Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner - Elizabeth George

    1999; 716 pages.  Genre : Police Procedural.  Book 10 (out of 17) of the Inspector Lynley series.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    In Derbyshire, at the Nine Sisters Henge (see book cover), the bodies of a pair of hikers are discovered.  Curiously, they were killed with different weapons and in somewhat different locations.  The young man died of multiple stab wounds, and within the circle of stones.  The young woman died from a blow to the head, about 100 yards outside the henge.

    Curiously, they didn't appear to know each other.  So, one killer or two?  Connected or not?  What are the motives, and where are the murder weapons?

What's To Like...
    In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner is a police procedural, and that's probably my favorite sub-genre of Crime Fiction.  The twist here is that there are three detectives, each strong-willed, and each with tunnel vision about his/her pet theory.  Egos clash, especially between Lynley and his former police partner, Barbara Havers.  I found this a bit overdone, but I suspect that's because I'm not reading the series in order.

    I like the setting - the moors of rural England.  Elizabeth George provides a handy map of the local area so you can find your way around.  The suspects and motives are varied and interesting; so are the cops.  It apparently is a lot easier to get a search warrant and rough up a suspect while interrogating him in the UK, compared to here.

    There is some clunkiness.  A critical piece of clothing is left in a hotel hallway, while a similar article is dumped in a trash bin.  The discovery of the former leads to the latter.  Why not just dump both in the tip?  But for the most part, the investigation unfolds logically.  Our heroes search for clues, run down false leads, and question suspects, all the while making slow but steady progress.

Kewlest New Word...
Rebarbative : repulsive, abhorrent, irritating.  (Rebarbative is the "R" word in the Abecedarian Insult, if you know what that is)

    "We're richly blessed, Katie," he said to his wife as she sat at the table where Bella was inserting a carrot stick into her sister's right nostril.  Sarah screamed in protest and startled PJ.  He turned from his mother's milk and began to wail.
    Kathleen shook her head wearily.  "It's all in the definition, I dare say."   (pg. 366)

    (H)e wasn't entirely unprepared for the sight of a uniformed constable seated outside the door of Vi Nevin's room.  He was, however, completely unprepared for the appearance of the orange-haired harpy in a crumpled pantsuit who was sitting next to the cop.  She leapt to her feet and came hurtling in Martin's direction the moment she saw him.
    She shrieked, "It's 'im, it's 'im, it's 'im!"  She flew at Martin like a starving hawk with a rabbit in sight, and she sank her talons into the front of his shirt and screeched, "I'll kill you.  Bastard.  Bastard!"  (pg. 534)

"I always like to end my day with a spot of murder."  (pg. 241)
    I think this was my first 700-page whodunit.  The challenge when writing such a tome of course, is in keeping the reader's attention.

    Elizabeth George is an American writer who sets her series in England, and the book is full of Britishisms.  She doles out the clues, the twists, the red herrings, and the wit bit-by-bit, and just when you're getting tired of that routine, she spices things up with some kinky sex practices.

    I can't quite call IPofPS a page-turner, but it did hold me sufficiently intrigued.  The story kept me guessing who did it and why; and the clues are there if you're astute enough to catch them. I wasn't. The resolution of the case did not feel arbitrary, and it was fun to follow the multiple investigations, especially when they became misdirected.

    It was a long read, but worthwhile.  7 Stars.  Add 1 star if you're reading the series in order.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Timepiece - Heather Albano

    2011; 307 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Time-Travel, Alt-History, Steampunk, ZombieMania.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Someone has sent Elizabeth Barton a very strange watch.  Instead of a single face, it has four, one of which even has moving pictures in it (which is astounding, given that this is 1815), and none of which keep the time.

    There's a beautiful fob attached to it, and it has two stems; one on the top, one on the side.  And if you press the top stem all the way down twice, then the side one, the most amazing thing happens...

