Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Darling Brenda - Richard Herley

    2012; 281 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Romance.  Overall Rating :  8*/10.

     It’s 1955, it’s London, and Brenda Vale is looking for a rich young man to marry.  She has found romance, but unfortunately for her plans, it is in the form of a German girl named Grete.  Can she have her cake and eat it too?

     Nigel Dodd is young and will eventually be rich.  But he still lives at home with his wealthy parents, so his inheritance is a long way off.  And he is happily married.  Well, at least he’s content with it.  So he is hardly a suitable target for Brenda.

     But Fate is about to turn Nigel’s life upside-down.

What’s To Like…
    There is drama; there is intrigue; and there is subtle humor.  Yet at its core, Darling Brenda is a love story.  There’s not a lot of action, but Richard Herley laces the plotline with twists and gives you three characters that you will genuinely care for and worry about.  Brenda is jaded; Grete is stoically world-wise; and Nigel has the cluelessness of a Bernie Wooster without a Jeeves to look after him.  They’re all in love (although each defines it a bit differently), and you will find yourself pulling for each one.

    The book is written in “British”, and that’s always a literary treat.  There are some deep insights about same-sex relationships in the 1950’s.  It was not a good time to be (forgive the anachronism) “gay”.  You didn’t have a lot of options other than the closet.

     For me, the biggest delight about Darling Brenda  is the author’s skill in giving lush, detailed descriptions of 1950’s England. You can "sit" on the porch of the Dodd estate, and “see” the lake, the cars, and the surrounding countryside.  At one point, Herley spends a dozen sentences telling you about a pair of candlesticks that have no bearing on the story.  I ate it up.  

    Some of the nuances of the intrigue eluded me, but that’s neither here nor there.  The bad guys want money; Nigel doesn’t have it.  The rationale for why they think Nigel should pay is not important.  The consequences of failing to pay are.  The ending felt a little forced, yet it was both logical and satisfying.

Kewlest New Word...
    Doolally : Feeble-minded or deranged (Britishism.  Is that a kewl word or what?!)
    Brenda began to wonder if she had made a mistake.  This would deflect her yet further from her ambition: to find and marry some pliable man with money.  So far she had met plenty of men, but few had been pliable, and even fewer had any money.  She liked going to bed with them, perhaps too well; but always there was something else, something better, out there, waiting for her, just as Grete had been waiting today.  (loc. 38)

    "I can't sign this," Nigel said.
    "Why not?"
    "Apart from everything else, it's not even grammatical.  Look.  'To sincerely apologise'.  Unforced split infinitive.  And why a capital letter for 'Client' or 'Purchasers' or 'Property'?  And this is pleonastic.  'Very sorry when there's a regrettable lapse'.  Besides all which, I'd rather hang myself than creep to a man like that."  (loc.1296)

Kindle Details...
    Darling Brenda is $3.99 at Amazon.  Richard Herley's books range from that price all the way down to free (The Stone Arrow), and so far I've enjoyed them all.
"O Nigel, you are a chump."  (loc. 3088)
    I’ll be honest; reading Romance novels is not my shtick.  But this is not some sappy Harlequin lust story (*) ; it is a powerful piece of historical drama.  And I confess that Darling Brenda was a page-turner for me.  As much for the vivid scenes of England as for finding out how both the business and the love tangles were going to be resolved.

    8 Stars.  Add another star if you actually like to read Romance.

(*) : That genre is left to my wife.  I read a line from the book she’s currently reading last night.  It went something like this : “His powerful tongue split her lips like a knife.”  Argh.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Wolves of the Calla - Stephen King

    2003; 925 freakin' pages.  Book 5 of “The Dark Tower” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating :  8*/10.

    The wolves are coming!  Riding horses and forcibly taking one of every set of twins in Calla Bryn Sturgis.  And when they’re done with their hostages, they return the kids to the farming town as drooling idiots.

    Since almost all births in Calla Bryn Sturgis are sets of twins, this is a dire situation.  As Luck would have it (or is it Fate?) Roland and his ka-tet are passing nearby.  Perhaps they can be persuaded to fight for the farmers.  Perhaps this time, no children have to be sacrificed.

