Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hogfather - Terry Pratchett

   1996; 354 pages.  Book  #20 (out of 41) in the Discworld series; Book # 4 (out of 4, I think) in the Discworld Death series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Laurels : 137th in The Big Read; British Fantasy Award nominee in 1997.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    It’s Hogswatchnight Eve on Discworld, and something seems just a bit awry with the Hogfather.  No, it’s not the four giant, flying hogs – Tusker, Snouter, Gouger, and Rooter - that pull his sleigh while he delivers toys on this night; they’re the same as always.

    Instead, its the Hogfather himself.  He seems ...well... different.  His face is narrower, darker, and bonier.  And although his girth is plump as always, it appears he’s actually a skinny guy with a pillow strapped around his stomach.

    Then of course, there’s that scythe he’s carrying.  That definitely is not a standard piece of Hogfather paraphernalia.

What’s To Like...
    The book’s cover lets you know immediately who is being parodied here; so I chose this as my 2015 “Christmas read”.  Published in 1996, this is at the creative height of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld wit and storytelling.  Hogfather is also one of four Discworld books that spotlights Death and some of his associates, including his granddaughter, Susan; and his rodent counterpart, The Grim Squeaker.

    This is a classic Discworld story, with its usual structure – lots of hilarious footnotes, no chapter divisions, a great supporting cast that includes both familiar faces: the Wizards (with their computer called “Hex”), Corporal Nobbs, and my favorite, The Librarian; and some refreshingly new ones: Banjo, Violet Bottler (the Tooth Fairy), Bilious (the “Oh God” of Hangovers), and the enormously cute and charming galoot, Banjo.

    There are a bunch of plot threads (I counted at least five of them) that Pratchett skillfully weaves together at the end.  But make no mistake about it: Death is the star here, and that’s a big plus.  Pratchett cleverly uses him, as he makes his rounds with Albert, his pixie assistant, to discuss the true meaning of Hogswatchnight/Christmas.  His conclusions may surprise you.

    The other major theme here concerns the merits of Belief itself, particularly those involving the god or gods of your personal choice.  Terry Pratchett was an avowed humanist, so his thoughts on this were enlightening.  OTOH, if you prefer your themes a bit less serious, you’ll delight in the Campaign for Equal Heights.  Or the ability of Belief to conjure up all sorts of pesky mini-gods.

Kewlest New Word ...
Profligacy (n.) : the state or quality of wasting something, usually money, but here the wasting of life.

    “Well, I mean, dammit, it’s human nature, isn’t it?” said Ridcully hotly.  “Things go wrong, things get lost, it’s natural to invent little creatures that – All right, all right, I’ll be careful.  I’m just saying man is naturally a mythopoeic creature.”
    “What’s that mean?” said the Senior Wrangler.
    “Means we make things up as we go along,” said the Dean, not looking up.  (pg. 191)

    Violet’s lips moved silently.  Part of Bilious thought: I’m attracted to a girl who actually has to shut down all other brain functions in order to think about the order of the letters of the alphabet.  On the other hand, she’s attracted to someone who’s wearing a toga that looks as though a family of weasels have had a party in it, so maybe I’ll stop this thought right here.  (pg. 286)

Death was hereditary.  You got it from your ancestors.  (pg. 203 )
    Hogfather is another fine Discworld tale, but there are a couple caveats.  For starters, the storyline at times slips into a darker tone.  There's a psychopathic assassin, a cold-blooded murder or two, and several horror scenes that Dean Koontz could take pointers from.  If you like your Christmas reads full of snow bunnies, cocoa, and warm, blazing fireplaces, this probably isn’t your kind of book.

    Also, if you’re not reading this series in order (and I’m not), some of the threads and characters may get confusing.  I never did figure out the role and goal of the Auditors; apparently they’re carryovers from an earlier story featuring Death.  But you can still read this as a standalone novel; just be prepared for one or two minor info gaps.

    9 Stars.  I expected Hogfather to be a fascinating read, and it did not disappoint.  Subtract 1 Star if you were hoping for something along the lines of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Clockwork God - Jamie Sedgwick

   2013; 218 pages.  Book 1 (out of three) of the Aboard The Great Iron Horse series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Steampunk Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    In a post-apocalyptic, steampunk world, Socrates and his band of adventurers ride the steam-powered locomotive, The Iron Horse, through the icy wastelands in search of other remnants of civilization.  Their train is ½-mile in length, so they can take on board lots of survivors.

   Of course, what we’re really talking about is human survivors.  There are wild beasts afoot.  They are a good source of meat, but can be quite the challenge when your weaponry has been reduced to muskets and swords.

    Plus, not all of the humans they encounter may want to be “rescued”.  Some may even be downright unfriendly.

