Saturday, April 27, 2013

Flying Dutch - Tom Holt


    1991; 252 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Laurels : 17th place  in Locus Magazine’s “Best Fantasy Novel” for 1992.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Immortality can last a long time.  Just ask Captain Vanderdecker and his crew.  They’ve been sailing around in their ship, the Verdomde (“The Damned”) for a good 400 years or so.  They hadn’t meant to become immortal, it happened by accident.  Blame the booze.  Alas, it came with an unwanted side-effect that really put the kibosh on interacting with other people.  So it’s best for them to keep to the open sea.

    Immortality also wreaks havoc with life insurance policies.  So Jane Doland is dispatched to find Captain Vanderdecker and work something out.  But how do you find someone who almost never comes ashore?

What’s To Like...
    The story is Tom Holt’s spoof of The Flying Dutchman, which is both a centuries-old legend and an opera by Richard Wagner.  You don’t have to acquaint yourself with either to enjoy Flying Dutch.

    The two protagonists, Jane and Vanderdecker, are well-developed and it’s a blast to get to know them.  There are lots of secondary characters – bankers, crewmen, a news reporter, a scientist, hired thugs, etc.  Some are good guys; some are bad guys; they’re all fun to meet too.  But their raison d-etre is mostly just for comedic relief.  Oh yeah, there’s a cat of indeterminate breed.  You’re gonna love the cat.

    There’s some Romance mixed in with the Adventure.  Tom Holt also manages to get some “pokes” in at things like Greenpeace, nuclear energy, and the world economy.  He has some interesting insights on the idea of living forever as well.  But these are all strictly second-fiddle to the storyline and the humor.  I like his priorities.

    The first 20 pages or so can be confusing, but after that the story zips along nicely.  Everything builds to a satisfying ending.  This is a standalone novel.  As with any Tom Holt book, the writing is masterfully witty, making this a fun read.

Kewlest New Word...
Cack-handed  (adj.) : Awkward; clumsy; inept with the hands.  (Britishism).

Excerpts...
    Melancholy reflections on the subject of beer led him to even more melancholy reflections concerning the great web of being, and in particular his part in it, which had been so much more protracted than anybody else’s.  Not more significant, to the best of his knowledge.  His role in history was rather like that of lettuce in the average salad; it achieves no useful purpose, but there’s always a lot of it.  (pg. 3 )
 
    Vanderdecker typically blamed himself.  Instead of frittering away his time and money on beer and scientific journals, he should have remembered that he was, first and foremost, a ship’s captain and got some decent charts.  Quite a few of the ones he still used had bits of Latin and sea-serpents in the margins, and he defended his retention of them by saying that: (i) he was used to them, (ii) they looked nice and (iii) in the circumstances, what the hell did it matter anyway?
    Since his crew generally lacked the intellectual capacity to argue with a man who spoke in bracketed roman numerals, he had managed to have his own way on this point, but the short-sightedness of this attitude was coming home to him at last.  (pg. 48-9)

An over-excited accountant, like the University of Hull, is a contradiction in terms.  (pg. 188)
    This was my fifth Tom Holt book.  The plotline of Flying Dutch was as coherent as I’ve seen from this author.  His more-recent works (from 2002 forward)  are often over-the-top in zaniness.  They are also without mythology tie-ins, which can sometimes make following the storyline a bit of a challenge.

    That’s not a criticism; just an observation.  Whether you prefer his older or more recent literary style is a matter of taste.  If I had to choose, I’d say, “both”.  8½ Stars.  Add another half-star if you are already familiar with the legend and/or the opera.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Khe - Alexes Razevich

    2012; 285 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  .  Genre :  Dystopian Fantasy; YA.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    What’s wrong with Khe?  While all of her sisters are getting hot and bothered (literally) on Resonance Day, nary an ounce of excitement stirs within her.  And unless you’re hormonally a-twitter, you can’t participate in the ensuing mating rites.  That’s bad because it means less hatchlings for the commune.

    But there’s hope for Khe.  After running some tests, the Research Institute thinks they can cure her.  Make her normal.  Ah, but it’s not 100% guaranteed.  And there might be some unexpected side-effects.

What’s To Like...
    Alexes Razevich creates a world with creatures that are both original and fascinating.  They are bipedal and humanoid, but hatch from eggs.  The society is communal, and the males live separate from the females, with commingling only occurring at mating time.  No one’s emotions are secret – all beings have “emotion spots” on their necks; and you can tell if someone’s scared, ashamed, etc. by the color of those spots.

