Thursday, July 28, 2011

Indecent Exposure - Tom Sharpe

1973; 248 pages.  Genre : Political Satire; Humor.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    In the fictional South African city of Piemburg, the chief of police, Kommandant van Heerden, decides it's time to go on vacation.  As soon as he leaves, his back-stabbing, omni-bigoted second-in-command, Luitenant Verkramp, resolves to show people what he's capable of.  He succeeds, but that's not a good thing.

What's To Like...
    This is the sequel to Riotous Assembly, reviewed here.  Once again, there is a clever mixing of slapstick comedy with the horrors and brutality of South African apartheid.  Once again, there are a half-dozen storylines, all of them zanily running amok.

    Van Heerden, a Boer, uses his vacation to try and become Britishized.  Verkramp is an out-of-control  bundle of misguided energy.  Alarmed that some of the white police force might be having relations with black women, he initiates a comprehensive shock-aversion therapy program.  It works, but not in the way he intended.  Verkramp is also looking for Communist subversives, and if he can't find any, he'll make his own.  All the while trying to avoid the amorous clutches of a lady psychiatrist, one Dr. von Blimenstein.

    And do I spy the scurrilous Konstabel Els underneath yonder table?  I thought he was dead.

Kewlest New Word...
Divagation : a digression in a speech.

    "Do you like it?" the doctor enquired stretching voluptuously.  Verkramp swallowed and said that he did, very much.  "It's the new wet look in stretch nylon."  Verkramp found himself staring at her breasts hypnotically and with the terrible realization that he was committed to an evening spent in public with a woman who was wearing what amounted to a semi-transparent scarlet bodystocking.  Luitenant Verkramp's reputation for sober and God-fearing living was something he had always been proud of and as a devout member of the Verwoerd Street Dutch Reformed Church he was shocked by the doctor's outfit.  As he drove up to the Piltdown Hotel the only consolation he could find was that the beastly garment was so tight she wouldn't be able to dance in it,.  Luitenant Verkramp didn't dance.  He thought it was sinful.  (pg. 39)

    "You must think I'm absolutely frightful," she murmured one afternoon as they sat on the verandah.
    The Kommandant said he didn't think anything of the sort.
    "I suppose it's because I've had so little experience of the real world," she continued, "that I find it so fascinating to meet a man with so much je ne sais quoi."
    "Oh, I don't know about that," said the Kommandant modestly.  (pg. 57)

All cats are grey when the candles are out.  (pg. 227)
    All the gallivating story threads get tied up neatly at the end.  The humor made me LOL, and that's a rare treat.  Indecent Exposure may be the only novel that has exploding ostriches in it.

    If there's a downside, it's that thre are no redeeming characters.  The British are dumb and stuffy.  The Boers are dumb and brutal.  The Blacks are dumb and cowardly.  The gays are dumb and stereotyped.

   Still, it is a worthy read, both for its lively wit and its ugly, gritty depicting of South African apartheid.  It is a subject Tom Sharpe knows only too well.  He lived in South Africa for a while, and in the early 60's was jailed, then deported, on the charge of sedition.

    There are enough references to events from Riotous Assembly, that you really should read that one first.  I found Indecent Exposure almost - but not quite - as entertaining as that one.  8½ Stars.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nation - Terry Pratchett

2008; 370 pages.  Genre : YA Fiction; Adventure.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    In the 19th-century South Pacific (known here as the "South Pelagic") a huge tsunami inundates an island village, leaving only one boy, Mau, as a survivor.   The killer wave also destroys an English sailing ship, depositing its wreckage on the same island, including a single survivor - a highborn girl, Ermintrude (aka "Daphne").

    Will the two castaways manage to  learn to communicate?  To survive?  To help the other refugees that straggle in?  To deal with the pirates that are prowling the area?

What's To Like...
    Nation is not part of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.  It is darker, and deals with more serious and complex issues than are encountered in Ankh-Morpork.  And while there is some Pratchettian humor (most notably a salty-tongued parrot), it is overall less silly in nature.

    The tale plods for a bit as we get through the "Robinson Crusoe" phase, but picks up nicely with the arrival of others, along with Mau and Daphne's exploration of the island.  When the bad guys show up, things really get cooking.  This is also a coming-of-age story, but nothing unseemly.  Indeed, Nation is a YA book, though adults will enjoy it too.

    Pratchett weaves some nice twists into the storyline, and just when you think you've reached the climax, he shows you that isn't what he considers to be the main ending at all.

