Monday, November 26, 2012

Noggle Stones Book 2 : The Tragic Empire - Wil Radcliffe

    2011; 212 pages.  Full Title : Noggle Stones : Book 2 : The Tragic Empire.  New Author? : No.  Genre : YA; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s been a year since the real world and the world of legends merged, and all is not well.  The elves (“Aes dana”) are at war with the United States of 1899, and both in turn are threatened by a more sinister and evil force.  The latter can call upon the undead to do its bidding, as well “turn” living creatures to the dark side.  Both types of baddies are deadly; the only difference is that the former move slower than the latter.

    Even worse than that, Bugbear the Goblin is chained upside down in an Aes dana dungeon, and the interrogation is about to begin.  How much use will the Four Basic Precepts of Non-Logical Thought  be to him now?

What’s To Like...
    Noggle Stones – The Tragic Empire has the same “flavor” is its predecessor – a YA book that is mostly a light-hearted adventure; with some paranormal darkness mixed in for balance.  As before, Wil Radciffe includes some neat drawings for the reader's enjoyment.

    Bugbear is the main protagonist, and his “Illogical Thought” precepts will keep you chuckling.  Manchester and Maga are back; so is Riley Ratcatcher.  The Ogres play a smaller role, and there are a whole bunch of human and Aes dana characters to get to know.  There’s even a way-kewl patchwork creature – part lion, part elephant – named Tembo, who hopefully will continue to show up in the series.  And finally, if you’re a Teddy Roosevelt fan, you’ll love this tale.

    Beyond the entertainment, the book has a serious message about prejudice – both of species and of cosmetic appearance.  The ending is satisfying, albeit straightforward.  The Ultimate Evil is not totally vanquished (indeed, it’s not even identified yet), which points to a sequel.  That’s something to look forward to.

Kewlest New Word...
    Seneschal (n.) : a steward or major-domo in a noble household; usually in charge of domestic arrangements and the administration of servants.

    ”Who do you serve?” he finally barked, after sifting through his better frustrations.
    “Whom,” Bugbear said.
    “And this Whom, from what kingdom does he hail?”
    Bugbear sighed.  “No,” he said with a shake of his head, which flaked off a crust of raspberry tart that had lodged in his mutton chops.  Whom is not a person.  Rather it is the correct form of the pronoun you were attempting to use.”
    The guard looked to Bugbear, tilting his head with curiosity... before suddenly catching himself as the large helmet almost pulled him to the ground.  “And this pronoun,” the guard started, eyes narrow and hard as he attempted to regain his dignity, “How large are his armies?”  (loc. 58)

    Riley frowned as he nocked his arrow on the bowstring.  “You should not have put so much confidence in us, Turdmore,” the beast boy whispered to the goblin.  “The queen has not had time to practice with us of late.”
   Tudmire smiled as he patted the boy on the shoulder.  “Don’t let those bullies intimidate you, m’boy.  Remember, what’s bad for the goose is good for the gambler.”  (loc. 1415)

Kindle Details...
    I bought Noggle Stones Book Two – The Tragic Empire for $2.99 at Amazon.  Noggle Stones Book One – The Goblin Apprentice, is the same price.  You really should read them in order.

“How can you kill what is already dead?”  (loc. 2250)
    My only quibble with Noggle Stones 2 is that, at 212 pages, it was over too fast.  Noggle Stones 1 (reviewed here) is listed as being 390 pages, and that felt like the right length.  Then again, maybe if the author had pumped another 200 pages into NS-2, I’d be griping that it was too long and too wordy.

    There is a hint that Dragons may show up somewhere down the line in this series.  And who knows what other beasts and beasties Wil Radcliffe might introduce?  I find the non-stereotypical portrayal of the elves, ogres, patchworks, and goblins to be a real treat.  8 Stars.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Black Tower - P.D. James

    1975; 284 pages.  Book #5  of the Adam Dalgleish series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Murder Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Adam Dalgleish missed the boat.  Father Baddeley, his boyhood curate, wrote to him asking him to come visit and give him some "professional advice".  Since Dalgleish is a detective, it could be a criminal matter.  Unfortunately, Dalgleish was laid up in the hospital, and by the time he got out and up to Toynton Grange, where the old curate lived, Father Baddeley had passed away.

