Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Morbid Taste For Bones - Ellis Peters

    1977; 256 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder-Mystery (Cozy).  Book #1 of the Brother Cadfael series.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    By means of a divine healing, God has shown that Saint Winifred’s bones should be moved from their present grave in Wales to the nearby English abbey in Shrewsberry.  At least the brothers in the abbey are convinced of that.

    The Welsh are less convinced.  But when one of their own who opposes the move is struck down, is that not God’s judgment?  Perhaps.  But the arrow embedded in his chest belongs to his daughter’s beloved, to whom the father has refused to give her hand.  Hmm.

What’s To Like...
    This is the book that started it all.  Over the next 17 years or so, Ms. Peters (actually, Edith Pargeter) would pen 20 more in the series.  As her debut effort, A Morbid Taste For Bones is different in some respects; typical in others.  It’s a “cozy” murder-mystery, with a pair of “love-overcomes-all” sub-stories.  The murder doesn’t take place until 1/3 of the way through the book.  This is all vintage Peters.

    OTOH, Brother Cadfael is somewhat more cynical and devious than I remember him (this is my 6th Brother Cadfael book, but it's been a while since I last read one).  And his abbey colleagues seem to be a lot more worldly-grounded than in the later stories.  Ellis Peters seems to use a bit less “old English” here, which makes it an easier read.  Or maybe I’m finally learning her medieval terms.

    The mystery itself is well-done, as the suspicion jumps from one person to another.  There’s probably a half-dozen prime suspects, which seems just the right amount.  The ending is satisfying, and includes a neat little twist that places Brother Cadfael’s carefully-laid plans in jeopardy.  There are a number of purported “miracles”.  Some are obviously terrestrial in nature, but Peters leaves you wondering if others aren’t heaven-sent.  I like that.

Kewlest New Word...
    Cantrip (noun)  : A trick; a mischievous or playful act.

    The parents were ordinary enough, comfortable people grown plump from placid living, and expecting things to go smoothly still as they always had.  Cadwallon had a round, fleshy, smiling face, and his wife was fat, fair and querulous.  The boy cast back to some more perilous ancestor.  (pg. 63 )

    For would it be a miracle, if there was any reason for it?  Miracles have nothing to do with reason.  Miracles contradict reason, overturn reason, make game of reason, they strike clean across mere human deserts, and deliver and save where they will.  If they made sense, they would not be miracles.  (pg. 248)

“It’s a kind of arrogance to be so certain you’re past redemption.”  (pg. 198)
    Who knows why Ms. Peters “toned things down” as the series progressed.  Perhaps she feared losing church-going fans if the clerics kept on acting like lay persons.  Perhaps she simply felt the stories read better when the suspects were all new characters, instead of abbey residents.

    Personally, I liked the more-earthly tone of AMTFB.  Then again, I also like her later style.  8½ Stars.  Highly recommended.  Nearly 20 years after her passing, Ellis Peters still sets the standard for Medieval Cozies.  With good reason.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The White Tree - Edward W. Robertson

    2011; 428 pages.  Book 1 of “The Cycle of Arawn” trilogy.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Epic Quest.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Dante Galand has stolen a book.  It is a holy book.  It is a magic book.  And it must be pretty important to someone, because they keep sending hired assassins to find him and kill him.

    Dante would like to learn the magic contained in it, but frankly, it reads more like a history lesson.  And there are parts he can’t even read because he doesn’t know the language(s).  A trip to Narashtovik is in order, provided he can find somebody to keep the assassins out of his hair.

What’s To Like...
    There’s plenty of action and plenty of magic.  The White Tree is not really a Fantasy, since there are no dwarves, elves, dragons, etc. – but the story is sufficiently strong without them.  It’s also a coming-of-age tale, which pretty much defines the target audience.  There is a sprinkling of humor – mostly the witty repartee between Dante and Blays.

