Sunday, August 31, 2014

Do Llamas Fall In Love? - Peter Cave

   2010; 223 pages.  Full Title : Do Llamas Fall In Love?  33 Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Philosophy; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    You wake up one mundane Monday, only to discover that this Monday is far from mundane.  A tube runs from your body to an unknown man a few feet away.  A violinist, it transpires, is plugged into your lymphatic system.  ...  Are you within your rights to unplug the violinist?

    If the above scenario is the kind of situational ethics question that floats your boat, then you will thoroughly enjoy Do Llamas Fall In Love?  It is the start of Chapter Three therein, and gives some great food for thought as to just how far your basic rights extend, as well as those of the violinist whose life depends on your body.

What’s To Like...
     If a book about Philosophy sounds dull and boring to you, you need to give this one a try.  Peter Cave presents 33 issues for your contemplation, and guides you through the thought processes for both the “pro” and “con” position on each one.  Yes, he starts each chapter with a somewhat whimsical setting.  But don’t be fooled, they serve to open the door to some serious questions such as :

    Would we be happy if we were immortal?
    Should art ever be censored?
    Is there anything God couldn’t know?
    Should women be free to wear the niqab?  And of course…
    Can llamas (or any other animals) ever truly fall in love?

    A wide variety of categories are tackled – Ethics, Law, Politics, Emotions, Knowledge, Logic, Religion, Metaphysics – just to name a few.  Peter Cave lists the category at the start of each chapter, and shuffles the themes deftly from chapter to chapter so that none of them gets stale. 

    There are some neat cartoons scattered throughout the book, and Cave gives references and sources for further reading in a couple appendices at the back.  For me, the length the chapters (6 or 7 pages), as well as the book itself, was just right.  But if you find yourself craving more, the author has several more books to stimulate your brain, including What’s Wrong With Eating People? and Can A Robot Be Human?  As with anthologies, I found it worked best to read 2 or 3 of these chapters at a time; it kept the subject matter fresh and thought-provoking.

    FWIW, my favorite chapters were :

    01) Someone Else Will
    03) The Violinist – Should You Unplug?
    14) Indoctrination : When Believing goes Wrong
    19) Addicted To Love (the Llamas chapter)
    29) A knowing God knows how much?
    32) Life Without End : Too Much of a Good Thing?


Kewlest New Word. . .
Akrasia (n.) : the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.

    Osbert is in love just with Penelope, but Penelope is in love just with Quentin.  Osbert is a philosopher.  Quentin is not.  Is a philosopher in love with a non-philosopher?  (Is the answer ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Cannot Tell’?  See the comments for the answer. (pg. xvi)

    Bertrand Russell’s works once suggested that he believed solipsism was true.  An American lady wrote to him, saying how pleased she was to learn that he was a solipsist, and how “I am one too.”  If that causes a teeny smile, then we know what solipsism is.  Of course, whether the American lady was foolish or satirical – well, that we do not know.  (pg. 1984)

’Tis better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.  (pg.  220)
    I came across Do Llamas Fall In Love? by accident – I did a Google Image search on two completely unrelated words – “Llamas” and “Existentialism”, and up popped a jpeg of the book’s cover.

    Getting a hard copy of the book turned out to be quite the challenge.  Yes, it is available as a Kindle download, but it costs $10, which I felt was a tad steep for a 223-page book by an author I was unacquainted with.  The (local) Phoenix Library didn’t have a copy, so I was forced to learn how to request an Inter-Library Loan.  It took a month for the library to obtain a copy (it came all the way from San Antonio), but they were successful and I do appreciate their efforts.

    9 Stars.  My only quibble with this book is that the “Logic” chapters were unconvincing.  But I’m a chemist, and we scientists are good at determining the logic behind a set of tests and the data they generate.  Do Llamas Fall In Love? was a delightful, thought-provoking read.  And the good news is that my local library has a copy of Can A Robot Be Human?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

In Her Name - First Contact - Michael R. Hicks

    2009; 373 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book One of the “Last War” Trilogy.  Genre : Military Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Great news!  The Terran Naval Ship Aurora has made the first contact with a sentient race in another star system.  And look!  They’re sending out four ships to meet and greet us.