    No foul play is suspected, but now it seems a suspicious amount of dying is going on there.  It “feels” like murders are being committed, but where is the evidence or the motive?

What’s To Like...
    The setting is neat; Toynton Grange is kind of a hospice for terminally-ill wheelchair-bound patients.  It’s a small operation – only five patients by the time Dalgleish gets there, plus a staff of eight or so.  That makes for a nice number of suspects.  And while some of the characters were more congenial than others; there were no blatant “black hats”.  So the suspect list remains sizable throughout the book, shrinking only whenever another body is discovered.

    The writing style is “flowery”, especially at the beginning.  I found it distracting, although things got better once Dalgleish started his investigation.  There were also a whole bunch of descriptive passages; which slowed things down more than they set the scene.  There are clues to be found amongst the flowers and the descriptions, but both Dalgleish and I missed them.

    The ending was good – neither too obvious nor too arbitrary.  It was nice to get acquainted with Dalgleish, despite him being yet another fictional sleuth burnt out and contemplating retiring from the force.  The book is a stand-alone, and it’s hard to say if I was missing anything by not reading the series in order.

Kewlest New Word...
    Minatory : Expressing or conveying a threat; e.g. : a "minatory finger-wagging.

    Mogg, his greatest and, she sometimes thought, his only friend, had been christened Morgan Evans but preferred to use his nickname, regarding it as more appropriate to a poet of the people’s struggle.  It was not that Mogg struggled greatly himself; indeed Ursula had never met anyone who drank and ate so resolutely at other people’s expense.  He chanted his confused battle cries to anarchy and hatred in local pubs where his hairy and sad-eyed followers listened in silence or spasmodically banged the table with their beer mugs amid grunts of approval.  (pg. 37 )

    She wondered how she had never noticed it before, that irritating note of unctuous reproof in his voice.  She turned abruptly away.  The hand, thus rejected, slipped heavily from her shoulders.  She remembered suddenly what he reminded her of: the sugar Father Christmas on her first Christmas tree, so desirable, so passionately desired.  And you bit into nothingness; a trace of sweetness on the tongue and then an empty cavity grained with white sand.  (pg. 238)

“We all suffer from a progressive incurable disease.  We call it life.”  (pg. 51)
    The worst thing about The Black Tower was something P.D. James probably had no control over – the back cover blurb.  It gives far too much away – telling you the number of people that are going to die, and essentially who they are.  That thoroughly quashed any suspense the story had.

    Beyond that, my only quibble is the way the wheelchair-bound patients were portrayed.  I was expecting them to be courageous, innovative, and some to be evil enough to be suspects.  But instead they were mostly pitiable. 

    For me, The Black Tower was an okay read, but not a memorable one.  If I find another Dalgleish novel at the used-book store, I'll probably give the series another go.  It might be that I just picked the wrong one to start off with.  7 Stars.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Drowning - Richard Herley

    2011; 352 pages.  New Author? : No.  Rumored to be Book #2 of the author's "Water" series.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

   Roland Singer has a rewarding job, albeit one that pays modestly  He is a live-in tutor for 12-year-old George Urquhart, who has been wheelchair-bound since birth.  Roland and George’s relationship is more than just teacher/student; they also have a deep and enduring friendship. 

    But Roland would also like to have a deep relationship with George’s 20-year-old sister, Elspeth.  Indeed, he is smitten speechless by her.  Isn’t it a pity that she is already spoken for?  Ah, but isn’t it a pity Roland and Elspeth are soul mates? 

What’s To Like...
    I’m going to call The Drowning a “situational” book.

    For starters, there are situational ethics.  Indeed, the book’s title comes from one – in World War 2, a captain of a sunken U-boat is clinging to life in the icy waters beside the British destroyer that just sank his ship.  Should the British sailors rescue him, or let him drown?  The decision will have consequences for generations to come.

    Then there are situational religions.  Richard Herley weaves a number of isms into the story – Buddhism, Catholicism, Anglicanism, Hinduism, Jewishism, and (if you can include it) Humanism.  Remarkably, all are given equal treatment.  They each serve a purpose for a given circumstance.  But none of them hold all the answers to life.