    On a subtler level, the book has some powerful things to say about religious intolerance.  The author also has fun with the “do the gods exist, or don’t they” issue.  If you like anti-heroes, Dante’s your kind of guy – he assaults, steals, murders, and lies.

     There’s lots of cussing and lots of bloodshed.  But no sex.  Indeed, there isn’t a shred of romance in the book.  Some of us call that a plus.  There are a couple slow spots – mostly when Edward Robertson opts to tell us the mythology of the various gods.  The ending is okay, but puzzling.  It’s hard to see how the sequel will start out.  But I suppose that’s a hook to read it. 

Kewlest New Word…
    Kipple : the sinister type of rubbish which simply builds up without any human intervention.  (curiously, a word coined by Philip K. Dick, so quite the anachronism here)

    The man rolled his eyes.  “Priests go in.  No one else.  That’s why they call it the Sealed Citadel?”
    “Ah,” Dante said.  “I thought it was just an expression.”
    “No, this is an expression,” the man said, following up with something obscene.  He walked away.
    “Did you hear that?” Dante said to Blays.
    “Yes, but I think you’d break your back before you reached it.”  (loc. 3654)

    “Rettinger says you did all right.”
    “All right?   I saved your pet’s life here,” Blays said, tipping his head at Dante.
    “We’ll get you a medal.”
    “”I’d prefer some whiskey.”
    “Whiskey’s fleeting.  Badges of honor last until you have to pawn them. (loc. 5318)

Kindle Details...
    The White Tree sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  The sequel, The Great Rift, sells for $5.99.  The final book of the trilogy is reportedly in the works.

“The denial of men’s desires is the gods’ way of saying hello.”  (loc. 4320)
    There are some WTF moments.  For instance, at one point, Dante reanimates the skeleton of a dead mouse.  For no reason.  He carries it around in his pocket for a while, for no reason.  Then releases it, for no reason.  Then discovers he can “see” through the mouse’s empty eyes, and immediately saves the day thereby.  Deus ex Machina, anyone?

    And while I like anti-heroes, I do prefer seeing them get their comeuppance.  Or at least, some moral enlightenment.  Here, Dante gets away with everything, and doesn’t seem to be regretful about any of it.  He’s a lot more powerful at the end of the book, but not a better person.  But there are still two more books to go in the series. 

    It’s therefore tough to rate this book when none of the characters are “White Hats”, just fifty shades of gray.  Evil fares much better than Good here.  But hey, you can say that about Star Wars Episodes 3 and 5 as well.  So, 7 Stars.  Add one more star if you’re a teenage boy, and think it’s kewl when the blood spurts out of a severed arm.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Armageddon - The Musical

    1990; 331 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Humor; Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It’s AD 2050, a half-century after the unfortunate NHE (“Nuclear Holocaust Event”), and Earth is frankly in terrible shape.  No, I’m not talking about the acid rain, devastated lands, and lack of food; although all of that is certainly true.  But Earth is actually a reality show, watched by the inhabitants of the planet Phnaargos, and its ratings are the pits.  There’s nothing exciting about a nuclear wasteland.

    There’s only one thing to do – send someone back in time to 1958 and talk Elvis out of joining the army.  That’ll change the course of history, and the audience-losing NHE can be replaced with an Armageddon event.  Viewers love Armageddons.

    Sounds like a plan.  What could possibly go wrong?

 What’s To Like...
    If you’ve read any Robert Rankin at all, you know that the norm is for everything to go wrong, with nonstop, hilarious mayhem in hot pursuit.  And rest assured, that’s exactly what happens here.

    The main character is Rex Mundi, and he’s a likeable schmo.  The supporting cast includes Elvis, Barry the time-traveling sprout, Rex’s sexy sister, Gloria, and two members of the cannibalistic Devianti, Rambo Bloodaxe and Deathblade Eric.

