Monday, June 27, 2011

Practical Demonkeeping - Christopher Moore

1993; 243 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Modern Lit; Humor.  Overall Ratng : 9*/10.

    Practical Demonkeeping is just like that old TV show, I Dream of Jeanie.  Except instead of a cute genie, you have an ugly, scaly, demon named Catch.  Who eats humans, but hey, a fella's gotta eat, right?  His "master" is a youthful-looking 100-year-old named Travis O'Hearn.  Who Catch sometimes obeys, and sometimes doesn't.

    Travis and Catch would both like to sever the relationship.  Which brings them to Pine Cove, a quiet, geezery California hamlet.  Bad luck for yooze, Pine Covians.

What's To Like...
This is Christopher Moore's debut novel, and his writing talent and sense of humor are immediately evident.  The pacing is good and the plethora of plotlines and characters are skillfully tied up at the end of the book.  The final resolution is a bit clichéd, but that feels appropriate here.  The laughs are abundant, and you will catch yourself chortling as you turn the pages.

Kewlest New Word...
Mingy : mean and stingy.

    The Breeze could smoke all night, polish off a bottle of tequila, maintain well enough to drive the forty miles back to Pine Cove without arousing the suspicion of a single cop, and be on the beach by nine the next morning acting as if the term hangover were too abstract to be considered.  On Billy Winston's private list of personal heroes The Breeze ranked second only to David Bowie.  (pgs. 3-4)

    "Be quiet.  People are looking."
    "You're trying to be tricky.  What's morality?"
    "It's the difference between what is right and what you can rationalize."
    "Must be a human thing."
    "Exactly."  (pg. 73)

    Gian Hen Gian stepped forward and shook a knotted brown finger in Travis's face.  "Tell us where the Seal of Solomon is hidden or we will have your genitals in a nine-speed reverse action blender with a five-year guarantee before you can say shazam!"
    Brine raised an eyebrow toward the Djinn.  "You found the Sears catalog in the bathroom."
    The Djinn nodded.  "It is filled with many fine instruments of torture."  (pg. 185)

May the IRS find that you deduct your pet sheep as an entertainment expense.  (pg. 40)
    The worst I can say about Practical Demonkeeping is that I wish it was longer.  Christopher Moore immediately took care of that.  His next two books, Coyote Blue (1994) and Bloodsucking Fiends (1995), are 294 and 290 pages long, respectively.

    It can also be said that he got better as an author as he went along, although that's hardly something to hold against Practical Demonkeeping.

    All-in-all, this was a pleasant, light read that was over all too quickly.  But that's okay, cuz there are still three Christopher Moore books sitting on my TBR shelf.  9 Stars.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Masters of Solitude - Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin

1977; 404 pages.  New Author(s)? : Yes.  Genre : Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The plague is coming.  Every tribe of the Forest people can sense it, and they all know that their holistic and herbal medicines will have no effect.  The City has medical technologies and pharmaceuticals that can fight the disease.  But a Force Field surrounds it, and its inhabitants show no sign of wanting to help.  What can the Forest people do?

What's To Like...
    Set along the eastern seaboard of the US around 4000 AD, this is a nice-but-forgotten piece of post-apocalyptic fiction.  The Forest People have telepathy to aid them, but only medieval industrial technology.

They have a curious mix of religions.  Most of the tribes are "covens" (think Druids or Wicca), but one key city is "Kriss" (40th-century Christians).  There are also the non-religious "Mrikans" (Americans) who are mostly interested in money and commerce.

    The storyline is compelling and the characters interesting.  But don't get too attached to any of them, because there's a lot of dying going on.  The book centers on two half-brothers, Singer and Arin; but there are also some strong women to follow.  The battle scenes are gritty and realistic.  There's little or no magic to be found, and the "lep" (telepathy) has limited effectiveness.

    I enjoyed the underlying theme of how different theological and philosophical systems deal with each other.   It was a thought-provoking and appropriate topic for today's world.

Kewlest New Word...
Slatternly : characteristcs of or befitting a slut.

