Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Number of the Beast - Robert A. Heinlein

1980; 511 pages. Genre : Sci-Fi. New Author? : No. Overall Rating : 3½*/10.


The Universe consists of Time and Space. Space has three dimensions, so why shouldn't Time have three also? That's what Dr. Jacob Burroughs postulates, and in testing it, he discovers Time- and Dimension-Travel, and builds a device to do just that. He, his daughter, and their respective spouses set off to explore limitless other worlds and times. And hopefully avoid the "Black Hats" who keep trying to blow them up.

What's To Like...
There's plenty of Chrono- and Dimension-Hopping.  There are also visits to fictional places such as Oz and Lilliput.  Maybe this is where Jasper Fforde got his idea for the Thursday Next series.

There's lots of sex - straight, gay, group, free-love, incest; you name it.  The only one Heinlein doesn't seem comfortable with was male gay sex.  There's also a lot of nudity.  NBD in a book, but if this ever gets made into a movie, they won't have to spend much of wardrobes.

For us geeks, there is a lot of math and physics, but it won't overwhelm non-geeks.  The two main women are strong characters; Heinlein would've supported ERA.

Alas, there is also a lot wrong with this book.  There is way too much dialogue, extended stretches of slow spots, only sporadic action, and an obsession with computer program commands.  The title is misleading, and our four heroes are just way too advanced over everyone they meet.  The storyline wanders, sputters, stalls, and finally sinks into senility.

Kewlest New Word...
An acronym, actually.  TANSTAAFL.  Which means "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch".  Really.  Hey, there's even a Wikipedia entry on it.

Excerpts...
    "Gosh, what big words you know.  Mister.  I mean 'Doctor.'"
    "'Mister is correct.  On this campus it is swank to assume that everyone holds a doctorate.  Even I have one.  Ph.D.  Do you know what that stands for?"
    "Doesn't everybody?  I have a Ph.D., too.  'Piled Higher and Deeper.'"  (pg. 12)

    She was dressed, if  "dressed" is the word.  "Wheeeewhoo!"
    "Like it?"
    "I can't wait to get into mine.  It is the most indecent outfit I've ever seen, with no other purpose than to excite lewd, libidinous, lascivious, licentious, lecherous, lustful longings in the loins of Lotharios."
    "Isn't that the purpose of clothing?"  (pg. 456)

"'Time is out of joint, O curs├ęd sprite, that I was ever picked to set it right.'"  (pg. 358)
The Number of the Beast was written late in Heinlein's life; right after he had recovered from some serious health problems.  It has the "feel" of an author waxing wistful over his career and wanting to give account of it.

He starts by showing you his childhood influences - Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barzoom series, Oz, Wonderland, Lilliput, and a couple other fictional settings that I was unacquainted with.  Then he gives a gracious nod to all sorts of other writers that he admires, with only a slight self-deprecating mention of himself.

Finally he incorporates all the major characters from his biggest novels into the last third of the story.  Lazarus Long is here, and you can grok him to your heart's content.

So this is primarily Robert A. Heinlein writing for Robert A. Heinlein.  Heinlein Trekkie-types (I'd call them 'heinies' but that's pejorative; so maybe 'heinlies' will do) who have memorized all his works will enjoy this nostalgic stroll.  For everyone else though, TNOTB is a skipper.  3½ Stars, but lots more if you're a Heinlie.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader


2004; 518 pages. Genre : Humor, Reference. New Author? : No. Overall Rating : 7*/10.

I can't see doing a formal review on an Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. I've read a couple of these; this one's as good as - but no better than - any of the others.

.What's To Like...
Here are a couple articles that I really enjoyed in this volume. Happy Eostre! (pg. 75) - a review of the various Easter traditions (bunnies, baskets, eggs, Sunday) and how they got started. Banned Books (pg. 80) - 8 of them, a couple of which (Little Red Riding Hood; the American Heritage Dictionary) you might be surprised that they were taken off the shelf. Word Origins (pg. 87) - how words like Marmalade, Dumbbell, Jinx came into our tongue. The Man Inside The Terminal (pg. 99) - meet Merhan Karimi Nasseri, and learn why he's lived for 15 years (as of the book's publishing) inside Terminal One of Charles deGaulle Airport.

