Friday, October 31, 2014

The Serpent of Venice - Christopher Moore

   2014; 326 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Humor; Spoofery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Start by blending Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado with two of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  Keep the story set (primarily) in Venice, but move the time back 300 years to the 1300’s. 

    Add one court jester, and his entourage of a monkey, a village idiot, and a dummy.  The latter two are not synonymous.  Top off with a sea serpent; after all, there’s one in the title.  Let simmer for a year or so in Christopher Moore’s fertile and demented brain.  And voila!  You have The Serpent of Venice.

    Oh yeah.  Garnish with a ghost.  There’s always a bloody ghost.

What’s To Like...
    There’s a Cast of Characters at the front of the book; this came in handy since of the three literary classics being blended here, I’ve only read The Merchant of Venice.  The “mixing” is not complete – The Cask of Amontillado dominates the opening chapters; then Othello, then TMoV.  Christopher Moore stays pretty true to the basic premise of each literary classic, but resolves each one in his own, and quite entertaining, way.

    I liked the characters, especially those that weren’t “lifted” from the three classics.  Pocket, our main protagonist, is a hoot, as are Jeff and Drool.  You’ll love the “Chorus” and their interaction with the characters.  There are occasional footnotes, which are as fun as the ones in Discworld.  And Immurement shows up again, courtesy of the Poe tale.  After a lifetime of never encountering it in my readings, it’s now crossed my path twice in a month.  The other October book with Immurement in it is reviewed here.

    Christopher Moore’s wit and writing mastery once again take center stage, and he is still in top-notch form here.  However, there is abundant use of cusswords, and quite a few sexual references.  I don’t remember his previous books being this full of R-rated stuff, but I’m way behind on reading his works, and perhaps his writing has evolved in this direction over the last 5 years or so.

    For all the humor, the book also touches on some serious issues – most notably racism and anti-Semitism.  But as Moore points out in a worth-your-while Afterword, this is primarily because those topics played prominent roles in the two Shakespearean plays.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Berk (n.) : a fool.  A Britishism derived from the cockney rhyming scheme “Berkshire hunt”.  I’ll let you figure out what it means in Cockney.
Others : Chundered (v.); Walleys (n.).  I never did figure out what “walleys” were.

    “Morning, love,” said my Cordelia.
    She wore the polished black-and-gold breastplate of her armor with frilly knickers, which tipped me off that all was not in order.
    “Are you a dream, or a ghost?” said I, reaching out to her, then catching myself before tumbling off the bed.
    “Which would better suit you?”
    “Dream, I think.  Less annoying rhyming.”
    “But then, there’s always a bloody ghost.”  (pg. 140)

    I nodded, then approached the sentry.  “Beggin’ pardon, yeoman, would you happen to know if there’s an enormous simpleton with a monkey being held in here?”
    “Might be, what’s it to you?”
    “Well, the nitwit is this poor boy’s father, and we’re hoping to bring him home.”
    “What’s the monkey, his little brover?”
    “Half.  We’re a poor family, and – “  (pg. 197)

 “Cry havoc, and let slip the trousers of most outrageous bonkilation1”  (pg. 23)
    To be honest, the first part of The Serpent of Venice dragged a bit for me.  In all fairness, Moore had a slew of characters to introduce and a setting to establish.  But it was a challenge to find the plotline in all the tomfoolery.

    This was undoubtedly due in part to my not having ever read The Cask of Amontillado and Othello. Moore adheres to their storylines rather faithfully, but that was lost on me, at least until The Merchant of Venice took over.  However, once all the world-building was done, the Moore's innovative tale took center stage, and I warmed rapidly to this book.

    The persistent use of cusswords and sexual innuendos got old.  I wasn’t offended, just bored by the repetition.  Yet who knows, if William Shakespeare was alive today, maybe he’d be writing in this style.  Edgar Allan Poe most certainly would.  His style was cutting edge in the 1800’s; there’s no reason he’d be a mainstream author today.

    8 Stars.  Add ½ star for each of the three classics employed here that you have read and/or been forced to memorize passages from.  Parts like “the quality of mercy is not strained…” and “if you prick us, do we not bleed…”.  Reading this brought back some old memories of high school English class for me.  Not necessarily fond ones; just old.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

This Brilliant Darkness - Red Tash

    2013; 228 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Paranormal Horror.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Bloomington, Indiana is a weird place to be right now.  First of all, there’s that mysterious-acting star heading its way, and it can only be seen from in and around Bloomington itself.  Then there's the brutal and unsolved murder-mutilation of a girl in the park.

