Saturday, September 29, 2012

Noggle Stones Book 1 - Wil Radcliffe

   2008; 390 pages.  Full Title : Noggle Stones : Book 1 : The Goblin’s Apprentice.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : YA; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Bugbear the Goblin and his cousin Tudmire have run across a strange creature.  It is twice as tall as a goblin (although not particularly powerfully built), ugly, and rather slow of wit.  It almost fits the description of a “human”, but everyone knows those are just make-believe.

    The creature calls itself Martin Manchester, and absurdly claims that Bugbear and Tudmire are the legendary beasts.  But all three agree that the lay of the land looks different today.  What has happened?

What’s To Like...
    Noggle Stones – The Goblin’s Apprentice has what I call the “Rocky & Bullwinkle effect” – both young people (maybe, ages 10 and up) and adults will be entertained by it.  Stylistically, it’s kind of a cross between The Hobbit and Piers Anthony’s Ogre, Ogre., with a dash of Arthurian and Dr. Moreau-ian influence thrown in for seasoning.

     There are some kewl drawings scattered throughout the book.  The dialogue is witty, and includes some delightful songs/poems.  There is a guiding philosophy called the “Four Precepts of Non-Logical Thought”, and it is positively sensible, provided you’re a goblin.  Time-wise, the story takes place in 1899 if you’re a human, and The Year of the Dappled Beetle, if you’re a goblin.

     In keeping with the target audience, there is no sex or cussing, and only very light romance.  Some of the good guys do get killed, however.  The characters are not particularly deep, but they are engaging.  Riley Ratcatcher is a hoot.  The bad guys are sufficiently evil to keep you turning the pages, but they won't plague young readers with nightmares.

    ”Cousin!” Bugbear yelled as he peered into the blinding white and gold maelstrom,” can you hear me?”
    “Yes,” came Tudmire’s timid reply.
    “This scroll has done something!  I don’t know exactly what, but chances are we won’t live through it!  And before we die, I wanted you to know something...”
    “What’s that?”
    “This is all your fault!”   (loc.410)

    “This has been very pleasant,” the man said.  “I mean that with all sincerity.  A wonderful show.  Thank you very much.”  He smiled and nodded to Maga and her comrades.  “But I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to die now.”  (loc.6366)

Kindle Details...
    Noggle Stones  Book 1– The Goblin Apprentice sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The sequel, Noggle Stones Book 2 – The Tragic Empire, is also  $2.99.  You can pick up the paperback version for $25.00, but why would you?

“Reality is a dream worth following.”  (loc. 5024)
    As noted above, there is a sequel, and the book ends with a teaser for it, but NSB1-TGA is nevertheless a standalone novel.  You will meet some Ogres here as well, and there is a promise of elves (Aes Dana) in the near-future.  It appears these are the only two books in Wil Radcliffe’s repertoire.  Here’s hoping he is working on Book 3, since #2 is on my Kindle, and Noggle Stones is certainly worthy of being developed into a series.
    Noggle Stones Book 1 – The Goblin’s Apprentice was a light, enjoyable read.  Pick it up when you’re in a “Hey, Rocky!  Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” mood.    8 Stars.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Zul Enigma - J. M. Leitch

    2011; 472 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Apocalyptic Thriller (among others).  Overall Rating : 4½*/10.

     Dr. Carlos Maiz, the Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, has been contacted by an extraterrestrial avatar with a cosmic message.  On 12/21/12, Earth will have an opportunity to ascend to a new spiritual dimension (the “fourth density level”), but only if we’re enlightened enough.  If we fail, the planet, the galaxy, and indeed, the whole Universe is at risk.

     Carlos is understandably suspicious that the whole thing is a hoax.  But the messenger is able to override the UN telecommunications security system with ease.  It’s almost as if he really is from the sixth density level.

What’s To Like...
    For a change, we have a hero who is anything but enlightened.  He takes others for granted, and has trouble with his temper.  He may be brilliant when it comes to Quantum Physics, but he's clueless about people.  Some serious personal growth is needed if he’s going to make the jump to the fourth level.  Will he make it?

