Monday, April 30, 2012

Madmen at the Tombs - Ilow Martin Roque

2012; 378 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Catholic Polemic.  Overall Rating : 3*/10.

    Jia Chen is going to Montreal.  Ostensibly, she will be working with the brilliant scientist, Dr. Lanning Balcourt.  But in truth, she is a spy for the Chinese government.  Ah, such intrigue!  It's a pity that her cover's been blown before she even sets foot in Canada.

What's To Like...
    The story takes place in 2165 AD, and Ilow Martin Roque does a nice job of creating a believable world set 1½ centuries in the future.  Most of the changes are technological.  Which, when you think about it, is also true of the present compared to 150 years in the past.  Global travel is faster, and there are some nifty techno-geeky gadgets for one's daily life.

   There are also sociological differences.  China now sits at the top of the economic, politicial, cultural, and technological pyramids, which is a pleasant change of pace.  The US doesn't even make it into the book.  The story opens in Hangzhou and Shanghai, China; which just happen to be the only two cities that I've visited there.  How kewl is that?!

    The storyline has a promising start.  There's a neat bit of brain surgery at 22% (Kindle).  Alas, just when you expect Madmen at the Tombs to kick it up a notch, it degenerates into a piece of Roman Catholic evangelism, and it's all downhill from there.

Kewlest New Word...
Encomium : a speech or piece of writing that bestows high praise on something or someone.

Kindle Details...
   I bought Madmen At The Tombs for $2.99 at Amazon.  It is also available in paperback for $15.33.  Amazon Prime members can read it for free, but frankly Amazon Prime seems like a royal rip-off to me.

When a necessary evil has lost its necessity, what are you left with?   (47%)
    MatT is in dire need of a good editor.   There is too much telling, and not enough showing.  There are run-on sentences and overly-descriptive paragraphs that serve no purpose.  There's too little action, and some of what is there seems unconnected to the storyline.  Even the boffo ending is diluted somewhat by Jia being unconscious when the shooting starts.  I've forgotten too much of my Mandarin to critique those passages, but the French ones are atrocious.  "Je n'est c'est pas"??  Ouch.

    All this is fixable.  What isn't is the motif of the book - Catholic doctrinism disguised as Science Fantasy.  We learn that abortion clinics promote Satanism, the evil ones use sex and drugs to further their nefarious plans, Science is a false god, cloning will herald in Armageddon, the Pope can speak and do no wrong, and China unfairly imposes their will on the local Catholic churches.  The only thing missing is the Sun revolving around the Earth.

    People who are tired of the Vatican always getting portrayed badly in books and movies (I'm thinking Angels and Demons here) might enjoy Madmen at the Tombs.  Everyone else, especially those looking for science fiction or action-adventure, should give it a pass.  3 Stars.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sky Coyote - Kage Baker

1999; 310 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #2 (of 9) in "The Company" series.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    It's 1699 AD.  Joseph is a Facilitator, an Immortal, a Time-Traveler, and a Cyborg.  Also he's been a dedicated agent for a 24th-century group called "The Company" for, oh, 10,000 years or so.

    His latest assignment is simple - persuade a village of the Chumash (a California Indian tribe) to abandon their settlement before the Spanish arrive and wipe them out.  Which will happen eventually.

    But there's a ulterior motive.  The Company wants the village - lock, stock, and pottery bowls (but not the people; just their DNA) to add to their cultural antiquities collection.

   To help him in his quest, Joseph will be surgically modified (there are certain advantages to being a cyborg) to look like Sky Coyote, the local trickster god.  The Chumash are overjoyed.  It's not every day a deity comes down and visits them.

What's To Like...
  It's been a while since I read the first book (reviewed here).  Sky Coyote seems a bit "lighter" than that one; with a lot less romance (yay!) and a lot more wit.  For those who haven't read Book 1, Kage Baker provides a brief-yet-adequate backstory near the beginning.  And the prologue - set in post-Mayan Guatemala, is a hoot.

