Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hammer - S.M. Stirling and David Drake

   1992; 290 pages.  New Authors? : No, and no.    Genre : Science Fiction; Military Fiction.  Book #2 (out of 7) of the “General” series.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s been two years since the events of the first book in this series, wherein Raj Whitehall made a name for himself by saving the Civil Government’s butt.  Twice, even.  Now, Governor Barholm deems it’s time to go on the offensive and reclaim the long-lost southern territories.  And who better to lead the near-suicidal campaign than the current hero?

   For Raj, it is a lose-lose situation.  Defeat will mean his head will be cut off and stuck on a pole in enemy lands somewhere.  Success will increase his fame and popularity.  But the Civil Government grows fearful when their military leaders get too popular.  And they have ways of eliminating such figures.

What’s To Like...
     The “Warhammer” style is identical to the previous book in the series, The General, reviewed here.  The odds are overwhelmingly against Raj; the only thing he’s got going is the computer in his head and a small, but well-trained army.

    The tone is once again gritty, but the use of violence seems to blend better with the storyline here.  Some of the good guys die; some of the bad guys get away.  But you can probably guess the outcome, since Tewfik isn’t in this book.  There’s a pair of gay lovers/commanders in Raj’s elite inner circle.  That’s kinda daring and kewl, given that The Hammer was written in 1992, before the Gay Rights movement had really taken off.

    There is some humor amongst the gore; particularly the worship of the Almighty Computer.  I still like saying “Endfile” instead of “Amen”.

    This is an R-Rated book – for the violence, the cusswords, the merciless retributions, and the adult situations.  Some of us think that’s a plus.

Kewlest New Word...
Panjandrum  (n.)  :  a person who has or claims to have a great deal of authority or influence.

    “I can’t interfere in Messer Staenbridge’s household,” she pointed out gently.
    “Oh, I take care of that.  I got Gerrin to promise I could come as long as I healthy – now he and Barton trying to get me pregnant again so I have to stay home.”
    “You don’t like that?” Suzette said, surprised.
    “Oh, I like the trying, just don’t want it to work.”  (pg. 18)

    How are we doing, Center? Raj thought bitterly.
    better than expected, Center replied.
    Raj stiffened in surprise; the machine voice sounded almost jovial.
    if the enemy reacts perfectly, both in making a plan on the basis of statistically-insignificant intelligence and in execution of that plan, then they could successfully attack us tonight.  in that case, I will begin to believe in a god myself.  A pause, perhaps a heartbeat long. theirs.  (pg. 126)

 “Goodwill and artillery will get you more than goodwill.”  (pg. 54)
    One giant plus – the editing and proofing is greatly improved from Book 1.  I think I only caught one typo here.

    The Hammer focuses more on Raj and less on (the computer) Center.  Maybe it was just because Raj has learned to listen to the electronic advice.  Maybe there’s only so much you can do with a computer personality.  Either way, I liked the switch.

   The ending wraps up the immediate storyline nicely, although it is also somewhat of a cliffhanger, as Raj heads back to the capital to face the judgment and jealousy of the civil authorities.  With seven books in this series, I have a feeling that each one will cover a campaign by Raj and highlight the increasing tension between the army and the government.  We shall see.

    The writing is a bit more polished.  The irksome typos have been virtually eliminated.  But, as with any “middle” book in a series, there isn’t a lot of advancement in the “big picture” – how the exploits of Raj are going to impact the history of his own nation.  8 Stars.  As before, add one star if war-gaming is your cup of tea.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Noggle Stones 1½: Bugbear's Travels - Wil Radcliffe

    2013; 65 pages (Kindle equivalent; although the paperback version says its 98 pages long).  New Author? : No.  Genre : Humor; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Noggle Stones 1½ consists of three short stories, set in Wil Radcliffe’s fantasy/alternate universe, and showcasing Bugbear the Goblin as he uses his Non-Logical Thought to thwart the revenge of the Undead, investigate a Murder, and defend an Ogre.

    Between Bugbear’s unwavering self-confidence and the power of Non-Logical Thought, success in all these endeavors is completely assured.  But it's fun to watch the Master Goblin ply his trade.

What’s To Like...
    At 65 pages total, this is a light, quick read.  You can easily get through the whole book in one sitting, although I read one story per night.  And with three stories squeezed into those 65 pages, let’s not get too concerned about things like depth of character and/or complexity of storyline(s).

