Monday, September 30, 2013

Wild Ducks Flying Backward - Tom Robbins

   2005; 255 pages.  New Author? : No.   Full Title : Wild Ducks Flying Backward, The Short Writings of Tom Robbins.  Genre : Selected Writings.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    What happens when you take the Novel out of a Novelist?  Wild Ducks Flying Backward examines Tom Robbins in that light via a slew of short-but-diverse pieces he’s written over the course of nearly 40 years (1967-2005) for a variety of magazines, newspapers, etc.

    What you get is a different shade of Robbins.  It’s more vivid, especially when’s he’s hyping the local (Seattle area) culture; and more complex when he’s reviewing a celebrity.  It’s also brighter when he’s tossing a poem at you; and lighter when he’s composing a song or a ditty for his young son.

What’s To Like...
    The writings aren’t in chronological order; they’re grouped into the following sections :
    Travel Articles  (pg. 7)
    Tributes  (pg. 55)
    Stories, Poems, and Lyrics  (pg. 125)
    Musings and Critiques  (pg. 175)
    Responses  (pg. 225)

    There’s a handy Table of Contents, so you can easily locate a personal favorite.  Tom Robbins’ travels, tastes, opinions, and creations cover a broad spectrum.  If you run into a topic that doesn’t tickle your fancy, be of good cheer – the next article will be on something completely different.

    FWIW, my favorite sections were the “Poems” and the “Responses”.  But this is like picking your favorite M&M color – all the sections were tasty.  My favorite articles were The Doors (55); Leonard Cohen (77); Write About One of your Favorite Things (225); Till Lunch Do Us Part (188); and My Heart is not a Poodle (153).  He even includes three great pieces of Haiku, a verse form that is easy to do, but almost impossible to do well.

    But it is Tom Robbins’ fabulous writing style and masterful vocabulary that will have you gasping in awe.  Without a storyline to rein things in, he can let his literary artistry flow.  The subject may bore you; the wordplay wizardry will not.  Every page dazzles.

Kewlest New Word...
Vagitus (n.) : the crying of a newborn baby.

    Few who ever heard it forget her voice- which sounds as if it’s been strained through Bacall and Bogey’s honeymoon sheets and then hosed down with plum brandy.  Or her laugh – which sounds as if it’s being squeezed out of a kangaroo bladder by a musical aborigine.  (pg. 119)

    To pragmatists, the letter Z is nothing more than a phonetically symbolic glyph, a minor sign easily learned, readily assimilated, and occasionally deployed in the course of a literate life.  To cynics, Z is just an S with a stick up its butt.
    Well, true enough, any word worth repeating is greater than the sum of its parts; and the particular word-part Z – angular, whereas S is curvaceous – can, from a certain perspective, appear anally wired (although Z is far too sophisticated to throw up its arms like Y and act as if it had just been goosed).  (pg. 225)

 The shore of Puget Sound is where electric guitars cut their teeth and old haiku go to die.”  (pg. 235)
    There were some slow spots.  The tributes on people I know were fascinating, but when it was someone I was unfamiliar with, I lost interest.  Ditto for some of the Seattle artist blurbs – the critiques are detailed, but one gets the feeling that there were pictures of the artists' works to go along with the original articles.  In fairness, my curiosity was piqued enough to google-image said artists.  I found Leo Kenney to be fantastic; Morris Louis to be so-so.

    There also were times – especially in the literary critiques – when Robbins’ writing just went Whoosh! right over my head.  But I still enjoyed the wordsmanship, and Robbins can hardly be faulted for not dumbing down his literary intricacies to my level.

    So here’s an exercise to try.  Select a letter of the alphabet, and write a 2-page essay on it.  When you’re done, compare it to Tom Robbins’ ode to the letter Z, the beginning of which is given in the second excerpt, above.

    See what I mean about him being a wordmeister sans pareil?

