Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Key To Midnight - Dean Koontz

1979; 475 pages.  Genre : Action; Intrigue.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Alex Hunter owns a PI agency in the states.  One of its few cases that was never solved involved the kidnapping of a US senator's daughter.

    That was a dozen years ago.  Now, sitting in the Moonglow Lounge in Kyoto, Alex is startled to see that the singer/owner of the place is a spitting image (plus 12 years, of course) of the kidnapped girl.  But she insists she was raised in Brighton, England, where her parents died in a tragic auto accident.  About a dozen years ago.

    So it is obviously a case of mistaken identity.  Okay, fine.  Just one thing bothers Alex.  Why are people now tailing him?

What's To Like...
    This is an early Dean Koontz book, written long before he settled into the Horror genre.  It's got lots of action and a kewl mystery.  It even has a Romance for the lady readers.  Indeed, the publishers forced Koontz to use the pseudonym Leigh Nichols when The Key To Midnight first came out, so that it would appeal to a wider audience.

    The two main characters - Alex and Joanna Rand - are developed nicely.  The pacing is great, and every time you think you've figured out how it's going to end, Koontz plops a plot-twist on you and your whole theory gets shot down.

    The resolution of the mystery is both original and believable.  And the settings - Japan, England, and Switzerland - are way kewl.

Kewlest New Word...
Preternatural : Out of, or being beyond the normal course of nature; differing from the natural.

    "You need Joanna as much as she needs you."
    "You've told me that before."
    "Have I?"
    "You know you have."
    She smiled at him mischievously, bowed to him, and assumed an air of Asian wisdom that was partly a joke and partly serious.  "Honorable detective should know that repetition of a truth does not make it any less true, and resistance to the truth can never be more than a brief folly."
    She closed the door, and Alex didn't move until he heard the lock bolt slide into place.  (pg. 131)

    "Well, sir, they tell you to humor madmen if you meet one.  And it seems especially wise to humor one with money.  The only thing that bothers me - is it coppers watching you?"
    "No," Alex said.
    "Is it coppers, young lady?"
    "No," Joanna said.  "They're not good men at all."
    "Sometimes neither are the coppers."  (pg. 336)

"Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun"  (pg. 234)
    There is some clunkiness in TKTM.  The descriptions of Japanese culture, especially the food ones, feel like they were lifted out of a travel book.  So does the train route in Switzerland.  Early on, Alex is manhandled by a thug, which was actually a refreshing change-of-pace.  But later on, he disposes of an armed, highly-trained assassin with relative ease.

    But these are quibbles.  The Key To Midnight may not be great literature, but Koontz is a master storyteller, and he'll keep you turning the pages.  If you like reading Lisa Jackson, you'll probably like this book.  8 Stars.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Last Continent - Terry Pratchett

1998; 390 pages.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  New Author? : No.  Book #22 in the Discworld series.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Ook.  The librarian at the wizards' Unseen University (who's an orangutan) is sick, and every time he sneezes, he changes into some other animal.  Iggle.  Well, sometimes he changes into things like a piece of furniture, although it's nice to sit in a chair upholstered in red fur.  Eek.  Without him in control, the Books of Magic in the Library are in open revolt, and that threatens all of Discworld.  So we better cure the librarian.

    A spell should do the trick, but you need to know the librarian's name (he once was a human) to direct the incantation.  Alas, he's been an orangutan for so long, no one remembers his name,.  Rincewind would, but he's on the other end of Discworld - on a mysterious island called Xxxx, or The Last Continent.

    So our plucky band of Wizards transport themselves to Xxxx (pronounced 'Fourecks') to find Rincewind.  But there's a small hitch.  They've landed 30,000 years in the past.

What's To Like...
    The two main themes of The Last Continent are Terry Pratchett's salute to Australia and his musings about Evolution.

    The Wizards are here, and that inevitably means mayhem runs rampant.  Rincewind is here, and that means The Luggage is also present.  DEATH makes a couple appearances, and there's a kewl God of Evolution.  There's even a tip of the hat to Quantum Physics.

    You might miss "regulars" like the Night Watch, Lord Vetineri, and the Witches, but there are Mad Dwarves, friendly jailers/executioners, a second Rincewind, and a magical kangaroo to stand in their places.

     The humor is more laid-back than in the early Rincewind novels, but there's plenty to chuckle about.  30,000 years might sound like a huge gap between the two storylines, but Pratchett merges them into a well-crafted ending.

Kewlest New Word...
    There's some Aussie slang phrases, but that's about it.  No words that I didn't already know.