    Like everyone else, Christine Grace, a professor at the city’s university, is concerned about the killing.  But then strange things start happening in her life.  Like seeing monstrous, dark, flying creatures.  And being instantly (and roughly) transported from one side of town to the other.  With no discernible cause.  And for no apparent reason.

    Something is afoot.  Or a wing.  Or a beak. Or a claw.

What’s To Like...
    There’s a “Dramatis Personae” at the beginning of the book.  This comes in handy, since the POV switches from one character to another with each new chapter.  Sometimes it’s a third-person narrative; sometimes it’s first-person.  Sometimes the character whose POV is being told is given at the start of the chapter; sometimes not.

    The pacing is good.  You quickly figure where out this is all heading to, although just what the outcome will be is anybody’s guess.  There aren’t any appreciable plot twists, but the tension builds steadily as the Ultimate Evil (“UE”) manipulates things to set up the climactic showdown.  The book ends at a logical point, but this is not a standalone novel.  A sequel is apparently in the works, but isn’t out yet.

    I don't recall ever reading a book set in Bloomington, so I'm guessing this is Red Tash’s stomping grounds.  The “inner circle” of Christine’s university friends and colleagues are all kind of the same shade of pleasantness.  I felt like they were patterned after people the author knows.  The peripheral characters are more diverse, although a couple of them (Badger, Blake, Fengrid) get introduced and then go nowhere.  By far the most interesting character is Greachin, the UE.

    There are a bunch of religious allusions - Tibetan lamas, a monk clinging tenaciously to his vow of silence, Joseph & Mary, etc.  I feared for a while that the book was a piece of camouflaged religious proselyting (one of my pet peeves), but happily, this wasn't the case.  The language is sometimes R-rated, but felt appropriate for the genre.  Last but not least, there is a subtle flow of wit and humor throughout the book, which I especially liked.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Ruah (n.) : The vital principle or animating force in living beings.

    Tom shrugged.  “You got anything stronger than this?” he asked, holding up his water.
    “Some Upland Wheat in the fridge,” Richard answered.  Don’t know if I should stand up and get it, though.
    “I’ll get it.  You want one?”
    “With a head injury?  Why not?” Richard answered.  “Not too early for you?”
    “Hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere,” Tom replied.  (loc. 2201)

    “You are alien?” Greachin asked.
    “No.”  Richard was startled by the question.  He couldn’t think what to reply.  “No.  Are you?”
    Greachin stared at him, opened his beak, and hissed a putrid hormonal breath.
    “Yes, of course, you are, how silly of me,” said Richard.  (loc. 3713)

Kindle Details...
    This Brilliant Darkness sells for $0.99 at Amazon, which is a great price for a full-length novel.  Red Tash’s other novel, Troll or Derby, and 4 short stories, all go for the same price.

”When am I going to learn to stop questioning Authority and just eat the Soylent Green?”  (loc. 1349)
    Alas, although the storyline itself was good, I found the telling of it marred by some significant head-scratchers and WTF’s, and they made for a confusing read.  A couple examples (spoiler-free) :

    NASA (and therefore the US government) is aware of the approaching “only seen over Bloomington” star, yet only a single expert is sent to observe it, and he’s a geezer from across the pond.  Coincidentally, said geezer just happens to already be best e-mail buddies with Christine.

    The grisly murder understandably causes concern within Christine's collegiate circles, but no police investigation ensues.  There are multiple sightings of monstrous critters by Christine and her friends (so we can rule out personal hallucinations), yet they never think to report these to any authorities.

    How and why did Christine get zapped clear across town?  How and why did she later end up naked and unconscious in a dark alley, with no recollection of what happened?  Did the crazy monk serve any purpose at all?

    I suppose some of these might be resolved in the sequel, but none of them are addressed here.  Add to this some dreadful mangling of Quantum Physics and some hinted-at, but never realized, Time Travel, and you end up with a disjointed, incoherent tale.

