Monday, May 30, 2016

The Door of Dreams - Greg James

   2015; 182 pages.  Book 1 (which is all there is so far) of the series “The Chronicles of Willow Grey”.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy, Coming of Age.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    “Curiouser and curiouser,” Willow Grey whispers to herself, after falling down the cellar steps of the house she and her dad had just moved into and hearing the sound of a door opening and closing.  Yet when she looked back up the cellar stairs, the door at the top hadn’t moved.

    So there is only one logical thing to do – explore the new, dark, creepy basement until the source of the squeaky door sound is located.  Which she finds, and is surprised to see only utter darkness beyond it.  Well, Willow is a teenager, so of course the only sensible thing is to cross the threshold.

    The pitch-black tunnel eventually leads to trees.  And moonlight.  And a small man.  None of which should logically be in a tunnel in a cellar.

    Curiouser and curiouser.

What’s To Like...
    The Door of Dreams is a YA fantasy tale, the target audience being teenage girls.  Our heroine, Willow Grey, is hampered by an inoperable brain tumor, and given 6 months to live.  Under such circumstances, exploring a new world is an easy choice to make.

    The book is short – Kindle says 182 pages – but Greg James manages to guide the reader to a number of neat settings, introduce us to a “just-right” amount of fascinating characters, and surprise us with a dozen or so species of fantasy critters, albeit a couple of which are simply mentioned in passing, not beheld.

    There is a smidgen of cussing (mostly uttered by Willow), as well as some booze (wine) and quasi-drugs (stardraught), but these are all rather mild and tasteful.  Some good guys get killed; some bad guys live to fright (sic) another day.  The standard fantasy elements of magic, prophecy, and the Chosen One are present.

    This may sound like a thousand other fantasy tales you’ve read, but the pacing is brisk, the action starts right away and doesn’t let up, the chapters are short, the storytelling drew me in, and there were just enough twists to keep me on my toes.  So The Door of Dreams is a cut or two above your average book in this genre.

    The two main questions running through the storyline are a.) is there anything to be done about Willow’s brain tumor, and b.) from Willow’s perspective, how much of this is “real”, and how much is just a dream?  The former is answered surprisingly early (there are things that even stardraught can’t cure); the latter is unresolved, and I suspect it may be a motif throughout the series.

Kewlest New Word…
Barbican (n.) : the outer defense of a castle or walled city, especially a double tower above a gate or drawbridge..

    “Here we are,” he said, handing her a steaming cup.
    Willow sipped at it.  It tasted of autumn and its aroma was that of bonfires on a November evening.
    “What is this?”
    Henu sat down on a chair and beamed at her, “It is a very special brew called stardraught.  It heals.  It strengthens.  It makes things better.”
    Willow drank some more.  She could feel it making her fingers and toes tingle with warmth.  “I think it’s time for me to wake up now.”
    “Wake up?” he asked, brow creasing, “so, you think me a dream, friend Willow?”  (loc. 136)

   “Am I real?  What could it mean to me if I was not?  These are hard questions but I believe people in your world ask them also.”
    “You’ve got that right, I guess.”
    “So, if I am not here, if I am just a dream, a thought, an image then I am one which can weep, shout, be hurt, cry, and love all the same.  I am more than a word because I have a name and perhaps you gave me this name.  If so, then you are something more than just a friend to me.  You named me, you shaped me, you made me what I am and, for this, I say I will not abandon you to whatever fate in waiting.”  (loc. 1342)

Kindle Details...
    The Door of Dreams sells for $0.99 at Amazon, and keep in mind that the rest of this series has not been published yet.  Greg James has a dozen or so other e-books available, ranging in price from $0.99-$2.99, with a couple of them for free.  Most of his books are 200 pages or slightly shorter.  I think his pricing strategy is very effective for attracting readers.

 “Remember us, Willow Grey, even a dreamed world is a precious thing.”  (loc. 275)
    There are some quibbles, but they are minor.  First off, there’s a map and a gIossary, both of which have got to be very useful.  But they are in the back of the book, so I didn’t discover them until I had finished.  Yes, there are links to both in the Table of Contents, but who bothers with that when starting an e-book?  These should be moved to the front.

