Friday, June 26, 2015

Little God Blues - Jeffrey M. Anderson

    2014; 280 pages.  Full title : Little God Blues (The Jim Shalabon Playlist) (Volume 1).  New Author? : Yes  Genre : Murder Mystery; Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It was a tragedy, really.  Jim Shalabon’s ex-bandmate, Kirk Howell, found dead in London from a lethal drug overdose combination of cocaine and amphetamines.  But OD-ing is a common occurrence for rock stars, right?  So it’s just a matter of whether it was suicide or an accident.

    Except for one small thing.  Being in the same band, Jim knows that Kirk never did drugs.  He’d even gone as far as to chide his “user” bandmates (including Jim) about the perils of drugs.

    Then there’s the odd fact the Kirk was clutching a book of Russian poems in his hands when he died.  It may seem incidental what a victim was carrying at the time of his demise.  But those poems were written by Jim’s father.

What’s To Like...
      If you like your Murder-Mysteries heavy on the Intrigue, Little God Blues is for you.  There’s not a lot of action, but gobs of suspects.  It’s not so much a matter of choosing from a bunch of motives; it’s more about finding a plausible motive at all.

    The “Little God” concept (see first excerpt below) is quite innovative, and frankly, if you focus in that aspect while reading this book, I think you’ll enjoy it more.  Our protagonist becomes an agent for said “little god”, albeit unwittingly, and a number of lives get straightened out (or at least, re-aligned) through him.

     The book is (mostly) written from the First Person POV.  Blood-wise, the book borders on being a cozy.  Kirk is already dead and buried by page one, and the ‘removal’ of other characters occurs offstage.  But there’s a lot of cussing and a little sex, so prudes should probably avoid this one.  The two basic mysteries – Kirk’s demise and Jim’s father’s book of poems – are resolved by the end.  But other threads remain, and it is obvious that there will be a sequel.

    The story is set in 2001-2002 London.  Jeffrey M. Anderson reportedly lives there; and he does a great job of “painting” the setting.  I’ve been lucky enough to have visited England several times, and this book brought back great memories.

    The pacing in the first third of the book felt slow.  Jim spends a lot of time mooning over the loss of his ex-bandmate, and the song lyrics at the start of the chapters didn’t factor into the storyline, and frankly were a distraction for me.  But after a while both disappear, and the story picks up the pace nicely.

   FWIW, my favorite parts of the book were a couple of “tangents”.  The NE1 role-playing scene was both fascinating and funny.  And the Siege of Leningrad sideline was positively riveting.

Kewlest New Word...
Recrudescent (adj.) : breaking out again, renewing disease after abatement, suppression, or cessation.

    To choose from among the infinite and keep such choice in balance, second by second, so that the entire universe moves seamlessly, must be a gargantuan task.  The mother desperately praying for her child to live is asking God to reconfigure the universe, reconcile to a new storyline an entire unwinding of events out to infinity.  Can death be that shortcut?  A simplifying maneuver so that this overtaxed deity does not have to reconcile all lives out to infinity then back again?
    Rhythm of the dice implies randomness, and randomness subverts Belief.  The thought of that overworked god, Little God, helped.  (loc. 1074)

    “I am talking about taste.  You taste to me quite good.  This is what kissing is for on biological level. It is a test to see if man and woman are optimum for children.”  She stopped for a moment.  “You see, I had to know.”
    (. . .)
    “It tells me of great difficulty to be friends.  It is like we are in the same bed but for sleep only.  To say this to each other, oh, we will only sleep, we are fooling ourselves.”
    “Sula, have you considered the possibility that you think too much?”  (loc. 2367)

“The hardest thing to do is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat..”  (loc. 1534)
    My two main problems with this novel were the protagonist and the murder-mystery itself.

    Jim Shalabon has a good heart (something an agent of the Little God ought to have), but is otherwise unremarkable.  He’s financially well-off, and can play guitar, but asking the reader to believe that he can solve crimes that Scotland Yard can’t is quite the stretch of believability.  Indeed, when the investigators come to Jim for direction, I had to go “WTF”?

    Then there’s a crime-mystery itself.  In the end, its motivation is rather anti-climactic, and Jim’s investigative method – “bluffing” his way by postulating theories to suspects, and having them then implicate themselves for no discernible reason – again strained my logical sensibilities.