Kewlest New Word...
Crosier : a staff surmounted with a crook or cross, carried by bishops as a symbol of their office.

    "She is a lady indeed, although my limited experience of her suggests that she is also a mixture of the warrior queen Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de'Medici without the poisoned rings, and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun.  Do not play cards with her, because she cheats like a Mississippi bustout dealer, keep sherry away from her, do everything she says, and we might all live."
    "Sharp tongue, eh?"
    "Razor blade, Captain."  (pg. 9)

    "Why did the wave spare you?  Why did it spare me?  Why did it spare that baby which will die soon enough?  Why does it rain?  How many stars are in the sky?  We cannot know these things!  Just be thankful the gods spared your life!" shouted the old man.
    "I will not!  To thank them for my life means I thank them for the deaths."  (pg. 102)

Magic is just a way of saying "I don't know."  (pg. 157)
    How do you measure "civilization"?  If a country can make warships and cannons, and sail around the earth;  is it more "civilized" than one that uses spears and dugout canoes to live off the land; and can only travel among a chain of islands?

    Are our "western" deities superior to "nature' or "elemental" ones?  Are they more valid?  Where do natural disasters like a tsunami fit in with a supernatural plan?  Can any gods coexist with science?

    What is the balance between personal aspirations and duty to one's country?  Is a monarch freer or more confined by his role than you and I?  Finally, what priority does love have in all this?

    These are all good questions, and all get evenly addressed here, although Pratchett leaves it to you to determine the answers.  Nation is a worthy read for anyone over about 12 years old and will leave you with lots to ponder.  9 Stars.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Naked God - Peter F. Hamilton

2000; 1332 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #3 of the "Night's Dawn" trilogy.  Genre : Epic Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    The galaxy-wide battle between Possessed and Unpossessed rages unabated.  Quinn Dexter has infiltrated Earth, despite all efforts to stop him.  Al Capone's starfleet has the Confederation on the brink of collapse.  And when cornered, the Possessed use their collective will to move entire planets to some unknown, faraway haven.

    The only hope appears to be some old Tyrathcan myth about some "Sleeping God".  But no one (including the Tyrathcans) have any idea what it is, let alone where to find it.  So you just know Joshua Calvert is going to be sent out on this wild goose chase.

What's To Like...
    The characters are superb.  There are decent Possessed folk, and even the arch-fiend Quinn is not completely "black".  Some of the Unpossessed, and the methods they use to combat possession, are ethically pretty shaky.

    The tension continues to build steadily.  Both sides score some much-needed victories.  The storylines keep expanding until, with only 300 pages to go, I questioned whether Peter F. Hamilton could bring it all back together and tidily tie everything up.  I shouldn't've worried.

    The ending was well-done, with multiple resolutions instead of a single Deus Ex Machina (the Sleeping God) taking care of everything.  Some found it contrived, but that's kind of necessary if we also expect all the storylines to conveniently culminate at the same time.  My only beef is that, as feared, The Neutronium Alchemist (Book 2) appears to have been a monumental tangent.

Kewlest New Word...
Hypergolic : igniting spontaneously when mixed together.

    "I wouldn't have been so generous," Kiera said.  "You shouldn't show so much kindness.  People will see it as a weakness."
    "You're dealing with people, not mechanoids," Jezzibella said blankly.  "You have to make allowances for the odd mistake.  If you shoot every waiter who spills a cup of coffee over your skirt, you wind up with a self service bar."
    Kiera smiled condescendingly at her.  "What you'll actually wind up with is a group of highly efficient waiters who can do the job effectively."   (pg. 110)

    "Quinn, what happens after?"
    "After what?"
    "After the Light Bringer comes and, you know, we kill everyone that doesn't do as we say?"
    "We live in His Kingdom, under His  light, and our serpent beasts will run free and wild for the rest of time.  He will have saved us from enslavement inside the false lord's prison city; that heaven the dumb-ass religions keep singing about."
    "Oh.  Okay, that sounds pretty cool."  (pg. 1113)

"What kind of a universe is this anyway?"  (pg. 1099)
    The Naked God is the concluding book of the trilogy.  The first two books are reviewed here (The Reality Dysfunction) and here (The Neutronium Alchemist).  Naturally, the question you have to ask is : "At 3600 pages, is it worth my time?"

