Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blade of the Samurai - Susan Spann


   2014; 293 pages.  Book #2 (out of 2) of the Shinobi Mysteries series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The shogun’s cousin has been murdered, and the weapon used was Kazu’s personal dagger.  So Hiro learns when he is awakened in the middle of the night by the suspect, who claims innocence despite the evidence against him.

    Kazu is both a friend and a fellow shinobi (ninja), so Hiro has an obligation to render assistance.  In the short run, to provide a hiding place.  In the long run, to investigate the crime.

    But there is danger in helping.  Hiro cannot be certain Kazu didn’t commit the crime, and aiding a murderer is a capital offense in Samurai Japan.  Also, if Kazu successfully gets away, Samurai justice demands someone to be put to death in the criminal’s place.

    Like a close friend.  Like Hiro.

What’s To Like...
    The story takes place in Kyoto in June of 1565.  The Murder-Mystery takes precedence over the Historical Fiction, but both are well done, and I liked the setting of a Samurai-dominated, medieval Japan.  There is no “introductory prep” here; the action and the intrigue commence on the first page.

    This series is young – only two books so far.  I gather it centers around a sleuthing team of an undercover ninja (Hiro) and a Jesuit missionary priest (Father Mateo), which is certainly a unique pairing.  There aren’t a lot of locales in the storyline – the shogunate, Father Mateo’s house, a bar, and the connecting streets – but the setting felt real and it was enlightening to get acquainted with the totally foreign Samurai mindset.

    This is helped by Susan Spann utilizing a bunch of Japanese terms, and there is a handy glossary at the back of the book, and an equally helpful map of the shogunate at the front.

    The murder investigation develops nicely. There are a slew of suspects with a slew of motives for offing the victim.  About the only people above suspicion are Hiro and Father Mateo.  The reader is privy to Hiro’s thoughts as he works through various dead-ends and the smoke-blowing of each suspect.

    The pacing is crisp, there are no info dumps, and the cultural interplay between Hiro and Father Mateo is amusing to follow.  I haven’t read the first book in the series, Claws of the Cat, so I’m not sure why Hiro has been assigned to Father Mateo as a bodyguard.  But Blade of the Samurai functions just fine as a standalone novel.  There is a nice and unexpected twist to the ending that neither I, Hiro, nor Father Mateo saw coming.

Excerpts...
    “I am told you drink together often,” Hisahide said.
    “Sometimes,” Hiro said.  “We reminisce about Iga.  All men miss their ancestral homes.”
    Hisahide’s face revealed nothing. “Where is Kazu this morning?”
    “If he murdered a man, he probably fled the city,” Hiro said.  “It’s what I would have done in his place.”
  
  “Perhaps, but your response does not answer my question.”  (pg. 36)

    ”She thinks I’m ronin, like everyone else does, but she’s seen my medicine box and she recognized some of the healing herbs.  She probably thinks since I own them I know how to use them.”
    “Do you?”
    Hiro raised an eyebrow at the priest.  “Most men in your position would worry more about the bites than about the treatment.”
    “Begging your pardon, but if you poison me the bites become less important.”  (pg. 153)

 “Hiro,” Father Mateo said, “your friend has a basket on his head.”  (pg. 17)
    Despite all the twists and turns in the investigation, I had the perpetrator pegged from almost the outset because of Rule #1 of reading Murder-Mysteries.  We’ll list this in the comments to avoid spoilers.  Also, Ozuru was also relatively easy to unmask, although I couldn’t fathom his purpose for being there. 

    I would’ve liked to “see” more of 16th-century Japan, but the storyline honestly didn’t need it, and perhaps the first book has a more varied range settings.  If not, well, this series is just getting started.

    But these are quibbles.  Blade of the Samurai is a pleasant and satisfying read, both as a Murder-Mystery and as Historical Fiction.  Susan Spann adds another fresh pen in this combination of genres.  My local library carries Claws of the Cat, albeit only one  copy and at one of the satellite branches.  I will have to see if I can get them to transfer it to my nearby branch and read it in 2015.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you have taken any Japanese language classes, or have visited Japan.  I’ve done neither, and I still enjoyed this book.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Curse of Silence - Lauren Haney


    2000; 282 pages.  Book #4 (out of 8) in the Lieutenant Bak series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The people of Buhen are upset with their Queen.  Their city stands near the southern border of the Egyptian empire (in what is now northern Sudan), with an army garrison stationed with them to keep the desert bandits and southern barbarians at bay.  Now a delegation is about to arrive to inspect the forts of the region, and it is rumored that it will recommend the army be withdrawn from this far flung outpost.

    The locals, and the army, meet the delegation with sullen stoniness, but their seething frustration is not lost upon the visiting bigwigs.  But a job’s a job, and the evaluation gets underway.

