Monday, April 25, 2011

A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury - Edith Pargeter


1972; 378 pages.  Genre : Historical Fiction.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It's 1399 AD, and uneasy rests the head that wears the English crown.  King Henry IV has deposed his cousin, Richard II.  Henry's son, Hal, is now the Prince of Wales.  But Hal's only 14 years old, so the king sends a close friend and ally, Harry Percy (aka "Hotspur") to Shrewsbury with Hal, to be his mentor.

    But the Royal Treasury is broke, Richard II dies under suspicious circumstances, the French are hostile, and Wales and Scotland are revolting.  What more could possilby go wrong for the King?

What's To Like...
    Edith Pargeter (who uses the pen-name Ellis Peters when she writes Brother Cadfael stories) is a fine historical fiction author.  All the characters are 3-dimensional and evolving; and none of them is all-white or all-black.  Like a Shakespearean tragedy, our main hero (Hotspur), although noble, has some far-reaching character flaws.

    The main battle only starts on page 332, so until then you have to be entertained by a couple of skirmishes and a lot of history, politics, and personal drama.  The book succeeds at this nicely.  There's even a little bit of romance for the ladies, but it's (seemingly) hopelessly doomed so guys can tolerate it.

Kewlst New Word(s)...
Two of them, just for a change.  Shriving : hearing the confession of, and assigning penance to (someone).  Sikker : certain; safe; secure.

Excerpts...
    "Doubts?  Ay, have I, and many and grievous, too!  Do you think there's one of us that is not looking back now in torment of mind, questioning at every move what we did well, and what was ill-done?  Death makes every man turn his head and re-examine his conscience."  (pg. 24)

    As what would she remember him?  She was not dependent upon love and lovers as women are wont to be.  She had married, and sickened of marriage, and chosen of her own will to look towards other satisfactions, this being soiled and spoiled for her, though not, please God, eternally.  You cannot die of disillusion at twenty, not with such a spirit in you.  (pg. 328)

"Every man's death is treading hard on his heels every day of his life. ... Yet it will not overtake until he flags."  (pg. 329)
    As with her Brother Cadfael series, Pargeter/Peters gives you a feel for everyday life in medieval England.  The people are real, their actions are believable, and their surroundings vividly detailed.

    If you aren't a history buff, A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury may not be for you, as Pargeter takes very little literary license with the historical facts.  But if you like knights and kings, and castles and calamities, then you will probably enjoy this book.

    The history recounted here will most likely be new to most American readers.  But Shakespeare found it important enough to write a tetralogy of plays about it : Richard II, Henry IV - Part 1, Henry IV - Part Two, and Henry V.   If it's good enough for the Bard, it's good enough for me.  8 Stars.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Against A Dark Background - Iain M. Banks


1993; 613 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Everyone is after Lady Sharrow.  The Sad Brethren of the Sea House want her to steal something called the Lazy Gun as ransom for her half-sister.  The Huhsz (how would you pronounce that?) want to kill her so that one of their end-time prophecies might come to pass.  And two twin bald-headed dudes just like to torture her with a voodoo doll. 

    What can Sharrow do?  Assemble her elite combat team, go on a quest, run when outnumbered, and kick butt when not.

What's To Like...
Iain M. Banks (aka, "Iain Banks") is a master of words.  The description of the alien worlds (which are within a single solar system) and the civilizations thereon are compelling and vivid.  Sharrow is a fascinating character study, and there is a subtle ribbon of humor running throughout.

The Lazy Gun is one awesomely surreal weapon.  Shoot it at a person, and who knows what will happen to him?  An anchor might appear above him and drop down.  Giant electrodes might pop up on both sides and electrocute him.  Some wild animal might tear his throat out.  But you can also aim it at something like a tank, or even a whole city; and similarly bizarre dooms will unfold.

The ending (the last third of the book) is superb.  Along the way, Banks has some key things to say about religion, fate, governments, and android rights.  Finally, this is a stand-alone novel; a pleasant change from most sci-fi books nowadays.

Alas, there are some serious weaknesses.  Flashback scenes abound, but there is no signal when the present ends and the past commences.  The Lazy Gun, albeit kewl, turns out to be little more than a macguffin.  And if the ending is great, the storyline leading up to it is head-scratchingly illogical.

The Lazy Gun is well-guarded, but hardly hidden.  Lord knows why it takes Sharrow so long to find it.  She despises her half-sister, so that's a poor choice for a hostage.  The voodoo doll dilemma is never resolved; the Huhsz are never dealt with.  And don't try to solve the quest riddles with Sharrow; the answers are arbitrary and unfathomable.

Kewlest New Word...
Coprolite : Fossilized dung.  Used here as  an epithet.  I've got to try that one out.