 What’s To Like…
    As always, Stephen King spins a gripping story, filled with twists, details, and fascinating new characters.  Here, our four gunslingers become Magnificent Seven-type stand-ins, organizing the defense of the town, and training the farmers (and their wives) to show some spine.  But it’s also an opportunity for Roland’s apprentice gunslingers to do some growing.

    There are a ton of threads.  Some – such as who are the wolves, why do they only take one of the twins, and why do they lobotomize them – are answered in the story.  Some – such as Susannah getting another personality and what 19 or 99 portend – are left dangling.  Some – such as muffin balls and the commala – are just there for the reader’s enjoyment.

    The setting hops back and forth from the New York City of our world to Calla Bryn Sturgis of Roland’s.  It works smoothly.  The story builds to an exciting and satisfying climax.  Yeah, it’s also a cliffhanger ending, but that’s par for the Stephen King course in this series.

Kewlest New Word…
Anomie : A lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group.
    (T)ime had likewise begun to soften.  There were days Eddie could have sworn were forty hours long, some of them followed by nights (like the one on which Roland had taken them to Mejis) that seemed even longer.  Then there would come an afternoon when it seemed you could almost see darkness bloom as night rushed over the horizon to meet you.  Eddie wondered if time had gotten lost.  (pgs. 45-6)
    Once before, the gunslinger had stood on this stage and danced the commala and won their hearts.  Did Tian doubt that Roland would win their hearts again?  In truth, Tian did not.  What he was afraid of in his heart was that this time it would be a death-dance instead of a life-dance.  Because death was what this man and his friends were about; it was their bread and wine.  It was the sherbet they took to clear their palates when the meal was done.  (pg. 784)

"(F)irst the smiles, then the lies.  Last comes gunfire."  (pg. 768)
      If Wizard and Glass (Book IV) was a humongous back-story, Wolves of The Calla (Book V) is an even longer side-story.  And as good of a tale as this is, you have to ask yourself why Roland and his ka-tet  go off on an adventurous tangent for a whole month while the fate of the Dark Tower (and the world) hangs in the balance.  Entertaining it is.  Logical it ain’t.
    I enjoyed Wolves of The Calla.  It kept my attention for 925 pages, and that’s a testimony to Stephen King’s storytelling skills.  But Books 6 and 7 are not on my TBR shelf, and I’m thinking it’s time for me to part ways with this series.  8 Stars if you read it as a stand-alone.  Subtract 2 stars if you were expecting to see any progress in the Great Quest.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Alt Hist Issue 2 - edited by Mark Lord

    2011; 90 pages.  New Author(s)? : Yes.  Genre : Anthology; Hist. Twist.  Full Title : Alt Hist Issue 2 : The Magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Eight short stories, plus three book reviews.  What ties them together are their historical settings, ranging in time from ancient Egypt to World War 1.  The stories vary in length, in sub-genre, and frankly in quality.  But that is to be expected in any anthology.

    The usual Hammy's Books format doesn't work well for compilations, so instead...

The Stories & Sub-Genres...
(1) Long Nights in Languedoc - Horror, Humor
(2) The Apollo Mission - Alt. History
(3) Son of Flanders - Whodunit
(4) In Cappadocia - Inner Terror
(5) The Orchid Hunters - Thriller
(6) Death in Theatre - Internal Psych
(7) The Scarab of Thutmose - Fantasy, Intrigue
(8) The Watchmaker of Filigree Street - Fantasy

   All the tales qualify as Historical Fiction.  For me, (1), (2), (5), and (7) were the best of the bunch.  YMMV.