    Well, Peter F. Hamilton gives you a struggle of cosmic proportions, dozen of worlds to explore, and lots of people (human, alien, living, dead, undead, and various combinations thereof) to follow along with.  Every 30-50 pages, he hops to another thread, so things stay varied.  There is life, death, romance, drama, action, hope, and  despair; and even a little comic relief to occasionally lighten the way.

    In the end, Hamilton succeeded in keeping me entertained for 3600 pages, and that's no small feat.  I'd recommend this to any Sci-Fi fan, particularly those who enjoy Space Opera.  OTOH, if you aren't such an enthusiast or you think any book that takes more than a day to read is too long, you might not want to tackle this.  9½ Stars.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Temple of the Muses - John Maddox Roberts

1992; 203 pages.  Book #4 of the SPQR series.  Genre : Historical Adventure; Murder Mystery.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Who would want to kill a crotchety old Alexandrian philosopher?  That's what our hero, Decius, wants to find out, even if it's technically none of his business.  He's part of a Roman diplomatic mission to Egypt, but his specialties are offending the natives and getting into trouble.  Fortunately, he's also pretty good at solving crimes.

What's to like...
    The story is set in Ptolemic Alexandria - slightly before the reigns of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar come to pass.  The Temple of the Muses is a history-lover's detailed delight - you can envision the streets and buildings of ancient Alexandria in its prime as Decius nakes his rounds investigating the murder.

    The story is told in the first person, and John Maddox Roberts gives our hero and abundance of wry wit.  Decius has some entertaining insights about religious cults (and religions in general) and political intrigue, which is the same in any age.  He also treats the subject of slavery evenly - horror stories are avoided, and Decius' slave, Hermes, is both a servant and a confidant.  But Decius is also aware that Hermes would bolt at the first chance if he was sure that he wouldn't be caught again.

Kewlest New Word...
Sistrum : a musical instrument of ancient Egypt consisting of a metal frame with transverse metal rods that rattle when the instrument is shaken.  See the Wikipedia article on it here.

    The previous generation of Ptolemies had assassinated one another nearly out of existence, and an irate Alexandrian mob had finished the job.  A royal bastard, Philopator Philadelphus Neos Dionysius, who was, in sober fact, a flute-player, had been found to fill the vacant throne.  For more than a century Rome had been the power broker in Egypt, and he appealed to Rome to help shore up his shaky claim and we obliged.  Rome would always rather prop up a weak king than deal with a strong one.  (pg. 11-12)

    "That is the Temple of Baal-Ahriman, although in better days it was a respectable temple of Horus.  I would recommend that you avoid it, Senator.  It is a cult brought here by unwashed foreigners, and only the lewdest and most degraded of Alexandrians frequent it.  Their barbarous god is worshipped with disgusting orgies,"
    Hermes tugged at my arm.  "Let's go!  Let's go!".  (pg. 72)

A murder!  How thrilling!  (pg. 53)
   You'll find The Temple of the Muses in the Mystery section of your local bookstore or library, but if you read it for that, you'll be disappointed.  The key breakthrough moment is extremely contrived, and other logically important discoveries (such as a mercenary army training secretly in the desert) get mind-bogglingly ignored.

    OTOH, if you read this a historical fiction, you'll find it a fascinating story.  There's plenty of action, lots of intrigue, and a look at daily life in Ptolemic Egypt that you won't find anywhere else.

    At 200 pages, this is a quick read, and even though it is part of a series, it stands on its own quite nicely.  I liked it better than the Lindsey Davis 'Marcus Falco' book I read (reviewed here).  We'll give it 8 Stars, and if I run across any more of the series in the bookstores, I'm sure I'll pick them up.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Gunslinger - Stephen King

1978-81 (or 1982); 304 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy (for now).  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."  That's the opening sentence, and pretty much sums up the plot of The Gunslinger.  Along the way, he passes through a town; stops by a way station; matches wits with an oracle; outwits some monsters; and faces an impossible choice given by the man in black.

What's To Like...
    This is really five short stories that Stephen King wrote for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction over a three-year period.   This is some of his early stuff when he was still developing his writing style.

    Frankly, the first story - the eponymous "The Gunslinger" is ho-hum.  The storyline is weird and vague, and the style is ostentatious.  For example, there's this sentence : "He did not use the flint and steel until the remains of the day were only the fugitive heat in the ground beneath him and a sardonic orange line on the monochrome western horizon."  Yeah.  Or he could've just written, "He built a fire at sunset."