    Underneath all the spoofiness, Robert Rankin has some insightful points to make about organized religion and corporate politics.  But the excellent penning of parody prevents it from coming off as being “preachy”.  So grab yourself a Buddhabeer, turn on the Buddhavision, and light up a Kharma Kool.  The reality show called “The Earthers” is about to air.

Kewlest New Word...
    Videlicet (adverb; Latin) : “To wit”; “That is to say”; “Namely”.

    Rex Mundi crept along a plushly carpeted corridor, seeking his destiny.  Rex, whose character must now be well known to the reader.  His failings, few as they are, forgivable considering the circumstances.  His valour tried and tested.  His integrity absolute.  His complexion, although scabious, leaving his good looks romantically untarnished.  His underpants unchanged from page one.  Rex continued to creep along.  (pg. 229 )

    “Oh yes, sir.”  Jason’s face bobbed up and down.  “Armageddon, that’s what it’s all about now, eh?”
    Mungo made a thoughtful face.  “Yes, well it is and it isn’t.”
    “It is and it isn’t.”  Morgawr tried to look enlightened.  “It is Armageddon, but it’s not Armageddon.  Yes I see.  I know it’s not the Armageddon.  Which is to say, that although it is our Armageddon, which will appear to be their Armageddon, it is not really the Armageddon.  Which is what you are saying, is it not?”
    “What I’m saying is that whoever’s Armageddon it turns out to be, it must have a happy ending.”  (pg. 276)

“Om  mani  padme  BOOOOOOOOOM!”  (pg. 120)
    Armageddon The Musical can get confusing at times, what with all the time-, planetary-, and scene-jumping.  But that’s Rankin’s style, and I for one thoroughly enjoy it.  Things run amok for most of the book, but it all wraps up at the end. 

    ATM is for readers who like Douglas Adams, Tom Holt, and Terry Pratchett.  It is part of a trilogy, but it works just fine as a standalone.  The sequel, They Came And Ate Us, is on my TBR shelf.

    8½ Stars.  Highly recommended, but I say that about every Robert Rankin book I read.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Schliemann Legacy - D.A. Graystone

    2011; 248 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action-Adventure.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    The long-lost archaeological treasures that Heinrich Schliemann uncovered at Troy have been located.  Unfortunately, they’re inside a compound in the Colombian jungle, owned by a Nazi war criminal and guarded by a drug cartel.

    Three adventurers are sent to try to retrieve the priceless artifacts : the Israeli, David Morritt, the Greek, Katrina Kontoravdis; and the Turk, “Duman”.  But they’re not a team; they’re in fierce competition with each other.  And one of them is a highly-trained assassin.

What’s To Like...
    The Schliemann Legacy is non-stop action from the first page to the last.  There’s also some romance, and the historical flashbacks to the Holocaust will give you chills.  The settings are great – Paris, Colombia, and Jamaica; and D.A. Graystone adds a nice twist in the form of a game master who manipulates the three protagonists as if he was running an Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  There is a little bit of cussing, some sex, and lots of violence.  For some of us, that’s a plus.

     The characters are black and white.  More on this in a bit.  You can see the romance coming a mile away.  Some of the secondary characters – Helene, for instance – are more interesting than the main ones.  The game master’s resources and methods are never really explained and the question that intrigued me – should the artifacts be given to Greece or Turkey – is never explored.  There are some WTF moments, although no worse than in a James Bond tale.

    The ending is muddled, with loose strings galore.  It is only passable if there’s a sequel to tie things up, and ANAICT, the author isn’t working on one.

    “I just don’t like the man,” Erhart said.  “He’s a sadistic killer, a psychotic, a maniac…”
    “Nonsense.  There is no reason to distrust him.  He’s not psychotic.  He’s simply a man with a passionate dream.  It just happens he believes violence is the key to realizing his dream.”  (loc. 178)

    Certain noise belonged to the natural environment of every home – a dripping tap, the whisper of air conditioning, the crack of a settling foundation.  But other sounds belonged to the enemy – a click of a shoe, controlled breathing, the cocking of a gun.  These sounds would betray a waiting attack.  The difficulty, as every frightened child knows, lay in distinguishing between the two types of noises.  (loc. 2624)

Kindle Details...
    The Schliemann Legacy sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  D.A. Graystone has one other book available for the Kindle, Two Graves: A Kesle City Homicide Novel , but it I don’t think it’s related to this one.

