Friday, March 30, 2012

Agatha H and the Airship City - Phil and Kaja Foglio

2011; 264 pages.  New Author(s) ? : Yes.  Genre : Webcomic Action; Gas Lamp Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½/10.

    What's the matter with Agatha Clay?  Despite trying her hardest, she's the worst student at Transylvania Polygnostic University.  If you gave her two pieces of wood and a tube of glue, I'm still sure whatever she'd make would fall apart.

    But Agatha's life is about to get upheaved.  Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is going to forcibly take over Beetleburg, where TPU is located.  And take some "sparks" as hostages back to Castle Wulfenbach, which is really a giant dirigible.  Now what possible havoc could one girl wreak upon a great big airship?

What's To Like...
    AH&TAC is a novelization of a webcomic called Girl Genius, (the link is here) which has won all sorts of awards - Hugos, Eisners, Squiddlys, etc.  The book is a faithful rendering of the first three episodes of the webcomic.  As such, you get lots of action right away and all the way thru.

    The characters are ...well... comic, but there is a surprising depth to them.  Agatha has her foibles, and the bad guys all have redeeming traits.  Indeed, it is hard to tell exactly who's wearing the black hats and who's wearing the white ones.  Agatha is a strong female lead, but that doesn't mean the males in the story are pansies.

    There is some romance (at this point, mostly hinted at), and a little bit of violence (rather mild), but no sex or "adult situations".  And it's a steampunk setting.

Kewlest New Word...
Gravitas : dignity, solemnity, or seriousness in manner.

    "Fuel here.  Spark here.  Main shaft.  Boosters."
    "Interesting.  Should this be loose?"
     "Yes, it's a balance arm."
    Agatha glared at him.  "A balance arm?  You're wasting space in a flying machine with a balance arm?"
    "Well... yes, you still need -"
    Agatha pushed him aside and reached into the engine compartment.  A quick wrench and the small device was flung out into space, where it hung in front of Gil's face.
    "And this!"  Another part was ripped loose.  "This is a heat pump!  Superfluous!"  (pg. 96; 36% on the Kindle)

    "Fine.  So what you're telling me is that you - Gilgamesh Wulfenbach - the person next in line to the despotic, iron-fisted rule of the Wulfenbach Empire - have no deadly, powerful weapons lying around whatsoever!  That's just great!  What kind of an Evil Overlord are you going to be, anyway?"
    "Apparently a better one than I'd thought," Gil said, suddenly thoughtful.  (pg. 214; 82% on the Kindle)

Kindle Details...
    The Kindle version of Agatha Clay and the Airship City is available at Amazon for $7.99, although it was a free download for a limited time when I ran across it.  It isn't available at the Mesa library, but the Phoenix Library has several "real" copies, and a number of books with the comic themselves.  Most of these were available when I checked.

Adventure.  Romance.  MAD SCIENCE!  (the Girl Genius motto)
    The neatest thing about AH&TAC is the "spark", which is a inherent talent for intense concentration (sometimes hereditary, but not always), which enables the person with it (also called a "spark") to create some remarkable inventions.

    It's not a super-power.  The only way Agatha will climb walls is if she applies herself and figures out how to make Velcro.  I think it is utterly kewl that the heroes here are Mad Scientists.  Kids reading AH&TAC will be inspired to become Chemists, Biologists, Mechanical Engineers, etc.   Not to ride magical ponies or get bit by radioactive spiders.

    8½ Stars.  I'd rate it higher, but the actual webcomic is even kewler than the book  And the novelization of Episodes 4-6 is due out in April.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

One of Our Thursdays is Missing - Jasper Fforde

2011; 562 pages, plus a couple of way kewl ads in the back.  Book #6 in the "Thursday Next" series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Literary Fiction; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8¼*/10.

    The title says it all.  The "real world" Thursday is MIA, and so the "written" Thursday is summoned and commissioned to find her.  But the world of fiction is a big place, plus it's just as likely that she's lost in the real world somewhere.

    Oh, there's also an imminent war brewing in BookWorld (between Racy Novel and the combined forces of Women's Fiction and Comedy) that threatens the steady supply of Metaphors.  It needs to be averted before blood is spilled.  Well, not blood.  Before ink and letters are spilled.

