Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Last Dragonslayer - Jasper Fforde

    2012; 287 pages.  Book One  (out of 3) in The Last Dragonslayer series  New Author? : No.  Genre : YA; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Lately, magic has been getting rather scarce in the Ununited Kingdoms.  Sure, there are still sorcerers around, but instead of conjuring up storms and moving mountains, they’ve been reduced to (magically) unclogging drains, rewiring houses, and eradicating moles from lawns.  And just like a dying battery, every use of magic seems to drain the pool of it some more.

    Even worse, the last dragon, Maltcassion, is rumored to be old and dying.  And some say that when he dies, there will be no more magic at all.

    Meanwhile, at the Kazam Mystical Arts Management, young Jennifer Strange is still quite busy.  Not doing magic, of course; Jennifer’s been tested, and she’s got no talent for that.  But even sorcerers have bills to pay, and someone has to take care of the business end of magic-for-hire.

    And someone needs to take care of a bunch of fading, pouting wizards.  At least until the magic runs out.

What’s To Like...
    The Last Dragonslayer is Jasper Fforde’s first foray into YA fantasy.  I have high expectations of anything Forde writes, and, as always, he does not disappoint.

    There are a bunch of outstanding characters to get acquainted with.  The magic-weavers that our protagonist, Jennifer, has to deal with, are a fascinating and varied group – a storm conjuror (at least she used to be able to do this), one that communicates on a subconscious level, a beguiler, and a pre-cognitive (he can predict the future, but it's usually useless), among others.  Oooh, and don’t forget the Quarkbeast, the dragon Maltcassion, and Hector the Transient Moose. They’re all delightful.

    This is YA literature, so everything is 100% clean – no sex, no drugs, no booze, etc.  Jennifer Strange may be coming of age, but there’s no romance (at least in this book), which is a refreshing change of pace for a YA fantasy offering with a teenage female lead.

    The plotline is not particularly twisty, but the pacing is quick, and young readers won’t get bored at all.  There are some serious themes to muse upon as well – the senselessness of war, the role of business in promoting war, and the power of propaganda to seduce people into accepting a war mentality.  The ending is superb.

Kewlest New Word...
Scatty (adj.) : absentminded and disorganized; scatterbrained.  (a Britishism)
Others : Bollard (n.).

    It’s not a good idea to have civilians around when sorcery is afoot.  Even the stoutest incantations carry redundant strands of spell that can cause havoc if allowed to settle on the general public.  Nothing serious ever happened; it was mostly rapid nose hair growth, oinking like a pig, blue pee, that sort of stuff.  It soon wore off, but it was bad for business.  (loc. 109)

    “He called me Gwanjii.”
    “Ah,” replied Feldspar solemnly, “that is an old dragon word.  A word that one dragon might use to another perhaps twice in his lifetime.”
    “What does it mean?”
    “Friend.”  (loc. 2524)

Kindle Details...
    The Last Dragonslayer sells for $2.24 at Amazon, which frankly is a fantastic price for a Jasper Fforde novel, even if it is YA.  The rest of his books fall in the $6.15-$12.18 range..

Working with those versed in the Mystical Arts was sometimes like trying to knit with wet spaghetti: just when you thought you’d gotten somewhere, it all came to pieces in your hands.  (loc. 54)
    The quibbles are few.  Once again, methane gas is presented as having a disagreeable odor.  Folks, methane is odorless.  Yes, natural gas is methane, and it stinks.  But that’s because municipalities add a small amount of mercaptan to it so people can detect gas leaks.

    The resolution of Gordon, the apprentice dragonslayer, felt rushed and rather unbelievable.  He was quite the clever one, yet committed an elementary blunder.

    Finally, there are a bunch of loose threads that never get tied up, but I suspect these will be addressed as the series rolls along.