What’s To Like...
    The cause of the civilization-erasing event is not given; but it’s most likely either a new Ice Age or a nuclear winter.  There’s a bare-bones prologue that gives you a small amount of a backstory, but it felt like you’re supposed to already know the main characters, and apparently they are carryovers from Jamie Sedgwick's previous series, The Tinkerer's Daughter.  But if you haven't read that trilogy, it's okay; the world-building here is great, and I quickly became acclimated to it.

    There’s not a lot of characters to keep track of, which makes it easy to focus on the storyline.  The action is fast-paced and plentiful, and everything builds to an exciting, albeit, not particularly twisty, ending.  There’s a nice variety of characters, although the steampunk ape Socrates is by far the most fascinating.

    Critters and gadgets abound.  Besides the train itself, we have muskets and broadswords, and a mysterious substance called “Starfall” which provides the power for the steam train.  If Socrates and company can’t find enough Starfall, there are literally dead in their (railroad) tracks.  There’s also a way-kewl “bone-shaker” (a steam-powered bicycle), and I was pleasantly surprised to see Chemistry – in the form of a distillation apparatus – get some ink.  We won’t tell you anything of the critters; it’ll be more fun if you meet them firsthand.

    Besides all the hack-&-slash, Jamie Sedgwick explores the more serious theme of blind faith.  In this age of religious shysters and political hucksters, it’s a timely topic.  The Clockwork God is a standalone novel that ends at a logical place, and of course leaves you wanting to read the further adventures of the crew of the Iron Horse in the next book.

    The burly blacksmith dismissed his bald-headed companion with a snort.  “You’re projecting,” he muttered.  He took a big bite of roast and the greasy juices streamed down his beard.  He appeared not to notice.
    “Aye, like you know what that means,” Patch said, rolling his eyes.  “Don’ be slingin’ those silvery words ‘round here.”
    “It means ya see in him what ain’t there; what yer seein’ is yourself.”
    “Pfft,” was Patch’s educated response.  (loc. 751)

    “My people are simple, but I guide them gently, like a shepherd.”
    “No doubt you do.  However, it has been my experience that the ignorant always hunger for knowledge, just as your people’s bellies hunger for food.”
    “Ah, but is that not the way of things?”  The Keeper took a sip of his wine and smiled.  “Alas, we have no control over the world, or we would solve all of these problems with a snap of our fingers.”
    “Would you?” Socrates said.  (loc. 1380)

Kindle Details...
    The Clockwork God is free at Amazon right now.  The other two books in the series, Killing The Machine and The Dragon’s Breath, sell for $0.99 and $2.99 respectively.  Jamie Sedgwick has a slew of other books and series, all of which are in the $0.00-$2.99 price range.  His general pattern seems to be to offer the first book in each series for free, the second one for $0.99, and the rest for $2.99.  I think this is a great marketing strategy, and just bought Killing The Machine.

 “We are all machines of a sort. … We are made of moving parts.  But if we have consciousness, then we are more than the sum of our parts.”  (loc. 1317)
    The quibbles are minor.  Although there was plenty of action, the main storyline – meeting and interacting with a strange town and its strange beliefs and townspeople – is not very “epic”.  This is not necessarily bad; in a way, it reminded me of a typical episode in the original Star Trek series.  Highly entertaining, but not particularly cosmos-shaking.

    Then there was the attempted rape scene, which felt awkwardly forced, and kinda made me wonder who the target audience was.  Steampunk is generally YA-oriented, and the sexual assault didn’t seem to be in keeping with the tone of the book.  But I’m not an expert on Steampunk, and know next to nothing about the overall tone of Jamie Sedgwick’s other books.

    Finally, at 218 pages, the book was over entirely too soon.  But maybe this just means it was a page-turner for me.  Bottom line – The Clockwork God kept my interest, and made me want to read other books by this author, including the sequel.

    7½ Stars.  This is a promising start to a new series by what is for me a new author.  We shall see if the subsequent books are as good, or even better than this.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger

   1951; 214 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : American Literature; Realistic Fiction; Banned Books.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It is not the best of times for Holden Caulfield.  He’s about to be expelled from an exclusive private academy.  Again.  For a total lack of effort.  Again.

    This time it’s prestigious Pencey Prep; it's the 4th school that Holden will be kicked out of; and he knows his parents are going to hit the roof.  There are still a couple days until the end of the semester, but he decides to leave school early, since his fate is already sealed and he’s surrounded by teachers and students who are (in Holden’s opinion) all phonies.

    He has some cash on him – he comes from an affluent family – and there’s no sense arriving home early to face the inevitable chewing out, so Holden opts to hang out in his hometown for a few days.  Which happens to be New York City.  Take in a play, go ice skating, look up old friends (especially girls), maybe hire a hooker.

    Except all his old friends are phonies.  And he’s still a virgin.

What’s To Like...
    The Catcher In The Rye is J.D. Salinger’s blockbuster 1951 novel, and grasps poignantly the alienation, angst, and crisis-of-identity that many teenagers go through, no matter what generation they belong to.  Some parts of the story can be described as autobiographical fiction, akin to Sylvia Plath and her novel, The Bell Jar (reviewed here).