    Second, there’s no build-up to a climactic ending, the story just sort of stops to catch its breath after 182 pages of action.  This is way better than resorting to a banal cliffhanger.  But with the book being so short, I wonder whether it would be preferable to combine Books 1 and 2 and build the tension to a properly exciting ending.  Of course, this is speculative, since Book 2 isn’t here yet.

    Finally, the whole brain tumor thing left  me somewhat befuddled.  Does it contribute to the story?  If it were omitted from the plotline, what would change?  Admittedly, this may well take on some new, twisty importance in the next book, after which I may have to withdraw my quibble.

    7½ Stars.  Don’t let the quibbles dissuade you from reading The Door of Dreams.  I found it to be a page-turner, and will probably buy the sequels when they come out.  In the meantime, I’ll content myself with the two “Book One Freebies” that kick off a couple of other series by Greg James.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Beginning of This, The End of That - Part 1: The End - James Matteson

   2012; 366 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Mythopoeia, Dimension-Hopping, Fantasy Alt History.  Overall Rating : 4*/10.

    Well, it’s been a bit of a jolt for Alysa and Ewan; they’ve fallen through a hole from the 21st century to some sort of 7th-century Alternate Universe, where gods and legends both big and small, seem to be running the show.

    The good news is, they’re mostly Greek and Norse deities, and if you know your mythology, you’ll realize that humans were on pretty good footing with those kinds of immortals.  Still, one has to wonder why Fate has brought Alysa and Ewan here, and whether they’ll ever get back home again.

    And then there’s the aliens from outer space.

What’s To Like...
    The Beginning of This, The End of That is an ambitious debut effort by James Matteson.  Per his Amazon blurb, his primary focus is on the role of “story” (read: myths and legends) in society, and you will find all kinds of tales mashed together here.  There were the Norse and Greek myths and gods, of course; but you can also see traces of Alice Through The Looking Glass, The Last of the Mohicans, and perhaps a trace of the Old Testament.  One of the Gnostic greats, Marcion, shows up; and even Mithra gets some ink.  Those are plusses for me.

     The writing style is straightforward, and if you like chants and poems in your stories, you’ll be tickled pink here.  The underlying storyline concept is original, and I liked that Alysa and Ewan had very different outlooks on life and very different natures.  The world-building is ambitious, with the reader being treated to locales such as Frigga’s grove, the White City, and Tartarus (the Underworld).  I wouldn’t say the Matteson's universe drew me into it, but it was adequate for the tale.

    Alas, it’s all downhill from here; both the writing mechanics and the storytelling are weak, and I can see why other readers failed to make it through the book.

    Mechanics.  There were a lot of typos, and that became a distraction.  The author claims to have written over 100 technical documents, yet doesn’t know the difference between “lightning” and “lightening”?  C’mon now.  I’ll look past affect/effect errors, and even hanger/hangar, but when the name of one of the characters goes from Beor to Boer, and it isn’t caught, that’s just poor editing.

    Then there’s the “big word syndrome”: piceous, atramentous, apetalous, hathoritic, pantokratic, and a slew of others.  They felt clunky and ill-fitting, as did the apparent need to give the Latin technical name for every piece of flora and fauna.  Happily, the BWS tapered off once the story got rolling.

    Storytelling.  It frequently loses its focus, and that makes for a number of slow spots.  A kidnapping by pirates becomes a treatise on business ethics.  Five professors give us a discourse on truth.  And if I want to hear a Sunday sermon, I’ll go to church.

Kewlest New Word…
Oppugn (v.) : to call into question the truth or validity of something.
Others : too many to list.