    Things turn bad when a desert bandit leader returns to the area to foment rebellion.  They get even worse when one of the local tribal princes is murdered in the house where the delegation is staying.  He was a popular noble, and if Lieutenant Bak doesn’t catch the culprit soon, the Egyptians can expect no cooperation from the inhabitants around Buhen.

    That would threaten the Empire.  And the Empire does not like to be threatened.

What’s To Like...
    A Curse of Silence is about equal parts Historical Fiction and Murder-Mystery.  It is set during the reign of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt, which timewise is about the 14th Century BC.  The setting – The fortress at Buhen, in the area called Medjay, in the region nicknamed the Belly of Stones – is historically accurate.  You can read about any and all of these in Wikipedia.

    There’s a cast of characters (and deities) at the beginning of the book, and Kindle readers might want to bookmark it for quick reference.  There are a lot of characters to meet, and they all seem to have no discernible motive for killing the prince.  In truth, you won’t be able to figure out who did it until the key piece of evidence is uncovered, so relax and enjoy the company of Bak as he hits dead-end after dead-end and tries to avert a military disaster by solving the slaying before the hordes of desert bandits attack the outnumbered garrison.

    I found the book to be an excellent piece of Historical Fiction.  There are a couple of info-dumps at the beginning (what they eat, what the lay of the land looks like), but after that the narrative flowed smoothly and the setting felt very "real".

    The book is also an excellent Murder-Mystery.  I especially liked that the “color” of the characters evolves as the story goes along.  Lieutenant Bak has to change his opinion of several of the visitors as time goes by, and mostly for the better.

    The ending is deftly handled, with the issues of both the desert bandit and the murderer neatly taken care of.  There is some bloodshed, a house of ill-repute, and at least an allusion to child sexploitation.  But the gore is minimal and nothing lewd occurs onstage.  This is a standalone novel, which I appreciate since I haven’t read the earlier books in the series.

Excerpts...
    “First it was the men along the river, and now this!” Amonked expelled a long, irritated sigh.  “I can understand her anxiety – I also am concerned – but will she never learn to suffer in silence?”
    You don’t know how fortunate you are, Bak thought, that Thaneny so often stands between you, taking the brunt of her wrath.
    “She’ll not be content until we return to Kemet, that she’s made clear, but I suppose I must make an effort to soothe her.”  Amonked looked at the concubine for a long time, as if he dreaded going to her.  “Do you share your life with a woman, Lieutenant?”
    “No, sir.”
    “You’re a most fortunate man.”  (loc. 2903)

    “Do you have any idea who the slayer might be?” he asked Bak.
    “None.”  Another truth hard to take, one Bak could not gloss over.
    Amonked’s tone sharpened.  “Then the wretched creature could as easily be in Buhen as here.”
    “Every instinct tells me you brought him with you from Waset and he’s traveling with us now.”
    “I’d feel better, Lieutenant, if you spoke of reason, not instinct.”  (loc. 3290)

Kindle Details...
    A Curse of Silence sells for $0.99 at Amazon, which is a terrific price.  All the other books in the series also go for $0.99, with the exception of A Place of Darkness, which for some reason sells for $5.69.

“Not everyone is blessed with common sense, Pawah, and those who aren’t seldom listen to those who are.”  (loc. 2884)
    The worst I can say about A Curse of Silence is that the ultimate fate of the murderer is left dangling.  It could be that the character will pop up again somewhere further along in the series.  It also could be that spelling out the final judgment allotted to the crime-doer would have drawn out what was an otherwise superbly-paced ending.  But I pick at nits.

    I read a fair amount of Murder-Mysteries, and it is always a treat to stumble across a new author who knows how to write one, and who brings some refreshing new plotlines to the genre.  When a fascinating historical setting is also included, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

    My local digital library carries about half of the books in this series, and at $0.99 for (most of) the rest, I can easily see me reading a bunch more of Lieutenant Bak’s adventures.

    9 Stars.  Highly recommended.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Who Framed Santa Claus? - Shantnu Tiwari



    2013; 324 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Satire; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Santa sure picked the wrong chimney to slide down this time.  There’s a dead man in the room, and six heavily-armed SWAT-team policemen pounce on Santa as soon as he hits the floor of the fireplace.

    Well, it serves Santa right.  Not only is he guilty of breaking into people’s homes, but he’s also destroying the economy by giving away free presents.  It’s easy to believe that someone who’s a burglar and a Commie could be a murderer as well.

    But not everyone is convinced of Santa’s guilt.  In particular, Sherlina Holmes, the dead man’s precocious niece, thinks he’s been framed.  And she sets out to discover who the real murderers are..