     The storyline has a number of neat twists, and it’s fun to be skeptical alongside Carlos (and the UN security team) as they try to prove that the messenger has terrestrial origins.  The ending is anything but predictable. 

     Alas, there are some serious weaknesses as well.  J. M. Leitch can get long-winded and boring about irrelevant topics (Quantum Physics, Grand Unified Theories).  And preachy too (meditation, an Eckankar-like theology).  People “cross their legs at the ankles” an incredible number of times, and the author seems averse to question marks.  There are a few too many WTF moments (the fate of the POTUS, global meditating).

Kewlest New Word...
    Purulent : consisting of, containing, or discharging pus.  (late Middle English).

    ”You must understand, Carlos, it is not just the many species on your Earth that are evolving.  Your entire planet is evolving, as is your solar system, as is your galaxy, as is our entire universe.  It is all interconnected.  Our consciousness is the universe and the consciousness of the universe is us.  This connectivity can be expressed by the word “unity”.  Our universe is evolving in unity.”
    They watched the entire video and when it finished Drew exhaled.  “What a load of sh*t!”  (loc.769)

    Just thinking about Zul’s theory of the universe and the evolution of the One that a few days ago had made so much sense now seemed laughable.
    Carlos Maiz – chosen by aliens to save the world?
    It was really quite absurd.  (loc.4680)

Kindle Details...
    The Zul Enigma sells for $5.99 at Amazon.  The paperback is $17.00, and the Hardcover, not available at Amazon, goes for $147.84.  Surely those non-Kindle prices are jokes.

“Inter-relation of karmic energy across all consciousness,,,”  (loc. 4510)
    The big problem with The Zul Enigma is that it can’t seem to decide what genre it wants to be.  It starts out as a decent Action Adventure.  Then it abruptly switches to being an Inspirational novel.  After that it turns into a Romance.  And it finishes up by being a tale of Intrigue.

    This has a profound effect on the pacing of the story, which speeds up all too seldom and slows down for extended stretches.  J.M. Leitch states that it took her 7½ years to complete The Zul Enigma, which makes me wonder if this was what caused these pacing and genre issues.

    There is way too much telling and not near enough showing.  The book could’ve had an exciting finish  with Carlos and his message to the world.  Instead we get a weak recap about those events 56 years after they occur.

     All of which is a shame, because there really is a fascinating and original storyline here.  Too bad the editing/beta-reading wasn't more rigorous.  4½ Stars.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wine of Violence - Priscilla Royal

    2004; 249 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Murder Mystery.  Book #1 of the Medieval Mystery series.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The priory at Tyndal is a rather unusual place in 1270 AD England.  For starters it is co-ed – both monks and nuns dwell there.  Second, a prioress leads the community, not a prior.  And thirdly, someone has just killed one of the brothers, and in a most grisly fashion.

     The story opens with the passing away of the reigning prioress (the elderly Sister Felicia).  Taking her place is young, inexperienced Eleanor of Wynethorpe, who is more of a political appointment than a spiritual one.  To say the monks and nuns give her an icy reception is an understatement.  But newly-arrived Brother Thomas is kind enough to her.  Even though he seems to have ulterior motives and bears heavy personal secrets.

What’s To Like...
    Priscilla Royal strikes a nice mystery/history balance in Wine of Violence.  She also weaves several modern-day issues into the story – gays, bulimia, equal rights for women, and the various scandals confronting the Catholic Church today.  Purists might feel this detracts from the historical accuracy, but I thought it was a fresh and intriguing approach.

     There is a nice cast of characters to get to know, and Thomas, Eleanor, and the Crowner (coroner) Ralf make a good team to build a series around.  The prologue and epilogue are kewl, and clues and evidence are periodically found (albeit more by happenstance than by sleuthing), which keeps the storyline from bogging down.

     The mystery portion of the story could be done better.  I kept waiting for a “twist” and it never came.  The author overuses the word “cert”, and the historical depiction is not as compelling as in Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter’s Brother Cadfael series.   Then again, no one has the academic historical background that Pargeter did, and Priscilla Royal’s efforts to “set the scene” are more than adequate to make the tale believable.