“Without law, we become our enemy.”  (loc. 2678)
    As a story, The Schliemann Legacy is okay – the technical weaknesses being balanced out by the constant action.   Unfortunately, the author seems to have an agenda, and that agenda is to promote Zionism.

    I’m cool with recounting the Nazi atrocities; that part of history cannot be told often enough.  But D.A. Graystone doesn’t stop there.  The British are evil because they were administering Palestine right after WW2.  All Palestinian Arabs are bad, too.  And all Turks.  And Frenchmen, except they are  also fat.  And Israeli “doves”.  And Communists, but he couldn’t squeeze them anywhere into the plotline, so he disses them in Katrina’s backstory.  Only Israeli hardliners are good. 

    This would have been a better book without the political preaching.  5½ Stars.  Add one more star if you happen to be a Zionist, and think that Daniel Silva is one heckuva storyteller.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Age of Aztec - James Lovegrove

    2012; 507 pages.  New Author? : Yes. Book #4 of the “Pantheon” series.  Genres : Action-Adventure; Alt-History; Godpunk.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    In an Alternate Universe, the Aztec Empire has conquered the entire world, thanks to their superior "Aztechnology”.  But in (almost) present-day London, one person is trying to foment a revolution.  He wears a mask, wreaks vengeance, and thumbs his nose at the rulers by wearing a suit of armor, a la a conquistador.

    Mal Vaughn is a London police detective; she’s loyal to Aztec Empire; is bright and resourceful; and has been given the task of bringing "The Conquistador" down.  She’d better, because the price of failure will be her life as a sacrifice to the gods.

 What’s To Like...
    Age of Aztec is chock full of action-adventure from beginning to end.  Our hero is incredibly audacious, yet he has some flaws – most notably the need to grandstand.  Mal, his nemesis, is an equally  strong protagonist, and the quips and banter between the two are hilariously witty.  Although it’s kind of obvious how this will resolve itself, it’s fun to watch it play out.

    There’s a kind of dichotomy to the story.  The first half of the book – the “London” part – is non-stop excitement (think “V for Vendetta”), and kept me turning the pages.  The second half – the “Mexico” part – is more mythology-oriented.  That’s a jolt, but it’s not unexpected, since this whole series is about various God Pantheons.  I still kept turning the pages.

    The world-building is eminently believable, and it is a kewl change to see the European powers given their comeuppance.  Turning the earth into a pole-to-pole jungle (via controlled and near-continuous volcanic eruptions) was a nice touch.  There is plenty of blood and gore, some cussing, and some sex, so this is not one for the kiddies.  It is a standalone story, despite being part of a series.

Kewlest New Word...
    A bit of a barney (phrase, Britishism) : A set-to; a fight; a row.  Some other Britishisms that were new to me : a yomp (a long march); boffins (scientists); bodging (making do on a job with whatever tools are available).

    It was another sultry, sweltering winter’s day, and the plaza around the City of London ziggurat was packed.  Thousands clustered in the palm-fringed square itself, many of them having camped out overnight to be assured of a good view.  Thousands more thronged the adjacent streets – Cheapside, Ludgate Hill, Paternoster Row – to watch the action on giant screens, close enough that they would just be able to hear the screams of the dying.   (pg. 11  Is that a kewl opening paragraph, or what? )

    “Bloody Moroccan food,” Jasper Marquand muttered.  “You go there for a short break, some jollies with the local catamites, and what do you end up with?  The worst case of the runs imaginable.  Sun, sea, sodomy, salmonella.  Never again, I tell you.  Never again.”
    “If you insist, your holiness.”  (pg. 52)

“We’re the gods’ pets, then is that what you’re saying?”  (pg. 401)
        I stumbled across Age of Aztec at my local library in their “for a dollar it’s yours” section.  It obviously played to the recent “Mayan end of the World” craze,  and I guess the library figured once that came and went, interest in this book would ebb to zero.  That would be a shame, since James Lovegrove apparently has penned four of these Pantheon novels, using a different set of gods for each story.  This doesn't appear to be a cheap "pander to the latest fad" offering.

