Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Father - Chris Craig




    2012; 478 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fiction (Military); Biography.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The book’s title refers to Hamilcar Barca, Carthage’s most renowned military leader until his son, Hannibal Barca, came along one generation later and famously came within a hair’s breadth of conquering the Roman Empire.

    Hamilcar’s feats were no less spectacular – battling the vastly larger Roman military forces to a stalemate in the first Punic War; saving Carthage from a life-threatening revolt of its mercenary army, and expanding the Carthaginian Empire in Spain, including exploiting the silver mines there to pay the huge war penalty imposed by Rome on Carthage.

    Truly, this is the stuff legends are made of, yet until now, little has been written about elder of the two Barca military geniuses.

What’s To Like...
    The Father is part Military Fiction, part Biography.  Hamilcar’s early years are missing (both in the book and in History itself); when the story opens he is already married, and has a couple young children.  Chris Craig fills in the historical gaps with a bunch of plausible fictional details, such as the names of Hamilcar’s wife (Dido) and daughter (Sophie).

    The storyline is linear and divided into three parts.  The Sicilian campaign, aka the First Punic War (60%); the mercenary rebellion (25%); and the Spanish campaign (15%).  The characters are well-developed, and the author has a fine touch in detailing the battle tactics, technologies, and perhaps most telling, the political maneuverings in both Rome and Carthage.  The latter did more to doom Hamilcar’s military exploits than any Roman army.

    I was also impressed that, while the storyline unfolds with a definite pro-Carthaginian slant, the Romans are not portrayed as vile and despicable.  In truth, two empires were vying for supremacy in a region where there was only room for one to dominate.

   As with any biography, the tale ends with Hamilcar’s death, but we are also left with 19-year-old Hannibal on the cusp of his rendezvous with Fate.

    The writing is top-notch – it’s nice to read something steeped in History that isn’t dry and boring.  There is nothing R-rated in the book.  I suppose it would be rated PG for some violence, such as elephants stomping the life out of soldiers unluckily caught in their path, but there’s no unnecessary gore.  The book is both a standalone and the start of a series; and YA and adult history buffs alike will enjoy it.

Excerpts...
    “But what of these Spanish women,” persisted Dido.
    “I didn’t notice any.  Well – there are some there.  But they are all, well, dark and hairy.  Not elegant and beautiful like our Carthaginian women, my darling,” Hamilcar said, burying his face in a goblet of wine.
    “Well, I suppose that’s alright then.  But Maherbal, I don’t want you sending my husband off anywhere with an abundance of beautiful women.”
    “I don’t believe we have plans to invade the Amazons,” replied Maherbal.  (loc. 804)

    “Father,” Hannibal asked eventually, “who is our greatest enemy?  You have fought many.  And before your time our city fought the Greeks.  So, I mean, who is our most dangerous enemy, the Greeks, the barbarians, rebels or the Romans?”
    “You forget the enemy within, son,” Hamilcar replied, “every time I have fought an enemy, I have first had to defeat our own Senate.”  (loc. 6180)

Kindle Details...
    I bought The Father for $2.99 at Amazon.  This is Book #1 of a trilogy about the Barca family, aka “The House of Thunder”.  Book #2, The Son, is available at SmashWords.  Book #3, The Fall, is apparently still in the works.  Chris Craig has several other books available for the Kindle at SmashWords, but ANAICT, only this one available at Amazon.

“That is the difference between us.  Carthage makes war for trade.  We trade to make war.”  (loc. 2981)
    There are a couple minor gaps in the historical details.  Some of the atrocities committed by Hamilcar in quelling the mercenary insurgency are conveniently omitted.  Also, I don’t recall that the name of Hamilcar’s second son ever being mentioned (it was Hasdrubal); and most historical sources claim that there were three daughters, not just Sophie.  But given that historians still can’t agree on exactly how Hamilcar died, we’ll allow the author a long literary leash for detailing this biography as he sees fit.