Excerpts...
    "Get ...your...filthy...female foot out of my d-" he said, raising his gaze to find that he was lookng down the barrel of a large hand gun.  She pressed his nose with it.  His eyes crossed, focusing on the stubby silencer.
    He swung the door open slowly, his chain rattling.  "Come in," he croaked.
    The silencer muzzle left a little white circle imprinted on the gray flesh at the tip of his nose.  (pg. 44)

    "Indeed, your gracious Majesty," the monk said, looking down modestly at the carpet.  His voice sounded respectful.  "Our Belief - perhaps not so dissimilar from your own, more venerable and more widely followed creed - is that God is a Mad Scientist and we His experimental subjects, doomed forever to run the Maze of Life through apparently random and unjust punishments for meaningless and paltry rewards and no discernible good reason save His evil pleasure."  (pg. 289)

    "I must say," the one on the beach said.  "You don't seem terribly surprised to find us here, Lady Sharrow."  He sounded disappointed.  He accepted a tall glass from his twin, then drank and smiled up at her.  "We'd rather hoped you might be."
    She shrugged.
    "Typical, isn't it?" said the one in the chair to his twin.  "Women only go quiet when you'd actually quite like to hear what they have to say."  (pg. 366)

"We live in the dust of our forebears; insects crawling in their dung.  Splendid, isn't it?"  (pg. 80)
The Wikipedia article on Against A Dark Background indicates this was an early, unpublished story by Banks which he later reworked into a full-length novel.  That may explain why the storyline has so little cohesion.  It really should've stayed a short story or a novella.

The great ending and Banks' writing skills make up for the plot weaknesses, albeit just barely.  It seems Banks is better known for his sci-fi "Culture" series, and I have one from that set on my TBR shelf.  I have a feeling it's going to be a better read.  6 Stars.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Interesting Times - Terry Pratchett


1994; 368 pages.  Book #17 in the Discworld series.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    When the inscrutable Agatean Empire on the farawaty Counterweight Continent sends a message tio Ankh-Morpork requesting "the great Wizzard", they can only mean one person.  That would be Rincewind, who is so thoroughly incompetent that even the one word on his hat is misspelled : "Wizzard".  Why would the Agateans want such a schlep?  That's inscrutable.

What's To Like...
    It has Rincewind, who's probably my favorite Discworld character.  It has The Luggage.  It has Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver HordeDEATH makes a cameo appearance.  And we meet up again with Twoflower, whom we hadn't seen since Book #2.

    The Agatean Empire is an obvious embodiment of China, so that's a big plus for me.  There are lots of references to Chinese culture and history, as well as the Mandarin language itself.  It verges on stereotyping, but I'll give Pratchett the benefit of the doubt, and assume it's all tongue-in-cheek. 

    This is mostly a light-hearted tale, but woven within is some subtle commentary about revolutions ("Meet the new boss; same as the old boss") and lessons that geriatric geezers can still teach young 'uns.

Kewlest New Word...
Leylines : Alleged alignments of a number of places of geographical or metaphysical interest.  (Who knew there was such a term?)

Excerpts...
    Cohen smiled proprietorially.
    "Truckle used to be reckoned one of the biggest badasses in the world," he said.
    "Really?  Him?"
    "But it's amazing what you can do with a herbal suppository."
    "Up yours, mister," said Truckle.  (pg. 84)

    Agatean was a language of few basic syllables.  It was really all in the tone, inflection, and context.  Otherwise, the word for military leader was also the word for long-tailed marmot, male sexual organ, and ancient chicken coop.  (pg. 92; and very true of Mandarin)

    "How about Organdy Sloggo?  Still going strong down in Howondaland, last I heard."
    "Dead.  Metal poisoning."
    "How?"
    "Three swords through the stomach."  (pg. 333)

"When many expect a mighty stallion they will find hooves on an ant."  (pg. 118)
    At  book #17, Interesting Times is a "tweener" in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.  The early books were pure tale-telling; and the later ones deal with heavier themes, such as hooliganism and bigotry.  This is a nice blend of those two motifs.

    The storyline moves along nicely, and builds to an exciting and unexpected (unless you're Rincewind) climax.  The only things it's missing are the complex and divergent subplots that are typically present and which Pratchett always deftly weaves into a coherent conclusion.  I am of course in awe of his ability to do this, but their absence here seems to allow Interesting Times to stay more focused than usual throughout.  9 Stars.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson


2006 (Swedish); 2009 (English).  724 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder Mystery.  Book #2 of the "Millennium Trilogy".  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

Three people are gunned down execution-style, and there's forensic evidence that links Lisbeth Salander (and only her) to each one.  Mikael Blomkvist believes she is innocent.  Even if she is mentally unstable.  With violent tendencies.  And never wants to see him again.  And despite the fact that one of the victims is...

What's To Like...
    This is a fine sequel to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Blomkvist is no longer bedding every biped he meets, and the storyline is a lot more focused.  Larsson still gets detail-obsessed at times (such as describing every last thing the Lisbeth buys for her apartment), but he keeps it more under control.

Fermat's Last Theorem is in the book (Wiki it), which is always kewl.  And there's some chess too.  The book does start a bit slow (the first murder doesn't occur until page 245), but from there on in, it's a real page-turner.  The ending leaves a couple frayed ends, but I presume this is so it can segue right into the third book, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.