    So read this as a “Little God” story:  the Universe is quietly straightening Itself out after a small hiccup, and you’ll not be disappointed.  And if you come to a WTF in the Crime-Solving, just chalk that up to Cosmic Tweaking.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 star if you’ve ever played in a band; and another 1 star if you find Jim Shalabon fascinating.  After all, Sula did.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Redshirts - John Scalzi

    2012; 314 pages.  Full Title (at least on Amazon) : Redshirts – A Novel With Three Codas.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science Fiction; TV Spoofery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Welcome, new crewmen, to the spaceship Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union!  Or as we affectionately call it here, “The Dub U”.  You are here because of some …um… unplanned openings in the Intrepid’s crew and we wish you best of luck in your new assignments!

    Among the many perks of serving on this flagship, is the opportunity to visit new alien worlds as part of our regularly-occurring “away missions”.  You will accompany the highest-ranking members of our command team on these missions, and most recruits find them to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    That is all for now.  Please pick up your red shirts on your way to your new quarters, and again, Welcome aboard!

What’s To Like...
    The book’s title is slightly misleading; the band of crewmen that we follow here don’t wear red shirts.  But anyone who even occasionally watched the Star Trek of Spock and Kirk (or has seen its internet memes), knows what a redshirt is, and it is a treat to watch John Scalzi explore this phenomenon and offer at least one possible explanation for it.  The main protagonist is Ensign Andrew Dahl, and he and four other recruits quickly learn that when Captain Abernathy or any of the other top officers on the Intrepid come looking for volunteers for an away mission, the savvy veteran crewmen know to make themselves scarce.

    Redshirts has the same relative balance of Action and Personal Interaction as the original Star Trek had, so if you liked that series, you’ll enjoy this book.  The difference is that the storyline follows five of the ordinary crewmen, not the command team.  The book is divided into three roughly-equal-in-length parts, which we'll call The Paradox, The Solution, and the sub-titular Three Codas.

    The writing is great and strewn with wit, which is what we've come to expect of John Scalzi.  This is much “lighter” in tone than his Old Man’s War series, but it still comes with at least one thought-provoking topic – predestination.  There are “tips-of-the-hat” to some fellow authors, such as Jasper Fforde, and the unforgettable Denise Hogan.  And to Star Trek, of course.   

    There is cussing here, as is true of all of Scalzi’s books that I’ve read so far.  This is a standalone novel with a pair of endings – one at the end of the second section; the other after the three codas are done.  And as a chemist, I would give anything for the “Magic Box” the Intrepid has in its science lab.

Kewlest New Word...
Chuppah (n.) : a canopy beneath which Jewish marriage ceremonies are performed.

    “Hey, Jer,” Finn said, walking up to him.  “It’s me, Finn.”
    Weston squinted.  “Finn?  Seriously?  Here?”  He smiled.  “Jesus, man.  What are the odds?”
    “I know!” Finn said, and then shot Weston with a stun pulse.  Weston collapsed.
    “That was your plan?” Dahl said a second later.  “Hoping he’d pause in recognition before he shot you?”
    “In retrospect, the plan has significant logistical issues,” Finn admitted.  “On the other hand, it worked.  You can’t argue with success.”
    “Sure you can,” Dahl said, “when it’s based on stupidity.”  (pg. 128)

    “Do you think our lives make any sense at all?” Hester said.  “You’ve got us living in a universe where there are killer robots with harpoons walking around a space station, because, sure, it makes perfect sense to have harpoon-launching killer robots.”
    “Or ice sharks,” Duvall said.
    “Or Borgovian Land Worms,” Hanson said.
    Weinstein held up a finger.  “I was not responsible for those land worms,” he said.  “I was out for two weeks with bird flu.  The writer who did that script loved Dune.  By the time I got back, it was too late.  The Herbert estate flayed us for those.”  (pg. 196)

“It doesn’t bother you that a science lab has a magic box in it?”  (pg. 63)
    As intriguing as the Redshirt phenomenon is, it is an almost impossible task to write a story about it, lasting over 300 pages.  To be sure, John Scalzi does a good job of stretching the subject, and in the hands of a lesser writer this would have been a very tedious read.  And yet...

    The action, though plentiful, gets repetitive, and I grew impatient with the protagonists and how slowly they grasped the situation they were in.  The Codas are necessary due to the need to tie up the plot threads involving characters beyond our five protagonists.  But it made for an awkwardly structured book.  Apparently, Scalzi likes to serialize his books first, and Redshirts had that “feel” to it.

