Thursday, July 30, 2015

Money For Old Rope - Part 2 - Albert Jack

    2014; 345 pages.  Full Title : Money for Old Rope – The Big Book of Everything – Part 2.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Etymology; Historical Trivia.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    Did Paul McCartney really die in the 1960’s, and have they been covering it up all these years?  Why do they call it “French Toast” if it isn’t French?  What do they mean by “drunk as a newt”?  Is there a hidden meaning to the song-&-dance “The Hoky Poky”?

    If you’re the kind of person that finds such questions fascinating (and I do), then you will find Money For Old Rope – Part 2 to be a fun read, perfect for cluttering up your mind with odd facts that will come in handy the next time you play Trivial Pursuit.

    And for that matter, just where did the British come up with that strange word/expression “Bollocks”?

What’s To Like...
    Albert Jack divides Money for Old Rope 2 into seven sections.  They are :

Ch. 1.) Favorite Phrases & Idioms
Ch. 2.) Urban Legends
Ch. 3.) Mysteries
Ch. 4.) Nursery Rhymes – Hidden Meanings
Ch. 5.) Pub Names – Secret Meanings
Ch. 6.) Fabulous Food History
Ch. 7.) Wonderful Words

    The sections felt about the optimum length for keeping the reader’s interest.  I don’t know if I can pick a favorite; each section had fascinating anecdotal tidbits.  Chapter 5, Pub Names, was a bit of a yawner, but that’s probably because I’m an American, where the closest thing we have to pubs, our bars, have nondescript names like Moe’s, Larry’s, or Curly’s.  British pub names have histories.

    Albert Jack is English, so there are lots of “Britishisms” here, which I always enjoy.  Some of them are topics, such as Toe-Rag, Mufti Day, and Moonlight Flit.  Others, such as “hoick”, are just part of the author’s everyday vocabulary.

    The topics seemed well-researched, and I didn’t see any glaring errors.  Indeed, some of the American topics seemed spot on.  There were lots of kewl incidental references as well, such as the French comic “Asterix” (and his pal, “Getafix”); Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (which I’m kinda sorta reading right now); and my mother sod, “Berks County, Pennsylvania”.

    The writing style is adequate, but not compelling.  More on this in a bit.  There is, naturally, also a Money for Old Rope – Part 1, which I have not read.

Kewlest New Word...
Hoick (v.) : To lift or pull something abruptly, or with effort.
Others : Runcible (adj., and a nonsense word invented by Edward Lear)

    Other rock and roll legends include the time Peter Grant, charismatic manager of Led Zeppelin, was checking out of a hotel in America one day and was reeling off $100 dollar bills from a huge roll of cash to pay for the damage his band and entourage had caused during their stay.  Nervously, the hotel clerk asked, “excuse me Mr Grant, but what is it like to actually through (sic) a television out of the window.”  Grant looked down at the lad and after a short pause peeled off another $300 and replied, “here you are, son, have one on us.”  (loc. 1173)

    What we call French toast is known as pain perdu (‘lost bread’) in France itself.  Like toast, it is regarded as a way of using stale (or ‘lost’) bread, slices of which are softened by being dipped in a mixture of egg, milk and sugar before being fried in butter.  In Britain, it was actually referred to as German toast until the First World War when anti-German sentiment caused it to be changed.  (...)  In a further, somewhat ironic twist, French toast briefly became known as freedom toast in America following French disapproval of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  (loc. 5241)

Kindle Details...
    Money For Old Rope – Part 2 currently sells for $3.99 at Amazon, and has a newer book cover than the one shown above.  Albert Jack has a slew of similarly-themed historical-trivia books available for the Kindle, ranging in price from $1.99 to $11.99.
“Odds bodkins, that’s more Blarney talk.”  (loc. 195)
    Three things mar this otherwise enjoyable book.  The first concerns the formatting, which is atrocious.  The line spacing varies for no discernible reason.  There are a bunch of links, such as:  (See Melba Toast), but they don’t actually link to anything and often the link-to topic doesn’t even exist at all.  The words in chapters 1 and 7 are in no particular order, so there is a screaming need for an Index, with active links to each topic.  I have a feeling all of this is due to the author pulling these chapters in from his various other books, but still, it’s annoying.

