Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pharaoh's Son - Diana Wilder

    2011; 440 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre :  Historical Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    When one of the colossal statues of Pharaoh topples over during a festival at the temple of Ptah, it seems to be an unfortunate accident.  When a second statue and a pylon also collapse, one wonders if it is a sign from Ptah.  But then priests start having their throats slashed, and a more earthly cause seems more likely.

    Khay is both the high priest of Ptah and a son of the Pharaoh.  It’s up to him to figure out the “Who” and “How” of these incidents.  His brother, the Crown Prince Hori, soon arrives to help.  Which means there are two more targets for whoever is behind all this.

What’s To Like...
    The setting – the Egyptian city of Memphis during the reign of Ramesses II – is superbly done.  It “felt” real to me, being neither a dry information dump nor too vague and generic. 

    The mystery aspect of Pharaoh’s Son, is passably decent.  The “Who” of the whodunit are easy to spot, although there’s one red herring to keep you one your toes.  The investigation is more a matter of determining the “Why”.  The motives and actions of the bad guys hold together reasonably well.  But there are some loose ends – such as telepathic messages and “beings of light” that ANAICT, were never resolved.

    There is also a spiritual tinge to the story, and this is where things get clunky.  Gospel allusions get dropped into the dialogue (forgiveness, the perils of materialism, reaping what one sows, etc.), but none of it ever impacts the storyline.  More importantly, it doesn’t jive with ancient Egyptian theology, not even with Amenhotep IV’s monotheistic deity, Aten.  More on this in a bit.

    The characters, especially the two protagonists, are well-developed.  There are a poopload of them to follow.  The author provides a cast of characters section, but unfortunately, it comes after the end of the story.  This may work in a “book book”, but not on a Kindle, which are inherently formatted to open to the first page.  It might be better to put the list just ahead of page 1 in the Kindle version.

    Idefa’s eyes were shining.  “I’d gladly die for Your Royal Highness!” he exclaimed.
    The Crown Prince sat back and looked him over in a puzzled fashion.  “What is it about me,” he wondered aloud, “that constantly compels those around me to seek death?  I don’t want anyone to die for me: it depletes the ranks of my allies which are, alas, far too thin as it stands.”  (loc. 3258)

    “And then what do we do?” asked Idefa.
    “Get out of here, of course,” said Khay.  “Didn’t you hear them?  They mean to put me to the torture, and I don’t intend to be here when they come back.”
    “They can’t torture you!” Idefa objected, aghast.  “You’re Pharaoh’s son!”
    “Kings’ sons bleed like anyone else,” Khay said.  “Sometimes more easily.”  (loc. 7154)

Kindle Details...
    Pharaoh’s Son sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Diana Wilder has two other murder-mysteries set in roughly the same time and place, also for $2.99, but they do not appear to be sequels, as the protagonists are different.

“Amun's breath and bones!" (loc. 992)
    Once upon a long time ago, there was a Finnish writer named Mika Waltari.  He wrote a number of historical fiction novels, including one called The Egyptian., set in almost the exact same time period Pharaoh’s Son.  Waltari, like Ms. Wilder, paid major attention to historical accuracy, and I ate up maybe a half dozen of his books back in my salad days since I’ve always been a history buff.  Unfortunately, Waltari was a devout Christian, and he couldn’t help but let his spiritual views seep into his stories.  Which really detracted from otherwise compelling stories.

    I don’t know what the author's religious views are; she is certainly not as heavy-handed as Waltari was.  But even so, I think this genre of literature is better served without the spiritual aspects, unless they are an intrinsic part of the mystery.  And if theology is called for in the plotline, at least make it consistent with the prevailing doctrines of the setting.

    But I pick at nits.  Pharaoh’s Son is recommended for fans of both Historical Fiction and Murder Mystery.  The pacing is good, I really didn’t think there were any slow spots, and the story wraps up nicely.  7½ Stars.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Attack of the Fairytale Zombies! - P.J. Jones

    2012; 194 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre :  Parody; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Of what use is a Royal Dragon-Slayer, if he refuses to kill the resident dragon?  A fair question that King Ronald Dump poses to said employee.  But Sir Barth and “Drag” are the best of friends, and blood, even if it is lizard’s blood, is thicker than duty.