.The Zombie Quiz (pg. 233) - Test your knowledge of the undead critters. Pay special attention to question #9 - what's the best weapon when trying to kill a zombie? Say Goodnight, Gracie (pg. 269) - eight of Gracie's best one-liners from the old Burns & Allen TV show. Sagan Says (pg. 390) - some great quotes by the late Carl Sagan. (Not) Coming to a Theater Near You (pg. 435) - a bunch of movies started but never completed. Including one "miss" by Uncle John, as Avatar is on the list. Apparently in 2004, this looked like one with no chance of ever being made.

"We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it's forever." (Carl Sagan)
If you don't know what an Uncle John Bathroom Reader is (and I find that hard to imagine), head on down to your local bookstore or Target and pick one up. They are all equally good; so don't spend too much time deciding which one to buy.

.I suppose the only way to rate a Bathroom Reader is on its entertainment value. Some of the articles are "misses" (such as the one on Birthstones); but what bores me may amuse you. For every dud, there were probably 10-15 kewl articles, so we'll give UJSIBR 7 Stars; and especially recommend it for Trivia buffs.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jitterbug Perfume - Tom Robbins


1984; 342 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Modern Lit. Tom Robbins' 4th novel. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
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In an 8th-century kingdom in Bohemia, they have a strange custom. At the first sign of old age, the king is ritually killed and replaced with someone younger. In this way, the "spirit" of the tribe is kept strong.
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King Alobar has never had a problem with this edict. Until the day the first gray hair appeared in his beard. He plucked it out, but more took its place. Alobar discovers he is not quite ready to put his head on the chopping block, so he fakes his death and flees eastward. But Death can be a persistent chaser.
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Meanwhile, in the present, we are introduced to a waitress in Seattle, two Cajun ladies in New Orleans, and a French business family in Paris. All are trying to concoct the perfect jasmine perfume. How is Tom Robbins going to bring all three of these parties together, not to mention tying Alobar into the story as well? And what do the prominently-themed beets have to do with anything?
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What's To Like...
Jitterbug Perfume is a wonderful read, combining serious issues (religion, business ethics, philosophy, self-determination and above all, immortality) with some clever plot twists, literary devices (puns, metaphors, and similes), and hilarious topics (the secret of the beet, Einstein's last words, the "King of the Bean", and of course, perfumery).
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The supporting cast are as fun to follow as the main characters. You meet the Greek god Pan, Dr. Dannyboy Wiggs, Bingo Pajamas, and the dancing, chanting Bandaloop Doctors. There's also a love story. And a lot of sex. It keeps you young, you know.
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Kewlest New Word...
Loa : the spirits in the (Haitian) Voodoo world.
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Excerpts...
"Ricki, do you believe in immortality?"
"I'll try anything once." (pg. 113)
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Their quarreling chewed through the curtains, pierced the casements, and rattled over the cobblestones outside. How strange it must have sounded, this quarreling about dematerialization, voluntary aging, goat gods, and immortality, to a city that was primed for the Age of Reason, a populace that was beginning to put Descartes before des horse. (pg. 174)
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"One last thing about death, " said Wiggs.
"What's that?" Pris asked rather morosely. She was still staring at the spot where his teardrop had hit the water.
"After you die, your hair and your nails continue to grow."
"I've heard that."
"Yes. But your phone calls taper off." (pg. 285)
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"I may be mad ... but I prefer the sh*t of this world to whatever sweet ambrosias the next might offer." (pg. 29)
The clever wit of Jitterbug Perfume will keep you turning the pages as you read it in bed, but Tom Robbins' views on the serious themes will keep awake thinking long after you've turned out the light.
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Overall, his two main points seem to be : 1.) There is not a shred of empirical evidence that the afterlife exists, let along any solid details on what it's like. 2.) That being the case, all theological explanations - Salvation, Reincarnation, the pantheon of Greek Gods, etc.; are equally plausible.
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Jitterbug Perfume presents its own account of the afterlife, but you certainly don't get the impression that Robbins expects you to take it seriously. Indeed, the "moral" of the book is given in a single German-sounding made-up word : Erleichda. Which loosely translated means "Lighten up!"
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Jitterbug Perfume is a fine follow-up to Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker (reviewed here). Highly recommended. 9 Stars.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lord Valentine's Castle - Robert Silverberg