   Which is too bad, because This Brilliant Darkness is a fast-moving, entertaining book, provided you can put the thinking half of your brain to sleep while reading it.
    5½ Stars.  Add 1½ stars if you could care less about WTF’s and head-scratchers, as long as there are blood, entrails, and psychotic things that go bump the dark.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Ludwig Conspiracy - Oliver Potzsch

   2011; 435 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Intrigue; Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    King Ludwig II of Bavaria, best known for designing and commissioning his Neuschwanstein Castle (the prototype for the Disneyland castle), died under mysterious circumstances on the night of 13 June, 1886.  The official cause of death is listed as “suicide by drowning”, but there was no water in his lungs, he was found in waist-high water, and was known to be an excellent swimmer.  His companion also suffered the same fate.

    That’s all quite interesting, but it happened more than 125 years ago.  What Steven Lukas, owner of a small antiquarian bookstore in present-day Munich, wants to know is – why was one of his patrons murdered for reportedly having some sort of secret knowledge about Ludwig II’s demise?

    More importantly, why are those same people trying to kill him?

What’s To Like...
    The Ludwig Conspiracy cleverly switches between two timelines by means of a fictional character’s diary to combine Historical Fiction, Action Intrigue, and Murder-Mystery.

    The historical fiction is a delight to read.  Oliver Potzsch obviously did a bunch of research on Ludwig II’s life, death, and eccentricities; especially the last year of the King’s life.  There is particular focus on the castles he built (or planned to build) and the political plots against him.  It was a pivotal time in the region.  Germany was coalescing into a unified European power, and the assimilation of the Kingdom of Bavaria into the nation was both a crucial and delicate process.

    There is Action and Intrigue in both timelines, plus a little bit of Romance that doesn’t get in the way of the main story.  The Murder-Mystery, along with all the other threads, gets tied up nicely at the end.  This is a standalone novel.

    Oliver Potzsch gives a ‘Cast of Characters’ at the front of the book, which comes in handy at the beginning, when you are trying to keep track of all the historical figures.  He also includes a glossary at the back; you really should read it after you’ve finished the book.  The writing and character development are okay, although I didn't really "connect" with the two protagonists.  But the book is a translation, and I'll therefore cut it some slack.  For all I know, in the original German, it may be quite powerful.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Tendentious (adj.) : expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one.

    “It was a Derringer,” the woman said.
    Steven gave a start and looked up from the newspaper.  “What?”
    “The murder weapon.  I’ve kept my ears pricked.  Two .44 caliber rimfire cartridge cases were found at the scene.  That kind of cartridge is out of use these days.  However, ammunition like that was very common in the nineteenth century, in small ornamental pistols but most of all in the American Derringer.  A pretty toy.  But Abraham Lincoln was shot with a Derringer just like that.”
    Steven frowned.  “You mean the murder victim was killed by a weapon that doesn’t exist today?”
    “Or by someone who shouldn’t be alive today.”  (pg. 33)

    Steven was different.  He was clever, well-read, and obviously didn’t feel it was a problem if she took the lead now and then.  But she felt as if he came from another planet.  Even more: if women were from Venus and men were from Mars, then Steven came from Pluto, if not from the faraway Horsehead Nebula.
    Which made him very interesting.  (pg. 147)

 “If you have graffiti and dog turds on your doorstep, a painting by Caravaggio is like a warm, refreshing shower.”  (pg. 203)
    There were some weaknesses.  First, there was a wisp of “is it paranormal or isn’t it” in the storyline, particularly at the beginning of the book.  But it wasn't developed to any appreciable extent, and by the end it had fizzled out without ever being completely resolved.  I felt like Potzsch just sort of decided to abandon that angle.

    There was also a riddle-solving thread that frankly was never believable.  Protecting a secret is fine, but turning it into a scavenger hunt is implausible.  I recognize it was a literary device so each of Ludwig’s castles could come into play in the plotline.  But still.  And the ease with which our plucky heroes decipher it is dumbfounding.

    Finally, there was Lancelot.  For the biggest, baddest, black-heartedest thug, he is surprisingly, and repeatedly, inept.