    8 Stars.  I enjoyed The Last Dragonslayer, despite not being the target audience, and it satisfied my Jasper Fforde thirst without me having to reread one of his earlier books.  Add ½ star if you are a young adult reader who likes to read Fantasy, cuz this is going to be right down your alley.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Terra Incognita - Ruth Downie

    2010; 400 pages.  Book #2 (out of 6) of the Medicus series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Crime Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    In Roman-ruled, 2nd-century Britannia, the natives are restless.  A legionnaire has been murdered, and they fear that the Roman army commander will once again pin the blame on a local, whether it is true or not.

    The Romans are happy of oblige, and finding a suspect is an easy matter.  There’s enough circumstantial evidence to execute one of the local troublemakers for the crime.  But the garrison's own (Roman) medical doctor is also confessing to the crime, which complicates matters.

    Then there’s the visiting medicus, Gaius Petreius Ruso, a naïve do-gooder who doesn’t believe either one of the suspects did it.  He changes his mind often as to who he thinks the murderer is, and admittedly has no evidence against any of them.  He’ll mess everything up with his meddling.

    And wouldn’t you know it, he’s our protagonist.

What’s To Like...
    Terra Incognita is the second book of Ruth Downie’s 6-book (so far) series, and once again is a pleasant combination of Historical Fiction and Murder Mystery.  Tilla is still Ruso’s slave, although that status becomes rather iffy now that they are among Tilla’s people at the northernmost limit of the Roman Empire.

   The Historical Fiction is a mixed bag.  On one hand, you have anachronisms such as candles, women’s underwear, and expressions such as “Right-oh” and “Fellers”.  On the other, there is an unusual and fascinating feeling if living in the hinterlands of a Roman Empire stretched woefully thin, with the restless Britons ready to do some pushing back. 

    The Murder Mystery is also mixed.  It’s a Police Procedural, which I always like, with lots of slimeballs, malcontents, and good-but-suspicious characters to investigate.  Ruso eventually susses out the perp, but lacks any proof.  The ending is average.  I kept waiting for a “twist” but none was forthcoming, and the events leading up to the culprit’s confession called for considerable suspension of belief.

    But it’s the wit and humor that make Terra Incognita an entertaining read.  Things such as the bedbugs at the Golden Fleece Inn and Doctor Ruso’s Special Love Potion will have you chuckling chapter after chapter.  There’s also some romance, some jealousy, and the more serious topic of drug addiction to balance the levity.

    This is both a standalone novel and a key book in a series.  A lot of Tilla’s background gets filled in, and her relationship with Ruso takes a significant turn.  There are lots of new characters to meet, a bunch of old ones from Medicus to greet, plus a handy Cast of Characters in the front should you get confused.  The Epilogue is a particularly compelling way to close out the book.

Kewlest New Word...
Dozy (adj.) : stupid  (a Britishism)
Others : Fug (n.).

    “When you think about it, we’re all foreigners here.  Except the Britons, of course.”
    “You know what I mean.  Troops who are used to those sorts of conditions.  The sort of chap who tramps bare chested through bogs and picks his teeth with a knife.  They bring them in from Germania, or Gaul, or somewhere.”
    “I’m from Gaul,” Ruso reminded him.
    “Yes, but you’re from the warm end.  You’re practically one of us.”  This was evidently intended as a compliment.  (loc. 228)

    “I’m trying to get the beer drinking under control here.”
    “Really?  Gambax told me you and he had a drink together when you first got here.  Then you asked specially to be put in the room with the barrel.  I hope you’re not falling into bad ways, Ruso.  Beer’s not good for you, you know.  Bad for the membranes, makes you bulge, and produces flatulence.  Dioscorides says so.”
    “Then why are you drinking it?”
    “To be sociable, of course.”  (loc. 4689)

Kindle Details...
    Terra Incognita sells for $9.59 at Amazon.  The other Medicus books range in price from $7.55  to $9.99.  The first novel is no longer a steal at $1.99.

“There was no fun in teasing Albanus.  It was like poking a kitten with a stick.”  (loc. 482)
    This is the fifth book I’ve read in this series (I'm not reading them in order), and I’ve made my peace with the historical anachronisms and modern lingo therein  They enhance the “feel” of the setting, and contribute to the wit.