 Kewlest New Word...
    By-Blow : A man’s illegitimate child  (British).

    ”Sister Anne’s a trial to us, I’m afraid.  What did you think of her?”
    Thomas hesitated.  “Indeed, I have not had your long experience with her, but she did seem very... perhaps direct is the word?”
    Immodest or ill-advised are better ones.  Has an unwomanly arrogance about her, which you will learn from your work at the hospital.  Her judgement is unsound and she will not listen to those wiser than she,”    (loc. 901)

    “There can never be two lords over one land, my brother says.”
    “Surely enough time has passed to forget which family has been here longer and to whom our kin owed allegiance so long ago?  A good man is a good man whether he be Norman or English.”
    “Nay, my lady.  One man sees goodness in another only if there is trust, and trust can only exist between equals, my brother says.  My family is not on equal footing with yours.  We hold none of you in fiefdom.  Again, I believe these to be my brother’s words.”
    “So you fear us still?”
    “And you, us.  There is a lack of trust, my lady.”  (loc.2374)

Kindle Details...
    Wine of Violence sells for $9.99 at Amazon, which seems a bit steep to me.  Amazon sells the paperback for $11.10, and the  Hardcover, not available at Amazon, goes for $14.89.

 “Death cares naught for goodness, beauty, innocence nor wit.  In the end, we shall all stink just the same.”  (loc. 1175)
    This series will inevitably be compared to the Brother Cadfael books, which are mentioned in both the Amazon blurb and Priscilla Royal’s forward to Wine of Violence.  Both series are based in Medieval England, in a religious community, and have the main sleuth as a member of that order.

    But unlike the Brother Cadfael stories, Wine of Violence is not a cozy.   There is coarse language, various sexual situations (although no overt sex that I recall), and all of the players, including our heroes, struggle with some downright earthly feelings and actions.  People sensitive about such scandalous behavior among God’s chosen might find this book abrasive, but who’s to say such wasn’t the case in medieval cloisters?
    If you’re looking for a fresh set of Ellis Peters cozies, you’ll be disappointed in Wine of Violence.  But I’m kinda happy with Priscilla Royal giving her own treatment to Medieval Murder-Mysteries instead of copying someone else.   7½ Stars.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Broken Sword - Joseph Robert Lewis

     2011; 262 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Action-Adventure. Book #2 of the Halcyon series. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Don Lorenzo Quesada de Gadir has sworn he’ll never kill again. That’s somewhat of a handicap since he is by profession a master swordsman and by reputation a hero. But all is well; he has retired from active derring-do and is now content to run a martial training academy, teaching his new, sword-of-mercy technique.

    Alas, others just won’t let him alone. His rivals send opponents to try to defeat him in duels. His friends keep showing up, on the run from the authorities. And the storytellers want their heroes to continue to perform deeds that can be twisted and sensationalized into newspaper-selling legends.

What’s To Like...
     There is a deft blending of genres, including Steampunk, Alt-History, and Fantasy. But the overlying genre is Action Adventure. Indeed, I don’t think there was a single page that didn’t have fighting, chasing, or intrigue; or at least someone plotting to do one of those.

     The world-building is both unique and satisfying. Joseph Robert Lewis gives you the 19th-century western Mediterranean, but in a world where the Ice Age is still in full swing. So places like England and Germany are under the glaciers, and Spain, Italy and Morocco are in a temperate region where snow is not uncommon.

    An anti-killing hero is a nice change-of-pace. So are the domesticated saber-tooth tiger (Atoq) and some sort of giant walking bird (Wayra) that you can ride on at a goodly clip. The ending is decent, if not spectacular. And even though it is part of a series, The Broken Sword can be read as a standalone book. There are some back-references to Book 1 (which I haven’t read), which apparently involves a conquistador expedition to the New World. But none of the references are vital to this story.