    Drag and Barth are prepared to flee the kingdom over the matter.  But then the local witch turns the kingdom’s inhabitants into brainsss-craving zombies, and the walking dead converge upon King Dump’s castle.  Suddenly, Barth’s swordsmanship seems like a valuable commodity.

What’s To Like...
    Attack of the Fairytale Zombies! is a parody, and manages to be bawdy without bring obscene.  The language is …erm… earthy, and there are a bunch of allusions to “adult situations”.  But really, it’s nothing you wouldn’t hear in a junior high locker room.

    My two favorite characters are a cross-dressing dragon and an apprentice “good” witch.  The rest, including our hero, are forgettably stereotypical.  There is a semblance of a storyline (the “attack of the fairytale zombies”), but it’s really nothing but a string of clichés.  The author is aware of this; indeed, she uses the word cliché a half-dozen times in the novel.  Another favorite word of hers : sigh.  It shows up 25 times.

    At less than 200 pages, this is a short read, but it’s the right length for this sort of parody.  The gag lines do get repetitive, but any book that has the cry “Brainsss!” and zombie pigs in it will keep me turning the pages.

    She screeched as she landed in Barth’s lap with a thud.  “Oh, I’m sorry.”
    When Barth looked into the witch’s wide, violet eyes, he thought his heart would melt.  Except, not all the way, because then his heart wouldn’t be able to pump blood, and he’d die.  It melted just enough so the reader gets that Barth was instantly in love.  (loc. 267)

    “Whom did you slay?” the king groaned.
    Barth tilted his head while tapping his chin.  “About a dozen knights, a few hobbits and goblins, an evil step-sister, a wooden puppet, one or two princesses, oh and Bill Murray.  He wasn’t a zombie yet, but I lopped off his head just for the hell of it.”
    The king slapped his forehead.  “I can’t believe you killed Bill Murray.”
    Barth arched a brow.  “Have you seen Garfield?”  (loc. 631)

Kindle Details...
    Attack of the Fairytale Zombies! sells for $0.99 at Amazon, which seems to be the standard price for all of P.J. Jones’ books ATM.  She is also a contributing author to the anthologies put out by a group who call themselves The Eclective, and these are very good and often free.  Indeed, if you watch the various “free Kindle books” websites and/or Amazon, you will sooner or later find a lot of Ms. Jones’ books free for limited time periods.

“Why can Blahnik design shoes for filthy little hobbits but not for cross-dressing dragons?” (loc. 53)
    Attack of the Fairytale Zombies! reminds me of a book from way back in the mid-90’s, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.  Both are spoofs, both rely on repetitive punch lines, and neither makes any pretense of having any depth.  One relies on sexual innuendo; the other on PC-innuendo.

    PCBS had a brief heyday – ISTR it made the NY Times Best Seller list – but it had no staying power because, after you grew tired of hearing the same witticisms over and over again (“womyn” instead of “women”), all you had left was the fairy tale storyline.  The same holds true here.  When the genitalia boner mots get old, there’s not much else to latch on to.

    AotFT! can be summed up in two words : “tabasco-flavored cotton-candy”.  Okay, maybe that’s four words.  This is a spicy novel, but without any substance.  Still, there are times when cotton-candy is just what one’s taste buds are craving, and I doubt P.J. Jones  had any intention of writing something complex or high-brow.  7 Stars.  Add another star if you remember PCBS, and thought it was hilarious.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Blood Rites - Jim Butcher

    2004; 452 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #6 of the Dresden Files series.  Genre : Urban Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Chicago’s wizard-for-hire, Harry Dresden, has a dream job – providing magic protection for the cast of a porn movie.  The director is convinced that someone wants to put him out of business by harming his cast with “Evil Eye” spells.  Sure, sure.

    It turns out, however, someone really is throwing life-threatening spells at the actresses in the movie.  Spells so powerful, they’re beyond the scope of an ordinary caster.  Who’s behind this and what is their motive?  Harry better find out because the next lethal spell is aimed at him.