    But be careful, Sherlina.  Citizens have no privacy anymore.  The police are watching your every step.  And there are people in high places who will stop at nothing to prevent you from getting to the bottom of this matter.

What’s To Like...
    On the surface, Who Framed Santa Claus? is a fine tale of Absurdism.  There are a slew of crazy organizations to meet, including the British Geek Association, a redneck Al Qaeda sleeper cell, and a cadre of evil-&-secretive bankers.  There are individual weirdoes as well – a chicken farmer with a doom machine, an incarcerated robot-builder (think Hannibal Lecter), a Superheroine, and a couple of flying, kilt-wearing Scotsmen.  And let’s not forget Dr. Toxy Underpants, who dreams of becoming a supervillain.

    All of the abovementioned loonies have their own separate agendas, and for a while it is quite the challenge to keep track of who’s who, how any of it could possibly tie into Sherlina’s investigation, and where this is all going.  But the threads do eventually meet up with one another.

    This is an adult story.  There is some cussing, bloodshed and violence, a dildo, and a hint of underage sex.  Just because it has Santa in it doesn’t mean little Suzy should be reading it.

    At a deeper level, Who Framed Santa Claus? offers some searing commentary on some pretty serious subjects.  Topics like song piracy, bankers, lawsuits, enemy combatants, the 1%, road construction, Homeland Security, and last-but-not-least, potatoes.

    Shantnu Tiwari does a nice job of combining the serious with the absurd.  The wit will not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it quite funny.  The titular question is eventually resolved, and the baddies get their just desserts.  This book is written in English (as opposed to ‘American’), and is a standalone novel.

Excerpts...
    “Why, God?  Why dost thou do this to me?  What have I done to deserve this?  All  I wanted to do was to take over the world with my potato-powered doom machine.  Was this too much to ask, Lord?  Is it a sin to have dreams?”  (loc. 243)

    “You see, with mathematics, we can predict when and where the next war will happen.  Our MBA programme produces the best leaders, who can then use this information to defeat the enemy before they have even started the war.  We have successfully invaded many countries that our computer models told us were planning to start a war.”
    “Wow.  So you defeat your enemies before they have even thought about attacking you?  You are so smart, Dr. Jones.”  (loc. 2268)

Kindle Details...
    Who Framed Santa Claus? sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Shantnu Tiwari has several other full-length novels available for $2.99, as well as a couple short sotries for $0.99.

Relying on luck, fortune, or the favour of the gods (is) a sure way to get killed.  (loc. 1865)
    The writing is good, but the storytelling could use some polishing.  Adding superheroes to the mix felt awkward; so did the underplayed monster.  The acronym for the Posh Al Qaeda Institute seemed needlessly pejorative.  I’m still not sure that all of the crazies had their threads resolved at the end.

    What saves this book is the scathing social commentary.  In a way, it reminded me of V For Vendetta, one of my favorite movies.  Both works use the Absurd to deliver a far more serious message.  And the fact that both are rather successful in this endeavor trumps most of my nitpicking.

    7½ Stars.  Subtract 2 stars if you’re a banker, and/or part of the 1%.  You probably won’t find this book amusing.  At all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Can A Robot Be Human? - Peter Cave


   2007; 196 pages.  Full Title : Can A Robot Be Human?  33 Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Philosophy; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Question : What do the following phrases have in common?  "Wolves, Whistles, and Women".  "The Dangers of Health".  "Don’t Tell Him, Pike".  "Don’t Read This Notice".  "Therapy for Tortoises".

    Answer :  They’re all titles of chapters in Peter Cave’s book of almost three dozen pieces of philosophical musing, Can A Robot Be Human?

    If you are intrigued by those titles and are itching for something to challenge your Situational Ethics, Logic Systems, and Outlook on Life, then run down to your library (or log on to Amazon) and get this book.  Especially if, like me, you are the kind of person who finds most Philosophy books to be eminently boring.

What’s To Like...
     Structure-wise, Can A Robot Be Human? is identical to the other Peter Cave book I read a few months back, Do Llamas Fall In Love? (reviewed here).  So most of my comments in that review apply here as well.

    The chapters are short (usually 5 paperback pages); there are some amusing cartoons interspersed throughout the chapters; and for the most part, the writing is witty and thought-provoking. A wide variety of themes are dealt with, and the author lists the two main ones in the header of each chapter.  Don’t like a given chapter’s subject matter?  No problem; the next one is guaranteed to be on something completely different.

    Peter Cave won't give you the answers to life's mysteries, of course.  No philosopher ever does.  But he will give you lots of points to muse upon.   

    Some examples of the themes addressed in the book : The Emotions, Feminism, Metaphysics, Free Will, The Arts, Politics, Language, Rational Action, Religion, Space & Time, Selves, God, Good & Evil.

