could live out quite interesting lives on her planet of origin."
    "Are you serious, Phil?" Caitlin asked.
    "No.  I have a family.  I did think one of us ought to state the case for remaining."  (pg. 331)

"Ever heard of Occam's razor?  I've shaved with it from time to time."  (pg. 26)
    All the trappings in The Avatar are well-done.  Unfortunately, the crux of any science fiction novel is its storyline, and that's a major weakenss here.

    First off, the pacing sucks.  The book's more than half done before we enter the first T-machine.  That's way too long of an introduction.  Then we visit some really neat new worlds and times, but without any advancing of the plot until there's only 50 pages left, at which point we still have no idea why this is called The Avatar.  We finish off with an ending that is unconvincing and feels rushed.

    One gets the feeling Anderson was more interested in preaching his libertarian politicial views here than creating a compelling sci-fi story.  I still enjoyed this book, mostly for the "hard science fiction" it presented.  But if Quantum Physics isn't your shtick, you might give this a pass.  5½ Stars.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Scaredy Cat - Mark Billingham

2002; 419 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #2 in the "Tom Thorne" series (out of 10).  Genre : Psycho Killer.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    In London, two women are strangled, one in the presence of her three-year-old son.  The twin crimes are separated by only a couple hours and a couple miles.  What murderer would have so much rage in him that he would strike twice in a single day?  Unless...

What's To Like...
This is not so much a "who-dun-it", as it is a "howie-gonna-findim".  The pacing is good, and every time you grit your teeth in anticipation of a clichéd event, Billingham twists the story in a new direction.

    Even better, Scaredy Cat is a well-constructed murder-mystery.  The denouement is neither too obvious nor too arbitrary.  The case-breaking clue was logical, and overlooked by both Detective Tom Thorne and myself for far too long.

    Mark Billingham's handling of Tom Thorne has improved from the first book, Sleepyhead, reviewed here.  Yes, he's still the stereotyped burnt-out cop, but it's played down here.  And at least the psycho killer doesn't try to take out our hero.

Kewlest New Word...
Swotty : Studious; given to studying hard  (British slang)

    He'd seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of photos like these.  He'd stared at them over the years with the same dispassionate eye that a dentist might cast over X rays, or an accountant across a tax return.  He'd lost count of the pale limbs, twisted or torn or missing altogether in black-and-white ten-by-eights.  Then there were the color prints.  Pale bodies lying on green carpets.  A ring of purple bruises around a chalk-white neck.  The garish patterned wallpaper against which the blood spatter is barely discernible.
    An ever expanding exhibition with a simple message: emotions are powerful things, bodies are not. (pgs. 11-12)

    Forced laughter and instant guilt.
    It was usually the joke that came first.  "Tom, what is ET short for?"
    "Go on, Dad..."
    "Because he's only got little legs."  (pg. 86)

"Let us drink beer and talk of death."  (pg. 33)
    Wikipedia gives an interesting anecdote about Scaredy Cat.  It is apparently based on a personal experience of Mark Billingham's.  While staying at a hotel with a writing partner, three masked men burst into their room, bound and gagged the pair, and stole various items and credit cards.  Their brazenness and absolute control of the situation totally terrified Billingham.  And he resolved to work that feeling (and some of the details of the incident) into his next novel, Scaredy Cat.

    He succeeded nicely.  8 Stars.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On A Pale Horse - Piers Anthony

1983; 232 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #1 of the "Incarnations of Immortality" series.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Zane is Death.  He has some cool accoutrements to go with the job - the obligatory scythe, some Batman-esque body armor, and a pale horse named Morits who can morph into being a boat or a car at the push of a button.  He's also invisible to most people.

     Zane didn't ask for this newly-acquired job.  He was trying to kill himself and accidentally shot the previous Death instead.  And hey, you know what they say - if you slay 'em, you gotta play 'em.

What's To Like...
    Piers Anthony develpos a neat alternate universe; one where Magic and Science are on equal footing.  So you are just as likely to take a car as you are a flying carpet.  Hunting dragons is way fun, but try not to run into any ghosts along the way.

    He also creates a fascinating cosmology - with a Heaven, a Hell, and a Purgatory; God and Satan (who is heavily into advertising); demons and (presumably) angels; and seven offices in between mortals and gods - Time, Fate, War, Nature, Good, Evil, and of course, Death.

    The story is well-structured, but frankly not compelling.  But that's okay; the main raison d'être of On A Pale Horse is to allow the author to offer insight and opinions on various Death-related topics, such as : crack babies, children with cancer, atheists, suicide, death in combat,  assisted suicide, and the Afterlife and Eternity.  We follow Zane, a reluctant hero, as he learns his new job, meets and interplays with the other Incarnations, falls in love, and ultimately has a showdown with Satan hmself.

Kewlest New Word...
Effulgence : A brilliant radiance; the sending out of bright rays of light.

    "What happens now?" he asked Fate,  His body was shaking, and he felt unpleasantly faint.
    "You fold the soul, pack it in your pouch, and go on to the next client," she answered.  "When you have a break in the schedule, you will analyze the soul, to determine to which sphere it should be relegated."
    "Which sphere?"  His mind refused to focus, as if his very thoughts were blinded by the client's blood.
    "Heaven or Hell."
    "But I'm no judge of souls!" he protested.
    "Yes, you are - now.  Try not to make too many mistakes."  Fate turned and walked away (pg. 34)

    "What refuge do these dead soldiers have," Zane asked, discomfited.  "How did this battle help them?"
     "They have glory," Mars explained.  "All men must die sometime, and most go ignominiously from age or illness or mishap.  Only in war do large numbers get to expire in decent glory."
    "Glory?"  Zane thought of his recent client, impaled agonizingly on a wooden stake.  "Seems more like gory to me."
    Mars bellowed out his laughter.  "Cute, Death!  You perceive only the instant of discomfort; I perceive the eternal reputation.  A moment of pain for eternal fame!  These men are sacrificing their blood on the altar of righteousness.  This is the termination that renders their entire mundane lives sublime."
    "But what about those who die fighting for the wrong cause?"
    "There is no wrong cause!  There are only alternate avenues to glory and honor."  (pg. 100)

"Circumstance makes puppets of us all".  (pg. 188)
    There are some negatives.  The women in OAPH are weak, with little purpose other than to look pretty and be available for sex.  The 16-page "Author's Note" at the back is boring, self-serving, and eminently skippable.  And there is some obsessive "padding" of the Amazon review scores, presumably by the author himself.