   The story is told from a first-person POV (Holden’s), and in a stream-of-consciousness format.  Salinger makes extensive use of 1950’s teen-speak, some of which was still around in the 1960’s when I was growing up (eg. : “necking” and “corny”).  It was fun to read about an America that is long-gone, including long-forgotten things like phone booths, a La Salle convertible, and a popular song from that time, “Tin Roof Blues”.  Being the thoughts of an teenager with an attitude, it should not be a surprise that cuss words abound.

    The writing is very good; it has to be to keep the reader’s interest for 200+ pages while recounting Holden’s messed-up view of the world.  But our protagonist has some good aspects too.  He is honest about himself, knows when he’s screwed a situation up, and even evokes some sympathy as he tries to fathom the opposite sex.  One of Holden’s repeated lines is “It’s a funny thing about girls…”

    There are some great scenes in the book – such as the will-he-or-won’t-he encounter with the hooker and her pimp.  And while Holden may have some crumby (to use his vernacular) views on life, some of his mini-discourses are quite engaging, such as his reasons for liking Jesus but hating his disciples.

    The ending is either brilliant or unsatisfying, depending on your expectations.  While it is implied that Holden is finally getting some professional help, it is not clear that it’s altered his outlook on life in any appreciable way.

Kewlest New Word ...
Chiffonier (n.) : a tall chest of drawers, usually with a mirror on top.

    “Anyway, I keep picturing all those little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”  (pg. 173)

    “I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall.  But I don’t honestly know what kind … Are you listening to me?”
    You could tell he was trying to concentrate and all.
    “It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.  Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, “It’s a secret between he and I.”  Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer.  I just don’t know.  But do you know what I’m driving at, at all?”
    “Yes.  Sure,” I said.”  (pg. 186)

“If a body catch a body coming through the rye.”  (pg. 115 )
    I have to admit that the first 2/3 of the book got repetitive at times.  Holden hates this, Holden hates that, Holden hates yet another person, and on and on it goes.  Yet it’s all worth it once he sneaks home and talks with his kid sister, Phoebe, who’s the one person in the world who Holden actually cares about.  The feeling is mutual, and that is what gives the reader optimism that Holden might someday get his life together.

    I chose The Catcher In The Rye as my “highbrow literature” book for 2015.  I try to read one of those each year but am not always successful.  It could also have served as my read for “Banned Book Week 2015”, since it continues to be one of the most challenged books year after year.  I find this paradoxical since it is also one of the most recommended-reading books in high school English classes.

    Bottom line: this book thoroughly resonated with me, because so many of Holden’s thoughts and views were also mine back in my salad days.  If you were your high school’s homecoming queen or star quarterback, you may not be able to relate to Holden, and may find his story to be a real drag.  But for every perfectly adjusted kid, there are a hundred others that are confused, maladjusted, and/or socially or emotionally messed up to varying degrees.  And that’s why The Catcher In The Rye remains such a popular novel.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you prefer Leave It To Beaver to All In The Family.  I don’t know whether to pity you or envy you.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett

   2015; 288 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #41 (out of 41) in the Discworld series; Book #5 (out of 5) in the Tiffany Aching series.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Change is coming to Discworld.  The witches can feel it.  The Kelda of the Nac Mac Feegle clan can sense it.  The Elf Lord, Peasebottom, feels it, and discerns an opportunity.  The Goblins believe that it is already underway.  And there are those who'd say that even the land itself is aware of it.

    Nobody can say how the ‘new’ Discworld will turn out, or even whether the change is for the better or the worse.  But one thing is certain.  When Tiffany Aching’s mentor, Granny Weatherwax, takes a walk with Death into the eternal night, the dimensional barrier between the realm of the Elves and Discworld has been seriously weakened.

    And that means some big changes are about to unfold.

What’s To Like...
    The Shepherd’s Crown features the witch-in-training Tiffany Aching, whose bodyguards (whether wanted or not) are the wee folk of the Nac Mac Feegle.  They’re always a treat to follow.  The “costars” are the various Discworld witches, who I also enjoy, including Granny Weatherwax.  I particularly liked Terry Pratchett’s handling of the Letice Earwig character.  Plus, it was fun to meet Geoffrey and his incomparable companion, Mephistopheles.

    The storyline is divided into three parts.  The first deals with Granny Weatherwax’s departure, and I felt it was the strongest portion of the book.  Terry Pratchett was aware that his days were numbered, and I got the impression that Granny Weatherwax’s discourse with Death reflected his own views on his life and mortality.  It left a lump in my throat.

    The middle portion dealt with Tiffany’s struggles to live up to her new position.  It was a bit too repetitious for me, and things bogged down once or twice.  The final portion of the story dealt with the confrontation with the Elves, and (as always) pulled all the plot threads together nicely.  The ending isn't particularly twisty, but I liked it that the Elves are baddies here.