    9 Stars for the Historical Fiction.  8½ Stars for the Action Intrigue.  5 Stars for the Puzzle-Solving.  Which averages out to:

    7½ StarsThe Ludwig Conspiracy is a decent enough read, but not an exceptional one.  Oliver Potzsch is apparently better-known for his 4-book Hangman’s Daughter series, and my local library has a couple of these.  I will probably be checking at least one of them out soon.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When You Are Engulfed In Flames - David Sedaris

    2008; 323 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Essays; Non-Fiction; Anecdotal Humor.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    David Sedaris is gifted, gay, germaphobic writer who grew up in North Carolina in a household that could be the collective poster-children for “Dysfunctional Family”.  Now (herein defined as when he wrote this book)  in his early 50’s , he’s held a number of jobs, had several relationships, and lived in places ranging from the mundane (New York City), to the exotic (France and Japan).

    He’s had his share of weird neighbors (haven’t we all?), crazy relatives, rundown apartments, and cheap hotel rooms that would give and germaphobe nightmares.  He’s also had his boozing, pot-smoking, cigarette-smoking stages (haven’t we all?), and came out okay on the other side of each.  Does he possibly have some wild, hilarious tales to tell about his life?

    You betcha.

What’s To Like...
    When You Are Engulfed In Flames is a set of 22 essays by Sedaris that draw from various parts of his life.  Some of the stories are self-effacing.  I don’t know that I’d write a chapter about a boil on my butt, but Sedaris does.  Several focus on his relationship with his current partner, Hugh, who’s a polar opposite to David in most ways.  Many deal with the slew of bizarre people he’s crossed paths with while traveling and moving about.

    All the essays are witty and well-written.  Some will resonate with you more than others, but all of them will entertain you.  Many close with a bit of thought-provoking introspection by Sedaris after the hijinks have been recounted.  Among my favorites here were :

    The Understudy (the babysitter from hell); That’s Amore (his curmudgeony neighbor, Helen); Monster Mash (working in the morgue); The Man In The Hut (the neighborhood child molester); April In Paris (spiders); Crybaby (switching seats on an airplane); and The Smoking Section (trying to quit smoking).

    I especially liked the stories that were set in France in Japan.  David Sedaris does not pick up a foreign language easily, which leads to the inevitable linguistic misunderstandings and culture shock.  The book’s title comes from an entry at 95%; I’ll leave it to you to discover what it means.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Murphy Bed (n.; phrase) : A bed with a frame and hinges on one end that can be folded up and stored vertically in a wall.
Others : Cush (v.) (which was quite the challenge to find its definition on Google)

    Like any normal fifth grader, I preferred my villains to be evil and stay that way, to act like Dracula rather than Frankenstein’s monster, who ruined everything by handing that peasant girl a flower.  He sort of made up for it by drowning her a few minutes later, but, still, you couldn’t look at him the same way again.  (loc. 340)

    It’s funny how certain objects convey a message – my washer and dryer, for example.  They can’t speak, of course, but whenever I pass them they remind me that I’m doing fairly well.  “No more Laundromat for you,” they hum.  My stove, a downer, tells me every day that I can’t cook, and before I can defend myself my scale jumps in, shouting from the bathroom, “Well, he must be doing something.  My numbers are off the charts.”   (loc. 1713)

Kindle Details...
    When You Are Engulfed In Flames sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  Most of David Sedaris’ other  Essays books go for the same price.

”It’s safe to assume that by 2025, guns will be sold in vending machines, but you won’t be able to smoke anywhere in America.”  (loc. 3518)
    When You Are Engulfed In Flames is the fourth full-blown book of essays by David Sedaris.  The first three are Naked (1997); Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000); and Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim (2004).  They all have the same template – 20+ “regular-sized” essays, then finishing up with one longer entry, which usually furnishes the book’s title.  I’ve read all of these, and enjoyed each one.  Only DYFiC&D was during my blogging days; it is reviewed here.

    Sedaris’ latest offering of essays is called Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013), but I haven’t read it yet.  My library doesn’t offer a Kindle version of it, but stocks a number of Hardcover copies.

    David Sedaris is one of the foremost contemporary American humorists, and I am in awe of his continued ability to find entertaining incidents from his life to write about.  All of his “Essays” books are good, and if you haven’t read any of them yet, I highly recommend starting with Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day.  I remember being blown away by both of them.

