Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Woman Who Died A Lot - Jasper Fforde

    2012; 363 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #7 of the Thursday Next series.  Genre : Fantasy; Alternate Universe; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The end of the world is coming; an asteroid is headed our way.  Hey, but that’s 37 years in the future, so who cares?  Much more timely is the Smiting by The Almighty, scheduled for four days from now, and due to hit Swindon, Thursday Next’s hometown.

    But Thursday has more-pressing problems of her own.  Her nemesis, Goliath Corp., wants to do some personal smiting to her.  Her son Friday is predestined to kill somebody this coming weekend.  There is a job opening in her current employer, Spec-Ops, but they want somebody younger and would prefer to put Thursday out to pasture as a librarian.

    And last but not least, daughter Jenny has been very reclusive lately.

What’s To Like...
    For those readers new to the series, Jasper Fforde deftly weaves the 6-book backstory into the first quarter or so of The Woman Who Died A Lot.  This was a nice refresher for me, since it’s been two years since I read the previous book in the series.  Nevertheless, it’s better if you don’t treat the books as standalones, and read them in order, starting with The Eyre Affair (reviewed here).

    There is a lot to like about any Jasper Fforde offering, and this one is no exception.  The writing is witty and page-turning.   There are fictitious quotes to start each chapter; these set the subject matter and are always a delight to read.  The alt-worldly ads that appear at the back of each book are included in the Kindle version; just keep scrolling until you get to them.  There are a couple of way-kewl drawings scattered throughout the text, and of course, Chapter 13 is once again in a class by itself.

    There are several unique delights to TWWDAL.  A couple long-running plotlines are resolved.  It would be a spoiler to say which ones; and of course, you can never be completely sure that they’ll stay resolved, what with the author’s penchant for plot twists.  Fforde also spoofs the currently hot topic of Quantum Physics, and in doing so, introduces a new alternate universe - Dark Reading Matter.

    The ending is great; it was in no way telegraphed, and the addition of a bit of Situational Ethics was sheer genius.

Kewlest New Word. . .
    Nobble (v.) : To try to influence or thwart (someone or something) by underhanded or unfair methods.  (a Britishism)

    Suffice it to say there were a shade over six thousand entirely separate dimensions within the League of Alternative Realities – a tiny fraction of the total, but you didn’t get to join the league until you’d figured out how to move across, something that now seemed so blindingly obvious it’s astonishing we couldn’t see it before.  Our own dimension was coded ID-11 and was the only league member with diphtheria, David Hasselhoff and the French, which amused the rest of the multiverse no end.  (loc. 239)

    “And what news of Swindon?” asked Mother Daisy.  “We have no radio, no TV, and only The Toad on Sunday once a month.”
    “There’s a new roundabout in the Old Town, Acme Carpets is having another sale, SpecOps is to be re-formed – oh, and part of the city is to be wiped from the earth by a cleansing fire on Friday.”
    “An Acme Carpets sale?”  (loc. 2105)

Kindle Details...
    The Woman Who Died A Lot sells for $7.99 at Amazon, which is quite reasonable.  The other six books in the series are priced in the $9.99-$10.99 range for the Kindle.  I borrowed this e-book for free from my local library.

”To me, grass is simply a transitional phase for turning sunlight into milk.”  (loc. 149)
    There are a couple quibbles.  In addition to the backstory, the first quarter of the book presents about five plotlines, and it’s a long time before the reader figures out which one takes precedence.  Also, ANAICT, this is the first book in the series that had zero excursions into BookWorld.  Quantum Mechanics seems to have trumped Literary themes.  However, that may be a plus to a lot of readers.

    The good news is that there will be a sequel (remember when we all feared book #5 was the end of the series?).  The bad news is that there is no target date, and Jasper Fforde seems to be concentrating on a couple of his other series.

    8½ Stars.  Highly recommended, but please read the books in order.  Subtract 1 star if you jump right in with this one being your introduction to Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next; and be prepared to be fascinated, but confused, by the wacky weirdness.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Medicus - Ruth Downie

    2007; 416 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Full Title : Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire.  Book #1 (out of 5) of Ruth Downie’s Medicus series.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Gaius Petreius Ruso has woman problems.  Women problems, actually.