    The titular Shepherd’s Crown figures into the story.  I won’t say how, but if you have trouble visualizing it, its image is on the book’s cover.  A couple of other Discworld characters make cameo appearances, and if goblins and geezers are your kind of critters, you’re in luck.

    The Shepherd’s Crown is a standalone novel, and the closing book of both the 5-volume Tiffany Aching series, and the larger 41-volume Discworld series.  I’m not reading either series in order, and am aware that I therefore missed some plot details, most notably, the role of Preston in Tiffany’s life.  But I still had no trouble following along.

    The Appendix has both a hilarious “Feegle Glossary” and a touching Afterword from Terry Pratchett’s family.  You don’t want to miss either of these.

Kewlest New Word …
Littoral (n.) : a region lying along a shore. (it can also be used as an adjective)
Others : Dissembling (adj.)

Kindle Details...
    The Shepherd’s Crown sells for $11.99 at Amazon, which seems a bit steep, although this is a new release from a top-tier writer.  Most (but not all) of the rest of the Discworld e-books are in the $4.99-$9.99 price range.

    “What about this woman called Mrs. Earwig?”
    Drumknott made a face.  “All show, my lord, doesn’t get her hands dirty.  Lot of jewelry, black lace, you know the type.  Well-connected, but that’s about all I can say.”
     “Ah yes, now you tell me, I’ve seen her.  Pushy and full of herself.  She’s the kind that goes to soirees.”
    “So do you, my lord.”
    “Yes, but I am the tyrant, so it’s the job I have to do, alas.”  (loc. 834)

    “What are your names, boys?”
    Wee Callum, a little bit tongue-tied, said, “I’m Callum, mistress.”
    “Pleased to meet you,” said Tiffany.
    “Aye, mistress, and this is my brother, Callum.”
    “Two of you?” she said.  “Isn’t that difficult?”
    “Och no, I know who I am and he knows who he is and so does our other brother Callum.”  (loc. 3884)

 “Being a witch is a man’s job: that’s why it needs women to do it.”  (loc. 1461)
    There are the trademark Pratchett footnotes, but they didn’t seem to have their usual wit.  Indeed, that can be said of the entire book.  Also, the overarching tone of the book was a lot darker and more serious than most Discworld novels.  This has been the trend over the last 3-4 books, but I think it’s quite understandable, and even forgivable.  Pratchett knew he was dying, and I have no doubt that it’s hard to be whimsical under such circumstances.

    The Shepherd’s Crown was published posthumously and to me, it seemed like it was Terry’s way of saying goodbye to both his readers and his beloved Discworld universe.  I’m therefore willing to cut him a lot of slack, and let’s be clear; any Discworld devotee will still find it a delight, albeit a somewhat sad one, to read.  I don’t think anyone is going to pick up the Discworld mantle, and I for one am going to miss this series.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 star if this is your first Discworld novel and are wondering where all the wit and humor is.  Trust me, none of the other books in the series are as somber as this one.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders - Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.

   2013; 446 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book 1 (out of 2 so far) in the 'Pneumatic Zeppelin' series.  Genre : Steampunk; Action-Adventure; Post-Apocalyptic Thriller.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    At first glance, Romulus Buckle, he of the Crankshaft clan, seems mighty young to be already commanding an airship.  But his crew is equally youthful, and these are desperate times.  A rival clan, the Founders, has kidnapped the leader of Buckle's clan, and he and his crew are on their way in the airship to attempt a rescue.

    There are many ways for a zeppelin and its crew to be catastrophically lost, including crashes (pop goes the airbag; plop goes the zeppelin), fires (the hydrogen gas in the dirigible is extremely flammable), and in the course of combat, which includes suicide missions.  Such as this one.

    So maybe it isn't so unusual to be a young zeppelin captain and crew.  Because, with so many ways to perish so quickly, there may be no such thing as an old airship captain.

What’s To Like...
    Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders is set in the post-apocalyptic greater Los Angeles area, where the land is covered year-round by layers of (from bottom to top) snow, mustard gas, and fog.  Richard Ellis Preston Jr. gives only scant details about the “Day of the Storming” that destroyed almost everything on Earth; presumably this will be fleshed out in subsequent books in the series  We know the adversaries were the Martians – the mustard gas is courtesy of them – yet Romulus’ chief engineer, Max, is half-Martian (a nod to Mr. Spock, perhaps?), so it might not be quite the simple “us versus them” scenario.

    There is action and adventure, and a poopload of characters to meet.  But above all else, this is a Steampunk novel.  The Martian attack somehow wiped out all electrical power, so to travel by land means choosing between steam-powered railroad engines or walking.  And air travel is mostly via hydrogen-inflated dirigibles.