    The second issue is the general tone of the “asides”.  Side comments are the soul and wit of any non-fiction book, but here they are mostly negative.  At various times, Albert Jack is anti-French, anti-Aussie, anti-Politically Correct, and even anti-Posh Spice.  If you’re going to write what amounts to a reference work, you should really keep the asides witty, yet not snarky.  You lose readers otherwise.

    Finally, there is the labeling of Global Warming as an Urban Legend.  I’m sorry, but the bulk of the mainstream climatologists are firmly convinced that Global Warming exists, and is occurring at an ever-accelerating rate due to the greenhouse gases being belched into the atmosphere.  This is based on scientific evidence, not wishful thinking.  You’re allowed to disagree, and you’re even allowed to put your beliefs in a book.  But when the majority scientific opinion is that Global Warming is a reality, you can’t categorize it as an Urban Legend.

    6½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you had friends who really believed Paul McCartney died back in the 60’s.  Add another 1 star if you’re British.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Cold Vengeance - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   2011; 356 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 11 (out of 14, but soon to be 15) in the Agent Pendergast Series; Book 2 (out of 3) in the “Helen” trilogy.  Genre : Thriller; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Fate has certainly had some surprises recently for Aloysius Pendergast.  The hunting accident that killed Helen, his wife, twelve years ago turned out to be premeditated murder.  To boot, it seems Helen was leading a secret double-life for many years that Aloysius was completely unaware of.  Which is kind of embarrassing since Pendergast is a special agent for the FBI.

    He still doesn’t know why his wife was murdered, but at least Aloysius knows who perpetrated it.  And he’s sworn cold vengeance upon the poor soul. But Fate now deals yet another surprise to Pendergast.  Helen’s “killer” reveals that she didn’t die by accident or by murder.  She’s still alive.

    Sure, that could just be a ploy by the killer to escape retribution.

    Except he was watching Aloysius die as he spat out that revelation.

What’s To Like...
    Cold Vengeance is the middle book of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s “Helen” trilogy, and takes place almost immediately following Book 1, Fever Dream, reviewed here.  It has all the elements you’ve come to expect in P&C’s Agent Pendergast series: the action starts immediately,, there’s a plethora of plot twists, and a team of lethal foes who are every bit as daring and resourceful as Aloysius.

    The settings are great – all over the Deep South, Maine, New York City (onshore and offshore), and the wild moors of Scotland.  Constance Greene, who was tangential at best in Fever Dream, plays a prominent role here; and she’s probably my favorite character in the series.   Ned Betterton is new, and it was fun to follow his antics as well.

    All the characters are richly developed, even the secondary ones.  We get to see the inside of Pendergast’s head as he struggles with the hope/belief that Helen is still alive in the face of overwhelming scientific and forensic evidence to the contrary.

    The tension builds steadily to an action-packed climax.  You know Pendergast will prevail, but still you’re on the edge of your seat wondering how he’s going to do it.  Some major characters die, but of course, in light of the revelations about Helen, I’m not writing their obituaries just yet.

    Cold Vengeance is very definitely not a standalone novel, and the authors don’t insert a backstory in at the beginning; so be sure to read Fever Dream first.  There is violence and profanity, although I wouldn’t call it excessive.  This is not one of those P&C novels where you have to wonder whether the root of the evil is natural or supernatural.

Kewlest New Word ...
Kylix (n.) : an ancient Greek cup with a shallow bowl and a tall stem.  (Google-image it)
Others : Krater (n.); Lacunar (adj.).

