Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pieces of the Puzzle - Jennifer Fowler and Carrie Wahl

   2008; 368 pages.  New Authors? : Yes.  Book 1 (out of 2) in the “Timekeepers” series.  Genre : Historical Fantasy; LDS Fiction.  Overall Rating : 3*/10.

    King Gilgamesh has lived for a long, long time, but his days are coming to an end.  He has six children, and the gods have ordained that they too will live for centuries on end, albeit not as long as their father.

   There’s a downside to this.  They are fated to be pitted against the six children of Chantu, the implacable foe of Gilgamesh.  And Chantu’s kids, like those of Gilgamesh, will be similarly long-lived.

    But the gods have a sense of humor, and have devised several objects that will be up for grabs among the two sets of children, including an amulet, a tablet, a scroll, a bracelet, and a seal.

    And a vial.  Which contains the elixir of immortality.  Yeah, that should stir things up for quite a few centuries.

What’s To Like...
    The "Gilgamesh" in Pieces of the Puzzle is based loosely on the incredibly old Epic of Gilgamesh story, which comes to us from ancient Sumer.  The Wikipedia article on this is quite interesting and can be found herePotP starts out with a prologue, set somewhat soon after the Great Flood; but the bulk of the book is the storylines of the children of Gilgamesh.  Timewise, their stories are set in the 20th Century, and that’s “BC”, not “AD”.

    By then, the kids have scattered into Africa, India, China, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and North America.  Historically, this is an interesting time for those zones; civilization is just beginning to take root.  And not coincidentally, one each of the Chantu children has also settled in the vicinity of each of these six locales.

    The authors have inserted a handy “Cast of Major Characters” at the beginning of the novel.  Bookmark it; you will be referring to it frequently.  The historical settings are adequate for the story, but not overly detailed.  The upside to this is that there are no info dumps.  Stylistically, this is a “cozy” tale – some pirates drown, but that’s about as gory as it gets.  There is also an instance of reaching up a camel’s “canal”, but that’s more funny than gross.

    This is not a standalone novel, but it ends at a decent spot, with most, but not quite all, of the rival siblings being drawn to one giant meeting.  Jennifer Fowler and Carrie Wahl have published the sequel, Race To The Portal, but that seems to be it.  It doesn’t look like Book 2 was meant to be the end of this series, but Amazon doesn't show a third book, so the whole effort may have fizzled out.

Kewlest New Word ...
    Gwier (n.) : Hmm.  Google came up empty for this.  A made-up word?

Kindle Details...
    Pieces of the Puzzle sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The sequel sells for $3.99.

    “I am seeking the Far Away, Utnapishtim.”
    Menachem raised an eyebrow.  “You must come from far to use that name.  What is your purpose?”
    “He and his wife know the secret to eternal life.  I wish to be immortal, as well.”
    Menachem frowned.  “My children have completely corrupted everything I taught them.  Like all men, you seek the impossible.  It has been decreed no man shall find immortality in this life.  Men are weak, and it is a blessing that our lives here are temporary.  Everything we gain here is as naught when we pass on.  I have seen more life than any man on earth today, and I know it would be a curse to choose this immortality you desire.”  (loc. 132)

    They were mean and miserly, hording (sic) everything they had, unwilling to share just one crust of bread with an outsider.  Even their trees were caged to keep animals from stealing one bite of their bounty.  The unfortunate beggar who chanced to come to these cities and ask for a bite to eat would be showered with gold and silver, while all food was mockingly withheld from him.  The poor man would die on the streets with an empty belly and full pockets, which would be raided as soon as he was dead.  (loc. 4041)

 “Perhaps…a long life is not always the treasure one might think.”  (loc. 2220)
    Truth be told, Pieces of the Puzzle didn’t resonate at all with me.  The pacing was slow, and there was way too much telling and not nearly enough showing.  The half-dozen storylines were too many and too repetitive, and the six protagonists were cookie-cutter clones of each other, and rather dimwitted to boot.