    There are kewl beasties (such as tanglers and wugglebats), nasty baddies (such as forgewalkers and steampipers), and lethal weapons of war (such as sticky bombs and robotic owls).  The bad guys seem to be every bit as potent and resourceful as the good guys; and I have a feeling we have not yet seen the Ultimate Evil, Isambard Fawkes, at his best …er… worst.

    The book ends at a logical place – the resolution of the attempt to free Balthazar, but there is a long way to go in the overall storyline.  I have a feeling this series will have a “united we stand, divided we fall” motif, but that is speculation only.  And I am certain the question “What about old Shadrack” will be addressed somewhere down the line.

Kewlest New Word ...
Empennage (n.) : an arrangement of stabilizing surfaces at the tail of an aircraft.

    One might think Buckle was young to be in command of a sky vessel as dauntingly impressive as the Pneumatic Zeppelin – and he was – but he led a crew whose average age did not exceed twenty years by much, except for Max, of course.  Nobody knew how old Max was, and she was never in the mood for telling.  But then, there was no “getting old” around the Snow World – the old California – in those days, not in the time of the Noxious Mustard (also referred to as stinkum if you were using gutter talk) and the Carbuncle Plague, with the nasty beasties a-lurkin’, Bloodfreezer storms, and the high-percentage risk of one’s blackbang musket exploding in one’s face every time one pulled the trigger.  (pg. 3)

    Buckle couldn’t see any weapons on the Owl.  “What’s she for?”
    “She’s a reconnaissance robot,” Zwicky said, clicking shut the access panel he’d just been tinkering inside.  Zwicky’s personality was much more prickly than Wolfgang’s. although Buckle sensed it was more a nervous insecurity than true rudeness.  “The Owl sees with sound, like a bat.  She emits a distinct series of whistles, and when the sound waves bounce back she can ‘see’ them.”
    “Shouldn’t you call them ears, then?” Buckle asked.  (pg. 156)

“Taste some Imperial revenge, you bumptious fog-sucker!”  (pg. 363)
     Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders is a promising start to an ambitious Steampunk series, but the pacing leaves something to be desired.  Richard Ellis Preston Jr. seems to love giving overly extensive descriptions of every square inch of the Pneumatic Zeppelin (the name of Romulus Buckle’s airship), detailed bios of a good many of the cast of characters, and a running travelogue of a lot of the California wasteland as well.  I recognize the need for world-building in Book One of any series, but here, after a quarter of the way through, about the only thing accomplished in the plotline was Romulus losing his footing atop the zeppelin.

    Also, while the Chapter titles are fantastic, it would’ve been nice to have them listed in the front of the book, for easy reference when trying to remember which character did what.

    Still, the descriptions are well done, and aren’t any more excessive than what you’d find in a Tom Clancy novel.  Clancy once left me with a feeling that, if you gave me all the parts, I could completely reassemble a Sherman tank.  Here, I felt the same way about putting the zeppelin back together.

    7½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you are a Tom Clancy fan.  I’m not.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The 92-Year-Old Lady Who Made Me Steal A Dead Man's Car - Fred Schafer

   2013; 226 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Literary Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Eberhardt Walker’s life has taken a turn for the weird.  First there was that near-miss accident in the intersection.  Which was followed by the stealing of a car with a 92-year-old partner-in-crime by the name of Irene.  And hiding out at her place, which turned into a more permanent arrangement.

    But what really took the cake was meeting Irene’s roommates, all 25+ of them.  Each one has issues and they're are all just so unreal.

    Or are they?

What’s To Like...
    You’ll meet a slew of literary characters in The 92-Year-Old Lady Who Made Me Steal A Dead Man’s Car, most of which are from the classics.  So if you’re into authors like Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway you’ll probably enjoy this book.  If highbrow literature is not your shtick (and I fall into that category), then the good news is that not knowing anything about these characters isn’t much of a drawback.  Outside of the literary peeps June and Pursewarden, the only folks you need to keep track of are Eberhardt (who’s the narrator of the story) and Irene.

    Apart from the opening car-theft sequence, there’s not a lot of action or tension in the storyline.  Even the fire and the arrests are rather tame affairs.  There was a nice nod to Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer that I happen to like.  And Fred Schafer pays an extended tribute to Ernest Hemingway, who killed himself in Ketchum, Idaho.

   There is a handy literature reference table at the end of the story, which will match up the literary characters with their authors/books.  If we assume this is Fred Schafer’s personal book list, he has interesting and varied reading tastes.  There are some adult situations and cussing in the book, but I thought it fit in quite nicely.

    The ending is nice, trite, surprising, logically obvious, and well-crafted, all at the same time.  This is a standalone novel, and I’m betting it’s a one-and-done.  However, if Fred Schafer decides to send Eberhardt and Irene journeying into the literary dimension(s), something that this books cirs out for, a sequel could be developed.