    This was so easy.  He could tell right away they were hiding something big.  The whole damn brainless group.  And he was going to know it in a moment.
    At that moment, a large shadow fell over him.  A huge man had emerged from the gloom of the unfinished building.  His pink head was shaven, and a ring of fat the size of a small life preserver bulged around the rear of his neck, bristling with little blond hairs.  One cheek bulged with what appeared to be a cud of chewing tobacco.  He folded one hamhock arm over the other and stared, first at the seated group, then at Betterton.
    Betterton realized this could only be Tiny himself.  (pg. 145)

    “She kept asking about Pendergast, what he’s up to, when he’s coming back.” (. . .)
    “What did you tell her?”
    “The truth.  That I wish I knew myself.” (. . .)
    “Pendergast scares me,” said Hayward.  “You know, he gives the impression of being in icy control.  But underneath . . . he’s like a maniac.”
    “A maniac who solves cases.”
    “Vinnie, a case isn’t exactly solved if the suspect ends up dead.”  (pg. 172)

“She was no idiot, although she was doing her damnedest to look like one.  (pg. 38 )
    I read Book 1 last February, and I was mildly concerned about how much of the overall plotline I’d already  forgotten, until it hit me – very little of “the big picture” was revealed in Fever Dream.  Here in Cold Vengeance, Preston & Child drop in a few more storyline tidbits – we now know there’s a Nazi angle, for instance – but really, for every question answered, two new ones are raised.

    This is both clever and vexing for the reader.  Yes, the book ends at a logical spot, bordering on being a cliffhanger; and the next – and final – phase in the adventure is about to commence, this time pitting Aloysius against the real Ultimate Evils in the story.  Both the reader and Pendergast still have no idea what’s going on here, and all sorts of plot threads remain loose and dangling.

    I’m chomping at the bit to finally get some answers as to who’s doing what and why, and the concluding book, Two Graves, sits upon my TBR shelf, waiting to be read.  I have little doubt that I will finish this trilogy before the end of the year.

     8½ Stars.  This was the usual good storytelling from Preston and Child, but it’s hard to give a middle-book-of-a-trilogy a higher rating than that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The First Horseman - John Case

   1998; 373 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The Spanish Flu was a devastating pandemic that swept across the globe in two deadly waves in 1918-20, killing 3%-5% of the world population.  Now (1998 in the book), if a defector from North Korea is to be believed, it is about to make a reappearance.  Which raises some serious concerns, since vaccines weren’t yet being developed back in 1920, and no labs now have any samples of the virus to study.

    But five victims of the flu are known to have been buried in an inhospitable mining camp well above the Arctic Circle, and the frigid temperatures up there mean that it might be possible to exhume their bodies, extract the frozen virus, and start developing a vaccine as a precautionary measure.  So an expedition is launched to retrieve the corpses.

    What a disappointment it is, then, to find that someone has beaten the expedition to the site.  And fairly recently, judging from the graffiti left behind.

    Now what possible interest could anyone else have in those bodies?

What’s To Like...
    The First Horseman is written by John Case, a pseudonym for a husband/wife writing team that wrote six action/thriller books between 1997-2007.  It’s actually a rare re-read for me, but after 15 years, I remembered next to nothing about it, save that I liked it a lot the first time.

    There is a rather lengthy prologue, and our protagonist, a reporter named Frank Daly, doesn’t make his entrance until page 50.  I liked him; he can be bone-headed at some times, pushy at others, and carries emotional baggage in the form of an estranged relationship with his father.  But Susannah, a misguided airhead, was fun to follow as well.

    John Case explores three main themes here – the threat of a pandemic, religious cult brainwashing, and eco-terrorism.  The action starts immediately, with a Manson-like raid that will take a while to tie back into the main storyline.  This isn’t really a whodunit tale; it’s more a matter of how are you going to stop the baddies.

    I especially liked the historical facts about the Spanish Flu (it killed more Americans than the two World Wars combined) and the Arctic setting, both of which will leave you shivering.  There are also some neat references to things like Pachelbel’s Canon and Warfarin.  The story shows its age – information gets faxed, not e-mailed; AOL is the goliath of Internet Service Providers, and it is not uncommon for a webpage to take 30 seconds to load.  But that brought back some keen memories.