    I thoroughly enjoyed The Father.  It should be mentioned that “Hamilcar Barca” is my nom d’Internet, and therefore I may be favorably inclined to the subject matter herein.

    9 Stars.  Add another ½-star if you revel in the minutiae of battlefield tactics.  Subtract ½-star if you  liked the Roman legions kicking the crap out of everybody way back when.  And if ancient history makes you yawn, you should probably skip this book.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Alexander Cipher - Will Adams



   2009; 431 pages. New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Thriller; Action-Adventure.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Daniel Knox is a dive instructor now, but when the ex-archaeologist gets a lead on the whereabouts of Alexander the Great’s tomb, he knows this could be the opportunity of a lifetime.  Unfortunately, several other parties have actively taken up the same hunt.

    Fortunately, Knox has a number of contacts in Egypt that he can call upon.  Unfortunately, some hate his guts and want nothing to do with him, while others would like to kill him.

    Who said archaeology was dull?

What’s To Like...
     Most of the story takes place in (fittingly enough) Alexandria, plus the deserts to the south and west of that city.  This is first and foremost an action-adventure, with Knox and others getting into and out of one scrape after another.

    The book is well-researched, both regarding what happened to Alexander’s body and Empire after his death, and the history and culture of Egypt in general.  The requisite historical backstory gets a little wordy and clunky at times, but once that’s in place, it’s thrills and spills galore up through the final page.

    What I liked most about The Alexander Cipher was the non-stereotypical portrayal of the various Egyptian characters. It was a breath of fresh air to meet a cast of Egyptians that were diverse in their natures, instead of the usual brain-washed, ignorant, anti-Arab bent that most novels use.  Indeed, the baddest of the baddies were from an entirely different ethnic group.

    Knox was too over-the-top for my reading tastes, but if you’re a Dirk Pitt fan, you’ll probably like his luck, pluck and resourcefulness in escaping death time and time again.  The fact that everybody else in the book already knows him strains the believability, but the fact that almost all of them dislike him is kinda kewl.

    There’s a little bit of sex, and some cussing; but nothing excessive.  Some good guys die; some bad guys go on living.  For me, the ending felt a bit contrived and unbelievable.  However, it held a neat plot twist, and tied up the all the loose ends.  This is a standalone novel, as well as a start of a series.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Chicane (n.)  :  An artificial narrowing or turn on a road..

Excerpts...
    (Alexandria)  Archimedes had studied here; so had Galen and Origen.  The Septuagint had been translated here.  Euclid had published his famous works here.  Chemistry took its very name from here; al-Khemia was the black land of Egypt, and alchemy the Egyptian art.  Aristarchus had proposed the heliocentric theory here, well over a millennium before it was rediscovered by Copernicus.  Eratosthenes had calculated almost exactly the circumference of the earth by extrapolating from discrepancies in the shadows cast at the sun’s zenith both here and in Aswan, some 850 kilometers to the south, on the summer solstice.  (pg. 94)

    He smiled wryly.  “I think you’re the kind of woman not to be afraid of what she wants.  I’m right about this, yes?”
    “Yes.”
    “Good.  Then let me make this clear.  If you ask me to leave once more, I truly will leave.”
    There was silence for a few moments.  Elena nodded thoughtfully to herself as she unlocked her door and went inside.  “Well?” she asked, leaving the door open behind her.  “Are you coming in or not?”.  (pg. 173)

 “What? . . .  Alexander wore earrings?”  (pg.  19)
    The Alexander Cipher was a pleasant enough read, although I thought it could’ve  used a bit more polish.  The ending is ingenious but too abrupt and convenient.  The insertion of historical detail felt forced in spots.  The characters were interesting, but without any surprises.  Daring escapes came just a bit too easy for our hero, and he has far too many coincidental connections to the other characters.

