Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Watership Down - Richard Adams

   1972; 475 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Laurels : 1972 Guardian Prize; 1972 Carnegie Medal; the best-selling Penguin Books novel of all time; #42 in the 2003 Big Read survey of the “Greatest Books of all time”.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    According to the rabbit Fiver, something catastrophic is about to happen to the home rabbit hole.  He may or may not be prescient, and he’s short on details; so most of the other rabbits don’t believe him when he says the warren needs to be abandoned at once.

    But Hazel does.  So the two of them, along with nine other bucks, embark upon a long journey to establish a new colony.  It will be fraught with danger, and none of them know exactly where they’re going.  All they can do is hope that Fiver will “sense” the right spot.

What’s To Like...
     The rabbits (and most of the other animals) are anthropomorphic.  They can talk, dream, plan strategies, sing, play a game called bob-stones, and even problem-solve.  But they’re still rabbits who like to do rabbity things – eat clover, frolic in the sun, and occasionally sneak down to some farmer’s vegetable patch to munch on some delicious carrots or lettuce.

    The pacing is good – no small feat when the subject is the rabbits’ habits.  The characters aren’t terribly deep, but they aren’t 2-D either.  Hazel is not a Mary Sue.  He sometimes makes wrong decisions and gets jealous if another rabbit shows leadership qualities.  The antagonist, General Woundwort, is superbly rendered.  He may be a big bad bully, but he has some good points too.  The ultimate resolution of him is a stroke of genius.  Kehaar is a hoot.  Well, a squawk, actually.

    The book is divided into 50 chapters.  Each starts off with a neat little literary excerpt.  There’s a map at the front of the book, but in my version it was poorly done and you don’t really need it to follow the storyline.  There’s also a 3-page glossary of rabbit-speak (called “Lapine”)  in the back.  This does come in handy, as Richard Adams uses these bunny words frequently, and to good effect.

    The rabbits in Watership Down love to tell stories, which make for refreshing breaks in the narrative.  Most of them are oral legends concerning El-ahrairah, a legend among rabbits.  And at one point, Adams apparently “writes himself into a corner”.  No problem; he just labels the next chapter “Dea ex Machina”, and contrives a way out of the plotline fix.  I think that’s cool.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Lollop (v.)  :  to move in an ungainly manner in a series of clumsy paces or bounds.

    “And Frith called after him, “El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so.  All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.  But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning.  Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”  (pg. 60)

    Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.  For them there is no winter food problem.  They have fires and warm clothes.  The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security.  For birds and animals, as for poor men, winter is another matter.  (pg. 465)

“Foxes here, weasels there, Fiver in the middle, begone dull care!”  (pg. 24)
    There is a movie version of Watership Down which, along with The Point, are probably my two favorite animated films of all time.  It’s been a while since I’ve watched it, but it seems to me that I thought Hazel was a “she” in the movie.  The book seems more “focused” (for lack of a better term), but maybe that’s because it includes a bunch of side-stories and details that inevitably have to be omitted from any film based on a novel.  Or maybe it’s just that I was probably wasted when I watched the movie.

    Watership Down is a standalone novel that will captivate any and all who read it.  Little girls will love the bunnies.  Little boys will love the fighting.  Adults will enjoy a well-told, well-written tale.  The epilogue will leave a lump in your throat.

    I can’t think of any negatives to say, and when a book keeps me thoroughly entertained (and a slew of other readers, apparently – there are over 1200 reviews of this book on Amazon) with 475 pages about rabbits, I think that’s quite the accomplishment.  10 Stars.  A masterpiece.  And the movie is a 10*/10 as well.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

First Chosen (Tears of Rage) - M. Todd Gallowglas

    2011; 190 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book 1 (out of four) of the “Tears of Rage” series.  Genre : Epic Fantasy; “Epic Lite”.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Julianna Taraen has had a rough life so far.  Both her parents have been slain, and the aunt and uncle she’s been sent to live with are less than doting.

    Birthdays seem to be bad days, especially #7 and #14, when horrific things happened.  But tomorrow is Julianna’s 21st birthday, and surely there’s nothing of numerological significance to worry about, is there?

    Yeah, right.

What’s To Like...
    There are a couple of slow chapters to begin with – think of them as the backstory – but after that, it’s nonstop action.   This is an R-Rated book – there is blood, gore, nudity, rape, sex, erections, BJ’s, etc.  There is a strong female lead, but you probably don’t want little Susie reading this.

    M. Todd Gallowglas lays the foundation for a complex world.  There are various “realms” (celestial, spirit, earthly); both Lesser and Greater Gods and their associated minions; several religions to quarrel with each other; and a slew of ruling “Houses” to plot and fight against each other.  That makes for a bunch of beings to meet-&-greet.  Gallowglas provides a Cast of Characters at the start of the novel.  Bookmark it; you will be referring to it often.