    My only issue with Terra Incognita concerns “Stagman”, the local leader who’s stirring up the restive Britons with dreams of freedom.   This is a fascinating point in Anglo-Roman history, one of the few times the Empire decided that further conquest was too costly; and Ruth Downie develops this scenario nicely.  Alas, this thread is left unresolved, both here and in the subsequent books.

    This is apparently deliberate on the author’s part, as indicated in her Afterword.  But the reader is left hanging when nothing comes of it.  Oh well, one can always hope for Stagman to show up again sometime later in the series.

    8 Stars.  Don’t let my quibbling deter you from reading these books.  This is a fun and entertaining series, and I’ll be reading the one remaining book, Persona Non Grata, just as soon as I can borrow it from my local library.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fifty Shades Of Grey - E.L. James

   2011; 514 pages.  Book 1 (out of 3) in the Fifty Shades trilogy.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Erotic Fiction; Romance.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It must’ve been love at first sight.  Anastasia Steele fell head-over-heels when she met Christian Grey.  Actually, she tripped and fell flat on her face as she entered the room to interview him, but that’s pretty much the same thing, right?

    And it apparently worked because Christian obviously became very interested in her – finding ways for them to cross paths, etc.  Yet he’s also warned Anastasia to stay away from him, because he has a darker side that she might not like.

    But our protagonists are smitten with each other.  And that’s pretty much the same thing as being in love, right?

What’s To Like...
    Fifty Shades of Grey is both a piece of Erotic Fiction and a Romance novel, and it delivers in both categories.  The erotic parts are plentiful and, well, erotic.  However, this is not smut.  Things get kinky, but there’s nothing hardcore here – stuff like bestiality, excrement, disfigurement, orgies, etc,  What is present is … well, I’ll let you read the book to find out.

    Our two protagonists are frankly stereotypical and over-the-top.  Christian is infinitely rich, incredibly handsome, and, as in any piece of Romance fiction, a tireless stud.  Yet he feeds the poor in Darfur, and always wears a condom.  Anastasia is a senior in college, strikingly pretty, intelligent, yet has somehow managed to stay a virgin, more by chance than by choice.  Indeed, she’s never even kissed a guy, so she’s an orgasm waiting to explode.

    Yet Fifty Shades of Grey is a Romance too.  Not every page is steaming with sex.  The rolling-in-the-hay episodes are balanced by going to dinners, helicopter rides, a graduation ceremony, flying in a glider, and meeting the crazies in each other’s family.  The POV is first-person, Ana’s, but E.L. James cleverly works Christian’s thoughts into the story via e-mail exchanges.  Ana has lots of conversations with her “inner goddess” and “subconscious”.  Think of them as the “little devil” and “little angel” from those cartoons you watched as a kid.

    The supporting characters are less stereotyped, adequately developed, and interesting.  I especially liked Taylor, the chauffeur.  The story ends at a significant and logical point, but obviously everything is not tied up, since there are two more books to go.  Needless to say, this is a book for mature audiences only.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Profligate (adj.) : recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources.
Others : Concupiscent (adj.).

    “First, the technology to track cell phones is available over the Internet.  Second, my company does not invest or manufacture any kind of surveillance devices.  And third, if I hadn’t come to get you, you’d probably be waking up in the photographer’s bed, and from what I can remember you weren’t overly enthused about him pressing his suit,” he says acidly.
    Pressing his suit!  I glance up at Christian.  He’s glaring at me, eyes blazing, aggrieved.  I try to bite my lip, but I fail to repress my giggle.
    “Which medieval chronicle did you escape from?  You sound like a courtly knight.” (pg. 67)

    “You’re a sadist?”
    “I’m a Dominant.”  His eyes are scorching gray, intense.
    “What does that mean?” I whisper.
    “It means I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things.”
    I frown at him as I try to assimilate this idea.
    “Why would I do that?”
    “To please me,” he whispers as he cocks his head to one side, and I see a ghost of a smile.  (pg. 100)

 I’m going to Seattle by helicopter with Christian Grey.  And he wants to bite my lip. (pg. 75)
    Fifty Shades of Grey gets regularly blasted for its poor writing, and there is some merit to that, especially in its irritatingly repetition of a slew of clichés, among which are: faces “flushing”, eyes “rolling”, habitual lip “biting”, heads being cocked, brows being furrowed, Anastasia forgetting to breathe, and electrical "touching".

