Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ghostway - Tony Hillerman

   1984; 301 pages. New Author? : No.  Book #6 (out of 18) of the “Leaphorn and Chee” series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    There’s been a shootout at the OK Corral.  No, it actually took place at the Shiprock Economy Wash-O-Mat laundry on the Navajo Four Corners reservation.  One gunman was killed; the other was wounded before driving away.  Curiously, neither was a local; they were both small-time criminals from Los Angeles. 

    Why would two Angelinos drive all the way to Shiprock to shoot at each other?  And why was one of them, a Navajo by blood, asking around about his brother?  Tribal policeman Jim Chee has a number of questions, but no answers.  And for some reason, the FBI is doing their best to keep him in the dark.

What’s To Like...
     Tony Hillerman novels are almost always Murder-Mysteries steeped in Navajo culture, and The Ghostway is no exception.  The Crime portion of the storyline is well-done.  The clues are there, you and Jim Chee just have to fathom them out.  Hillerman does a nice job of gradually revealing more and more of what’s really going on.  The ending is logical, without being too simple or obvious.  And naturally, it can’t be solved without delving into the Navajo way of life.

    The Navajo culture immersion part of the story is done with an equally deft stroke.  Its comparison to the “White Way” is presented objectively.  On one hand, staying on the reservation means a meager existence filled with superstition.  On the other, a move to a place like LA means a loss of one’s heritage, and a bewildering culture with its own drawbacks.  At one point, Chee stands at the fence of an old folks home, questioning its residents, and reflecting that whites deal with their aged kinfolk by institutionalizing them, while Navajos revere and honor their elders.  It's a powerful scene.

    The series has an overlying theme of Jim Chee struggling to bring his Indian heritage into harmony with Anglo civilization, his job, and his white girlfriend.  But The Ghostway, like all the books in the series, is a standalone novel.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Chindi (n.)  :  The ghost left behind after a person dies, being everything that was bad about that person; the residue that a person has been unable the bring into universal harmony (Navajo religious belief).

    “Begay is Tazhii Dinee.  In fact, I’m told his aunt is the ahnii of that clan.  He’s lived up there above Two Gray Hills longer than anybody can remember.  Has a grazing permit.  Runs sheep.  Keeps to himself.  Some talk that he’s a witch.”
    Largo recited it all in a flat, uninflected voice, putting no more emphasis on the last sentence than the first.
    “There’s some talk that just about everybody is a witch,” Chee said.  “I’ve heard you were.  And me.”  (pg. 35)

    Maybe he hadn’t stepped through the corpse hole into a chindi Hogan.  Maybe he wasn’t contaminated with ghost sickness.  But that didn’t matter either.  The ghost sickness came when he made the step – out of hozro and into the darkness.  Out of being a Navajo, into being a white man.  For Chee, that was where the sickness lay.  (pg. 244)

“Let the whites bury the whites, or however that quotation went.  (pg.  19)
    I read my first Tony Hillerman novel back in 2008, shortly after he passed away.  It is reviewed here.  I don’t know why it's taken me so long to pick up another one of his books.  I very much enjoyed The Ghostway

    My only quibble is with Jim Chee repeatedly moping about his GF’s trying to get him to leave the reservation and take a job with the Feds.  Do or do not, Jim Chee.  Make a decision, lose your funk, and move on.

    8½ Stars.  Add one star if you have some or all Native American blood flowing through your veins.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Last Roman - Edward Crichton

    2013; 388 pages.  Book #1 of the series “The Praetorian”.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Time Travel; Military Fiction.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Talk about wrong turns.  One moment, Jacob Hunter was driving the getaway truck for his black-ops team, fleeing a bunch of crazed terrorists in 2021 Syria.  The next moment, the truck was upside down, and in a ditch.

    But that was just an unplanned turn of events.  The wrong turn occurred shortly afterward, while in a (not so) safe house, where the terrorists had the team surrounded.  One slip, and our plucky heroes (and heroine) find themselves not in Syria, but in Rome.  And not present-day Rome, but 37 AD, full of togas, legionnaires, and imperial intrigue.

    Maybe they should’ve taken a left at Albuquerque.