What's To Like...
    Timepiece is an ambitious mixing of a gob of genres that nevertheless works smoothly.  Most of the settings are in 19th Century England, and the historical places and lifestyle had a convincing feel.  There was also a good understanding of the Battle of Waterloo.  Time-Travel is the featured genre (hence the title), and if I counted right, there are 10 chrono-hops to and from 6 locations.  Alt-History-wise, Heather Albano is not afraid to rewrite a timeline, and that's a delight for any reader of the genre.

    Coming up with believable Time-Travel rules and mechanisms is always a challenge (what happens if I go back in time and kill my parents before I was born?), but they are well-crafted here. The only clunky part was when the novel's self-imposed "you can't be in two places at the same time" rule was broken, but maybe the author painted herself into a corner, and we'll overlook this for the sake of an exciting, coherent storyline.

    The Steampunk parts (the constructs) were very good.  The "Wellies" didn't float my boat, but I'm not big on that genre.  Any novel that has French in it gets a thumbs-up from me, even if I did wince at "de le duc de Wellington".

Kewlest New Word...
Nuncheon : a light meal taken either mid-morning or mid-afternoon, usually consisting of bread, cheese, and beer.

    The pocket watch arrived on a day when nothing else was engaging Elizabeth's attention: no parties or social calls to prepare for or recover from, nothing but gardening or letter-writing to occupy a young lady's morning.  Or fancy-work, of course, but Elizabeth avoided needles and embroidery frames whenever she could.
    Truth be told, she did not much care for letter-writing either.  To her mother's despair, she had no liking at all for any occupation that required her to sit still.  (loc. 64)

    On the way back from Murchison's, she had spoken a little about her mother the opera singer, and William had heard enough to be fairly certain her plan for "after the war" had not been to settle down with Trevelyan but rather to make tracks for La Scala.
    Not that it mattered what the plan was.  She'd had one.  It was all wrong that people with future plans should die on battlefields.  Particularly when there were so many others who didn't care whether they lived or died.  (loc. 3921)

Kindle Details...
    I bought Timepiece for $0.99 at Amazon; which is still its price.  A sequel, Timekeeper, is in the works; due out late this summer.

Sand in the gears, William thought.  (loc. 4962)
    The ending is best described as adequate, but that seemed inherent due to the "sand in the gears" choice of plot resolution. Some felt it had a trite, "cliffhanger" ending, but I found it to be more like a teaser for the next book, which is fine.  The basic issue in Timepiece is dealing with the Wellies and the Constructs, and that is fully dealt with.

    The strong female lead character and the attention to historical detail reminded me of Mary Gentle's Ash series.  I very much enjoyed those books.  It's nice when the strong female lead is surrounded by also-strong males, not a bunch of wussies.

    Timepiece is a fine first-effort by a talented, up-and-coming writer.  If you're looking for a book that actually focuses on Time-Travel and Alternate History, and is not just a façade for a romance or a mystery, this tale's for you.  8 Stars.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Merde Actually - Stephen Clarke

    2005; 448 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #2 in the Merde series.  Genre : Fictional Anecdotal Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    There are many things in this world that Paul West doesn't understand.  The entire nation of France, for instance.  Also, women in general and girlfriends in particular.  This is critical because Paul is in the process of setting up an English Tea Shop.  In Paris, and with his French amie as his business partner.

    Will Paul attain financial success?  Will he find true love?  If he doesn't stop his bed-hopping ways, he's more likely to wind up in la merde than in l'amour.

What's To Like...
    Merde Actually is the sequel to Stephen Clarke's debut hit, A Year in the Merde.  I haven't read the latter, and that didn't seem a hindrance.  There are lots of funny parts, with an overall tone similar to the self-deprecating style of David Sedaris.  About 3/4 of the story takes place in France; the other 1/4 in England.  I've visited both countries, and the author nicely captures their essence.  Ask me sometime about my wife ordering ten cups of coffee in Chalons when what she wanted was one cup of de-caf.

    Since I took three years of French, I was delighted with the many French expressions sown throughout the book.  But you can enjoy MA even if you don't know anything in la langue Française; the author is careful to give a translation of any phrases that aren't obvious in meaning.