    This is a standalone novel, which is true of all of John Case’s books.  The title gets explained on page 257, and the ending ties up the main storyline adequately.  The First Horseman makes for a good airplane/beach read with its fast pacing, sufficient plot twists, and smattering of profanity.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Gazumped (adj.; British) : swindled (archaic).
Others : Jejune (adj.); Messet (n.); Claque (n.); Halcyon (adj.)

    Inoue turned another page.  “Projectile vomiting, explosive hemorrhaging – mouth, nose, eyes … good lord, listen to this!  Some of them turned blue.  ‘Bright blue.’”
    Karalekis nodded, as much to himself as anyone else.
    “That doesn’t surprise you?” Inoue asked.  “People turning blue?”
    Karalekis shrugged.  “It happens.  It’s called ‘cyanosis.’”
    Fitch turned to the doctor.  “You know what this guy’s talking about?  Any of this ring a bell for you?”
    Karalekis rolled his eyes.  “It could be anything.”
    Fitch and Inoue stared at him.  Finally, Fitch said, “No.  It couldn’t be ‘anything.’  It couldn’t be the common cold, for instance.  It couldn’t be hemorrhoids.” (pg. 30)

    For him, it was the worst of possible worlds – a fusion of vertigo and claustrophobia.  The shaft was barely as wide as his shoulders, dimly lit and evil-smelling.  He had no way of knowing how far it descended – whether thirty feet or a hundred – but it was a long way to fall, in any case.  And the ladder was slick, slimy to his hands, greasy to his feet.  Twice he slipped.  Twice he hung on.
    And then he was on the ground, listening to his heart race as he stood at the end of a low, dank tunnel that reminded him – ludicrously – of an old horror movie.  The Thing.  Where the bad guy turns out to be a carrot.  (pg. 361)

 I never thought my fairy godmother would be a five-foot-ten-inch California girl. (pg. 196)
    As mentioned, the ending is adequate, but not spectacular.  While the primary plotline does get resolved, those readers interested in the “bigger picture” issues (like me), will find them tied up in a perfunctory manner in an awkward and brief epilogue.  The government quashes our protagonist reporter’s scoop, the crisis with the conveniently-evil North Koreans is deftly parried, and life goes on as before.

    And while I loved the Arctic expedition part (it was the only portion of the book I recalled after 15 years), once that’s over, The First Horseman falls back to the ever-popular but overdone action-thriller theme of worldwide destruction via pandemic.  I personally would’ve been happier if the whole story had taken place in Arctic settings and with focus being on how to deal with the "Hannibal Lector on bok choy" North Koreans.  There’s enough terror with that theme; leave the lunatic-fringe religious cults for a separate book.

    8 Stars.  Add ½ star if you’ll be reading The First Horseman on a beach or in an airplane.  Add another ½ star if you’d rather read about crazies patterned after Charlie Manson (or Jim Jones) than Kim Jong-un.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Robots Like Blue - Anthony J. Deeney

    2014; 345 pages.  Full Title : Robots Like Blue – Freedom Has A Price.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction; Visionary.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It’s the 22nd century, and robots are just starting to be household items.  The major marketer of these is Enorpa Robotics, and while there’s nothing wrong with their robots, they nevertheless lack a certain je ne sais quoi.

    Harrowgate & Webster Robotics is the newcomer to the field, and their aim is to take some of the market-share away from Enorpa.  They may be lacking in resources and cash-flow, but what they have going for them (they hope) is vastly superior robot programming.  Their machines are programmed to respond in a more humanlike manner to questions and commands, and their programs will evaluate, and  self-modify, based on the interaction with humans.  Harrowgate & Webster are counting on the customers liking this “warmth”.

    The first prototypes of H&W’s new Gen-5 line of robots have just been shipped on a trial basis, and Lucy Walker is one of the few select recipients.  She is recently widowed, with two small kids, so having a machine to help with the chores is a godsend.  Lucy’s kids quickly dub the new robot “Robbie”, and the reader gets to follow Robbie as he learns the mystifying and complicated ways of humans.  It seems likely that, once the trial period is over, Lucy will sign a contract and purchase Robbie on a permanent basis.