    But here are some startling figures regarding this book.  Over 30,000 people have reviewed it on Amazon.  Over 68,000 people have reviewed it on Goodreads.  More than 1 million people have rated it on Goodreads.  That’s a lot of people taking time to read it and then being inspired enough to give their opinions about it.

    The truth is, the writing may be mediocre, but the storytelling is superb.  This isn’t the literary porn usually spawned by Erotic Fiction writers (think Penthouse Forum).  It’s about a Dominant-Submissive relationship where the “Sub” can get positively uppity at times.  From the Romance aspect, we know that the relationship will go on for two more books – Ana championing “Love”, Christian championing “Lust”.  But whether the two will ultimately live happily ever after is very much up in the air.

    E.L. James has succeeded overwhelmingly in writing a provocative book/trilogy that resonates with female Romance readers who are not of the “vanilla sex for me only, please” persuasion.  As a male reader, I found the book dragged at times, especially the long conversations Ana has with her inner goddess and subconscious about love, passion, romance, and commitment.  But I recognize such musings are an integral part of any Romance, which is why I avoid reading the genre as much as I can.

    7 Stars.  This is a “male rating”.  Add one star if you’re female, another star if you’re hooked on reading love stories, and a third star if “vanilla” just isn’t an exciting-enough flavor for you.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Son Of A Witch - Gregory Maguire

    2005; 329 pages.  New Author? : No, but it’s been a while.  Book 2 (out of 4) of “The Wicked Years” series.  Genre : Revisionist Fairy Tale.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    The paying passengers won’t like it, but Oatsie Manglehand can’t just leave him lying there.  The poor lad is unconscious, his clothes are shredded, and he’s bleeding to death from huge scratches all over his body.

    There isn’t time for the Grasstrail Train to stop and bury the dying soul.  But there is time to pick him up and just dump him on the doorstep of the nearby Cloister of Saint Glinda.  It would take a miracle to save him, but at least the maunts there can facilitate things by praying him into the next world.

    But the eldest of the maunts vaguely remember the young man, from his stay there many years ago.  He was just a boy back then, and was in the company of a witch.  A very special witch.  Elphaba.  There were rumors, never verified, that she was his mother.  And he had a name, which one of the maunts remembers after much deliberation.


What’s To Like...
    Son of a Witch is the sequel to Gregory Maguire’s best-seller, Wicked (reviewed here).  Liir, a minor character (IIRC) in the first book, now takes center stage.  For a while, the chapters bounce around between Liir in the present (a young man), flashbacks of his life immediately following Wicked, and a couple of maunts (“nuns”) investigating some mutilation killings, albeit with some understandable trepidation.

    The characters are a pleasant mix of holdovers from the first book (mostly in the flashbacks) and new beasts, Beasts, and beings.  The book is well-written, and is a vocabularian’s delight.  The author offers some pithy insights on Religion, Politics, War, Ethics, Animal Rights, and Prophecy; and the interconnection of all of them.

    For quite a while the pacing is poor and the storyline meanders aimlessly along.  But if you stick it out until 62%-Kindle - which is when the flashbacks end and everything thereafter proceeds linearly forward –the action picks up and the storyline comes into focus.  The ending is particularly strong.

    There is a lot of R-Rated stuff: adult language, masturbation, gay sex, and “forced” straight sex.  I suppose this is because Maguire is trying to tell a darker version of the Wizard of Oz tale, but frankly it felt awkward and unnecessary.  OTOH, Wicked was equally “R”, and that was a smashing success, so maybe it’s just me.