    Hmm.  Those four ships are really big, really fast, and really military-looking.  But the Aurora isn’t making any threatening or warlike gestures.  So those beings that just launched from one of their ships – big, insect-like critters with long, curving swords – must be some sort of Honor Guard.

    Cuz if they’re not, the crew of the Aurora is in deep doo-doo.

What’s To Like...
    In Her Name- First Contact is a nice piece of Military Science Fiction.  The emphasis is on battle tactics, weaponry, and the spilling of blood.  There are a slew of characters to follow (on both sides) as they hack and slash their way to glory or to death.

    The book is set in the somewhat-near future, where humans have developed space travel and decided that we can’t all just get along on Earth.  So the French have moved to another planet, as have the (combined) Arab and Chinese populations.

    The aliens are light-years ahead of us in technology, and have a high degree of unfriendliness.  But they have a high sense of honor, so they “dumb down” their weapons to give us poor humans at least some small chance of winning individual battles.  Everything they do is for their Empress’ honor (“In Her Name”), and dying in combat for Her Glory is considered a noble deed.  The “Bloodsong” phenomenon is a neat device, and naming one of the characters “Hamilton Barca” has a special appeal to me.

    There is some cussing, and a lot of blood and gore; but that just enhances the realism of the story.  There are a slew of strong female characters to follow, which is nice to see.  This is a standalone novel, with an ending that both closes this chapter in the saga and sets up the next book in the series.  I gather IHN-FC is a prequel to one of Michael R. Hicks’ major trilogies, but was in fact written afterward, in kind of a Star Wars order of events.  I found the Epilogue to be particularly poignant.

    “We would like to offer our unconditional support in the defense of your world, including direct military assistance should you so desire.  The president made it very clear to me that there were absolutely no strings attached, no quid pro quo.”
    Bin Sultan’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.  There were always strings, always conditions, he thought, even though they were often invisible.  (loc. 2367)

    She turned to face the warrior who apparently wanted her head for a prize.  It was a small enough price to pay for the safety of the others, Coyle thought.
    As the big warrior looked on, Coyle’s opponent approached and handed Coyle a sword.  Coyle looked at it, having to admire the beauty of the craftsmanship and thinking that the Kreelans could get rich by making jewelry if they could only get over their urge to kill everyone in sight.  (loc. 6104)

Kindle Details...
    In Her Name – First Contact is always a free download at Amazon.  Michael R. Hicks also offers three other series-starters for free.  Most of the rest of the dozen-or-so books in his series are in the $2.99-$3.99 range, with a couple priced a few dollars more.  I am of the opinion that this is a most effective marketing strategy.

”You know, sir, you might be considered lucky if you didn’t seem to attract so much trouble.”  (loc. 6734)
    IHN-FC is action-packed, but the constant slash-&-bash can get repetitive after a while.  The pacing is actually slow – in essence the plotline here consists of a battle, battle preparation, and another battle.  But to some extent, such is the nature of Military Sci-Fi.

    There is some nationalistic stereotyping.  The Arabs and Chinese get predictably hosed; the French get mauled (although they at least fight heroically); and as usual, the Americans save the day.  I’m still waiting for a novel where the Chinese ride to the rescue of ‘Murica .

    The world-building was believable, and the attention to detail when it came to things like weaponry, ships’ defenses, and warfare (there are no deafening explosions in space); was convincing.  OTOH, there weren’t many plot twists, and after finishing this book, I can pretty much predict how this galactic clash will resolve itself.  Still, the fun is in getting from the first battle to the last one.

    8 Stars.  It’s hard to rate a book that’s done well, but in a genre that I’m not all that fond of.  Add 1 Star if you’re a fan of Tom Clancy stories (but wish he would have set some of them in Sci-Fi worlds), and think George R.R. Martin’s habit of developing characters only to kill them off is way kewl.  You’ll likely enjoy In Her Name – First Contact.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Manifold Space - Stephen Baxter

   2001; 496 pages.  Book Two of the “Manifold” trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : “Hard” Science Fiction; Epic Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Interstellar ET’s have arrived!  Somehow, while we weren’t watching, they took up residence on an asteroid out in the asteroid belt orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.  And now they’re – umm – well, no one is sure exactly what they’re doing out there.  Someone ought to go investigate.