    There are some cuss words, and there is a ton of sex, so don't read this if you're a prude.  It's all done in a lighthearted style, and what would you expect from a book with "Merde" in its title?  The humor can get a bit repetitive, and the plot is sparse, not really getting going until close to the end.  I was entertained from start to finish, with plenty of smiling and chuckling; and that's all you can ask for from a book of this genre.

Kewlest New Word...
Smeggy : unsavory, horrible, foul-smelling, cheesy.  (a Britishism, I suspect)

    "Connasse!" he shouted.
    French insults are so wonderfully grammatical, I thought.  Even in the heat of a verbal battle you have to remember to change the rude word for a male idiot, 'connard', to the feminine form.  (pg. 12)

    Back then, I didn't understand something very important about sitting in a café in a non-touristy part of rural France.  The people aren't necessarily unfriendly.  It's just that they're so unused to strangers that they don't notice you.  Or if they do see you, they don't know what to do with you.  The barman knows what every one of his customers drinks at any time of the day, so the arrival of a non-regular doesn't compute.  Why is someone sitting in Marcel's seat when Marcel's been dead for three years?  (pg. 62-63)

"Never trust a philosopher.  Especially an existentialist."  (pg. 371)
    Stephen Clarke is a British writer that lives and works in France.  He self-published the first book in the Merde series, A Year In The Merde, on a lark, and watched as it became enormously popular in both France and England.

    I found Merde Actually in the $1 bargain bin at my local used-book store, bereft and forlorn.  As is true of a whole slew of other witty British writers - Robert Rankin, Tom Holt, Tom Sharpe, just to name a few - we Yanks have yet to discover Stephen Clarke.  More's the pity for our ignorance.

    7½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you're English or French.  Vive les auteurs Européens!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Tide Mill - Richard Herley

    2008; 352 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction.  Oerall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Life's been rough on young Ralf Grigg.  His father's carpentry business has failed, saddling the family with overwhelming debt, and rendering them FVT (Fishing Village Trash).  They are still freemen, but they're just one step above the lowly serfs.

    Ralf is content with his lot, but Fate throws his life a twist when he saves the (local) baron's son, Godric, from drowning in the saltings.  Despite the difference in their social status, the boys develop a keen friendship, which opens new doors for Ralf.  But not always for the better.

What's To Like...
    The Tide Mill is a fine piece of Historical Fiction, set along the south coast of England in the 1250's AD.  Richard Herley gives vivid and detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna, the homes and furnishings, and the daily lives of everyone from nobility  to serfs.  The segues from story to settings are smoother here than in the other two of the author's books I've read (reviewed here and here).

    Of course, the Fiction is equally important to Historical Fiction, and here the storyline holds its own quite well.  Ralf is gifted in both art and engineering, but Herley also makes him a Shakespearean tragi-hero, smitten with a girl he cannot have.

    There is action, there is drama, there are several romances, and there is political tension between the Church and the Crown.  The characters are deep and likeable, and I liked the ending.  Through it all, we follow the construction of the ingenious Tide Mill.  Tide mills really exist, although today they are obsolete.  The Wikipedia article on them, including a couple great pics, is here.

Kewlest New Word...
Immured : Enclosed or confined against one's will.

    A baron was a vassal of the King.  The King was a vassal of God.  The archbishops who had presided at his coronation derived their authority from the Pope.
    The King was sovereign, above all.  His court, his treasury, and his army were the visible symbols of his might; but the wealth and power of the Church, more shrewdly exercised, were no less.  The revenues of the Alincester diocese alone were rumoured to be greater than the King's(loc. 524)

    Last night Godric had professed himself fascinated.  He knew little more of mathematics than Ralf himself, whose prior experience had only been of the addition, subtraction, and simple geometry used in bench carpentry.  Linsell's knowledge derived from Master Hampden and the masons who had raised the Cathedral.  Having glimpsed its potential, Ralf now burned to have it for himself, and to go much further, to know what Diccon and Parfett knew.  Mathematics was like Latin, the future Latin, purer and more important, the language of engineering, and Ralf daily badgered his father for lessons.  (loc. 2137)

Kindle Details...
    The Tide Mills sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  Full disclosure : The author generously gifted me a copy of the book for my enjoyment and review.  Thank you, Richard Herley, sir!