What’s To Like...
    I read Book 1 of this series way back in 2009.  Most of the main characters came back to me quickly here.  A couple new ones have been added somewhere along the way, and a couple new ones get added here, including a puppy.  This is a standalone story, but the usual maxim applies – you will get more out of the series if you read the books in order.

    The “porn movie” motif is a tease.  There’s no squishing or slurping, and after the first third of the book, it doesn’t figure into the story much.  There is some cussing, and one naked body waiting to be sacrificed, but that’s about it for R-rated stuff.

    Jim Butcher has a great writing style, and the whodunit aspect of the storyline is done well.  The horror is tempered by a steady stream of humor.  There is plenty of action, and everything builds to a satisfying climax.

    “Christ, Dresden! You almost got me killed!”
    “Don’t be a baby.  You’re fine.”
    Thomas frowned at me.  “You at least could have told me!”
    “I did tell you.,” I said.  “I told you at Mac’s that I’d give you a ride home, but that I had to run an errand first.”
    Thomas scowled.  “An errand is getting a tank of gas or picking up a carton of milk or something.  It is not getting chased by flying purple pyromaniac gorillas hurling incendiary poo.”  (pg. 9 )

    I put the stupid mask on.  “You might not know this, but I don’t function all that well as an investigator when blinded.”
    That’s the idea,” the gunman drawled.  The gun left my neck.  “Try not to make me feel threatened,” he said through a yawn.  “I’m all spooked and jittery.  If you make any noise or start to get up, I’ll probably twitch, and this trigger is pretty sensitive.  My gun is pointed at your nose.  The ensuing cause-and-effect chain could be inconvenient for you.”
    “Maybe next time you could just say ‘freeze,’” I said.  “No need to walk me through it step by step.”  (pg. 89)

“Be vewy vewy quiet.  We’re hunting vampires.”  (pg. 305)
    A brief synopsis of the Dresden Files world.  There are some fairies and demons and whatnot, but for the most part this is about Vampires versus Wizards.  The Vampire Orders come in three Orders : white, red, and black.  You really don’t want to mess with the Black Order ones.  The Wizards are members of the White Council.  The Vamps come in varying shades of evil and the Wizards aren’t exactly pure good.

    I enjoyed Blood Rites, which was also true of the other Dresden Files book I've read, reviewed here.  I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read another one in the series.  Presumably it’s a matter of  “so many books, so little time”.  In any event, two more are now on my TBR shelf.  8½ Stars.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mad Science Institute - Sechin Tower

    2011; 310 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre :  Action-Adventure, YA.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    16-year-old Sophia “Soap” Lazarchek is has a flair for innovative science experiments.  Unfortunately, they usually blow up or catch fire, both at home and at science fairs.  Which gets expensive for her dad, who has to pay for all the damages.

    So when something called the Mechanical Science Institute invites her to apply for admission, it’s a golden opportunity for Soap to go off to college and focus on her projects, withiout sending her Dad to the poorhouse.  Who cares if she’s never heard of the place?  Or that it’s located in some godforsaken town called Bugswallow, Minnesota?  Or that there may be an ulterior motive for the offer?

What’s To Like...
    The chapters alternate between Soap and her cousin, Dean.  Soap’s chapters are first-person POV; Dean’s are third-person.  This works reasonably well, unless you develop a preference for one or the other protagonist.

    This is a YA novel.  So there’s no nudity or cussing; and the closest we come to sex is Sophia’s first-ever kiss, about halfway through the book.  There is one somber death, but the rest of the violence is rather toned-down, sometimes with a hint of comic relief woven in.

    The book will encourage kids – especially girls – to consider science as a career, and that’s always a plus.  Mad Science Institute is also a tribute to Nikola Tesla and his inventions, both theorized and realized.  It’s fun to read about some neat gizmos spawned by the discovery of an imaginary new element, christened Teslanium.

