Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Wizard, The Farmer, and the Very Petty Princess - Daniel Fox

    2011; 216 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Epic Fairytale.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The Wizard (Magician, actually) Bodolomous wants to be the Most Evil Person Ever.  The Princess Willuna wants to learn how to be serious so King Anisim will marry her.  The Farmer, Idwal, just wants to live a dull, normal life and avoid adventure at any cost.

    Some of them achieve their goals, but not necessarily in the manner they expected.  Some of them fail miserably at their goals.  All of them get swept up in an epic Fairytale.

What’s To Like...
    In a nutshell, The Wizard, The Farmer, and the Very Petty Princess is a 200-page, fun-to-read fairytale. It borrows elements from a number of other works – Monty Python’s Holy Grail (“how do you know she’s a witch?”), The Wizard of Oz (characters searching for what they lack), and several classic fairytales.  But the story itself goes its own way; there's nothing stale or boring here.

    The characters aren’t very deep, and gifts like magic fiddles and magic bows-&-arrows pop up when needed.  But that’s the norm in fairytales.  Face it, Little Red Riding Hood is a shallow character, and Cinderella's mice and pumpkins are conveniently at hand to be changed into horses and carriages.

    A number of the chapters start off with “If you were to ask so-&-so if this story was about her…”, and end with “And that was how so-&-so learned such-&-such”.  I found that both novel and neat.

    Everything builds to a nice storybook ending.  This is a standalone story, although I could see the characters having further adventures in sequels.  There also could be a prequel, as reference was made to the “human wars” occurring 40 years earlier, but ANAICT, this never figured into the plotline.

    Bodolomous peered over the castle’s wall.  Below them the city spread out down the hill.  People below celebrated – making fireflies of themselves with sparklers, making themselves hyenas with their laughter, some of them making themselves pregnant with regrettably ugly people and a great deal of ale.  The wizard sniffed.  He had been one of them, once.  “Noisy”, he said, his voice all disdain.  (loc. 703)

    Anisim smiled.  “You’re a vision when you’re breaking things.”
    “I think I’ve found my calling.  And you, good sir, maybe you’ll get to hang up your sword for just a little while.  I heard you cut off your father’s head by the way, how did that go?”
    “Go?  It went off and to the left.”  (loc. 3509)

Kindle Details...
    The Wizard, The Farmer, and the Very Petty Princess sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  ANAICT, this is Daniel Fox’s only book there.

“I won’t have somebody mucking up my bid for infamy.  Off with you now.”  (loc. 1027)
    There is a review at Amazon wherein the writer says that, while this is a good book, she found it inappropriate for her 12-year-old.  I am frankly dumbfounded.  There is no sex, drugs, cussing, or even alcohol in the book.  There are one or two references to Snow-Drop’s “boobs”, but that’s the worst I can remember.  Really, lady?  You think your tweener can’t handle that?  Wow.

    TWTF&TVPP is a pleasant, light read that both adults and kids will like.  It isn’t deep; it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  But it is entertaining, despite being “just” a fairytale.  That’s a worthy accomplishment by Daniel Fox.  7½ Stars.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Heretic's Apprentice - Ellis Peters

   1990; 250 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #16 (out of 20) in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Cozy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    After a 7-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land, William of Lythwood and his young apprentice, Elave, have returned to Shrewsbury, only to find themselves both accused of heresy.  William takes this stoically.  After all, he is dead and in a casket.  All the heresy charge does is determine whether he will be buried within the grounds of the abbey.

    But for Elave, the price may be higher.  And there are three witnesses against him, including the lovely Fortunata.  He admits the testimony against him is true, and is unrepentant.  But when one of the witnesses turns up dead, Elave finds himself incarcerated on suspicion of murder, as well as heresy.

What’s To Like...
    The Heretic’s Apprentice, Ellis Peters’ 16th book in the series, has a somewhat different template.  Brother Cadfael does very little “solving” here, mostly he is just along for the ride as Brother Anselm, Fortunata, and the sheriff  do the sleuthing.  And atypically enough, Elave is eliminated as a murder suspect somewhat quickly.