    There is also situational history, in the form of a very close-up examination of the 1960’s Biafran crisis.  Most of us remember it only as the big, bad Nigerians starving out the poor, defenseless Igbos.  While that is in fact true, Richard Herley suggests the situation was a lot more complex than that.

    Finally, there is situational love.  Just because you’re soul mates, doesn’t mean that mistakes and wrong choices can’t be made, and they too have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.

Kewlest New Word...
    Oik (n.) : an uncouth or obnoxious person.  (aren't Britishisms kewl?)

    Just now Bel had been showing Elspeth her new Beatles LP, entitled, appropriately enough, Help!  Elspeth had once asked her which of the Beatles she would wed; Elspeth herself quite fancied George Harrison.  “I’ll have Lennon,” Bel had said.  “Or McCartney, I don’t mind which.  Think of all the royalties.”   (loc. 1589)

    “But … what’s bad about twins?”
    “Multiple births were an abomination to pre-Christian Igbos.  Only animals were supposed to have more than one young.  Twins were killed at once or left out in the forest to die, and the mother had to go ritual cleansing.”
    “But that’s just superstition.  They’re beyond that now, surely?”
    “We still touch wood for luck.  That goes back to Viking times.”  (loc. 3299)

“The wheel has many spokes, but only one hub.”  (loc. 5517)
        There is much more to like about The Drowning than the situationals.  As usual, Richard Herley’s skill as a writer shines through, and his descriptive passages are once again superb.  I especially liked the depiction of 1960’s Britain that starts off Part 2.  He gives nods to various other writers, including Chinua Achebe, and Ted Hughes, the poet laureate and erstwhile spouse of Sylvia Plath.  Indeed, I wonder if making one of the major characters wheel-chair bound is a tip of the hat to Robert Heinlein.  Plus, my favorite town in England, Chertsey, makes a cameo appearance, and that always gets a thumbs-up from me.

    The book’s title and blurb are misleading.  Although The Drowning certainly does explore the consequences of the fateful decision regarding the U-boat captain, that isn’t its main focus.  This is about Roland and Elspeth, their lifetime-spanning love, and the obstacles to it that are thrown up by the choices each makes along the way.

    This is the sixth Richard Herley book I’ve read, and they’ve all been a treat.  But The Drowning  sits a tad above the others for two reasons.  First, because the various situational complexities are so deftly woven together that the overall story remains coherent.  I gotta think that was not an easy thing to do.

    Second, because of a superb ending that will both surprise you and leave a lump in your throat.  I don’t think any of the other five RH books finished this strongly.  9 Stars.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Snuff - Terry Pratchett

    2011; 398 pages.  Book #39 of the DiscWorld series.  New Author? : Not by a long shot.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Poor, wretched Sam Vimes.  His wife Sibyl and Lord Vetinari have connived, and now he is forced to do that which he dreads the most in his career - take a vacation.  So he and Sibyl and Young Sam (who is 6 years old now) are off to their country manor for quality time and relaxation. 

    Sam tries his best to be the noble lord of Ramkin Hall, and not a policeman.  He casts a blind eye at suspicious activity as best he can.  But he can’t control his nose.  And when the unmistakable stench of a major crime wafts across his path, well, what’s a copper to do?  

What’s To Like...
    The theme of Snuff is a familiar one – bigotry.  But Terry Pratchett keeps it interesting via his wit, puns, footnotes, and delightful storytelling.  Anytime the Night Watch is involved in a DiscWorld book, I’m going to like it.  Even more so when Lord Vetinari also plays a part.  But there’s more to the cast than just a bunch of familiar characters.  We are introduced to a half-dozen new players; all of which are fascinating, and some of which appear likely to become regulars in the series.
    That being said, the mood is different here.  This is as grim and gritty of a Terry Pratchett offering as I’ve read.  And thanks to goblins taking center stage, it’s a lot stinkier too.

    The book starts slow, as we travel with the Vimes family to their palatial summer home.  Sam has his usual discomfort with the aristocracy, and for 100 pages or so, nothing much transpires.  But have patience, because once the plot unfolds, it’s fun and excitement the rest of the way.