    First, there’s his ex, who is a world away, but whose nagging still manages to creep into Ruso’s thoughts.  Then there’s the corpse of a young lady that was just pulled out of the river, who is unidentified and shorn of all her hair.  Finally, there’s the damaged-goods slave-girl that he got talked into unwittingly buying.

    Curiously, it’s the latter one that will give him the most headaches.

What’s To Like...
    Medicus is set in Roman-occupied Britain in the 2nd Century AD.  Ruso is a recent arrival, and serves in the Roman army as a surgeon/doctor, which in Latin is ‘Medicus’.  I found him to be a well-developed, fascinating character, and enjoyed watching him try to cope with his many and assorted career, financial, and women woes.

    The rest of the crew, who are listed in a handy “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of the book, aren’t particularly 3-D, but at least they’re interesting.  Valens, Ruso’s roommate and fellow doctor, is a great supporting character.  Hopefully, he is a “regular” in the series.  The book is an ambitious mixture of genres – Murder-Mystery, Historical Fiction, and Romance.

    The Romance stays in the background, which will be a plus for most male readers.  The Murder-Mystery is a police-procedural.  It plods along predictably, with the question being not so much “Who done it”, as “How is Ruso going to prove it”.  I kept waiting for a plot twist, but it never came. 

    Frankly, the Historical Fiction is poorly done.  Anachronisms abound.  There are candles, paper, and underwear – none of which were around at the time.  Even worse is the dialogue, riddled with out-of-place verbiage such as “Bollocks”, “Oy”, “Right-Oh”, and (You’re another of those medical) “fellers”.  I don’t expect the characters to speak in Latin, but come on now.  Fellers?!?!

    That being said, the pacing was good and held my interest.  The writing is witty and captivating, which is no mean feat given the underlying serious themes of slavery, prostitution, and imperialism.  The ending is so-so, but it does tie everything up.  The Epilogue is fantastic.

    The plump woman, casually propping one hand under her jaw to disguise her chins, leaned forward and peered at Ruso.  He was diagnosing short sight as she said, “So, how long have you been in Britannia, doctor?”
    “Two weeks,” replied Ruso.
    The woman appeared to be waiting for more.  He felt there was something else he should add to this reply to pad it out a little, but since he had fully answered the question he could not think what the something might be.  This was another reason why he disliked dinner parties.  (loc. 2084)

    “May you rest in peace, sister.  May you enjoy a better life in the next world than you suffered in this one.  May you forgive us all for not avenging you sooner and …”  He paused to clear his throat, “and may the dead be kind enough to forgive me for not telling the whole truth, because I have a duty to the living.”
    “Sometimes,” murmured a girl’s voice, “is good not to tell too much truth.”    (loc. 6664)

Kindle Details...
    Medicus Sells for $1.99 at Amazon, which is a nice, cost-effective way to become acquainted with Ruth Downie and Gaius Petreius Ruso.  The other four books in the series are priced in the $7.39-$9.99 range for the Kindle.  I borrowed this e-book for free from my local library.

”I’m a doctor, not a fortune-teller.”  (loc. 2723)
    If you read Medicus as a Romance, a Murder-Mystery, or a piece of Historical Fiction, you will probably be disappointed.  But as I read the book, I kept wondering if such expectations were not the author’s intent.

    There is a lightheartedness to the writing that I haven’t seen from any other writer in this genre – Lindsey Davis, Ellis Peters, John Maddox Roberts, etc.  It’s a pleasant change to have someone treat a historical setting with wit and humor, while still telling a story that doesn’t bog down.  The ancients weren’t stodgy and serious all the time.  I’m sure they got drunk, told jokes, palled around, and laughed at both themselves and other ‘fellers’.

    So treat Medicus like it’s an airport novel (aka “beach read”), and enjoy the ride.  Ignore the inaccuracies and colloquialisms; they’re there to enhance the storyline.  If you want to read something more serious along these lines, any of the aforementioned authors are highly recommended.  But Ruth Downie seems to have carved out her own little niche, and I think it’s a pleasant broadening of the literary choices in this genre.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 2 stars if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy.  Add 1 star if you read this on an airplane or at the beach.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ravens in the Storm - Carl Oglesby

   2008; 317 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : (Auto)-Biography.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    It was the mid-1960’s and the times, they were a-changin’.  Protests were springing up on American college campuses – for Civil Rights, for the War on Poverty, and more-and-more, against the conflict in Vietnam.  At the heart of these demonstrations as a group known as the Students for a Democratic Society, better known by their acronym, SDS.