What's To Like...
    This is Jasper Fforde and that means good writing, keen wit, and gadding around in the wonderful otherworld of Fiction.  For One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Fforde has completely revamped Fiction Island.  It's now on the inside of a giant, hollow sphere and my printed version of OOOTIM has a detailed map to help you keep your bearings.  I'm told the Kindle omits the map.

    Mrs. Malaprop and Pickwick (a dodo with an attitude) are back, and they're a hoot.  Thursday also picks up an android butler named Sprockett, who's kind of a cross between C-Threepio and Jeeves.

    There are a half-dozen or so nicely-done illustrations scattered throughout the book; a zillion nods by Fforde to other authors and novels; and every fiction cliché there is, including the obligatory chase scene.  There are plot twists galore, and with a dozen trite endings to choose from, Fforde somehow manages to come up with something ...ahem... novel.

Kewlest New Word...
Mistral : a strong, dry, cold, northerly wind that blows across southern France.

    And that was when the doorbell rang.  This was unusual, as random things rarely occur in the mostly predetermined BookWorld.  I opened the door to find three Dostoyevski-vites staring at me from within a dense cloud of moral relativism.
    "May we come in?" said the first, who had the look of someone weighed heavily down with the burden of conscience.  "We were on our way home from a redemption-through-suffering training course."  (pg. 18)

    "Flekk's the worst gossip in the city.  I've a feeling you've got less than forty minutes before the press starts to knock at the door, two hours before the police arrive with an arrest warrant and three hours before President van de Poste demands you hand over the plans."
    "What plans?"
    "The secret plans."
    "I don't have any secret plans."
    "I'd keep that to yourself."  (pg. 314)

"Eggs tincture is too good for that burred ... but isle do as Uri quest."  (pg. 43, and a fine example of Mrs. Malaprop's malapropisms.)
    As with all of Jasper Fforde's novels, OOOTIM is a literary feast.  But the first part of the book is, to be frank, a bit too rich.  There are so many bon mots that they tend to block out the plot.  Maybe this is Fforde's way to get us familiar with his new Fiction Island, but that's what the map is for.  There's a whole chapter devoted to a "mimefield" that has no discernible relevance.

    But not to worry.  The plot climbs back up onstage about halfway through, and the story is impeccable thereafter.

    The Thursday Next books are not stand-alones.  They really should be read in order.  So if you're an avid fiction reader, and are not familiar with this series, pick up The Eyre Affair and get started.  You are in for a treat.  8¼ Stars.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson

    2007; 818 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Thriller.  Book #3 of the Millennium Trilogy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Lisbeth Salander has problems.  Her father wants her charged with (his) Attempted Murder, which is understandable since she belted him in the face with an axe.  A psychiatrist wants  her put away as a paranoid schizophrenic.  And a bunch of shadowy government security agents want to kill her.

    Normally, this isn't anything Lisbeth couldn't handle.  But she's lying in a hospital, in critical condition, with a bullet in her head.

What's To Like...
    The book is a successful close to the trilogy.   Questions about Lisbeth's past are answered, and loose threads of any significance are tied up. 

    This isn't a mystery tale.  Larsson basically tells you every step the bad guys take.  But he deftly ramps up the tension with every chapter and you're never sure how things will turn out.

    As usual, Larsson interweaves several storylines.  Erika Berger has a new job with a competitor's magazine, and someone's stalking her.  Lisbeth and her hacker friends are matching "snooping wits" with the baddies.  Mikhail Blomkvist is investigating a clandestine government agency and bedding every woman in sight.  But all things get connected by the end.

    The action is sparse for the first 500 pages, but it's worth the wait.  When the trial begins, things take off.  The ending stutter-steps, yet still is gripping.

Kewlest New Word...
    Didn't see any.

