Saturday, December 31, 2016

Driving Me Nuts - P.J. Jones


    2011; 206 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dark Humor.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Ruckus and Fred sure are a couple of guys who like to live life on the wild side.  For a good time they drive over to the used-book store and then to the Dairy Queen for ice cream.

    Yeah, I know, that doesn’t exactly make you hear “Born To Be Wild” as background music.  But Fred and Ruckus are both inmates at the Shady Grove Home for the Mentally Insane, and leaving the premises is a major no-no.

    To boot, their choice of wheels is a ’69 Mustang convertible, which belongs to Mr. Otis, one of the caretakers at Shady Rest.  And when he’s neck deep in triple tequila peach lime smoothies, he’s in no condition to tell whether anyone is joyriding around in his automobile.  So while Mr. Otis is snoozing, the boys can go cruising.

    But when one of the female inmates horns her way in on the action, you can bet it’s gonna lead to trouble, Especially since she’s got an agenda of revenge.

What’s To Like...
    Driving Me Nuts is a fast and easy read.  The action starts immediately, and continues throughout the whole book.  For the most part, we see things from Ruckus’s POV, with Fred and Apple (the female femme fatale) also getting prominent ink.  There aren’t a lot of other characters to keep track of, but they're an interesting bunch, especially Preacher and Mama Louise.

    Except for the Epilogue, the entire storyline consists of a single night of avenging antics, as Apple squares things away with a number of tormentors from her past.  Fred is little more than a drooling puppy, so it is up to Ruckus to somehow get the threesome, and the ’69 Mustang convertible, back to Shady Grove in one piece and with no one the wiser.  Yeah, like that has any chance of happening.

    This is my third P.J. Jones book; the other two are reviewed here and here.   Of the three, I liked this one the best.  The tone is darker here, and at just over 200 pages, it is the longest book I’ve read by this author, with the most complex storyline of the three.  For me, it was a “broadening” of Ms. Jones’ literary repertoire, even though it predates the other two books.

    There is a lot of cussing, and a bunch of unsavory and/or adult topics such as child molestation, rape, oral sex, jerking off, and erections.  If these offend you, you would be well-advised to stay away from Driving Me Nuts. or any of P.J. Jones’s stories for that matter.  It is her natural genre to write in an R-rated manner.  To do differently would be akin to asking Allen Ginsberg to only write G-rated poems.

    There is a way-kewl Author’s Note at the front of the book.  Despite the multitude of mayhem, the ending ties everything up in a relatively happy manner.  This is a standalone novel; AFAIK, P.J. Jones has not written any series.  Some of us think that’s a plus.

Excerpts...
    Mr. Otis didn’t always break the rules.  Lights out at nine-thirty.  That was one rule Ruckus wished he would bend.  No pissing on lunch trays.  That was another rule.
    One of Ruckus’s biggest pet peeves was inconsistency.  Either break all the rules or none at all.  People and their ‘socially acceptable behavior’ bothered him.  (loc. 69)

    “Are you sure you’re not my dad?”
    “Fred,” Ruckus grumbled.  “Your dad has your green eyes.  Garth Vader has brown eyes.”
    Vader straightened his bony shoulders and puffed up his chest.  “Do you find fault with my anatomy?”
    “Brown is nice,” Fred interjected.  “Brown is the color of tree branches.”
    Vader nodded.  “And the stain in my intergalactic underpants.”  (loc. 1022)

Kindle Details...
    Driving Me Nuts sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  P.J. Jones has a number of other books available for the Kindle, ranging from $0.99 to $3.99.  She is also part of “The Eclective”, a group of short story writers, and many of their anthology offerings are free.

“I don’t recall proliferating any life forms on this planet.”  (loc. 1022)
    There are some minor quibbles.  I thought there were a couple sections that could've been strengthened by "showing” instead of “telling”.  And the writing style might best be described as “very straightforward”.  Some additional polishing would’ve made this a really delightful read.

     But, as with the R-rated stuff, this is all inherent to the author’s writing style.  The added polishing and showing would be technical improvements, but perhaps in the end, it just wouldn’t be the real P.J.

    7 Stars.  Don’t let the quibbles dissuade you from reading Driving Me Nuts.  The bottom line is that I found it to be fast-paced, both dark and funny (a somewhat dicey combination of genres), and the most ambitious literary effort yet that I’ve read by P.J. Jones.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Century Rain - Alastair Reynolds



   2004; 623 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Paris, 2266 AD.  In a setting devoid of any life, archaeologist Verity Auger leads a team looking for priceless relics from a bygone age: a page from a newspaper, a piece of a map, or perhaps even a bit of printed matter ripped from an ancient (21st century) book.

    Risks are inherent in the toxic environment.  But when one of her underlings nearly dies in an ill-advised mishap, Verity finds herself facing a trial where, if she’s lucky, all she’ll lose is her job and career.