    On A Pale Horse is in a different vein than the other Piers Anthony books I've read, which were all from the Xanth series.  Things are more somber and serious here, appropriate, I suppose, when dealing with such a topic.  There still is wit, but don't read this when you want Xanth humor.

    The concept of this series is excellent, as is the storyline in On A Pale Horse.  But the execution could have been done better, and the negatives pull it down.  We'll give it 7 Stars, but still read a couple more books in the series to see if things improve.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thank You For Smoking - Christopher Buckley

1994; 272 pages.  New Author? : No, but it's been a while.  Genre : Fiction; Satire.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Wouldn't it be nice if you pulled down a 6-figure salary simply for being a spokesperson for some organization?  Probably.  Except, what if that organization was the Tobacco Industry, and they sent you out to do verbal battle with do-gooders on programs like Oprah and The Larry King Show?

    That's Nick Naylor's job, and frankly, he's very good at it.  But if you p*ss off enough people, sooner or later someone's going to come after you with bad intent.

What's To Like...
    Whether you smoke or not, if you like anti-heroes, Nick's your guy.  He hangs out with two people with similar jobs.  Polly's a spokesperson for the Alcohol Industry, and Bobby Jay speaks for the Gun Lobby.  Collectively, they call themselves the Mod Squad, which stands for Merchants Of Death.

    The storyline of Thank You For Smoking is a bit thin, and very similar to the other Christopher Buckley book I've read, Little Green Men, reviewed here.  But that's okay; the plot is somewhat secondary.  TY4S is superficially a satire, but on a deeper level, it's a scathing exposé on the tactics used by the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms industries (hereafter shortened to "ATF") to keep the public accepting of, and voraciously buying their lethal products.

Kewlest New Word...
Oleaginous : marked by an offensively ingratiating manner or quality.

    Budd Rohrabacher raised his eyebrows in greeting.  He was leaning back in his big chair reading Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, standard reading matter around the Academy.  BR was forty-nine years old, but exuded the energy of a younger man.  His eyes, light green, intense and joyless and looking at life as a spreadsheet, might strike some as belonging to an older man who had been fundamentally disappointed early on and who had therefore decided to make life unpleasant for those around him.  (pgs. 12-13)

    When their eyes connected for the third, embarrassing time, he smiled at her.  She said, "Aren't you the tobacco person who was kidnapped?"
    "Yes," Nick said, flattered at being approached by a celebrity.  He was about to reciprocate when she set her jaw and said, "I know a lot of people who died of lung cancer.  Good people."
    Nick said to her, "No bad people?"
    She gave him a fierce look, craned about to see if there was an empty seat, and finding none, went back to angrily marking up the script on her large lap with a big, angry red pen.  Some screenwriter would pay for Nick's insolence.  (pg. 159)

"Well Katie, you can't spell tolerance without the t in tobacco."  (pg. 116)
    The persuasion tactics used by the ATF industries are varied, well-funded, pervasive, subtle, and astoundingly effective.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the "puffers" detailed on pages 149-155 bear an uncanny resemblance to the modern-day Tea Baggers, who are ostensibly a grass-roots movement, but are in fact bankrolled by some unsavory special interest groups.  The tricks that worked in the 90's still work today.

    Your eyes will be opened from reading Thank You For Smoking.  You memories of Joe The Camel and the Marlboro Man will turn sour, and you will develop a strong distaste for the Alcohol Industry's present-day seemingly magnaminous gesture of telling viewers of their ads to "Drink Responsibly"9 Stars, and if reading is not your shtick, I'm told the movie of the same title is quite good.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pirate Latitudes - Michael Crichton

2009; 384 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Adventure.  Overall Rating :  8*/10.

    In 1665, Port Royal on the island of Jamaica is one of the few places in the Caribbean where the Union Jack proudly flies.  A sensible British subject living there might view that as a precarious situation.  But an optimistic British privateer would see it as lots of opportunities to "liberate" good from Spanish galleons.  And Captain Charles Hunter is definitely opportunistic.

What's To Like...
    The action is non-stop.  The plot twists are many.  The setting is vividly real, even if Crichton added a couple imaginary islands (and a critter) to the story.  The women are all strong characters.  Do not mess with them.  Especially the gay one.

    This is an early Crichton effort that was never published until its manuscript was found on his computer after his death.  Anecdotal evidence (see Wikipedia) indicates it was already around, at least as a rough draft, in 1979.

    As such, there are some things (such as the critter) that strain the limits of believability.  Also, the pacing is erratic - it seems to take longer to scale a not-indispensible cliff than to carry out the boffo ending.

Kewlest New Word...
None, really.  There were some technical terms, mostly about cannons.  That's about it.