    All in all, Wild Ducks Flying Backward demonstrates that Tom Robbins can pen a stellar piece in just about any writing field he chooses.  9 Stars.  Add a half-star if you live in the Seattle area; subtract one star if what you really read Tom Robbins for is his crazy storytelling.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gabriel's Redemption - Steve Umstead

    2011; 277 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Military Science Fiction; Action-Intrigue.  Book 1 of the Evan Gabriel Trilogy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It’s 2176 AD, and Evan Gabriel has been drummed out of the NAF Navy, the fall guy for a bungled operation on Eden.  Now he’s being offered a full restoration of rank and honor – all he has to do is carry out one extremely sensitive black-ops mission.

    The mission seems noble enough – destroy an illicit drug-manufacturing operation on an alien planet.  But since the same higher-ups who set him up before are now orchestrating this endeavor, something smells fishy.

    But the rewards – both to Gabriel personally and to society in general – are worth the risk.  And if a spanner gets thrown into the works, it will just have to be dealt with.

What’s To Like...
   Steve Umstead builds three fascinating worlds for the reader.  There’s “post Dark Days” Earth (it was hit by an asteroid); Mars (once the cat’s meow, but now a backwater . . .er. . .  backdust hole-in-the-ground); and Poliahu (an ice-bound, mineral-rich planet a couple wormholes away).

    Amazon labels this “Military Science Fiction”, and that seems appropriate.  It also has some “hard Science Fiction” tendencies, but Umstead avoids getting overly technical (think Tom Clancy) and overly scientific (think James Hogan).

    The pace is crisp, and there’s plenty of action and intrigue.  The book is a standalone, despite being part of a series.  There are enough plot twists to keep your attention, and some nice, subtle touches, such as naming one of the cities on Mars “Bradbury”.  There are a couple snippets of Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, and those are always a plus with me.

    The characters are developed nicely, at least the good guys.  Some of them don’t make it to the end of the book, but probably not the ones you'd predict.  The baddies are a tad stereotypical, yet comprise a formidable and resourceful foe for our heroes.

    “Son, is there a problem?”
    “No, sir, not really, uh,” the tech stammered.  “It’s just that, well, one of my subordinates said he saw a meteor come down nearby an hour ago.  I mean, it’s probably nothing,” he said, shrugging.  “And he was out late last night, so. . .”
    “Where?” the chairman asked, cutting him off.
    “Where?  Uh, well I guess he was playing cards at Rita’s, where everyone goes late at night.  It’s the place near. . .”
    “No,” the chairman said sharply.  “Where did he see the meteor come down?”  (loc. 1745)

    They stood just over four feet tall, bipedal, reminding Takahashi of a light-haired gorilla, but thinner, almost emaciated.  He chalked that up to the lack of natural resources and food on the frozen planet.  It was a wonder anything used to temperate climates could have survived as long as they had.  Then again, he thought, millions of them hadn’t.  (loc. 2562)

Kindle Details...
    Gabriel’s Redemption sells for $3.49 at Amazon.  The other two books in the trilogy, Gabriel’s Return and Gabriel’s Revenge, are also available and sell for $3.99.  There is also a short (91 pages) “prequel”, Gabriel : Zero Point, which is free for the Kindle, but frankly, you don’t need to read it to enjoy this book.

“Eden again, it all goes back to Eden.” (loc. 362)
    The storytelling style is unique in that you’re told fairly early the “what” and “who” of the intrigue.  The fun then becomes trying to figure out the “how”.  It’s weird, but it works.

    The quibbles are few.  Steve Umstead supplies a helpful timeline, but puts it in the back of the book.  Yes, it’s listed and linked-to in the Table of Contents, but Kindle readers generally just open to the first page of Chapter One, so most (including me) will be unaware it’s there.  Why not put it as a quasi-prologue?

    The other quibble is the stereotyping of a fat person as a vile and disgusting character.  Maybe that’s a literary device (he’s obese, so we don’t have to explain that he’s repulsive), but just once I’d like to meet a character who can’t keep food and drink out of his hands, yet who nevertheless saves the day.