    8½ Stars.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When It's A Jar - Tom Holt

   2013; 353 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Contemporary Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The title comes from an old childhood play on words - When is a door not a door?  Answer : When it is a jar ("ajar").  But there are several alternative answers given in When It’s A Jar.  When it’s a beer.  When it’s a paradigm.  Maybe even when it’s a doughnut.    And the book also poses the inverse conundrum.  When is a jar not a jar?

    Maurice Katz doesn’t care about those kinds of riddles.  Instead, he wants to know who those three weird women were on the subway, and why they were prophesying about his life.  Also, why there’s a dragon in his bedroom.  Well okay, technically it's a hydra, but still.  And last but not least, who (and where) is Theo Bernstein?

   He’ll eventually get answers to some of those questions, but not all of them.  Along the way, he’ll gain a lot of experience hopping around in Multiverses.

What’s To Like...
    Multiverses have become quite the popular topic lately in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres (see Stephen Baxter’s and Terry Pratchett’s treatment of it here),  so it was fun to see what Tom Holt’s approach would be, given that his books are always steeped in absurd zaniness.  When It’s A Jar did not disappoint.  It may not be scientifically sound (for that, Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, reviewed here} is highly recommended), but it certainly is an entertaining read.

    The format is decidedly formulaic – na├»ve young man takes an entry-level position in a secretive company and weird things ensue.  Holt has used this template at least a half dozen times, particularly in his J.W. Wells quasi-series.  In lesser hands this would get old and boring, but Holt’s witty writing keeps things from getting stale.  Here, for example, Maurice is cleverly doped with truth serum before his job interview.  The result had me laughing out loud.

    The writing is “English”, not “American”, and it’s always a treat to learn new words and phrases from across the pond.  There are some nice bits of mythology blended in with the multiverses.  The Constant Object is something only Tom Holt could dream up, yet it’s eminently plausible.  Then there’s the Inverse Pyramid Hierarchy System, which will make you think Dilbert has infiltrated the storyline.

    There are no chapters, but the narrative is broken into variously sized sections by means of a spiffy little icon.  As with any Tom Holt book, you (and Maurice) spend about ¾ of the book wondering where all this madness is going.  But it all coalesces into an ending that is reasonably logical, at least by Holtian standards.  Indeed, I thought the storyline was more coherent than usual for a Holt offering.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Oik (n.) : an uncouth or obnoxious person, usually from a lower social class.  (A Britishism)
Others : Scutiform (adj.); Jemmy (v.); Tranche (n., which is pronounced differently in the UK vs. the USA) )

    “Do please take a seat.”
    The chair was, of course, pure goblin.  Typical in that it was crafted from the leg-bones and tanned hide of some long-dead adversary who’d won the silver medal in a power struggle with the king.  Goblins made most of their office furniture out of other goblins; when you joined a major goblin corporation, it wasn’t just for life, it was for ever.  (pg. 238)

    She sighed.  “If we apply multiverse theory, a door in the mainstream universe can be a door in one post-bifurcation branch universe and a jar in another, and still be the same door.”  She paused, wrinkled her nose and added, “Or jar.  Whatever.  You see that, don’t you?  You don’t, do you?”
   “All right,” she said.  “It’s magic.  Better?”
    “Much.  Thank you.”  (pg. 266)

 “The thing about luck is, it’s not a wheelbarrow, you really don’t want to go pushing it.”  (pg. 68)
    When It’s A Jar is a standalone novel, but it’s also a sequel to Tom Holt’s previous book, Doughnut.  They were both published in 2013 (in March and December); and WIAJ is sometimes subtitled “YouSpace 2”.  ANAICT, Doughnut focuses more with Theo Bernstein’s disappearance, and introduces the concept of the titular (and self-levitating) doughnut.

    I haven’t read Doughnut, and I didn’t feel as though I was missing much.  Being confused while reading a Tom Holt book is the norm, and is part of the attraction.  Still, the standard caveat applies – you get more out of a series if you read it in order.  My local library has a copy of Doughnut, and I will probably go get it in the next couple months.