    There really was a tribe of Indians called the Chumash, but Baker opts to imbue them with modern traits.  They have trade unions, they are into astrological fortune-telling, and they tend to speak like Valley Girls.  I assume the point is to spoof the absurdity that is modern California, but it falls flat.

    Joseph is the main character, and consequently gets fleshed out a lot more than in In The Garden of Iden.  But Mendoza is along for the quest too, and she's always a draw.

Kewlest New Word...
Epergne : a type of table centerpiece, typically with a bowl that holds fruit or flowers.

    "It was time for you to move on anyway," I told Mendoza consolingly.  "It was stuffy.  Decadent.  Nothing should be decadent and dull."
    "Your father was a Moorish groom and your mother performed circumcisions on soldiers," she informed me.
    "Hey, that's okay.  I know you're not really sore.  You're going to love it in California."
    "I won't be able to get a cocktail there for at least a hundred years," she brooded.  "And longer, for a Ghirardelli's hot fudge sundae."
    "Well, you hated parties, anyway."  (pg. 64)

    When a guy in a Cro-Magnon hunting party fell into a bear den, his friends would step away from the edge and wring their hands.  They'd compose sorrowful elegies about him afterward, or maybe horror stories about bears; but no way would they endanger themselves to get him out.  When a guy from a Neanderthal tribe fell into a den, though, his friends wouldn't even stop to think: they'd jump right in after him and lay about them with their fists, if they had nothing else, until the bears stopped biting or their friend managed to scramble out.
    Of course, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that eventually there were a lot fewer Neanderthals than Cro-Magnons...  (pg. 189-190)

We are the bright ascending bubbles in the black wine of mortality.  (pg. 50)
    Sky Coyote has humor, alt-history, and some incisive social commentary.  Alas, it has zero tension, and very little action.  Joseph carries out his task (this is easy when the natives think you're a god) without any delays or hitches.

    I suspect Kage Bakers's purpose in penning Sky Coyote was to advance the bigger tale.  We are introduced to several new cyborg operatives, and the first seeds of doubt about The Company's motives/benevolence are planted in Joseph's brain circuits.

    This might pay off down the line, but for now, it would've been nice to have a more compelling storyline.  The Chinigchinix might have posed more of a menace, the Chumash might have balked at moving, and/or the Spanish might have shown up ahead of schedule.  Instead, it's simply Metro - Boulot- Dodo6 Stars, cuz it's kinda meh, but it cooda been a lot worse.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Fact. Fact. Bullsh*t! - Neil Patrick Stewart

2011; 354 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Trivia.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Do you like Trivial Pursuit?  Is there something appealing about cluttering up your mind with obscure bits of information?  More importantly, can you tell a true statement from a bunch of baloney?

    If you answered 'yes' to these three questions, then you will probably enjoy Fact. Fact.  Bullsh*t!

What's To Like...
   Neil Patrick Stewart uses a kewl template to present the trivia :  three assertions; two of which are factual, the third of which is bullsh*t.  The phony answers are well-crafted.  I kept looking for a pattern that would give them away, and didn't find any.

    There are seven chapters : Animals, Pop Culture, Food, Dead People ("History"), Science, Sports & Games, and Miscellaneous.  Using chapters lends a nice order to the book.  I liked it better than just random entries.  They were just the right length, as was the book as a whole.

    The writing is witty; the author usually adds some more bits of trivia while giving you the answer.  And there's a couple pictures to break up the monotony of the text.

Excerpt... (a sample question; spot the BS; answer in comments)
1. Expressions such as "LOL" (an acronym for "laughing out loud") has (sic) been proven to be beneficial for e-communication: A study at the University of Tasmania found that using Internet shorthand is twice as efficient for both sender and reader.

2. LOL is an airport in Nevada.  Lol is a place in France.  Lolol is a town in Chile.  "Lol" Tolhurst was the first drummer for the English band The Cure.