    "I think you're right," Erlander said to Blomkvist as they walked back to the farmhouse.  "An analysis of the blood will probably establish that Salander was shot and buried here, and I'm begining to expect that we'll find her fingerprints on the cigarette case.  Somehow she survived and managed to dig herself out and -"
    "And somehow get back to the farm and swing an axe into Zalachenko's skull," Blomkvist finished for him.  "She can be a moody bitch."  (pg. 26)

    You could take it for granted that the Security Police invariably made fools of themselves.  That was the natural order of things, not for Sapo alone but probably for intelligence services all over the world.  The French secret police had sent frogmen to New Zealand to blow up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, for God's sake.  That had to be the most idiotic intelligence operation in the history of the world, with the possible exception of President Nixon's lunatic break-in at Watergate.  (pg. 228)

"Been there, done that, got the T-shirt."  (pg. 616)
    There are some weaknesses in The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, one of which are some you-gotta-be-kidding-me moments.   For example, Lisbeth and her dad both claim that the other had tried to kill them.  Yet they're both taken to the same hospital, put in room two doors from each other, and no one thinks to post any police guards.  Sheesh.

    The stretches of no action and stutter-step ending have already been mentioned.  But the main problem with TGWKTHN is Lisbeth herself.  She's the star of the book who tends to kick the hornet's nest; but for most of the book she's confined either to a hospital bed or a jail cell.  No wonder the story has some slow spots.

    Yet somehow, it all works.  You keep turning the pages  and staying up late to see what happens next.  Stieg Larsson may not be the best writer ever, but as a storyteller, he's second to none.  8 Stars.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Notes from a Small Island - Bill Bryson

1995; 324 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Anecdotal Travels.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Bill Bryson was born and bred in the USA, but moved to England after high school and spent most of the next 20 years there.  When he decided to move back here, he took a 7-week "farewell tour" of the UK.  He toured the length and breadth of the isle, almost all of it by public transportation or on foot.

    He visited large cities and small towns; famous landmarks and nondescript pubs and hotels.  And in the end, he treats us to 30 articles about his stops along the way.  Each is about 10 pages long, and they're all much more poignant than any travel guide could hope to be.

What's To Like...
    Bryson's musings about his adventures (and misadventures) are amusing and entertainingly honest.  He struggles with the inconsistencies of British mass transportation, gets rained on a lot (especially while walking), gets schnockered a couple times (gawd bless British suds), and partakes of a lot of ethnic cuisine.

    Bryson pulls few punches.  Sometimes the food, libations, and/or service is good; sometimes it's terrible.  Soemtimes the people he meets are rude to him for no reason; sometimes he's rude to them for no reason. There's a kewl glossary of Britishisms in the back of book, and any book that mentions Chertsey (pg. 64) gets a thumbs-up.  Bryson's insight is apparently accurate; in a 2003 BBC Radio 4 poll, the book was voted "that which best sums up British identity and the state of the nation".

Kewlest New Word...
Parlous : full of danger or uncertainty; precarious.

    Some people simply should not be allowed to fall asleep on a train, or, having fallen asleep, should be discreetly covered with a tarpaulin, and I'm afraid I'm one of them.  I awoke, some indeterminate time later, with a rutting snort and a brief, wild flail and lifted my head from my chest to find myself mired in a cobweb of drool from beard to belt buckle, and with three people gazing at me in a curiously dispassionate manner.  At least I was spared the usual experience of waking to find myself stared at open-mouthed by a group of small children who would flee with shrieks at the discovery that the dribbling hulk was alive.  (pg. 282)

    Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it.  Every last bit of it, good and bad - old churches, country lanes, people saying "Mustn't grumble" and "I'm terribly sorry but," people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, tea and crumpets, summer showers and foggy winter evenings - every bit of it.  (pg. 316)

"Hae ye nae hook ma dooky?"  (pg. 307)
    Don't try to read Notes from a Small Island in one or two sessions.  As Bryson himself notes, after a while, all the quaint little villages and big, sprawling cities start to look the same.

    To boot, Bill Bryson is often in a grumpy mood - about the frequency of the rain (ya think, Bill?); about modernization (things change;  get over it); about the drabness of his locale ("Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison.."), etc.  About halfway through the book, I took to reading only one or two chapters a day, and suddenly the book got a lot more interesting.