What’s To Like...
    The last ¾ of The Last Roman is a Time Travel adventure, which is probably why most readers will pick up the book.  The historical setting is believable, although it has a “Wikipedia-ish” feel to it.  But there are no major gaffes – candles, underwear, etc., so it is sufficient for the storyline.

    There is a natural language barrier immediately after the Time Jump.  The Romans obviously don’t speak English, and only one of the spec-ops force is even halfway conversant in Latin (from his priesthood training).  Our main protagonist, Hunter, is somewhat of a chauvinistic butthead to begin with, but it’s fun to watch him mature (at least somewhat) as the storyline progresses.

    Best of all, a lot of history gets changed due to our Chrono-Interlopers and their modern-day weaponry.  It will be interesting to see how this impacts the subsequent books in the series.

    The pace is quick, and there’s a kind of urban noir wit woven into the dialogue; that’s kewl.  You'll meet Hunter's best bud, Johnny Santino, a smart-mouthed rascal, and if you haven’t warmed to his charm by the end of the book, something’s wrong.  OTOH, I still have no idea what the title, “The Last Roman”, refers to.

    Alas, there are a lot of WTF’s too.  Our spec-ops peeps seem to have  unlimited ammunition (including claymore mines, grenades, C-4), unlimited medicinal supplies, and radios that evidently last forever.  To boot, taking a gladius sword-thrust right through the chest apparently is not necessarily fatal.  Wow.

    Then there’s the Roman reaction to these strange foreigners and their kick-butt gadgets.  If I were the Head Bad Guy in the climactic battle, I’d reserve a whole legion of my numerically superior forces (bad guys always have numerically superior forces) for the sole purpose of hunting down these killing superstars and eliminating them.  Even if I were the Head Good Guy, I’d view this team as a threat, poison them, and assign my best and brightest legionnaire dudes to figure out how their wonderful weapons work.

    Roman versus Roman.
    It had happened more times than one would think.  After the fall of the Julio-Claudian family, in about thirty or so years from now, very few emperors would elevate to the position of Caesar without the use of their legions.  It was fascinating how willing Romans were to fight each other, their sense of honor and duty leaving little room for moral sensibilities or even peaceful negotiations.  They were barbaric and warmongering, no matter how many roads, aqueducts, poets, laws, and countless other wonders of the world they created.
    I loved these guys; their contradictions being so overwhelmingly ironic.  (loc. 4087)

    Helen calmly walked over, knelt beside me, and gently inspected my arm.  Shaking her head, she pulled out yet another bandage, pressed it against my arm and wrapped the wound.
    “You really need to stop getting hurt,” she told me matter of factly.
    “I know, I just. . .”
    “You have a shield for a reason.”
    “Yeah, but. . .”
    “They help stop swords.”
    “But. . .”
    “No excuses,” she said, tightening the bandage to punctuate her order.  (loc. 6748)

Kindle Details...
    You can download The Last Roman for free right now at Amazon.  The next two books of this series are available for $2.99 apiece.  The author apparently has also started a new series, with the first book, Starfarer: Rendezvous with Destiny available for $3.99 at Amazon.

“Togas?” he asked, peering at the men.  “So where’s the keg?”  (loc. 2125)
    For a Time Travel book, this is a decent first effort.  I might’ve hoped for a bit more intrigue from the Romans, and perhaps some internal tension among the black-ops team, with maybe one or two of them pushing up daisies by the last page.  But these are quibbles.

    What really sinks the book is the first 27%, which has zero time-travel, and 100% Tom Clancy-ish minutiae of every gun and explosive device our well-stocked unit is packing.  Edward Crichton also feels compelled to weave his rightwing scree into the near-future timeline.  The nasty Muslims in Iran nuke Israel.  The nasty Russkies help them.  And  the nasty Mexican drug lords and gangsters invade the US.

    But wait, it gets even more far-fetched.  There’s an assassination attempt on the Pope, which turns him into a right-wing militant too.  The black-ops unit is assembled to carry out his covert missions.  Take that, you silly Swiss guards.  Finally, Crichton makes a point to mention racial jokes, and to explain that they’re okay cuz, you know, everybody knows you’re just kidding when you tell them, and there’s no bigotry involved.