    The storytelling is unambitious.  Our heroes are “drawn” to cities, or “feel the need” to board a certain ship.  They also all have the “magic ability” to understand all languages past-and-present, which avoids those pesky communication issues.  Amazingly, one of them is able to gad all around the New World, with only a dog for a companion, and not run into any food or foe problems.

     But the real turn-off for me came when the story veered off into Religious Fiction.  I knew I was in for this when Abraham & Sarah (aka Abram and Sarai) were awkwardly and pointlessly inserted into the story, time-after-time, with the authors gushing effusively about how spiritual they were.  The only mystery was exactly what sort of dogma I’d be subjected to, since Abraham/Sarah are crucial to at least three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    It took a while, but this finally became clear when swords were introduced into the North American narrative.  The only place you’ll find this sort of nonsense is the Book of Mormon, and no one considers that to be historically credible.  This is not the first time I’ve had to endure religious drivel disguised as literary fiction (another example is here), and it’s one of my pet peeves.  Hey, Jennifer and Carrie, Amazon has a Religious Fiction section; if you want to toss your religious views into a storyline, kindly label your book’s genre(s) properly.  You are not doing God’s Will when you resort to deception.

    3 Stars.  Not recommended.  Add 2 Stars if you’re LDS and think all those Jaredites, Nephites, and Lamanites just routinely made transoceanic trips to the New World at incredible speeds.  SMH.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Agatha H. and the Voice of the Castle - Phil and Kaja Foglio

   2014; 481 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 3 (comprising of Volumes 7-9 of the graphic novel editions) in the “Girl Genius” series.  Genre : Comic Novelization; Gaslamp Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It is the moment of reckoning for Agatha.  Now that she’s discovered her true lineage – she’s both a Heterodyne and a Spark, it’s time to claim her rightful place as the ruler and master of Castle Heterodyne.

    Of course she still has to prove to the rest of the world that she’s not a pretender.  That’s easily enough done; she just has to enter Castle Heterodyne and have it accept her.  Which may sound strange, but the castle is a sentient …er… being, and will exterminate all false claimants as soon as they pass through the front gate.

    So it is rather curious then, when another girl, Zola, sashays up to the castle door and enters without any terminally dire consequences.   Surely there is only one Chosen One, and that’s Agatha.

    Hmm.  It’s enough to make a girl think twice about entering Castle Heterodyne.

What’s To Like...
    Agatha H. and the Voice of the Castle is the third “novelization” of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s fabulous Girl Genius graphic novel series.  As before, the book encompasses three issues of the graphic novels, meaning this book covers Volumes 7 through 9.  I’ve read the two previous novelizations; they are reviewed here and here.  to read this trilogy in order.

    If you liked the first two, you’ll enjoy AH&tVotC as well.  It has the same wit and humor, and is another fine piece of literature for inspiring girls to become scientists and engineers.  The scene where Agatha is determined to improve the coffee brewing process was hilarious.  So are the multitude of footnotes, which will remind you of the late great Terry Pratchett.  And I’m very intrigued by Airman Higgs.

    The authors work a fairly long and detailed backstory into the beginning chapters, which slows things down.  However, since it’s been more than a year since I read Book Two, I was glad they did.  And once that’s gotten out of the way, things hum along nicely.

    Everything builds to a tense climax, but unfortunately, it has a cliffhanger ending, something that I detest.  I’ll forgive it here, only because the primary source of the storyline is the graphic novel, and we all know comic books are notorious for ending with a cliffhanger to get you to guy the next issue.  Still, it sucks.  I’m glad I got this as a library book, not a purchase.

Kewlest New Word ...
Bindi (n.) : a decorative mark worn in the middle of the forehead by Indian women..
Others : Raconteur (n.).