    In the silence of the forest, someone thought of him, and he stirred, surprised and disturbed.  The bitter tang of derision burned the runes of his mind.
    Singer.  Misfit.
    Better to be alone than to live among uneasy coveners casting sidelong glances at him as he passed.  (pg. 1, opening lines)

    "So," he mused with a tinge of bitterness, "you live impossibly extended lives stuffing that electric sponge with everything that possibly can be thrown - or at least all that you and it consider important, and to hell with the world outside."
    She started to answer, but the sheer weight of the effort it would take crushed the impulse.  Marian shrugged.  "Something like that, Singer."  (pg. 384)

There is no courage without fear.  ...  And solitude is often the companion of fear.  (pg. 22)
    The pacing seems a bit uneven and there is a Deus ex Machina to deal with the Force Field.  The ending has a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" feel to it, and that's not a compliment.  But I think there's a sequel, and if that continues the storyline, then The Masters of Solitude ends okay and it stands just fine by itself.

    The opening blurbs aptly mention A Canticle for Liebowitz, Brave New World, and Tolkien's LOTR trilogy, and if you like those books, you'll like The Masters of Solitude.  The plusses outweigh the minuses here, and overall it was an enjoyable read.  7½ Stars.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Paris Vendetta - Steve Berry

2009; 472 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action.  Book #5 in Berry's Cotton Malone series.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Cotton Malone's bookshop/home is crowded tonight.  Two hitmen have snuck in since he went to bed.  But they're not here to kill him.  Instead they're after an ex-Secret Service agent, Sam Collins, who also broke into Cotton's place after he went to sleep.

    Ah, but Rule #1 for bad guys is - never ever invade the home of the book's hero.

What's To Like...
    The action starts immediately and doesn't stop.  There are lots of storylines.  To wit : (01) Rommel's gold; (02) Napoleon's gold; (03) Evil finance experts rigging the global economy; (04) Henrik Thorvaldsen's revenge; (05) the world's most ruthless terrorist; (06) taking out the Eiffel Tower.

    Steve Berry does a good job interweaving these disparate plotlines, although at times it feels a bit forced.  Most of the book takes place in Paris, and that's always a plus with me.  He even sprinkles a bit of French dialogue in the book, although one gets the feeling that Berry's vocabulaire français is rather limited.  There are twists and surprises, and a well-crafted ending - precisely what you've come to expect from this author.

Kewlest New Word...
 Marplot : a meddlesome person whose activity interferes with the plans of others.

    "Here's another reality," she said.  "Wars have always been financed by debt.  The greater the threat, the greater the debt."
    He waved her off.  "And I know the next part, Eliza.  For any nation to involve itself in war, it must have a credible enemy."
    "Of course.  And if they already exist, magnifico."
    He smiled at her use of his native tongue, the first break in his granite demeanor.
    "If enemies exist," she said, "but lack military might, money can be provided to build that might.  If they don't exist-"  She grinned.  "-they can always be created."  (pgs. 28-29)

    History is prophecy, looking backwards.  (pg. 49)

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.  (pg. 124)
    For all its action, The Paris Vendetta is more of a "relationship" book.  Thorvaldsen's obsession with avenging his son's death puts a critical strain on his several-books-long friendship with Cotton, who ultimately will have to choose where his loyalty lies - with his friend (who saved his life) or with his country.

    The action itself is a little less exciting than in the previous books in this series.  First, financiers are inherently somewhat boring as villains.  Second, while I'm sure I'd be thrilled to uncover Napoleon's treasure, it pales a bit cri-fi-wise to Alexander the Great's Tomb, the library at Alexandria, and a lost city beneath Antarctica.

    So for me, this wasn't quite as gripping as the previous book, The Charlemagne Pursuit, reviewed here.  Then again, I gave that one 10*/10, and perfection is difficult to maintain.  The Paris Vendetta may not be the best book in this series, but it's still pretty darn good.  8 Stars.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Wild Machines - Mary Gentle

2000; 391 pages.  Genre : Historical Fantasy.  New Author? : No.  Book #3 in the "Book of Ash" series.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

   Book 2 in the series closed with half of Ash's mercenaries (a couple hundred all told) journeying to Carthage and rescuing her.  Book 3 opens with them now just outside Dijon, trying to join up with the rest of her force.