    These translate into questions such as : Can you trust a liar?  What makes you “you”?  How would you know if you’re dreaming?  Can you ever truly do a selfless act of goodness?  And the titular : How would you know if you’re a robot?

    Kafka gets cited; that’s always a personal plus.  And the Monty Hall enigma, “should you switch doors?”, is examined, which is both remarkably simple and incredibly complex; and which generated oodles of heated debate a few years ago in Marilyn vos Savant’s newspaper column.  The answer, without explanation, is given in the comments.

    YMMV, but my favorite chapters were :

    03) Sympathy for the Devil  (is the Creator good or evil?)
    07) The Innocent Murderer : A Nobody Dunit  (Define “murder”)
    17) Girl, Cage, Chimp  (Animal Rights)
    21) Saints, Sinners, and Suicide Bombers  (Religious Blind Faith)
    23) Uniquely Who?  (What makes you “You”?)
    33) Is This All There Is?  (What is the point of life?)

Excerpts...
     Those who believe in an all-powerful figure that created and designed the universe need to explain why they are convinced he is all good rather than all bad – or, indeed, something in between.  Is it not most likely that there are at least two distinct and powerful powers, one evil and one good?  Zoroastrianism is typically taken as proclaiming such a duality.  Is it the only sensible religion?  Paradoxically, that could explain why hardly anyone believes in it.  (pg. 17)

    “What is it like to be a bat?”  That question is one way of raising the difficulty.  However much we humans learn about the behaviour and neural structures of bats, however much crazed philosophers hang upside down from church towers, flapping their arms, is there not something that we miss – namely, how bats experience the world?  Plausibly, we should answer ‘yes’.  (pg. 170)

“Down with the mini skirt!”.  (pg.  66)
    ANAICT, Can A Robot Be Human? was Peter Cave’s debut book.  I am relying on the Amazon listings since there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for him.  While it was overall entertaining, witty, and full of contemplatibles, for me it also had a couple slow spots.  Some of the logic topics seemed too easy to disprove, and I’ve already pondered René Descartes question about how to know if you exist, and concluded (unlike M. Descartes and his “Cogito Ergo Sum”) that it was a pointless waste of time and thought.

     It’s also possible that reading two Philosophy books in less than 4 months was too much for my lowbrow literary palate.  Or that Peter Cave’s writing became much more polished and interest-generating with time.  Let’s be clear – this is still a worthwhile read, and a smart and delightful choice if/when your English teacher says you have to do a book report on Philosophy.

    But honestly now, which title tickles your fancy more?  Can A Robot Be Human?  or Do Llamas Fall In Love?  7½ Stars.

Anecdotal Postscript...
    One of the chapters deals with the mathematical concept of “limits”, which Peter Cave cleverly turns into a Logic puzzle.  Here is the way I first heard it, years ago :

    A frog is 10 feet from a wall.  With every hop, he covers half the (remaining) distance to it.  So, his first jump is 5 feet.  And since he is now only 5 feet away, his second jump is 2½ feet.  And so on.  Question :  When does he finally bump into the wall?  (Answer in the comments)

    This was a recurring poser that we used to spring upon new hires at work (we had a high turnover rate).  The answers, after some cogitation, were amusingly varied.  Two, three, five, ten, etc.

    But the best answer came one day as a coworker and I were working outside.  He abruptly announced he needed to do something inside for a bit, went in, came out 2-3 minutes later, and told me he knew the answer.

    “22!” sez he, with smug glee.
    I was nonplussed. “How did you arrive at that answer?” sez I.
    “I cheated.  I did it on the calculator.”
    Turns out he entered “10” into the 8-place calculator we had in the lab, then kept dividing by 2 until the readout was all zeroes.  You gotta admire his resourcefulness.  March on, O Theoretical Math!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern - Lilian Jackson Braun


    1986; 215 pages.  Book #2 (out of 29) in “The Cat Who…” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Cozy.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    Jim Qwillleran just got promoted by his newspaper employer, The Daily Fluxion.  So why isn’t he excited?  Well, mostly because they want him to head up a new section to the paper, which will be called "Gracious Abodes", and feature interior decorating of some of the local well-to-do homes and businesses.  Unfortunately, Jim Qwilleran doesn’t know  squat about Interior Decorating.

    Things go from bad to worse when terrible things happen to the first three featured residences immediately after their insides are published.  There’s a robbery-&-death, a police raid, and a murder.

    But that just gives Qwilleran and his pet Siamese cat Koko an opportunity to investigate the crimes.  Well, not the police raid, anyway.  That “house” turned out to be a brothel.

What’s To Like...
    The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern is first and foremost a Crime Mystery, but its real draw is the sparkling wit and humorous situations that saturate the book from beginning to end.  Qwilleran and his photographer buddy, Odd Bunsen (what a name!), are fun to tag along with, and Koko is a cat with some most extraordinary talents.