    8 Stars.  Highly recommended.  The writing and wit are fantastic.  Oh yeah, Gunningagap (sic) makes a cameo appearance.  After a lifetime of reading and never encountering it (at least to the best of my recollection), that’s twice in less than a month that it’s crossed my literary path.  The other time was here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Eighth Day - John Case

    2002; 370 pages.  New Author(s)? : No.  Genre : Thriller.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Talk about a bizarre way to kill yourself.  Christian Terio went down to the local Home Depot and bought himself some cinder blocks and mortar.  Then he drove home and walled himself into a corner of his basement.  By the time the cops found his corpse a couple weeks later, it was an ugly sight.

    Meanwhile, Danny Cray, a full-time artist and part-time private investigator (the latter pays poorly, but better than the former) has just been offered a outwardly simple but financially rewarding job.  He’s to look into someone who’s been waging a smear campaign against a wealthy Italian business magnate.  Tap into their phone records, e-mails, etc.  Find out who his friends and associates are.

    This libel-spreader has a name, of course.  It’s Christian Terio.

What’s To Like...
    The bit of self-immurement in the prologue sets the stage for a fast-paced tale of Intrigue and Action.  The settings are both familiar (Washington DC and California) and the exotic (Italy, Turkey, and Switzerland).  The Intrigue predominates in the first part of the book, as Danny tries to figure out who are the good guys are and who are the baddies.  Once that is (somewhat) clarified, the Action takes over in the form of an extended chase scene.

    The storytelling is great.  You’re never quite sure whether paranormal forces are at play or not, and I always like that.  As with any Thriller, our hero faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and the tension builds as each of his plans is foiled by a powerful, well-connected enemy who always seems to be two steps ahead of him.

    I especially liked the portions of the book (roughly 25% of it) that took place in Turkey.  John Case doesn’t limit the “visit” to Istanbul; we also journey to lesser-known cities in eastern Turkey.  The Turkish people are not stereotyped, and it’s refreshing to see even the common folk among them nobly aiding a helpless, down-on-his-luck American.

    You also get a nice dose of culture - both Italian and Turkish.  In Italy, you visit Rome, Siena, and experience the Palio.  In Turkey you will meet Yezidis and Kurds, and learn the religious significance of peacocks.  The Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, also gets a plug; I’ve read a couple of his novels and enjoy him immensely.

    The character development is okay, albeit not spectacular.  Danny has his weaknesses, which is nice to see, but he’s more lucky than good.  The bad guys are uniformly black, and if you’re a good guy, it’s not particularly healthy to cross paths with Danny.  It all builds to an exciting ending, plus a sappy epilogue that cleanly resolves the secondary romantic storyline.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Stylite (n.) : A religious ascetic who spends his life on top of a pillar.
Others : Incunabula (n., pl.); Immure (v.); Anchorite (n.); Myoclonic (adj.)

    Evil was real, he knew that, but it was not incarnate.  The devil was like . . . the Tooth Fairy.
    “So what did he look like?” Danny asked at last.  “Horns, tail, what?”
    The priest shook his head, looking slightly embarrassed.  “Chris didn’t say.  Just that he was riding in a Bentley.”
    “The devil.”
    “Right.” (. . .) Inzaghi leaned forward with a sly grin and added, “You’d think the devil would have a Rolls, wouldn’t you?”  (loc. 1510)

    “And you would like to go to?”
    “Uzelyurt,” Danny replied.  (. . . )
    “I’m told it’s near Diyarbakir,” Danny explained.
    Frowning, the man chewed on Danny’s pronunciation for a while, and then he understood.  “Deeyarbakeer!” he exclaimed.  “What an interesting place to visit!”
    “Is it?”
    “Absolutely!  From the airport to city – one knife fight guaranteed.  In the city, who knows?”   (loc. 3179)

Kindle Details...
    The Eighth Day sells for $5.49 at Amazon.  Three other John Case books cost from $5.49 or $5.99.  It looks like two other books that I read a long time ago, The First Horseman and The Genesis Code, are not yet available for the Kindle.  Which is a pity since those are the two most popular John Case offerings.

”Even crazy people have reasons for what they do.  They’re just crazy reasons.”  (loc. 432)
    The action and intrigue are great, but the plotline has some weaknesses.  I was never quite sold on the Nanotechnology angle, which felt clunky and ill-fitting.  Also, the “Norwegian connection” seemed underdeveloped and/or superfluous.  Finally, I am dumbfounded that our baddies, who understandably want to remain “below the radar”, commit two of their executions in headline-grabbing manner.