    Gil cleared his throat.  “The very trait that allows Sparks to apparently warp the laws of physics seems to affect probability and statistics within their vicinity as well.  Every visible action will be open to misinterpretation and their motives can easily be misconstrued.”
    Klaus looked startled.  Gil leaned in.  “Your words, Father, used to explain a rather catastrophic incident in your father’s laboratory when you were eleven, if I remember correctly.”
    Klaus glared at his son.  “I was lying.  I knew the cat was there.”  (pg. 84)

    Mr. Oilswick piped up.  “They’re still gaining, sir.”
    The captain thumped a fist down on a bulkhead.  “Blast!  There’s got to be something we can toss!”
    “You scum!”  The voice caught everyone by surprise.  It was Duke Stinbeck.  He had pulled himself up to a sitting position.  “You dare to strike my royal personage?  I’ll have every member of your crew flayed alive!  I’ll see to it that you never collect a pfennig of your pensions!  You’ll never fly again!”
    Lieutenant Lorquis exchanged a glance with the captain.  Occasionally, problems solved themselves.  (pg. 223)

“Whenever he goes on like this, I just think of how many different ways I can spell ‘eviscerate’”.  (pg. 283)
    Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle is another solid installment in this novelized series, but I found it just a bit “off” from the two earlier books.  It seemed like the cause was nothing major, just a combination of several little things.

    First, there aren’t a lot of locations to explore – just Castle Heterodyne and the town below it, Mechanicsburg.  Second, there were a slew of characters to meet, remember, and/or keep track of.  Also, the tone seemed darker and more serious, and Agatha’s side-endeavors into chemistry and engineering, which I find particularly entertaining and motivational, seemed fewer and further between.  Lastly, it just felt longer and slightly “draggy” due to the need for an extensive backstory.

   I suspect this is mostly because the stories were originally visual, in boffo comic book style.  Perhaps it all works better in graphic novel format.  I intend to find out, as my local library carries a lot of the newer graphic novel issues (to be eventually made into Book 4, I’m sure) and I’m going there this weekend.  If I can find where they stash these, I’ll bring one home.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you’re a YA girl and Agatha H. inspires you to set your sights on becoming a scientist, instead of a princess.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Two Graves - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   2010; 578 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 12 (out of soon-to-be 15) in the Agent Pendergast Series; Book 3 (out of 3) in the “Helen” trilogy.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It is without a doubt the best moment in Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast’s life.  After 12 years of mourning the death of his wife, Helen, he has found out she is still alive and now has been reunited with her.

    Alas, the absolutely worst moment in his life occurs just a couple minutes later, when gunmen abduct Helen and whisk her away to an unknown fate, leaving several dead passersby in their wake.

    But it’s not a good idea to cross Special Agent Pendergast.  He’s an extraordinarily clever person with FBI credentials and resources.  And the fact that all he has to go on is a stolen taxi cab’s license plate is not going to deter him one bit when it comes to rescuing his wife.  And when he catches up to the kidnappers, there will be hell to pay.

    But what was it Confucius said?  “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

What’s To Like...
    Two Graves is the final book in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s “Helen” trilogy.  The action begins immediately, recapping the end of Book 2, Cold Vengeance, and doesn’t slow down until the end of the book.  There are four seemingly-unrelated storylines to follow: Pendergast pursuing Helen’s abductors, D’Agosta investigating a bizarre hotel serial killer, Corrie Swanson finding her dad, and Dr. Felder trying to verify Constance’s age.  This is not a standalone novel, so if you’re unfamiliar with any of those preceding names, you may want to read this trilogy in order.

    I’ve always liked the way Preston and Child create their Ultimate Evils.  Here, he has almost superhuman talents, and even though you know Pendergast will prevail, you wonder how he can possibly overcome the UE’s abilities.  It is also extremely refreshing to have a hero who guesses wrong occasionally, especially in critical situations.  In Two Graves, Pendergast seriously misjudges the hotel killer’s identity and miscalculates whether a gunman will shoot his hostage.