    There are lots of possible suspects to meet and sniff, and the motives for the two deaths are anything but obvious.  Indeed, the modus operandi for both of them is also unclear.  It pays to have a feline partner who can walk along balcony ledges and jump from one 15th-story apartment to another.

    This is a “cozy”, so there’s not much blood, gore, and onstage violence.  Interior Decorating is not the most exciting topic to spotlight, but Lilian Jackson Braun keeps your interest by avoiding info dumps and populating the profession with a passel of secret-hiding oddball characters.

    There’s a smattering of French, which always is a plus for me.  The title refers to Koko’s appetite for an expensive chair, not for food.  And the second cat in the series, Yum Yum, gets introduced to us late in the tale.  This is a standalone novel.

Kewlest New Word...
Blinger (n.) : a superlative example of its kind.  (here  “This job was a blinger!”)
Others : Supercilious (adj.).

Excerpts...
    “Our profession is above suspicion,” said Qwilleran.  “You never hear of a newsman turning to crime.  Doctors bludgeon their wives, lawyers shoot their partners, and bankers abscond with the assets.  But journalists just go to the Press Club and drown their criminal inclinations.”  (loc. 451)

    “Mrs. Middy is a little late this morning, but then Mrs. Middy is always a little late.  Would you care to sit it out?”  She waved a hand dramatically around the studio.  “I can offer you a Chippendale corner chair, a combback Windsor, or a mammy settle.  They’re all uncomfortable, but I’ll talk to you and take your mind off your anguish.”  (loc. 799)

Kindle Details...
    The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern sells for $5.99 at Amazon.  Most of the rest of the books in the series are also $5.99.  A couple of the newer ones sell for $7.59.

“These days we all conform.  You cats are the only real independents left.”  (loc. 72)
    As a tale of wit and humor, The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern succeeds nicely.  The main characters are likeable and the dialogue is entertaining throughout.

    However, as a Crime-Mystery, the story leaves a lot to be desired.  Qwilleran’s efforts to investigate the two deaths amounts to nothing but wheel-spinning and waiting for Koko to magically point out the key clue(s) without any fathomable reason for doing so.  The culprits seem to be arbitrarily chosen, with hurried explanations given at the end of the book for why they done it.

    This is not the first time I’ve run across a cozy that's long on the charm but short on the plot.  Maybe I’m expecting too much of my cozies, but in a series such as Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, just as much attention is paid to the crime investigation as to the coziness.

    I have one more The Cat Who… book sitting on my TBR shelf, and most or all od the series is available from my local library in both “real” and electronic versions.  Perhaps I should just read them for the wittiness and cattiness.

    6½ Stars.  Add 1½. stars if you prefer amazing animals solving the crimes for you, to figuring them out yourself.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Eyes of the Dragon - Stephen King


   1987; 380 pages.  Original Title : Napkins.New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    King Roland is dead, and it was Murder most foul.  Someone poisoned him, and all the evidence points to his eldest son, Prince Peter.

    This is shocking to many, since Peter had always seemed the devoted son.  And head-scratching too, since Roland was aged and in poor health.  Upon his natural death, Peter would inherit the crown.  But perhaps the heir grew impatient.

    The younger son, Prince Thomas, now rules instead, and with some reluctance.  Thomas may have been jealous of his brother when Roland doted upon Peter, but he never aspired to sit on the throne.  And he has seen something that puts the lives of both siblings in peril.

    Through the Eyes of the Dragon.

What’s To Like...
    The Eyes of the Dragon is a nice one-off offering by Stephen King, in that it is purely a fantasy novel.  Yes, there is a scary Ultimate Evil, but all Fantasies have such a baddie.  And this would never be shelved in the Horror section of a bookstore.

    Stylistically, it is written in an almost singsong fashion, as if the target audience is YA.  The chapters are short, and there are some way-kewl drawings scattered throughout the book.  There is a lot of “scene-setting” in the beginning of the book, and a lot of the events therein seem somewhat superfluous.  But don’t be lulled into skipping pages, Stephen King is a master at weaving such tangents into a twisty and unexpected plotline later on, and he does so here, even with such mundane things as napkins and dollhouses.

    OTOH, King tends to ‘telegraph’ events throughout the first third of the book, which for me lessened the tension of the storyline.  You know that Peter will be imprisoned and Thomas will spy on matters he’ll later regret because King tells you about such events many chapters ahead of their taking place. 