    8 Stars.  Add one-half star if all you’re looking for is an “airport” novel.  And since this was Will Adams’ debut effort, we'll cut him some slack and see if the writing gets smoother in the sequel, The Moses Quest.  It’s on my TBR shelf.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Foul Mouth and The Fanged Lady - Richard Raley



    2012; 293 pages.  Book #1 (out of three so far) of the King Henry Tapes.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Urban Fantasy; Urban Noir.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    So far, the life of 14-year-old King Henry Price (what kind of parents would name their son “King” anyway?) has been pretty crappy.  He sucks at schoolwork, gets into lots of fights, and cusses.  A lot.  His Mom is going crazy (literally), and his Dad drinks and tokes too much.  To boot, he lives in the mucky city of Fresno, California.  Can things get any worse, King Henry?

     Why yes, yes they can.  For instance, your folks just signed you up for four years at some sort of weird academy called The Asylum.  Now hop into the car with the strange lady and get going.  At least the school isn’t in Fresno.

What’s To Like...
    The school in The Foul Mouth and The Fanged Lady has a Harry Potter feel; the vampires could come from a Christopher Moore novel, and the mission could be one of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.  So if you like any of those authors, this is your kind of book.  Yet the combination here is fresh and original.

    There’s lots of action and lots of wit.  And of course, lots of cussing, despite the ban on it at King Henry’s new school.  Some habits are hard to break.

    There are actually three timelines to follow.  The first is “present-day”, with King Henry heading off to a new school.  The second is 8 years after that, when he is volunteered for a mysterious mission.  The third is another 12 years after that, and consists of an older, wiser King Henry making tapes of his experiences for future generations of students at The Asylum.

    The book skips from one timeline to another, but the main one is “The Mission”.  And although you’ll meet a fair amount of fascinating characters, there are only three you need to keep track of – King Henry, Annie B., and Ceinwyn Dale.

    I found Richard Raley’s writing to be deftly engaging.  There’s enough cussing to set the Urban Noir tone, yet (for me) it never got annoying.  And the author shows us King Henry with three different levels of maturity in the three timelines.  That was really done well.


Excerpts...
    If September in Fresno is a hellhole, then January is just depressing.
    Fresno is always depressing, a mass of consumerism, a growing tumor in the middle of a fertile crescent that can out-produce all the other fertile crescents that have come before.  The land around it feeds millions with its rich earth – there’s colors, of fruits and vegetables and cotton and nuts, so much green you see it in your dreams – but inside the asphalt and concrete maze there’s nothing but shades of gray, the splash of tan to occasionally spice it up.  Tract-homes, shopping malls, sidewalks and street lamps.  (loc. 468.  My company has a plant in Fresno.  This is a fitting description.)

    “Regretfully, Gentlewoman,” Annie B said across our standoff, “Events kept me from returning for a donor.  I was unpredictably pushed beyond any limit I’d expect to near.”
    “What she means to say,” I translated for the two men, “Is that we beat the crap out of each other.  How about you boys back off?”
    Annie B rolled her eyes.  So did Gentlewoman Moore.  Vamps or not, they were still using female shells.  “What Artificer Price means to say is that he took extra convincing to agree to help us with our problem, but since he has agreed, he’s under my protection and I’ll be the only one feeding off of him.”  (loc. 2429)

Kindle Details...
    The Foul Mouth and The Fanged Lady is a free download at Amazon.  The other two books in the series both sell for $3.99 apiece.  Richard Raley also offers three short stories, set in the same series, for $0.99 each.

“Know what sounds better than nineteen vampires gasping?  Nineteen vampires crapping their pants.”  (loc. 4720)
    The timeline-hopping may be at confusing at first, but it keeps the narrative from bogging down, and you’ll quickly become accustomed to it.  Everything builds nicely to a good ending, despite a slightly-contrived device that we’ll hazily call the Invisible Clone.

   I would’ve liked if some of the other characters – T-Bone, Maudette, Boomworm, Plutarch, Heinrich Welf, Asa, etc. – had been developed more.  I suppose that’s a sign of a great storyteller.  Perhaps they’ll play bigger parts down the road in the series.   