    Just be sure you read the small print in that contract, Lucy.  You never know what rights you’ve just given away.

What’s To Like...
    The primary theme of Robots Like Blue, at least for the first half of the book, is: Can a robot ever become human?  This is a surprisingly tricky question, since it must first be determined what makes something human.  H. Beam Piper explored this in Little Fuzzy (reviewed here), albeit in terms of When is a species sufficiently sentient to where we communicate with them instead of killing/eating them?”  And Peter Cave offers a lighthearted overview in his excellent book: Can A Robot Be Human (reviewed here).

    Anthony J. Deeney gives a realistic take on the subject; you’ll find no I, Robot or Terminator nightmare here.  But you will see the Turing Test being applied, meet Schrodinger’s cat, and find that Robbie has synesthesia.

    The writing is straightforward, but not weak.  Some robots get recycled, and you may feel a tinge of remorse when this happens.  There are some chuckles when Robbie takes some human phrases literally, and I really wished there’d been more of these.  The book is written in “British”, which I always like.

    There’s not a lot of world-building, given that the story is set in England a century in the future.  But I think that was just a literary device to set the premise for household robots.  The ending felt rushed, didn’t resolve all the issues, and left most of the characters in the lurch.  This might be to set up a sequel, but it any case it felt quite anti-climactic.

    “Robot, are you self aware?”
    Robot spent several milliseconds considering the question and then said, “Does it matter?”
    Barbara responded.  “It seemed to matter to our owners, Claire and Leo.  They said that it would trouble them if I was self aware and had the status of a slave.  Do you think that we are self aware?”
    “Have you asked the Alpha?”
    “He said the question was ‘human’, and has no meaning for us.  He said it was not dissimilar to asking if we like the colour blue.”  (loc. 1173)

    “Ms Lydon, I recognise that in your experience as a counsellor, your argument would appear to carry some weight.”
    He looked up from his notes and smiled.
    Claire smiled back, “Thank you,  I have been a counsellor for fifteen years.”
    “You will, of course, be aware of the theory of Solipsism.”
    “Yes, I am.  Solipsism, the idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist.  It is, of course, nonsense!  One wonders why a solipsist would bother trying to persuade other, possibly non-existent, entities that they possibly don’t exist.”  (loc. 3688)

Kindle Details...
    Robots Like Blue currently sells for $2.99 at Amazon, although I’ve seen it offered for free a couple times already.  ANAICT, this is Anthony J. Deeney’s only e-book available thus far.
“What if your creator is evil?  Would it be ‘wrong’ to defy him then?”  (loc. 5181)
    The first half of Robots Like Blue was great, but then it seemed to lose its focus, and the overriding issue of “can a robot can be self-aware” gave way to do humans have souls”.  There was a lot more telling than showing in the second half, including two cases of extended banter – one in the courtroom, the other in a bar.

    The dialogues also took on an air of preachiness, touching on subjects like original sin and fallen angels.  It didn’t get overbearing, but it did distract from the basic theme of robots and their inner nature.  It would’ve been better to tie up more of the storyline threads and stay on topic.

    Still, RLB was a worthwhile read, and it was nice to see a plausible look at how robots might be utilized in another hundred years or so.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 star if it doesn’t bother you that a book’s theme shifts right in the middle of its storyline.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Outsorcerer's Apprentice - Tom Holt

   2011; 350 pages.  Book 3 in Tom Holt’s Doughnut series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Contemporary Humor.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Lately, in wherever-we-are, a number of people have been plagued by strange thoughts.  For instance, Buttercup, who wears a red riding hood and meets, greets, and chops up several big bad wolves a week, is beginning to question whether she (and the wolves) have any choice in the matter, and whether she’s contributing to the wolves becoming an endangered species.

   Meanwhile, Sir Turquine, a dashing knight and slayer of several dragons per week, is starting to wonder how the kingly rewards heaped upon him for services rendered affect the economic sustainability of the land, and what the wizard does with all the dragon meat Sir Turquine delivers to him.