    Still, once the scene is set, with Peter in jail (and forced into being a stylite, no less) and Thomas sitting uneasily on the throne, King stops telling you what’s going to happen, and it is an action-packed ride from there on.  The ending is clever, spellbinding, exciting, and surprising, especially with regard to Thomas.  You’ll be happy you didn’t give up on the book in the early going.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Forrad (adj.)  :  dialectical variant of ‘forward’.  Here, “things’ll go forrad here just as the always have…”
Others : Buttle (v.).

Excerpts...
    In stories of wizardry, there are three kinds that are usually spoken of almost carelessly, as if any second class wizard could do them.  These are turning lead into gold, changing one’s shape, and making oneself invisible.  The first thing you should know is that real magic is never easy, and if you think it is, just try making your least favorite aunt disappear the next time she comes to spend a week or two.  Real magic is hard, and although it is easier to do evil magic than good, even bad magic is tolerably hard.  (pg. 76)

    Outside, the wind screamed and gobbled – old wives cringed in their beds and slept poorly and told their husbands that Rhiannon, the Dark Witch of the Coos, was riding her hateful broom this night, and wicked work was afoot.  The husbands grunted, turned over, told their wives to go back to sleep and leave them alone.  They were dull fellows for the most part, when an eye is wanted to see straws flying in the wind, give me an old wife any day.  (pg. 108)

 “My head is a silly thing, but I’ve decided I’d like to keep it on my shoulders a while longer.”  (pg.  377)
    Stephen King already had a slew of Horror best-sellers by the time he published The Eyes of the Dragon in 1987.   Reportedly, some of his fans were a bit tepid about his diverging to write a Fantasy novel.

    Personally, I like it when an author tries something new.  There is an inherent risk to this, of course.  J.K. Rowling was hugely successful with the Harry Potter series, but got slammed by critics and readers alike when she tried to expand into the “adult fiction” genre with A Casual Vacancy.

    FWIW, I think King’s foray into Fantasy was successful.  The “telegraphing” in TEotD bothered me a bit, but only mildly.  Then again, I doubt I’m part of the target audience.  Maybe those telegraphs turn into “hooks” when a teenage boy reads this book.

    8 Stars.  Add ½ star if you happen to be a YA reader.  This book’s aimed directly at you.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Space Captain Smith - Toby Frost


    2008; 320 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #1 (out of 5) in the Chronicles of Isambard Smith series.  Genre : Sci-Fi Spoof; Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The Ghasts are coming!  They’re big, mean, ugly, and antlike; and they’re out to conquer the universe.  You could call them ghastly, but that would be too obvious.

    Set in the 25th-century British Empire, Isambard Smith is itching to do his part in thwarting the Ghasts’ plans.  And he’s about to get his chance in the form of captaining a spaceship named the John Pym, and transporting a woman to one of the Empire's star bases.  Smith hasn’t been given any reason for this mission, but surely it must be so important to the cause that it rates a need-to-know status.

    But be careful, newly-promoted Space Captain Isambard Smith.  In the past, your superiors haven’t shown much confidence in you.  They may have ulterior motives for sending you out in the rattletrap John Pym, into a sector where space monsters prowl, and Ghast warships patrol.

What’s To Like...
    Space Captain Smith is essentially a spoof of your typical Sci-Fi adventure.  It’s kind of a combination of Starship Troopers and Spaceballs, but nevertheless is original in its wit and world-building. 

    Smith’s crew on the John Pym are both sparse and fascinating.  Suruk The Slayer makes a wookie look like a wussie.  Polly Carveth is a pilot, a simulant, and a sex toy combined.  Gerald the Hamster doesn’t do much outside of sitting in a cage and being a hamster.  I have a feeling his role will expand somewhere down the line.

    There are some great critters to meet, greet, and avoid being eaten by.  Plus several worlds to try not to die on.  The story is fast-paced with our heroes getting into and out of scrape after scrape.  This is a standalone novel, although it does have a ‘hook’ at the end that sets up the next book in the series.

    There’s plenty of blood and gore, of both insect and human ilk.  There’s no lurid sex, but there are adult situations and toy.  Little Suzie probably shouldn’t read this book.  Oh, and if you’re a religious fundamentalist, it’s likely you’d get irritated as well.  For me, that’s a plus.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Faffing (v.) : Making a fuss over nothing(a Britishism)
Others : Cosh (v.); Parped (v.); Naff (v.); Wallies (n.); Tiffin (n.).