Kewlest New Word...
Doxy : a mistress or lover (pejorative)

    "Sir Richard."  Tobias tried not to raise his voice.  Never show a wild beast fear, his grandfather had said.  Of course, the old codger died trampled by a boar, so maybe his wasn't the best advice.
    (...) "Look at them," Tobias said, still backing away.  "They're huge."
    "All the more glory for us when we defeat them."  Sir Richard held out a hand, blocking Tobias's retreat.  "Show some spine."
    "They'll show my spine if I stick around.  Most of my ribs, too."  (loc. 298)

    "Ooh that feels almost as good as dancing."  Seti leaned back in his ivory chair.  "I told you before I'm fed up with my duties.  What do I care about snails in the Nile that are wrecking the fishing industry?  I just want to dance like a lovely maiden and enjoy life."  Springing up he spread his arms and twirled like a top, his kilt of silk flying up around his slender thighs.
    "Indeed you have a gift for the Goddess Hathor," Amenhotep said diplomatically.  "Our lady of pleasure and drunkenness loves you."  (loc. 1444)

Kindle Details...
    Issue 2 was, and still is, a free download at Amazon.  Issues 1, 3, and 4 range in price from $3.99 to $6.99 Issue 4 came out in late May, and it looks like the magazine is published every six months or so.  So the next issue will probably come out in October/November.

"Nobody should drink beer this morning and tumble into the Nile."  (loc. 1632)
    At 90 pages, Alt Hist Issue 2 is a very short book, made even worse by the fact that there are three book reviews at the end that you probably won't care about.  Since it's free, I have no quibble, but I don't think I'd pay several dollars for the other, equally-short issues.

    There is very little Alt History.  Yeah, I know, read the fine print in the subtitle, Hammy.  All the stories are grounded in Historical Fiction, and varying the sub-genres helped keep things interesting.  Therefore, I dub a selection of stories like this to be Historical Twists, which I'll shorten to Hist Twist for poetic reasons.

    If you like to read History, and you don't mind it blended with other genres, you will find this a worthwhile book.  If your taste is for "pure" Alt-History, however, you should probably give it a pass.

     It's always hard to rate an Anthology, since you know going in that some of the stories will resonate with you more than others.  We'll give this 6 Stars, cuz it's way too short, but there is some good stuff here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Earth Goddess - Richard Herley

    1984; 256 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 3 of The Pagans trilogy.  Genre : Historical Adventure.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Time marches on.  The Hunter-Gatherer tribes are no more.  Paoul, Tagart's adopted son, is taken in by the "civilized" people and is destined for the Red Priesthood.

    The Hunter-Gatherers would be appalled.  The farming and mining communities are dangerous enemies; the Flint Lord's soldiers even more so.   But the Red Priests, with their tattooed 5-pointed stars on the left hands, are said by Tagart to be the most-feared of all.  Time marches on.

What's To Like...
    The Earth Goddess has a different tone than the first two books of this series (reviewed here and here).  The focus is now on Religion, so not surprisingly, there is a lot less fighting and killing.  Indeed, after an initial spate of it, most of the subsequent bloodshed occurs offscreen.

    Richard Herley sets this third book about 8 years after Book 2.  Tagart, Fodich, and Lord Hewzane serve as a bridge between the two novels.  Rian and Ika also have lesser roles.  For the most part, we are treated to a new cast of characters, and new lands to explore.  Paoul, the hero, is not of Tagart's bloodline, and that's a nice change-of-pace.  Like Tagart, he has his flaws.

    Despite the paucity of gore, TEG is not a boring read.  The writing is strong, and the pace, with one exception (the details of the Red Priests' dogma), moves along at a nice clip.   The major characters are well-developed (maybe that's the upside to less bloodshed), and there are some deep insights about Religion in this story that are still applicable today.

    The ending seemed a bit hurried to me, but it had some neat twists and there is a kewl epilogue.  All the major plotlines (Paoul's heritage, religion, and love issues; plus Hothen's lot) are tied up,  I like this better than some other neverending series I've read (WoT, GRRM).

Kewlest New Word...
Stultifying : causing to appear foolish or absurd.