    But if you persist and read further, the storytelling improves and the style becomes more direct.  You can see/read him refining his technique from one story to the next.  This is Book 1 of the 7-volume (soon to be 8) "Dark Tower" series, which Stephen King considers to be his magnum opus.  Lots of people are gaga about it, so I presume the books continue to get better.  They certainly get thicker.

    There are lots of teasers in The Gunslinger ("Hey Jude" is said to be an ancient song); some humor; some food for thought; and a kewl post-apocalyptic setting.  Maybe.  Or perhaps it's a parallel universe.

Kewlest New Word...
Logy : dull and sluggish in motion or thought.

    " the end, someone always has to have his or her neck popped, as you so quaintly put it.  The people demand it.  Sooner or later, if there isn't a turncoat, the people will make one."  (pg .148)

    But the man in black persisted: "Shall there be truth between us, as two men?  Not as friends, but as enemies and equals?  There is an offer you will get rarely, Roland.  Only enemies speak the truth.  Friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of duty."  (pg. 295)

Beyond the reach of human range
A drop of hell, a touch of strange...  (pg. 179)
    Strangely, The Gunslinger reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.   A man and a boy (the gunslinger picks him up at the way station) go traipsing around.  You're not sure where they're going and why they're going there; and when the ending shows up, you discover very little is resolved.  It should be remembered that this is just a prelude to the main storyline, and because the chapters were really separate stories in a sci-fi mag, the book inherently has a "segmented" feel.

    In and of itself, this is only a so-so novel.  But it gives some vital background about (what I presume are) several of the major characters in the series, and the surreal world they travel about in.   It's a fast read, and it gets more entertaining as you go along.  We'll give it 5 Stars, but call it a must-read if you intend to do the whole series.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Man on the Balcony - Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

1968; 180 pages.  New Authors? : No.  Book #2 of the Martin Beck detective series (although Wiki says it's #3).  Genre : Murder/Mystery.  Sub-Genre : Police Procedural.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The parks in Stockholm have become dangerous places.  A serial mugger is already prowling them, easily outwitting the police.  Now little girls are being molested and murdered there as well.  Is the mugger broadening his crime portfolio?  If not, perhaps he's crossed paths with the killer.  But he's not going to voluntarily come in for an interview, now is he?

What's To Like...
    This is a Police Procedural, which is my favorite kind of crime novel.  It's fun to watch the detectives try to solve a case with almost no clues.  Long hours and dogged determination are the key here - not thrills, spills, chases, and unbelievable coincidences.

    The Man on the Balcony is set in Stockhom in the 1960's, and things were done differently back then.  The police have no qualms about breaking into a suspect's apartment without a warrant, interrogating a prisoner for hours without giving him access to a lawyer, or simply phoning a person-of-interest up to question him.

    There is a sprinkling of humor, which balances some serious commentary about Sweden's social problems.  The translating seems competently done, and the authors hit a nice balance when dealing with the crimes - not too bland; not too lurid.

    The knowledge that all this had happened before and was certain to happen again, was a crushing burden.  Since the last crime they had gotten computers and more men and more cars.  Since the last time the lighting in the parks had been improved and most of the bushes had been cleared away.  Next time there would be still more cars and computers and even less shrubbery.  Kollberg wiped his brow at the thought and the handkerchief was wet through.  (pg. 32)

    Stockholm is a city in which many thousands of people sleep out of doors in the summer.  Not only tramps, junkies and alcoholics but also a large number of visitors who cannot get hotel rooms and just as many homeless people who, though fit for work and for the most part capable of holding down a job, cannot find anyplace to live, since bungled community planning has resulted in an acute housing shortage.  (pg. 164)

"No wonder we're short of men in the force.  You have to be crazy to become a cop."  (pg. 27)
    This is a nice follow-up to Roseanna, the first book in this series (reviewed here).  There's a tad bit more "luck" here, but nothing that will make you say, "Oh c'mon now."

    The mystery itself is well-constructed.  I missed the scant clues (as did Martin Beck for a while), and so I was kept guessing along with the detectives.  The solution is neither too obvious nor too arbitrary.  My only beef is the book's brevity, although a number of other mystery authors also seem to think 200 pages per story is just fine.

    Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo blazed the trail of the Swedish noir police procedural genre.  Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson are worthy followers, but it's always neat to read to originals.  This is my second Martin Beck book, and I'm sure there will be more.  8 Stars.