    “If you are not tinkeards,” asked their host, “why then have you come to the White City?”
    “We are here looking for a poet,” Ewan offered.  Gunhild looked at him, disgusted.
    “Well, that should be easy,” said Goggigwr, “there are very few poets left in the city.”
    “Why is that?” Alysa questioned.
    “They have no employers,” he responded.  “If they don’t become musicians, college professors, or take religious orders, they can find no paying work.”  (loc. 3196)

   “So, since we parted at the Temple of the Golden Toad, what has happened to you?”
    “Nothing too exotic,” Ewan said, looking down the path after Frigga.  “We were lost at sea, rescued by pirates, washed ashore on the island of Aig, traveled to Spyral Castle, escaped from Hades over the Bifrost bridge.”  (loc. 6421)

Kindle Details...
    The Beginning of This, The End of That, Part 1: The End presently sells for $9.99 at Amazon, which seems quite steep to me.  The implied sequel has apparently not been written yet, and Amazon carries no other books by James Matteson.

 “What is the point of magic if it is not the force the gods themselves to do your will?”  (loc. 5082)
    I tried to reconcile the author’s stated purpose for this book – examining the role of story in society – with the storyline, and  I finally decided that the choice of genre doomed it from the start.  At first glance, fantasy would seem to be an excellent format for showcasing myths.  But the problem is the readers of fantasy want an entertaining tale, not a literary exegesis.  And the latter is what you get, particularly if you take the time to read the “commentator notes”.

    This is all a shame, because the basic premise of The Beginning of This, The End of That is nothing short of fantastic.  But the execution of that premise disappoints.  I don’t know what the author’s approach was in writing this book, but I get the feeling that some beta readers and a decent editor would’ve significantly improved things.

    One last thing.  Although the story ends at a logical place, it is obvious, even from the title (“Part 1”), that a sequel was planned.  It’s been almost four years since TBoT,TEoT-Part1:TE was published; it seems safe to assume a sequel will not be forthcoming.  Which means there really isn’t much point in reading Book One.

    4 Stars.  Add 1 Star if a sequel should ever be published; add another 1 Star if this book undergoes some major rewriting.  The storyline is so fascinatingly engaging that if it ever got more emphasis than the technical considerations, this could be the start of a fine series.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Coconut Cowboy - Tim Dorsey

   2016; 322 pages.  Book #22 (and the latest) in the Serge A. Storms series.  New Author? : No.  Florida Crime Noir, Stoner Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Welcome to Wobbly, Florida.  That’s “Wobbly” as in “crooked”, since scams and shakedowns and speed traps abound.  Also “Wobbly” as in “shaky”, since rumor has it that the dwindling groundwater level has made conditions ripe for a sinkhole to develop.

    But for Peter and Mary Pugliese, Wobbly seems like heaven compared to their native New York.  And well whattaya know, Peter’s a geologist.  He could be a valuable asset for studying the sinkhole issue.  Or for covering it up.   

    Meanwhile, our recurring protagonist, Serge A. Storms, has found a new passion in life – the movie Easy Rider.  He’s ready to chase the American Dream, through small towns in the backlands of Florida, and on a tricked-out chopper, just like Peter Fonda.  With his best bud and super stoner, Coleman, at his side, just like Dennis Hopper.

What’s To Like...
    Coconut Cowboy is another vintage Serge-&-Coleman saga, and that’s the best kind of Tim Dorsey storyline.  The chapters flip-flop between shenanigans in Wobbly, and the motorcycle meanderings of our dysfunctional duo.  There’s nothing very twisty in either plot thread, but the fun’s in the details, in watching as Dorsey contrives to bring both threads together, and in wondering if the sleazeball baddies are going to "get away with it".

    In addition to the usual psychotic wackiness, the reader is treated to all sorts of small-town Florida historical trivia ( I presume these anecdotes are factual).  We also get to attend the Purple Hatter’s Ball, and there’s even a mention of Krotz Springs, Louisiana.  Where, you ask?  Hey, my company used to have a plant there.  Along the way, you will learn important knowledge, such as how to best answer the question, “Honey, which one of my friends do you think is the sexiest?”