    But Carl Oglesby didn’t care much back then; he was no longer a student.  He had a wife, three kids, and a well-paying job with a Defense Contractor called Bendix.  But then he started researching the war effort (he was a technical writer for Bendix), and he came to a startling conclusion - the USA could never win the war.  SDS got wind of his essay, contacted him, and in a short amount of time, Carl Oglesby found himself elected president of SDS.  He held that position in 1965-66, which saw unprecedented growth in the SDS ranks.

   The war was escalating dramatically, the loss of American lives was escalating just as dramatically, and no one could foresee coming RFK and MLK assassinations, and consequent rioting of 1968.  The times were a-changing for everybody, and that included SDS.

What’s To Like...
    Technically, this is an autobiography, and if you want to split hair even furthers, it’s actually Carl Oglesby’s memoirs about his days with SDS.  But since I only read a biography and 2-3 years or so (my last one, from 2011, is reviewed here), we’ll lump them all together and call them biographies.

    The book is divided into three sections : Taking Off (How Oglesby and SDS crossed paths); Soaring (the heydays of SDS – protests, sit-ins, and pushback from the authorities); and Crashing (the self-implosion of SDS).  The writing is excellent, which is expected seeing that Oglesby was a writer by trade.  Just like a fiction novel, everything builds to the high-water mark – the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.  There’s an Index in the back of the book which came in handy as I was reading Ravens in the Storm.

    Oglesby presents his years with the SDS, warts and all.  There were intramural squabbles – SDS faction against SDS faction.  There were intermural squabbles – SDS against other similar groups, like PC, LID, SANE, and SNCC.  And of course there was the aggression by governmental departments – FBI, CIA, and the White House – that ranged from surveillance (just assume your phones are tapped and FBI agents have infiltrated SDS) to downright dirty tricks -  "COINTELPRO" – provocateurs, slander, and rumor-mongering.

    Oglesby gives some ink to his personal life as all of this was unfolding – the hell his family went through; the angry lectures from his right-wing family elders, etc.  He also devotes some pages to his expulsion from SDS, although curiously, there are no details about how he became ex-president of the SDS several years earlier.

    Ah, but he also got to meet some fascinating people – Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Jerry Rubin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hunter Thompson, etc.  So it wasn’t all bad times.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Orotund (adj.)  :  (of the voice or phrasing) full, round, imposing.  Here, “orotund rhetoric”.

    “We Vietnamese did not make the decisions that brought you here.  We Vietnamese did not divide Vietnam in half and make us go to war against each other.  But for your own sake as well as ours, if you understand nothing else, you must understand this.”  He opened his fingers and looked at us piercingly, speaking one word at a time.  “Any Vietnamese solution to Vietnam’s problems is better than any American solution.  If America refuses to see this, many lives will be lost for nothing.  I cannot say that I know America well.  But I think if you ignore this simple fact, you will lose something in your heart.  You will become something that I think you do not want to be.”  (pg. 72)

    I decided at that windblown moment on the beach in the sparkling air and before that frothy, pounding surf and that totally new shoreline that if I could ever choose my own symbol for the movement at its best in the bad time that had just ended, it would be these birds – I will always think of them as Noah’s ravens – because of the way they took to the wind.
    Ours was a movement of ravens, say I, a great flocking and soaring to and fro in the big storm of the American sixties.  Sometimes we could really fly.
    When we crashed, it was from an enormous height.  (pg. 317)

 Sometimes going crazy can seem the only sane thing to do.  (pg.  163)
    Ravens in the Storm strongly resonated with me, because I was a freshman at Penn State in 1968.  My politics were different back then – I supported George Wallace for President – but SDS organized a demonstration that resulted in students occupying the President’s office for several days.

    Later, at Arizona State, my politics changed, and I took part in demonstrations and saw firsthand the things Oglseby talks about – the squabbling among the various anti-war factions, the threats from drunken wing-nuts, and most importantly, government-planted provocateurs deliberately trying to incite violence.