    TFM&TFL was a pleasant surprise.  I’m not big on vampires, nor part of the target audience for Urban Fantasy.  But I do like wit, action, and originality, and this book excels in those areas.  9 Stars.  Add ½ star if you still haven’t gotten your fill of Vampire stories.  Subtract 2 stars if foul language offends you, although the title should’ve clued you in.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Color of Fate - Leilani Dawn



    2013; 268 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Quest.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Shamar is the Chosen One.  The gnome/magician Gueren told him so.  Then he told Shamar to grab a trusted companion and get on with his quest.  Like, now.  Ah, but Gueren never got around to saying exactly what the quest was, and where it is to take place.

    She wasn’t Shamar’s first choice, but somehow young (20 years old) next-door-neighbor, about-to-be-forcibly-betrothed Ana ends up being the “trusted companion”.  Could she be a “Chosen” as well?

    Perhaps they are a Chosen Two. 

What’s To Like...
    There are magicians and Ancients, at least one gnome, and some kewl AD&D-ish spell-casting.  There’s a bunch of dragons; you really don’t want to get into a spell-casting contest with them.  There are a couple of rings (one busted, one not) that will make you think of LOTR, but these serve a very different purpose.  The basic plotline – fulfill your destiny and save the world – is standard fantasy stuff, but the way the story plays out is original.

    There is some chrono-hopping and multiple personalities, which are always plusses for me.  Both the non-linear storyline, and the “I am you and you are me” passages were confusing at first, but I got used to them quickly.

    The three main characters are all developed nicely.  I kept waiting for some more fantasy-type creatures to show up, but if you’re a fan of dragons, you’ll be in Wyvern Heaven.  There are some neat plot twists along the way, and everything builds to an ending that is both surprising and satisfying.  This is a standalone story. 

    There is a fair amount of R-rated language and one sex scene.  I don’t find such things offensive, but they felt clunky here, and I think the book would’ve been stronger without them.

Excerpts...
    “I see.  Manlings have no sense of humor.”  Abacus straightened in midair, flicking away a small bush that clung to him like lint.
     “Well, you can’t blame a dragon for trying,” he humphed.  He twirled long green whiskers, musing, “I suppose should really behave, since justice is a serious matter.”  His animation returned instantly as he quipped, “Wonder if that means injustice is a serious antimatter?”  (loc. 1333)

    He would become known as the scribe of the Great Journey and in the end, the savior of the world.  He’d already decided that’s what he would call the children’s fateful expedition: the Great Journey.
    Of course he wouldn’t mention that he was responsible for the journey’s rather gruesome end, but he’d find a way to explain their deaths as inevitable and in the best interests of everyone concerned.  (loc. 1445)

Kindle Details...
    The Color of Fate sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  ATM this is Leilani Dawn’s only book available for the Kindle.

She’d kill him tomorrow when he was awake enough to remember it.  (loc. 2381)
    The writing is good, but it seemed like the storytelling could’ve used some beta-readers.  I was left with a number of plotline questions, which are given in the Comments section, due to spoiler concerns.  There are also a couple show-don’t-tell spots that could do with some polishing.  More importantly, there just isn’t much action in the first half of the book.  Shamar and Ana get picked, grab their horses, and then we basically plod along with them as they try to figure out where they’re supposed to go.

    Figuring out their quest/destination and the way they find the dragons seemed to be too easy for our heroes.  The Ultimate Bad Guy is kind of a wimp, his weapons not overly frightening, and the Powers That Be seem to have the situation under control from beginning to end.

    As I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking – this would make a fantastic YA Fantasy novel.  It reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, and that’s a high measuring standard.  Even the book’s cover oozes “YA”.  Unfortunately, the sex and cussing relegate The Color of Fate to the ‘Adult’ reading category.