"None of us is free.  Only God.  Only God is free."  (loc. 3107)
    For me, the overriding theme in The Tide Mill was that no one in medieval life was truly free.  Not the serfs, not the freemen, not the Baron and his family, not the priests, and not even the King and the Pope.  Everyone has a pre-defined role to play, and woe to anybody, great or small, who tries to shirk his duty or change the system.

    I am a History buff, so I thoroughly relished being immersed in 13th-century English life.  My Kindle's glossary contained most of the medieval words, and it also helped that Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series (set in England a century earlier) had already introduced me to a lot of these terms.  The design and construction of the tide mill was at times quite technical, but I think engineers would delight in it.

    8½ Stars.  It's nice to see that there still is some fine Historical Fiction being written.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I Am Number Four - Pittacus Lore

    2010; 440 pages.  Genre : Teen Fantasy.  Laurels : New York Times #1 Best Seller, Children's Chapter (7 weeks in a row).  New Author(s)? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

The wicked Mogadorians have destroyed every living thing on the planet Lorien.  Except for 9 "gifted" children, along with their guardians, who have fled to Earth, scattered, and gone into hiding while waiting for their special powers ("Legacies") to develop.

    But the Mogadorians are here as well, hunting down the Loriens in numerical order (don't ask).  Three have already been executed.  I am Number Four.

What's To Like...
    The prologue is riveting.  The climactic ending is over-the-top (which is fine) and 100 pages long.  In between things are kinda mundane, but at least they're fast-paced.  The book has some good messages for YA readers : don't bully; don't smoke; don't drink; don't use drugs (except for Loric pepper-upper pills); take care of the planet; be kind to animals.  The bully eventually turns into a good guy, which is a nice change-of-pace.  And there's a beagle named Bernie Kosar who most of the time steals the show.

    The writing is shallow, either because that's the skill level of Pittacus Lore, or because I Am Number Four is styled for YA readers.  We'll give the author the benefit of the doubt, and we'll ignore his mysterious bio.  Things move along swimmingly until your brain wakes up and says, "wait a minnit!"  Then there are problems - lots of them.  For instance:

a.) why can the kids only be killed in numerical order?  What kind of two-bit magic is that?

b.) how convenient that the planet Lorien was overflowing with diamonds, rubies, etc., and that the fleeing kids/guardians had the presence of mind to bring huge stashes with them to Earth, even as their planet was being blasted to smithereens.  Takes care of all the money problems.

c.) The healing stones only work when the injury was due to evil intent.  How amazing of the stone to instantly determine that!  How un-amazing that it can't fix ordinary injuries, like hitting your finger with a hammer.

d.) How prescient of Henri to teach Number 4 to function while completely engulfed in flames.  Right after learning that, he has to run into a burning house and rescue dogs and GF's.

    In the beginning we were a group of nine.
    Three are gone, dead.
    There are six of us left.
    They are hunting us, and they won't stop until they've killed us all.
    I am Number Four.
    I know that I am next.  (pg. 9)

    "We're not leaving."
    "Yes we are."
    "You can if you want, but I'll go live with Sam.  I'm not leaving."
    "This is not your decision to make."
    "It's not?  I thought I was the one being hunted.  I thought I was the one in danger.  You could walk away right now and the Mogadorians would never look for you.  You could live a nice, long, normal life.  You could do whatever you want.  I can't.  They will always be after me.  They will always be trying to find me and kill me.  I'm fifteen years old.  I'm not a kid anymore. It is my decision to make."
    He stares at me for a minute.  "That was a good speech, but it doesn't change anything.  Pack your stuff.  We're leaving."  (pg. 258)

Let them come.  There will be no more running.  (pg. 88)
    It has to be kept in mind who the Target Audience is for IA#4 - the younger end of YA readers, junior high-schoolers. The bulk of the story takes place in high school, with thrills like a hayride, getting one's driver's license, and taking Home-Ec with the girls.