    The storytelling is uneven.  There are ample plot twists, but they feel arbitrary and telegraphed.  Soap’s roommate is a riot, especially her “Conversation Matrix”.  But the whole college ambiance is underdeveloped, and there are some tangents (such as a brief exchange about Mandarin Chinese) that don’t add anything to the story.  OTOH, Sechin Tower keeps the story moving at a crisp pace, even allowing some science fantasy to enter into the storyline.  The characters aren’t compelling; but neither are they boring.  You’ll enjoy meeting Rusty and Choop.

    The ending wraps the storyline up nicely, and points to this becoming a series.  The author adds an appendix to discuss the various Tesla ideas he incorporated into the book.  It is worth reading; among other things, you’ll learn why the main MSI building is called Topsy House.

    Victor shook his head.  “People don’t last.  People grow old and they die, and all their brawn goes away.  Only their knowledge endures as it is handed down to others.  Knowledge is the only thing that doesn’t ever have to die.”
    “That’s a nifty argument,” Dean snorted.  “When we get out of here, we’ll have a fifty yard dash and see which is better, brains or brawn.”  (loc. 6638)

    “I’m just in it for the money,” Brick chuckled and took a menacing step forward.  “Bought me a badass hog – which you wrecked.  So now, I’m gonna wreck you.”
    “I warn you: I’m pre-med,” Victor said, stepping backwards.  “I’ll be able to name each and every bone you break.”  (loc. 7815)

Kindle Details...
    Mad Science Institute sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  ANAICT, this is his only published book, although I’m led to think he is working on a sequel to this.

“…every mad scientist creates a monster sooner or later.” (loc. 3172)
    There are some technical lapses.  The explosive TNT is identified as being tri-nitro tetroxide, when in fact it is tri-nitro toluene.  Ouch.  And a surge of lava flowing into a room only raises the temperature 10 degrees.  Um, I think it’s gonna get a lot hotter than that.

    There are some YFKM moments.  A gang of nasty bikers stage an all-out assault on a college building, yet this apparently is no cause for alarm for the local police.  Soap can be annoyingly stupid at time, such as when she gives away her security code to the obvious baddie.  I wonder what harm could come of that?

    I don’t think these weaknesses will stop the target audience – YA’s – from enjoying Mad Science Institute.  But adults might not be as entertained as their kids would be.  7 Stars.  Add another half-star if you’re a science geek, and/or a full star if you’re a teenager.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Ice Hunt - James Rollins

    2003; 505 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Thriller; Action-Adventure.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The research submarine Polar Sentinel has some neat features, including having its forward upper shell replaced with a canopy of foot-thick, heavy-duty, clear plastic.  So when it’s under the polar ice cap, the personnel can actually see what’s in the water ahead.

    Like something called an ice island, sort of an inverted mountain of ice.  But this one has something startling stuck in it – a WW2-era Russian submarine.  And sonar shows even stranger images of the inside of the ice island.  Rooms and corridors, and scattered within them, the forms of human bodies.  Well, except for that one image blip.  It’s still moving.  Quite quickly, in fact.

What’s To Like...
    Ice Hunt opens with three storylines – the Americans, the Russians, and an Alaskan Fish & Game ranger out doing his job.  The action in each line starts immediately.  Their paths converge at the newly-discovered ice station.  Which just ratchets up the excitement to another level.

    The tone of the book is a mix of the best elements of Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, and Clive Cussler.  There’s a poopload of plot twists, and telling the white-hats from the black-hats is a lot more difficult than simply saying “Yankees good.  Russkies bad”.  Indeed, the Russians have a knack for being every bit as resourceful as the Americans.  Some of the good guys die; some of the bad guys survive.

    There’s a Cast of Characters at the front of the book, and that helps tremendously.  There is some cussing, and a smattering of all-too-obvious romance.  But no sex, not even rubbing noses.  It’s too cold, and it’s hard to cuddle when you’re being shot at, blown up, or sniffed over by something contemplating you as its next meal.

    The ending is good and all the loose ends are neatly resolved.  This is a standalone book; it’s nice to red something that doesn’t carry over to a sequel.