    To me, the measure of a short story is – does it grab your interest right away, and does it entertain you throughout?  Noggle Stones 1½ succeeds nicely on both accounts.  The titles of the stories are (Kindle percentages in parenthesis) :

    Shadow Plays (2%)
    Neither Here’s Nor There’s (25%)
    In Defense Of Ogres (58%)

   These are all standalone stories, but really, you should read Noggle Stones 1 beforehand, so that you’re familiar with the parallel worlds, the creatures, Bugbear, and his pet philosophy : Non-Logical Thought.  Bugbear is the only Noggle-1 character in this book, and ANAICT all stories take place in “our” world.

    Neither Here’s Nor There’s was by far the wittiest of the three, and touched upon one of my pet grammatical peeves.  In Defense Of Ogres is more serious, and has a storyline akin to the movie The Green Mile.  It has a great message for readers, young and old.  It is also the only tale told in the first-person (from the town drunk’s POV, no less), and is a refreshing change-of-pace in Noggle Stones storytelling.

    “He has already been cremated and his ashes scattered upon the back of a stray dog!”
    “Why on earth would he want his ashes scattered on a dog?” Zhora said, her face contorted with disgust.
    “He didn’t,” the coroner replied.  “I tripped.”  (loc. 393)

    “Then that puts us right back where we begun!” I said with a frown.
    “True,” Bugbear said, rolling up his paper and shoving it in his pocket.  “But unless you’ve begun, you’ll never be done.”
    “That doesn’t make no sense.”
    “But it’s profound, so it doesn’t need to make sense.”  (loc. 790)

Kindle Details...
    I bought Noggle Stones Book 1½: Bugbear’s Travels for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other two books in the series Noggle Stones 1 (reviewed here) and Noggle Stones 2 (reviewed here) both sell for $2.99.

“Goblins don’t bathe.  We’re too clever to get dirty.”  (loc. 119)
    The three stories get progressively longer, albeit by about 10% apiece.  For me, they also got progressively more interesting, but YMMV.  Maybe this was a function of length, maybe not.

    ANAICT, Noggle-1½ was written after Noggle-2, so I’m wondering if they were ideas floating around in Wil Radcliffe’s head that just didn’t justify being made into full-length novels.  If you’re like me and patiently waiting for more books in this series, this will serve as a satisfying-but-temporary “fix”, well worth the dollar.

    It’s hard to rate a book of less than 100 pages, but let’s give it 8 Stars.  Subtract one star if you didn’t read Noggle-1 first, but don’t say I didn’t tell you to.  Then go find Wil Radcliffe’s website and pester him for more full-length Bugbear novels.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

When Pigs Fly - Bob Sanchez

    2006 (Kindle version : 2011); 307 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humor; Arizona Crime Noir.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Ex-cop Mack Durgin wants to find a fitting spot to scatter his former partner’s ashes.  Diet Cola wants to retrieve the lottery ticket that he stole.  Sally Windflower doesn’t want to part with her science project pet javelina.  And Elvis wants his unrequited love to be ...well... requited.

    They will all find the answers to their wishes in Arizona desert.  But to varying degrees of fulfillment, generally not in the way they envisioned, and when pigs fly.

What’s To Like...
    The characters are great.  We have our hero (Mack) and a fine supporting cast of good guys, including a love interest and his parents.  His Mom may be senile, but don’t cross her when she has a bullwhip in her hand.  Poindexter the javelina is a hoot.  Well, an oink, actually.

    The bad guys come in varying shades of evilness, and they all have redeeming qualities.  Two are lovably dumb, but with shoplifting skills to die for.  Another redefines the phrase “insanely jealous”, and even Diet Cola has some admirable leadership skills and can tell when someone is bullsh*tting him.

    The humor consists of puns, double-entendres, and wacky mayhem.  Most of the story takes place in Arizona, which is home to me, so that’s a plus.  It’s obvious that Bob Sanchez knows the state, and he varies the settings from Tucson and Tombstone, through Phoenix and Apache Junction, and up to Flagstaff and Williams.

    The disparate plotlines come together smoothly, and everything builds to a satisfying ending.  The last scene is warm and fuzzy and bloody, and all the loose ends are tied up.  This is a standalone novel.

    The cute ticket agent looked at them like they had just dropped in from Pluto for a week in Disneyland.  Ace scratched his crotch whenever he figured nobody was looking, and Frosty scratched everywhere all the time – his neck, his forehead, both ankles and all four cheeks, pretty much all the body parts known to man.
    “Sir,” the agent said to Frosty, “are you gentleman able to fly?”
    Ace said, “If we could fly we wouldn’t need an airplane, Miss.”  (loc. 3505)

    A wild pig slurped the cherry-flavored ants on Elvis’s face.  It was the ugliest, smelliest creature Elvis had ever encountered except for Diet Cola.  There were long, curved tusks and bristles on its face that would break a razor blade.  It grunted soft, sweet nothings, then stuck its raspy tongue into Elvis’s ear.  The gesture had a calming effect on Elvis, who thought this was the most gentleness he’d felt in a long time, even if the creature only liked him for his syrup.  (loc. 10632)

Kindle Details...
    When Pigs Fly sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  There is no sequel, but Bob Sanchez has two detective novels available for the Kindle, also priced $2.99.