    (T)here are some people who have a legend that the whole universe is carried in a leather bag by an old man.
    They're right, too.
    Other people say: hold on, if he's carrying the entire universe in a sack, right, that means he's carrying himself and the sack inside the sack, because the universe contains everything.  Including him.  And the sack, of course.  Which contains him and the sack already.  As it were.
    To which the reply is: well?
    All tribal myths are true, for a given value of "true".  (pg. 2)

    "Haven't you noticed that by running away you end up in more trouble?"
    "Yes, but, you see, you can run away from that, too," said Rincewind.  "That's the beauty of the system.  Dead is only for once, but running away is for ever."
    "Ah, but it is said that a coward dies a thousand deaths, while a hero dies only one."
    "Yes, but it's the important one."   (pg. 150)

    The ability to ask questions like "Where am I and who is the 'I' that is asking?" is one of the things that distinguishes mankind from, say, cuttlefish.  (pg. 369)

A wizard without a hat (is) just a sad man with a suspicious taste in clothes.  (pg. 65)
    If you've never read a Discworld book before, The Last Continent is probably not the one to start off with.  It helps to already know Rincewind runs away from trouble; it helps to already know why the librarian has a penchant for bananas; it helps to already know DEATH is a likeable chap.

    Discworld fans will find this a solid effort by Terry Pratchett, and an entertaining read.  It may not be the greatest book in the series, but it's still pretty darn good.  Mate.  8 Stars.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Genesis Machine - James P. Hogan

1978; 299 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : "Hard" Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 4½*/10.

    Brad Clifford is a research scientist (specialty : Applied Mathematics) at a government-funded Think Tank.  What he's theorized might revolutionize the way we look at the universe.  But it doesn't impress our government who's only interested in ideas that can be used to defeat our enemies.  They want Brad to stop wasting time and tax dollars, and work on something more useful to the war effort.

    But Brad has other ideas...

What's To Like...
    The Genesis Machine is essentially James P. Hogan presenting Quantum Physics to sci-fi readers.  It was cutting-edge theory when he wrote this, and it still is today.  Hogan advances some fascinating speculation on how it could change our world.

    Brad Clifford, a "Ward Cleaver" sort of guy, teams up with Aubrey Phillipsz, who's more of an iconoclast.  But there's no culture-clash; both are brilliant thinkers who complement each other in exploring the new theory.

    Politically, James Hogan was a libertarian, so the governments in TGM come off - for the most part - as hopelessly flawed.  Published in 1978, it is set in 2005, and Hogan develops an Alternate History for the 27 years in between.  It's fun to contemplate, but it's only cursorily presented, mostly to justify our own government being paranoid.

Kewlest New Word...
Persiflage : light and slightly contemptuously mockery or banter.

    The popular notion of a molecule as a tiny, smooth ball of "something" - a model that, because of its reassuring familiarity, had been tenaciously clung to for decades despite the revelations of quantum wave machanics - was finally put to rest for good.  "Solidness" was at last recognized as being totally an illusion of the macroscopic world; even the measured radius of the proton was reduced to no more than a manifestation of the spatial probability distribution of a point k-function.  (pg. 7, and a pretty good introduction to Quantum Physics)

    "Scientists!  You wanna pick daisies while the whole world's up for grabs.  You're telling me about delusions ... and all that time you're chasing after reality and truth and all that shit!  Let me tell you something, mister ... that's the biggest delusion.  (...) Truth is truth when enough people say it is - that's the reality of the world we live in.  Your world is a delusion."  (pg. 77)

"Anything's possible until somebody proves it isn't..."  (pg. 120)
    The primary drawback of The Genesis Machine is that it's too much science and not enough fiction.  There's a lot of technical explaining going on, but the plot is thin and frankly, feels like an afterthought.  The government tries some dirty tricks, but they're so easily circumvented that the tension never builds.  And after all that hard science, the titled Genesis Machine turns out to be quickly-made and not very "hard".

    The story has a nice moral to it, but the bad guys seem remarkably dense when it comes to trying to thwart our heroes' plans.  I'm thinking an Israeli commando team could've taken out the good guys in no time at all, and without raising a sweat.

    It's a pleasant change to read some science fiction that doesn't involve dragons, space aliens, and/or convenient wormholes.  But there still needs to be a compelling storyline, and The Genesis Machine  just didn't have it for me.  4½ Stars.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon - Larry Millett

1996; 315 pages.  Genre : Holmesian Mystery; Historical Fiction.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    James J. Hill is a very rich man.  He owns a railroad that services the logging industry in Minnesota, north of St. Paul.  To boot, he owns most of the surrounding forest.

    But someone who calls himself The Red Demon wants to ruin him.  By burning down his forest.  And his railroad.  And the entire town of Hinckley, where his business is centered.  And all the inhabitants therein.

    James J. Hill doesn't know who the Red Demon is, or why he's so mad at him.  But he can afford the very best detective in the world to figure it out.  Sherlock Holmes.  And his associate, Dr. Watson.

What's To Like...
    Larry Millett lives in the Twin Cities area, used to work for the St. Paul daily newspaper, and has researched its history and written extensively on it.  So the "historical" part of Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon is a masterful thing.  Bringing Holmes and Watson to Minnesota in the 1890's is a bit of a stretch, but via copious notes and an amusing fictional Introduction, Millett renders it plausible.