Kewlest New Word...
    Diestro : (Spanish, noun) Literally, a matador. But here it is used to indicate someone masterful in wielding a sword. Which does apply to a matador.

    Lorenzo backed away and sheathed his own sword. “Master de Medici, you can take your hilt and go in peace. But leave the blade. That’s forfeit. That’s the price of your lesson.”
Silvio stumbled upright and swallowed. “That’s it? That’s your style? That’s your vaunted philosophy of combat?”
“Yes.” Lorenzo pointed at the blade on the floor. “One less sword in the world. And maybe one wiser man in it as well.” (loc. 156)

“We’re looking for a Mazigh airship crew. The good admiral wants to have a word with their corpses.” (loc. 760)

Kindle Details...
    The Broken Sword sells for $3.99 at Amazon. At the moment, Book 1, The Burning Sky, is free. The third book in this series, The Bound Soul, is also $3.99.

“(A) man who has no loyalty to anyone is a danger to everyone.” (loc. 2636)
     There are some weaknesses. Two characters get killed for no discernible reason, having accomplished nothing critical. Why write them into the tale? The non-stop action hinders character development, although I don’t think that’s all that important in this type of story.

    More worrying are the deus ex machinas that keep cropping up. Somehow, while on the road searching for a fiery Ultimate Artifact that he’s never seen, Don Lorenzo cleverly devises a harness to capture and transport it, and it works like a charm. Atoq-the-Sabertooth shows up at some most convenient times to save Don Lorenzo’s non-violent butt. The bad guy is way too easily persuaded to give up critical items. And a single good guy swims to a floating enemy warship, boards it from a handy, unguarded, sea-level platform, sneaks through the unguarded, unlocked door, and wreaks havoc on the ship's steering system.

    But these are quibbles. The Broken Sword was a fun read from start to finish. Nothing deep or highbrow. Just an exciting tale. 7½ Stars.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Tortilla Curtain - T.C. Boyle

    1995; 355 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction.  Overall Rating : 2*/10.

    The Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples dwelling in the Topanga Canyon region of greater Los Angeles.  Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher are affluent whites living in the upscale enclave called Arroyo Blanco.  Candido Rincon and his wife, America, are illegal immigrants living out in the nearby desert.

    The book begins with Candido getting run over and seriously injured by Delaney in his posh Acura.  Things turn bad for Delaney after that.  Candido’s luck was already in the gutter.  

What’s To Like...
    The writing style is good.  Delany has studied French, and that’s always a plus.  If you happen to be a member of a Tea-Bagger Book Club (is there is such a thing?), this would be an excellent book for the group.

 What’s Not To Like...
    The Tortilla Curtain may be well-written, but it’s a lousy story.  The plot never advances – bad things just keep happening to our two couples, and that’s it.

     There is crass stereotyping of unbelievable proportions.   T.C. Boyle evidently hates anyone who isn’t white, and despises all those he deems “liberal” as well.  The entire Arroyo Blanco community is liberal.  How statistically incredible!  Every “liberal” cliché is used – relaxation tapes, sushi, Kyra having a hyphenated last name, etc.  Someone taught the author about 30 words and phrases in Spanish, and he uses them over and over again.  Huaraches, gabacho, bracero, pelirrojo.  Thank goodness there’s no sequel.

    The events of the book prey upon every wing-nut’s racial fears and prejudices.  There’s a pair of Mexican toughs that somehow manage to threaten and/or accost all four main characters in separate incidents.   You can tell it’s them because one of them wears a baseball cap backwards.

Kewlest New Word...
Crepitated : making a crackling or popping sound.