    Paris, 1959 AD.  Private detective Wendell Floyd (call him “Floyd”) and his partner AndrĂ© Custine are asked to investigate the death of an American tourist named Susan White (from Dakota) who died after a 5-story fall from her apartment balcony.  The police call it an accident.  But maybe she was pushed.  Or maybe the balcony railing was defective.

    Well, since the person wanting to hire them is the landlord of the apartment, let’s hope that that last scenario is not the cause.

    But the space-time continuum can be a quirky thing.  The paths of Floyd and Verity are about to cross, with confusion running amok since they have different agendas for resolving the mystery of Susan White’s demise.

    And of course, it doesn’t help that someone’s trying to kill both of them.

What’s To Like...
    Alastair Reynolds is a top-tier “Hard” Science Fiction writer, and Century Rain is clever blending of Murder-Mystery with his forte genre.  There’s even a bit of Romance in the story, but don’t worry, this is first and foremost a Sci-Fi tale.  It takes a while for Verity and Floyd to meet up, and until then the storyline flips between the two perspectives.  There’s also a kewl mystery that involves trying to figure out why someone wanted three giant, precisely-fabricated aluminum spheres set up – one in Berlin, one in Paris, and the third in Milan.

    You’ll run across a slew of acronyms and catchphrases.  The former includes ones like “UR” (Universal Restorative). “USNE” (The United States of Near Earth), and my favorite, “ALS” (Anomalous Large Structure).  The latter includes The Forgetting, The Nanocaust, Silver Rain, Neotenic Infantry, and the fascinating “Amusica Virus”.  Reynolds usually defines each of these when he introduces them, but jot them down anyway, because he expects you to remember what they mean when they pop up again 50 pages later.

    I thought the world-building was fantastic and delightfully detailed.  The 23rd-century solar system is divided into warring factions: the Slashers and the Threshers, and it is also obvious that some vastly technologically superior beings were here many millennia in the past.  You’ll enjoy the “language app”, a nanobotic way to instantly learn a new language, although it degrades with time (a tip of the hat to Flowers For Algernon?).  And you’ll discover what Guy de Maupassant thought of the Eiffel Tower, and how he expressed his feelings about it.

    The book is written in “English”, not “American”, and I always enjoy that.  Cuss words are common in the dialogue, as would be expected in the real world.  As with any Hard Sci-Fi novel, Alastair Reynolds spends a lot of time explaining the Quantum Physics of the 23rd-century cosmos.  I found it mesmerizing, but if you find technical tangents tedious, a book in the  Space Opera subgenre may suit your fancy better.

    It won’t take you long to notice some anomalies in the 1959 Paris, so it’s not a spoiler to say this is also an Alternate History tale.  Yet all the genres fit together nicely for an epic story.  This is a standalone novel, and is not set in Reynolds’ signature Revelation Space cosmos.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Quincunx (n.) : an arrangement of five objects, with four at the corners of a square or rectangle, and the fifth at its center.
Others : Spivvy (adj.); Neotenous (adj.); Penury (n.); Blancmange (n.); Syrinx (n.); Cladding (n.).

Excerpts...
    “The moons offer the perfect strategic platform for defending the planet against Slasher incursions.  Given the existing security measures already in place, they’re also a perfect venue for conducting any sensitive business that might come our way.”
    “Do I count as sensitive business?”
    “No, Auger.  You count as a pain in the ass.  If there’s one thing I hate more than civilians, it’s having to be nice to them.”
    “You mean this is you being nice?”  (pg. 114)

    ”According to the late Mr. Blanchard, and judging by what I saw when he let me into her room, your sister had a mania for collecting things.  Her room was a holding area for huge numbers of books, magazines and newspapers, maps and telephone directories.  It looked as if she collected just about anything she could get her hands on.”  Floyd waited a beat.  “Pretty odd behavior for a tourist.”
     "She liked souvenirs.”
    “By the ton?”  (pg. 313)

 “(Y)ou don’t know a wormhole from your butthole.”  (pg. 429)
    The ending is good but not complete.  The main plotline issue – why did someone kill Susan White? – is answered nicely (the “whodunit” aspect is resolved fairly early), but several threads are left dangling.  The Verity/Floyd relationship is not over, Custine still has the cops on his tail, and the Slashers and Threshers have an uneasy truce at best, all of which is surely good fodder for several more books’ worth of thrills and spills.

    Alas, per Wikipedia, this is a one-off novel, and Alastair Reynolds has stated that there will be no sequel.  So the Furies, the Censor, and the Hyperweb will not be explored any deeper, and the other loose threads will not be tied up.