    Who better to send than Reid Malenfant, hero of Book One in the series (Manifold Time, reviewed here), and the guy who first discovered that we are not alone.  Heck, he actually wants to go out and establish contact.

    This plan makes everybody happy.  Until Malenfant disappears in a puff of – umm – well, not smoke.  More like a flash of blue light.

What’s To Like...
     Manifold Space  is the second book in the trilogy, but isn’t really a sequel.  Instead, it is more like Stephen Baxter’s second proposed answer to the Fermi Paradox (“If ET’s are out there, why haven’t they contacted us?”).  Malenfant returns, but he’s cast in a different role with a different character, and frankly gets a lot less ink.

    As with any Baxter novel, the writing is masterful, with emphasis on the technical aspects of the story.  Here, the setting is the entire Milky Way Galaxy, and the time period is from 2020 AD  to some point in time way beyond 8800 AD.  This is “Hard” Science Fiction, and Baxter comes up with some remarkably plausible ways (Quantum Physics is our friend) to have 4 or 5 main characters stay alive 6+ centuries and travel all over the cosmos.

    The book is a science geek’s delight.  Some familiar themes are here, such as teleportation and time-travel.  But there were also some new concepts (at least to me) such as Dyson structures and the Polynesian Syndrome; both of which have Wikipedia articles.  Baxter also invents some new technologies, such as the fascinating concept of Phytomines.  We are introduced to three major ET species (Gaijin, Chaera, and Crackers), a bunch of extinct terran creatures (including Neanderthals), and Malefant gets taken to see a whole bunch of other inhabited worlds.

    The overall tone of the book is bleak.  Humans burn through the resources of several planets and moons, and aliens with superior technology are on their way to our Solar System.  But the book closes with a rather surprisingly hopeful (albeit “good-news/bad-news”) ending.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Spavined (adj.) : Old and decrepit.
Others : Picaresque; Cicerone; Fripperies

    The Gaijin had a somewhat mathematical philosophy.  Malenfant thought it sounded suspiciously like a religion.
    The Gaijin believed that the universe was fundamentally comprehensible by creatures like themselves – like humans, like Malenfant.  That is, they believed it possible that an entity could exist that could comprehend the entire universe, arbitrarily well.
    And they had a further principle that mandated that if such a being could exist, it must exist.
    The catch was that they believed there was a manifold of possible universes, of which this was only one.  So She may not exist in this universe.  (pg. 215)

    “I want everybody involved, and everybody paying.  Now we’re in the mantle we can market the TV rights –“
    “Frank, they don’t have TV any more.”
    “Whatever.  I want the kids involved, all those little dark-eyed kids I see flapping around the palm threes the whole time with nothing to do.  I want games.  Educational stuff.  Clubs to join, where you pay a couple of yen for a badge and get some kind of share certificate.  I want little toy derricks in cereal packets.”
    “They don’t have cereal packets any more.”
    He eyed her.  “Work with me here, Xenia.”  (pg. 244)

“There are trees here,” he said.  “Grass.  Flowers.  Animals.”  You see biochemistry.  I see a flower, he thought..  (pg.  135)
    The weakest part of Manifold Space is the storyline itself.  It exists, but gets buried beneath all the Hard Sci-Fi wizardry and the personal interactions, and I ended up quite often asking myself “Is this all heading anywhere?”

    For the record, and this is not a spoiler, the main plotline is simply “Why have the Gaijin come to our Solar System?”  Baxter teases us with a couple twists as to the possible answer, then closes with a totally unanticipated, yet logical, resolution.

    Still, Manifold Space is neither story-driven, nor character-driven.  If the bizarre principles of Quantum Mechanics don’t float your boat, and you don’t muse about where mankind will realistically be in 6000 years, you will probably find this book somewhat of a slog.

    7½ Stars.  It’s not my favorite Stephen Baxter book (that would be Evolution, reviewed here), but the scientist in me still enjoyed the mental work-out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors - Benjamin Wallace

    2011; 267 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Full Title : Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors (A Duck and Cover Adventure).  Genre : Action-Adventure; Humor; Post-Apocalyptic.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The title sets the stage – it’s seven years after the bombs rained from the sky and obliterated most of the human race.  National governments don’t exist anymore, but the couple percent of humanity that did survive are gathering themselves into communities for mutual protection.