    NfaSI is not my favorite Bill Bryson book.  But he's a gifted writer, and this does bring back fond memories of my trips to England.  Plus a so-so Bryson book is still pretty good.  8 Stars.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Eric - Terry Pratchett

    1990; 197 pages.  Book #9 in the Discworld series.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Eric is a geeky teenager dabbling in demonology.  He casts a spell aimed at summoning the baddest demon in the Underworld.  What he gets is Rincewind, the worst wizard in Discworld.  Undeterred, he demands Rincewind grant hin three wishes - the be the master of the world, to meet the most beautiful woman that ever lived, and to live forever.

    Rincewind tries to explain that he has absolutely no magical powers.  And that nothing will happen if he snaps his fingers like this and... POOF!

What's To Like...
    Rincewind and The Luggage are major players here, and that's always a plus.   Death and the Librarian make cameo appearances.  And there's a parrot (see cover image) who's a hoot.

    Eric is Terry Pratchett's spoof of Faust, which I haven't read so can't make any comparisons.  The central theme is "be careful what you wish for".  Eric's three wishes may seem like pretty good ones, but the devil's in the details, and as each wish is fulfilled, they are found to come with drawbacks.

    The settings are neat - an Aztec-like kingdom, the Trojan War, Creation itself, and Hell.  Pratchett also takes a small poke at Quantum Mechanics and Multiverses.

Kewlest New Word...
Winge : whining; an irritating complaint.

    Preeminent among Rincewind's talents was his skill in running away, which over the years he had elevated to the status of a genuinely pure science; it didn't matter if you were fleeing from or to, so long as you were fleeing.  It was flight alone that counted.  I run, therefore I am; more correctly, I run, therefore with any luck I'll still be.
    But he was also skilled in languages and practical geography.  He could shout 'help' in fourteen languages and scream for mercy in a further twelve.  (pg. 49; 23% on Kindle)

    "What're quantum mechanics?"
    "I don't know.  People who repair quantums, I suppose."  (pg. 145; 68% on Kindle)

"Up yours, wizard."  (pg. 32; 15% on Kindle)
    Eric was originally a hardcover illustrated novel.  Because of the pictures, Pratchett cut down on the text.  The images were dropped for the mass-market paperback edition, so you end up with a very short book - less than 200 pages.  But the publisher still wants to charge full-price for Eric.  At Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble, it'll cost you an outrageous $7.99.

    I circumvented this by "borrowing" the Kindle version of this for free via my local library.  Which is way kewl, and I even figured out how the Kindle handles the always-entertaining Discworld footnotes.

    Other than its brevity, I found Eric to have a well-crafted storyline.  Each wish is addressed, and shown to be not near as desirable as it first seems.  The humor is vintage Pratchett; the similes are scintillating; and the ending, in Hell, is both whimsical and sensible.  8½ Stars, particularly if you manage to avoid the rip-off full-price.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

1891; 244 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Classic Lit; Gothic Fantasy.  Overall Rating :  9*/10.

    Dorian Gray is a young man of exceptional beauty, whose likeness is exquisitely captured by an artist friend of his.  But upon viewing the finished work, Dorian is sad, and even jealous, because while he'll grow old and lose his beauty, the portrait will remain forever young.  He wishes he could trade destinies with the painting.  And somehow this causes Fate to cruelly grant him his wish.

What's To Like...
    The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's only novel, caused both a sensation and a scandal when it was first published in 1890.  On one hand, Wilde gives some poignant observations on love, society, and morality in general; and in particular the upper classes of Britain and American women.  Moreover, it's the best piece of Gothic literature since Edgar Allan Poe.

    OTOH, the first version of TPoDG had overt allusions to homosexuality, which the 1890's Victorian society found highly offensive.  Wilde was forced to tone down and/or delete some of the more blatant passages before the 1891 printing, which is usually the version published nowadays.

    Dorian Gray is a great character study and reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin, in the recently-read The Idiot.  Both start out fetchingly naive and filled with ideals  and good intentions.  Both gradually become tainted: Prince Myshkin by Russian society; Dorian by his own guilt and sin.

    Finally, the central "scapegoat/sin-eater" theme is a great one.  If you could have something else absorb the responsibility for the ugly, sinful wrongs you commit, how would it affect your actions?  And what role would your conscience play?