    But these are motes of dust on an otherwise shining piece of Science Fiction.  I found Gabriel's Redemption delightfully captivating, and look forward to the rest of the books in the series.  8½ Stars.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Z Is For Xenophobe - Terry Faust

    2012; 315 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humor; Intrigue; Spoof.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    What’s that sticking out of the feed in the huge Butler Ag Co-Op grain elevator in the remote little town of Hypothermia, Minnesota?  Why, it’s a radio antenna.  Attached to a 1962 Chevy Impala.  With four fully-inflated tires and a full tank of gas.  And in mint condition, no less.  How the heck did it get in there?

    Ah, but Butler Ag management is more interested in the human angle of the story, so they dispatch Bob (photographer) and Lenny (writer) to Hypothermia to interview the manager of the grain elevator, Bert Ozaka, who made the discovery.

    It’s going to be a boring trip to the boring boondocks to swap some boring words with a boring employee.  That’s what Bob and Lenny think, anyway.  Boy, are they in for a surprise.

What’s To Like...
    With a great title like Z is for Xenophobe, you know this is going to be a spoof.  There’s plenty of action and Terry Faust keeps the pace going at a fast clip.  The humor reminds me of Terry Pratchett, although Faust’s biting wit is a bit more specific, and therefore edgier.  If you’re a tea-bagger, you probably want to skip this book.  

    The plotline tends to run in circles – various good guys get captured, then escape, then are captured again, then escape again.  But Faust uses it as a device to gradually introduce us to a bunch of fascinating characters – some human, some extraterrestrial.  The main characters are adequately developed, even if several of them are flora, not fauna.

    Overall, Z is for Xenophobe is an entertaining read that kept me turning the pages, both for the humor and for the storyline.

    Had an interstellar Zen monk traveled fifty-two light-years from Earth and stumbled across this sudden appearance, this something from nothing, this singular singularity, he might have wondered to himself: If a wormhole portal opens twenty miles off the dark side of a moon of Veggia, and no one is there to hear it, would it still make a sound?  The monk’s question would be pointless not only because sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, but because someone was there – two someones.  (loc. 90)

    Bert took another moment to expel his anger and turned to Bob, “You couldn’t be like your friend and let well enough alone, could you?”
    “Lenny, your coworker you boob!  The jerk back in the hospital.  You couldn’t be like Lenny?”
    “Not without a frontal lobotomy.  (loc. 6141)

Kindle Details...
    Z is for Xenophobe sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  The Amazon blurb indicates Terry Faust is working on the sequel, Y is for Wiseguy.

“Holy weeding mung! We in deep compost.” (loc. 107)
    For all its positives, Z is for Xenophobe has one gaping weakness – it has no ending.  None.  Nada.  Things just stop at a midpoint in another capture-&-escape loop.  You can’t even call it a cliffhanger ending, since the rescuer pops up at the very end, although the rescuing itself won’t come until Book 2.

    For me, this was a show-stopper.  A reader has the right to expect a completed story.  True, it may still be part of a series with a greater plotline, but there still ought to be some sort of wrapping-up of the immediate issue(s) at the end of every book.

    It’s a ploy, of course.  The author wants you to buy the next book as well.  But the reader has to ask himself – will each book in the series have a similar non-ending?  Do we then wait another year before being teased yet again?

    The sad thing is, ZIFX doesn’t need this sort of cheap trick.  The storyline and Terry Faust’s writing skills are both sufficiently captivating.  And there are lots of other ways to keep the readers thirsting for the sequel.  The issues at Hypothermia could’ve been resolved, but with Sigrid and Norvil escaping to outer space.  Gotnick and M’Lack could show up in the epilogue, as a teaser for Book 2.  Another wormhole could open, with who-knows-what coming through.  You get the idea.

    Alas, I can’t help but fear this is a literary Groundhog Day – an endless, repeating plot-loop until someone – either the reader or the writer – gets bored and bails.  And that’s too bad, because the universe and  storyline that Terry Faust has created here have vast potential as a series.