    I, for one, am disappointed, since I thoroughly enjoyed Century Rain.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you prefer the “Science” in Science Fiction to be downplayed.  Add 1 star if Alastair Reynolds changes his mind and pens a sequel.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Hangman's Daughter - Oliver Potzsch



   2011; 431 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book One (out of five and soon to be six) of the series “The Hangman’s Daughter”.  Translator : Lee Chadeayne.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Poor little 12-year-old Peter Grimmer is dead.  It looks like he drowned in the river, but perhaps it wasn’t an accident.  Say, didn’t he hang out with those orphan kids down at that midwife’s house?  I never liked her anyway, so maybe she killed him.  And she uses strange herbs to heal people, so I bet she’s a witch.  Yeah, that’s why she killed little Peter.  Witchcraft is afoot!

    Let's lock her up and call for the Hangman.  We can’t burn her at the stake until she confesses, and torture is part of the Hangman’s job.

    But what if she’s innocent?

    Really, it’s better that the midwife confesses quickly and is burned at the stake immediately thereafter.  Otherwise the town will work itself into a witch-hunting frenzy, and all sorts fingers will get pointed at all sorts of townspeople.  And who knows how many innocent people will die then?

    So, Hangman, your job isn’t to determine whether or not she’s a witch.  Your job is to get a confession out of her, the sooner the better.

What’s To Like...
    The Hangman’s Daughter is a pleasant combination of historical fiction and murder-mystery.  The setting is a small (and real) town in southern Germany ("Bavaria", back then) called Schongau in the 1600’s, when witch-hunting was rife in both Europe and the colonies in America.  I’ve always wondered how such craziness could flourish, and Oliver Potzsch certainly presents a plausible mindset for it.

    The historical aspect – life in Bavaria in medieval times – is well done.  The descriptions set the scene nicely, and we learn about things like dwarfs' holes, what the people ate, and the various roles a hangman had to assume to earn his keep.  It’s also enlightening to compare modern medicine with what was practiced in the 17th century.  Finally, in a time of high mortality rates during childbirth, the issue of what to do with the town’s orphans is examined at length.

    The murder-mystery is also handled deftly.  This isn’t so much a whodunit, as it is a “why done it”.  There are lots of questions to probe beyond why someone's started killing kids.  Who burned down the stadel, and why?  Why does someone think there’s something valuable buried on the lot where the leper house is being built?  And why do all the victims have a witch’s mark tattooed on their shoulders?  Hey, maybe there really was witchcraft involved!

    There’s a handy Cast of Characters at the beginning.  Bookmark it, you will be using it more than once.  There’s lots of action, and some torture, adult language, and assault.  There are some way-kewl illustrations, done in black, white, and red, but on the Kindle they are very small in size.

    The three main characters – the hangman, his daughter, and the young physician – are all developed nicely.  I didn’t realize this was part of a series when I picked it up, and if this trio of protagonists becomes a sleuthing team in the books that follow, then count me in for reading more of them.

Kewlest New Word...
Trass (n.) : a light-colored variety of volcanic ash, used in making cement.

Excerpts...
    Though autumn had already come, the sun was shining brightly on that part of Bavaria they call the Pfaffenwinkel – the priests’ corner – and merry noise and laughter could be heard from the town.  Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged, and somewhere a fiddle was playing. The aroma of deep-fried doughnuts and roasted meat drifted down to the foul-smelling tanners’ quarter.  Yes, it was going to be a lovely execution.  (loc. 99)

    The hangman looked angrily across to Simon.  “Did you tell?”
    The physician held up his hands trying to calm him down.  “I never!  I only told her about poor Johannes … and that you had examined the fingernails very closely.”
    “You idiot!  You must not tell women anything, above all my daughter.  She’s too good at reading between the lines and figuring things out.”  (loc. 3660)

Kindle Details...
    The Hangman’s Daughter presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon right now.  The other four books in the series all also see for $4.99.  Oliver Potzsch has another half-dozen or so novels for the Kindle, ranging in price from $3.99 to $14.99.  

 “A rumor is like smoke.  It will spread, it will seep through closed doors and latched shutters, and, in the end the whole town will smell of it.”  (loc. 861)
    The ending is a mixed bag.  The tension builds steadily to the final confrontation, but then we miss out of actually getting to watch/read about it.  The Hangman emerges victorious, of course, but his adversary was no slouch, and I was mildly disappointed in only hearing about their last encounter secondhand.  Also, the resolution of the various mysteries is not particularly twisty.  But I suppose from a historical standpoint, that’s a logical outcome.

    OTOH, the epilogue is excellent, and the Author’s Note (Oliver Potzsch calls it “A Kind of Postscript”) is most enlightening.  In the 1600’s, most careers were hereditary, and the author apparently has a number of hangmen in his family tree.

    Lastly, mention should be made of the translating.  Oliver Potzsch’s native tongue is German, and I thought Lee Chadeayne succeeded nicely at putting the “feel” of the writing into English.

    8½ Stars.  The Hangman’s Daughter was a treat – both as Historical Fiction and as a Murder-Mystery.  It’s always nice when a book with multiple genres does them all well.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Monster - A. Lee Martinez


   2009; 295 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Question: What’s a yeti doing in the walk-in freezer at the Food Plus Mart?