    Then there’s King Mordak of the goblins.  Goblins have fought Dwarves for centuries.  So why is he suddenly sensing the futility of war?  And finally, there’s Prince Florizel.  He’s not having any strange thoughts, but his oh-so unprincely actions range from sheer silliness to ample cause for him to be strung up for heresy.

    But one thought runs amok through all their minds.  What the heck is going on?

What’s To Like...
    The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice is the latest addition to Tom Holt’s current Doughnut series.  The previous book, When It’s A Jar, is reviewed here.  They’re both fine examples of Holt’s masterful wit and storytelling, but I liked this one even more because the Fantasy element takes precedence over the business world.  It is a personal taste, but my favorite books by this author are those that incorporate myths and fairy tales into them.

    As always, Holt spins a bunch of storylines, and then challenges the reader to figure out how he’s going to tie them all together.  As always, he accomplishes this nicely, and I found this book was easier to follow than some of his other works.  The overall storyline – a real-life character finds himself in a fantasy setting – has been done before.  But Holt finds a way to put a fresh, new spin on it.

    The book spoofs a number of literary works, including several fairytales and (most noticeably)  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Holt also pokes fun at Multiverses and Existentialism, and tips his hat to Vivaldi and Robert Jordan.  Yet he also manages to weave some serious insights into all the mayhem, touching on topics such as Outsourcing, Economics, Litigation, and Marketing. 

    There’s some French thrown in, which is always a plus for me.  There’s no sex or drugs, and I don’t remember any cussing.  The ending is quite satisfying, and the epilogue was both unexpected and funny.  This is one of those books that can entertain both grown-ups and kids.  Little Billy will like the dragons and goblins.  Little Susie will love the unicorn and the strong female protagonist, Buttercup.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Picaresque (adj.) : rough and dishonest, but in an appealing way (such as a hero).
Others : Brash (as a noun); Wodge (n., Britishism); Posset (n. )

    Mordak wasn’t easily intimidated.  He’d won the throne in single combat with his predecessor, a mighty warrior who’d devoted his life to disproving the old saying that the quickest way to a goblin’s heart is through his stomach.  He’d fought dwarves, Elves, humans, cave-trolls, dragons and his first wife’s cousins.  He prided himself on his brash confidence.  If there’s one thing goblins admire more than a leader who wears his heart on his sleeve, it’s a leader who wears his enemies’ livers on his epaulettes, and who do you think started that fashion?  (pg. 200)

    “Oh come on, you’re the wizard’s nephew.  You must know these tunnels like the back of your hand.”
    Benny shook his head.  “I keep telling you,” he said.  “I only found out the wizard was my uncle a few hours ago.  Before that, I’d always believed he was something boring in shipping.”
    Turquine raised an eyebrow.  “You thought your uncle was a teredo beetle?”
    Buttercup sighed.  “Please,” she said to Benny, “don’t try and be smart.  When you do, it provokes him and he makes jokes, and I’m not sure I can stand it much longer.”  (pg. 327)

 “Nice unicorn.  Take me to your doughnut.  Please?”  (pg. 144)
    The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice works just fine as a standalone novel, but it is also Book 3 in Tom Holt’s Doughnut series, which centers around YouSpace, a multiverse-entertainment system that uses doughnuts as portals to parallel worlds.  I still haven’t read the first book in the series, unimaginatively titled Doughnut, but my local library carries it, so I will probably borrow it in the near future.

    Mr. Holt is not yet finished with using pastry to hop to other dimensions.  The next book in this series, The Good, The Bad and the Smug, is due out later this month.  According to the Amazon blurb, it features the goblin King Mordak, which was indeed my favorite character in TOA.  I don’t know how long Holt will stick with this series, but as long as it has world-hopping and fantasy characters, I will be a devoted reader.

    9 Stars.  Add ½ star if you’re enough of a Holt-maniac to realize that Sir Turquine is a recurring character, having also appeared in Holt’s 1994 novel, Grailblazers.