    There are rumors of marauding raiders with evil intent, but the townspeople in New Hope haven’t seen any such baddies, and are frankly a bit skeptical of the horror stories.  So when the first Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warrior knocks on their gate, they give him a not-so-subtle send-off.

    But when the second PANW shows up (on the same day as the first one; what are the odds?), he has pictures of the carnage that’s just happened to the neighboring town of Nova Vita.  Hmm.  Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a hired gun in town.

What’s To Like...
    Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors borrows elements from various other works.  The plotline reminds me of Stephen King’s  The Gunslinger.  The setting feels like the old Kevin Costner movie, The Postman.  And the baddies are akin to those found in the Mad Max series.

    But the tone is lighter here, and only Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome is comparable.  Yes, the evildoers are vile, and there’s a  fair amount of violence and dangerous beasties, including mutants, sentient plant life, and the terrifying SSB’s (Super Smart Bears).  But this is offset by wit, humor, romance, and some heartwarming reunions.

    I like Benjamin Wallace’s storytelling style.  The pacing is brisk and action-packed.  The similarities and contrasts between the two Nomadic Warriors was a nice study, and I enjoyed some of the side references, such as Kickball, and Johnny Cash music.  This is a standalone book, although it cries out to be made into a series.

    They kept smart phones in their pockets and family and friends at arm’s length.  And when the end came and there was chaos and rampant starvation, people learned all too well that you could not rely on stuff.  You needed friends.  A dead phone provided no companionship; an empty home no comfort.  The latest fashions provided no food, but you could always eat a close friend.  (loc. 1641)

    A bulletproof vest struck the Gadgeteer in the face and fell into his hands.
    “What’s this?”
    “Body armor.”
    Timothy, the whiny councilman, “Why does he get body armor?”
    “He needs to live the longest.”  (loc. 4145)

Kindle Details...
    Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  There is a short-story that ties in to the “Duck & Cover” series, Prisoner’s Dilemma”, which sells for $0.99.  ANAICT, there are no other full-length books in the series.  Benjamin Wallace has 10 or so other books for the Kindle, ranging in price from $0.99 to $5.99, with pricing based more-or-less on the length of the story.  There are at least three other “Benjamin Wallaces” offering books on Amazon, so make sure you find the right one.  If the title doesn’t sound “spoofy”, it isn’t this one.

”Even a mushroom cloud has a silver lining.”  (loc. 51)
    The quibbles are few.  The name of the neighboring town, Vita Nova, is cited as being Latin for “New Hope”.  It is not.  “Vita” means “Life”; the Latin word for “Hope” is “Spes”.

    Also, there are some over-the-top aspects to the storyline.  The bombs may have wiped out almost all the humans, but plant life is thriving.  Music apparently has acquired magical powers.  Food and gasoline seem in plentiful supply, despite the presumed destruction of the food-processing and oil-refining industries.

    But hey, you might ask how the baddies got so much fuel to run their fleet of attack vehicles in Mad Max 2, or why father-&-son hadn’t starved to death long ago in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Every Post-Apocalypse tale is inherently a fantasy story  (realistically, we’d all die in a matter of weeks or months, whether it be from radiation, starvation, disease, or good old-fashioned barbarism)Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors just adds an element of spoofery to the storytelling.

    8½ Stars.  To use a cliché that I am not fond of, the book sucked me in from the start, and I spent several nights (work nights!) reading “just one more chapter” into the wee hours.  I sense that Benjamin Wallace penned PANW to be a fast, light, fun read.  That may not seem like the most ambitious of goals, but PANW achieves it most admirably.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Semper Fidelis - Ruth Downie

    2013; 348 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #5 (out of 6) of the Medicus series.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Something is amiss in the Twentieth Legion, and it’s not just that they’re stationed in the backwater town of Eboracum in Britannia.  Or that they’re stuck with the unenviable job of recruiting and training the local Britons to be loyal Roman legionaries.

    No, it’s the fact that people are saying that the Twentieth Legion is cursed.  And there’s some merit to the claim.  Two recruits are dead, another’s in critical condition due to a training accident, and still another’s gone missing.  Oh yeah, there’s also a recruit up on the roof, threatening to jump to his death.