    Answer: Anything it wants, but mostly devouring everything in sight, especially the Choc-O-Chiptastic Fudge ice cream.  Well, not quite everything.  It doesn’t seem to like the vanilla.

    For Judy Hines, this is an annoyance, since the beast’s appetite is going to seriously slow down her nightshift chore – to restock the frozen food section.  So, who ya gonna call?

    Wrong, you call Animal Control Services.  Who don’t do yetis, but surprisingly, don’t treat Judy’s call as if it were a prank.  Instead, she gets transferred to some department called Cryptobiological Containment and Rescue Services.  And they say they’ll send a guy right over to take care of things.  Should be there in 15 minutes to so.

    Just one guy, eh?  I can’t wait to see how he deals with a huge, insatiably-hungry, mean-tempered yeti.

What’s To Like...
    The storyline in Monster will remind you of Ghostbusters and/or Men In Black, except that instead of ectoplasmic entities or an interstellar witness relocation program, we’re dealing with infestations of mystical and mythical beasts.  A Lee Martinez throws all sorts of them into the story, so if you’re a critter-lover (I am, and actually, they’re called “parahumans”), you’re in for a treat.

    The title refers to one of our two protagonists – an ordinary chap nicknamed “Monster” – who teams up reluctantly and temporarily with Judy in exchange for her driving him to his parahuman-purging jobs when his van gets trashed.  The secondary characters are well-developed.  Monster’s girlfriend is a demon with a penchant for cussing, but due to her hellish nature, her nasty words are ones like “blessed”, “”Elyisan”, and “sacrosanct”.  Monster’s cohort is a being from the 6th dimension who specializes in shape-shifting origami.  You may not think a paper butterfly is much of an opponent, but just try swatting one.

    I liked the attention to the world-building details.  Things like a “misfortune hex” (a minor, pesky curse), memory glyphs, and a part of our brain called “Merlin’s lobe” which tends to inhibit the belief in magic and fantasy in most adults.  This means that when our mind has to deal with, say, yetis in the freezer, it quickly adjusts our memories of the incident once it’s over to explain things in more realistic terms.  A yeti, you say?  Nah, I think it was just a big raccoon.  Or something like that.

    There is some cussing and sex in the book, but I thought it fit in well.  We learn that humans are divided into “Cognizants”, “Light Cognizants”, and “Full Incogs” (think 'Muggles) when it comes to being able to remember the unexplainable.  And that angels are real.  And easy.

    Monster is a standalone novel, and a quick, fun, easy read.  I picked the hardcover version up at my local library, but I note that they also carry it, and three other books by this author, as free-to-borrow e-books.

Excerpts...
    “So you’re married, then?”
    “In a manner.  My true nature is hard to explain in terms you could understand.”
    “Because I’m a monkey,” said Judy.
    “I never said that.”
    “But you were thinking it.”
    “I don’t judge,” said Chester.  “I rather like you lower entities.  You’ve done quite well for transient globs of possibly sentient protoplasm.”
    “Possibly sentient?”
    “The jury is still out.”  (pg. 90)

    “If you’d handled Judy with more delicacy …”
    “Karma, huh.”
    “Karma is just a philosophical construct, a rather simplistic punishment/reward theory that satisfies your egocentric perception of your universe.”
    “I was just about to say that.”
    “You can dismiss my observation with levity –“
    “I just did.”  (pg. 174)

 “My girlfriend is a demon … but I don’t really like her.”  (pg. 141)
    Don’t let the title fool you: this is a witty and humorous book first, and a fantasy tale second.  There is a significant “Christopher Moore” feel to the dialogue and storyline, so if you like that author, you’ll enjoy Monster.

    My only quibble, and it’s minor, is the ending.  The plotline builds steadily to the requisite cosmos-saving final fight, but it seemed straightforward to me.  There were hijinks and mishaps along the way, but no major twists.

    But in fairness, the epilogue – which is actually the final chapter – did hold a nifty surprise for me, and makes me wonder if there is some sort of sequel to Monster either in the works, or that already exists.

    8 Stars.  Listen, if you’re going to emulate someone like Christopher Moore, you’d better do a good job of it, or else the critics at Amazon will eat you alive.  IMNSHO, A. Lee Martinez pulls it off quite nicely.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

High Druid of Shannara - Jarka Ruus - Terry Brooks



   2003; 416 pages.  Book 1 of the High Druid of Shannara trilogy, a subset of the Shannara series.   New Author? : Probably not, but I could be wrong.  Genre : Epic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    The Ard Rhys has disappeared into thin air!  Literally.  In her locked bedchamber, guarded by a squad of uber-loyal trolls, and with magic spells surrounding the room to ward off any who might have mastery of the druidic arts.