    6½ Stars.  Add two stars if non-existent or cliffhanger endings don’t bother you in the least.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Forge - S.M. Stirling and David Drake

   1991; 323 pages.  New Author? : Yes and No.  Book #1 (out of 7 or so) of the series “The General”.  Genre : Science Fiction; Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Raj Whitehall is the Chosen One; the Avatar.  His task :  to reunite the planet Bellevue, and reverse the downward trend of its civilization.  The odds are staggering.  The enemy has a bigger and better army than Raj’s ragtag crew.  And jealous colleagues – both military and political – wouldn’t be too unhappy to see Raj fail.

    But he’s been chosen by God.  Well, actually it was a computer that wormed into his head.  And although it can crunch data and spit out probabilities with dazzling speed, it too has its limitations.  Good luck to you, Raj.  Here’s hoping your head doesn’t end up on a pole.

What’s To Like...
    The setting is on a foreign planet, after the collapse of a pan-galactic federation.  The level of arms is roughly Civil War era – swords and cannons; rifles and knives.  Instead of horses, there are giant dogs to ride into battle.

    According to Wikipedia, David Drake developed the outline for the story, and S.M. Stirling fleshed it out.  The Forge certainly has a Stirling “feel” to it.  The action is fast-paced, and the warfare is downright brutal.  There is blood and gore, rape and child molestation, and plentiful cussing.  And this was all by the good guys.  War is hell.

    The computer-in-Raj’s-head is nicely done.  Raj’s thoughts are in Italics, input from the computer in Bold.  This makes it easy for the reader to follow.  The enemy general, Tewfik, is a formidable foe; one might even say that he’s a more-skilled commander than Raj.  And Suzette, Raj’s wife, will make you wonder who’s side she's on, and if the smartest one in Raj’s own household is female.

    I had mixed feelings about the treatment of religions.  The worship of the computer is ingenious, but the other religions found here are “real world” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The first two have only cameo roles; but the bad guys here are all stereotyped Islamic fanatics.  Given the prevalence of anti-Arab hatred in the world today, one wonders why Stirling felt compelled to “fan the flames” instead of inventing some otherworldly religions.

Kewlest New Word...
Loggia (n.) : a gallery or room with one or more open sides, esp. one that forms part of a house and has one side open to the garden.
    The trees left a narrow slit of moonlight down the crown of the dirt road; the men of the 5th advanced up the sides by sections, alternating right and left.  There was surprisingly little noise, but then these were hunters, after all; part of a boy’s training back home was to be sent out with a rifle and one round, with a beating and no supper if he came back without game.  (pg. 104)

    “They’ve got better engineers, we’ve got better mechanics . . . I’m glad it’s Jamal in charge, though.”
    “Why?” Gerrin asked, glancing up from a whispered consultation with Kaltin Gruder.
    “Tewfik’s a saber general, feint, feint, off with your head.  Jamal . . . I’ve studied his campaigns in the east, and down against the Zanj.  He uses the hammer-hammer method; walk up to someone and start whipping on them with your hammer.  If it breaks, you send back to stores for a bigger hammer.”  (pg. 265)

“Revenge tastes better as dessert than appetizer.”  (pg. 273)
    The two main battles are sketched out via maps in the back of the book.  If you’re into war-gaming (moving a thousand little individually-painted figures around a giant battleground arrayed upon a table), then you’ll love the maps.  I didn’t need them – Stirling’s recounting of the battles is clear and well-done.  And I’m not a war-gamer, although I have stood and watched the activity at my local D&D store.

    There is one major weakness to The Forge - the proofreading.  It is atrocious, and that’s putting it nicely.  I thought I was reading a self-published Kindle effort.  Lead/Led; rein/reign; compell/compel; excell/excel; (Spellcheck is fighting me on these); plauge/plague; spurrs/spurs; weasles/weasels; panneled/paneled; anymore/any more; seige/siege; troup/troupe; survivers/survivors; lept/leapt; spunged/sponged; “cleanly” used as an adjective.  And the biggest one of all, the planet Bellevue misspelled as “Bellview” on the back cover.    Holy Slop-Job, Baen Books.  I thought being picked up by a publishing company meant professional editing.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract two stars if the horrors of war offend you; add one-half star if, unlike me,  you’re not a grammar Nazi.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Eye of Death - George Rees

    2012; 270 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : It varies.  Overall Rating : 4½*/10.