    Port Royal, in 1665, was a boomtown.  In the decade since Cromwell's expedition had captured the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, Port Royal had grown from a miserable, deserted, disease-ridden spit of sand into a miserable, overcrowded, cutthroat-infested town of eight thousand.  (pg. 9)

    "You are nothing," she sputtered, "but a bastard, a rogue, a cutthroat vicious rascally whore-son scoundrel."
    "At your service," Hunter said, and kissed her.
    She broke away.  "And forward."
    "And forward," he agreed, and kissed her again.
    "I suppose you intend to rape me like a common street woman."
    "I doubt," Hunter said, stripping off his wet clothing, "that it will be necessary."
    And it was not.
    "In daylight?" she said, in a horrified voice, and those were her last intelligble words.  (pgs. 91-92)

Jamaica ... "was not a region burdened by moral excesses."  (pg. 6)
    Keep in mind that Michael Crichton never intended for Pirate Latitudes to be published in its present form.  To bring it up to "Jurassic Park standards" would require some significant time and rewriting.  Perhaps he intended to do this "someday".

    It isn't "Cri-Fi", although the meticulous attention to detail brings the story to life and presages Crichton's later, polished works.   Pirate Latitudes is purely and simply a swashbuckling action story, with every pirate cliché possible woven into the plot.

    Therefore the occasional technical clunkiness is forgiven.  Michael Crichton is shown to be a master storyteller, even in the early days of his career.  If you liked Pirates of the Caribbean, but wished it had been a sconch less zany, Pirate Latitudes may be just your cup of grog.  8 Stars.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Five Red Herrings - Dorothy L. Sayers

    1931; 322 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

       In a little artists' enclave in Scotland called Kirkcudbright, someone has murdered a landscape painter named Campbell.  Who would do such a dastardly deed?  Actually, any number of people, since Campbell was an irritating, combative sort.

    Suspicion falls upon six fellow painters in the enclave.  All have equally (im)plausible alibis.  If one of them did it, then that means the others are Five Red Herrings.

What's To Like...
   The setting - the 1930's Scotland - is neat.  The characters are interesting, and even the technical bits about landscape painting are enlightening.

    This was my introduction to the literary sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.  Like any successful (amateur) detective, he asks lots of questions, sees clues that others miss, and becomes a pest to suspects and policemen alike.  He's sorta like Columbo, and that's kewl.

    Dorothy L. Sayers does a nice job of unfolding the murder investigation.  It's fun to watch how each suspect's alibi starts off being "air tight", then crumbles into "highly suspicious".  The six storylines do become interconnected, making it a complex investigation.

    This is more of a "how-done-it" than a "who-done-it".  The details of the key clue are kept secret from the reader (but not from Wimsey) until close to the end,

Kewlest New Word...
Bathos : an unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace or from the sublime to the trivial; producing a ludicrous effect.

    Waters was an Englishman of good yeoman stock, and, like all Englishmen, was ready enough to admire and praise all foreigners, but, like all Englishmen, he did not like to hear them praise themselves.  To boast loudly in public of one's own country seemed to him indecent - like enlarging on the physical perfections of one's own wife in a smoking room.  (pg. 3)

    "I'll tak' ma aith," said Dalziel to himself, "she kens fine there is some importance tae be attached tae the bicycle, and she disna ken whether tae say her man had it or no.  Whae could ha' tell't her?   It's no that Lord Peter, for he's clever, wi' a' his bletherin' talk.  And it's no Macpherson, he'd never let oot a word.  There's some yin is expectin' yon bicycle tae be found in a queer place, I reckon."  (pg. 89, and an example of the Scottish dialogue in Five Red Herrings.)

"(I)t doesn't do to murder people, however offensive they may be."  (pg. 23)
    The book does drag at times.  Establishing and debunking an alibi takes time.  When there are six alibis involved, it can get a bit tedious.

    The Scottish dialogue (see above excerpt) used by the natives gets old fast; and it is compounded at one point by a lisper, who the author contrives to uthe ath many "eth" wordth ath pothible.  Argh!

    Still, the measure of any mystery novel is the investigating/solving itself, not the peripheral goings-on.  And that's what saves The Five Red Herrings.  It's well-constructed, well-written, and Ms. Sayers keeps you switching from one person to the next as your prime suspect.  It would've been nice to know what the key clue was early on, but I'll settle for trying to work out just how the perpetrator pulled it off.   6 Stars.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Stardust - Neil Gaiman

1999; 333 pages.  Genre : Fantasy Fiction.  New Author? : No.  Laurels: Winner of the 2000 Ameircan Library Association's "Alex Award";  Winner of the 1999 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Victoria Forester is the most beautiful girl in the land.  To win her heart, Tristan Thorn vows to bring her a falling/fallen star they saw together.  In return, she agrees to give him his heart's desire.

What could be easier, and what could possibly go wrong?

What's To Like...
Stardust is a fairy tale.  As such, it has romance and adventure; unicorns and princesses.  But it's also a Neil Gaiman tale.  As such, it has intrigue and murder; ghosts and witches; and a wee bit o' sex and cussing.

The storyline moves at a splendid pace, and it is a delight to follow along.  Tristan hasn't a clue as to how to find a fallen star, let alone snag it and take it back with him.  All he knows is that to do so, he will have to leave the "real" world, and venture into the land of Faeries.  That's fodder for Gaiman's fertile mind.

    Stardust is an easy-to-read book.  The writing is skilled; the plotline is well thought-out; the story twists are plentiful; and the ending is great.  And there's an illustrated version of it that I am told is also masterfully done.

Kewlest New Word...
Lammas-Tide : August 1st; aka "Harvest Day".   Three months after Beltain; and three months before Samhain.