    I still maintain we won the anti-war struggle.  Vietnam became such an unpopular issue that Nixon was forced to end it.  But once that central rallying point disappeared, the protest movement collapsed for lack of a new, giant, unifying issue to focus on.

    So it was heartening to see the “Occupy” movement take hold a couple years ago.  And even today, we march for Gay Rights, Immigration Reform, Pro-Choice Rights, and a host of other fixable problems.  RIP, Carl Oglesby.  You laid the groundwork; the struggle continues.  And time has proved you right – violence is not needed to achieve our goals.

    9½ Stars.  Highly recommended, but subtract 1½ stars if you have no idea what SDS was, and the Vietnam War was something you read about in History class.

Friday, April 18, 2014

To Journey in the Year of the Tiger - H. Leighton Dickson

    2012; 360 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #1 of the Tails from the Upper Kingdom series.  Genre : Fantasy Quest.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Someone – or something – has been killing the Seers.  One per night, every night.  No one knows why; no one knows how.  Originally, there were seven Seers.  Now there are only two.  It is imperative to find a solution, and quickly.  Especially if you are one of the two remaining Seers.

    Kirin Wynegard-Grey, Captain of the Empress’s Personal Guard, has been given the task - Save the remaining seers.  He has a crack team - an Alchemist, a Scholar, his Geomancer brother, and a very competent fighter in Major Ursa – to assist him.

    But is it enough?

What’s To Like...
    The world-building in To Journey in the Year of the Tiger is original and convincing.  The setting is Earth in the distant future.  Cats, rats, and dogs are now anthropomorphic.  Our band of questers are felines of various persuasions – lion, tigress, cheetah, etc.  Humans are referred to as “The Ancestors”, and are nowhere to be found.

    The particular setting is central Asia – Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, etc.  H. Leighton Dickson makes slight spelling changes to existing geographical names – Poh’Lhasa, Aegyp, Hirak, Shiam, etc., and adds some made-up cattish words – sidi, sidilaya, etc.  Because of the setting, TJitYotT is imbued with Asian culture, and I liked that.

    The writing is good; and the dialogue is oft times witty.  All the main characters are interesting. Outside of Kirin, one is never completely sure whether any or all of the others have hidden agendas.  There is also a sub-theme concerning racial purity.  Purebreds are good; mongrels are lower caste.  I’m not sure where the author intends to take this issue, but it makes for a timely topic.

    TJitYotT is not a standalone.  Zero threads are tied up at the end of the book.  I normally find that off-putting, but here it was obvious that this was the start of a series, and at least the story terminated at a logical point, not with some banal cliff-hanger.

    The room smelled of leather, pine, and old ale, and he noticed the bottles also thrown carelessly across the floor.  He sighed.  If Kerris was drunk, this would be a problem.
    The blankets began to stir.  Kirin nudged them with his foot.
    “Wake up, dung beetle.”
    “Mm. Go away.”
    “The dawn sends you her greetings.  As does your Empress.”
    “Kindly give the dawn, and Lyn-ling, my regards,” mumbled the blankets as a grey tufted tail whacked the floor in irritation.  (loc. 453)

    “A cat-a-pult?”
    “Yeah, I read about one once in a very old book.  It’s kind of a ground-based ‘sling for rocks.’  Apparently the Ancestors used to ‘pult’ cats.  Anyway, I tried it out, and it worked really well but when I tried to pult someone, he sailed up and away and into the sky and never came back.  Which was a shame, since he was my very first suitor and all.  My only suitor actually…  I never really figured out why, considering I have such pretty markings…”  (loc. 2464)

Kindle Details...
    To Journey in the Year of the Tiger is a free download at Amazon.  Books 2 and 3 in the series both sell for $2.99 .  ANAICT, there will be more books in the series.

”If you snore, I will kill you.”  (loc. 2507)
    There are some minor quibbles.  A map would’ve come in handy, especially when trying to figure out just how far “The Great Wall” extends.  The action is a bit sparse at times.  For most of the book, Mother Nature is the biggest adversary, and the bulk of the fighting consists of squabbling amongst the questers.  But patience is a virtue; at 90% we get a major battle, with H. Leighton Dickson proving she is more than capable of telling it in an exciting way.  And perhaps Book One’s raison d’etre is simply to introduce us to the protagonists and set the table for the rest of the series.