    Of course, she might have purposely wandered off on a field trip.  She’d just been on one of those a short time ago.  But she would almost certainly have had the rock troll Kermadec, accompany her.  And surely she’d tell Tagwen, her trusted servant, of her intended whereabouts.  It’s also possible someone killed her, but why then wouldn’t the corpse be there in the bedchamber?

    Well, rumors are already sprouting up that the troll guards are to blame.  That leaves Tagwen to start the search for the missing Ard Rhys.

    But where do you being to look for someone who vanished without a trace and without any notice?

What’s To Like...
    Jarka Ruus (which means “The Banished People” in Shannarian) is the first book in Terry Brooks’ High Druid of Shannara trilogy.  Brooks has been writing stories set in Shannara since 1977, and is still doing so.  This particular series checks as the seventh sub-series, with the ninth one currently in progress.

    I may or may not have read one of the Shannara novels a long time ago, even long before this blog came into existence.  The trilogies are interconnected, but that was not a problem this time around, as Terry Brooks spends considerable time incorporating the backstory into the book.  Still, this is one of the few instances where I felt like I was missing a lot by not having read the books of the earlier series.

    The writing is geared towards YA, or perhaps even juveniles.  The emphasis is on the storytelling, and the plotline is straightforward and not particularly complex.  The story was a bit slow to begin with, as the author takes time to develop the intrigue, but once we get beyond that into the “quest” portion, the pace is brisk and the action is nonstop.

    There is a definite LOTR feel to Jarka Ruus.  You have a Frodo (Pen), a Gandalf (Ahren), and even a Gollum (Weka Dart); all out on a seemingly impossible mission.  But have no worries, the storyline here goes its own way, and there's nary a hobbit to be seen.

    There’s a cornucopia of critters to meet and either greet or flee from, and that’s a treat in any Epic Fantasy tale.  There’s also some dimension-hopping here, and I’m always kewl with that.  A couple maps are placed at the beginning of the e-book, but the descriptions of the lands were vivid enough to where I didn’t have to make use of them.

    I liked that the Druids (think “magic users”) were portrayed neutrally.  Some are good, some are evil; and the former are not necessarily more powerful than the latter.  The same applies to our protagonist, Pen, whose magic “talent” is being able to “communicate” (more or less a gift of empathy) with plants and animals.  It comes in handy when traipsing around in the wilderness, but when wizards start throwing fireballs at you, it isn’t worth much.

Kewlest New Word...
Brume (n.) : mist or fog.

Excerpts...
    “My brother is off visiting the Prekkendorran,” she said, brushing Ahren’s concerns aside.  “He gives little thought to me.  For the most part, he doesn’t even know where I am.  He doesn’t know now, as a matter of fact.”
    Ahren looked at her.  “Does anyone?”
    “Mother.”
    He nodded.  “Your passion for the Druidic arts, for elemental magic’s secrets, can’t sit well with her.  She sees you married and producing grandchildren.”
    Khyber grunted.  “She sees poorly these days.”  (loc. 2221)

    They were trapped.  The Gnome Hunters were already spreading out, moving through the crowded room like wraiths. (…)  Penn thought of fleeing through the kitchen, but he didn’t know if it led outside or not.  His mind raced, seeking a way of escape.  Maybe Molt didn’t know they were there.  He didn’t seem to.  He was standing in the middle of the room, black cloak shedding water on the wooden floor, hard eyes scanning the room.  It was dark back here.  He might not see them.
    Cows might fly, too.  (loc. 3979)

Kindle Details...
    High Druid of Shannara – Jarka Ruus presently sells for $1.99 at Amazon.  The other two books in the trilogy, Tanequil and Straken, go for $4.99 and $7.99 respectively.  You can also buy the three e-books bundled together for $17.99, but if you go this route, you really need to bone up on your math.  Terry Brooks has a slew of other e-books to offer, generally ranging from $1.99 to $16.99.

 “Ultimatums are the last resort of desperate men.”  (loc. 4670)
    I had some issues with Jarka Ruus.  One of them was the glaring deus ex machina in the form of the King of the Silver River.  He conveniently pops up at a crucial time to hide our heroes from a pursuer, and then clairvoyantly tells them what magic artifact to search for.  Yet somehow, he can’t tell them where the magic artifact is located, nor can he accompany them on the quest.

    Then there's the matter of the “color” of the characters.  They’re all either black or white.  I like my characters better when they’re gray.

    But my biggest gripe is the ending.  There are two storylines.  One ends with a cliffhanger, which I despise.  And the other just comes to a rest along the way, to be continued in the next book.  Is it too much to ask for a novel to have a complete story, even if it’s only part of a greater saga?

    Although in fariness, you can say the same about the LOTR too, and I am a Tolkien fanatic.