    Paradoxically, Pittacus Lore chose to sprinkle a couple of cuss words into the dialogue.  I guess they figure tweeners hear that vocabulary every day at school.  OTOH, the hot and heavy and hormonal make-out scenes consist of kissing, cuddling, and copping a grope of the young girl's ...um... lower back.  Be still my lustful heart.

    They made a movie out of this, which I haven't seen.  I think that's a better platform for all the book's clichéd, mind-numbing, deux-ex-machinas.  (what's the plural of deux?  dea?  deo? deum?  god, I hate Latin.)

    6 Stars, assuming you're an adult.  Add 1 star if you can keep your brain asleep.  Add 2 stars if you're in grades 6-8, plus 1 more star if you prefer reading Superman comics to Lord Of The Flies.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Devil Town - M. Edward McNally

    2012; 290 pages.  Book #4 of The Norothian Cycle series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Epic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½/10.

    Turmoil flares across the Norothian continent.  The Old Dragons are manipulating, the Ayzants are assimilating, the Codians are consolidating, and in Devil Town (neé Larbonne) the Demons are deploying.

    Across the channel, in Martas, a new force arises - a pentad of Young Dragons.  They are powerful and ambitious; and cause everybody else to quake in their boots, cloven hooves, and/or scales.

    In order to survive, alliances must be forged.  But with whom?  No one is completely good and no one, not even the Devils, are completely evil.

What's To Like...
    Devil Town focuses on the complex political maneuvering by the various Norothian powers after the nation-shattering fighting in the first three books.  There is still plenty of action though, spread out evenly through the story, and commencing with a superb, scene-setting opening skirmish.

    Devil Town also catches the reader up on almost all the characters encountered thus far.  I counted 21 re-acquaintances, with 20 of them still breathing at the story's end.  Add to this 5 new ones, and you have a busy tale.  M. Edward McNally supplies some helpful back-story, but in truth, this is not a stand-alone novel.

    There are more scene-shifts than usual for this series (which I like), and a kewl Faustian deal that just reinforces why I find Balan to be so diabolically charming.  The pacing is crisp, and the ending, if not quite epic in scope, will have you checking the author's website to see how he's coming along on the next installment.

Kewlest New Word...
Imprimatur : an acceptance or guarantee by someone that something is of a good standard; a personal stamp of approval.

    She sighed too loud, and the man swung his weapon toward her, calling, "Halt!  Who goes there?"
    "It is I," Nesha-Tari said quietly.
    "I don't know anyone named Eye," the main (sic) said.  (loc. 2177)

        The legionnaires gripped the hilts of their swords though they did not bother to draw them as Zeb was unarmed.  Zeb shouted Tilda's name on the run, then for lack of a better option he tried a slide at the legionnaires' legs.  The old wooden floor was not exactly smooth, with some small cracks and irregularities to the fit of the planks.  Zeb caught a trouser leg, which ripped up to the knee as he went into a banging tumble and barrel roll that left him flat on his back in front (of) the legionnaires, staring down at him wide-eyed.
    "Really?" one of them asked.  "You want to try that again, fellow?"  (loc. 3096)

Kindle Details...
    Devil Town sells for $4.99 at Amazon, the same price as book 2, Death of a Kingdom, and book 3, The Wind from Miilark.  Book 1, The Sable City, is attractively priced at $3.99Full Disclosure : The author generously gifted me a copy of this book for my enjoyment and review.  Thank you, M. Edward McNally, sir!

"Loyalty and love must fade with time.  ... Coins can always take a polish."  (loc. 3295)
    The novel's title is both catchy and a bit misleading, since we pass through there only once and that's fairly early in the book.  Overall, Devil Town felt like an intermezzo between the national upheavals of the first three books, and what appear to be even grander clashes on the horizon.

    But this doesn't make it quiet or boring; it just means you have a chance to catch your breath, count noses, and attend to political details (some of them quite nasty) before another tidal wave of epic events comes crashimg ashore.