    It is a risky task to use “Thundercats with Tails” as your main creatures in an Epic Fantasy.  But I thought it worked splendidly here, and it is refreshing to have a quest without any elves, dwarves, or hobbits.

    8 StarsTo Journey in the Year of the Tiger is the start of an ambitious, new Epic Fantasy series that succeeds admirably.  Here’s hoping the sequels are equally good or better.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Eye of God - James Rollins

   2013; 530 pages. Book #9 (out of 9, but soon to be 10) in the Sigma Force series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Acton-Adventure.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The end of the world is coming!  Okay, Doomsday prophets have been saying that for years.  But this time, Quantum Mechanics is saying it, so I guess we’d better take it seriously.

    Oh yeah, QM has set a very definite “When” and “How” for the catastrophe.  Four days from now, via a comet.  So you might want to use up as much of your vacation time as you can.  Alternatively, we can call in Sigma Force to take save the world.

What’s To Like...
    The Eye of God is the latest book in James Rollins’ “Sigma Force” series, and if you’re looking for fast-paced non-stop action, you won’t be disappointed.  If you like exotic settings, this is also your kind of book.  Our heroes hop all over the place – Rome, Macao, North Korea, the Aral Sea, Mongolia, and Lake Baikal.  Rollins doesn’t skimp of geographical details, so all these places have a “real feel” to them.

    If history is your shtick, you’ve still come to the right place.  Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Hungarian witch trials are all here.  And last but not least, Quantum Physics buffs will also be amused to find Dark Matter, Multiverses, the Geodetic Effect, and the dimension of Time woven into the storyline.

    Everything builds to an exciting, if somewhat predictable, climax.  The good guys win, the bad guys get their just desserts, and civilization is saved.  But there is a way-kewl Epilogue that you’ll not see coming.

    Action trumps believability quite often in TEoG, which for me is a drawback.  There are way too many incredible coincidences.  One hero gets himself “magnetic finger implants” right before entering into the fray, for no special reason.  Of course these become key tools in the quest.  Another hero splits from his commander during a firefight, only to end up in just the right spot, with just the right RPG-29  (rocket) launcher in his hands, just in time to save the day.  NSA apparently has the blueprints of every warehouse in Ulan Bator at their fingertips.  And don’t get me started on conveniently-placed crowbars and savior seals.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Haptic (adj.)  :  of or relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects by using the sense of touch.

    “Time is not a linear function,” she continued, almost as if she were working something out in her head.  “Time is just another dimension.  Like up-down or left-right.  The flow of time can also be affected by gravity or by velocity.  So when space-time got ripped or wrinkled, it could have made time skip a beat, like the needle of a record player hitting a scratch in the vinyl.”
    The fear in her eyes brightened.
    Painter tried to stave off that panic.  “Since when do you kids still listen to vinyl?”  (pg. 59)

    “And why this continuing fascination with wolves?” Seichan asked, clearly noting the same.  She stirred and stretched a long leg, baring her ankle.
    “They are a good luck symbol here, especially for males.”  He had to clearly pull his gaze from her leg.  “Wolves also represent a lusty overabundant appetite.”
    “How so?” Seichan asked, crossing her other leg, keeping the guy distracted.
    “A wolf kills more than he can eat.  According to our stories, God told the wolf that he could eat one out of every thousand sheep.  The wolf misheard him.  He ate one out of every thousand sheep he killed (pg. 344)

 “We’ve done stupider things.”  (pg.  476)
    There is a fine-but-definite right-wing bent to Rollins’ books, particularly the Sigma Force ones.  The horrors of the North Korean episode will stoke wing-nut passions, but of course it could have been set anywhere.  However the basic premise here has an even more subtle slant to it.

    The end of the world is threatened, and Sigma Force faces incredible odds of beating the 4-day deadline.  Those odds could improve significantly by contacting the Chinese government, since we’ll be traipsing through their backyard.  But hey, then they might gain access to the secrets of our (crashed) satellite, and we can’t allow that.  Small matter that if we don’t “change future history” in the next few hours, there will be no one left alive to give a sh*t about that satellite. Better Dead than Red.