    I liked that the various gods, while certainly powerful, were not all that . . .well. . . godly.  Humans tended to be either “black” or “white”, although the baddies were resourceful and cunning.  However, some characters seem to be developed, only to be immediately killed off.  That felt clunky, although in a Fantasy Series, one’s death is never necessarily permanent.

     There is a bit of time-travel; that always is a plus with me.  The author likes to use contrived spellings – Aengyls, Daemyns, Saents, etc..  This will bug some readers, but I thought it worked well here.

    A little way down the hill, toward the direction of the mill, another two blankets were spread out for the servants.  They ate as well, only they had just started, as they had been serving their patrons earlier.  Unlike those higher on the hill, the servants did not converse much and did not drink at all.  Drinking addled the mind, and gatherings like this were when servants needed all their wits about them, for who knew what tasty bit of gossip they might pick up to share in the servant’s quarters later, or perhaps even a secret or two to sell to a rival family.  (loc. 1037)

    “Please my lady, uh, your Excellency.  Don’t do anything to get us punished.”
    “You are no one to command me,” Sylvie said, and crawled out from under the wagon.
    The only thing Sylvie’s plan might earn her is a bit of momentary humiliation, but it was time to stop living like a peasant.  If that meant sharing a bed with a man she could barely stomach, so be it.  She would rather suffer that indignity than spend one more day under the illusion that she and the maid were in anyway (sic) equal.  (loc. 3384)

Kindle Details...
    First Chosen sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other three books in the series run from $3.99 to $4.99.

“My father’s god is going to eat your soul!” (loc. 432)
    The ending to First Chosen was meh; it didn’t resolve any issues or complete a story-within-a-story.  Our heroes escape to fight another day, and the baddies continue their pursuit of dastardly deeds.  The final section introduces a whole new set of characters, then leaves the reader hanging.

    At 190 pages, the book hardly qualifies as “epic”.  Book 2 is of similar length; then Books 3 and 4 are each roughly twice as long.

    So I have a feeling that the first two books in this series were actually penned as one story, and were sliced in half so that the author could offer the first 200 pages as a teaser.  This is not a criticism; I think it’s a savvy marketing strategy.  But it means that First Chosen is little more than an introduction to the world, magic, and entities that M. Todd Gallowglas plans to utilize as the series progresses.

    7½ Stars.  Subject to change if the sequel has a more “complete” ending.  Add one-half star if the phrase “Epic Lite” appeals to your reading tastes.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

SPQR - John Maddox Roberts

   1990; 215 pages.  New Author? : No.  Updated Title : The King’s Gambit (SPQR 1).  Genre : Historical Adventure; Murder-Mystery.  Book 1 (out of 14, plus some additional short stories) in the “SPQR” series.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    On the streets of Rome, in 70 BC, someone has murdered the ex-gladiator, Marcus Ager.  They didn’t even do it the Roman way (with a sword); they strangled him.  Oh well, there are slayings every night in Rome.  What's one more dead commoner?

    It is Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger’s responsibility to look into crimes in this neighborhood and he feels honor-bound to do so.  But no one expects him to be thorough about it.  Indeed, there are some who strongly encourage him to curtail his snooping and just turn in a sanitized report.

    Then the bodies start to pile up.

What’s To Like...
    If you read SPQR as a murder-mystery, you may be a tad disappointed.  You’ll probably figure out the “who” of the whodunit early on; and while the “why” is uncovered gradually, there aren’t any major twists to the investigation.  The intrigue behind the plot is complex, though, and figuring out the “who” behind that is more of a challenge.

    But as a Historical Adventure, SPQR is superb.  You’ll go to the markets and the public baths with Decius.  You’ll slog through ordinary workdays and attend festive holidays.  You’ll enjoy everyday meals and lavish feasts.  And of course, along the way, you’ll look for clues and try not to get mugged (or worse) when it gets dark.

    Decius makes a fine protagonist and an excellent narrator.  He has no qualms about pointing out the “warts” of Roman politics; but he’s just as quick to show the strengths of the Roman psyche.  There are a slew of characters to meet, greet, and examine as possible suspects.  For the most part, the characters are gray – some of the highborn are scoundrels; some of the lowborn, if lacking in charm, at least have a measure of integrity in them.