    As always, Tim Dorsey treats us to a fascinating cast of new characters.  Some are good, some are bad, some are smart and streetwise, some couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted them the “C” and the “A”.  All of them have their charms.  You’re gonna love Elroy, Slow, and Slower.

    If you’ve never read a Tim Dorsey novel, you should be aware that there’s a goodly amount of cussing, some gratuitous violence, constant drug-usage by Coleman, and Serge-administered vigilante justice.  Here, there are five instances of the latter, albeit one by a guest executioner.  Some of us think that’s a plus.

    As expected, the wit, humor, and madcap situations simply sparkle.  The best is the Woodstock-esque hippie festival, with Serge inadvertently taking his first trip.  Cheech and Chong would be proud.  Coconut Cowboy is both a standalone novel and part of a series.

    “Florida’s big-sky country, rolling hills and farms and sprawling beds of those lavender and harvest-yellow wildflowers in an intoxicating oil-painting palette like a Monet come to life.  When I was a kid, bumblebees whizzed around those flowers, and one of my uncles said you could catch a bee in your cupped hands, and as long as you kept shaking them, the bee would rattle around and couldn’t sting you.”
    “Did you try it?” asked Coleman.
    “Stung me right away and hurt like a bastard,” said Serge.  “The sixties were all about the lies.”  (pg. 96)

    “Why are you so upset?”
    “The last scene in Easy Rider always chokes me up.”  He aimed a camera out the window.  “Two freethinkers exploring the limitless road of our great nation, and they’re wasted by a pair of mental dead ends.”
    Coleman exhaled again as pot smoke filled a tiny cockpit.  “I remember that movie now.  It was about those cats doing weed all the time.  What a great plot!”
    “Coleman, that wasn’t the plot-“
    “It most definitely was the plot.”  (…)
    “Coleman, Easy Rider was about the American Dream.”
    “Like I just said.”  (pg. 26)

“One person’s Wiffle ball is another person’s butt whistle.”  (pg. 186 )
    The greatest fun in reading Coconut Cowboy is watching the two plotlines slowly race (is that an oxymoron?) towards convergence.  Unfortunately, a spectacularly-spun story is marred by an ending that is hasty, clunky, and strains at the believability factor.

    Serge and Coleman finally make it to Wobbly (that’s not a spoiler), and I looked forward to their climactic encounter with the baddies.  But in a blink of an eye, we jump from arrival to epilogue, with the events in-between related after that.  This drops the tension to zero, and flat-lined the excitement.

    Nevertheless, although this was disappointing,  I wouldn’t say that it ruins the book.  There's just too many plusses to this book.  It just pushes it down from “great” to “good”.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you’re a bona fide biker.  Subtract 1 Star if you’ve never watched Easy Rider.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Three To Get Deadly - Janet Evanovich

   1997; 344 pages.  Book 3 (out of 22) of the Stephanie Plum series.   New Author? : No, but it’s been a while.  Genre : Crime-Humor; Beach Novel.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Eeny meeny miny … oops … where’s Mo disappeared to?

    Moses “Uncle Mo” Bedemier is a popular figure in the burg.  He’s been operating a candy store for decades, and so is a favorite among the kids in town, both present ones and those who have since moved on to adulthood.  But he was recently found carrying an unregistered firearm after a routine traffic stop, arrested, and Stephanie Plum’s employer, Cousin Vinnie, posted the bail money.

    Now Uncle Mo’s skipped his court appearance, and Vinnie’s in danger of losing the money he put up.  So it’s up to bounty hunter Stephanie to find Mo and bring him in.

    But when you’re looking for a neighborhood icon, you sometimes find that the locals view you as the bad guy, not Uncle Mo.  So lotsa luck finding him, Steph.  Don’t expect the townsfolk to help you.

What’s To Like...
    Three To Get Deadly is my third Stephanie Plum book, but I read the first two way back in 2009, and they are reviewed here and here.  So I appreciated muchly Janet Evanovich working the backstory into the first few percent of the e-book.  Stephanie is still learning the tricks of the trade, mostly from Ranger.  And she’s mentoring her new protégée, Lula.  Joe Morelli’s back, keeping Steph hot and breathless, and so is Grandma Mazur, albeit in a lesser role.