Kindle Details...
    The 92-Year-Old Lady Who Made Me Steal A Dead Man’s Car sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Fred Schafer has a poopload of other e-books available, mostly non-fiction motivational books.  They also go for $2.99.

    It was on a Sunday evening that she said to me, “We have reached a fork in the road.  What do you think, should we explore both directions?”
    “You one direction, and I the other?” I asked just to be sure I understood her correctly.
    She nodded.
    “I shall miss you,” I said.
    “No, you won’t.”  (loc. 127)

    “Lots of paper,” he added.  “In the world where I come from you could store all these books on a little chip the size of a finger nail.”
    “But you couldn’t smell them,” Irene commented.
    “Good point,” the pastor replied.  Then, after a few seconds he asked, “Why would you like to smell them?”
    “That’s also a good point,” the old lady replied.  “But don’t worry about it.  I don’t think I could explain it to you.”  (loc. 699)

 “Arguing, chatting, and drinking whiskey with Hemingway, heck, why shouldn’t you have felt happy!”  (loc. 899)
    The 92-Year-Old Lady Who Made Me Steal A Dead Man’s Car has two significant drawbacks.  The first is the book’s genre, which changes several times as the plotline moves along.  It starts out as an tale of action-intrigue.  But then it seemed like the author wrote himself into a corner, so he switched to a quasi-fantasy tale, with a host of literary characters coming to life in the story.  Frankly, this was the best part of the tale.  But after a while, it morphs into an existential discourse, which was both boring and a bunch of verbal twaddle.  If you don’t believe me, ask Eberhardt.   

    Then there’s the humor itself.  The Amazon page hypes The 92-Year-Old-etc. as a  work of “Humor-Satire”, with the subcategory being ”Humorous” just in case you didn’t figure it out the first time.  There is some wit, but there’s also a lot of unfunny stuff.  Our protagonist is a self-appointed vigilante who mutilates and murders rapists by cutting off their …er… members.  Is there some reason why this qualifies as “humorous”?  Ditto for the driver/owner of the commandeered car who gets smashed to smithereens in the roadway, thus providing a convenient means of transportation for our two protagonists.

    I kept waiting for Fred Schafer to somehow work the  vigilante and vehicular manslaughter angles  into the main storyline, but it never happened.  Overall, this would’ve been a much better story without the Action and Philosophizing.

    6 Stars.  The best part of The 92-Year-Old Lady Who Made Me Steal A Dead Man’s Car is the middle, “literary-fantasy” genre.  But even this is not original.  If you want to read a better treatment of this, check out Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series, the first book of which is reviewed here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Android's Dream - John Scalzi

   2006; 394 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s all about the sheep.

    But not just any old sheep; a very rare and genetically-engineered breed of sheep (it has blue wool) called the Android’s Dream.  The alien Nidu are demanding that Earth supply an Android’s Dream to them, as compensation for a diplomatic incident: one of our ambassadors murdered one of their ambassadors, and it falls upon the State Department’s Harry Creek to go find and procure one.

    There’s just one hitch.  There are only a few Android’s Dreams around, and someone seems to be bent on killing them all.  And when Harry gets in the way, well, they’ll just kill him as well.

What’s To Like...
    The opening two sentences of the book are “Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident.  But he was ready to find out.“  That should give you a heads up that The Android’s Dream is not going to be as serious as John Scalzi’s magnum opus, Old Man’s War (reviewed here).  But neither is it a total departure in form and genre – the trademark Scalzi space opera and action-thriller elements are still present.

    The character development is good.  Harry Creek is your classic protagonist, and there’s a typical love angle in the plotline.  But the secondary characters shine.  I especially liked Archie McClellan and Takk, and Brian Javna was a nice twist.  Even the evil characters are interesting, and they are just as resourceful and powerful as the good guys.  Similarly, should hostilities break out between we Terrans and the alien Nidu, the two sides are evenly matched, although both sides are relative wussies on a galactic scale.

    As always, John Scalzi’s wit, humor, and subtle social commentary are on display.  We can partake of Nugentian venison, get a good work-out playing wall-ball, and find spiritual guidance through the Church of the Evolved Lamb.  You may also learn a thing or two about legal and diplomatic wrangling, which may come in handy should we ever have to deal with space invaders.  And if using flatulence to make offensive remarks doesn’t tickle your funny bone, something’s wrong.

    There is an adequate amount of both action and intrigue.  This is space opera, so be prepared for some cussing, violence, and adult situations.  This is a standalone novel, and in the end everyone ultimately gets their just desserts.

Kewlest New Word ...
Collimate (v.) : to accurately align (an optical or other system).