    There was a cracking sound, sharp as a shot, and the light that filled the grove was gone.
    Or almost gone.  There was a dim glow pulsing from the middle of the hazel thicket, as if a tiny cloud of stars were glimmering there.
    And there was a voice, a high clear, female voice which said, "Ow," and then, very quietly, it said "Fuck," and then it said "Ow" once more.
    And then it said nothing at all, and there was silence in the glade.  (pg. 93)

    "If you touch me," said the star, "lay but a finger on me, you will regret it forever-more."
    "If ever you get to be my age," said the old woman, "you will know all there is to know about regrets, and you will know that one more, here or there, will make no difference in the long run."  She snuffled the air.  (pgs. 321-322)

There was once a young man who wished to gain his heart's desire.  (pg. 1)
    Neil Gaiman is probably my favorite contemporary author.  He can pen "heavy" novels such as American Gods and Anansi Boys; and  he can pen "lighter" stuff like Stardust.  They are all equally brilliant.  Do you think I have stardust in my eyes?  Check out the awards he's won here.

    The negative reviews at Amazon fall mostly into two groups.  First, there are those who are shocked that there is sex and cussing in the book.  Hey folks, it's an adult fairy-tale.  Second, there are those who say the movie is better.  I can't say, not having seen it.  Perhaps the lesson here is read the book before renting the video.

    As for me, I found it to be a wonderful and entertaining read.  But then, I expect that from Neil Gaiman.  9½* Stars.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

2000; 585 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Sci-Fi.  Laurels : nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (2000); and the BSFA (2001).  Rating : 7½*/10.

    On a faraway planet, archaeologist Dan Sylveste is excavating ancient (900,000 years old) ruins that he thinks indicate that a civilization on the brink of achieving space travel was wiped out in a cataclysmic event.

    Spaceship pilot Ilia Volyova has other plans.  She intends to kidnap Sylveste and force him to work on healing her starship captain.  Ana Khouri has a straightforward aim.  She wants to assassinate Sylveste.  To save the universe.

What's To Like...
   Set in the 2500's, Revelation Space is a good example of "hard" (technologically plausible) sci-fi.  Among other things, Reynolds' universe abides by the "you can't go faster than the speed of light" principle.  This is the first book of a series of either 3 or 5 books, depending how you view it, but it is also a stand-alone novel.

    The three main characters are well-developed, and we have lots of time to get to know them as they start off light-years apart from each other.  Ana and Ilia hook up pretty quickly, but we're halfway through the book before they reach Sylveste's planet.  None of the three is completely likeable, and I like that.  But we warm to all of them as the events unfold.

    There are some quibbles.  Revelation Space is a slow and difficult read, mostly because of Reynolds' technological asides.  Being a scientist, I didn't mind.  But non-techies might.  The non-linear chapter dates can be confusing at first, and there are a number of loose ends left untied at the end of the book.  I presume these are addressed in the sequels.  Finally, if you're a secondary character, your odds for survival are slim, and your demise will probably be arbitrary.

Kewlest New Word...
Svinoi : a pig-breeder; or just a pig itself.  (Russian, pejorative)

    "State your identity," the woman said.
    Volyova introduced herself.
    "You last visited this system in ... let me see." The face looked down for a minute.  "Eighty-five years ago; '461.  Am I correct?"
    Against her best instincts, Volyova leaned nearer the screen.  "Of course you're correct.  You're a gamma-level simulation.  Now dispense with the theatrics and just get on with it.  I've wares to trade and every second you detain me is a second more we have to pay to park our ship around your useless dogturd of a planet."
    "Truculence noted," the woman said, seeming to jot a remark in a notebook just out of sight.  (pgs. 84-85)

    "A splendidly inept thing," Sylveste said, nodding despite himself.
    "The human capacity for grief.  It just isn't capable of providing an adequate emotional response once the dead exceed a few dozen in number.  And it doesn't just level off - it just gives up, resets itself to zero.  Admit it.  None of us feel a damn about these people."  (pg. 323)

The trouble with the dead ... was that they had no real idea when to shut up.  (pg. 17)
    Revelation Space reminds me both of Arthur Clarke's "2001 - A Space Odyssey" and Peter F. Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" trilogy.  It is a bit less "sweepingly epic" than the latter, but then again, there are four more books (and a number of short stories) to go.

    I personally liked the "hard science" parts - discussions of the history of the universe, and of Fermi's paradox (if interstellar flight is theoretically plausible, why haven't we been visited yet?).  But the storyline at times seems disjointed and could have been more compelling.  And there a couple jaw-dropping cases of deus ex machina.

    Still, this is really quite good for a "first effort" (there are nine Alastair Reynolds novels now, with a tenth due out in 2012), and makes for a fascinating introduction to a new and complex universe.  7½ Stars.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bull from the Sea - Mary Renault

1962; 336 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Mythological Fiction.  Rating : 7*/10.

    Theseus returns to Greece a hero.  He has triumphed over the   Minotaur in Crete.  Troubadours will sing of his praises; painters will put his likeness on walls; and trinket-makers will sell little gold Theseuses on bracelets.

    Now is the time to unite Greece and govern a kingdom.  To marry for political expediency, dispense justice, and engage in the subtle arts of diplomacy and tact.  Which is all well and good for an ambitious politician.  But not for someone with adventure in his veins.

What's To Like...
    The Bull from the Sea is the sequel to The King Must Die, where Theseus famously braved the Labyrinth and fought the Minotaur.  TBFTS basically recounts the rest of Theseus' life.  It is nevertheless a stand-alone book, provided you like (and are well-versed in) Greek mythology.

    The story is presented as historical fiction, which is a clever treatment.  We know Greek mythology has all sorts of fabulous creatures such as centaurs, fauns, and satyrs.  We know they never existed.  So how and why did they work their way into in Greek lore as if they were real?  Mary Renault gives a plausible explanation here.  She takes the Theseus legend and "de-godifies" it into a series a natural events.  Yet you can see how it could easily be stretched into a larger-than-life tale.