    6½ Stars.  There’s no denying the success of Terry Brooks’ Shannara series among YA and upper Juvenile readers, so perhaps it’s just a matter of me not being the target audience.  Still, there are a lot of YA books/series that adults will also find entertaining, the Hunger Games and Harry Potter to name just two.  It’s a pity then that this book didn’t fall into that category for me.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Blonde Bombshell - Tom Holt



   2010; 382 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Humorous Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Our galactic neighbors, the Ostar, have decided to blow up planet Earth.  This ought to be easily accomplished since Terran technology is far inferior to theirs.  So it was quite the surprise when the first bomb sent our way, named “Mark One”, disappeared and Earth went right on …erm… existing.  Now Mark Two has arrived, with two objectives – find out how the Earthlings defeated the first bomb.  And upon determining that, pulverize our planet.

    Of course, anyone who reads science fiction can tell you that this is neither the first nor the last that some alien civilization foolishly tries to annihilate us.  They always fail.  But at least the Ostar have a rather unique reason for doing so.

    We play our music too loud and it’s driving them crazy.

What’s To Like...
    Blonde Bombshell is another fine Tom Holt effort, replete with his trademark zaniness and wit.  It is a little unusual for him to venture into a science fiction, but the nice thing about bizarre storytelling is that it can be adapted to any genre.  We follow the story from various characters’ perspectives.  The main ones are:

    Lucy Pavlov.  Who is fabulously rich, incredible talented, but can’t remember anything about her childhood.
    George Stetchkin.  Who can’t remember anything before his latest hangover.
    Mark Two.  The sentient computer in Bomb #2, who can’t keep his directives from clashing.
    The Director.  At corporate headquarters on planet Ostar. 
    Two men who are definitely not werewolves.

    All of them are coping as best they can.  None of them has a clue as to what’s going on.  I like protagonists like that.

    The story is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, and that's always a plus with me.  The primary setting for the story is a place called Novosibirsk, which I at first thought was an imaginary city, but which turns out to be the third largest metropolis in Russia.

    There aren’t a lot of characters, so keeping them straight is easy.  On Ostar, it’s the dogs that are the evolutionary …um… top dogs, and a lot of them have human pets that love to chase sticks and receive treats for doing good.  The Global Society for the Ethical Treatment of Dumb Brutes is a much-loved humanitarian group on Ostar.

    As in any Tom Holt novel, the plotline meanders like a drunken sot, but nobody cares.  It’s the mayhem and witty writing that count, and there’s plenty of both here.  All the threads get tied up at the end, and Earth (or “Dirt” as the Ostar mistakenly call us) is saved.  Which is not a spoiler since you’re reading this review.

Kewlest New Word ...
Doddle (n.) : a very easy task.  (a Britishism)
Others : Strimmer(n.).


Excerpts...
    Ostar, he thought: rings a bell.  He dived into the furthest recesses of his memory.  Ostar, he was pretty sure, was the German word for Austria.
    That clinched it.  Austria, he knew, was right next to Switzerland, in Europe, with mountains.  Switzerland was where they had loads of posh banks, so presumably they had a few in Austria, too, the ones that wouldn’t fit in Switzerland, a notoriously small country.  And Austria must be a pretty fair dinkum sort of a country, or why had they called Australia after it?  (pg. 112)

    She watched his face go from worried to happy-busy.  Human males were, she’d come to realise, basically very simple mechanisms; more complex than a hinge, but much less sophisticated than a door handle.  Essentially, they were a variety of a valve.  Push them one way and they’d stick, lead them the other way and they’d open up and follow.  In software rather than hardware terms, if you confronted them they sulked, but if you let them think they’d won and then gave them a problem to solve, they passed beyond amenable into potentially useful.  (pg. 260)

An alien race capable of building a weapon as subtle, insidious and devastating as a violin sonata mustn’t be underestimated.  (pg. 15)
    Blonde Bombshell is arguably Tom Holt’s best-known novel.  I remember it being featured at the local bookstores, and it was probably what caused me to start picking up Holt’s books anytime I came across them at the used-book stores.  Since then I’ve read and reviewed 13 of his tales, and I’m at a loss as to why I never got around to reading his signature opus.

    Appreciating Tom Holt books is an acquired taste, and his wacky humor, bumbling protagonists, and errant plotlines will not appeal to everyone.  But I’ve been entertained every time I've read one of his stories.

    8 Stars.  If you’ve never read a Tom Holt novel, Blonde Bombshell is as good of a place to start as any.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Adventure of English - Melvyn Bragg



   2011; 336 pages.  Full Title : The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Linguistics.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    When you think about it, it really is remarkable that English has become the dominant language around the world.

    It started out as an immigrant tongue when a couple of Germanic tribes, most notably the Jutes and the Angles, hopped across the English Channel to a sparsely populated, nondescript island that the Romans had abandoned due to lack of importance.  It nestled in among the existent Celtic tribal dialects and made itself at home.

    It somehow avoided being subsumed by those native tongues, survived the relentless raids by the Vikings, laid low during the  French-speaking Norman Conquest, and whispered softly while the church insisted on conducting its business only in Latin.