1980; 447 pages. Laurels : 1981 Locus Award winner; 1981 Hugo Award nominee. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Fantasy; Sci-Fi. First book (out of 10) of the "Majipoor" series. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
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It is a special day in Pidruid. The world's ruler (aka "the Coronal", aka "Lord Valentine") is paying the city an official visit; something that only happens once every 10 years or so.
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Out in the crowd, a drifter (who is also named Valentine) watches the royal procession, even making eye contact with the Coronal. Something stirs in him - a bond of some sort. Something from his past. Although now that he thinks about it, there is very little that Valentine remembers of his past.
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What's To Like...
Lord Valentine's Castle is more sci-fantasy than sci-fi. There is a whole planet to explore with Valentine, and it is filled with vividly detailed and fascinating flora, fauna, and alien races.
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Valentine learns juggling and joins a wandering troupe - not your usual role for a hero. The troupe itself has some kewl personalities, and they gradually become the core of his "merry band" as he tries to figure out Who he is, and What happened to him.
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The storyline is a bit prosaic and some of the deux ex machina devices are a tad too convenient. Valentine develops a Jedi-like mind-control gift ("These are not the droids you are looking for") and gets too many dreams ("sendings"). All too often, these are used to get him out of scrapes, and reveal things about his past.
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But who cares? There's a world out there to explore. The aliens are kewl, original, and "gray" (no orcs, elves, dwarves, or hobbits here). There's a good ending which is also "gray", and which sets up the host of sequels and prequels that Robert Silverberg penned in this series.
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Kewlest New Word...
Acidulously: in a slightly sour, harsh, or acidic manner. (Not to be confused with "assiduously").
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Excerpts...
"(W)hy would I want to be Coronal?"
"The power," said Shanamir, wide-eyed. "The fine clothes, the food, the wine, the jewels, the palaces, the women-"
"The responsibility," Valentine said somberly. "The burden. Do you think a Coronal does nothing but drink golden wine and march in grand processions? Do you think he's put there just to enjoy himself?"
The boy considered. "Perhaps not."
"He rules over billions upon billions of people, across territories so huge we can't comprehend them. Everything falls on his shoulders. To carry out the decrees of the Pontifex, to sustain order, to support justice in every land - it tires me to think of it, boy. He keeps the world from collapsing into chaos. Let him have the job." (pg. 4)
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"There's a paradox in your dilemma, Valentine. You strive to renounce purpose; but your renunciation itself has a purpose. Do you see? Your speaker surely does."
"Of course I see. But what do I do? How do I pretend not to care whether I stay here forever?"
"Pretense is impossible. The moment you genuinely don't care, you'll move forward. Not until then."
Valentine shook his head. "That's like telling me that my salvation depends on never thinking of gihorna-birds. The harder I'd try not to think of them, the more flocks of gihornas would fly through my mind." (pg. 265)
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Spare a royal, spare a crown,
Gentlefolk, come sit ye down.
Astonishment and levity-
Come and see our jugglery! (pg. 74)
In terms of the history of science fiction, this is a "tweener". It's deeper and more adult-themed than the 200-page 50's sci-fi classics that are geared toward teenage boy readers. OTOH, it's not as complex as today's epic sci-fi stories/series. Overall, Lord Valentine's Castle feels like a forerunner to Space Operas. So it's hard to say who the target audience is. It's too shallow for an adult; yet has too much sex for the kiddies.
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But the plusses - the juggling, the ending, the characters, and the marvelous lands of planet Majipoor - more than compensate for the "tween-ness". I picked LVC up because I'm always interested in how Science Fiction evolved from the 1950's through the present. I ended up with an enjoyable journey through a brave, new, and original world. 7½ Stars.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Last Lion - Peter S. Canellos