    Still, The Eighth Day was a fun read with enough action and intrigue to keep me turning the pages.  I don’t remember having any quibbles with the other two John Case books I’ve read, but it’s been about 15 years since I read them.  Maybe I was less picky back then, or maybe they were just better written.  Methinks it might be time to re-read one or both. 

    7½ Stars.  You will never meet or even see a picture of John Case.  That’s because it’s the pseudonym of a husband-wife writing team, Jim and Carolyn Hougan.  Sadly, when Carolyn passed away in 2007, the joint effort came to an end after just six novels.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Third Gate - Lincoln Child

   2012; 403 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Jeremy Logan is a full time history professor and a part-time enigmalogist.  That’s someone who investigates things like ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, Yetis, etc.  He’s just been offered a job on an archaeological expedition.  Which begs the odd question - why would an archaeologist want a ghost hunter in his group?

    The agent making an offer, Ethan Rush, is the head of an NDE center.  “NDE” stands for “Near Death Experience”.  Which begs another odd question – why would an archaeologist already have an NDE expert in his entourage?

     Oh well.  Jeremy’s job is simply to be a consultant, a counselor.  It's easy money, and what could possibly go wrong?

What’s To Like...
    Lincoln Child is one-half of the writing team “Preston and Child”, co-authors of the fabulous Aloysius Pendergast series.  A lot of the earmarks from that collaborative effort are here as well.  There’s lots of action, the pace is fast, and the storyline will keep you guessing.  Best of all, the P&C recurring motif “is it paranormal or just weird-but-natural” is employed here.  Even at the end, the answer is up in the air, although the odds tilt pretty far to one side.

    The storyline features some of my pet subjects: archaeology, mythology, and ancient history.  It's set in a fascinating, swampy expanse of the Upper Nile called The Sudd, which I had never heard of.  There is a mummy, but at least it doesn’t go shuffling down the halls with a zombie-like gait and shedding bits of masking tape.  The closest we get to any romance is one gratuitous underwear scene.

    All the characters are various shades of gray.  It may surprise you which ones are still alive at the end of the book.  The way Lincoln Child constructs a confined area for the thrills and spills (so as to not allow the victims to flee the terror) is downright clever.  Everything builds nicely to an exciting ending.  This is a standalone novel, and I’d be surprised if there ever was a sequel.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Psychomantetical (adj.) : relating to the use of a mirrored room, specially set up to communicate with the spiritual realm.
Others : Ostracon (n.); Peckish (adj.); Ushabti (n.); Bravura (n.)

    “The name’s Jeremy Logan.”
    “Logan.”  She frowned.
    “We have an appointment.”
    She brightened.  “Oh, of course.  You’re the ghost-“  She fell silent, but her green eyes twinkled with private amusement.
    The same old silliness.  Logan was used to it.  “I prefer the term ‘enigmalogist,’ myself.”
    “Enigmalogist.  Yes, that does lend an air of legitimacy.”  (pg. 94)

    Logan had encountered curses before, of course: in Gibraltar, Estonia, New Orleans.  In each case, there had been an anodyne, a counterspell: some method for deflecting or ameliorating the execration.  Not so with the tombs of ancient Egypt.  Despite all his reading, all his research, only one method for countering such curses seemed to exist: stay well away from them.  (pg. 228)

 “Isn’t there always a curse?” Stone asked quietly.  (pg. 50)
    As the protagonist, Jeremy Logan has a decent amount of scruples and likeability, but he’s no Indiana Jones or even a Special Agent Pendergast.  He’s also a bit slow on the uptake; I figured out the mystery of the two crowns long before he did.  Then again, I’m a scientist.  Being a chemist also means I grimaced at the smell of methane on page 369.   For the umpteenth time, methane is an odorless gas.  The gas companies deliberately add a small amount of mercaptans to it so that you can smell a potentially-lethal gas leak.  Mother Nature doesn’t.

    There’s only one major plot twist, and it doesn’t alter the storyline appreciably.  But that’s okay; The Third Gate is more about building the tension as our plucky band of grave-despoilers keep getting closer to the entrance to the innermost burial chamber, the "Third Gate".  The story may be linear, but it’s effective.