    All along, it borrowed liberally from each of those languages, ever increasing its vocabulary, until it was ready to travel to exotic, faraway places.  Like the West Indies, India, Australia, and the most uncivilized setting of them all – America.

What’s To Like...
    The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language is a fascinating opus by Melvyn Bragg, a well-known producer of television documentaries in the United Kingdom.  As the book’s title implies, he anthropomorphizes (I had to look up the verb form of that word) the English language, giving it a personality and appetite for new words, the latter coming in two forms – imported and homegrown.  But don’t worry; at its core, this is a meticulously researched history of our (well, England’s, actually) mother tongue.

    The book is divided into 24 chapters, and can be divided into four sections.  The first chapter deals with “where English came from”.  The next 17 chapters center on how and why foreign words flowed into it (English really is a polyglot).  After that, the focus shifts to English flowing out into the rest of the world.  And we finish up with speculation on “where do we go from here?”

    Melvyn Bragg writes in “English”, as opposed to what I call “American”, and somehow that seems eminently appropriate for the subject material.  Yes, this is the story of how our language – both written and spoken – came to be.  But it is also the story of England itself, and for me, predictably, the older the time period being examined, the more interesting the chapter.  Also included are a fair amount of pictures, and I found these to be interesting as well.

    If you a fan of historical and/or linguistic trivia, you’ll love this book.  Among the items I noted are 8th-century riddles (quite well done), a brief mention of Pennsylvania Dutch, the Cockney dialect and its consequent rhyming slang, and just how perilous the English language’s existence was during the Norman era.

    In addition you’ll meet a number of fascinating historical figures and learn how they contributed to the English language.  Among them: Chaucer, John Wycliffe, Philip Sidney (who?),  Robert Burns, Charles Dickens, and our own Mark Twain.  An entire chapter is devoted to Shakespeare, and rightfully so.  You’ll learn some of the more than 2000 new words he personally added to the vocabulary, including his longest one, “honorificabilitudinitatibus”, which means “the state of being able to achieve honors”, and even has its own Wikipedia entry, linked here.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Scotticism (n.) : a characteristically Scottish phrase.  (There’s a Wikipedia entry for this too.  See it here).
Others : Apotheosis (n.); Fructify (v.)

Excerpts...
    The average educated man today, more than four hundred years on from Shakespeare with the advantage of hundreds of thousands of new words that have come in since his time, has a working vocabulary of less than half that of Shakespeare.
    The language at that time was in flux: Shakespeare must have made it dizzy.  He “out-Heroded Herod”; “uncle me no uncle,” he said, he would “dog them at the heels” – just one of the astonishing, simple transferences of a common observation, a dog at someone’s heels, into a phrase which could be menacing, funny, admirable, pestering: and it is clinchingly memorable.  (loc. 2248)

    Dnt u sumX rekn eng lang v lngwindd?  2 mny wds & ltrs?  ?nt we b usng lss time & papr?  ? we b 4wd tnking + txt?  13 yr grl frim w scot 2ndry schl sd ok.  Sh rote GCSE eng as (abt hr smmr hols in NY) in txt spk.  (NO!) Sh sd sh 4t txt spk was “easr thn standard eng.”  Sh 4t hr tcher wd b :)  Hr tcher 4t it was nt so gr8!  Sh was :( & talkd 2 newspprs (but askd 2 b anon).  “I cdnt bleve wot I was cing!  :o” -!-!-! OW2TE.  Sh hd NI@A wot grl was on abut.  Sh 4t her pupl was ritng in “hieroglyphics.”  (loc. 4850)

Kindle Details...
    The Adventure of English sells for $9.99 at Amazon, although I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted.  Melvyn Bragg has several other books available for the Kindle, both fiction and nonfiction.  They run from $11.49 to $15.12 .  Most of the books he’s penned over the years are only available in paperback and hardcover.

 “The masculine pronouns are he, his and him; but imagine the feminine she, shis and shim!”  (loc. 1578)
    I don’t really have any quibbles about The Adventure of English.  The worst I can say is that there are a bunch of word lists, particularly when Melvyn Bragg is demonstrating just how many words English has absorbed from other languages.  They can get tedious, and I admit I skimmed over some of these.  But they are indispensable for Bragg making his point about just how much of a sponge our language is.

    There are a number of times where an “old English” passage was placed side-by-side with its modern English equivalent.  I found these mesmerizing, and I wondered just how the audiobook version handles this.  Are the two passages spoken for comparison’s sake?  If so, is this more effective than seeing them written, or less?  I’ll never know because I tried an audiobook once and was thoroughly discombobulated by it, giving up after a couple pages.

    Finally, it should be noted that the e-book ends at 90%.  This is expected with any reference work, and the final 10% is taken up by the author’s acknowledgements, an extensive bibliography, and an index that contains neither page numbers nor links.