Once again, the characters created by Larsson are wonderful studies - even the baddies.  And he is a master at writing a good murder-mystery.

Kewlest New Word...
None really.  I think that's because it's a translation.

Excerpts... 
    She would have considered staying longer had she not made an enemy of a slow-witted young hoodlum who haunted the bar of her backstreet hotel.  Finally she lost patience and whacked him on the head with a brick, checked out of the hotel, and took a ferry to St. George's, the capital of Grenada.  (pg. 14.  I told you she has violent tendencies.)

    It was a one-bedroom apartment in Enskede.  Svensson and Johansson had been going out for a few years, but had finally taken the plunge and moved in together a year ago.  (pg. 114.  Swedes apparently have a different view of what "commitment" entails.)

    There are no innocents.  There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.
    Bjurman was dead because he had chosen not to play by the rules she had stipulated.  He had had every chance, but still he had hired some f**king alpha male to do her harm.  That was not her responsibility.  (pg. 462)

Lisbeth was first.  Camilla was beautiful.  (pg. 109)
    I liked The Girl Who Played With Fire better than TGWTDT.  Lisbeth is now the central character, and she's much more interesting than Blomkvist. 

    Larsson's writing seems to have gotten more polished, although perhaps that's just a matter of a better translator.  The identity of the perpetrator(s) will keep you guessing, as will the motive(s).

    The ending will strain your believability tendon once or twice, but it wraps up the plotline nicely and lays the foundation for Book 3.  It is best if you read these in order, which means you commit to 2100 pages or so when you decide to take up Larsson.  It's well worth it.  8½ Stars.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fuzzy Sapiens - H. Beam Piper


1964; 235 pages.  Genre : Classic Science Fiction.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.
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Fuzzy Sapiens is the sequel to Little Fuzzy (which is reviewed here).  The Fuzzies have been declared sentient, which means you can't kill them, skin them, and/or eat them.  They now have certain rights to their planet, even if all they want to do is snuggle up to the humans and eat their Extee-3 rations.
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But a planetary governemnt has to be established, the Fuzzies need to be protected, and a stable economic system needs to be implemented.  Who knew that these mundane issues would turn out to be so complex?
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What's To Like...
This is "hard" science fiction (meaning 'realistic') from before there was such a sub-genre.  What little thrills-&-spills action there is comes late in the book, and half of it is off-stage.
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Instead you get to help solve a number of real-world issues.  The Fuzzies' Infant Mortality Rate is excessive to where they will be extinxt in a couple generations.  They only eat land prawns and Extee-3 and the planetary supplies of those is such that they'll starve to death before they become extinct.
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The Fuzzies are amenable to be "adopted" by humans, but the demand outstrips the supply.  Will a black market spring up?  Their homeland is ripe for mineral exploitation, and sentient or not, humans are coming by the thousands to colonize the planet.
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For a change, chemists - and even large corporations - are given a fair shake.  Some of the Bad Guys from Little Fuzzy become Good Guys,  and some of the Good Guys from Little Fuzzy develop character faults.
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Kewlest New Word(s)...
I'm tempted to go with Nifflheim, which Piper uses as a euphemism for 'Hell', except that towards the end he just up and uses the h-word anyway.  So instead, we'll go with : Mumchance (adj.) : mute, not speaking.
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Excerpts...
And this red upholstered swivel chair; he hated that worst of all.  Forty years ago, he'd left Terra to get the seat of his pants off the seat of a chair like that, and here he was in the evening of life - well, late afternoon, call it around second cocktail time - trapped in one.  (pg. 8)
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Titanium, he thought disgustedly.  It would be something like that.  What is it they called the stuff?  Oh, yes; the nymphomaniac metal; when it gets hot it combines with anything.  (pg. 153)
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    "Miss Tresca, can't you keep your bench in better order than this?" he scolded.  "Keep things in their places.  What are you working on?"
    "Oh, a hunch I had about this hokfusine."
    Hunch!  That was the trouble, all through Science Center; too many hunches and not enough sound theory.  (pg. 158)
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"Last war's enemies; next war's allies."  (pg. 127)
To a certain degree, H. Beam Piper ignores the greater issues of humans colonizing an already-inhabited planet.  The Fuzzies are migrating, and in droves, but nobody bothers to ask why.  The full impact of overwhelming hordes of humans descending on the Fuzzies habitat is not assessed.  Nobody asks what the Fuzzies ate before they got hooked on Terran Extee-3.
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But I think this misses the point of Fuzzy Sapiens.  There may be some significant issues to be faced, but the target audience is still Young Readers.  To fully address "the big picture" would mean perhaps a 1000-page opus.  Instead, Piper presents only a slice of it, and takes less than 250 pages to do so.  He thereby subtly entices Young Readers to consider becoming chemists, and to explore what we call the Scientific Method.  I think that's kinda kewl.  7 Stars.