    Poor Mother Wingfield has been killed.  In a locked, closed room.  One of her eyes was gouged out.  There are no other wounds on her.  And no murder weapon.

    Thomas Dekker would like to find out who did it and how it was done.  But his interest is purely academic.  He’s a playwright, and wants to use the case as the plotline in his next play.  Maybe then he’ll achieve the lofty status – and income – of his contemporary rivals, Christopher Marlowe and Will Shakespeare.

    But not everybody is thrilled with his nosing around.  Someone powerful wants to see his body floating in the Thames.

What’s To Like...
    The setting – greater London in 1592 – is well-crafted.  George Rees provides plenty of details to make you feel at home with the then-&-there.  The theater portions felt quite real.  The likelihood of being jailed, put in the stocks, or hanged seemed excessive, but I can’t say it’s inaccurate.  The prominence of the plague is certainly correct.

    The main characters are developed nicely.  The secondary ones - and there are a slew of them - are detailed enough to make each one unique.  There is some entertaining wit and humor sprinkled in, along with some romance.  The  breeches-less encounter with a bull is a riot.  But this is not a cozy; there are adult situations and the F-word appears a number of times.

    Unfortunately, An Eye of Death has some vexing problems.  To wit :

    Formatting Issues.  Even by Kindle standards, this was bad.  Quotation marks appearing haphazardly in a dialogue, sometimes one apostrophe ('), sometimes two (“).  Random insertion of Shakespeare in places he obviously wasn’t.  And a plethora of the esoteric “œ”, which almost always forebode the ensuing passage would be incomprehensible.

    Genre-Hopping.  The book's cover touts it as a Murder-Mystery, but only the very beginning qualifies.  It quickly turns into Historical Fiction, which I found to be its finest phase.  Then it switches to Intrigue, followed by Action-Adventure.  It finishes up being a Puzzle novel, as our hero finally solves the closed-room enigma.

    Continuity Issues.  A natural consequence of the genre-hopping.  At one point, a severed head rolls out on stage, but if an investigation followed, the reader isn't given the details.  Towards the end of the book, the scene shifts to France for a prolonged battle sequence which has absolutely no bearing on the plotline.  Dekker’s “solution” to the puzzle was unconvincing, and to me personally it suggested suicide (albeit a grisly one) rather than murder.

    Ending.  The tension never builds, so the ending falls flat.  The political tide shifts in England, and all the intrigue evaporates.  Frankly, I was perplexed at Dekker’s attitude towards the murder-puzzle.  He had only an academic interest.  Why not just contrive a solution himself, and avoid all the personal peril?

Kewlest New Word...
Cynosure  (n.)  :  a person or thing that is the center of attention or attraction.

    If snow be white, why then...”
    “her breasts are dun,” completed Emilia getting into the coach and sitting opposite me.  She had sent her maid on an errand.  “You read poetry, I see.”
    “I write it too,” I replied with as careless an air as I could muster.
    “Ah, a poet.  That fits with the being chased by bailiffs.  Poetry and poverty go together like sweetmeats and toothache.”  (loc. 248)

    One evening in the Cross Keys I was eking out my tankard of ale with sips that an abstentious flea would have regarded as small while just such a pedant harangued the company about the book he was writing on English pronunciation: “God has blessed us with a beautiful language; after Greek, Latin and Hebrew, of course; a long way after.  Where was I?”
    “Just leaving,” suggested a man hopefully.  (loc. 4727)

Kindle Details...
    An Eye Of Death sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  ANAICT, George Rees does not have any other books available there..

“People can do without plays, but they’ll always need shoes.” (loc. 2616)
    The above-mentioned issues made for a slow read.  The amazing thing is, flawed though An Eye Of Death is, it could’ve been a very good read.  Formatting issues aside, the author and the book both have great promise, particularly if the storyline confines itself to a single, predetermined genre.  I’d vote for Historical Fiction.