“Mooned by a pig.  This is the best wedding ever!”  (loc. 14647)
    Everybody’s sense of humor is different.  If you like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey’s Florida crime humor but wish they’d set some books in other states, When Pigs Fly is for you.  OTOH, if you don’t find anything funny about burying someone up to his neck on an anthill, then you might want to skip this genre.

    For me, this was a thoroughly entertaining, light read.  I LMAO’d all through it.  And at one point, a pig really does fly.  Well, a javelina, anyway.

    9 Stars.  Subtract one-half star if you find Arizona boring; subtract another one-half star if Monty Python humor isn’t your cup of tea.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Long Earth - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter


   2012; 418 pages.  New Author? : No, and no.    Genre : Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Ah, multiverses!  A Quantum Physics offshoot that hypothesizes that an alternate world is created every time the cosmos comes to a significant crossroad of possibilities.  Such as the dinosaur-killing asteroid missing our planet.  Interesting, but irrelevant, since it’s impossible to “step” into that parallel universe.

    But what if we could?  By using a remarkable little device (with the integral part being an ordinary potato) called a “stepper”.  An infinite number of other dimensions await those willing to step.  With infinite resources, and a dazzling variety of strange creatures, due to evolutionary variance.

    But you don’t jump geographically.  You may be stepping onto another planet earth, but you will always "land" in the exact same spot on the planet(s).  Care is required.  For instance, if the ocean covers the whole planet in a parallel world, your stepping there could have dire consequences.

    But there are ways to leapfrog that risk.

What’s To Like...
     The two authors’ collaborative efforts are seamless and outstanding.  You get Terry Pratchett’s wit combined with Stephen Baxter’s Science Fiction.  The book’s structure is very similar to Baxter’s Evolution, but here he is free to be more imaginative in his world-building.

    The three main characters are Joshua, Sally, and Lobsang, and the main plotline is their endeavor to keep stepping from world to world until they reach “the end”, whatever that may turn out to be.  You are also introduced to a bunch more characters, many of which aren’t seen again.  But The Long Earth is just the first book in a proposed new series, so I presume these “extras” will play bigger parts as the story progresses.  Likewise for a couple of subplots that remain little more than embryonic at the end of the book.

    The “mood” of the book is light for the most part, thanks to Terry Pratchett’s input.  But there is a hint of serious topics to come, particularly with the rise of the “Anti-Stepping Movement” back on the Home Earth.

    The ending feels a bit rushed, but our heroes’ odyssey is brought to a conclusion, and the groundwork is laid for Book 2, The Long War, which is already available.  So you have a satisfactory resolution to the immediate story-within-a-story, and a teaser of things to come.

Kewlest New Phrase. . .
Turing Test (n.)  :  a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

    “Joshua, always remember, you have not travelled back in time, or forward.  You have travelled far across the contingency tree of the possible, on a planet where dramatic but quasi-random extinction events periodically obliterate much of the family of life, leaving room for evolutionary innovstion.  On each Earth, however, the outcomes will differ, by a little or a lot.”  (pg. 263)

    “Look at the trolls.  Yes, the trolls are friendly and helpful, and I would not wish any harm to come to them.  They are happy, and I could envy that.  But they don’t build, they do not make, they take the world for what it is.  Humans start with the world as it is and try to make it different.  And that’s what makes them interesting.  In all these worlds we are rushing over, the most precious thing that we can find is another human being.”  (pg. 344)

 “It all seems such a waste, doesn’t it?  All these worlds.  What’s the point, without mind?”  (pg. 333)
    Genre-wise, The Long Earth reminds me of both a James B. Hogan “hard” science fiction tale, and an Andre Norton “other world” story.  So this is a “food for thought” tale, not a hack-&-slash, save-the galaxy adventure.  If the names Hogan and Norton don’t ring any bells, and your Sci-Fi tastes are limited to Star Wars fan books, you might be disappointed by the lack of bloodletting.

    Terry Pratchett is my favorite Fantasy author, and Evolution has made me  a fan of Stephen Baxter.  And as much as I like to read classic sci-fi by Norton and Hogan, Pratchett and Baxter frankly do it better.