    7 Stars.  This was an enjoyable read, with the plot twists keeping me turning the pages.  Full Disclosure : I was given a “first draft” of TCoF, and asked for my “brutally honest” opinions.  If you downloaded this from Amazon, your rating may turn out to be higher than mine.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Execution Dock - Anne Perry



   2009; 311 pages. New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Crime  Fiction.  Overall Rating :8*/10.

    Justice.  It can be a little “gray” at times.  For instance, everyone agrees that Jericho Phillips is a monster of a human being, catering to the pedophilic and pornographic tastes of some powerful clients.  So when Commander of the River Police William Monk finally catches him and runs him in for the murder of young boy, does he deserve a fair trial, or should he just be strung up peremptorily?

    Surprisingly, Monk and the topnotch lawyer Sir Oliver Rathbone have differing views on this.  But when Rathbone is hired to defend Jericho, Monk isn’t worried.  Surely there are no holes in his investigation, are there?  And even if there are holes, surely the jury won’t find Jericho innocent and send him back on the streets to molest more boys, would they?

What’s To Like...
     Execution Dock has an unusual structure for Annw Perry, who swaps in her usual whodunit format for a probing look at what constitutes justice in 1864 London.  She also examines hero-worship, in this case, Monk’s obsession with clearing his (recently deceased) predecessor’s only open case – the murder of the boy Fig, by (presumably) Jericho Phillips.  But the late Commander Durban had secrets of his own, which might come to light if Monk insists on continuing the investigation.

    The book has a very James Bond-ish start – a mad chase up and down the river and docks of the Thames trying to capture Phillips.  Things settle down after that, but there’s a nice balance of History and Mystery to keep you entertained.  And there’s a nice human interest story as Monk and his wife take in a young waif, Scuff, off the streets.  Methinks there’s an adoption on the horizon.

    The theme of the book – child pornography – will be off-putting to some readers, but Anne Perry handles the subject deftly and with only a minimum of lurid sensationalism.  The book closes with a short, mock interview of Monk by the author, which I found to be amusing.

Excerpts...
    As he left his emotions were tangled.  He walked warily along the narrow street, keeping to the middle, away from the alley entrances and sunken doorways.
    What was the difference between one blackmail and another?  Was it of kind, or only of degree?  Did the purpose justify it?
    He did not even have to think about that.  If he could save any child from Phillips, he would, without a thought for the morality of his actions. But did that make him a good policeman or not?  He felt uncomfortable, unhappy, uncertain in his judgment.  (pg. 177)

    “At dinner we will all sit where we are directed, according to rank, and I have had occasion to sit opposite Mr. Ballinger, and listen to him speak.”
    It was an unknown world to him.  “Listen ter ‘im speak?” he asked.
    “It is not appropriate for ladies to speak too much at the table,” she explained.  “They should listen, respond appropriately, and ask after interests, welfare, and so on.  If a gentleman wishes to talk, and usually they do, you listen as if fascinated, and never ask questions to which you suspect he does not know the answer.  He will almost certainly not listen to you, but he will certainly look at you closely, if you are young and pretty.”  (pg. 283)

 “No man of honor does only what is comfortable  to him.”  (pg.  69)
        The ending, like the beginning, is action-packed, and the investigation builds up logically to it.  It felt a bit “rushed” to me, but it does tie up the main issue – that of Jericho Phillips - satisfactorily.  There are some loose ends left over, but it is my understanding that Execution Dock and the next book in the William Monk series, Acceptable Loss, form a sort of mini-duology within the larger series.  We shall see; the latter is on my TBR shelf.

    I enjoy Anne Perry books as much for historical setting (Victorian London), as for the crime-solving itself.  And when she deals with issues of the day – justice, the poor, pornography, women’s rights -  that’s just an added delight.

    8 Stars.  Another solid effort from Ms. Perry.

Friday, January 10, 2014

At Road's End - Zoe Saadia



    2012; 155 pages.  Prequel to the Pre-Aztec Trilogy.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action-Adventure; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Traders.  Pig-headed, filthy, annoying, stubborn, manure-eating traders.  And to add to the indignity of having to be their hired guard, Tecpatl has to endure their arrogant attitude towards him, a glorious warrior!