Kewlest New Word...
Jarvies  :  Plural of jarvey, the driver of a carriage for hire.

    "I make a great difference between people.  I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.  A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.  I have not got one who is a fool.  They are all men of some intellectual power and consequently they all appreciate me.  Is that vain of me?  I think it is rather vain."  (pg. 13; Kindle 3%)

    Society - civilized society, at least - is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating.  It feels instinctively that manners are more important than morals, and, in its opinion, the highest respectability is of much less value than the possession of a good chef. (pg. 138; Kindle 63%)

"Dorian's whims are laws to everybody, except himself."  (pg.20)
    I thoroughly enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I am not a fan of Classic Lit by any means.  Outside of one stretch of philosophizing, the rest of the novel was superb.  The pacing was good, the premise was original, and the Faustian horror would make Poe smile.  There was some subtle ironic humor seasoned in, and Wilde's jabs at society are numerous, sharp, fascinating, and spot on.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's only novel.  After this, he turned to writing plays, and then got embroiled in a series of legal suits/countersuits, trials, imprisonment, and deteriorating health.  By 1900, a short 10 years after TPoDG was first published, Oscar Wilde was dead.

    9 Stars. This is a free download for the Kindle at Amazon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas - Tom Robbins

1994; 386 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The Thursday before Easter has been the worst day of Gwendolyn Mati's life.  She's a stockbroker in Seattle, and the market has just crashed like a go-kart in a destruction derby.  She'll probably lose her job on Monday (the market's closed on Good Friday) unless she figures out a way to cover up her losses.  If she doesn't come up with something, she can kiss her dreams of wealth and affluence goodbye.

    But hang on to your tattered panties, Gwendolyn, because your life is about to get as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting on acid.  Your boyfriend's born-again monkey has escaped, your 300-lb Tarot-reading girlfriend has disappeared, and some long-haired wacko just back from Timbuktu says the fun is just beginning.

What's To Like...
    Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas is told in the second-person.  When's the last time you've read a book from that perspective?  To boot, a male author crawls inside a female character's head, and that's always a challenge.

    Our heroine is not all that likeable - and that's a plus for me.  She's greedy, manipulative, and a bit of a snot.  But she has a good heart, a good head, and a good bod; so things kinda even out.

    And of course, this is Tom Robbins, which means you're being treated to some great writing, some zany plotlines, and humor that ranges from subtle to slapstick.  Robbins has a gift of creating unique and fascinating personalities, and here you're given a bonus of about a zillion similes/metaphors that rival even Terry Pratchett for sheer hilarity.

Kewlest New Word...
Isochronous : occurring at the same time.

    Belford is lying on the bed, eyes closed and an expression on his face that could end three Italian operas and still have enough anguish left over to butter an existentialist's toast.  You lie down beside him.  You wish only to comfort him, you tell yourself - as if Belford could not be comfortable with his fly fully buttoned.  (pg. 58)

    No, no, no.  Ridiculous.  Animals, even intelligent animals - perhaps most especially intelligent animals - do not share man's pathetic need to socialize bliss, codify awe, pigeonhole the Mystery, and tame the Divine.  For an ape, born twice is entirely redundant, since an ape gets it right the first time.  At least, that is how Q-Jo has put it.  Personally, you haven't a clue in spiritual matters, but you do know, or deeply suspect, that a monkey who once mingled with aristocrats in Swiss ski resorts and movie stars on the French Riviera, would find the company of Seattle Lutherans drab, dour, and dorky beyond all belief.  (pg. 228)

Mediocrity's a hairball coughed up on the Persian carpet of Creation.  (pg. 158)
    For all its wit and wackiness, HAIFP will never be touted as Robbins' tour de force.  The stock market setting doesn't make for lots of thrills and spills, and the theme - that we Americans are too materialistic - while probably true, has been done to death.

    The ending is a letdown.  A number of plotlines never get resolved, which means you end up with enough MacGuffins to stage a family reunion.  Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas screams for a sequel, but none has been penned in the ensuing 18 years.

    It's still worth 7½ Stars, cuz it is Tom Robbins, and it is a delight to read.  Just don't get too involved in the storyline itself, and tell yourself that it has an existential ending.