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.