    Cheer up, Tecpatl.  The journey into the deserts of (what is present-day) Arizona may be long, hot, dry, and boring; but there are forces nearby that are far more powerful than the usual solitary bandit, and they are heading your way.  Destiny awaits you.  At Road’s End.

What’s To Like...
    At Road’s End is an ambitious blending of the Action, History, and Romance genres.  The writing is story-driven, so it’s weighted more towards the Action.  But the Historical detail is sufficient to make the setting believable, and the Romance is enough to keep the female audience reading, while not losing the male audience.

     According to the author’s afterword, the story is set in the 13th century.  Tecpatl is a member of the Tepanec tribe, based in central Mexico, and neighbors to the upstart Aztecs who, while not yet a predominant force in the area, seem to be on the rise.  The trading sortie journeys into the territory of the Anasazi, at a time before they disappeared into the dusty veil of history.  This is a setting that will cause Historical fiction enthusiasts to drool.

    The history is well-researched.  I questioned whether Tecpatl’s main weapon would be properly called a “sword”, and whether passionate kissing was part of Mesoamerican culture.  Both turned out to be accurate, although double-checking the latter was quite the challenge.

    There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of, and the two main ones, Tecpatl and Sakuna “evolve” nicely as the story progresses.  There is a kewl underlying theme about understanding cultures other than your own.  There are one or two “adult situations”, but nothing graphic.  There’s no cussing unless you count “manure-eating”, and if you find that offensive, I pity you.

    Some of the chapters start with a “jump” in the timeline.  For instance, one moment Tecpatl is fleeing for his life, the next moment (and at the start of the next chapter), he’s lying in a pond, refreshed and clean.  Zoe Saadia immediately fills the gap with a short backstory, but the style did leave me confused a couple of times.  But let's not quibble.  Overall, the writing is excellent.

Excerpts...
    Two men jumped from the upper terrace.  They were only a little taller than the women, but very sturdily built.  One clutched a short pole as though holding onto a club.  The second was weaponless.  Their hair was rolled into funny neat buns above their ears.
    I can beat them easily, thought Tecaptl, appraising the situation.  Another man’s head popped from the rectangular opening.  But I’d better check the possibility of a retreat.  (loc. 436)

    “People who go to sleep miss something very special.”  She shivered and pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders.  “When I was a child I would sometimes slip out at night and run away into the desert and the fields.  When the moon deity is up, the spirits are definitely there, wandering, busy.  You can just feel them.  And they are not frightening either.”  She sighed.  “Back then the spirits were kinder to us...”  (loc. 786)

Kindle Details...
    At Road’s End sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The (other) three books in the trilogy all sell for $3.99.  Zoe Saadia has nine other books available for the Kindle, all of them set in pre-Columbian America, and all also for $3.99.

“Does it make a difference to you where you die bravely and honorably?”  (loc. 1354)
    At 155 pages, At Road’s End is about the same length as the other three books in the series (192, 158, and 223 pages respectively).  I’m therefore not sure why this was designated a prequel, unless it was written after the others.

    Due to its brevity, there is nothing “epic” about the book.  But it’s easy-to-read, packed with adventure, and set in an era that is historically fascinating.  There might not be any 10-page discourses about how the maize was cultivated way back then, but some of us think that makes for a better read.  At Road’s End has the “feel” of a YA story, yet will still keep adults entertained.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you are a Historical Accuracy nitpicker and couldn’t find anything wrong here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Earth, Air, Fire and Custard - Tom Holt



   2005; 410 pages. New Author? : No.  Genre : Contemporary Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The title is wrong.  Custard has not replaced Water as one of the four elements; it has been added as the fifth element after someone invented it.