    Theseus is a flawed hero, and that's a plus.  The women are all strong characters.  Greece dominates the eastern Mediterranean world.  And then there are the uber-kewl Amazons.  You don't want to mess with them.

Kewlest New Word...
Skewbald : having spots or patches of white on a coat of color other than black.

    "The House of Minos stood for a thousand years, because Crete had one law."
    "Yet it has fallen."
    "For want of law enough.  It stopped with the serfs and the slaves.  Men are dangerous who have nothing left to lose."  (pg. 40-41)

    Tall trees grew on her grave-mound.  The pups of our hounds' last mating had grown gray-nosed and died.  Her young Guard had sons who were learning arms.  As for me, she would hardly have known the face that mirrors showed me now, gray-bearded, darkened with salt and sun.  She had seemed to die again in all these passings.  But just now, in the chariot, I had seen the hair pale as electrum, the springing stance, the joy in swift horses, and for a moment she had lived again.  (pg. 235-236)

"Death does not master us, while the bard sings and the child remembers."   (pg. 18)
    Mary Renault does a marvelous job of bringing Ancient Greece and its legends alive and making it believable.  Yet I think The Bull from the Sea is probably for mythology-lovers only.  If you didn't like to read Edith Hamilton tales as a kid, you may find this book to be a bit of a slow-go. 

    There is some romance and some intrigue, but not a lot.  The action parts are also a bit sparse, which is more critical since this is an adventure story.  And the author misses a couple opportunities (most notably the reconquest of Crete) to spill a little blood and swash a little buckle.  OTOH, if family tragi-drama is to your taste, you may enjoy the book from start to finish.

    The ending has a nice twist; and like a Shakespearean tragedy, we end up empathizing with Theseus despite his shortcomings and ill-luck.  Mary Renault has less to work with here than in her Alexander the Great novels; but she still creates a well-written tale.  7 Stars.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Making Money - Terry Pratchett

2007; 394 pages.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  New Author? : No.  Book #36 in the Discworld series.  Laurels : Locus Award (winner) and Nebula Award (nominee) in 2008.  Rating : 8½*/10.

    "Tell me, Mr. Lipwig, would you like to make some real money?"  Moist von Lipwig has already done wonders for Ankh-Morpork's postal system (see the review here).  Now Lord Vetinari would like him to do the same to the city's Banking/Minting institution.  And when Vetinari makes you an offer such as this, you are well-advised to accept.

What's To Like...
    After some dithering, Moist accepts the challenge (you knew he would) and you (and Moist) are introduced to a whole slew of new characters with secrets, eccentricities, and nefarious intents.  The old crew (DEATH, Sam Vimes, the Night Watch, etc.) are here as well, although for the most part, they are relegated to cameo roles.

    Moist rapidly gets entangled in monetary matters.  Meanwhile, his GF, Adora Belle Dearheart, is leagues away investigating golem artefacts.  As usual, Terry Pratchett moves both storylines (and their various complexities) deftly along; tying them neatly  together at the end.

   Making Money starts a tad slow - the tour of the bank drags on as we wait for something to happen.  But that's just a device to get you acquainted with all the new faces, and once that's done, things pick up nicely.

Kewlest New Word...
Plangent : beating with a loud, deep, and often mournful sound.

    "A bankerMe?"
    "Yes, Mr. Lipwig."
    "But I don't know anything about running a bank!"
    "Good.  No preconceived ideas."
    "I've robbed banks!"
    "Capital!  Just reverse your thinking," said Lord Vetinari, beaming.  "The money should be on the inside."  (pg. 23)

    Whenever possible, Lavishes married distant cousins, but it wasn't uncommon for a few, every generation, to marry outside, in order to avoid the whole "three thumbs" situation.  The women found handsome husbands who did what they were told, while the men found wives who, amazingly, were remarkably good at picking up the petulance and shaved-monkey touchiness that was the mark of a true Lavish.  (pgs. 126-127)

Quia ego sic dico.  ("because I say so")  (pg. 378)
    Making Money is typical of Terry Pratchett's recent Discworld offerings.  There's not as much slapstick humor and mangled metaphors as in the early books, but the writing is more skillful, and you are still treated to an ample amount of chortles.

    Stylistically, it is very similar to the first Moist von Lipwig book - Going Postal.  So if you liked that one, you'll enjoy this one equally well.  8½ Stars.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Waste Lands - Stephen King

1991; 588 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #3 in The Dark Tower series.  Genre : Fantasy Quest; Horror.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    With Eddie and Susannah having been extracted and enlisted for Roland's search for the Dark Tower in Book 2 (The Drawing of the Three), the quest now begins in earnest.

    The direction is easy - there is a subtle but persistent "beam" showing a straight path heading southeast; but the distance to be traveled is mind-staggeringly huge.   And the journey of a thousand miles begins with a kill-or-be-killed encounter with a cyborg bear.  So it's time to get moving.

What's To Like...
    The first half of the book deals with adding two more questors - one familiar, one new.  There are thrills and mysteries; riddles and choo-choos, and of course, some patented Stephen King horror episodes.

    Once the band has been assembled, it's on to a geezer village to rest and stock up.  Cuz next stop is the city of Lud, and that's where the action really heats up.

    There are strong characters-with-disabilities throughout this series, reminiscent of Robert Heinlein stories.  And the billy-bumblers are delightful.  It is somewhat strange to combine an epic fantasy quest with horror, but King handles it adeptly.

Kewlest New Word...
Scrofulous : morally degenerate; corrupt.