    “The principle is simple,” Fixer said, handing the slightly curved thing to Moeller.  “You pass gas like you normally do, but instead of leaving your body, the gas enters into that forward compartment.  The compartment closes off, passes the gas into second department (sic), where additional chemical components are added, depending on the message you’re trying to send.  Then it’s shunted into the third compartment, where the whole mess waits for your signal.  Pop the cork, off it goes.  You interact with it through a wireless interface.  Everything is there.  All you have to do is install it.”
    “Does it hurt?” Moeller asked.  “The installation, I mean.”
    Fixer rolled his eyes.  “You’re shoving a miniature chemistry lab up your ass, Mr. Moeller,” Fixer said.  “Of course it’s going to hurt.”  And it did.  (pg. 9)

    Takk understood that Earth was positively littered with houses of worship and that people were always claiming that their god of choice wanted them to do one thing or another.  But in his personal experience the only time he heard people invoke their deity was when Takk was about to beat the hell out of them or turn them into a snack.  And even then, more than half the time they invoked defecation instead.  Takk found that inexplicable.  (pg. 276)

It’s hard to describe to anyone who is not in fact a sentient computer.  But imagine you’re a tapeworm, and then suddenly you’re Goethe.  (pg. 376)
    There are some quibbles.  The entertainingly madcap prologue – farting as a weapon -  was fantastic, but felt disjointed from the rest of the story, which was decidedly more focused on thrills-&-spills and political intrigue.  Scalzi wrote some of his novels as serial installments; perhaps The Android’s Dream is one of them.

    The ending felt contrived and for me was somewhat anticlimactic.  The Nidu, who appear to have the upper hand in the matter the whole way through, are all too easily persuaded to fight amongst themselves.

    But these are minor criticisms.  The major problem is something that Scalzi probably had no control over – a wretched job of editing by the publishing house, Tor.  The grammatically grating “He been…” was bad enough, but jeez, when you run into the misspelled word “supercede” (sic), it makes you wonder whether Tor even bothered to use Spellchecker when editing Scalzi’s manuscript.  Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

    8 Stars.  This isn’t John Scalzi’s finest work, but it’s still a good read.  Add 1 star if you can ignore all the typos and errata.  I couldn’t.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm - Phil and Kaja Foglio

   2010; 144 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 9 in the “Girl Genius” series.  Full Title : Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm – A Gaslamp Fantasy with Adventure, Romance & Mad Science.  Genre : Graphic Novel; Gaslamp Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    We’re going to eschew most of the format we usually use in these reviews, since this is essentially a reread of one of the Agatha H novelizations that I finished a short time ago.  That review is here, and Agatha H. & the Heirs of the Storm constitutes the last third of that book.

    I’ve been wanting to compare the Graphic Novel format to the Novelization format for some time now, and felt that this was a good opportunity to do so, since the storyline was fresh in my mind.  I also just recently figured out where my local library has been stashing these graphic novels; there is a small “Teen Library” section tucked away on the fourth floor of the main branch that I was hitherto unaware of.

What’s To Like...
    The artwork is stunning.  The book’s credits list Phil & Kaja Foglio as creating the story, Phil for the “penciling”, and Cheyenne Wright for the colors.  It is all a visual treat.

    There is a handy, 1-page “The Story So Far” section at the very beginning.  The novelizations cover the entire Graphic Novel series, three per volume, and I’ve read them all, so  it’s hard for me to judge how helpful this brief backstory is.  It felt very “bare bones”, but perhaps it’s like picking up a comic book; say, Wolverine Issue #88.  You don’t really care much about all that went before.

    There are no page numbers.  Amazon says Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm has 144 pages, and that feels accurate.  The storyline in the two formats seemed to jive closely, so I don’t think you’re missing much by choosing one or the other.  There’s a way-kewl “Jagermonster Comics” section at the end.

    There’s nothing R-rated at all in the graphic novel.   I had heard rumors to the contrary.  The worst that can be said in this regard is that all the girls are “buxom”, but that’s standard fare in any comic book series.

Paperback Details...
    Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm sells for $21.48 at Amazon.  There appear to be 13 volumes in the Girl Genius Graphic Novels series, and they all in the $15-$25 price range.  This feels steep to me, but I know very little about pricing graphic novels.  The only other graphic novel I’ve read is Watchmen, which sells for $11.99.

The verdict…
    I had a bit of trouble determining who’s who in the graphic novel, which inherently does not occur in the novelization.  OTOH, you have no trouble envisioning the people, the environs, etc. in the graphic novel; there is much more inherently left to the imagination in the novelization.

    So it’s a toss-up.  You basically can’t lose no matter which format – or both – you select to follow this series with.  Reading the graphic novel was a delight, but I will probably continue to wait for the novelizations to come out.  This is mostly due to my reading habits; even as a kid, I preferred books to comics.

    8½ Stars.  Listen, Girl Genius is still a fantastic series, and I highly recommend it no matter what format you read it in.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The History Buff's Guide To World War II - Thomas R. Flagel

   2012; 350 pages.  Full Title : The History Buff’s Guide to World War II – Top Ten Rankings of the Best, Worst, Largest, and Most Lethal People and Events of World War II.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Military History; Lists.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Do you love to read non-fiction books about World War 2, but find they often bog down into hundreds of pages of military minutiae?  If so, you’ll find Thomas R. Flagel’s book refreshingly enjoyable.