Kewlest New Word...
    Substition : something that's real, but which people don't believe in. The opposite of 'superstition'.  (a made-up word, but way kewl)

    There was always paperwork.  It is well known that any drive to reduce paperwork only results in extra paperwork.
    Of course, he had people to do the paperwork, but sooner or later he had, at the very least, to sign it and, if no way of escape presented itself, even read it.  There was no getting away from it: ultimately, in all police work, there was a definite possibility that the manure would hit the windmill.  The initials of Sam Vimes were required to be on the paper to inform the world that it was his windmill, and therefore his manure.  (pg. 5 )

    Sometimes people asked Commander Vimes why Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs were still on the strength, such as it was, of modern Ankh-Morpork City Watch, given that Nobby occasionally had to be held upside down and shaken to reclaim small items belonging to other people, while Fred Colon had actually cultivated the ability to walk his beat with his eyes closed, and end up, still snoring, back at Pseudopolis Yard, sometimes with graffiti on his breastplate.  (pg. 132)

“Why the fruckle should anyone be proud of being a goblin?”   (pg. 239)
    It can’t be understated – we are a long way from a Rincewind or Granny Weatherwax tale.  The crimes are heinous and even the good guys have some cold-blooded and brutal moments.  Sam is more cynical than ever, and zaniness is rare, despite the wit being plentiful.  A lot of DiscWorld devotees are going to have trouble warming up to Snuff.

     I personally thought it was well-written despite its dark mood.  This may not be vintage DiscWorld, but neither is it some tired rehashing of past stories and characters.  Terry Pratchett might being taking a literary risk with this new tone, but at least he's not stagnating.

    In the end, it either floats your boat or it doesn’t.  For me, it did.  8 Stars.  And if your paddleboat gets dam-slammed, you can always hope the Book #40 will see The Luggage and/or The Librarian making a smashing return.  Ook.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Player of Games - Iain M. Banks

    1988; 391 pages.  Book #2 of the “Culture” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Azad.  It’s the name of an Empire on the other side of the galaxy.  Like the Romans, they are ruthless in their conquests, and rule their lands with a heavy hand. 

    Azad.  It’s also the name of the national game of that empire.  Think “Warhammer”, but make it 100x larger, 100x longer, and 100x more complex.  It is engrained in the national psyche, and the winner of its periodic tournaments becomes Emperor.  Azadians study and play it their entire lives.

    This year, the Azadian Empire has invited “our” world, called the Culture, to send one player.  He’ll get creamed, of course, and even if he were to win, he’s not eligible to become Emperor.  Gurgeh is selected, and he’ll have a scant two years to study the game as his spaceship travels across the galaxy.  He’s in over his head.  But there are games within games.

What’s To Like...
    The worlds are beautifully rendered, particularly the Fire Planet, where the final act plays out.  This is a stand-alone novel, despite being part of a series.  The first 120 pages are frankly a bit slow, as Banks maneuvers Gurgeh into being selected.  But if you make it past there, the rest of the book hums along marvelously, and there are some neat little twists that lead to a most satisfying ending.

    It's fun to find oneself immersed in Azadian society.  The “Culture” ethos is equally interesting.  The characters aren't exactly compelling, but they're not boring either.  The Drones are a great addition.

    Hardcore gamers may be disappointed that Iain M. Banks chooses not to explain the details of the games of Azad, but so what?  This isn’t a Dungeons-&-Dragons quest; it’s a science fiction novel.  We’re following Gurgeh, not the game he happens to be playing.

Kewlest New Word...
    Snaffle (v.) : to take something quickly for yourself, in a way that prevents someone else from having or using it.  (Britishism)

    This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game.  The man is a game-player called “Gurgeh”.  The story starts with a battle that is not a battle, and ends with a game that is not a game.
    Me?  I’ll tell you about me later.
    This is how the story begins.   (pg.1.  Is that a great way to open a novel, or what!?)