    This is the way he was when he still had wars to fight and men to lead and his old friends around him, she thought.  How he was before the world moved on and he moved on with it, chasing that man Walter.  This is how he was before the Big Empty turned him inward on himself and made him strange.  (pg. 319)

    "They must have been the Supreme Court, or something," Eddie said, uneasily scanning all those thin lips and cracked, empty eyes.  "Only judges can look so smart and so completely pissed off at the same time - you're talking to a guy who knows.  There isn't one of them who looks like he'd give a crippled crab a crutch."  (pg. 483)

"This time-travel business is some confusing shit, isn't it?"  (pg. 93)
    To be honest, there are a couple slow spots in the first half of The Waste Lands but there are enough action sequences to keep your interest.  Some of the episodes, such as the geezer village and "the house", seem disconnected from the main storyline.  Maybe they get tied in at a later point; maybe not.  But this is a minor quibble; even Tolkien had his Tom Bombadil.

    The second half of the book is excellent.  The excitement is nonstop, and the attention stays focused on the quest.  My only beef is the tawdry use of a cliffhanger ending.  -½ Star for that.  I will read the next book, Mr. King, but that's due to the overall merits of this one; not because of some hung cliff.

    The Waste Lands is the best so far in this Dark Tower heptad.  We shall see if Book 4 (Wizard & Glass)  maintains the pace.  8½ stars.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Pyramid - Henning Mankell

1999 (Swedish) & 2008 (English); 392 pages.  Full Title : The Pyramid - The First Wallander Cases.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder-Mystery.  Rating : 6*/10.

    Readers of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series know the hero as a Swedish detective who's world-wise, world-weary, divorced, disillusioned, and has relationship issues with just about everyone around him.

    When Mankell penned the first book in the series, Wallander was already in his 40's.  So how did his life and psyche get this way?  The Pyramid starts to answer this, in the form of 5 stories featuring Wallander solving cases in his 20's and 30's.

What's To Like...
    The 5 stories are stand-alones, and they vary in length from 26 to 153 pages.  They're typical Henning Mankell murder/mysteries - there is scant evidence to begin with, and Wallander and his detective team need patience and perseverence to sort out the solid tips from the red herrings and solve the cases.

    You're treated to Mankell's customary critique of various Swedish social issues (mostly concerning immigrants and crime rates).  Indeed, the second tale is more commentary than story.

    As promised, you gain added insight into Wallander's plethora of personal issues, although none are completely explained.  For instance, we see Mona as his girlfriend, his wife, then they're separated, then they're divorced.  But we don't see the wedding, or the day Mona walks out the door.

Kewlest New Word...
Rusk : a sweet or plain bread baked, sliced, and baked again until it is dry and crisp.

    "I really have only one question," Hemberg began.  "What do you think it is?"
    "You're of course wondering what I'm doing here."
    "I would probably put it more forcefully," Hemberg said.  "How the hell did you end up here?"
    "It's a long story," Wallander said.
    ""Make it short," Hemberg replied.  "But leave nothing out."  (pg. 65)

    "Have we ever had anything like this?"
    Rydberg considered this.  "Not that I can remember.  There was a lunatic who planted an axe in a waiter's head about twenty years ago.  The motive was an unpaid debt of thirty kronor.  But I can't think of anything else."
    Walander lingered at the table.
    "Execution-style," he said.  "Not particularly Swedish."
    "And what is Swedish, exactly?" Rydberg asked.  (pg. 281)

"Police work often consists of doing what one knows from the start to be meaningless.  But ... (n)o stone can be left unturned."  (pg. 361)
    If you like to delve into the inner workings of a main character's mind, you'll enjoy The Pyramid.  But personally, I read murder-mysteries first and foremost for the storyline; the rest is peripheral.  And in this regard The Pyramid comes up just a bit short.  The endings especially seem to fall flat.

   For example (and this is not a spoiler), the first story hums along quite nicely : Kurt Wallander figures out the crime, and closes in on the perp.  So far, so good.  But he gets stabbed, loses consciousness, and when he comes to in the hospital, the exciting climax is already done and related to him anecdotally.  Major ho-hum.

    It almost seems as if Henning Mankell is tired of Kurt Wallander.  This is the ninth KW book he wrote, and he planned it to be the last.  He wants to answer some outstanding questions about his star detective, and he does it while unfolding some interesting mysteries.  But once he's revealed the tidbits about Wallander and vented a bit about something wrong in Sweden, he doesn't seem to want to give the mysteries the time-consuming attention needed to fully develop them and bring them to a satisfying conclusion.

    The Pyramid is still a decent read; just not up to the high standard of the earlier, full-length Wallander novels.  6 Stars.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In The Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson

2011; 365 pages.  Full Title : In the Garden of Beasts : Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.  New Author? : No.  Genre :  Historical Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    It's 1933.  William Dodd is a 60-something history professor who's not finding enough time to work on his magnum opus - a comprehensive history of the Old South.  He wants a different job, but where in the world would a man at his age find a cushy, well-paying job which will also allow him to work extensively on his pet side-project?

    Meanwhile, newly-elected Franklin Roosevelt needs someone to be ambassador to Germany.  But all the Foreign Office professionals are turning him down because no one wants to deal with Hitler and his psycho nut-jobs.  Where in the world will FDR find someone ambitous or naive enough to fill the post?

What's To Like...
    Dodd of course gets the job, and packs up his family (wife Mattie, and grown children Martha and Bill Jr.) and moves to Berlin.  It is a Beverly Hillbillies moment.  Dodd is a serious tightwad, and there will be no long, black Mercedes limo for him.  The family Chevrolet is good enough.  Quelle gauche!