    Well, it’s Crichton’s timeline, and he can do with it what he wants.  But it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plotline, and frankly, a lot of readers are going to stop reading The Last Roman long before they get to 28% because of this dichotomy in the storyline.

     5½ Stars.  Add 2 stars if you skipped directly to 27% and started your reading there.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Manifold - Time by Stephen Baxter

   2000; 472 pages. Book One of the “Manifold” trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : “Hard” Science Fiction.  Laurels : Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee in 2000.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Reid Malenfant has always wanted to go flying in space, but NASA has turned down his application to be an astronaut.  So, being rich and ambitious, he is doing the only logical thing – building his own spaceship.

    Meanwhile, there seems to be a spate of births of super-smart kids around the world.  They seem to be able to grasp concepts like Quantum Physics when only 4 or 5 years old, and without anyone teaching them its principles.  The weird thing is, no matter how isolated they are, they all have one thing in common – a fascination with blue circles.

    And then there’s those bizarre squid experiments going on in Florida.

What’s To Like...
     Manifold: Time is the first book in a three-part “Hard” Science Fiction series wherein Stephen Baxter explores various aspects of Quantum Physics.  Here, obviously, the focus is on Time as a dimension through which one can traverse both forward and back.

    I found the first hundred pages or so to be a bit dry.  It was mostly concerned with the business  angles of trying to start up your own space program.  The NASA politicking and governmental meddling were interesting, but not really science fiction.  However, lift-off occurs at page 100, so if you make it that far, you will be rewarded with a fast-paced, complex story that keeps the action flowing right up through the last page.

    The character development is rich and extensive.  The main hero throughout the series is Reid Malenfant, but he can be a butthead at times.  Just ask his ex, Emma.  Heck, even Sheena has a 3-D personality, and she’s a . . . well, you’ll find out.

    There are no chapters in the book; instead each change in POV  is titled by the name of the primary person therein.  The ending is satisfying, albeit not all that upbeat.  But not to worry; there are two more books in the series.

    Stephen Baxter throws in a slew of kewl things, such as Shit Cola, and e-therapists.  The latter are computerized shrinks; I'll let you decide whether that's an improvement or not.  Baxter also introduces the reader to a number of somewhat obscure astronomical and quantum mechanical ideas – Olbers’ Paradox, a Centauro Event, the Doomsday probability, etc.  It was a fascinating geek-read.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Heuristically (adv.)  :  in a manner of or relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques (such as the evaluation of feedback) to improve performance.

    “Quite a prospectus those kids offer,” Dan was saying.
    “New technologies, new medicine, new clean power.  What sounded like a utopian political and ethical framework.  Peace and prosperity for all.”
    “Absolutely,” Maura said.
    “So, you think anyone will listen?”
    “Not a hope in hell.”  (pg. 316)

    Malenfant found he was bleakly exhilarated.  “Life is no accident,” he said.  “No second-order effect, no marginal creation.  We – small, insignificant creatures scurrying over our fragile planet, lost in the Galaxy – we were, after all, the center of the universe.”  It was, in its extraordinary way, an affirmation of all he had ever believed.  “Hah,” he barked.  “Copernicus, blow it out your ass!”  (pg. 469)

 “Here’s the question . . .  how would you detect a signal from the future?”  (pg.  56)
    Manifold: Time was written (published, actually) in 2000, with the story taking place in the “future” year of 2010.  Needless to say, most of the book’s “2010 predictions” have not occurred, but it is slightly unnerving to contemplate the “could-have-beens” postulated in the book.

    One caveat – this is “hard” Science Fiction – a realistic assessment of the myriad possible doors that Quantum Physics might open to us.  If the technical details of things like multiverses, wormholes and time-travel appeal to your inner-geek, this is your kind of book.  OTOH, if Wookies, phasers, and little green men are more to your sci-fi taste, you may find Manifold: Time tedious.

    8½ Stars.  Add or subtract  ½-to-one star depending on your geek factor.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Journey Begins - Lawrence Sylou-Creutz Ojermark

    2012; 266 pages.  Book #1 of the trilogy “The Winds of Moira”.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy Quest.  Overall Rating : 4½*/10.