2009; 409 pages (plus another 54 pages of notes). Full Title : Last Lion : The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy. Genre : Non-Fiction; Biography. New Author? : Yes. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
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Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy (02/22/32 - 08/25/09) was the fourth-longest serving US Senator in history, being there just shy of 47 years. He was the youngest of nine children. This book, Last Lion, was published in February 2009, after Senator Kennedy had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and about 6 months before his death.
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What's To Like...
The book moves along at a nice, steady pace and has some kewl photos. There are a zillion events to recount, so none is covered in a lot of depth. Some quick notes...
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Early Life : he grew up under Joe and Rose's strong-willed tutelage. It would be nice to be Kennedy-rich (the kids lacked for nothing), but it came at the cost of a highly dysfunctional family and incredible amounts of sibling rivalry. JFK-RFK : It must be painful to lose all your older brothers; with lots of unanswered questions. Chappaquiddick : Covered objectively, but there are lots of unanswered questions. US Senate : a champion of the people; a deal-broker; and probably the biggest reason we have Health Care Reform. Later Years : The family rebel becomes the family patriarch. He finds true love late in life.
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Kewlest New Word...
Accretional : marked by growth or increase in size by gradual external addition, fusion, or inclusion.
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Excerpts...
"My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life," Ted said, looking down, "but be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world." (giving Bobby Kennedy's eulogy; pg. 136)
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His personal exposure to health care challenges only strengthened his determination to achieve his central goal in the Senate, the mission that drove both his daily schedule and his long term agenda: he wanted every man, woman, and child in American to have access to decent health care. In theory, it was a goal that could be accomplished with one, big national health care program, a plan that would ensure that pregnant women would have prenatal care, that children would get their vaccinations, that sufferers of rare diseases would have access to the medicines they needed, that workers could change their jobs without worrying about losing their health insurance, and that seniors would not have to choose between food and prescription durgs. In practice, Kennedy would spend decades trying to make those things happen piece by piece. (pg. 323)
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Contribute something worthwhile. (pg. 17, a Kennedy family edict)
Last Lion is an even look at Ted Kennedy's life. The warts are presented, but without being lurid. The accomplishments are presented, but without being maudlin. The book was actually written by a team of Boston Globe jourenalists, and it has a "newspaper article" feel to it.
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"Last Lion" is a fitting title. He was the last lion of liberal causes, the last lion of the Senate (just look how many incumbents have announced they won't seek re-election), and the last lion of the "Camelot" generation of Kennedys. All in all, it is a beautiful and respectful way to pay tribute to one of the giants of 20th-century US politics. 8 Stars.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Devil's Novice - Ellis Peters


1983; 214 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Medieval Crime Mystery; Sub-Genre : "Cozy". Book #8 in the "Brother Cadfael" series. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
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On a dark and rainy day, 19-year-old Meriet Aspley petitions to join the abbey. He has a maximum of determination, a minimum of zeal, and strange dreams that leave him screaming in his sleep. Coincidentally, the Bishop's envoy (and by extension, the King's) goes missing, immediately after sojourning at the Aspley manor. Could these two events be related?
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What's To Like...
The Devil's Novice is is another of the Brother Cadfael cozies, and takes place in 1140 AD, during turbulent times along the Welsh-English border. As such, it is as much a piece of historical fiction as it is a mystery story. Peters gives an interesting (albeit tangential) account of oblates - young children vowed and given by their parents to monastic life. Enlightening, but I'm glad it is no longer a practice.
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As usual, Ellis Peters weaves the crime-mystery story deftly. Bits of information are revealed gradually, with a nice it-all-makes-sense-now ending. The perpetrator's fate, however, is unexpected, which made for a nice change.
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Despite the title, there is no Satanism in the story. But Ms. Peters does take a gentle swipe at those who would see demonic posession in all too many people and places.
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Kewlest New Word...
Ellis Peters' books always have a slew of great medieval vocabulary, so choosing one is difficult. For now, we'll go with - Briaut : an overgarment worn by both sexes (but mostly women) during the 11th-13th century. Its salient characteristic was long, flowing sleeves. Victorian artists were big on painting these. Google-Image it and you'll recognize the garment.
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Excerpts...
Afterwards, of course, there were plenty of wiseacres pregnant with hindsight, listing portents, talking darkly of omens, brazenly asserting that they told everyone so. After every shock and reverse, such late experts proliferate. (pg. 7)
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"Was this well done, brother? Falsely you brought me here! You told me my son was mortally ill."
"So he is," said Cadfael. "Have you not his own word for it how close he feels his death? So are you, so are we all. The disease of mortality is in us from the womb, from the day of our birth we are on the way to our death. What matters is how we conduct the journey." (pgs. 168-69)
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(T)here's many a young man has got his heart's dearest wish, only to curse the day he ever wished for it. (pg. 62)
It has to be said that the "break" in the case has a rather random feel to it, and you'll be wasting your time if you try to solve it alongside Brother Cadfael. But really, that doesn't detract from the tale. The Devil's Novice is a short read, so sit back and enjoy an entertaining story from a long-gone time. 7½ Stars.