    The case itself is so-so.  Nothing as complex or mystifying as, say, The Case of the Speckled Band.  But it kept me guessing throughout and had a logical resolution.  The pacing is good, and the cast of suspects, if not engaging, are at least diverse and equally suspicious.

Kewlest New Word...
Porte Cochere : a carriage entrance leading thru a building or wall into an inner courtyard.

    "You've had a chance to read the letters, Watson.  Tell me, what do you think?"
    "They are the work of a demented mind," I said at once.  "It is my opinion that we are dealing with a madman!"
    "My dear Watson, your command of the obvious is, as always, nonpareil," Holmes said in a mocking manner which I did not find amusing.  "Of course, the person who would write such letters is quite mad.  But the world is full of madmen, and the problem before us is this: What do these letters tell us about this particular madman?"  (pg. 28)

    "Holmes. It is you!"
    "Who did you think it was?" Holmes replied with a smile.
    "The devil," I admitted groggily, for my mind was still somewhat tangled in the cobwebs of sleep.
    Holmes, who obviously took my remark as a compliment, laughed and said, "I have always thought the devil must be a most interesting fellow, with a fine criminal type of mind, and perhaps one day I shall meet him.  But I assure you, Watson, that when yout time comes, it will be St. Peter and not the Prince of Darkness who shall greet you in the great beyond."  (pg. 224)

"If the best evidence of your senses leads you to believe that a thing is impossible, then it probably is."  (pg. 75)
    There really was a James J. Hill; there really was a town called Hinckley; and it really was subject to a great fire in 1894 that claimed hundreds of lives.  Which is not a spoiler, since Millett mentions it in the Introduction.

    Arthur Conan Doyle can rest easy - he's still the master of writing Sherlock Holmes fiction.  Larry Millett won't knock him from his pedestal, but this is a decent effort nevertheless, and I've seen worse.  See here, for example.  We'll give SHatRD 7½ Stars, a bit more if you like Minnesota history.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Flashman and the Mountain of Light - George MacDonald Fraser

1990; 365 pages.  New Author? : No.   Book #9 in the Flashman series (but #2 chronologically, as it is told as a flashback).  Genre : Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    The situation in India in 1845 is tense.  South of the Sutlej River is British territory, with a large army that is unfortunately all spread out.  North of the Sutlej is Punjab, the realm of the Sikhs.  They have a standing army of about 80,000; well-trained, itching to pick a fight with the British, and more than willing to kill their own rulers on the slightest whim.

    The British need to send a diplomat to Punjab, who must also be a spy.  That man must speak the local language, be brave and self-confident, and above all be ...um... expendable.  Who better to send than Flashman?

What's To Like...
Flashman and the Mountain of Light (which refers to the Koh-i-Noor diamond) chronicles the events of the First Anglo-Sikh War.  There is treachery and butchery; political subtlety and bloody battles.  George MacDonald Fraser is meticulous in his research and details.  Some of the events seemed hard to believe, but a check at Wikipedia confirmed them.  Flashman is still Flashman - bedding every woman he meets, running from every danger that arises, and somehow ending up looking like a hero.

    The sex scenes are fewer-and-farther-between than in the other Flashman book I've read (reviewed here), and that's a plus.  My biggest issue remains the same though - the prolific use of the N-word.  I recognize it was a commonly used-term 150 years ago, but it isn't today, and it wasn't when Fraser wrote this series.  A skilled writer could have worked around this offensive term.

Kewlest New Word...
Titivation : a small, enhancing alteration made to something, especially to make oneself more attractive.

   "They have lost the spirit," says one know-all.  "Afghanistan was the death of them."
    "Afghanistan is everyone's death," says another.  "Didn't my uncle die at Jallalabad, peace be on him?"
    "In the British war?"
    "Nay, he was cook to a horse caravan, and a bazaar woman gave him a loathsome disease.  He had ointments, from a hakim (chemist), to no avail, for his nose fell off and he died, raving.  My aunt blamed the ointments.  Who knows, with an Afghan hakim?"
    "That is how we should slay the British!" cackles an ancient.  "Send the Maharani to infect them!"  (pg. 156)

    When I think of the number of men - and women - who have taken me at face value, and formed a high opinion of my character and abilities, it makes me tremble for my country's future.  I mean, if they can't spot me as a wrong 'un, who can they spot?  Still, it's pleasant to be well thought of, and has made my fortune, at the expense of some hellish perils...  (pg. 326)

"Most inconsiderate of me, but all's ill that ends ill..."  (pg. 192)
    You will enjoy FatMoL if you are a history buff, and don't mind political incorrectness.   Flashman is a charming scoundrel, and he seems to have picked up a couple redeeming qualities since Book #1.  The humor is piquant and Flashman's self-deprecation makes him a fine anti-hero.

    OTOH, an obscure foreign war may not be of great interest to a lot of readers, and since the action doesn't get started until around page 115, it may be a chore to many to stick with this book.  Nonetheless, if you do, it redeems itself nicely, and I managed to make my peace with the occasional offensive passages and enjoy the story.  6½ Stars.