    9½ Stars.  Bottom line: if you’re into history, you’ll like this book.  If you’re into the English language, you’ll like this book.  And if you’re into the history of the English language (like I am), you’ll freaking love this book.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Saturnalia - John Maddox Roberts


    1999; 261 pages (not including the glossary).  Book #5 (out of 13) of the SPQR series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Crime Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger (just call him plain old "Decius") has been summoned to Rome and given a daunting task.  A relative of his, a fellow by the name of Celer, has died suddenly and it is suspected that he was poisoned.  Of course, this is in the time of Julius Caesar, and proving it was poisoning is difficult, if not impossible.

    Decius’s dad, as well as the rest of his family (and most of Rome, for that matter) are sure that Celer’s wife Clodia did the dirty deed.  So their charge to Decius is not to find out who’s guilty, but to find evidence proving Clodia is the guilty party.

    But Clodia’s brother, along with the rest of her family, who are powerful political rivals of the Metellus family, have also contacted Decius.  Their instructions to Decius are not to find out who’s guilty, but to find evidence proving Clodia is innocent.

    It’s a pretty good bet that someone’s going to be very disappointed with Decius’s efforts in this case.

What’s To Like...
    Saturnalia is part of John Maddox Roberts’ “SPQR” series, which combines Murder-Mystery sleuthing with some excellent Historical Fiction depicting daily life in the Roman Empire at the height of her glory.  I’ve read two other books in the series; they are reviewed here and here.  The author’s attention to historical accuracy is so well-researched that it is possible to give a particular year (I’m trusting Wikipedia on this) in which each story takes place.  Here, Julius Caesar’s star is still rising, and I liked the way he’s portrayed – powerful and ambitious, but also having keen insight into the things and people surrounding him.

    The story is written from the first-person (Decius’s) POV.  There’s an extensive glossary of Roman Empire terms in the back of the book, but I think it also could’ve used a Cast of Characters at the front, since there are a slew of them to follow, and just about everyone is a suspect.  We tag along with Decius as he asks questions, gets threatened, gets lost, and gets in everybody's hair.

    As the title implies, this particular tale takes place during the annual Roman celebration of Saturnalia, and it was really neat learning about this holiday.  For a brief time, social taboos such as public gambling are allowed, and slaves and masters temporarily are equals.  To boot, if witches are your thing, you’ll enjoy interacting with their various orders – the saga, the striga, and the venefica.  The Romans consider these women pagans, preferring to get their fortunes told by augurs, haruspices, and the Sibylline books.

      As always, John Maddox Roberts’ wit and writing skills are on display; as is his attention to historical detail.  One small example:  in those days, the term  “janitor” denoted a slave serving as a doorkeeper.  Kewl stuff.

Kewlest New Word...
Fillip (n.) : something that acts as a stimulus or boost to an activity.
Others : Proscription (n.); Skirling (v.); Sophistry (n.).

Excerpts...
    “Suppose I found myself plunged into deepest despair?”
    “Try a skilled whore and a jug of wine.  That should fix you up nicely.  Improve your outlook no end,”
    I was almost beginning to like her.  “But this is a melancholy beyond bearing.  I must end it.”
    “Try the river.”
    “That would be ungentlemanly.  You get all bloated and fish nibble at you.”
    “You look like you’ve spent some time with the legions.  Fall on your sword.  You can’t get nobler than that.”  (pg. 49)

    “Did Ariston remark at the time upon, oh … any irregularities in the manner of Celer’s passing?”
    “No, in fact he stated rather emphatically that the symptoms were those common to death from natural, internal disorders such as attend a great many common deaths.  This time, he declared, the only unusual circumstance was the seemingly robust health enjoyed by the deceased.”
    “You say ‘seemingly robust health,’” I pointed out.  “May I know why you qualify it thus?”
    “Well, first of all, he was dead.  That alone means he was not as healthy as he had seemed.”  (pg. 214)

“If you’re going to lie to me, you might as well get drunk and do it convincingly.”  (pg. 77)
    The quibbles are minor.  The Murder-Mystery is well-crafted, but choosing the culprit seemed rather arbitrary.  So take my advice: instead of trying to determine who the murderer is, concentrate on figuring out why Celer was killed.

    I also found the final resolution of the crime-solving to be a bit unconvincing.  The murderer, having received a message from Decius letting him know the jig is up, opts for an honorable confrontation to decide matters.  If I were the guilty party, I would’ve tried something less honorable, and sneakier to silence Decius.  Something involving a dark alley perhaps.

    Finally, there are several conversations about the politics of the times, and though they are important to the storyline, they got confusing and tedious.

    But these are all minor things.  Saturnalia is another fine offering from John Maddox Roberts, and I’m sure I’ll be reading more books from this series, especially since my local library has most of them.

    8 Stars7 Stars for the Murder-Mystery; 9 Stars for the Historical Fiction.