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.