    But that doesn’t detract from the story.  There is still the matter of who done it and why they done it.  You’ll walk beside Cadfael and Sheriff Hugh as the prime suspicion bounces around.

    It wouldn't be a Brother Cadfael story without a romance, of course.  This time the stumbling block is the charge of heresy against Elave.  There is also a lot of backstory.  The murder isn’t discovered until we’re more than 40% through the book.

    As always, the real joy of reading a Brother Cadfael story (besides the mystery) is Ellis Peters’ ability to create a believable 12th-century setting.  Everything “feels” right for June, 1143, including the people, the mindsets, the town, and the terrain.  If you like historical fiction, Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters is the author for you.

Kewlest New Word…
    Caparisoned (adj.)  :  clothed in finery (especially, a horse)

    “The good who go astray into wrong paths do more harm than the evil, who are our open enemies,” said Canon Gerbert sharply.  “It is the enemy within who betrays the fortress.”
    Now that, thought Cadfael, rings true of Church thinking.  A Seljuk Turk or a Saracen can cut down Christians in battle or throw stray pilgrims into dungeons, and still be tolerated and respected.  But if a Christian steps a little aside in his beliefs he becomes anathema.  (pg. 29)

    “I will not bow to such superstitious foolishness.  It would be to encourage the madmen, and put other souls in worse danger than mine.  This I don’t believe can come to anything perilous, if I stand my ground.  We have not yet come to that extreme of folly, that a man can be hounded for thinking about holy things.  You’ll see, the storm will pass over."
    “No,” she insisted, “not so easily.  Things are changing, did you not smell the smoke of it even there in the chapter house?”  (pg. 89)

“What are wits for ... unless a man uses them?”  (pg. 76)
    If there’s a weakness to The Heretic’s Apprentice, it lies in the details of the heresy charges against Elave.  Ellis Peters brings up a slew of Augustinian issues – infant baptism, original sin, grace-vs.-works, free will vs. predestination, and something called the Patripassian Heresy.  These are all worthy topics, but it feels clunky as she tries to squeeze them all into the story.  The grand finale – the heresy trial itself – feels rushed, and I found its key arguments to be non-persuasive.

    The more subtle theological issues here – dying with un-confessed sins and renouncing one’s unorthodox beliefs – are done with a much defter touch.  But I kept wondering just how realistic these dogma debates were for that time period, especially among the common folk.

    Kudos to Ms. Peters for the ambitious attempt to address some weighty theological issues here.  She didn’t quite get the clunks out, but that doesn’t change the fact that the plusses of The Heretic’s Apprentice far outweigh the minuses.  8 Stars.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thursday At Noon - William F. Brown

    2012; 278 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action; Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Things have been rough lately for Agent Thomson.  There was the fiasco in Damascus for which he has been given the blame.  Now all his younger cohorts at the Cairo CIA office snicker at him, and the US Ambassador to Egypt is just waiting for an excuse to ship his over-the-hill butt home.

    So when a local Egyptian approaches him in a bar with the offer to sell him some important photographs, Thomson recognizes it as a scam and refuses to pay.  But when the Egyptian is shortly thereafter beheaded right outside Thomson’s hotel, he realizes that he may have missed an opportunity to redeem his career.  How can things get any worse?

What’s To Like...
    The action is non-stop, and the prologue (the chapters before we meet Thomson) will draw you instantly into the book.  Thomson makes for a fine anti-hero – he drinks too much, gets beat up a lot, and makes wrong decisions.  He also is quite the wit, which adds lends a nice “flavor” to the action.

    The setting – Cairo - feels “real” to me; although granted, I’ve never been to the Mideast.  The 1962 mindsets are also well done, and I am old enough to remember Egyptian and Israeli sentiments in those days.

    It’s both rare and nice to see an author working some Arabic into the text.  And it’s both rare and refreshing to see Abdel Gamal Nasser (and even a second Egyptian official), portrayed in a positive light.  The Israelis are not perfect either, although it has to be said the overall tone here is more pro-Israel than pro-Egypt.  There’s only one female character in the book, so the love angle is pretty easy to foresee.