    8 Stars.  Like Lennon-&-McCartney, Preston and Child work better as a team than individually.  But this is the best singular effort by either of them that I’ve read thus far.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Fire Engine That Disappeared - Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall

    1970; 218 pages.  New Authors? : No.  Book #5 (out of10) of the Martin Beck series.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Police Procedural.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    A gas explosion has unleashed an inferno on a small apartment complex (see book cover), with three people perishing in the blaze.  Was it an accident?  A suicide?  A murder?  That’s what Martin Beck and his team of detectives want to determine.

    The good news is that the police had the building under surveillance at the time of the blast, which helped keep the casualties from being higher and gives Beck a most reliable eyewitness.

    The bad news is that an explosion really messes up a crime scene.

What’s To Like...
    The Fire Engine That Disappeared is a police procedural, which is probably my favorite subgenre of Crime-Mystery.  It’s just over 200 pages long, typical for this series, which means the plotline moves along at a crisp pace.  As with any police procedural, there are dead-end leads, fruitless questionings, and investigative red herrings.

    The story is set in Stockholm in March of 1968, and you get a nice feel for everyday life in Sweden back then.  Ditto for the day-to-day work of a policeman in the 1960’s.  Interpol was around, but not e-mail, wireless phones, Google, and the internet.

    Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo infuse some commentary about the social problems Sweden was coping with in those days, such as suicide (which is not a crime in Sweden) and the ineffectiveness of their Juvenile Reform system.  But you also get to bask in some of the national culture – Walpurgis Eve and long summer vacations.  I particularly liked the contrast of “big city life” (Stockholm) versus “small city life” (Malmo).

    It’s been a while (July 2011) since I’ve read a book from this series, so it was nice to get reacquainted with Beck’s team of detectives.  All of them, including Beck, have their character faults; and some of them border on being downright assholes.  That gave the characters a realistic feel.  There is more sex than I remember in the other two books in the series I’ve read; and the spotlight is now more on the team members, with Beck assuming a mentoring role.

    All of the books in this series are standalone novels.  You may miss the continuity of Beck’s personal life – his kids growing up and his marriage growing stale.  But this doesn’t detract from enjoying each book's storyline.

Kewlest New Word...
Misanthropically (adv.)  :  In a way marked by a hatred or contempt for humankind.  (it’s not really a new word for me.  But I think it makes for a kewl adverb)

    The man lying dead on the tidily made bed had first taken off his jacket and tie and hung them over the chair by the door.  He had then unlaced his shoes, placed them under the chair and stuck his feet into a pair of black leather slippers.  He had smoked three filter-tipped cigarettes and stubbed them out in the ashtray on the bedside table.  Then he had lain down on his back on the bed and shot himself through the mouth.
    That did not look quite so tidy.  (loc. 130)

    The man picked up the box, lighted his butt, coughed dryly and hoarsely and raised his eyes.
    “I’ve killed the missis,” he said.
    Benny Skacke  stretched out his hand for his notepad and said in a voice which he considered calm and authoritative.
    “Oh, yes.  Where?”
    He wished that Martin Beck or Kollberg had been there.
    “On the head.”  (loc. 1001)

Kindle Details...
    The Fire Engine That Disappeared sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  Eight of the other nine books of the series sell for either $7.99 or $9.99.  For some reason, Book 3, The Man on the Balcony, sells for $11.31.   Don’t ask me why.  If your local library offers a digital book service, you might check there.  That's where I got my copy.

“I’ve never been on a case with so many ifs and buts and perhapses and presumablys.”  (loc. 4101)
    There are a few too many coincidences in The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  For example, one of the cops goes to question a witness, and shows up at just the right time to catch him dealing drugs to a schoolgirl user.  A Copenhagen detective is given a rather generic description of a woman, and manages to somehow locate her in that huge city almost immediately.  Such things weaken the plausibility of the story.

    The action is sparse – most of it occurs at the beginning and the very end.  The ending seems forced and a bit arbitrary.  But the main weakness of the book is the crime itself.  Once the dust settles from the explosion and the last flame is put out, what is uncovered is straightforward, predictable, and rather humdrum.

    But I quibble.  The criminal activity may be ho-hum; but the step-by-step investigation, the intra-team bickering, and the Swedish setting kept me entertained.
    7½ Stars.  A decent effort, but if you’re new to the series, start with Roseanna (reviewed here).