    The ending is well-crafted.  The investigation may be straightforward; but its resolution has a couple of nice twists.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Fructifying (adj.)  :  making (something) fruitful or productive

    “It is always good to know what men of power are saying in Rome these days.  And while Hortalus was the only man present tonight who wields real power, the rest show great promise for the future.”
    “Even Curius and Catilina?” I asked.
    “Men don’t have to be intelligent or capable or of good character to play an important role in the high affairs of state.  It is quite sufficient to be bad and dangerous.”  (pg. 60)

    “It is the greatest game in the world.  It is played on a board made up of kingdoms and republics and seas.  The men are just counters.  They are placed on the board according to the skill of the players.”  She paused.  “And there is the uncertainty of luck, of course.”
    “Fortuna can be a whimsical goddess,” I said.
    I don’t believe in the gods.  If they exist at all, they take no interest in what men do.  But I believe in blind chance.  It just makes the game more interesting.”  (pg. 187)

“He's a patrician.  You can kill them, but they don't take humiliation well."  (pg. 130)
    This is the second book I’ve read in this series.   My first one (Book 4), The Temple of the Muses, is reviewed here.  They were both enjoyable reads, particularly for their historical “feel”.  One is set in Rome; the other in Alexandria.  At just over 200 pages each, they are both “thin” books.  But if you’re a history buff, the detailed descriptions in both will keep them from being quick reads.

    There are some subtle differences between the two books.  The Temple of the Muses seemed to me to have more wit and humor, and the writing felt more polished.  OTOH, it also has one or two WTF moments; I didn’t notice any of those in SPQR.

    8 Stars.  Which is what I gave both books.  They’re fascinating looks into life in the Roman Empire at the height of its power.  That’s good enough for me.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's Dead - Christiana Miller

    2011; 320 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Urban Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Mara’s in a fix.  She’s a practicing Wiccan, and that offends her landlady.  But now she’s behind on her rent, and is about to be tossed out on the street.

   But hey, she is a witch.  And witches can cast spells, right?  So why not call upon the spirits to conjure up a new residence for her?

    Ah, be careful what you ask for, Mara.  Fate may do your bidding, but it might also add a few twists to it that you haven’t anticipated.

What’s To Like...
    This is an easy-reading Urban Fantasy tale, with a crisp pace, lots of wit, and just enough humor to make it tasty.  It’s a standalone novel, despite being the start of a series.  The title is a bit misleading – the protagonist is Mara, not Aunt Tillie.  The latter doesn’t make an appearance until 34%, and she’s well aware that she’s dead.

    There is of course a lot of witchery going on, and it is handled both deftly and accurately.  I was particularly impressed with the Tarot card reading mindset, as this is something I have firsthand experience with.  The other Wiccan aspects – spell-casting, potion-making, spirit-calling – are presumably handled equally well.

    Be forewarned – this book has “R-rated” material in it.  There are a fair number of cuss words, sexual terms, and a couple of “romps in the hay”, including one all-over-the-house orgy.  Christiana Miller gives due notice of this at the start of the book, but literary prudes tend to ignore the posted caveats, then gripe about it later.

    The three main characters are Mara; her best bud Gus; and of course, Aunt Tillie.  There’s nothing trite or stereotypical about any of them.  Mara has “love handles”, and can hardly be described as heroic when the story starts.  Gus is flamingly gay, can cast spells better than Mara, and dispenses bad advice with disarming confidence.  And you really don’t want to be on Aunt Tillie’s bad side, ethereal though it may be.

    The ending ties everything up nicely, although it felt somewhat rushed to me.  The baddies were cunning one moment; clueless the next.  Overcoming them seemed too easy; consequently there wasn’t much tension generated as the climax approached.

 Kewlest New Word (Phrase, actually). . .
Ouroboris Serpent (n.)  :  a snake eating its tail. (correct spelling : ouroboros)

    I had made the mistake of reading Gus’s cards once.  He thought I was spookily good.  So he’s made it his life’s mission to make me regret it ever since.  Although he calls it getting me to embrace my abilities.  “Tell me you’re joking.  I am so not on speaking terms with my tarot cards at the moment.”
    “Mmmm.  Let me see. . .  Yup, pretty sure I don’t care.  Whatever happened, apologize to the cards and get over it.”  (loc. 272)

    The difference between normal humans and witches, is if humans want something, they pray for it.  Their God takes it under consideration, and if it fits the grand design, God grants their prayer.
    Witches, on the other hand, plunge ahead blindly.  Their preferred method of prayer is spellcrafting.  Their Gods (and Goddesses) take their prayers under consideration and if they find the potential outcome sufficiently amusing, they step aside and let the witch give it her best shot, in a “be careful what you wish for” type of way.  (loc. 744)

Kindle Details...
    Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  Christiana Miller also offers a short story, A Tale of Three Witches, featuring the main characters from STATSD, for $0.99.  Amazon makes no mention of a sequel, although the book cover describes this as “Book 1 of the Toad Witch Series”.

