Thursday, June 30, 2016

McNally's Dilemma - Lawrence Sanders

   1999; 309 pages.  Book #8 (out of 13) of the Archy McNally series.  New Author? : No, and Yes.  Genre : Crime-Humor.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    There really isn’t anything for Archy McNally to investigate.  Geoffrey Williams, a local tennis pro – and known womanizer – has been shot to death, his naked body (corpse, I guess) sprawled across the floor in his house.

    There isn't any question as to who killed him.  His wife, Melva, freely admits she did the dirty deed, after discovering Geoffrey and a mystery woman in flagrante delicto on the floor.  So no investigation is needed, and Melva simply asks that Archy, as a friend, look after their daughter, the ravishing and partying Veronica.

    But a couple nagging questions keep floating around in Archy’s head.  Who was the mystery woman and why hasn't she come forward?  Why was the house security turned off that one particular night?  Why did Melva have the address of where to find the vivacious Veronica conveniently written on a piece of paper for Archy?  And what was it that the maid said about the goings on that night?

What’s To Like...
    There are actually two tasks for Archy to perform here – two plotlines if you will.  One is to poke around in the Geoffrey Williams slaying, keeping in mind that the accused in a client of McNally and Son.  The other is  to find out who is blackmailing John Fairhurst III, and why, since the “dirt”, while embarrassing, is not particularly troublesome.  The reader of course knows that the two storylines will eventually converge, but it’s fun to watch (read) how it’s done.

     This is my second Archy McNally book (the other one is reviewed here), and I am indeed warming up to our protagonist.  Here Archy is a bit more of a wit and a bit less of a fop.  He may still bed the girl, but who’s toying with whom?  And our hero now gets, to a certain degree, his comeuppance for his vanity.  I liked that.

    As always, the story is set in Palm Beach, Florida.  As always, wit and plot twists abound.  I love it when Archy lapses into French.  There are acronyms to learn; it took me a while to realize that “PBR” = “Palm Beach Rumor”, and “PBF” = “Palm Beach Fact”.  Once again, detailed descriptions are given for what everybody is wearing and eating from one day to the next.  And you’ll be amused to discover what “Steak Tartare Medium Rare” works out to be.

    The ending is quite twisty and quite good.  You and Archy both know some sort of subterfuge is afoot, but determining what’s really going on will surprise you.

Kewlest New Word. . .
And Bob’s Your Uncle (phrase.) : “and everything’s all right!”; “et voila!”; “;”and there you go!”  (a Britishism)

    “Do you know who this place belongs to, Archy?”
    “No. Do you?”
    “An old couple who went into hock to get their daughter married to an English title.  Now they have to rent the place every winter and go live with their daughter and son-in-law in his family castle.  No central heat, sixty bedrooms, one loo, and if you want to take a bath you have to order the hot water a week in advance.”
    “You’re kidding.”
    “Would I lie to you, Archy?”
    “Yes.”  (pg. 99)

    Al Rogoff was living proof of the old adage “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”  The only time Al Rogoff watched television was when PBS aired a performance by the New York City Ballet or an opera from the Met.  Al could listen to the William Tell overture without once thinking, “Hi, ho, Silver, away,” and could tell an ’82 Medoc from Chianti sold by the gallon.  He enjoyed Vivaldi and knew that “La Belle Dame sans Merci” was not a French dominatrix.  (pg. 155)

 “As you sue, so shall you reap.”  (pg. 217)
    Archy’s Dilemma was published in 1999, but sadly Lawrence Sanders passed away in February, 1998.  His estate chose Vincent Lardo to write this book, the 8th in the series.  Unfortunately, this switching of authors isn’t mentioned on either the front or back cover blurbs.  The only place it is cited is in the small print on the “Library of Congress” info page.

     This apparently upset no small number of Lawrence Sanders fans, who felt that Mr. Lardo did not fully capture the full inner essence of our hero.  Well, I agree with them to a certain extent, Lardo’s Archy is subtly different from Sanders’ Archy.

    But personally I prefer the “new” Archy better to the old one.  Yeah, a lot of times there’s just no substitute for the original author (see all the Robert Ludlum wannabees), but once in a while the new writer actually improves things.  IMHO, Brandon Sanderson saved Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  And that just might be the case with Lawrence Sanders and Vincent Lardo.  More data (more books read in the series) is needed.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you are partial to the charmingly, rascally Archy McNally that Lawrence Sanders penned.  We shall agree to disagree.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Raucous Time - Julia Hughes

    2013; 246 pages.  Book 1 (out of four) in the Celtic Cousins’ Adventures series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genre : YA Mystery, with a smidgen of Fantasy thrown in.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Right now, life could be better for Rhyllan “Annie” Jones.  Just 15 years old, he has to fend for himself, as his mum, Tricia, is “away on business”; his “Gran” has been attacked and is in the hospital; and Aunt Sarah is unavailable as well.  Even worse, his cousin and best chum, Wren Prenderson (Aunt Sarah’s son), is in the hospital as well, a victim in the same attack that felled Gran.

    Now the police are coming around, asking all sorts of questions, and there is a very keen possibility that child services will be called in.  After all, it certainly appears that Rhyllan and Wren have both been abandoned.

     One policeman in particular, Detective Inspector Crombie, has become a major thorn in Rhyllan’s life.  He’s canny and perceptive, and seems to see right through Annie’s lies about his mum’s whereabouts.  But does Crombie really want to help?

    Or is he part of the gang of thugs that assaulted Gran and Wren?
What’s To Like...
    A Raucous Time follows Wren and Rhyllan as they endeavor to find some sort of hidden treasure that Wren claims to know about from an old Welsh manuscript that he was asked to translate.  Naturally, there are also a bunch of bad guys who want to find the treasure as well, and a team of cops, headed by DI Crombie, who seem to always be a step slow due to one or more turncoats in their midst.