    As always, the reader is treated to some great locations – New York City, the Deep South, Brazil, and even a little-known city in Mexico that I’ve been to: Cananea.  You’ll learn the difference between a Judas window and the Copenhagen window (to say nothing of Plato’s allegory), as well as brush up on your Portuguese and German.  There are thrills galore, twists aplenty, enough violence and cussing to remind you this is an adult series, and just the right amount of wit to keep everything in balance. 

    The tension builds steadily to an exciting ending, which includes a long, drawn-out battle sequence.  Helen’s story is resolved, albeit with the expected amount of Preston-&-Child surprises.  But the unforeseen delight was finally learning Constance Greene’s full story, as well as that of her newborn child that she claims to have killed by tossing him overboard during a transoceanic cruise.  But don't worry about not having any characters to ponder, a couple of new major ones are introduced for the reader to wonder about.

Kewlest New Word ...
Grotesqueries (n.; plural) : grotesque figures, objects, or actions..
Others : Judas window (n.; phrase).

    “Vinnie, what is this?”
    “An Italian spritz,” he said as he sat down.  “Ice, Prosecco, dash of club soda, Aperol.  Garnished with a slice of some blood oranges I picked up from Greenwich produce in Grand Central on the way home.”
    She took another sip, then set the glass down.  “Um.”  She hesitated.  “I wish I could say I liked it.”
    “You don’t?”
    “It tastes like bitter almonds.”  She laughed.  “I feel like Socrates here.  Sorry.  You went to a lot of trouble.”  (pg. 113)

    “And so you think you’re better than he is.”
    “Of course I’m better.  Everyone here is created for his place and knows it from the beginning.  This is the ultimate social order.  You’ve seen Nova Godoi.  There’s no crime.  We have no depression, no mental illness, no drug addiction – no social problems whatsoever.”
    “Supported by a camp of slave laborers.”
    “You speak from ignorance.  They have a purpose.  They have all they need or want – except, of course, we can’t let them reproduce.  Some people are simply better than others.”  (pg. 457)

“Glance into the world just as though time were gone: and everything crooked will become straight to you.”  (pg. 509, and a quote from Nietzsche)
    The quibbles about Two Graves are few and far between.  Some of the death-defying escapes are over-the-top.  When Aloysius does this, I’m okay with it.  When a psychiatrist does it, I raise my eyebrows.

    Not all the storylines converge smoothly.  The hunt for the hotel serial-killer kinda fades away once the killings stop, and I had a tough time believing the NYPD would just lose interest when the mutilations cease.  And the “Corrie and her father” thread, while it does get resolved, never did tie in to the main story.  Ditto for the bizarre place where Dr. Felder found the key piece of evidence regarding Constance’s claims.

    But I suspect this is not any sloppiness on the part of Preston & Child.  Instead, it is more likely a hint at where this series is heading.

    8½ Stars.  Which is what I gave the other two books in the trilogy.  This was a complex, action-packed, twisty-turny story that kept me entertained from beginning to end, and which held true to its promise to wrap everything up within the three books.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Gathering Blue - Lois Lowry

   2000; 215 pages.  Book 2 of the “Giver Quartet” series.  Full title : “Gathering Blue; A Companion to The Giver”.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dystopian Fiction; YA.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It’s been a rough life so far for little Kira.  First and worst, she was born with a crippled leg, and any deformity is looked upon as a just cause to be banished from the village by its citizens.  Then shortly after she was born, her father was killed while hunting.  Only the stubbornness of Kira’s mother prevented the villagers from sending Kira to a certain death in “the field” beyond the village.

    But now her mother is dead, cut down by a sudden sickness, and their hut has been burned to the ground to prevent the disease from spreading.  No one is going to adopt a crippled girl, and no one is going to help her rebuild her home.

    To boot, several of the neighboring women are greedily eyeing Kira’s small plot of land already, and have brought about legal proceedings to have her banished.  How can a little girl with only one good leg justify her continued living in the village?

What’s To Like...
    Gathering Blue is Lois Lowry’s follow-up to her incredibly-popular, multi-award-winning book, The Giver.  It has the same general structure – a coming-of-age child is found to be gifted, gets put into an important village position, and gains “special knowledge” that reveals that things in the village are not as utopian as its inhabitants think.  The overall themes are the same; but the details in the two stories differ considerably, with GB having a noticeably darker tone to it.