    But there’s no such thing as a curse, is there?  That’s what Ruso wants to find out.

What’s To Like...
    Semper Fidelis takes place in 2nd-century Roman-ruled Britain, during the reign of Hadrian.  The book is fast-paced, with Action, Romance, Humor, and a couple of Mysteries all worked into a nice piece of Historical Fiction.  Overall, this is a pleasant, light read, but some serious topics are touched upon; among them slavery, the role of women, torture, and homosexuality.

    I thought the character development was top-notch.  Ruso and his wife Tilla combine to make an effective, if somewhat reluctant (at least on Ruso’s part) sleuthing team that reminds me of Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt.  The secondary characters stand out as well, even the one-and-dones.  I especially liked the non-stereotypical treatment of the Emperor Hadrian and Empress Sabina.  It is refreshing to meet Roman rulers who aren’t typecast as despots.  All the characters have both noble traits and flaws.  Ruso and Tilla both have a tendency to be whistle-blowers, and suffer the usual punishments for their high-principled but ill-advised disclosures.

    Semper Fidelis is Book 5 in the series.  I read the first book, Medicus, a couple months ago (reviewed here), but skipped the three intervening books.  I’m sure the usual caveat applies – you’ll get more out of the series if you read the books in order – but SemperFi does just fine as a standalone novel.  Tilla and Ruso got married somewhere along the way, and Tilla is investigating a johnny-come-lately deity called Christos.  ANAICT that’s about it for important events that I missed.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Fug (n.) : A warm, stuffy, or smoky atmosphere in a confined space.

    “Sir, I apologize for that excuse about the man falling off the stretcher.”
    “It wasn’t very convincing.”
    “I’m usually much better at lying, sir.”
    “Perhaps you’d like to tell me the truth now?”
    “I’d rather try for a more convincing lie, sir.”  (loc. 1576)

    “Shall we have her fetched?”
    Tranquillus looked appalled.  A midwife, madam?”
    Clarus said, “A housecleaner?”
    Sabina smiled.  “And an officer’s wife.  I think I should like to meet her.”
    “She’ll have to be checked first,” insisted Clarus.  “I’ll need a name.”
    Sabina sighed.  “Clarus, you have a very large sword.  We are surrounded by the servants and you can call your guards.  If none of those can deal with her, Tranquillus will stab her with his stylus.  I think I shall be safe from one woman, don’t you?”  (loc. 2626)

Kindle Details...
    Semper Fidelis sells for $9.39 at Amazon, as do two others in the series.  The just-issued Book 6, Tabula Rasa, goes for $9.99,  and the remaining two sell for $7.39 and $7.99.

“I hear one of our officers has married you.”  “I have married him also, mistress.”  (loc. 2655)
    Frankly, as a Mystery novel Semper Fidelis is a bit meh.  The main murder doesn’t occur until Chapter 48 (Kindle 56%), so I spent the first half of the book wondering where the main storyline was going.  The solution of the Murder-Mystery seemed arbitrary and hazy, and trying to solve it alongside Tilla/Ruso was a frustrating exercise.

    The Historical Fiction portion was better, although an anachronistic candle still shows up (sorry, there weren't any in the Roman Empire), and Valens still uses ‘modern’ terms like “bollocks” and “old chap”.

    But this is a case where the sum of the book is greater than its parts, probably because Ruth Downie infuses such a vibrant literary color into the world of ancient Britain.  Semper Fidelis in particular, and the Medicus series as a whole, are both a fun and enlightening read. 

    8 Stars.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gideon's Sword - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   2011; 342 pages. Book #1 (of about to be 3) in the Gideon Crew series.  New Authors? : No.  Genre : Thriller; Acton-Adventure.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    It took a while, but Gideon Crew finally avenged the framing and murder of his father.  The bad news is somebody watched him do it.  The good news is they want to hire him to do an undercover job, and pay him well for his efforts.

    His mission will be to get the plans for a super-secret, super-powerful new weapon off of a Chinese scientist who is in the act of defecting.  The trouble is, no one knows what the weapon is, what the plans look like, and even if the defector has them on his person.  Well, there's also the fact that the Chinese agents will stop at nothing to prevent those plans from falling into anybody else’s hands.