    Matt considered his options.  They were few.  He could escape on his own and leave Craig to the gunmen.  He wagered they were more interested in silencing the reporter than him, and he had no doubt that he could disappear into these woods on his own.  But this was not a real option.
    He had his dogs to think about.  (pg. 50 )

    “It’s hard to believe…” Dr. Ogden murmured from the neighboring cell, looking on.  Matt had related the findings in Vladimir Petkov’s journal.
    Matt merely nodded, unable to take his eyes from the boy.
    “What I wouldn’t give to study the boy … maybe a sample of his blood.”
    Matt sighed and closed his eyes.  Scientists.  They never lifted their noses from their research to see who was affected.  (pg. 444)

“Something’s alive in there…”  (pg. 11)
    There are some quibbles.  As usual, the scientists are stereotyped.  The heroes are incredibly lucky, and there are a few YFKM moments, such as when a submarine goes skeet shooting.  That’s the only way to describe it without giving a spoiler.

    But this is par for the course for this genre.  Everything has to be lightning-fast and visually spectacular.  And that’s better than being slow and boring.  8½ Stars.  Cuz even though it felt like this was written to be made into a movie (which hasn’t happened yet), it kept me turning the pages.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

If You Fly With The Crows - Neal Sillars

    2010; 193 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre :  Anecdotal Humor.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Rab Sinclair has a steady career in retail.  Well, that’s nicespeak for stocking the shelves at the local grocery store.  It pays the bills, albeit barely, and keeps him happily drinking beer and eating donner kebabs for supper.  But his class reunion is coming up in a couple of months, and compared to the bios some of his former classmates have posted at Friends Reunited (especially his ex-GF Caroline), shelf-stocker seems a bit underwhelming.

    The time has come for a career change.  But to what?  Well, how about something entrepreneurial?  Find a need, supply a product, make a profit.  How difficult can that be?.

What’s To Like...
    The setting is Scotland, and the book gives you a nice feel for the daily life of the common man there.  Neal Sillars is Scottish by birth, and a lot of the dialogue is in the mother tongue (“So A’ll be needin tae borrow ma da’s motor, if that’s awright, Mam.”).  Some may find this tiresome, but I thought it added to the scene-setting.

    The author has a lot of fun with various literary devices – the Fourth Wall, flashbacks, a deus ex machina or two, and the always-popular MacGuffin.  This is not a book for the kiddies – there is some cussing, and Rab turns to sex toys for his product line.  Ah, but the tartan dildo is a clever marketing …um… device.

    The humor will not be to everyone’s taste, and Rab will not be everyone’s idea of a hero.  Both remind me of the “Flashman” series, penned by George MacDonald Fraser, another Scottish writer.  Personally, I am not a big Flashman fan, but to each his own.

    “It’s a Windsor knot you’re wanting there, Son.  Look at the states of that knot!  Who would ever say you were a son of mine?”
    The look of disgust on his face appeared genuine and I must confess that what he said did make me think, but I couldn’t imagine my mum having ever been with anyone else but dad.  (loc. 638)

    We’re not big on cocktails in Lanarkshire and I don’t think it’s just an issue of price.  We have an unspoken macho code which limits many of the things men are allowed to do.  We don’t cry, we don’t wear vests, we eat food which is so spicy that it is barely edible and we don’t walk about holding hands with our girlfriends unless we have just started going out, to name but a few of these unwritten rules.  (loc. 3063)

Kindle Details...
    If You Fly With The Crows sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Neal Sillars has several other books for sale there, but ANAICT, none are of the humor genre.

“If ye fly wi the craws, ye’ll die wi the craws, Robert!” (loc. 231)
    IYFWTC has plenty of wit, insight, and musings.  Unfortunately, these asides come via way too many tangents, which simply overshadow the storyline.  Rab’s business is an instant success, girls can’t wait to hop into bed with him, and even when he’s trussed up and dangling from a crane in Colombia, you know he’s going to be okay, since he’s writing/telling the story to you.

    All this makes for very little literary tension, capped off by an ending that just sort of winds down rather than building to a climax.  6 Stars because, although it wasn’t a compelling story, neither was it boring; and it’s refreshing to read a story about Scotland that doesn’t sound like it’s straight out of National Geographic.  Add two more stars if you think that Flashman really is your kind of hero.