    You can find elements of Logan’s Run, Hunger Games, and Animal Farm here, but really, Khe runs its own course.  Overall, the plot is standard dystopian fare – insight, flight, then fight.  But that’s true of any novel in this genre.

    There is some violence, but it’s mostly offstage.  You have one mating scene, but if you find it erotic, you need help.  The baddies aren’t particularly impressive; they are either incredibly arrogant or incredibly naïve.  The ending is satisfactory.  It leaves the door open the possibility of a sequel, yet this is a standalone novel.  There are four kewl drawings interspersed throughout the book, which give you an idea of how the author visualizes Khe and her world.

    If Khe has any weaknesses, they lie in the technical aspects and loose ends.  To detail this would entail spoilers, which are taboo here.  But the fates of several characters remain unresolved, and inquiring minds (including mine and Khe’s) would certainly like to know the “why” of a number of phenomena here, such as the Logan's Run motif.

Excerpts...
    We’d sung the same song at Lunge.  The doumanas in every commune probably sang it.  Tav had said that even the males sang the same songs, spoke the same language, and worshipped the same creator we did.  Thedra said that was because our species didn’t have enough imagination to make up anything different.  When I was young, I sometimes feared the creator would strike Thedra down for blasphemous things she said, and sometimes I wished it would, but nothing ever happened.  And what did that mean?  (loc. 786)

    “I don’t understand the idea of communicating with walls and structures at all.”
    Azlii frowns.  “You must stop thinking that just because something is made of wood or bricks or stones and mortar that it’s not aware.  Corentans learn to speak with all sentients almost as soon as we’re assigned to a community.  My dwelling and I worked together to get it built, so that we were both pleased with the outcome.”  (loc. 1599)

Kindle Details...
    Khe sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  ANAICT, this is Alexes Razevixch’s only novel thus far.

“Fear is good.  It will help keep you from doing something noble and stupid.” (loc. 1688)
    The target audience here is young-teen and tween-age girls.  Khe is female, and males are almost completely absent in the book.  The storyline is engaging, but somewhat straightforward.  If this was a mystery, we’d call it a cozy.

    Frankly, Khe may be a bit simplistic for adult readers, and guys of any age looking for blood, gore, and sex will be disappointed.  Ditto for aficionados of Crichton-esque sci-fi; there is very little “science” here – fictional or otherwise.

    But if you keep in mind for whom this is written, you will find Khe to be a pleasant read.  As an adult male, I wasn’t blown away, yet the book did keep me entertained.  That says something.  7½ Stars.  Add two more stars if you’re a teenage girl who loves to read Dystopian novels.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Channel War - M. Edward McNally

    2013; ?? pages, but the file size is a hefty 1,728 KB.  New Author? : No.  Book 5 of The Norothian Cycle series.  Genre :  Epic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The Gunnak dragons are coming!  Well actually, they’re sending their proxy Martan humans to do battle with the beings under the influence of the old, Great Dragons.  John the Red, née John Deskata, leads the crack Martan legion that is spearheading the invasion.

    Ah, but our heroes, Zeb and Tilda, are about to have a child.  And running a profitable import/export business, plus a joint venture with a fishing enterprise is time-demanding.  Surely some other heroes can deal with John.

    Yeah right.

What’s To Like...
    The series keeps getting bigger and better with each volume.  There is a nice balance here between action (fighting and magic) and drama (character development).  We meet some new species – halflings, dwarves, and gnolls (the gnolls are probably not new, but it's beem a while) – as well as one of the Great Dragons of the Land.  It’s always kewl to meet a dragon.

    M. Edward McNally once again expands the Norothian universe – which means he had to develop more maps and we get to meet a bunch of new people.  To boot, ANAICT he catches us up on all the old characters (with even a passing mention of dear Miss Horn), so unless you’ve just gotten done with the first four books, you might want to make a list of Who’s Who.  The author does give a brief backstory as each person steps onto the stage, but really, this isn’t a standalone tale.

    The structure of The Channel War reminds me of Book 1, The Sable City.  For a while, it’s mostly slash and flash, and I started to wonder how much progress would be made in the “grand story”.  But not to worry, several major issues get resolved in the final section (Part 3).  The book ends nicely – the first phase of the Martan invasion is done.  But the ending also sets up Book 6, with the promise of revenge, retribution, and even broader horizons for at least one of our heroes.     