3. The French equivelent of "LOL" is "MDR."  Coincidentally, lol is a real word in both Welsh and Dutch, meaning "nonsense" and "fun," respectively.

Kindle Details...
    I got the book as a limited-time free-download at Amazon.  It is now selling for $8.93, and is #4/#5 in various "paid" categories there.  It's also available as a paperback for $11.16

Everyone's an Expert...
   There are a few typos and errors.  The Fact/Bullsh*t answer designations on the Marie Curie question were reversed.  And the Thomas Jefferson one was both wrong and spurious.  It almost seemed like it was a red herring, but I can't see a purpose for that.

   The only suggestion I can make is for the author to list his sources.  But, instead of at the rear of the book, how about online somewhere?  It would be a convenient resource.  Most of us, of course, wouldn't use it.  But the nit-pickers could have a field day.

    8 StarsFact. Fact. Bullsh*t! is a fun, light, easy-to-read book.  I read it as I would an anthology - a few nibbles at a time. It never got tedious.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Humans - Donald Westlake

1992; 355 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Apocalyptic Fiction.  Rating : 8½*/10.

    The end of the world is at hand; God has decreed it.  And to carry it out, He's summoned one of his angels, Ananayel.  Like any angel (except for those who fell with Lucifer, and we don't talk about them), Ananayel is a faithful servant, eager and resolved to do His will.

    The plan is clear, at least to Ananayel.  It's just a matter of selecting a team of humans to carry it out, since the Man Upstairs has ordained that supernatural means are not to be used.  Ah, but if it's God's plan, then we can expect the Arch-Fiend and his minions to oppose it.  Which means, funnily enough, that they will be trying to save the world.

What's To Like...
    Ananayel's team is scattered around the globe and have one thing in common - the world has royally dumped on them all.  There's a Kenyan prostitute who has AIDS; a Russian firefighter dying from Chernobyl radiation; a Chinese democracy activist forced into hiding and running from the authorities; a washed-up Brazilian singer now futilely trying to save the rainforest; and an American ex-con petty thief whose only future is to get caught yet again and sent back to jail.

    Ananayel makes for a fascinating study as he interacts with his team and painstakingly tries to herd them towards New York.  He's a shape-shifter and can summon objects (such as a wad of cash or a car), but he is limited by having to make everything appear to be a natural occurrence.  It's fun to watch his "shepherding" as he endeavors to carry out his plan.

Kewlest New Word...
Bruit (v.) : to spread (a rumor or some news) around.

    "You'll have your day in court, Kwan.  That's the name, right?  Li Kwan?  Your last name's Kwan?"
    "My family name is Li," Kwan answered.  My given name is Kwan."
    "Oh."  The man frowned some more at the papers.  "They got it backward here."
    "Li Kwan.  That's correct."
    The man smiled in sudden understanding.  "I get it!  You do it backward!  Is that a Chinese thing, or is it just you?"  (pg. 212)

    Why were they so cheerful?  By now, bitterness and sorrow should have made those five much more silent and introspective.  It must be their companionship that was raising their spirits, but unfortunately I couldn't give them a properly disheartening solitude; they had to work together.  Would they do the right thing when the time came?  Yes, they would, they would, there was no real question.  I would turn the screw until they did what I wanted.  Of their free will, of course.  (pg. 273)

Don't be afraid, you wretched vermin.  We will save you.  (pg. 117)
    The underlying theme in Humans is Free Will.  Humans theoretically have it, but Ananayel deftly maneuvers them towards his desired goal.  Angels theoretically don't have it, but unforseen counterplans call for improvisation.  And spending time in the world of humans can't help but have unscripted consequences.

    Donald Westlake's primary genre is Crime, not apocalyptic fiction.  He puts out both serious novels and the captivating and hilarous Dortmunder series.  By penning Humans, he demonstrates that a gifted author can excel in any genre.  8½ Stars.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Right Ho, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

1934; 234 pages.  Genre : Humor; Classical Fiction.  New Author? : no.  Overall Rating : 7½*10.