    “But Jernow!” At-sen said, from Gurgeh’s left.  “You must have a scar-portrait!  So that we may remember you when you have gone back to the Culture and its decadent, many-orificed ladies!”  Inclate, on his right, giggled.
    “Certainly not,” Gurgeh said, mock-serious.  “It sounds quite barbaric.”
    “Oh yes, yes, it is!” At-sen and Inclate laughed into their glasses.  At-sen pulled herself together, put her hand on is wrist.  “Wouldn’t you like to think there was some poor person walking around on Ea with your face on their skin?”
    “Yes, but on which bit?”
    They thought this hilariously funny.   (pg. 199)

“You’re coming perilously close to talking about destiny, Jernau Gurgeh.”  (pg. 303)
    Although the central focus is on the game of Azad, The Players of Games is really about what happens when Imperialism and Democracy (for lack of a better term) collide.  The author gives them equal treatment, showing the “warts” of both societies and mindsets.

    He also puts forth the question : What would happen if our world did happen to meet up a technologically-comparable Empire hell-bent on conquering all who cross their path?  Would we view them as barbarians?  What would they make of us?  If we had to go to war with them, what approach would we use?

    I enjoy Iain M. Banks’ writing style, as well as his story-telling.  The Player of Games is a good read, and poses some interesting questions about what exactly the term “civilized” means to us, and about us.  8 Stars.  Add another star if you’re reading this series in order, cuz I think I'm missing some of the nuances of the characters by not doing so.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Haunted Collection - The Eclective

    2012; 128 pages.  Full Title : “The Eclective : The Haunted Collection.”  New Author? : Mostly Yes.  Genre : Anthology; Halloween.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Eight tales of the paranormal.  There are ghosts, ghouls, vampires, a nasty little porcelain figurine, and a witch that you shouldn’t cheat on.  I read this during the week leading up to Halloween, but it’s suitable for anytime you feel like telling the Undead to “bring it on”.

What’s To Like...
    Each tale has a different motif; I like that.  The editing is superb – I found only one typo in the whole book.  You have eight different authors, and frankly they’re all good writers.  The literary unevenness you find in a lot of anthologies is not present here.  The eight stories are :

Empty Vessel  (M. Edward McNally)
The Smell of Death  (Tara West)
Safe  (Emma Jameson)
Cupcake Goddess : Soulfully Sweet  (Shea MacLeod)
May I Go Play  (Heather Marie Adkins)
Blehdward, the Vampire Who Couldn’t Sparkle  (P.J. Jones)
Franscesca  (Alan Nayes)
Soul Eaters  (R.G. Porter)

   My two favorites were “Empty Vessel” and “The Smell of Death”; mostly for their kewl plotlines.  I’m not much of a Horror Story reader.  If you are, “May I Go Play” and “Soul Eaters” will be your cup of absinthe.  Blehdward, the Vampire Who Couldn't Sparkle” is fascinating, but too short.  And how can you go wrong with something titled “Cupcake Goddess : Soulfully Sweet”?  I liked the ‘accented’ writing in “Safe(and I rarely like accented text; it usually gets irritating fast), and “Franscesca” is for you Gothic Romantics.

Kindle Details...
   The Haunted Collection sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  Most of the other anthologies published by the Eclective are ATM free. They are always reasonably priced; and periodically put out as freebies.

    To those who ask why I done it, why Benjamin Barrow, son of  a respectable rag and bone man, took to thieving from corpses, I says, “For the bleeding steven, hey?” and leave it at that.  I don’t spill all I know to every Champagne Charlie I meet down the pub.  For one thing, half the blokes in this world are thicker than a fresh corpse and less diverting to talk to.  For another, I’m an educated man, and that makes all the difference.  (loc. 411)

    “Viola, draw near.” Branwen let the power of a true goddess seep into her voice.
    With a shiver, Viola’s ghost drew closer into the circle of candle light.  Her passing stirred the candle flame.
    “Take my hand.”
    Viola gave her a look that spoke volumes.  “I’m a ghost.”
    “And I’m a goddess.  Take my hand.”  (loc. 710)

“He was the sort of man who would chase a rolling copper piece into a sewer.” (loc.63)
    The only author of The Eclective that I’m familiar with is M. Edward McNally, whose fantasy series, The Norothian Cycle, I am thoroughly enjoying.  It was a treat to get acquainted with some of the other writers in the group. 

    I don’t think Anthologies ever merit a perfect rating; you will always like some of the selections better than others, and short stories just don’t offer the depth that full-length novels do.  But The Haunted Collection is as good of collection of tales as I’ve come across.  7½ Stars.  Add another star if you liked to read Tales From the Crypt as a kid.