What’s To Like...
    The action starts immediately and continues unabated until the final page.  The first 50 pages or so give Gideon’s backstory, and is pretty much unrelated to the rest of the story.  I’m okay with that though, since it quickly fleshes out the protagonist of this new series.

    There’s nothing paranormal here, which may be why Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child didn’t try to work it up into another Agent Pendergast novel.  The action seemed over-the-top, reminding me of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series.  But at least every female character doesn’t immediately hop into bed with Gideon; not even the hookers.

    There’s a smidgen of Mandarin Chinese here, albeit mostly Pinyin.  That’s a plus for me.  This is a standalone novel, although the Epilogue is a teaser for the sequel, Gideon's Corpse.

    Alas, to enjoy Gideon’s Sword you have to check your brain in at the door.  Gideon is frankly unbelievable.  He’s a brilliant scientist, a master thief, a super-smooth talker, and a proficient magician.  About all he lacks is genius-level computer skills, and he has a friend to take care of that..

     WTF’s abound.  Some examples.  The baddies have no qualms about killing the scientist, but seem strangely reluctant to do the same to Gideon.  There is a pointless trip to Hong Kong to try and locate a hooker.  What help can she possibly provide?  Gideon may have an incredible array of skills, but everyone else seems to be able to tail him with ease, often with a convenient tendency to save his butt.  In preparation for the climax, Gideon and his partner procure extensive provisions (night-vision goggles, guns, ammunition, etc.).  But radios or cell phones so the two can communicate and coordinate with each other?  Nah.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Zaftig (adj.)  :  (of a woman) having a full, rounded figure; plump.
Other KNW's : Mozzie; Animadversion

    “Why don’t you just tell him how his friend is?” persisted the woman.
    “Ma’am,” said Yveline, “I don’t make the rules.  Medical information is private.”
    A harried nurse arrived.  “Where’s the patient?”
    “He’s upset – collapsed.”  Yveline indicated the man.
    The nurse went over, suddenly putting on a smooth voice.  “Hello, my name is Rose.  What’s the problem?”
    The man choked up.  “He’s dead and they won’t tell me.”  (pg. 91)

    “Give it to her with a false cover story.  Dream something up.  Say it’s a contest of some kind.  You could win a trip to Oxford for the Isaac Newton Maths Conference in September.”
    “Can’t you not lie?  You make up a story even when there’s no need.”
    “I take no pleasure in lying.”
    “You’re the Holy Roman Emperor of liars.”  (pg. 151)

 “What’s wrong with patriotism – especially when it pays?”  (pg.  123)
    Perhaps the worst part about Gideon’s Sword is its sloppiness.  It starts with the book’s (and Amazon’s) blurb.  In 1988, 12-year-old Gideon watches his father get gunned down.  “Twelve years later”, in 1996, he seeks revenge.  Do the math, guys.  Sheesh.

    There is an illusion/allusion typo on page 209, which is unacceptable for a major publishing house.  And the meaning of a set of cryptic numbers, the supposed key to the mystery weapon, are never explained.  MacGuffin, anyone?

    All this makes me wonder if the book wasn’t ghost-written, with the names of Preston and Childs slapped on the cover to stimulate sales.  The estate of Robert Ludlum uses this, but at least they’re upfront about it.  I get the feeling James Patterson does it as well.  Indeed, if you presented Gideon’s Sword to me as an unpublished manuscript, I’d tell the writer(s) to go read a Preston-&-Child novel to see how the whole thing should be done.  Sigh.

    6 Stars.  Add two stars if you’re a fan of Clive Cussler novels.  FWIW, the book gets blasted by reviewers at Amazon, with the 1* (117) and 2* (88) ratings outpacing the 5* (68), 4* (66) and 3* (58) ones.  That’s jaw-dropping for a Preston-&-Child offering, but in this case, quite understandable.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess - Phil and Kaja Foglio

    2012; 481 pages.  New Author? : No.  Books #4-#6 (kinda) of the Girl Genius series.  Genre : Gaslamp Fantasy; Graphic Comic Novelization.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Agatha H. is fleeing from the Baron Klaus Wulfenbach.  In an airship.  Just her and a cat.  Some might say it’s a stolen airship.  But as of now it’s a crashed stolen airship, and desperate times call for desperate measures.