One of the problems with being a witch is when you ask the universe a question, it generally gives you an answer.  (loc. 101)
    The storytelling is superb, but the story’s structure felt clunky at times.  All of the minor characters are developed nicely, but some of them seem to appear for no reason (Lyra, Lenny, J.J.), while others quickly disappear after a moment in the plotline (Dad, Mama Lua, Mrs. Lasio).   Indeed, I felt like the whole first third of the book – the Los Angeles setting – was overly drawn out.  True, it introduces us to Gus and Mara.  But the main storyline only starts when Mara travels to Wisconsin.

    Of course, the author may have bigger plans for these presently-superfluous characters.  And Mara might return to the City of the Angels, to settle karmic scores with Mrs. Lasio and Lenny.  Gus certainly thrives in a California lifestyle; he will wilt in Wisconsin.

    But I quibble; a couple clunks are mere ripples in a fast-flowing, fun-to-read story.  Here’s hoping that Christiana Miller is presently working on the sequel.

    Good stuff.  7½ Stars.  Add one star if you happen to follow the Wiccan path.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Janus Reprisal - Jamie Freveletti

   2012; 430 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #9 (out of 10) in the “Covert-One” series.  Genre : Action-Intrigue; Thriller.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    It’s a lousy night to be in Brussels.  Bombs are going off at the train station, the airport, and the International Criminal Court.  And terrorists have taken over a hotel where a worldwide conference on viruses and bacteria is being held, and they are killing everybody staying there.

    Colonel Jon Smith is one of the guests at the hotel.  He’s a renowned microbiologist, so his attendance at the conference makes sense.  But he’s also a Covert-One agent.  And it appears a couple of the terrorists are singling him out for elimination.

What’s To Like...
    If you’re looking for bangs and booms, spies and chases, and a save-the-world scenario, The Janus Reprisal is your kind of book.  The action starts literally with the first sentence and doesn’t let up.  The combined career of special-ops agent and microbiologist is kewl (akin to being a PhD astrophysicist and the lead guitarist in the band Queen).  The underlying scientific premise of how to spread the boogers is original, at least to me.  There is a smattering of humor and a smidgen of romance; both are blended into the storyline nicely.

    Alas, there are weaknesses.  The characters are all either white-hats or black-hats, and anyone from Pakistan is worse-than-black.  The Ultimate Evil dude has no redeeming traits at all.

  The writing itself is good, but the storytelling falters.  There is a “mole” in the good-guys crowd, but you the reader will figure out who it is long before our heroes do.  There really aren’t any plot twists, and the ending seems rushed and contrived, with all of the baddies conveniently gathering in one place for easy resolution.  And ignore the title; it has virtually nothing to do with the story.

    YFKM (“You’re Freaking Kidding Me”) moments abound.  Here’s a couple.  (a.) The conference attendees apparently bring viruses/bacteria for show-and-tell.  Really?  I rather doubt that.  (b.) You can apparently get a sniper, in Brussels, at night, at a moment’s notice; and he will instantly know where to position himself to get a kill-shot.  He also seems to have a cloak of invisibility.  (c.) Our female lead is a savvy techie, yet can’t figure out how Smith can constantly track her every time she turns on her tablet to do stock transactions. There are a bunch more YFKM’s; you can read them in the Amazon reviews.

    “It looks like they may be after me.  Or at least someone is.  There’s a dead guy in my room carrying photos of me, Peter Howell, and a woman that I can’t identify.”
    “A dead man?  Did you kill him?”
   “I didn’t touch him.  He just . . . died.”  (pg. 7)

    She reached for her tablet.
    “Do not touch that thing.  It’s supposed to be turned off.  In fact, let’s just throw it away.”
    Nolan shook her head.  “I refuse.  My whole life is loaded onto this hard drive.”  Smith wanted to grab it and throw it across the room.
    “I’m going to have real trouble going dark while I’m around Ms. Nolan.  She refuses to give up her computer,” he said to Marty.  “Says it’s her whole life.”
    “I think I could love this woman,” Marty said.  (pg. 219)

How is it that if there is any disaster in the world at any given time, you’re there?”  (pg. 34)
    As can be seen on the book cover, The Janus Reprisal is written by Jamie Freveletti on behalf of the Robert Ludlum estate, who want to remind you that Ludlum is the author of (some of) the Jason Bourne books.  I’m sure this is a savvy marketing strategy, but Ludlum novels were known for their complex plotlines, compelling writing, and “gray” characters.

    None of that applies to TJR.  I recognize it is a daunting task to write a novel on the level that Ludlum did, but if you’re going to namedrop on the cover, then you ought to at least make an effort to emulate his fortes.  The Janus Reprisal is too straightforward and simplistic to have his name associated with it.

    6½ Stars.  Add two stars if you prefer action-thrillers that don’t require much thinking.  Subtract one star if you haven’t figured out yet that Robert Ludlum has been dead for a dozen years now, and any “new releases” that bear his name really aren’t penned by him.