    To be fair, Rollins does a much better job of keeping his right-winginess low key than, say, Tom Clancy.  But coupled with the WTF believability issues, this made The Eye of God merely a good read, instead of an excellent one.  Still, “good” is better than “meh”, and Rollins can spin an action-packed story as skillfully as anybody.

    8 Stars.  Add one star if you prefer Dirk Pitt to Cotton Malone. And another half-star if you happen to be of the politically right-wing persuasion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Watch Your Back! - Donald Westlake

    2006; 360 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #12 (out of 14) of the Dortmunder Series.  Genre : Crime Humor; Comic Capers.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The worst that could happen has befallen the Dortmunder gang.  No, no one died or got thrown in jail.  Worse than that.  Namely, the backroom at the O.J. Bar & Grill, where they do all the planning of their capers, is now off-limits to them.

    Oh sure, other bars have other backrooms, but it just isn’t the same.  Neither is Dortmunder’s living room.  So the gang must get to the bottom of why Rollo the bartender won’t let them use their usual meeting place, and quickly.  Because they have a very lucrative heist to plan.

What’s To Like...
    Watch Your Back! has three plotlines.   First, there’s the heist itself, which involves a challenging break-&-entry into a venture capitalist’s penthouse.  Second is the gallivanting of the VC himself, one Preston Fareweather, who’s been camped out in a Caribbean Club Med for a long time, and who has no intention of leaving his tropical paradise.  Particularly as long as ex-wives (and there are a bunch of them) continue to send process-servers after him.  The third storyline concerns the O.J. Bar & Grill itself, and why our plucky antiheroes are being encouraged to take their patronage elsewhere.

    The pacing is fast – it seemed like there was more action and less talking/planning than in the other Dortmunder books I’ve read.  Everything builds nicely to a particularly strong ending.  It’s fun to watch Donald Westlake weave the three plotlines, gradually drawing them seamlessly together for an exciting and surprising climax.

    The core of the gang is here – Tiny, Andy Kelp, Stan, and of course John Dortmunder.  And a new, wet-behind-the-ears-but-willing-to-learn member is introduced – Judson Blint.  WYB! is a standalone novel.  I am not reading the series in order, and didn’t feel like I was missing much by not doing so.  There are a couple cusswords, and one or two adult situations, but nothing vulgar or lurid.  The violence is minimal, bordering on being cozy-ish.

    Rollo leaned close over the bar.  Very softly he said, “I just wanna say, this isn’t the best place right now.”
    “We noticed that, Rollo,” Kelp said, and nodded, and smiled in an amiable way, inviting confidences.
    “The thing is,” Rollo said, more sotto voce than ever, “there are people around here right now, what they are, they’re criminals.”
    Dortmunder leaned very close to Rollo over the bar.  “Rollo,” he murmured, “we’re criminals.”
    “Yeah, John, I know,” Rollo said.  “But they’re organized.”  (loc. 891)

    “Stan, it’s a hijack!”
    “I don’t need this,” Stan told the world, and something tapped the windowglass to his left.  When he looked over there, what was tapping was the metal end of the sawed-off double-barreled shotgun the right front passenger in the Jeep was aiming his way.  The guy had a whole lot of neck and nose, very little hair, and a smile meant for pulling wings off flies.  (loc. 3673)

Kindle Details...
    Watch Your Back sells for $6.64 at Amazon.  Almost all of the Dortmunder books are available for your Kindle; and most of them are in the $6.64-$7.69 price range.  A couple newer ones run a bit higher.  I borrowed Watch Your Back through my local library for free.

”On one beer you’re turning philosophical?”  (loc. 901)
    Watch Your Back! was my fourth Dortmunder book, and I’m beginning to get Westlake’s formula down pat.  There is always an opportunity for gain (aka, “theft”) that poses significant obstacles which require meticulous planning with frequent revisions.  Our protagonists somehow pull off the caper, but through cruel twists of fate and plot, never get to keep their ill-gotten (but morally semi-justifiable) loot.  In the end, everyone gets their just desserts.