    There’s a nice balance between wit and mystery-solving.  I thought for a while that the latter was being ignored.  But it turns out the clues were there; but both Stephanie and I were just too dense to see them.   There’s a red herring or two to keep you on your toes, and a new (at least for me) acronym to learn:  “FTA” (“Failure To Appear”).

    This is a quasi-cozy mystery.  Stephanie keeps coming across a bunch of bodies, but I don’t recall any of them dying onstage.  There’s a bunch of cussing, a few “adult themes”, and at least one steamy bit of petting, but it’s all somehow tastefully done.

    The writing style is heavy on dialogues, and I think that keeps the reader’s interest.  The setting is Trenton, New Jersey; when’s the last time you read a book set there?  And beneath all the wit, Evanovich explores a serious topic and a dark one.  I’ve listed them in the comments to the post, for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

    The ending is good, with Mo’s disappearance satisfactorily resolved.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.

Kewlest New Word (Phrase, actually). . .
Damn Skippy (interjection) : not just yes, but hell yes.
Others : Cachet (n.)

    “First off,” Connie said, “Bruce Wayne is Batman, and Batman isn’t actually a superhero.  Batman’s just some neurotic guy in a rubber suit.  You have to get nuked or come from another planet to be a real superhero.”
    “Batman’s got his own comic book,” Lula said.
    Connie wasn’t impressed with this logic.  “Donald Duck has his own comic book.  You think Donald Duck is a superhero?”  (loc. 3210 )

    I woke up feeling guilty about the junk food binge, so for penance I cleaned the hamster cage, rearranged the jars in the refrigerator and scrubbed the toilet.  I looked for ironing, but there was none.  When something needs to be ironed I put it in the ironing basket.  If a year goes by and the item is still in the basket I throw the item away.  This is a good system since eventually I end up only with clothes that don’t need ironing.  (loc. 3572)

Kindle Details...
    Three To Get Deadly is presently going for $1.99 at Amazon right now, which is a fantastic price for a book from a top-tier author.  There are 22 books in this series (soon to be 23), and they range in price from $1.99 (for #2 and #3) to $13.99 for their Kindle versions.  Janet Evanovich has several other series going, none of which I’ve read.

 “I come in like the fog on little cat feet.   (loc. 341)
    I can’t really think of anything to quibble about in Three To Get Deadly.   The pace is good, the characters are all fun to meet, the wit and humor is there from start to finish, and all the R-rated stuff seems to fit in well with the tone of the book.

    I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get back to reading this series.  In rereading my reviews of books #1 ad #2, it’s obvious I liked them.  Perhaps I was worried that all the storylines would start sounding the same, and who knows, perhaps they will.  But for now, I can say I’ve enjoyed all three Stephanie Plum books I’ve read thus far.  I’ll probably pick up a couple more in the near future, although it’s questionable whether or not I’ll continue to read them in order.

    8 Stars.  There’s a reason why Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books make the New York Times Best Sellers list time after time.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The 14th Colony - Steve Berry

   2016; 443 pages.  Book #11 (and most recent) in the Cotton Malone series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    The Russians can be quite accommodating at times.  They’ve given Cotton Malone open access to the parts of Siberia around Lake Baikal, so that he can locate one of their fugitive archivists.  Which is strange, since they know Malone is an American operative.

    They’ve even given him a plane to fly to Lake Baikal, albeit a biplane of World War 2 vintage.  To boot. they arranged all this through the proper channels, the American agency known as the Magellan Billet.  That's mighty cooperative of them.

    But when the first heat-seeking missile comes soaring up at his dinky little plane, it becomes clear that not everyone in Siberia is thrilled about Cotton’s presence.  And a modern-day missile versus a World War 2 aircraft is not exactly a fair fight.