    The bad news is that there are 20,000 Visigoths besieging Dijon.  The badder news is Charles, Duke of Burgundy, lies within, mortally wounded.  Upon his death, the city's defense will surely crumble.  The baddest news is the Visigoths are led by Ash's twin half-sister (is that an oxymoron?), The Faris, and she is militarily invincible.

What's To Like...
    As always, Mary Gentle paints a realistic picture of a soldier's life in 15th-Century Europe.  It's gritty; it's bleak; and the best you can hope for is to die quickly and cleanly.  The characters are well-developed and interesting; and the Alternate History is believable.

    The first 300 pages focus on the siege, with Ash and company trapped inside Dijon.  There are occasional assaults by the Visigoths, but mostly we sit around waiting, and discussing all the equally bleak options.  That's probably how it is during a siege, and it can be a bit tedious.

    The last 100 pages are all action, and there's a neat and unexpected ending to The Wild Machines, despite the fact that this is actually one humongous book chopped up into quarters for us attention-span-challenged US readers.

Kewlest New Word...
Meretricious : apparently attractive but having in reality no value.  Here, a meretricious proverb.

    "Everything they ever said about mercenaries is true!  We're nothing but a bunch of horse thieves!"
    "Takes talent to be a good horse thief," Euen Huw remarked professionally, and flushed.  "Not that I'd know, see."  (pg. 144)

    "We'll get you another warhorse," Anselm said, appearing at a loss when she did not speak.  "Shouldn't have to lay out more than a couple of pounds.  There's been enough dead knights won't need 'em anymore."
    "Jeez, Roberto, you're an ever-present trouble in time of help..."  (pg. 165)

    "How long it is, since last you spoke to me?"
    "Minutes... Not even an hour."
    "I cannot tell, child.  Time is nothing where I am.  I read once in Aquinas that the duration of the soul in Hell may only be a heartbeat, but to the damned it is eternity."  (pg. 260)

"You can't hide anything from the washerwoman.  Courage is brown." (pg. 297)
    The total time elapsed in The Wild Machines is three days.  Given that it's a quarter of the total opus, one certainly hopes that some it contains some significant events, but we won't know until we read Book 4.

    Mary Gentle is a skilled writer who kept my interest throughout the long siege in this book.  The storyline is complex, and there are enough characters and subplots to make me look forward to reading the next (sub)-book, Lost Burgindy, to see how she's going to tie everything up.  Stay tuned.  8 Stars.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Little People - Tom Holt

2002; 374 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Mike Higgins keeps seeing elves.  Not that he wants to; they just seem to keep running into him.  Very strange.  Even stranger is the fact that his girl friend, Cruella Watson, believes him and is okay with it.  Which is better than his stepdad, who also believes him and is most definitely not okay with it.

What's To Like...
    The wit will have you chuckling and the metaphors (eg : "she looked up at me, bewildered as a chameleon on a paisley scarf") will have you groaning.   It's written in British, not American, so you have to figure out 'foreign' words, such as Sellotape, kip, biro, etc.  There also are some obscure references to track down, such as Isambard Brunel, Peter Tatchell, and Occam's Razor.

    There is adventure for the guys; romance for the gals.  There is mystery for the inquisitive, and parallel universes for us dimension-hoppers.  And there are elves.  Lots of them.

Kewlest New Word...
Stroppy : easily offended or annoyed; ill-tempered.