    Well, it may be formulaic, but it works because you can’t see how the threads are going to fit together, and Westlake keeps you guessing what’s going to happen next with numerous twists and turns.  Plus, the wit, the humor, and the writing style are all excellent.

    9 Stars.  About the only negative I can give is that the book seemed to be done rather quickly for Amazon purporting it to be 360 pages long.  But maybe that’s just an indication of how much I enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

In A Sunburned Country - Bill Bryson

   2000; 304 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Anecdotal Humor; Travel.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Australia.  The land that time forgot.  Also the land that the rest of the world forgets about.  Most people’s knowledge of Australia begins and ends with kangaroos, koala bears, boomerangs, and maybe a weird-looking opera house.  Can you name their Prime Minister?  Their ruling party?  Any of the Australian states?

    But Australia is a fascinating, exciting place.  There are so many plants, animals, and geological formations that are found there and nowhere else.  So in the late 1990’s, Bill Bryson made several trips there, to get to know the country and to write a book about it.  In A Sunburned Country chronicles his adventures Down Under.

What’s To Like...
     The book is divided into three sections – one for each of Bryson’s three visits.  The first was a train ride across Australia, from Sydney to Perth.  The second trip was by car, and covered all the major cities in Australia’s southeast quadrant.  The third trip, also by car, ventured into Australia’s smaller cities, and the interior.  There is a map at the front of the book.  Bookmark it (Kindle) or dog-ear it (book); you’ll be referring to it frequently.

    Bill Bryson’s activities in any given city can be habitual.  Find the parks and walk through them.  Find the museums and walk through them.  Find the used bookstores and browse through them.  Find the pubs and restaurants and eat, drink, and be merry.  Find the hotel and enjoy or endure the amenities.  This could get tediously repetitive in the hands of a lesser writer, but Bryson's storytelling is superb, and I never was bored with any of his tales.

    There are also numerous and humorous “asides” as Bryson becomes immersed in the local culture.  You’ll be mystified by the game of cricket; amused by the rabbit infestation; and amazed by just how many ways the fauna, flora, land, and sea can kill you in Australia.

    But Bryson also tackles more serious topics.  It may be amusing to envision the predator-less rabbits running wild across the outback, but the devastation they and other imported plants and animals did to the indigenous landscape is both irreversible and borderline criminal.  The small amount of forested area is rapidly being depleted (Australia is the world's #1 exporter of wood chips).  And even more critical is the way the aborigines were, and are, treated.  Heady stuff; not very funny, but Bryson’s insights of such issues are quite thought-provoking.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Antipodean (adj.)  :  the parts of the earth diametrically opposite – often used of Australia and New Zealand contrasted to the Western Hemisphere.  More generally, (anything that is) exactly opposite or contrary.

    On my first visit, some years ago, I passed the time on the long flight reading a history of Australian politics in the twentieth century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished.  No trace of the poor man was ever seen again.  This seemed doubly astounding to me – first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.  (pg. 3)

    “Dining room’s closed, mate,” said one of the two guys at the bar.  “Chef’s crook.”
    Crook means ill.
    “Must’ve ate some of his own cooking,” came a voice from the pokies alcove, and we all had a grin over that.
    “What else is there in town?” I asked.
    “Depends,” said the man, scratching his throat thoughtfully.  He leaned toward me slightly.  “You like good food?”
    I nodded.  Of course I did.
    “Nothin’, then.”  He went back to his beer.  (pg. 182)

 “I tell you, Barry, he was farting sparks!”  (pg.  92)
    The wit in In A Sunburned Country is topnotch; the narrative is totally entertaining; and the book can also stand on its own as a Tour Guide for anyone contemplating a vacation in Oz.  It is also obvious that Bill Bryson researched the subject matter thoroughly.  My only advice would be to read it in bits, to keep it from feeling repetitive.  There are only so many ways to describe the summer heat in the desert outback.

    I read very little non-fiction (maybe one book a year), because the books are often dry and boring.  So it was refreshing to read something from this genre that entertained from start to finish, while still giving me a much better picture of Australia.  I still can’t tell you who the Prime Minister is, but I am now able to tell you at least a half-dozen ways to easily meet your demise there.

    9½ Stars.  Highly recommended.