    Still, if you make it through the repetitive action in the first part of this book, you’re treated to a great storyline in the second.  And the codas do nicely tie all the loose threads up, if you’re the type of reader who needs that.  Which I am.

    8 Stars8 stars for Part 1; 9 stars for Part 2; 7 Stars for the Codas.   Certainly not John Scalzi’s most serious literary effort, but in a strange sort of way, his most ambitious one.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Eye of Zoltar - Jasper Fforde

    2014; 398 pages.  Book Three (out of 3) in The Chronicles of Kazam series  New Author? : No.  Genre : YA; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    All in all, the task that The Mighty Shandar has assigned to Jennifer Strange isn’t too bad.  Find something called The Eye of Zoltar.  Which is said to be hidden somewhere on Cadir Idris, per the Sky Pirate Wolff telling somebody or other.

    Except, no one’s exactly sure what the Eye of Zoltar looks like.  Indeed, many say it's just a legend.  Plus, The Pirate Wolff hasn’t been seen for years.  And as for Cadir Idris, lots of people have entered its domain.  None have ever returned.

    But lives depend on completing The Mighty Shandar’s task, one of which is Jennifer’s.  Just don’t call this a quest.  Quests require a license and the cost to get one of those is staggering.  So let's just call this a  search.

What’s To Like...
    The Eye of Zoltar is Book 3 of the Chronicles of Kazam series, aka The Last Dragonslayer series, and starts a mere two weeks after the end of Book 2.  There are new lands to traipse through (the Cambrian Empire, Cadir Idris); new people to meet (Addie, Princess Shazza, et. al.) and new beasts to avoid getting eaten by (the Tralfamosaur and the Cloud Leviathan, for two).

    As with any Jasper Fforde  book, there are several plotlines going on simultaneously.  Here, in addition to looking for the Eye of Zoltar, Jennifer has to unspoil a princess, pay ransom for a wizard, and follow the bouncing dragon.  Kewlness.  But Fforde also addresses more serious themes here, including the senselessness of war, predestination, and (surprisingly) the business of trading commodities and futures.

    Some familiar characters get fleshed out, among them King Snodd, Queen Mimosa, and The Mighty Shandar.  Chapter 1 gives a backstory for those who aren’t reading the series in order.  The book starts out in the usual way – we join Jennifer and company on a Kazam “Mystical Arts” mission.

    As always, Jasper Fforde’s incomparable wit blends in smoothly with his superb storytelling.  I did feel like the story dragged once or twice, especially when traveling through the wilds of Cambria.  But the lags are few and far between.  Finally, a quick shout-out to the citing of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto; a fantastic piece of music.  You have excellent tastes, Mr. Fforde!

Kewlest New Word...
Billycan (n.) : a lightweight cooking pot which is used on a campfire or a camping stove.

    “…considering the loathsome creatures that either squirm, squelch, drift, or creep around this country, a dragon has a terror rating of two.  And to put that into context, a Tralfamosaur is a five, and my gran is an eight.”
    “Your grandmother must be very scary,” I said.
    “She ate a live whippet once,” said Addie, “which is pretty scary, especially during a wedding.”
    “What did the bride and groom say?”
    “She was the bride.”  (loc. 1431)

    “What do I do?” asked the princess.
    “You keep your head down.”
    She looked at me petulantly.  “Like hell I will.  If we’re going to die, I’m going to go down fighting, even if I’m terrible with a weapon.”
    “Fair enough,” I said, and handed her a cutlass.  She swished it around.
    “Pointy end toward the bad guy, right?”
    “Right.”  (loc. 3176)

Kindle Details...
    The Eye of Zoltar sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  Book One, The Last Dragonslayer, sells for $5.03.  Book Two, The Song of the Quarkbeast, goes for $6.15.

“Death cannot be avoided forever, but it can be postponed – it’s very much like doing the dishes.”  (loc. 1968)
    In several ways, The Eye of Zoltar was shockingly different from the first two books in the series.  First, the tone of the story is much “darker”.  There’s a lot more violence, and some good characters die, with even good wizards not being exempt.  We are a long way from the lighthearted silliness of the bridge-building contest in The Song of the Quarkbeast.