Excerpts...
    “By the way, you haven’t seen an alien around here, have you?  About six foot eight with a face like a cross between a boar and an upturned crab.  Probably carrying a spear and a bag full of severed heads.”
    Parker shrugged.  “I dunno.  It gets busy here.”
    “He’s got an unusual laugh.”
    “Oh, that bloke?  He’s down the bottom of the ramp.  You know him, then?”  (loc. 97)

    The atmosphere seemed heavy suddenly, charged.  He decided to lighten it.  “Besides, it’s not the strangest name I’ve heard for a ship, by a long way.  I used to know a Yorkshireman who named his ship the Norfolk and Chance.  I used to say, ‘Why did you call your ship Norfolk and Chance?’ and he’d reply, ‘Because there’s Norfolk and Chance she’ll get off the ground!’  Haha!  Ha!  Ha.  Ha?  Oh.”  (loc. 2123)

Kindle Details...
    Space Captain Smith sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  The other four books in the series range from $4.39 to $7.99.

“The positronic versifier won’t transfibulate itself, after all.”  (loc. 2631)
    The key part of any spoof is its wit and humor.  Can it remain funny, fresh, and non-repetitive throughout the story?  I am happy to say that, for me and my sense of humor (and your funny bone may or may not agree), Space Captain Smith was superb in this regard.

    Add to this the action, the satire, and the excellent Space Opera motif, and I found it to be a delightful book.  My local (digital) library has at least two more of the series, and I intend to read them all.

    8½ Stars.  Highly recommended.  Subtract 1 star if you think Monty Python’s movie, The Holy Grail, was boring or stupid.  The humor here will probably not appeal to you.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Midget's House - Anita Bartholomew


    2011; 288 pages.  Full Title : The Midget’s House (A Circus Story … A Love Story … A Ghost Story)  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction; Cozy Paranormal.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Old Aunt Enid has died.  She’s left her home to her niece Marisa.  It’s an old, somewhat rundown house, but it has its charm.  And its gopher tortoises.  And, rumor has it, its ghost.  Despite this, when Marisa arrives, she finds that several people want the place.

    There’s Enid’s cousin Otto, who lives on the grounds of the estate and who was Enid’s caretaker in her final years.  And Nicholas Young, an investor who owns the tax lien on the place.  If Marisa doesn’t come up with a bunch of $$ quickly to pay off those taxes, the estate will be his.  Then there’s the land developer John Guinness, who’s interested in both the land and Marisa.  Finally, the Sarasota Green Coalition who, on behalf of the endangered gopher tortoises, will sue the pants off of Marisa if she turns one shovelful of dirt on the grounds to disturb their habitat.

    But Marisa feels curiously drawn to her newly-acquired house.  She’s going to keep it (if she possibly can), and learn its history (if she possibly can).   After all, there must be some reason for a ghost to be hanging around.

What’s To Like...
    The book’s subtitle says it all: The Midget’s House is an ambitious blend of a circus story, a love story, and a ghost story.  While there is a paranormal element, the story isn’t particularly scary, and I don’t think Anita Bartholomew intended it to be.  The book is a lot closer to Marley And Me (if we ‘borrow’ The Christmas Carol’s Marley) than to Poltergeist.

    The storyline alternates between the present (told in the 3rd person and from Marisa’s POV), and the 1920’s (told in the 1st person and from Lucinda’s POV).  Lucinda is now a ghost - that’s not really a spoiler – but back then she was alive, vertically-challenged, and eking out a living in the circuses and freak shows.

    Plotwise, not much happens in the Lucinda chapters until the second half of the book, but the early 1920’s were the glory days for the traveling shows, and you get a very nice ‘feel’ for the life of a carney back then.  I found Lucinda’s story to hold my interest more than Marisa’s, even though the latter had a storyline from the start.

    You will meet a slew of interesting characters in both timelines, and it was difficult to guess which ones were the good guys, and which ones were the baddies.  I liked that.  Also, Marisa’s New Age friends were a hoot to get to know.  This is a standalone novel and the odds of there being a sequel seem small.

Kewlest New Word...
Chumming (v.) : the practice of luring animals, usually fish such as sharks, by throwing “chum” into the water.  “Chum” is fish parts and blood, which attract fish due to their keen sense of smell.
  
Excerpts...
    Louder now, she chanted:
    “Gatta, gatta, peragatta, perasatgatta, bodiswava.”
    Rena repeated it several times then held her hand up for silence.
    “Follow me, repeat what I say and do as I do.”  The nun-turned-psychic grabbed a handful of seed from the bowl.  Marisa and Kelly each did the same.  Scattering a few seeds in front of her, Rena intoned, “Feed the hungry ghosts … feed the hungry ghosts.”  (loc. 2552)

    “Gib’town may not look like much to you now, but we used to have us a tight-knit little community here, the freak capital of the world.  Did you know that?  I mean, we had a giant for our fire chief, a constable who was a dwarf, and the Monkey Girl called out the Bingo numbers on Tuesday nights.  That girl, I tell you, fur all up and down her face and body but, damn, she had the prettiest voice.  I’d go to Bingo just for the pleasure of hearing her call out ‘B5’.”  (loc. 4800)

Kindle Details...
    The Midget’s House sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  At present, it is the only full-length novel that Anita Bartholomew has available for the Kindle.