    We follow Dodd, as his eyes slowly open to what is happening in Germany; as he struggles with powerful State Department back-biting; and as he comes to realize how demanding an ambassadorship is.  His book will not get finished.  Mattie and Bill Jr. soon fade from the spotlight, but major pages are devoted to Martha, who embraces the European social scene and goes to bed with just about every young stud she meets.

    As with all Erik Larson books, there is a second storyline.  Here it follows the Nazi terror tactics as Hitler tries to consolidate his power and expel the Jews.  This isn't easy, since his toadies (Himmler, Goring, Rohm, etc.) all loathe each other, and the German Army is loyal to the President (the aging Hindenburg), not to Adolph.

Kewlest New Word...
Propinquity  :  the state of being close to someone (either physically or in spirit); proximity.

    Papen was a protégé of President Hindenburg, who affectionately called him Franzchen, or Little Franz.  With Hindenburg in his camp, Papen and fellow intriguers had imagined they could control Hitler.  "I have Hindenburg's confidence," Papen once crowed.  "Within two months we wil have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he'll squeak."  It was possibly the greatest miscalculation of the twentieth century.  As historian John Wheeler-Bennett put it, "Not until they had riveted the fetters upon their own wrists did they realize who indeed was captive and who captor."  (pg. 186)

    "At a time when nearly every German is afraid to speak a word to any but the closest friends, horses and dogs are so happy that one feels they wish to talk," (Dodd) wrote.  "A woman who may report on a neighbor for disloyalty and jeopardize his life, even cause his death, takes her big kindly-looking dog in the Tiergarten for a walk.  She talks to him and coddles him as she sits on a bench and he attends to the requirements of nature."  (pg. 336)

"Liebst du noch?"  (Are you still among the living?)  pg. 321
    In The Garden of Beasts is well-researched, to the tune of 60 pages of notes at the end.  Larson does this in all his books.  No one ever reads the notes.  So personally, I don't see why they couldn't be posted online somewhere, and save a few trees.

    Also, the subject matter isn't as exciting as in his other books.  William Dodd is objectively a dull person, and Martha's amorous antics get old quickly.  There are a couple instances of Nazi brutality sprinkled throughout, but they are mostly anecdotal.  At page 300 (out of 365), I was still waiting for some major excitement.

   It finally shows up, in the form of something called "The Night of the Long Knives", and the next 50 pages are riveting.  Still one would've preferred ay bit more Nazi thuggery and a bit less Dodd diplomacy.

    Larson does a masterful job with what he has.  The character studies of all the players are deep and detailed; and the gradual terrorization of the German populace will send shivers up your spine.  It's just that he has better stuff to work with in his other books.  It's kinda like giving Michelangelo a wad of Play-Doh and saying, "show me what you can do, big guy".  You know it'll be better than what you or I could make, but it just won't match what he can do with a slab of marble.  7½ Stars, only because Larson's past masterpieces shine brighter than this does.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

First Cycle - H. Beam Piper and Michael Kurland

1982 (and 1964); 201 pages.  Genre : 50's Science Fiction.  New Author : Yes, and No.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Hetaira and Thalassa are twin planets in a foreign - yet strangely familiar - solar system.  First Cycle is their history, from Day 1 (literally) until the present.  And the present is just a cosmic eyeblink since they discovered sentient life on each other.

What's To Like...
    Hetaira and Thalassa may be twins, but they're not identical twins.  One of them (Thalassa) got the lion's share of the available water when they formed, and this influenced both planets' evolutionary patterns.

    There are other differences as well.  One uses gods and magic to guide them; the other relies on reasoning.  One has a centralized government; the other is just a bunch of decentralized clans.  And the beings on one have five fingers (just like us); while the natives on the other planet have six (a kewl extra opposable thumb).

    What is impressive is the even treatment of these differences.  As communication between the races improves, mutual incomprehension increases.  In the end, their actions - whether imparted by deities or derived from logic - are remarkably similar.

    Despite being only 200 pages long, this is an epic tale.  We start with the planets' formation, and their long paths of evolution are recounted.  Interesting, but it comes at a cost of a slow start and most characters appearing only briefly before blinking out.

Kewlest New Word...
    There were none that floated my boat.

    They had no gods, and the very concept of a supreme being was incomprehensible to them.  They asked questions, and they accepted nothing on faith.  They asked:  What is it?  What holds it up?  How far away is it?  What is it really like?  They of Hetaira had escaped the two blind alleys of religion and magic; they had already learned that things of nature had natural causes, and that if one were smart enough to ask the proper questions, nature would not withhold its secrets.  (pg. 29)

    "But their attitude, and their behavior; I don't know how long I can stand it.  They have no sense of shame or morality.  They degrade women by letting them do men's work."
    "They do seem to have complete equality of the sexes," Skrov-Rogov said.
    "Disgusting!" the priest said."And have you seen how they behave toward each other?  Running around naked; both sexes bathing together.  And they certainly like to bathe - they're the cleanest beasts I ever saw."  (pg. 170)

"They riot for bread - and they begin by destroying the bakeries!"  (pg. 111)
    There are joint authors.  First Cycle was published in 1982.  H. Beam Piper is listed as the author, but he died in 1964.  Michael Kurland "expanded and editied" it from an outline found in Piper's papers after the latter's death.  It is a nice balance between Science and Fiction.  It is also very ambitious and complex, so if you view it as 50's Sci-Fi, it is decades ahead of its time.

    First Cycle has a more serious than Piper's "Little Fuzzy" series.  It has a lot to say about religion, government, science, philosophy, etc.  It even takes a prehumous (as opposed to "posthumous") poke at the efforts of the SETI folks.