    All of the storyline threads are not tied up at the end, which is very unusual for a Fforde tale.  And the ending, while not exactly a cliffhanger, does leave the reader in the lurch.  There will definitely be a Book 4 in this series, and right now, Wikipedia is saying it will be 2016 before it comes out.

    OTOH, the series’ storyline now has some direction, and we have an updated idea of who the major players are going to be, besides our main protagonist, Jennifer.  It will be interesting to see whether the tone of Book 4 is similarly “LOTR dark”, or if it returns to “Hobbit-like lightness".

    8 Stars.  The Eye of Zoltar is a good read, but not quite up to the level of the first two books, which were fantastic.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Ghost Brigades - John Scalzi

    2006; 343 pages.  Book 2 (out of soon-to-be 6) in the Old Man’s War series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Military Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Well, it was worth a try.  The brilliant scientist, Charles Boutin, betrayed mankind to aliens who are our sworn-enemies, and nobody can figure out why.  But a copy of his consciousness was left behind, and someone got the brilliant idea of implanting it into a ghost brigade embryo.  Of course, the embryo will also develop its own consciousness, but maybe Boutin’s will override it, talk, and reveal the reasons for his treachery.

    But alas, it appears the guinea ghost, Jared Dirac, has no subconscious competition going on; the implant of Boutin's mind had no effect.  Jared is released back into the Ghost Brigade to be just another soldier.

    And then the weird memories began to surface.

What’s To Like...
    The Ghost Brigades is the sequel to the opener in this series, Old Man’s War, and frankly is every bit as superb a story.  The structure is the same – Intro, Training, First Mission, Main Mission – and it works just as well this second time around.  We now follow a member of the Ghost Brigade, Jared Dirac, instead of one of the realborn, John Perry.  FWIW, Perry doesn’t even appear in this sequel, which I thought was very unusual.

    All the characters, and moreover, all the species, are “gray”.  Space opera lovers will enjoy the species John Scalzi serves up; in addition to humankind and the crablike Consu from the first book,  we now are introduced to the insectoid Enesha, the birdlike Rraey, and the bizarrely tinkered-with Obin.

    This is a “hard” science fiction work, and at times the storyline slows down as Scalzi discusses the physics behind the various techno-novelties, such as the Brain-Pal and the Skip Drive.  But the lags are brief, the technology fascinating, and there are lots of plot twists to keep you turning the pages.  The character development is masterful and deep; for example, it's fun to watch the relationship between Jared and Seaborg evolve from jealousy to grudging respect.

    If you’re looking for excitement, this will serve as a standalone novel.  But it moves the series’ overarching story along as well, and naturally, your understanding of what’s going on is better if you read Old Man’s War first.  The ending is nothing short of fantastic.  Prude Alert : There is some cussing, but you'd expect that in a military environment.

Kewlest New Word...
Bolus (n.) : a small rounded mass of a substance.

    The verdicts were reasonably consistent.  The War of the Worlds met with approval until the ending, which struck the 8th as a cheap trick.  Starship Troopers had some good action scenes but required too much unpacking of philosophical ideas; they liked the movie better, even though they recognized it was dumber. (...)  After watching Star Wars everyone wanted a lightsaber and was irritated that the technology for them didn’t really exist.  Everyone also agreed that the Ewoks should all die.  (pg. 98)

    “It’s ugly but it’s state-of-the-art,” Wilson said.  He walked over and slapped the refrigerator-looking object.  “This is the smallest Skip Drive ever created,” he said.  “Hot off the assembly line.  And not only is it small, but it’s an example of the first real advance we’ve had in Skip Drive technology in decades.”
    “Let me guess,” Jared said.  “It’s based on that Consu technology we stole from the Rraey.”
    “You make it sound like a bad thing,” Wilson said.  (pg. 204)

“Fear is existential.”  (pg. 286)
    The thought-provoking debates between the two protagonists – Jared Dirac and Charles Boutin – spotlight the crux of the story - who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?  For that matter, does such a black-&-white dichotomy even exist?

    John Scalzi also tackles some sub-themes of this question, including topics like assisted suicide, self-sacrifice, the killing of hostages, and, in the Jared's case, predestination versus free choice.  And while it would be easy to dismiss the aliens as unalterably brutal, the human forces can get down and dirty as well.

    It is always a treat when a sequel is just as good as the first book, and that’s the case for The Ghost Brigades.  John Scalzi’s writing is both exciting and witty.  Yes, I’ve been sucked into an unfinished series, but with four more books in the series and several “one off” Scalzi novels as well, I have a long way to go before I've read everything by him.