    There’s a  nice twist at the end, but it does leaves the storyline hanging.  The Aztec gods seem well-researched, although I wouldn’t know fact from baloney.  I think Lovegrove captures the “essence” of ancient gods accurately – they may be feared and respected for their power; but they aren’t to be loved or admired.

    Age of Aztec was a pleasant, one-dollar, thrills-&-spills surprise for me.  8½ Stars.  Subtract a star if mythology isn’t your thing.  Add it back if you think  V for Vendetta was a way-kewl movie..

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Attic Piranhas - Marlin Williams

    2012; 178 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.
    Max Fagan is looking for change.  Of course, the “change” he wants is money back after handing over a twenty-dollar bill to a street vendor for a hotdog.  The change he’s gonna get is something entirely different.  Be careful what you wish for, Max.

What’s To Like...
    The Attic Piranhas is a fast-paced story that is difficult to slot into a single genre.  There are humor, drama, and action; all in more or less equal amounts.  There are a plethora of plot twists which gives the storyline a roller-coaster feel – you know you’re going somewhere, you’re not quite sure where, but you know you’ll have fun getting there.

    Max is a fine anti-hero – lazy, overweight, delinquent on his bills, always wanting something for nothing.  He has Charley Axon – a “voice inside his head” - that puts all others to shame.  The concept of attic piranhas is both original and well-done.  It would be a spoiler to tell you exactly what they are.

    The question you’ll keep asking is : is there something magical going on?  Marlin Williams will keep you guessing up till the very end.  The ending is adequate; I felt it was a bit contrived, but that’s in keeping with the flavor of the book.

    There are some weaknesses.  At times the weirdness threatens to overshadow the story.  There are some continuity issues.  Max’s colleague, Ramir, needs a backstory.  The prologue has no relevance at all.  I still haven’t figured out what a blown-out shoe is.  And the methane conflagration?  Not very likely.  To boot, methane’s odorless, so Max wouldn’t smell it.  Trust me, I’m a chemist.

    “How did you know what I was looking at?”
    The man pointed to the ceiling.  “Security camera.”  He eyed Max curiously.  “Are you a collector?”
    Max feigned interest in the oddities surrounding him.  He recalled his own collection of disposable dining-ware and infomercial bargains overflowing from his cabinets and nodded his head.  “You might say that.”   (loc. 404 )

    A small, mousey man entered the room.  He was a social puzzle, an assortment of odds and ends coming together to form one strange individual.  His neon-green glasses were perched on the bridge of his long nose.  His thin frame was neatly wrapped in a red and white pinstriped suit and adorned with a bowtie of archaic patterns.  He could have been Andy Warhol’s parting gift to the world.  (loc. 855)

“Remember, it’s midnight in the house of dark and light.”  (loc. 2862)
    The best way to describe The Attic Piranhas is that it’s “A Confederacy of Dunces lite”.  Both have unlikeable protagonists, abundant weirdness, and meandering plots.  Heck, both have hotdog vendors.  TAP is shorter and easier to follow, and for all his faults, Max is a lot less annoying than Ignatius Reilly.  OTOH, I felt the writing in ACOD (reviewed here) was stronger.

    A lot of readers won’t like TAP, which is also true of ACOD; but I found it to be entertaining. It did seem like some beta readers could have really helped it, though.

    7 Stars.  Add another 1½ stars if you think, like the Pulitzer peeps did, that John Kennedy Toole’s opus was a masterpiece.