    "I ... I want to know why I have been brought here.  Am I ... am I to be sacrificed?"
    The old priest looked amused.  "What gives you that idea?"
    "I once heard someone say..."
    "Say what?"
    "That children were sacrificed to the Earth Mother.  By the red priests.  By you."
    "I'm sorry to disappoint you.  Here we cut no throats at all."  (loc. 761)

    "Pagans", they were called; but who were the real heathens, the criminals who abused the greatest faculty of man?  There could be no going back to the forests.  It was too late for that.  The marvels of Tagart's age had gone.  Man was coming to another age, not of decay, as the Order so cynically had it, but of potential unfulfilled.  It never could be fulfilled if he were deprived of the single faculty on which the world's welfare hinged, the faculty indivisible from that which Paoul loved and worshipped most in Yseld: the human spirit.  (loc. 3065)

Kindle Details...
  I bought The Earth Goddess for $2.99 at Amazon.  Book 2, The Flint Lord, is also $2.99.  Book 1, The Stone Arrow, is free for the downloading.  You really can't ask for a better deal than that.

"Above all, remember Gauhm."  (loc. 1019)
    For me, the overlying theme throughout this trilogy was the merits of civilization (as we define it) versus the merits of those who we would call savages/pagans.  The first book examines farming vs. hunting as a lifestyle.  In Book 2, the focus is on the two sides' abilities in warfare.  And here, the topic is an organized religion vs. nature worship.

    In each case, the pagans acquit themselves admirably.  Yet their victories are bittersweet and Pyrrhic.  Hunter-Gatherers may survive a single encounter, but in the long run, the Agrarian way of life always wins out.

    I enjoyed The Earth Goddess, in part bacause the other reviews at Amazon alerted me to the change in tone.  For that matter, I enjoyed the trilogy as a whole.  7½ Stars for TEG; 8 Stars for the series.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Philosophical Strangler - Eric Flint

    2001; 432 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Book #1 in the Joe's World series.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Make way for the foremost strangulations-for-hire enterprise in New Sfinctr : the brains & brawn duo of Ignace and Greyboar.  The latter does the deeds and the former handles the business end.

    Lately, Greyboar's been smitten by a new fancy - Philosophy.  And when you're more interested in achieving the cosmic states of Languor, Torpor, and Stupor than squeezing off breathing passages, it's bound to impact the profits.

What's To Like...
    There are a bunch of fascinating characters besides Ignace and Greyboar.  Cat is a myopic swordswoman looking to wreak vengeance on someone named Schrodinger.  Jenny and Angela are a pair of sexy, gay nymphs ("bi", actually, if Ignace is to be believed).  Hrundig is a barbarian mercenary who will remind you of Pratchett's Cohan.  Benvenuti "Benny" Piccolomini is a handsome artist, and the ex-BF of Gwendolyn, the fearsome sister of Greyboar.

    The text is rich with witty aphorisms, and there's a neat, hilarious, and totally useless  map.  The book is written in the first-person, courtesy of Ignace's cynical view of life.

    The Philosophical Strangler spoofs philosophy (natch), epic fantasy, Dante's Inferno, and even Quantum Physics.  But there are also some more serious topics, including racism (dwarf pogroms) and organized religion(s).

Kewlest New Word...
Hoyden : a boisterous, bold, and carefree girl.

    Then, thankfully, my pain was eased because business hit what would have been a dry spell for us anyway, because Greyboar wouldn't have taken any of the six commissions offered to burke Amelie.  Tough cookie, Amelie.  She hired stranglers to strangle stranglers, and managed to stay unchoked for a fortnight.  But then she died of poisoning.
    The dry spell would have continued, however, because the courts ruled that the last sister on that side of the family - Arianne - was the heir.  But Arianne only lasted a day.  Committed suicide.  Stabbed herself twelve times in the back.  (pg. 142)

    I prepared for the worst.  Just about the very absolute worst I could imagine.  I'd never thought I'd die of old age in a bed, mind you.  But still!  Being devoured by an ogre in a sewer was a bit much.
    Suddenly, the monster sniffed again.  Then again.  I realized it had detected the odor of the cheese in the knapsack.  Nasty, gooey stuff, it was.  Jenny and Angela had scrounged it up just before we left.  Neither Greyboar nor I had touched the crap, after taking one look at it.  I cringed.
    "Camembert!" squealed the horror.  "And I've got just the wine for it, too!  A nice little pinot noir I've been saving!"  (pg. 353)

"Folly ever comes cloaked in opportunity," as the wise man says.  (pg. 7)
    For all its pluses, TPS lacks one key element - a plotline.  The book comes off more like a series of short stories that are all pretty much the same.  The humor gets repetitive and the only plot progression is Greyboar getting more and more choosy about what business propositions to accept, based on his "professional ethics".