    9½ Stars.  Highly recommended, but read Old Man's War first.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Zombie's Life Is In Danger - Shantnu Tiwari

    2012; 297 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Adventure; Spoof.  Overall Rating : 2½*/10.

    John Doe only pretended to be a zombie to fool his murderous wife.  He succeeded, but now he’s known as “John The Undefeated”, and reputed to be a superhero, whose secret power is …well… being a zombie.

    Since being (un)-dead has some great tax loopholes, John is content to neither promote nor squelch his superhero status.  But there are others who have taken a keen interest in him.

    Some, such as Professor von Smith, would like to recruit Doe into a secret brotherhood called the Hilluminati, sworn enemies of a different Order - the “Secret Rulers of the World”.  Others, presumably agents of SRotW, simply want to kill John The Undefeated.

What’s To Like...
    If you like action – to the exclusion of everything else – The Zombie’s Life Is In Danger is for you.  Every page has thrills, fisticuffs, or skullduggery; maybe even every paragraph.  But the book is also a spoof, so there is an adequate amount of humor blended in.  And in among all the silliness, Shantnu Tiwari also offers some keen insight on a number of serious topics – Labor/Management relations, organized Religion, music piracy, Copyright and Patent Law, and Religious Extremism, to name a few.

    There are multiple, widely-scattered storylines.  Briefly, the four major ones are :

    Jack & Shakespeare – killing several Mideast countries’ worth of bad guys.
    Vishnu/Cowman – superhero, vampire slayer.
    Smith/John Doe/Mary Sue – saving the world from the “Rulers”.
    Sir Fluffy – saving John Doe.

    To his credit, the author manages to bring all those threads together by the end of the book.  This is a standalone novel.  Tiwari has penned several more zombie books, but I don’t think they constitute a series.  There’s a lot of R-rated language here, and of course tons of violence.  But none of  that gets in the way of the spoofery.

    “I had a nightmare.  I was in a call centre run by zombies.”
    “That was no nightmare. Welcome to Big Joe’s International call centre and clearing house.  Our motto is, ‘We’ll harass your customers for you, so you don’t have to!’  I’m Joe, by the way.”  The man snapped his suspenders, and smiled.
    “But it is run by zombies!” said Vishnu.
    “Aren’t most corporate employees zombies?” said Joe.
    “But zombies have no brains!”
    “So?”  (loc. 1824)

    He saw a village up ahead.  She took him by the hand and led him to a small path that skirted well past.
    The village seemed like any other Eurolandia village, except it had a man in the middle, tied to a pole, with lots of wood around him.
     “They will burn him as a heretic,” said Mary Sue.  “Which is why we will circle around.”
    Vishnu took back his hand.  “We cannot just leave while an innocent man is about to be burned.”
    “How do you know he is innocent?”  (loc. 2558)

Kindle Details...
    I picked The Zombie’s Life Is In Danger up as a free download sometime in the distant past.  It is no longer available as an e-book there, although you can still purchase it as a paperback for $9.99.  You can pick up a number of other e-books by Shantnu Tiwari.  They range from short stories to full-length novels, and from $0.99 to $4.99.
“Foolish woman!  Using poisons to kill a teacher of chemistry.”  (loc. 49)
    Sadly, The Zombie’s Life Is In Danger has serious problems.  The characters are paper-thin, the writing is prosaic, and the storytelling is terrible.  We quickly learn that Jack and Shakespeare, and Cowman, can escape any situation and kill an unlimited number of enemies, so no tension ever builds.  The wit is usually more silly than funny, and the portrayal of Muslims is just hateful.

    The writing is stream-of-consciousness: each chapter is whatever pops into the author’s mind.  There may be lots of rock-‘em, sock-‘em action, but it lacks any overall direction, and therefore serves no purpose other than to fill up pages before herding all the characters in one place for a mediocre ending.  It reminds me of an adventure series (“El Kirbo”) I penned way back in junior high and high school, and trust me, that was atrocious stuff.

    The good news is that Shantnu Tiwari’s next book, Who Framed Santa Claus? (reviewed here), is a  significant improvement, and will give you a better idea of what the author is capable of.

    2½ Stars.  The minuses far outweigh the plusses here.  Read the Santa Claus book instead.