    8½ Stars.  An excellent series continues.  Subtract 1 star if you take it upon yourself to make this your first Norothian Cycle book.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Poland - James Michener

    1983; 616 pages.  Genre : Epic Historical Fiction.  Laurels : New York Times #1 Best Seller.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Three families.  7½ centuries.  There are the aristocratic Lubonskis, striving to preserve the power of the Polish magnates.  There are the Bukowskis, petty gentry.  Forever striving to move up the social/political ladder.  And there are the Buks.  Eternal peasants, trying mostly to keep from starving.

    The three clans are tied together.  They are bound by the land itself around the (fictional) village of Bukowo; by the need to resist the hordes of foreign invaders that come in from every direction, and most of all, by a deep-rooted love of the Polish nation.

What's To Like...
    Poland is actually nine separate stories, each from a trying time in Polish history.  The oldest one starts with the Tatars storming through ca. 1240 AD.  They are followed by Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Turks, Austrians, Nazis and Russians, all invaders, all more-or-less successful.  Throughout it all, Poland endures.

    The characters, who change from one story to the next, are deeply developed and complex.  They are always heroes, but rarely saints.  The Lubonskis and Bukowskis depend on peasants like the Buks to ride with them in defense of the nation, then afterwards often hang them for minor offenses.

    The nation of Poland is both internally and externally cursed.  It has no natural barriers (mountains, lakes, seas, etc.) to slow down the hordes of conquerors.  And its magnates fear the centralized power of a king, so they elect weak ones, usually foreigners, and allow him to have no standing national army.

    Michener pulls no punches.  He paints gruesome scenes, with the Nazi occupation being particularly harrowing.  But he also pens touching moments, and you will end up fervently pro-Polish, even if you have no such blood in your veins.

Kewlest New Word...
Orotund (adj.) : pompous; pretentious; bombastic.  Here, an "orotund name" (the "Teutonic Knights").

    (The Tatars) brought with them from the steppes no new ways of doing things, no inventions, no concepts which would revolutionize life within the lands they conquered.  And they took back with them no tangible artifacts which they could use to make their own life better: no process for weaving cloth or putting ideas into written words or building a better wooden plow.  They brought nothing and they took nothing.
    Yet in exactly this same year Crusaders from Europe were fighting in the Holy Land about Jerusalem, and from that experience they would bring back ideas and artifacts which would revolutionize Europe, and the Saracens among whom they lived and fought would borrow from them concepts innumerable.  It was Poland's grief that her visitors were Tatars and not Saracens, that her intercourse was not with cultivated Arabs but with explosive barbarians from the vast Asian deserts.  (pg. 55)

   Since the year 830 the men and women of the Buk line had belongd to other men and women of the Bukowski line, who in turn had been subservient to the men and women of the Lubonski line, who were subservient, by God, to no one, except that they had mismanaged things so sorely that they were now subservient to the Emperor Franz Josef, and you better keep that firmly in mind.  Things changed for the Lubonskis and to a lesser degree for the Bukowskis, but for the Buks they never changed.  (pg. 353)

 "A Pole is a man born with a sword in his right hand , a brick in his left.  When the battle is over, he starts to rebuild."  (pg. 149)
     James Michener started writing Poland in 1979, finished it in 1981, and it was published in 1983.  It coincided with the unimaginable rise of Lech Walesa's Solidarity Trade Unions, which reached the zenith of their vigor and membership in 1981, with 9½ million members.  Michener works this into his "present day" story, but without a resolution, since no one in 1981 could predict whether the Solidarity movement would be victorious, or whether Russian tanks would yet again brutally stamp out the flames of reform.

    Poland is an epic novel, masterfully written and carefully structured to keep you from getting bored.  At 600+ pages, it is not a quick read.  Ironically it is one of Michener's shorter novels.  Many of his books weigh in at 900-1,000 pages.  If you're looking for "pure" historical fiction and want to delve into some fascinating history. this book's for you.  8 Stars, and add two more if you happen to be Polish.