    The other option is to turn this into an Alternate History novel.  Lord knows, that genre can use some fresh blood.  Harry Turtledove’s Ruled Britannia (reviewed here) utilizes a related theme (the Spanish Armada conquers England), but there’s plenty of room here for a different tack.  The Earl of Essex displaces the Queen.  Sir Walter Raleigh displaces the Queen.  Dekker displaces Shakespeare and Marlowe.  The plague decimates the English population, leaving it vulnerable to an invasion by (insert nationality here – Spanish, French, Dutch, Papal, Scottish, etc.) forces.

    Stars.  Buy the right software; choose a genre and stick with it; find some beta-readers (or hang the current ones); and recognize that half of an author's time and effort is going to involve polishing and rewriting the first draft.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Lucky You - Carl Hiaasen

   1997; 449 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Humor, Florida Crime Noir.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Lucky JoLayne Lucks.  She’s just won the state Lotto, and it’s worth 28 million dollars.  Actually, only 14 million, since there were two winning tickets.  But hey, that’s still plenty of money for each of them.  It’s too bad the people with the other winning ticket don’t see it that way.

   Unlucky Tom Krome.  His newspaper has sent him to interview JoLayne, and write a soft, feel-good article.  The kind he hates.  To boot, his wife refuses to give him a divorce, and his mistress of two weeks is leaving him.

    Go ahead and make the trip, Tom.  Madcap mayhem lies a-waitin’.

What’s To Like...
    If it’s a book by Carl Hiaasen, you know it will be set in Florida, have interesting and wacko characters, violence, romance, and above all zany humor.  Lucky You is no exception.

    There are a slew of plotlines, involving everything from the lottery tickets to miracle rackets, turtles, shopping malls, militias, and more.  The pace is quick, and the action roams up and down the length of Florida.  Some of the themes Hiaasen examines are hilarious – a NATO invasion of the USA, the face of Jesus in an oil-spill on the road, and the Zen of being a Hooters waitress.

    But Hiaasen also blends in some more serious themes – interracial relationships, water management in Florida, and xenophobic tea-baggers (written several years before tea-baggers arose).

    The two protagonists – Tom and JoLayne – both have a streak of anti-hero in them – especially when it comes to stable relationships.  And the baddies may be all bad, but there’s also a smidgen of charm in their paranoid stupidity.  In addition to the violence, there are drugs and alcohol; so don’t read this if you’re a prude about these things.  Ditto if you happen to be a xenophobic tea-bagger, you won't like this book at all.

    As is always true with Hiaasen novels – this is a standalone story, with all the plot threads and themes being resolved nicely at the end.  The tale may be low-brow, but the writing is topnotch.

    “I’ve got shitty news: Tom Krome’s dead.”
    “Looks that way.  The arson guys found a body in the house.”
    “No!” Sinclair insisted.  “It’s not possible.”
    “Burned beyond recognition.”
    “But Tom went to Miami with the lottery woman!”
    “Who told you that?”
    “The man with the turtles.”
    “I see,” said the managing editor.  “What about the man with the giraffes – what did he say?  And the bearded lady with penguins – did you ask her?”  (pg. 194)

    Shiner remembered what Bodean Gazzer had said about seat belts being part of the government’s secret plot to “neutralize the citizenry.”  If you’re wearing seat belts, Bode had explained, it’ll be harder to jump out of the car and escape, once the NATO helicopters start landing on the highways.  That’s the whole reason they made the seat belt law, Bode had said, to make sure millions of Americans would be strapped down and helpless when the global attack was launched.  (pg. 229)

“There wasn’t much difference, when you got down to the core morality of it, between Mickey Mouse and a fiberglass Madonna.”  (pg. 13)
    Lucky You was my fourth Carl Hiaasen book, and thus far, the one I've most enjoyed.  I’m not sure if I’m slowly getting acclimated to his style of storytelling, or if his books are “hit-or-miss”, and the last two have been “hits”.  I think in this case, it was because some of the themes – racial bigotry, gun nuts, and religious fraud – resonate with me.

    It’s got to be hard to keep coming up with fresh stories when your self-imposed geographic limitations are the borders of Florida, but Hiaasen seems to be up to the task.  8½ Stars.