Like my brother Albert would say, I was plum goshbustified.  (loc. 1907)
    The two storylines converge slowly but steadily, and the action picks up in the latter stages of the book, building towards a tension-filled climax.  Unfortunately, the ending is somewhat of a letdown.  Marisa’s financial crisis is solved by the late introduction of a deus ex machina,  and when the paths of Lucinda and Marisa finally cross, it is disappointingly brief.

    Still, it says something about Anita Bartholomew’s writing skills that I was left hungering for more Marisa-&-Lucinda.  So who knows, maybe our two protagonists can be brought back for a Book 2 via some convoluted plot-writing.  Hey, they brought Bobby back from the dead in the old TV series Dallas.  So anything’s possible.

    The Midget’s House is a satisfying read as long as you recognize that it’s not going to be a Stephen King thriller.  Pick it up when you’re in the mood for something warm, fuzzy, and pleasantly paranormal.

    7½ Stars.  Add ½ star if you were (or are) always thrilled to find out the circus was in town and you’d get to go.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Caveat Emptor - Ruth Downie


    2011; 336 pages.  Book #4 (out of 6) of the Medicus series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The Roman tax collector assigned to the city of Verulamium has gone missing.  Well, that’s nothing to get excited about, since Roman tax collectors aren’t very popular, even amongst the Romans.

    But the yearly tax revenues from Verulamium disappeared with the collector, and that does make the case important.  The Romans in Londinium need to find someone to conduct an investigation.  But who?

    Well, Gaius Petreius Ruso has just returned to Londinium from Gaul.  He’d like to find a job as a medicus (doctor).  But he has a history as a reluctant (and politically naïve) investigator.

    Let’s send him!  Just so long as he keeps the priorities in order.  It’s the money that matters.  Not the tax collector.

What’s To Like...
    Caveat Emptor is the third book I’ve read in this series (the others are reviewed here and here), and is frankly my favorite one so far.  The Historical Fiction aspect seemed to be more deeply researched, especially the particulars about Verulamium.  And the Mystery aspect felt more satisfying as well: it was less arbitrary and more logical. 

    Valens is back, a bit more wise to the world, but with a serious personal issue.  Tilla is sometimes a real help in investigating the case, and sometimes quite the hindrance.  And Ruso is, well, still Ruso.  His doggedness at solving the case is inversely proportional to his slowness at grasping the political nuances of the Roman army  and government.  And he and Valens seem to be equally clueless when it comes to women. 

    There is a Cast of Characters at the beginning which once again came in quite handy.  The chapters are short, which made finding a place to stop for the night a breeze.  And the mystery itself starts up almost immediately.

    This time around, telling the good guys from the bad guys was quite the challenge, and I really liked that.  Ruso's investigation has its fair share of unexpected turns, and everything builds to a nice, twisty ending.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Dinning (v.)  :  making someone learn or remember something by constant repetition.

Excerpts...
    The books said that the Iceni had been crushed years ago, but this one did not look crushed.  This one looked tall and fierce and none too clean: exactly how he imagined the raging queen Boudica at the head of her savage hordes.
    When future histories were written about Britannia, Firmus did not want to appear in them as the man who had been fool enough to upset the Iceni again.  (pg. 3)

    “What are you doing in her house?”
    “Princess of the Iceni, eh?”
    Tilla raised her knife to suggest a little more respect.
    The man lifted his hands into the air and backed away in mock alarm.  “It’s all right,” he assured her.  “There’s no need for that.”
    “You can explain to her.  And to the guards.”
    The man lowered his hands.  His grin revealed dimples and even white teeth.  “I’m the captain of the guards, miss.  Put that knife away, or I’ll have to report us both to myself.”  (pg. 122)

 “We caught a sheep stealer last night, so there’s a flogging to organize.”  (pg.  206)
    Once again, there are some anachronistic candles, and the dialogue still grates on my literary nerve, what with modern-day Englishisms such as “ain’t” and “boss”.  But I have to admit that one “mistake” I thought I caught – the use of an abacus – turned out to be correct. The Romans really did have such a device in use by the time of Caveat Emptor.

    I’ve made my peace with this series.  It seems to me that Ruth Downie doesn’t intend it to be as serious as, say, the HF-MM works of Ellis Peters or Steven Saylor.  Instead, she instills a deliberate “lightness” to the story, evidenced by a subtle drizzling of humor throughout the book.  It kind of reminds me of an old TV series, Columbo.  Not particularly believable, but extremely entertaining.

    8½ StarsCaveat Emptor, and the Medicus series as a whole, may not be 100% historically accurate, but they are colorfully delightful to read.