    Analecta may be young, but she is “the Select”, the “Delectes”, and as such, has been charged with a sacred (bordering on suicidal) mission.  Allodial and his band are also on a sacred quest.  At least until the shipwreck, after which it is Allodial’s 1-man expedition.  When they meet (and let’s face it, they will meet), shall it be as friends, allies, and/or lovers?  Or will it be as foes trying to kill each other?

    Perhaps only the Winds of Moira can say.

What’s To Like...
    The pair of simultaneous quests is an innovative plot device, even if it is obvious that Analecta’s takes precedence.  There is a magik system, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story itself.  Lawrence Sylou-Creutz Ojermark weaves some snippets of poetry woven into the chapters, which I found to be kewl.

    The fantasy world itself is developed nicely, with its deserts, mountains, caves, towns, forests, and coastlines.  The fantastical creatures are somewhat limited – gnomes and xhosas – but the latter come in several shades and sizes, and are quite fascinating (see book cover above).

    Unfortunately, the storytelling is weak.  For starters, there is very little action for the first 2/3 of the book.  Allodial plods through the desert, Analecta plods through the mountains; but since each is traveling alone, there is almost zero dialogue.  This means that descriptions abound, but a lot of them seem unnecessary.  For instance, we spend way too much time with Analecta as she climbs down a mountainside.

    The Prologue is baffling and has zero relevance.  Ditto for a letter from Analecta’s father.  The role of religion in the tale is also poorly defined.  Allusions are made to a god called Adonai, and Analecta’s dad was a Roman Catholic-type priest who had to leave his order when he got married.  But neither has any effect on the storyline.  Perhaps this gets sorted out in the other books of the trilogy, but here it just takes up space.

    The Xhosa are similarly vague.  On one hand, they’re powerful and apparently omniscient (“Ask me anything…”).  On the other hand, a teenage girl with a couple daggers can defeat and kill one of them singlehandedly, and its partner apparently sees no reason to avenge the slaying.

    Finally, there are the WTF’s.  Allodial is shipwrecked and washed up on an uninhabited seashore.  He can either cross the broiling, Saharan desert, or else make his way along the coast until he finds a settlement.  Yep, guess which way he chooses.  Analecta can ask the Xhosa anything she wants, but opts for a most mundane question.

    “You’re implying that you understand concepts such as truth and honor, but what would a beast know of such things?” Analecta challenged, strength seeping into her voice.
    “What would people know!  You think religion, wars, death, and destruction are what make you great?  You suck the resources from these very lands.  You kill that which we feed upon.  All for noble ideals?  No.  You do this for yourselves, out of greed, malice, ignorance, and hate.  Don’t ask me of honor and truth, when you know not of what you speak,” the xhosa spat back, its intelligent green eyes glaring at her.  (loc. 1177)

    A strange calm came over her.  So this was it.  This was the end of life.  It was nothing more than an illogical ride through various emotional trips, spawned by one’s experiences.  Oddly she felt let down in her final hour.  (loc. 2554)

Kindle Details...
    A Journey Begins sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other two books of this trilogy are available for $2.99 apiece; or you can get the whole trilogy bundled for $3.99.  In addition, the author has several books on some sort of wellness program he calls Plenary Fitness.  And last but not least he has a book of poems for $0.99.

When all logical options fail, try the absurd.  (loc. 2644)
    A Journey Begins has a “first-draft” feel and cries out for some serious editing and polishing.  Give our two protagonists some sort of companions so some dialogue can be written.   Delete the extraneous descriptions, and replace them with some action.  Develop the Xhosas more clearly (the gnomes were much better done), and throw a couple more types of critters into the mix.

    Finally, do away with the cliffhanger ending.  It is amateurish at best; annoying at worst.  A reader is entitled to a storyline with a satisfying conclusion, even if it is just part of a larger saga.  And yes, this is one of my pet reading peeves.

    With enough re-write and polish, this can be a great series.  And who knows, perhaps Books 2 and 3 show significant improvement.  But when the first book falters, it’s hard to justify continuing on with the series.