    For the most part, SoaW was a plodding and somewhat confusing read for me – partly due to the aforementioned pacing, partly due to the fact that it had no reference point (Book 1 has The Wizard of Oz), and partly due to a 6-year personal reading gap between Wicked and Son Of A Witch.  There were characters to recall, and specialized “Ozzian” parlance (maunts, Quadlings, menaciers, animals/Animals, etc.) to fathom out again.  A bare-bones backstory is inserted around 4%-Kindle, via one of the maunt’s musings, but things would’ve gone smoother with a glossary/appendix or two.

Kewlest New Word...
Wiftier (adj.) : Ditzier; Sillier; More Eccentric.
Others : Loggia (n.); Colloquy (n.); Epibolically (adv.); Fillip (n.); Stroppy (adj., a Britishism); Chilblained (adj.); Flitch (n.).  I never did find an apt definition for ‘flitch’.

    He’d left the unionist mauntery too young to absorb any of the tenets of faith that supported the cloistered way of life.  From the distance of a skeptical adolescent, unionism seemed like a thicket of contradictions.  Charity to all, but intolerance toward the heathen.  Poverty ennobles, but the Bishops had to be richer than everyone else.  The Unnamed God made the good world, imprisoning the rebellious human being within it, and taunting humankind with tinderbox sexuality that must be guarded against at all odds.  (loc. 499)

    “I can’t be in danger here.  Look, what?  Are the very elm leaves going to wreathe up by magic and smother me?”
    “Something attacked you six weeks ago, and for a reason,” she reminded him.
    “I had a flying broom.  Of all things.  No reason more than that.”
    “You had the power to fly on it, too.”
    “An ant has the power to wander aboard an eagle.”  (loc. 3400)

Kindle Details...
    Son of a Witch sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  The other three books in the series are in the $4.99-8.00 price range.  Gregory Maguire has another dozen or so books available for the Kindle, the majority of which have a “Fractured Fairy Tale” motif, in the $1.99-$8.99 range.

“The world is the womb now, and the Afterlife waits for one to be born into it.”  (loc. 294)
    At its core, Son of a Witch is a story about a small-yet-tenacious uprising against the Emperor, that started with Elphaba and is helped along by Liir.  If you keep that in mind while reading the book, the plotline will seem a lot less disjointed.

    If you read SoaW as a coming-of-age story about Liir, you’ll find it to be a slow, and oftentimes an aimless slog.   Liir visits a prison (Southstairs), attends a bird conference, and peels a ton of potatoes in the Home Guard.  Yawn.

    It’s even worse if  (as I did) you thought you'd be reading a Looking for Nor” adventure story.  You will be chasing a chimera, because Nor is nothing more than a literary MacGuffin here.

    So it is not surprising that the book left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.  Upon reflection, however, it dawned on me that I had approached it wrong.  This is a series about a rebellion.  Nor may or may not ever show up again.

    7 Stars.  The strength of Gregory Maguire’s writing is countered by the not-very-focused storytelling.  The next book in the series, A Lion Among Men, is on my TBR shelf, and I will read it with a different expectation.  Add 1 star if you read this book for the sedition, not for the seeking.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Finding Clarity - Laura Novak

    2011; 242 pages.  Full Title : Finding Clarity: A Mom, A Dwarf, and a Posh Private School in the People’s Republic of Berkeley.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Contemporary Humor; Mystery.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Clarissa “Clari” Drake’s career as a cute television reporter is pretty much over, thanks to two kids, eighty pounds, and an embarrassing video that went viral.  But she has a loving husband and two adorable kids, Zachary and Zeppo, so life in Berkeley, California – or, as some natives call it, Berzerkeley - is good.

    Zach has a rare condition called achondroplasia, which is a fancy word for dwarfism, and kids in school can be kinda mean.  So Clari enrolls him in a posh private school in Berkeley called Bidwell-Coggin, where, surprisingly, he's accepted among his fellow students and thrives .