    The storyline builds to an exciting climax, with only a couple WTF moments along the way.  At one point, a bound-&-gagged Thomson somehow saves the day.  At another, a patient who’s been hypodermically drugged, is revived by throwing some water in his face.  I don’t think it’s quite that easy to overcome chemistry.  OTOH, compared to a Dirk Pitt novel, TaN’s WTF moments are few and far between.

    The small cab heeled over and Thomson braced himself, grabbing the door handle for dear life as the small cab sped on into the city’s Old Quarter.  It had once been ringed by sixty massive stone gates, but only three of them had survived.  It was common knowledge that the Cairo cab drivers had probably knocked down the other fifty-seven, and inciting one of these drivers to speed and drive recklessly was both redundant and suicidal.  (loc. 2315)

    “There is no CIA plot.”
    “There is always a CIA plot.”
    “You’ve got the CIA on the brain, Captain.”
    “I admit to certain prejudices, but history shows your country never tires of meddling with little people like us.”  (loc. 2403)

Kindle Details...
    Thursday At Noon sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  William F. Brown has three other novels available for the Kindle, all of which are also $2.99.  For some reason those other books don’t show up on Amazon’s “William Brown Author’s Page”, but you can see them in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section.

“Ah, those Cairo nights, full of mystery and sin.”  Bullshit, Thomson thought.  (loc. 592)
    There are some weaknesses.  All of the characters are either “black” or “white”.  This makes it easy to figure out what’s going on and who’s behind it.  It also means that there are very few plot twists that “gray” characters inherently cause.

    There aren’t a lot of typos, but three prominent ones – hangar/hanger, Luger/Lugar, and Frankfort/Frankfurt are curious in that William F. Brown gets each of them correct about half the time.  Random guessing?  I’m also surprised that spell-checker allows “Lugar”.

    Overall, I found Thursday At Noon to be a well-told page-turner, with a nice blend of action, history, wit, love, and intrigue.  Seeing Nasser portrayed as a man of honor and integrity was a pleasant surprise; and it was also a timely read, given the current unrest in Egypt.

    7½ Stars.  There are a couple loose ends (Collins, Ilsa) still hanging at the story’s end, but perhaps this is deliberate so things can segue into a sequel.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Look To Windward - Iain M. Banks

   2000; 483 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #7 in the Culture series.  Genre : Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Mahrai Ziller is both a brilliant Chelgrian composer and one of Chel’s foremost revolutionaries.  (Think ‘Ignacy Paderewski').  But he has been in self-imposed exile for many years, living on the Masaq’ Orbital in the Culture Empire, which chafes Chelgrian pride.

    Therefore Major Quilan is dispatched to travel to the Masaq’ Orbital and to convince Ziller to return home.  Ah, but there are ulterior motives for his visit.  Quilan’s been told about them, then had his memory banks modified to where he’ll only gradually recall those further plans at the appropriate times.

What’s To Like...
    As with any Iain M. Banks novel, the world-building (universe-building, actually) is incredibly detailed and believable.  There’s a planet-sized ring instead of the usual sphere.  The robotic drones have personalities; and the foxlike Chelgrians and 9-foot tall Homomdans mingle with the humans.  If you liked the two-heads/one-body setup for Rand and Lews in WoT, you’ll find Quilan and Huyler similarly fashioned. 

    There’s a certain somberness to Look To Windward, but it’s balanced by some witty dialogue, strange creatures, and fascinating sentient beings.  Ziller is great; so is the scholar Uagen Zlepe.  Then there’s the names of the spaceships, such as “Resistance is Character Forming” and “Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall”.  The gradually-revealed scheming is a clever device.

    Iain M. Banks explores a number of themes in LTW, including revenge, euthanasia, religion, and the caste system.  There is a small amount of critter sex and some adult language, but only prudes will be bothered by it.

Kewlest New Word...
Trefoil  (adj.) : In a clover-like or lotus (sitting) position.