    My only question (Warning!  Minor Spoiler Alert ahead!) is why, given all the other beasts encountered on the parallel earths, no humans (other than steppers from the Home Earth) are ever found.  Perhaps this is addressed in a forthcoming book.  9 Stars.  Barnes & Noble didn’t have the sequel in stock when I bought this, but I’m pretty sure I’ll buy it when I find it, and end up getting hooked on the series.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Keepers of Water - R.G. Porter


    2012; 225 pages.  Full Title : Keepers of Water (Guardians of Nature).  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Adventure.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Arieana’s brother, Rydan, has been slain and although it happened a world away, his spirit reaches out to warn her not to seek revenge.  But the murderers weren’t brutish terrans, they were fellow Baileans.  And that simply cannot be allowed to go unpunished.  So it’s off to the deserts of Chile, where Rydan met his end, to do some serious whup-assing.

    Sorien’s parents were archaeologists that were murdered in the same area.  Now one of his colleagues has met the same fate, in the same locale.  Sorien is hardly an Indiana Jones, although he too is an archaeologist.  The three murders obviously have something to do with the dig they were all working on.  And the only way to get to the bottom of the tragedies is to go there, look through their notes for clues, and continue the excavations

    Even if that moves Sorien to the top of the most-likely-to-meet-an-untimely-end list.

What’s To Like...
    There are parallel worlds (Baile and ours) and the Mandarin Chinese symbol for water on the book cover.  Those things always appeal to me.  Ditto for anytime archaeology plays a part in a story.  The world-building of Baile is modest, but adequate for the storyline.  Outside of the magic practiced there, its citizenry is much like ours, for better and for worse.  The Chilean desert is a refreshing change of pace for an adventure setting.

    The main good-guy characters – Sorien, Arieana, Aeryn, and Brooke – are all likeable and interesting.  The baddies are less developed, but at least aren’t all black – there is a redeeming motive for their actions.  They aren’t terribly cunning or resourceful though.

    Besides the standard “get the Ultimate Artifact (‘UA’) and save the world” scenario, there seems to be a more subtle theme here – learning to control one’s emotions.  That’s kewl.

    The ending is unsatisfying; nothing is resolved.  Rydan’s death is un-avenged, the baddies aren’t thwarted, the identity of the head bad guy remains veiled, and nobody knows what the UA does.  These are obviously “to be continued” teasers, but there is no sequel, and nothing in the Amazon blurbs leads me to believe one is in the works.  So Keepers of Water comes off as an introduction to a series that doesn’t exist.

    “I followed the voices.  They seemed so far away and sad, so I thought I would find them and cheer them up.”
    “What voices?” they both asked in unison but for completely different reasons.  She knew Sorien probably thought the child had imaginary friends; Arieana was worried about the others being too close.  Whatever had brought this child out to the middle of nowhere had been powerful, and that worried her.
    “Um. . . the voices that came from beneath the sand.  They sounded so sad.  I wanted to play with them so that they were no longer lonely.”  (loc. 1971)

    “What’s your name?”
    “Ah, you would want to know.  Not that it will do you any good, but it’s An’Drea.”
    “It will.  I will remember you, and you need to remember me.”
    “And why might that be?”
    “Because my face will be the last one you see when I kill you.”  (loc. 2893)

Kindle Details...
    Keepers of Water sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  R.G. Porter has a dozen or so books available for the Kindle, ranging from free to $3.99.

Don’t hide in the darkness.  It’s icky.  (loc. 662)
    Keepers of Water is a promising first draft of a story that screams for Phase 2 of writing a novel : editing, proofing, and beta-reading.

    This is most evident in the typos.  In addition to the fare/fair and rein/reign sort of lapses, the book has one new (to me) and irksome recurring error.  “Senior” is used instead of “Senor”.  So the Spanish speakers say “Senior Jacobs”.  Ouch.  I can’t see any proof- or beta-reader missing that.

    There is too much telling and not enough showing.  We are reminded repeatedly that the Bailean council is not to be trusted, and that Arieana is hesitant to open up to Sorien.  Wouldn't it be stronger to demonstrate these things to the reader, rather than tell them.

    Finally, there are the WTF moments.  The baddies are lurking, hoping for the UA to be unearthed by our heroes.  So why attack a nearby town, which brings ill-advised attention?  OTOH, when several of the townspeople are killed in the attack, does anybody fire off a communication to the Federales, requesting help?  Of course not.

    There’s no sex, booze, or drugs; and I don’t recall any cussing.  There isn’t even any romance, although I get the feeling one's on the horizon.  There is some killing, so this isn’t a cozy.  But it isn’t overly gruesome.  No plot twists jumped out to surprise me.  I think this could be reworked into a dynamite YA novel.

    5 Stars.  Out of 10.  Add 1 star if the sequel is published.  Add 2 stars if a revised version comes out, after the requisite editing.