    Fortunately, Eric Flint's writing skills keep things from becoming completely boring, and about 2/3 of the way through, we finally get to the Dante-esque quest, which is long enough to qualify as a plotline.  But there is a lot of meh to trudge through first.

  The Philosophical Strangler will never be considered Eric Flint's masterpiece - that would be 1632, reviewed here.  One senses that the author would agree.  He put out one sequel - Forward The Mage - then let the series grind to a halt.  5½ Stars.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Vaetra Unveiled - Daniel R. Marvello

    2012; 296 pages.  Genre : Fantasy.  Book #1 of The Vaetra Chronicles.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Jaylan Forester has a decent life.  He's part-owner of an inn in Northtown, and a guard-for-hire with Raven Company, a local mercenary group.

    Then a cryptic note, "Need help.  Meet at inn.  Can pay." introduces him to new people and new places.  Ah, but it also reveals a terrifying self-truth.  Jaylan may have sorcery talents!

What's To Like...
    Vaetra Unveiled is comprised of three mini-quests : find a lost thief; find a lost boy; and look into a late shipment.  The setting has a "northern Canadian woodlands" feel, and that's a pleasant change-of-pace.  The chapters are a mix of first-person perspective (Jaylan's POV), and third-person (anybody else's POV), and I can't recall any other book that uses that template.

    Vaetra is Daniel Marvello's term for Magic, and we can expect it to be a central theme in the series.  But the locals, including Jaylan, view it with mistrust, something to be shunned, and if detected in oneself, something to be suppressed.  Our hero wrestles with this thoughout the story.

    Vaetra Unveiled is a very clean novel.  There is no sex, no booze, no cussing, and no drugs.  Indeed, the second mini-quest carries a strong anti-drug message. There is one incident of nudity, entirely gratuitous and unneeded.  One gets the feeling the target audience is tweener boys.

    It didn't take a genius to figure out what was going to happen next.  I was starting to understand why sorcery was so widely reviled.  Powerful and manipulative people always raised my ire, but this was manipulative power taken to a new level.  Someone had to stop the Lord Thoron's (sic) of the world from preying on people who had no sorcery to defend themselves.  (loc. 2582)

    "I can see you care for him."
    Sulana blinked.  "What?  Care for him?  I... respect him.  But it's nothing more than that."
    Ebnik raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.  Daven grimaced and looked at the ground.
    Sulana looked back and forth between them.  "Really?  Why should you think that?  I hardly know him!"
    "Exactly," Daven said under his breath.
    Ebnik nodded with a knowing smirk.  "As you say."  (loc. 2983)

Kindle Details...
    Vaetra Unveiled is available at Amazon for $2.99.  This is the only book offered by Daniel Marvello, although I gather he is currently working on its sequel.

"Every goal has a price.  It's up to you to decide of the price is worth achieving the goal."  (loc. 1014)
    Regrettably, I found the writing and story-telling in Vaetra Unveiled to be pedestrian.  The action is minimal and often misplaced.  The most exciting clash involves a not-too-bright troll with a death wish, and the incident turns out to be irrelevant to the storyline.

    The mini-quests are far from epic, and each of them provided several missed opportunities for added adventure and excitement.  There are too many coincidences and too many spur-of-the-moment sentences.

    First efforts by writers are often rough around the edges, and Vaetra Unveiled is no exception.  But the world created by Daniel Marvello is too interesting to discard, and one can only speculate about how the unique role of sorcery will be handled in subsequent books in the series.  Here's hoping the author continues to hone his writing skills.

    5 Stars.  Add another 2½ stars if you're a 10-13 year-old boy who likes to read Hardy Boys mysteries.