    “Of course, this is always assuming that none of your ship Minds were lying.”
    “Oh, they never lie.  They dissemble, evade, prevaricate, confound, confuse, distract, obscure, subtly misrepresent and willfully misunderstand with what often appears to be a positively gleeful relish and are generally perfectly capable of contriving to give one an utterly unambiguous impression of their future course of action while in fact intending to do exactly the opposite, but they never lie.  Perish the thought.”  (pg. 29)

    “There are those who believe that after death the soul is recreated into another being.”
    “That is conservative and a little stupid, certainly, but not actually idiotic.”
    “And there are those who believe that, upon death, the soul is allowed to create its own universe.”
    “Monomaniacal and laughable as well as probably wrong.”
    “Then there are those who believe that the soul--“
    “Well, there are all sorts of different beliefs.  However, the ones that interest me are those concerning the idea of heaven.  That’s the idiocy it annoys me that others cannot see.”
    “Of course, you could just be wrong.”
    “Don’t be ridiculous.”  (pg. 275)

 “Tonight you dance by the light of ancient mistakes!”  (pg. 10)
    There isn’t a lot of action in Look To Windward until the very end, and even then it isn’t of epic proportions.  This makes for some slow spots as Banks gradually develops the plotline and pauses to spend time on numerous topics.

    OTOH, the darker side of The Culture is revealed here.  Their benevolent meddling does not always work out as planned, and if you cross them seriously enough, they have some brutal ways of dealing with you.

    This is my third Iain M. Banks book (the other two are reviewed here and here), and I am beginning to see a pattern.  The storylines are not on a particularly cosmic scale, but the worlds and creatures he creates are eminently believable and richly developed; and he addresses various topics, particularly ethical ones, in a thought-provoking way that keeps the reader’s rapt attention.  Add to that his obvious writing skills, and you can see why he was one of the top-tier contemporary sci-fi authors.

    Iain M. Banks passed away on 09 June 2013, at the too-young age of 59.  He will be sorely missed.  8½ Stars.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Murder and Other Distractions - Michael Estrin

    2012; 200 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Slacker Noir.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Poor Ethan.  He goes down to La Fogata, his favorite place for tacos, and who does he run into?  His ex-GF, aka “The Girl Who Got Away”.  With her new flame, aka “Lesser Me”.  But what really hurts is the fact that Ethan considers La Fogata to be his taco joint.  The ex and her boy-toy should find their own Mexican food dive.

    Ethan gives them his best parting zinger (“This place is better than butt-sex”), and exits semi-gracefully.  Unfortunately, somebody murders the couple later that night, and Ethan has only the flimsiest of an alibi.  Which makes hard-assed Detective Boyd of the LAPD certain that Ethan is guilty.  And Boyd won’t rest until he’s extracted a full confession out of Ethan.

What’s To Like...
    There’s a double-murder, and a mystery as to whodunit.  But this really isn’t a Murder-Mystery.  It’s more of a contemporary fiction novel about Ethan, and how he copes with women, work, and an insane world.  Michael Estrin writes in a style that is both witty and convincing.  But be forewarned – Murder & Other Distractions is R-Rated from the first page – both in language and in content.  It works nicely (what would you expect from the Slacker Noir genre?), but this is not a book for the prudish.

    Ethan is nicely developed as an anti-hero.  He’s not really great with the ladies; work is little more than seeing how long he can avoid being laid off; and his friends tolerate him more than they like him.  He’s a classic slacker and an obvious suspect.  But he and Detective Boyd develop an unlikely kinship as the story progresses.

    But for me, the best part of the story is Michael Estrin’s portrayal of Los Angeles.  I lived in the greater LA area for three summers, and there’s something pitch-black and oily and evil-feeling about the city.  The author catches this ambiance perfectly.  It brought back some delightfully dark memories.

    The Internet is no place for an existential crisis.  Being connected to everyone and everything ought to be illuminating.  The truth is, it’s madness – a tower of babble moving at the speed of light, and there’s no way off the mountain.  (loc. 588)

    “You want to know the difference between men and women?” Zeiger asks his class, which is nearly all female.  “Here’s the thing.  We all want $100.  Women look at life and they search for that one Benjamin – the perfect guy.  Men, on the other hand, will take all the dirty singles they can get.”  (loc. 797)

Kindle Details...
    Murder and Other Distractions sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  AFAIK, this is Michael Estrin’s debut offering at Amazon.