    Bertie Wooster has a problem.  Aunt Dahlia wants him to hand out prizes to the little nippers at the upcoming Market Snodsbury Grammar School awards ceremony, and he finds the prospect frightful.

    But Bertie is also a problem-solver.  He finagles shy, newt-obsessed chum, Gussie Fink-Nottle to go visit Aunt Dahlia at her home at Brinkley Court; then coaxes her into choosing Gussie instead.

    Unfortunately, Bertie's solutions are always worse than the original problems.  Two budding romances at Brinkley Court are rapidly ruined, as is Aunt Dahlia's ploy to get her husband to cough up money for propping up her failing newspaper.

    And everyone is blaming Bertie.  There's only one thing for him to do.  Journey to Brinkley Court and solve all those problems.

What's To Like...
    Right Ho, Jeeves has the standard P.G. Wodehouse template.  It starts with a madcap escapade that quickly spins off more sideplots.  Everything keeps getting more out-of-control, and at 25 pages to go, you wonder how Wodehouse is going to tie it all up.  The twist here is that Jeeves (Bertie's valet) is forbidden to meddle in any of this, and it is Jeeves who normally wins the day.

    RH,J is told in the first-person by Bertie, and his skewed rationalizations are what drive the humor.  The wit is good, the pacing is great, and if you're already a fan of the series, you'll find a lot of old friends here.

Kewlest New Word...
    C3 : an adj. meaning inferior or worthless (as compared to "A1").

    "If you knew Brinkley Court, you would not ask that question.  In those romantic surroundings you can't miss.  Great lovers through the ages have fixed up the preliminaries at Brinkley.  The place is simply ill with atmosphere.  You will stroll with the girl in the shady walks.  You will sit with her on the shady lawns.  You will row on the lake with her.  And gradually you will find yourself working up to a point where -"
    "By Jove, I believe you're right!"
    "Of course, I'm right.  I've got engaged three times at Brinkley."   (pg. 38; Kindle 15%)

    "Angela," I said, and if my voice was stern, well, whose wouldn't have been, "this is all perfect drivel."
    She seemed to come out of a reverie.  She looked at me inquiringly.
    "I'm sorry, Bertie, I didn't hear.  What were you talking drivel about?"
    "I was not talking drivel."
    "Oh, sorry, I thought you said you were."
    "Is it likely that I would come out here in order to talk drivel?"
    "Very likely."  (pg. 175; Kindle 76%)

Kindle Details...
    This is a free download at both Amazon and my local library.  And since it is now "public domain" it should stay free and always be available.

"Bertie, do you read Tennyson?"  "Not if I can help."  (pg. 220)
    This was my fourth Jeeves book, and I enjoyed it despite it following the same plot structure as the other three.  Mayhem, more mayhem, even more mayhem, Jeeves saves the day - with dry, British humor that'll make you chuckle flowing throughout.

   We'll give Right Ho, Jeeves 7½ Stars, mostly cuz there's nothing new here.  But who cares when the pattern is good and the writing  is Wodehousian witty.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Duma Key - Stephen King

2008; 609 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Contemporary Horror.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Edgar Freemantle is a broken man.  A construction site accident took away one of his arms, crushed a leg, and scrambled up the insides of his brain.  His wife has divorced him, and he's contemplating suicide.

    At his therapist's suggestion, he's moved from Minnesota to a small island just off the west coast of Florida ("Duma Key"), and has taken up drawing and painting.  Seascapes mostly, cuz that's what he sees out his upstairs window.

    Edgar discovers he has a flair for painting.  His works are moving.  And powerful.  In fact, they're becoming too powerful.

What's To Like...
    Duma Key opens as if it's going to be a straight-up person-finding-himself drama.  Then the tension creeps in, with Stephen King oh-so-gradually ramping it up a notch with each chapter.  The drama segues into mystery; the mystery segues into horror.  And in case the tension-increase is too subtle for you, he puts a "hook" at the end of almost every section.