What’s To Like...
    The 14th Colony follows Steve Berry’s standard formula for his Cotton Malone books – start the action early, and keep it going until the final chapter.  There’s a prologue to get through here (more about that later), but the action begins on the first page of Chapter 1, with the missile being launched on the fourth page.

    The chapters are short – there’s 79 of them, plus the prologue – so there’s always a good place to stop reading for the night.  And I liked the choices of Lake Baikal in Siberia and Prince Edward Island in Canada as major settings in the tale.  When's the last time you read a book set in either of those locales? 

    As usual, there’s about five separate plotlines going on, which Berry, as always, deftly ties together at the end.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of the continuing saga of Cotton Malone.

    Unfortunately, there’s a lot here that disappointed me as well.  First of all, the historical tie-in, which is what I love the most about any Steve Berry novel, is humdrum and incidental.  The titular “14th Colony” doesn’t come into play until the very end, and Berry’s “secret” – that the US has developed invasion plans for Canada several times in the past – is frankly pretty lame.  He implies that Canada would be outraged at this; in reality Canada probably has their own set of plans for invading us.  Big whoop.

    The characters are flat and boring.  Cotton can do no wrong (we’ll allow that).  The Russians are all weak, corrupt, and depressed.  The President-elect is a liberal and therefore a fool, and outgoing POTUS Danny Daniels can dance circles around him without any effort at all.  And just wait till you see how Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul 2 are portrayed.

    Finally, there are the WTF’s.  I recognize that the thrills and spills need to be spectacular, but they also must be believable.  A Russian fighter plane plops Cotton into the back seat, and allows him to take control of the jet whenever he so desires???  C’mon now.  Then there’s the five portable nuclear bombs, which conveniently shrink to one when we get to the climactic ending.  I have a feeling Berry wrote himself into a corner, and had to give Cotton and cohorts some literary help.  No way would’ve they stopped all five.

    He trotted around the holocaust of flames and smoke and found the truck.  Thankfully, keys remained in the ignition.  A handheld radio lay on one of the seats.  He climbed inside and pushed the SEND button, and said, “Who’s listening?”
    “I am,” a male voice said in perfect English.
    “And you are?”
    “How about you go first?”
    “I’m the guy who just took out two men with rifles.”
    “That would make you a problem.”
    “I get that a lot.”  (pg. 36)

    Hush you mice, a cat is near us.
    He can see us, he can hear us.
    What if he is on a diet?
    Even them you should be quiet.  (pg. 164)

 Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in fruit salad.  (pg. 300)
    The negatives mentioned earlier are enough to make this a mediocre read.  But the really aggravating thing is that Berry apparently feels compelled to give the reader a bunch of his wingnut political opinions.  And right away.

    So in the prologue, we get Ronald Reagan, whom Berry obviously adores, and the pope craftily plotting the demise of the USSR.  Reagan’s apparently psychic, for he can accurately predict exactly how the Soviets will react to his clever ploy.  He’s also glib, since he can quickly and decisively convince the head of the Catholic Church to get in cahoots with him.

    It’s all clunky, and totally unnecessary for the storyline.  Berry finds a few more spots to sing the praises of Saint Ronnie.  They were garbage passages too.  It is historically true that Reagan and the Pope did meet in a closed, 1-hour meeting early in Reagan’s presidency, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what they discussed.  But to have them spouting right-wing ideology is utter bupkis.

    I’ve been an avid reader of Steve Berry since his first book.  I’m a couple books behind right now, but found The 14th Colony as a new release at my local library, so I snapped it up.  I had heard that Berry had gone wingnut in the previous book in the series, The Patriot Threat, so I can’t say I was blindsided here.  But this by far, the poorest Steve Berry book I’ve read.

    5 Stars.  Hey, Steve.  I really don’t give a rat’s arse about your political views, and I'm sure you don't care about mine.  I read your books for the historical intrigue, and the thrills and spills.  So how's about you knock it off with the teabaggery verbiage and get back to finding kewl historical mysteries that you can cleverly work into  your patented plot twists to.  Otherwise, I’m afraid we’ll have to go our separate ways.