    This is not a sequel.  Although I got the impression that it’s set in the same general location, it’s a different village, existing under different conditions.  These villagers see colors normally, and the longer you live, the more syllables you get added to your name.  Four-syllable people are given great respect.

    The characters are engaging and easy to keep track of, which is the norm for a YA book.  I especially liked Matt and Branch.  The village was developed more fully here than in The Giver.  There is also a mild strain of humor here that I don’t recall being in The Giver.  Kira’s struggles to understand the bathroom facilities made me chuckle.

    The ending was not what I expected, which is a plus.  But again, like The Giver, a lot of threads remain unresolved, which is a minus.  Being a YA novel, there is nothing R-rated to be found.

Kindle Details...
    Gathering Blue sells for $7.99 at Amazon, which is also true of the other two “follow-up” books in the series.  Book 1, The Giver, sells for $6.99, which is an excellent way to be introduced to this series.   

    She stood in the open doorway and watched them retreat down the long corridor, the man leading the way, Matt, walking jauntily just behind him, and the dog at Matt’s heels.  The boy looked back at her, waved slightly, and grinned with a questioning look.  His face, smeared with sticky candy, was alight with excitement.  She knew that within minutes he would be telling his mates that he’d barely escaped being washed.  His dog too, and all the fleas; a close call.  (loc. 619)

    “Matt said she was already a singer.”
    Kira, thinking, smoothed the folds of her skirt.  “so each of us,” she said slowly, “was already a – I don’t know what to call it.”
    “Artist?” Thomas suggested.  “That’s a word.  I’ve never heard anyone say it, but I’ve read it in some of the books.  It means, well, someone who is able to make something beautiful.  Would that be the word?”
    “Yes, I guess it would.  The tyke makes her singing, and it is beautiful.”
    “When she isn’t crying,” Thomas pointed out.  (loc. 1379)

 “Night comes, and colors fade away; sky fades, for blue can never stay…”  (loc. 1972)
     The biggest problem with Gathering Blue is that it doesn’t advance the thoroughly captivating plotline that was left dangling at the end of The Giver, as Jonas sledded down the hill to the new village.  The details may be different here, but underneath it’s just a repeat of the storyline from the first book.

    This isn’t helped by the book’s POV.  Although written in the Third Person, the events are limited to what Kira sees, hears, and experiences.  Jonas had The Giver in the first book to show him the broader picture; Kira has no such resource.  Exciting things do happen in Kira’s story, but they’re offstage, and we (and Kira) only learn of them secondhand and after the fact.

    In fairness, Lois Lowry is upfront about this; she calls this book “A Companion to The Giver”.  But readers mesmerized by The Giver will be looking for a sequel, not a rehash of something they’ve already read.  It’s no surprise, then, that Gathering Blue made a much smaller splash in the literary world than The Giver.  What is surprising is that there was a 7-year gap between the two books.

    7 Stars.  I read Gathering Blue to commemorate the 2015 Banned Books Week (28 September through 05 October), even though it’s The Giver that gets repeatedly challenged by self-proclaimed censors.  Add 1 Star if you haven’t read The Giver yet; Gathering Blue will feel a lot fresher in that case.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Last - Michael John Grist

  2015; 248 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Zombie Apocalypse.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    It was undoubtedly the best evening of Amo's life.  First there was dinner with Lara, the waitress of his dreams but who he felt was way too pretty to look his way.  That was topped off by a pleasant roll in the hay with her, even though the doctors had told him that such excitement was likely to kill him.

     It’s a pity, then, that what followed was the worst morning of his’s life.  Something bizarre happened overnight, and now it seems everyone in New York City – with the exception of Amo – has been turned a zombie.  And that’s a lot of undead, all looking for a very limited supply of brains for breakfast.  Which is bad news for pets, stray dogs, and alley cats, none of which have been “turned”.