    But something is fishy in the school board at B-C, and when the kindly old headmaster gets unceremoniously booted out, Clari’s investigative reporting instincts come out of hibernation, itching for some exercise.  Now if she can just find a couple of allies to help her with her snooping.

What’s To Like...
    The book’s subtitle lets you know that there is humor inside, and I personally found it to be a kind of “mild Erma Bombeck” variety – warm, wacky, family-oriented, and witty.  The POV is first-person, which is also in the Bombeck style.  The protagonist, Clari, is overweight, “sagging” (her word, not mine), with way too much cellulite.  I like it when the hero isn’t picture-perfect.

    Clari’s three co-conspirators (they call themselves the Ice Pick 4) are an eclectic blend of social and racial political correctness.  There’s the aging Earth Mother (Elspeth), the gay Hispanic (Carlos), and the angry black woman (Sydney), plus a Goth “fringe member” (Julian).  You’re treated to a couple more minorities via the bad guys, but it would be a spoiler to give details.  OTOH, every other character seems to get lumped into a single, stereotyped category – spoiled, rich, pretentious, Northern California snobs.

    There is some R-rated language.  While it didn’t offend me, it did feel clunky and unnecessary.  Erma didn’t need cusswords to be effective.  And while the humor and writing style were both good, the pacing was extremely slow.  At 50% (Kindle), I was still wondering whether a storyline existed, let alone whether it was going anywhere.

    Nevertheless, for the most part, the ending ties things up adequately.  Finding Clarity is a standalone novel and, while it is conceivable that a sequel or series could arise, I would be surprised if that happened.

Kewlest New Word...
Bilious (adj.) : affected by, or associated with nausea or vomiting.
Others : Walleye (n.); Gnocchi (adj., and used way too often)

    “He didn’t say anything else?”
    “Clari, let it go,” Andy advised from the edge of the daybed, where he was now seated, holding Zeppo upside down in a headstand.
    “There were some platitudes,” Zach continued in his tiny adult manner.  “But nothing of substance.”  I pulled my head back an inch and pursed my mouth.
    “Platitudes, huh?”  Lord love a duck, I didn’t know where he came up with those phrases.
    “But not to be confused with plongitudes,” Zeppo shrieked through his giggles.  (loc. 640)

    It was common knowledge that Sonya had always wanted to be on the Board and that Dick DeNutti blocked her each time she tried.  So, I got that she was a bored, rich, roving cliché in need of some putty to fill her psychic holes.  And I got that she was rail thin and attractive and probably wore really nice underwear.  I got all that.  But eeeewwwww, John Thomas Mueskes?  What, was she kidding?  (loc. 1655)

Kindle Details...
    Finding Clarity sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  At present, it is the only full-length novel that Laura Novak has available there.

“What kind of four-year-old uses the word bilious?”  (loc. 927)
    Alas, Finding Clarity is also touted as a mystery novel, and it is here that the book really disappoints.  First of all, the crime – school board hijinks – is by nature boring.  No murders, no  kidnapping, no thefts; just underhanded business dealings.

    Second, there are too many WTF’s.  The suspected bad guy keeps incriminating papers lying around in his bathroom.  To boot, when Clari absconds with them, he apparently doesn’t miss them.  And Mrs. Bad Guy can’t seem to remember seeing Clari’s face, even though they keep bumping into each other in all sorts of important times and places.

    The resolution of the mystery is equally unsatisfying.  The suspicious business deal seems fraudulent at first, but when Clari perceives it will extend the time that Zachary doesn’t have to go to public school, she’s all for it.  As for the alleged sexual shenanigans and their cover-up, Clari concludes it is all a shakedown by the so-called victims.

    Okay fine.  In the end a couple careers are ruined, a couple secrets are aired, but nothing morally or criminally wrong is uncovered.  Frankly, Clari comes off to me as a meddling b*tch, or , in the words of her son, "a shit disturber".

    5½ Stars.  As a piece of humorous commentary, Finding Clarity is an okay read, and that’s what I picked it up for.  Subtract  1½ stars if you were looking for a Janet Evanovich-type mystery.