    Or do you prefer some “light reading”, such as a book of “Top Ten” lists, but find them often just too silly?  Is it really necessary to read a list of ten different Eskimo worlds for snow?  If you’re yearning to learn something meaningful from a bunch of Top Ten lists, you’ll find this book pleasurably enlightening.

    Are you tired of the American-centric view of history, and wonder if there’s more to World War 2 than just Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and the Atomic Bomb, then The History Buff’s Guide to World War II will deepen your understanding of global history.

    Finally, if you only read genres like Romance, or Sci-Fi, or Murder-Mystery, then …um… well, then this book isn’t for you.  But it will still broaden your literary horizons, so why not give it a try?

What’s To Like...
    As the title states, the target audience here are history buffs, of which I am a proud member.  Thomas R. Flagel presumes you have at least a basic understanding of the players and events of World War 2, and aims to give the reader a better understanding of the causes, the decisions, and the cost of the conflict.

    To do so, the author employs a “Top Ten List" template, which I found to be an original approach to the subject matter.  At first glance, it would seem to be an awkward fit, but it works nicely here, due in no small part to the fact that each of the ten “items” on every list is accompanied by several paragraphs justifying its inclusion in the list.  Moreover, each entry is has a fascinating piece of trivia appended to it.  One example : “For each citizen of the Axis, the United States had three artillery shells.  There  were enough bullets made worldwide to shoot every living person on the planet forty times.”  (loc. 1336)

    My favorite lists (and yours will probably be quite different) were :
         “Wars Before The War” (1)
        “Songs” (44)
        “Worst Military Commanders” (53)
        “Military Blunders” (57) and
        “Popular Myths and Misconceptions” (70)

    I was impressed by the objectivity and ‘balance’ in Thomas R. Flagel’s writing.  The war may have begun on December 7th for the USA, but for Europeans, it started two or more years earlier, when Hitler commenced grabbing chunks of Austria and Czechoslovakia.  And for those in the Far East, the horrors of war commenced in 1937, with the invasion by Japan of China and Manchuria.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Lebensraum (n., proper) : the territory that a state or nations believes is needed for its natural development; literally, “living space”.

    Compared to other eras, this frequency of unrest was relatively standard.  What had changed by the twentieth century was the volume and tempo of armed conflicts because the “art of war” was giving way to science.
    In less than a lifetime, battleships tripled in size.  The largest artillery shells grew from the weight of a man to the weight of an automobile, from a maximum range of two miles to more than fifty.  Aircraft evolved from puttering mobile machine guns to deafening heavy bombers.  This onslaught of “progress” provoked a haunting fear that warfare was spiraling out of control.  (loc. 93)

    From Denmark to Spain, pressed tight against the meandering Atlantic coastline, stood the wall to Hitler’s Fortress Europe: bunkers, trenches, pillboxes, siege guns, machine-gun nests, barbed wire, thousands of antitank and antiship obstacles, and five million mines.  The defensive perimeter ran more than seventeen hundred miles, equivalent to the distance from Boston to Denver.  It required three years and half a million workers to erect, and it was the largest construction project ever attempted since the Great Wall of China.  It was also almost completely useless.  (loc. 3493)

Kindle Details…
    The Kindle version of The History Buff’s Guide To World War II sells for $9.99 at Amazon, which seems a bit steep to me.  Heck, the paperback version is less than $2 more, costing $11.73.  There are two other books in the series, dealing with the Civil War and the US Presidents, and they too sell for $9.99.

“God is always on the side with the biggest battalions.”  (loc. 3831 )
    There are some weaknesses, most of which are only applicable to the Kindle version.  Thomas Flagel has included a bunch of neat WW2 photos, but they are incredibly small on the Kindle Fire.  However, if you access Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, you’ll see that they are full-sized in the paperback version.  There were also some annoying page-to-page glitches; this too is Kindle’s fault.

    The last 20% of the book is nothing more than copious amounts of notes, which is NBD on the Kindle, but is not very tree-friendly for the “real” books.  I recognize those notes are a necessity for any non-fiction history book because there will always be puffed-up nitpickers looking to find anything and everything to disagree with.  But really, who reads the notes?  Couldn’t they just as easily be placed online, with a link for the nitpickers?

    Finally, while I was thoroughly entertained for most of the book, the last few lists just kinda pootered out for me.  Specifically, the 10 Best Books about WW2 (and no, the author doesn’t include his own), the 10 best Historic Sites (and what hotels to stay at when visiting them), and the last list, “Ways To Get Involved”.  OTOH, the “Top Ten Movies About WW2” was an absolute delight.  We readers are a fickle lot.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 2 Stars is you're a tea-bagger who only likes reading history after Glen Beck or Bill O'Really has rewritten it.