    The characters are fascinating, complex, and develop nicely as the story progresses.  Wireman is a hoot.  So is Elizabeth Eastlake.  There are unexpected twists and an exciting and satisfying ending.  No "to be continued" hogwash here.

Kewlest New Word...
Expatiate : to speak or write at length or in detail.

    What I remember most clearly about that visit is how embarrassed and ill-at-ease Tom seemed.
    I offered him a beer and he took me up on it.  When I came back from the kitchen, he was looking at a pen-and-ink I'd done - three palm trees silhouetted against an expanse of water, a bit of screened-in porch jutting into the left foreground.  "This is pretty good," he said.  "You do this?"
    "Nah, the elves.  They come in the night.  Cobble my shoes, draw the occasional picture."  (pg. 17)

    I smiled.  I tried to put the champagne bottle back and missed the bucket.  Hell, I missed the table.  The bottle hit the carpet and rolled.  Once the Daughter of the Godfather had been a child, holding out her picture of a smiling horse for a photographer's camera, the photographer probably some jazzy guy wearing a straw hat and arm garters.  Then she had been an old woman jittering away the last of her life in a wheelchair while her snood came loose and flailed from one final hairpin under the fluorescent lights of an art gallery office.  And the time in between?  It probably seemed like no more than a nod or a wave of the hand to the clear blue sky.  In the end we all go smash to the floor.  (pg. 405)

"Abyssus abyssum invocat."  "Hell invokes Hell."  (pg. 590)
    Stephen King has proven over and over that he's a masterful story-teller, and here he delivers yet again.  Think it's easy?  Consider this.  He takes 600 pages to tell you about a geezer that paints beachfront sunsets.  And somehow turns that into a horror story.  And keeps you ravenously turning the pages the whole way.  Do you think any other author could pull that off?

    9 Stars.  Yeah, a good editor could've shortened Duma Key by 150 pages or so.  But telling Stephen King to be short-winded is like telling Allen Ginsberg to keep it clean.  It might be possible, but why would you want to?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dead Man's Ransom - Ellis Peters

1984; 275 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #9 in the Brother Cadfael series.  Genres : Murder-Mystery; Cozy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    A recent border skirmish (Shrewsbury lies only a few miles from the border with Wales) has resulted in prisoners being taken by both sides.  The local sheriff, Gilbert Prestcote, has been captured by the Welsh.  And Elis, a young lad from a noble Welsh clan, has fallen into English hands.

    Brother Cadfael is sent across the border to propose a prisoner swap.  It is accepted, honorably; "a life for a life" so to speak.  Unfortunately, in the course of the exchange, one of the prisoners is murdered.  And "a life for a corpse" just doesn't quite cut it.

What's To Like...
    Dead Man's Ransom stays true to Ellis Peters' standard formula for a Brother Cadfael tale.  A cozy whodunit is intertwined with a romance.  Love becomes strained due to the crime; but wins out in the end after the case is solved.

    There's nothing wrong with that, provided the murder-mystery is well-crafted.  And once again Ms. Peters comes through.  There are enticing clues, red herrings, and a half-dozen suspects, all equally suspicious.  If you're alert enough, you can solve the case alongside Brother Cadfael, but I didn't.

    There are a few non-typical things about this particular book in the series (this is my fifth one).  First, Brother Cadfael journeys further out than usual - going twice into Wales itself (there's a useful map to help you keep track of who's heading where).  Second, there are actually two romances in the story.  And third, there is a key battle, involving hundreds of fighters, that Ellis Peters somehow handles "cozily".

Kewlest New Word...
Brychan : a woolen quilt or comforter.