    Like running away with (and hiding in) a traveling circus.  But what acrobatic or entertainment skills can Agatha offer them to earn her keep?  Well for one thing, she has a pretty decent Talking Cat routine.

What’s To Like...
    Agatha H & the Clockwork Princess is a novelization of the immensely popular graphic comic series Girl Genius, penned by the husband/wife team of Phil and Kaja Foglio.  ANAICT, the series is up to #12 now, and the Foglios are gradually converting the graphic novels to Kindle books, three GN's per novel.  I read the first novelization back in 2012; its review is here.

    Frankly, the story here starts out slow, with Agatha traipsing around in the woods after crashing the blimp, then joining the circus and doing menial tasks.  The “Talking Cat” shtick got tossed when it was discovered that the cat really could talk.

    However, the pacing gradually gains steam, and by the halfway point, the action is nonstop.    You will meet a slew of new characters, especially in the circus, but just a few of them need to be kept track of.  The three Jagermonsters, Maxim, Ognian, and Dimo, are a great addition to the storyline’s main cast.

    There are a bunch of kewl Discworldian footnotes, although it might have been better to put the links/notes at the end of the book instead of at the end of each chapter.  I also encountered quite a few typos for a non-self-published book.  Whoever converted/proofed this book should return his fee.

    There were a couple instances of mild cussing, and a few “adult situations”.  They were tasteful, but still surprising, given that the target audience of the graphic novels is teenage girls.  But little Agatha is growing up, and passion and romance are in the air.

    The ending ties things up nicely, while of course still leaving you hungering for the next installment.  Some characters – both good ones and bad ones - die along the way.  I like that.  I grow tired of the Star Wars/Battlestar Galactica mentality that heroes should only kill robots, droids, or mechanized insects.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Obstreperous (adj.) : Noisy and difficult to control; unruly; disruptive.

    Agatha lowered her voice.  “We’re the good guys, remember?  We do not eat children.  We do not even threaten to eat children.  He is not ‘Provisions.’”
    Krosp’s ears flattened.  “Whaaaat?!  Why not?  It’s up a tree Maybe it’s a bird!”
    “He talks!”
    “Lots of things talk!  Maybe it’s a parrot!”
    “He’s not a bird!”
    Krosp looked back up at the now fascinated boy.  “Squirrel?” he hazarded.  (loc. 616)

    “So he’s not much for intellectual discussion?”
    Agatha shook her head.
    “Good kisser though, eh?”
    Agatha had blushed and nodded.  Even though all they had done was kiss once a night onstage, those kisses had been getting better and better.
    “So kiss him enough that he doesn’t have a chance to mess things up by talking.”
    Agatha frowned.  “That seems like an extremely poor blueprint for a long-term relationship.”  (loc. 5438)

Kindle Details...
    Agatha H & the Clockwork Princess sells for $13.67 at Amazon.  The first book is currently selling for the low, low price of $1.99, so this is a good time to try out the series.  The third book (presumably covering Graphic Novels #7-#9) is due out in January 2015, and will sell for $13.99.  For whatever reason, the present book is twice as long as either of the other two.

It was said that if you interrupted a Jager at dinner, you’d be the dessert.  (loc. 7888)
    As an adult reader, what impressed me the most about AH&TCP was the strength of the main characters.  Naturally, Agatha is the most impressive one.  When she’s not running around being the Chosen One, she is busy being one heck of a mechanical engineer.  There are other books that have strong female characters of course, but usually it’s at the expense of some pretty wimpy male counterparts.

    Here, *all* the main characters – good and bad, male and female, human and otherwise – are strong. Heck, even the talking cat is a strong character.  Furthermore, nobody finds it strange or exceptional that Agatha is, and excels at being an engineer.  This makes Girl Genius a truly amazing series.

    Similarly, none of the characters are pure good or pure evil.  Honestly, I’m still not sure which side of the moral compass has the greater influence on Klaus, Gil, Othar, or Bangladesh Dupree.

    8½ Stars.  If you have a teenage or tweenage daughter, I highly recommend this series, although in truth, they may enjoy the graphic novel format better.  But adults reading the novelized version will be entertained as well.