Kewlest New Word…
    Barmy (adj.) : Crazy; Insane; Eccentric.  (Britishism).  A corruption of “Balmy” which, as a Britishism, means the same thing.

Excerpts...
    “Vicious, foolish young wyrms may sack a castle or seize coins only for aggrandizement, but the Greats have long known there are better ways.  The Great Dragons do not raid and ransack in search of wealth.  They use the greed and pettiness and stupidity of men and nations to gather wealth to themselves.  That is how they measure their power against that of their fellows.”  (loc. 1690)

    The riders had reached the edge of the sandy depression where they stopped, all three archers training their aim on Allison at the maximum pull for their short bows.
    “Hey!” Allison shouted, and tried to find some appropriate words in her limited store of Martan.  Harmouf meshfada!
    The six Martan men only exchanged glances.
    “You said sheep combers,” Rully said, now standing as closely behind Allison as he could without putting his face in her backside.  “You meant hfeshada.”
    Harmouf hfeshada!
    All three archers loosed their shots.  (loc. 2530)

Kindle Details...
    The Channel War sells for $4.99 at Amazon, as do Books 2-4 of the series.  Book 1, The Sable City, is free.  You can’t beat that, so what are you waiting for?

“There is always a pretext that will move men toward war, it is just a matter of finding the right one.” (loc. 1862)
    So what separates this epic fantasy series from the hundreds of other ones available for your Kindle?  For me, it is the complexity of the conflict and the “grayness” of the characters.

    Conflict-wise, the young dragons have pitted themselves against the older dragons.  Neither group is exactly heroic.  Their human minions don’t just line up loyally behind them.  There are national grudges that often override the Dragons’ agenda.  Even our knights in shining armor – the Codian Empire – make some terrible misassumptions that lead to needless and costly strife.  I like it when things aren’t black-&-white.

    Then there is the third force - the Devils.  Just because they’re demonic doesn’t mean they have to be the black hats.  Frankly, their strategy against the Gunnak menace makes the most sense to me.  And when that’s the case, you can pretty much expect to get hit with some major plot twists in the next book.

    There is a short-but-enlightening afterword from M. Edward McNally at the conclusion of The Channel War.  It’s much better than the ones Stephen King and Piers Anthony write.  Be sure to read it; it gives useful insight into where this series is going.  9 Stars.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Another Roadside Attraction - Tom Robbins

    1971; 337 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedy-Drama.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Welcome to Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve.  There’s not a lot of wildlife – a flea circus, a couple of snakes, and a tsetse fly entombed in amber.  They do have hotdogs, of course, but there’s no coffee or soft drinks to go along with them.

    But pretty Amanda will charm you with sparkling chit-chat, and John Paul might play his flute for you.  Mon Cul the baboon is part of the staff, not part of the exhibit.  And you never know who is going to drop by the place, and what they might bring with them.

What’s To Like...
    All the characters are well-developed and interesting.  There are militant monks, Vatican secrets, and FBI agents.  The plotline is non-linear, but done well enough so that is wasn’t confusing.  If you are old enough to remember the 60’s, you’ll find the mindsets in Another Roadside Attraction very nostalgic.

    If you yearn to learn more about things like monarch butterflies, baboons, and 30-foot-long hot dogs, this book’s for you.  Indeed, there’s scarcely a page where Tom Robbins doesn’t go off on one or more tangents.

    The main tangent is religion, and I got the feeling that Robbins’ primary purpose in penning this was to give us his insightful and often caustic views on the subject.  Each character has his own philosophical outlook.  Marx is an agnostic; Plucky Purcell’s a skeptic, John Paul Ziller comes off as a stoic, and Amanda’s into the 60’s hippie-dippie stuff - worshipping the Earth Goddess, consulting the I Ching, and having trances.

    The literary accoutrements are all well and good here; unfortunately something’s missing – a well-paced story.  Oh, Plucky purloins an artifact from the Pope, but the book’s half over before this happens, and since the tale is told first-person and after-the-fact, there’s really no tension generated.  The repercussions of the robbery impact our little roadside attraction, and it could’ve made for an exciting climax, but instead the book just sort of trudges along to the end.

    If you’re into musing about God, religion, and the role of the church; this can be an enlightening read.  But if you’re more storyline-oriented (like I am), you may become frustrated by all the tale-stifling divergences.