    Life evolves, and so does Literature.  There are science fiction books today that are more "epic" than this, but none do it in only 200 pages.  First Cycle is one of the few books that can be called a "Short-Winded Saga".  7 Stars.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages - Tom Holt

2011; 378 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fiction; Humour.  Rating : 9*/10.

    There's a dimension-hopping pig.  There's a real-estate agent whose coffee cup keeps empyting itself.  There's a here-today-gone-tomorrow (literally!) dry cleaning shop.  There's a flock of chickens who think they're a bunch of lawyers who all have brothers who are musicians.  And there's two knights that have been dueling for centuries.

    And then, things begin to get really strange...

What's To Like...
    This is Tom Holt's latest offering (#45 or thereabouts), and the second one by him that I've read. There's chrono-hopping, dimension-travel, intrigue, mystery, and major weirdness.  And of course, there is LOL humor.

    The characters are heartwarming, even if they're "one-and-dones".   The book trots along briskly, and the plotline is complex.  Things teeter on getting out of control, but they never quite do.  No matter - the fun is in reading along and trying, along with all the characters, to figure out what the heck is going on.

    There's a Tim Henman plug on page 127 (Wiki him).  And last but not least, the greatest, most perplexing Question of the Universe is answered : "Which came first; the chicken or the egg".

Kewlest New Word...
Mither : To fuss over or moan about something over which you have no control.

    He couldn't in all conscience critcise Gogerty on that score.  The job he'd been set was, after all, monstrously difficult, quite likely impossible: looking for a phase-shifting needle in a poly-dimensional haystack, blindfold and wearing wicketkeeper's gloves.  The more he thought about it, in fact, the more depressing it became.  (pg. 218)

    There's also a rule that says that women are allowed to be afraid of animals; they can make as much fuss as they like, and you're not allowed to tell them to pull themselves together or get a grip.  It's one of those complicated rules, like men having to carry the suitcase at airports but opening doors is male chauvinism.  "All right, then," he conceded.  "You know what," he added, "I think I may have seen him before somewhere."
    "Don't be silly," Eileen replied.  They're allowed to say things like that too.  (pg. 309)

In the presence of magic, logic is a chocolate frying pan and a Zimbabwean government stock.  (pg. 85)
  The quibbles are minor.  The ending has a bit too much "telling, not showing", and one or two of the loose ends (such as the two knights) are left untied up.

    But who cares?  The main point of reading a Tom Holt book is to accompany the cast of characters as they try to cope with rampaging zaniness.  The ending is charming; the writing is skillful; and every page is a-chock with chuckles.

     Comparisons to Robert Rankin, Jasper Fforde, and Terry Pratchett can be justly made; but the closest similarity is with the absurdism of Douglas Adams.  If you enjoyed HHGTTG, you'll like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages9 Stars.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pavane - Keith Roberts

1966; 277 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Alt-History; Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    In an alternate timeline, Queen Elizabeth 1 is assassinated, the Spanish armada conquers England, there is no Protestant Reformation, and the Vatican is the unquestioned ruler of all of Western civilization for centuries thereafter.

    Until the present.  Now, in 20th-century England, the seeds of revolt begin to take root.

What's To Like...
    Pavane was written in the 60's when Alt-History was mostly simplistic pap.  So it is a quantum leap forward for the genre.  Keith Roberts creates a dark, somber England, where only a privileged few are wealthy and everyone else is happy just to be able to put food on the table.  The Church has outlawed electricity and gas-powered engines, so Pavane is a also kewl forerunner of the Steampunk genre.

    The book consists of six short stories (musical "measures" in a pavane), which cover several generations of a family as they gradually begin to question and then resist the absolute authority of Rome.  It is much in the style of How The West Was Won, if you've ever seen that movie.

    There is some action (particularly in the last story), but not a lot.  The emphasis is on the people, and their evolving mindset, not on blood and gore.  Mass communication is done by a kewl Semaphore system (is this where Terry Pratchett got his idea for the semaphores in the DiscWorld universe?).  The "good guys" are well-developed, but the "bad guys" are mostly without redeeming values.

Kewlest New Word...
Bumph : Reading materials that you must read and deal with, but which you think are extremely boring.

    It was odd; but now, he felt he could talk to the old man.  Now he could explain his hopes, his fears...  Only now was too late; because Eli was dead and gone, six foot of Dorset muck on his chest.  Was that the way of the world?  Did people always feel they could talk, and talk, when it was just a bit too late?  (pg. 26)

    "Yes", she said.  "It's like a ... dance somehow, a minuet or a pavane.  Something stately and pointless, with all its steps set out.  With a beginning, and an end..."  She tucked her legs under her, as she sat beside the fire.  "Sir John," she said, "sometimes I think life's all a mass of significance, all sorts of strands and threads woven like a tapestry or a brocade.
    "So if you pulled one out or broke it, the pattern would alter right back through the cloth.  Then I think... it's all totally pointless, it would make just as much sense backwards or forwards, effects leading to causes and those to more effects... maybe that's what will happen when we get to the end of Time.  The whole world will shott undone like a spring, and wind itself back to the start..."  (pgs. 247-48)

Time is forever and scurry and bustle can wait.  (pg. 62)
    Pavane starts slow, and the early lack of action will be off-oputting to a lot of Alt-History fans who pick up this book.  A lot of readers also didn't like the ending (the "Coda"), but I thought it completed the story beautifully.

    If you're looking for a slash-and-bash Alt-History tale (and I for one enjoy those), then it's best to skip Pavane.  But if you want to observe how the mindset of a populace slowly-but-steadily learns of, accepts, and finally embraces rebellion (which is historically true in most revolutions.  A single act, such as Bunker Hill, is simply the flashpoint), then you may find this to be an excellent novel.  7½ Stars.