    She was sullen, razor-tongued and miserable as sin, having a father who lived behind a desk in a solicitors' office and a mother who despised her because her hair didn't go with the curtains.  I saw elves.  Who in God's name else would want either one of us?  (pg. 10)

    When you can't solve the whole problem, my aunt Sheila once told me, nibble off the simplest bit of it and try solving that;  it probably won't get you anywhere much, but at least you won't feel such a total dead loss.  (pg. 80)

    "I mean, Nobel Prizes, they're all very fine and splendid but at the end of that day it's just another bit of clutter on the mantelpiece every time you dust.  The money, on the other hand..."  (pg. 182)

"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a pointy ear for a pointy ear"  (pg. 321)
    For whatever reason, I find British humorists much funnier that American humorists.  Tom Holt has been compared to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, but I find him more akin to Robert Rankin, and that's a great big plus.

    There are some weaknesses in Little People.  At times, there's too much telling and not enough showing.  For all the verbiage devoted to them, I really expected Mike's parents to be more than bit players in the book.  The ending stutter-steps and is a bit clunky.

    Still, this is a light, entertaining read, which also gives some intriguing insight on the two meanings of "little people".  Thoughtful humor has to be difficult to write, but it's a joy to read when it's done well.  7½ Stars.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Alliance - Larry Millett

2001; 401 pages (plus 32 pages of notes).  New Author? : Yes.  Book #4 in Millett's Sherlock Holmes series.  Genre : Murder/Mystery.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    What on earth are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson doing in Minnesota in 1899?  Helping their friends and fellow sleuths - Shadwell Rafferty and George Washington Thomas - solve a murder/mystery.  A labor activist has been killed, stripped, and then hanged.  Just to make sure the message is clear, a sign in hung around the victim's neck, reading "The Secret Alliance Has Spoken".  But was it really done by them?  Can our fact-finding foursome get to the bottom of this?  What do you think?

What's To Like...
    The action starts immediately.  We have a body by page 4; and Rafferty is on the case by page 13.  The murder/mystery is nicely constructed.  The solution is neither too obvious, nor too arbitrary.

    Larry Millett lives in the Twin Cities, and takes pains to give you a detailed "feel" for life there at the dawn of the 20th century.  But if historical details aren't your shtick, be of good cheer - most of the minutiae are in notes in the back of the book.  The subject of labor unions vs. industry management is given an even-handed treatment.  Greed has its counter in Extremism; and in 1899, any and all foes are conveniently labeled anarchists, just like today we conveniently call them all terrorists.

    Alas, this isn't the Sherlock Holmes I know.  This one is troubled by his dreams and gets guidance from his premonitions.  Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes would never do anything that subjective.  Also, Holmes and Watson don't arrive on the scene until almost halfway through the book (page 186, to be exact), and there are very few brilliant Holmesian deductions that we all look forward to.

    Finally, there are way too many back-reference plugs for earlier books in this series.  And Rafferty drops his g's with annoying  frequency.  Sharin'; tryin'; doin'; etc.

Kewlest New Word...
Flaneur : an idler; a loafer.

    "Ah yes, Miss Addie O'Donnell, the outspoken friend of the workingman.  Have you gone through her place yet with your usual destructive thoroughness?"
    "No.  We do that and she'll raise a big stink in the newspapers."
    "True.  The First Amendment is a constant bother, isn't it, Dolph?  If the Founding Fathers had only started with the Second, our lives would be immeasurably easier."  (pgs. 32-33)

    "Am I callous?  Perhaps, but the reality is that I can do nothing about the accident any more.  Nothing.  I can only accept that what happened was part of God's plan."
    Rafferty had found that when people spoke of "God's plan" they were usually referring to someone else's misfortune, thereby confirming their own lofty status before the Almighty.  (pg. 230)

"Spite, you see, can be a form of idealism."  (pg. 77)
    Larry Millett's Sherlock Holmes will not supplant the original.  Ditto for the mystery itself, and the investigative techniques used to solve it.

    Which is a shame, because based on its own merits, this story is quite good.  If you edit out the two Englishmen (they aren't really necessary except for name-dropping), and rename the book "Shadwell Rafferty and the Secret Alliance", you avoid the inevitable comparison to Conan Doyle, and have yourself a very good historical murder-mystery.  This story rates 8* without Holmes, but only 4* with him.  That averages out to 6 Stars, so we'll go with that.