    Those who go forth to the battle never return without holes in their ranks, like gaping wounds.  Pity of all pities that those who lead never learn, and the few wise men among those who follow never quite avail to teach.  But faith given and allegiance pledged are stronger than fear, thought Cadfael, and that, perhaps, is virtue, even  in the teeth of death.  Death, after all, is the common expectation from birth.  Neither heroes nor cowards can escape it.  (pg. 4)

    "Which of us," said Owain sombrely, "has never been guilty of some unworthiness that sorts very ill with what our friends know of us?  Even with what we know, or think we know of ourselves!  I would not rule out any man from being capable once in his life of a gross infamy."  (pg. 195)

"The wisest man in his cups may step too large and fall on his face."  (pg. 157)
    This is vintage Ellis Peters.  It's a combination of a masterful murder-mystery, some heartwarming romance, and a brilliant piece of historical fiction.  There's also a smattering of humor (Brother Cadfael chafes at the thought that he might be old at the age of 61), and a thoughtful look at dementia through 12th-century eyes.

    Dead Man's Ransom may be formulaic, but that's not a problem when the template is great.  8½ Stars.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Strega Muirne - William Deen

2011; <100 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fantasy; Horror.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Italy.  760 AD (give or take a decade).  The Dark Ages are in full swing, and for Strega Muirne, a follower of "the old ways", it is a dangerous time.  Some in the Roman Catholic church have adopted a "Convert or Die" attitude, and she has been driven out of the city of Orvieto and into a cave.

    But worse things are about to happen, and via an unexpected source.

What's To Like...
    Strega Muirne is a novella, which means it would only be around 60-100 pages in length if it was in a printed book.  That shortness doesn't allow for much character depth/development.  The focus is on the core issue - how to stay true to your god(s) in the face of open persecution.  This is nicely done - the black-hats aren't all on one side or the other (ditto for the white-hats), and the story moves at a nice clip.

    The first half of the Strega Muirne is historical fiction.  Paganism certainly existed back then, (the wiki link to Stegheria is here) and the Christian church was aggressively stamping out all rival religions.  William Deen presents a plausible hypothesis - that 8th-Century stegheria is a holdover of the worshipping of the "classical" Roman gods and goddesses.

    The second half veers into the supernatural, presumably setting the tone for the rest of the series.  The ending is really nothing more than a teaser for the next novella, Stregone Alberich, which is as yet unpublished.

    "I have dealt with your kind before.  Your beliefs are of the Devil and I will see them destroyed!"  In God's name he feared nothing and no one.  Except in this case.  The possibility a female conjurer was in league with the Devil frightened him.  For a moment, his faith faltered.  (3% Kindle)

    "They provided no herbs, no medicine?"  The ongoing discovery of the Christian ways and methods continued to confound Muirne.  She struggled to understand their approach, or lack thereof, when providing care to the sick.
    "No, Strega Muirne," the woman said.
    Nothing!  They offer nothing!  A few prayers then they trace a cross in the air and walk away.  (36% Kindle)

Kindle Details...
    I got this as a free download, which was a limited-time offer at Amazon.  It is now selling for $0.99.  I don't think it's available thru any of my local libraries.

"How could we let these pompous bastards gain authority over us?"  (15% Kindle)
    I enjoyed the first half of the book, because I wanted to see how Mr. Deen would handle what is historically "the losing side" of this religious struggle.  Three ways come to mind.

   First, there is the noble vanquished route as Morgan Llywelyn took in her "Druid" duology  (see here and here).  Second, you can delve into Alternate History, a la S.M. Stirling or Harry Turtledove.  And third, you can step into the horror genre, which of course is popular right now.

    The latter appears to be the path chosen, but I personally don't read much Horror.  Plus, I prefer novels to novellas.  There's a wonderful setting in Strega Muirne, as well as a challenging and fascinating conflict to explore.  Alas, I fear the inherent limitations of novellas (novellae?) will preclude the author from giving this the depth and complexity it deserves.

    6 Stars. although you might rate it higher it you like the Undead stomping through the plotline.