    It wasn't French he was speaking, that was for sure.  And it wasn't Norwegian.  The United States didn't share a two-thousand-mile border with France - or with Norway either.  The man was Mexican, Hispanic, that's what he was, and he was speaking Spanish, a hot, crazed drumroll of a language to which Delaney's four years of high-school French gave him little access.  "Docteur?" he tried.  (pg. 8)

    "I hate granola," Jordan countered, and it was like a Noh play, timeless ritual.
    "It's good for you."
    "Yeah, sure."  Jordan made an exaggerated slurping sound, sucking the milk through his teeth.
    "Think of all the little children who have nothing to eat," Kyra said without looking up, and Jordan, sticking to the script, came right back at her: "Let's send them this."  (pg. 35)

That was the American way.  Buy something.  Feel good.  (pg. 149)
    Here’s the gist of what T.C. Boyle postulates in The Tortilla Curtain :

(01) All Southern Californians are crazy.
(02) All rich Southern Californians are naïve, liberal-humanists.
(03) All liberal-humanists are racial hypocrites.  Scratch them and they’ll discover they are bigots, just like every other white person.
(04) Most illegal Mexicans in the US are evil.  They will harass white folks and assault other Hispanics.
(05) Some illegal Mexicans are good.  But they are dumb, dirt-poor, and will eventually steal you blind.
(06)  It would be better for everyone if all illegal Mexicans went home.  And stayed there.

    I kept waiting for T.C. Boyle to give The Tortilla Curtain a boffo twist by revealing it was all a spoof.  Or giving it a positive turn as two cultures meet, learn from, and embrace each other.  Heck, I would have been satisfied with a “here’s the tea-bagger solution” ending.  Alas, none of this happened.

    There’s really very little redeeming value to this book  2 Stars.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett

    2006; 446 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 3 of the Tiffany Aching series.  Book 35 of the DiscWorld series.  Genre : YA; Comedic Fantasy.  Overall Rating :  8*/10.
    13-year-old Tiffany Aching is training to be a witch.  For her enlightenment, her mentor, Miss Treason, takes her to watch the secret Morris Dance.  It’s an interesting dance, with a compelling tempo.  The rhythm gets your toes a-tapping.  Indeed, the it makes you want to get up and join in the merriment.


 What’s To Like...
    A slew of the DiscWorld witches are here, and that’s always a positive.  DEATH also makes a couple appearances.  There are a bunch of 6-inch-tall Smurf-spoofs called Nac Mac Feegles; you’re going to love them.  And don’t forget Horace the Cheese.

     The Feegles all speak with Scottish accents.  That can get old, but it’s better than Igors’ lisps and Vampires’ ersatz German.  Terry Pratchett uses chapters here, which is quite unusual for him.  But he doesn’t forget to include some of his always-entertaining footnotes.  There’s a nice take-off of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and you’ll be enlightened by how important Boffo is to all witches.

    The ending is good, although not particularly twisty.  And despite being part of a series, you can read Wintersmith as a stand-alone novel.

Kewlest New Word...
Badger Sett : a badger den, usually consisting of a network of tunnels.

    Witching was turning out to be mostly hard work and really short on magic of the zap!-glingle-glingle-glingle variety.  There was no schooling and nothing that was exactly a lesson.  But it wasn’t wise to try to learn witching all by yourself, especially if you had a natural talent.  If you got it wrong, you could go from ignorant to cackling in a week...  (pg. 21)

      “I was always too busy to pay attention to young men,” said Miss Treason.  “They were always for later and then later was too late.  Pay attention to your young man.”
    “Erm … I did say he’s actually not my –“ Tiffany began, feeling herself start to blush.
    “But do not become a strumpet like Mrs. Ogg,” said Miss Treason.
    “I’m not very musical,” said Tiffany uncertainly.
    Miss Treason laughed.  “You have a dictionary, I believe,” she said.  “A strange but useful thing for a girl to have.”  (pg. 172)

 "I’ve got a Cornucopia and I’m not afraid to use it!”  (pg. 349)
    It’s important to remember the target audience for the Tiffany Aching series – young teenage girls who like to read fantasy.  Adults may find the plotline a bit too straightforward, and guys may be disappointed by the lack of mayhem. But young girls won’t be bothered by the book's “DiscWorld-lite” flavor, and they'll enjoy the “first-love” undertone of the tale.

    Terry Pratchett is a master storyteller, and Wintersmith is no exception.  If you keep in mind for who he was writing this, you will find it an excellent addition to the DiscWorld series.  8 Stars.