Kewlest New Word…
    Twilit (adj.) : dimly illuminated by or as if by twilight.  Synonym : Crepuscular

Excerpts...
    “There are three things that I like,” Amanda exclaimed upon awakening from her first long trance.  “These are: the butterfly, the cactus and the Infinite Goof.”
    Later, she amended the list to include mushrooms and motorcycles.  (pg. 4 )

    “Our laws are sacred.”
    “Aren’t our people sacred?”
    “Until a law is removed legally from the statute books, it must be obeyed blindly by everybody if we want to continue to live in a democratic society and not slide back into anarchy.  We’ve got to have laws and retribution.  Ever since we crawled out of caves, retribution has followed wrongdoing as the night the day.  When retribution ceases to follow evil, then the fabric of civilization begins to unravel.”
    Amanda stirred the custard.  “If we’ve always had retribution, how do you know what happens when we don’t have it?” she asked.   (pg. 250)

“When following the spoor of the Mirror Eaters it is wise not to tread on their droppings.”  (pg. 132)
    I found ARA to be a bit rough around the edges, mostly because of the weak storytelling.  A number of characters are introduced and developed, only to fade out and not return.  The pacing was uneven, and after a while, I cringed as yet another tangent arose to slow things down.

    But what saves the book from dropping into the “I struggled to complete it” category is the author’s innate writing talent.  Simply put, Tom Robbins is a master with words.  I still don’t care a whit about the monarch butterflies, but I am awed by the way he tells me about them.

    This was Robbins’ debut novel.  The next three are Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Still Life With Woodpecker, and Jitterbug Perfume.  I’ve read them all, and they are all polished, stellar works.  Despite its shortcomings, Another Roadside Attraction was fun to read, just to be dazzled by Robbins’ deft manipulation of the words.  7 Stars.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Afraid - A Novel of Terror - J.A. Konrath

    2012; 286 pages.  New Author? : No.  N.B. : "Jack Kilborn" is a pen name of J.A. Konrath.   Book 3 of the “A Novel of Terror” series.  Genre :  Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The sleepy town of Safe Haven – population 907 – lies in northern Wisconsin, and in the middle of nowhere.  It’s quite and isolated, so when a helicopter crashes one night just outside of town, that’s something to get excited about.  Things get even better when the whole town wins the Lottery.

    The rest of the night is going to be exciting too.  Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Safe Haven, it’s gonna be the “bad” kind of excitement.

What’s To Like...
    The title sums it up succinctly : Afraid – A Novel of Terror aims to scare you out of your socks.  The action starts right away, and the terror is not far behind.  The “what” is revealed fairly early, so the big question is “why”.  J.A. Konrath delights in answering this gradually and deftly.

    There’s lots of blood and gore, of course; along with lots of killing.  Safe Haven’s population of 907 takes one heckuva hit.  There’s a romance or two to balance the violence, and a monkey and a dog that are both uber-kewl.  This is not a paranormal book; it’s more a matter of science gone wrong.

    The pacing is crisp; Konrath is an author who simply will not allow any slow spots in his books.  There are lots of twists, yet the storyline holds together nicely and builds to a nail-biting climax.  The book is a standalone, and the loose ends tie up nicely without prolonging the page-count.

Excerpts...
    “You think you know pain, old man?  You know nothing of pain.  You’ll answer every question I have and beg me to ask more of them.”
    “No,” Sal said, folding his frail arms, silently swearing on Maggie’s head to not give this bastard the satisfaction.  “You won’t get anything out of me.”
    It took less than three minutes for this intruder to prove Sal wrong.  (loc. 318)

    Though a firefighter, Erwin knew he wasn’t a particularly brave man.  Unlike his friend Josh, who wanted to leave Safe Haven for a bigger town with more danger, Erwin was perfectly fine here.  He hadn’t risked his life once in six years on the job, and that suited him.  But he knew that it was only a matter of time until he’d be forced to do something heroic.
    Unfortunately, it looked like the time had come.  (loc. 867)

Kindle Details...
    Afraid – A Novel of Terror sells for $3.99 at Amazon, as do the other two books in the series – Trapped and Endurance.

“Which head belongs to which, you think?” (loc. 232)
    I have to believe writing thrillers is a daunting task.  A horror movie can scare you by pulling you into the victim’s eyes and letting you watch the oncoming evil.  But a book has to rely on words on a page to imprint the fear into your brain.  How scared can you be by a bunch of sentences?

    There’s nothing subtle, complex, or highbrow about A-ANoT.  It should be judged by how well it traumatizes your mind and keeps it that way, with your only “relief” being to turn the next page.  It succeeds frighteningly.  8 Stars.