    4½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you’re okay with cliffhanger endings.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Drowned Hopes - Donald E. Westlake

   1990; 453 pages. New Author? : No.  Book #7 (out of 14) in the Dortmunder series.  Genre : Crime Comedy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    After serving 30 years, Tom Jimson’s been released from prison.  He’s 70 years old, and just wants to move to Mexico and live off his retirement fund.  Which happens to be $700,000 in stolen money.  Which he buried behind a library in some upstate New York hick town called Putkin’s Corners before starting his prison term.

    Ah, but things have changed a bit.  While Tom was incarcerated, the state of New York built a dam, and Putkin’s Corners is now submerged under 50 feet of reservoir water.  Plus three feet of dirt.  Well, mud now, actually.

    So Tom comes calling on one of his old cellmates, John Dortmunder.  If John will help in recovering the loot (i.e., figuring out how to do it), Tom will split the 700 grand with him 50:50.  But be careful, John.  Most of Tom’s former “partners” met untimely ends right after pulling a caper with him.

What’s To Like...
     Tom has a simple proposal – blow up the dam, even though it means 900 or so people would die in the resulting reservoir water tsunami.  It’s up to John to come up with an alternative, and the usual Dortmunder mayhem abounds as each of John’s plans go awry.  In fairness, recovering the stash is quite the challenge.  How would you tackle it?

    Tom is a thoroughly bad guy, without any redeeming qualities, and it is impressive to see how Donald Westlake blends him into the lighter-hearted storyline.  But the rest of the one-&-done characters are delightful, including a virginal spinster with a crotchety mom, a diving instructor whose ethics quickly go downhill, and a poor reservoir employee who keeps seeing ET’s and hearing voices.

    John’s “gang” seems to get more ink than usual here, and it’s neat to watch Westlake flesh them out.  There’s a bit of wooing, but always with ulterior motives, and you’ll keep changing your guesses as to how it will be resolved.  The ending has a nice twist to it that you won’t see coming.  There’s a smidgen of cussing, but nothing excessive, and good luck on predicting who does most of it.  All books in this series are standalones.

    Last but not least, Drowned Hopes was published in 1990, and it is funny to read about the “new” technology at the time.  Things like cell phones, PC’s, Donkey Kong, WordPerfect, answering machines, speaker phones, etc.  Wowza.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Frammis (n.)  :  A nonsense word used in replacement for any technical word you don't know.  Similar to “thingy”.  Here : Somewhere in through there, a fellow named Mitch Lynch came in, doing a heavy term for a long-con frammis against an oilman in Tulsa.

    If it isn’t bad manners to ask, John, what was this pal of yours in for?”
    “He’s not my pal.”
    “Sorry.  Ex-cellmate of yours.  What was he in for, do you know?”
    Dortmunder drank beer, thinking back.  “As I remember it,” he said, “it was murder, armed robbery, and arson.”
    Kelp looked surprised.  “All at once?”
    “He wanted a diversion while he pulled the job,” Dortmunder said, “so he torched the firehouse.”
    “A direct sort of fella,” Kelp said, nodding.  (pg. 37)

    Was she even related to Tom Jimson?  But the name couldn’t be a coincidence, it just couldn’t.  In the first place, coincidence does not exist in the world of the computer.  [Randomness (a.k.a. chance) has been factored into some of the more sophisticated games, but coincidence (a.k.a. meaningless correspondence other than junk mail) violates the human craving for order.  Which is why puns are the pornography of mathematicians.]. (pg. 188)

 “The trouble with real life is, there’s no reset button.”  (pg.  332)
    Drowned Hopes was my 4th Dortmunder book, and the longest by at least 50 pages.  I enjoyed watching Tom get more impatient to detonate the dynamite each time a failed plan sinks to the bottom of the reservoir.

    However, if you’ve never read anything from the series before, this “spinning of the wheels” could get tedious as you wait for the plotline to advance.  Bottom line - fans of this series will love Drowned Hopes, but newcomers probably shouldn’t make this their first Dortmunder book.

    8 Stars.  Add one-half star if you figured out how to recover the loot before our protagonists did.