    Plus Amo, with his alive-and-functioning brain.  And who seems to be a zombie-magnet.

What’s To Like...
    The Last is a Zombie Apocalypse tale, set in the US in 2018.  For the most part, it is told in the first person POV (Amo’s), particularly the first half, where he’s occupied with learning what works and doesn’t work against the undead, and having enough weaponry to keep them at bay.  The reader will learn a bunch of practical life-preserving tips, in case he should ever find himself in a similar situation.

    There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of (if you’ve met one zombie, you’ve met them all).  Amo is a pleasantly believable protagonist.  He develops his zombie-killing tactics by trial-and-error, and quite often he misses when he shoots at them.  I could personally relate to his painful lesson about a rifle’s recoil.

    The writing is both lighthearted and thought-provoking.  There are a ton of Zombie Apocalypse books out there, but I liked the innovative “cause” of this one, and the unique “best way” to deal with the undead.  Michael John Grift’s wit is also a plus, such as the Yangtze online-shopping website.  There are lots of kewl music references in all sorts of genres, and music plays a key role in the storyline, although I never did fully fathom exactly how.

    There is some cussing, booze, “adult situations”, and a couple spliffs (see Kewlest New Word, below) get rolled and smoked.  I was left with a couple unanswered questions besides the role of music, the most notable of which are listed in the comments due to spoiler considerations.

      The writing is good.  You’ll bond with Amo as he tries to come to grips with his situation, and even have some empathy for the zombies, who have no idea why they were “turned” without any warning and for seemingly no cause.  This is not a standalone novel, but it ends at a logical place, with this stage of the tale being satisfactorily completed.

Kewlest New Word ...
Spliff (n.) : a joint; a marijuana cigarette.

Kindle Details...
    The Last sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The sequel, The Lost, is the same price.  Michael John Grist has a number of other e-book offerings, all in the $0.99-$4.99 price range.

    “You’re lucky you’re alive.  You know how many people out there who’re  immune?  Do you have any idea?”
    “No idea.  I didn’t see any.  Maybe her?”
    “Maybe her.  On top of that there’s me and there’s you.  I’ve not seen any others, Amo, not any at all.  Every live video feed I saw got corrupted in seconds, because the people filming it were infected.  It’s the most virulent thing ever.  It’s like that cat in the box, the second you open the box to see if it’s alive or not, it drags you in so you’re inside the box too.”  (loc. 658)

    I sigh and lie back.  The tea and bolognese can be breakfast.  I look up at the sky.  Of course it’s the same sky.  These are the same stars, though the shooting ones aren’t.
    “They’re not really stars,” my dad told us once.  “They’re just little bites of interstellar dust, or the screws and nuts that come off falling satellites, burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.”
    This awed us even more.  That there was a layer of sky up there so hot that it burned, that interstellar dust was reaching out to our little planet across the gulf of space, then falling down upon us like a fine rain, like fairy dust.  (loc. 3008)

 “Damn the zombies, full speed to the West!”  (loc. 1963)
    There were a couple slow spots for me, most notably in the first portion of the book where a lot of pages are spent detailing Amo killing zombie after zombie after zombie.  But that’s probably unescapable in any zombie apocalypse story; it wouldn’t be a tale of terror unless there were zillions of them to deal with.

    And it’s also probably inherent in any book where, for most of the pages, we’re dealing with a single character, stranded and all alone (zombies don’t count as characters) in the world.  The present hit movie, Martian, faces this same challenge.  So did the book/movie I Am Legend, reviewed here.

    But I quibble.  Amo’s drawn-out loneliness serves to emphasize his plight, and if Michael John Grist had made it shorter, I’d probably be griping that it hadn’t been developed enough.

    7½ Stars.  The Last is my third zombie book already this year, and this is not a genre I normally read.  I don’t know if this is an anomaly or a trend.  Add 2 Stars if you’re a zombie enthusiast; I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book.