“Los Angeles is a car town.  Like a Disney ride, it’s best if you keep your arms and legs safely inside the vehicle.” (loc. 639)
    If there’s a weakness to Murder and Other Distraction, it’s the storyline itself.  Estrin’s wit and insight is a joy to read, but sooner or later you start craving an exciting, or even just a coherent plot.  The Who of the whodunit is completely arbitrary, which will leave mystery readers disappointed.  And while I thoroughly love the way Estrin “catches” the essence of LA, if you’ve never lived or visited there, you may get tired of the countless references to various neighborhoods and streets.

    So let’s give M&OD  Stars.  It’s a tantalizingly good debut effort.  If Michael Estrin learns to drape his writing skills around a gripping plotline, he’s going to have a great and long-lasting writing career.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Welcome To Higby - Mark Dunn

   2002; 339 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedy; Contemporary Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Welcome to Higby, Mississippi. It’s Labor Day weekend 1993, and the townsfolk are making plans to relax by throwing Tripoley parties, playing Stratego, and perhaps making a macaroni painting.  Of course, a little bit of alcohol helps liven up any of these activities.

    But things are amiss in Higby.  Carmen Valentine’s invisible guardian angel has just left on a 2-week vacation, and Clint Cullen has taken a dive from atop the rickety water tower into a swimming pool.  He’ll live, but the weekend is only going to get wackier.

What’s To Like...
    You’ll find Welcome To Higby in the Humor section of your bookstore, and it certainly delivers.  But on a deeper level, it’s a series of stories about dysfunctional Love.  There are tired relationships, lost loved ones, people scared of a relationship, and those who are seeking Divine Love.  For the most part, those searching for love find it, but rarely in the manner they expect.

    You’ll meet a couple dozen of the local residents, and trying to remember who’s related to and/or seeing who is a challenge.  You can take notes if you want, but things soon coalesce into about 5 storylines.  The characters come in various colors, natures, and political and religious mindsets.  Like snowflakes, no two of them are alike.  You’ll find them all likeable, even the Brothers and Sisters of the Blessed Redeemer.  And if you see Muffin, she with the Wayward Steak, please try to catch her.

    Mark Dunn does a superb job of interweaving the humor with the various plotlines.  The chapters are short, which keeps the pace hopping; and each one opens with a snippet of Scripture, which then gets played out in the chapter in a most unforeseen manner.  The books wraps up nicely, with all of the major plotlines tied up.  A thoroughly enjoyable read.

    “Just look at him.”
    “Look at who?”
    Hank.  He’s right down on his hands and knees tellin’ your cat all about Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”  Nancy Leigh set down her bottle of Windex and turned to Bowmar.  “This doesn’t bother you the tiniest little bit?”
    “I don’t think it would be such a bad thing, Nancy Leigh, if my cat happens to wind up in Heaven.”  (pg. 7)

    Talitha noticed that Joy was still holding the letter for Nancy Leigh in her hand.  Pud had read it first and struck through two lines that he felt might be a little alarmist.  “Help!  Help! I’ve been kidnapped by a religious cult and am being brainwashed even as you read this!” and “There are bloodthirsty Doberman pinchers who will eat me alive if I try to escape!”  At first Pud had merely been troubled by the misspelling of the word “pinschers.”  Then he had second thoughts and scratched through the whole sentence before passing the letter along to Joy.  (pg. 178)

 “We’re all human, when you come right down to it.”  (pg. 110)
    The story may be set in Mississippi, but it brought back some fond personal childhood memories of growing up in a small town (pop. 200) in Pennsylvania.  It was a simpler time, moving at a slower pace, and life’s issues seemed less complex way back then.

    Overall, Welcome To Higby has the tone and “feel” of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, but with the characters much more fleshed out.  Then mix in some crazy and convoluted plot twists like you’d find in one of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels.  If you like those two authors, you’ll enjoy WTH.  One thing to note – there are adult situations and language here, so this is a spicier read.

    9 Stars.  Highly recommended.  Subtract one star if you’ve never lived in a small town, or if you’re too young to remember fax machines and lint-removal rollers.  You don’t know what you've missed.