    Paul Carpenter doesn’t care about that.  He just wants to have a normal life.  One without goblins and one where he doesn’t make a fool of himself around women.  And maybe not getting killed as often.  Yeah, that would be nice too.

    But Custard has some very interesting elemental properties.  And Paul’s destiny is hopelessly intertwined with it.  Confused?  We hope so.

What’s To Like...
     As usual, we’re treated to Tom Holt’s wonderful wit, scrumptious similes, and madcap storylines.  As usual, the mayhem threatens to overwhelm the plot, and indeed, I wasn’t sure what the main storyline was until about 40% of the way through the book.  But the pacing is fast and there are no slow spots.  Your mind may be in a daze, but you're never bored.

    The book is written in “English” (as opposed to “American”), which is always a treat for me.  At its core, Earth, Air, Fire and Custard is a romance, but fortunately for us male readers, it’s covered up with guy things like action, fighting, time-travel, dimension-travel (think “Inception”), and talking appliances.

    You will learn about the stuff legends are made of, such as Audumla, the Great Cow of Heaven, and how Utgarth-Loke stole her from the gods.  If you're a scientist-type, you can witness the clinical research into how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  I truly appreciated the way the scientific method was used to determine this.

    The ending is good, clearing up all the plotlines effectively, even though it required a long, tell-not-show explanation of the temporal anomalies.  Wikipedia lists four more J.W. Wells-related stories after this one, but I kinda suspect Paul won’t be in them.

Kewlest New Words. . .
Bolshy (adj.)  :  Deliberately combative; uncooperative.  Naff (adj.) : Stupid; lame.  Yomp (v.) : To walk or trek laboriously.  Stroppy (adj.) : (see ‘bolshy’)Lilo (n.) : An inflatable air mattress.  These are all “Britishisms”.

Excerpts...
    “It’s Paul,” he said.  “Just to let you know I’m not feeling well, so I won’t be coming in today.”
    He could picture the stormy crease of her eyebrows.  “What’s wrong with you?”
    “I died.”
    Pause.  “You don’t sound very dead to me.”
    “I sort of got better,” Paul admitted.  “But it’s only temporary.  Sooner or later I’ll have a relapse and then that’ll be it, kerboom, finito.  So really, there’s not a lot of point me coming in, is there?”
    Christine wasn’t the sharpest serpent’s tooth in the kindergarten, but she could spot a rhetorical question when she heard one.  “Have you got a doctor’s note?”  (pg. 86)

    "Of course, it’s easy with hindsight.  But I wasn’t around, in fact I was fast asleep; and back then, thirteen centuries ago, nobody’d heard of time travel or alternative realities or trans-dimensional shift.  Instead, they had gods; and if a bloke turns up who looks like a god and acts like a god and starts jacking acroprops under the Sun and unscrewing the stars, you aren’t inclined to ask for any ID.  Not if you’re sensible."  (pg. 356)

 Could a Swiss cow possibly have created the universe?  (pg.  306)
        Earth, Air, Fire and Custard is the third book in Holt's “Paul Carpenter” trilogy, which in turn is a subset of seven books featuring the J.W. Wells Magic Corporation.  I read the first book of the trilogy (The Portable Door), but not the second (In Your Dreams).  There is a 2-page backstory at the start of this book, but I hesitate to call it a standalone novel.  To fully enjoy it, you need to be already familiar with things like the Portable Door, and the eternally-fighting knights from the first book, which I was.  But there were also a lot of references to Fey characters from the second book that I was clueless about, and that detracted from the fun to a certain extent.

    In the hands of an amateur writer, EAF&C could’ve easily been a complete book-wreck, and no doubt a lot of readers will give up somewhere in the first 180 pages of unexplained craziness.  But things start falling into place after that, and Tom Holt’s writing skills guide you happily to the end of the tale.

    7½ Stars.  Add one star if you’ve read both of the other books in this trilogy.  Subtract one star if you haven’t read either one.  And no matter what, do not make this your very first Tom Holt book.