    It’s fun to try and figure out alongside Rhyllan where Crombie’s allegiance lies.  It's also a challenge to the reader and Rhyllan to determine whether there’s any treasure at all.  Wren swears there is, but is he psychic, conniving, possessed, or just plain crazy?  In any event, the Wren/Rhyllan relationship takes on a  sort of “Frodo/Samwise” feel, and I like stories where we follow the #2 guy more than The Chosen One.

    The majority of the book is set in Wales, and that’s a plus.  And instead of sunshine and butterflies, we trudge around in torrential downpours and treacherous moors.  I enjoyed getting soaked to the skin with our adventurers.  And even the final setting, the ruins of Tintagel Castle, are more creepy than spectacular.  Utter kewlness.

    This is a YA mystery tale, bordering on Juvenile.  So there’s no romance, booze, sex, drugs, or adult situations.  There's a smattering of mild cussing, but mostly by our two teenagers.  Finally, the book is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, and that’s always a delight for me.

Kewlest New Word ...
ASBO (n., Acronym) : stands for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a civil order made in the United Kingdom against a person who had been shown, on the balance of evidence, to have engaged in anti-social behaviour.
Others : Frowsty (adj.); Toerag (n.); Manky (adj.); Bolshy (adj.); Splodge (v.); Sarky (adj.)These are all Britishisms.

    Crombie decided he’d visit the hospital after lunch, although again he doubted if Mike Stern’s “grandson” had anything to add, but it would look as though he’d been thorough in his report, which would recommend surveillance.
    Shorthand for “I haven’t a bloody clue what to do next.”  (loc. 799)

    “Hey Annie.  You and me are special.  We’re having private lessons.”
    Mr. Robinson sniffed.  “You certainly are special.  Follow me please,” he flicked at Rhyllan’s hair and frowned.  “I thought I told you to get this cut?”
    Wren snapped.  “He can’t.  It’s his religion.”
    Robinson’s eyebrows rose, wrinkling his bald scalp.  “Pray do tell.  And what religion would that be?”
    “Pantheism.”  (loc. 2345)

Kindle Details...
    A Raucous Time is free at Amazon, which, ANAICT, is standard for this book.  The other three books in the series are all $0.99 each.  Julia Hughes has about 8 other e-books available, and they are all in the free-to-$0.99 range.

 “Some of us actually like kids.  Couldn’t eat a whole one though.”  (loc. 1650)
    I had some problems with A Raucous Time.  First and foremost, the storytelling often had me in a daze.  The plotline seemed to assume the reader knows things like: Rhyllan’s mum is MIA and undercover; Wren’s mum is in prison; Rhyllan is Old Man Stern’s grandson (or at least he claims to be), and Wren and Gran had been attacked for reasons unknown just prior to the start of the book.  We gradually glean all these important details, but hey, it would’ve been nice to have a coherent backstory early on, especially since I wasn't looking for one, given that this is the first book in the series.

    The other problem were the protagonists themselves – simply put, they’re neither nice nor believable.  They steal airplanes (WTF?  Teenagers steal airplanes?!), bikes, and food; and break into houses via rocks thrown through the front window.  Are they hooligans or heroes?

    In the end, my favorite character turned out to be DI Crombie, despite his questionable loyalties.  And FWIW, it may be that the author feels the same way, since in researching the rest of the series, it appears that DI Crombie is going to become a recurring major character.

    5½ Stars.  If you can make it through the confusing storytelling that plagues the first half of the book, things eventually straighten out and you're treated to a fast-paced second half “quest” with lots of thrills and spills.  The book’s sequel, A Ripple in Time, is on my Kindle, and I vaguely recall reading that it was actually published before A Raucous Time.  So maybe the elusive backstory resides there.  Or perhaps there was an earlier series that I should’ve read first.  Who knows.  We shall see.  In time.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Last Colony - John Scalzi

    2007; 320 pages.  Book 3 (out of 6) in the Old Man’s War series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Military Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    For John Perry and his wife Jane, life in the colony Huckleberry is just about perfect.  They’ve both retired from the Colonial Defense Forces, which means they had to give up their synthetically enhanced (and green) fighting bodies. But it was worth it, and now they're content to watch their daughter Zoe grow up in a normal environment.

    Ah, but leave it to the CDF to come calling to try to sweet-talk them into a new adventure.  No, it won’t be in the armed forces again.  All the CDF wants them to do is to head a brand new seed settlement on a brand new world.  There’s really no risk; it’s a planet the Obin have willingly given to the humans in exchange for a different one.

    Of course, the CDF always has an ulterior motive for everything they do.  And they’ve decided to name this new settlement “Roanoke”, after the legendary “lost colony” back on Earth.

    Hmmm.  I wonder why they’d choose the name of a failed colony?

What’s To Like...
    The Last Colony is the third book in John Scalzi’s tremendously popular (just try to get copies of them from your library without putting a hold on them) Old Man’s War series.  Structurally, it reminds me of the first book – there’s not a lot of action at first as Scalzi sets the stage and our two protagonists help their settlers start building civilization from scratch on a new planet.  But just like in the first book – if you are patient, the thrills and spills and kills arise eventually, in abundance, and just keep on going up through the final page.

    The world-building is, as expected with a Scalzi novel, detailed and believable.  I liked the “fur trees” on Roanoke, as well as the new critters – fanties, yotes, and whatever long-clawed things made those scratches on the settlement’s walls.  Once again we are treated to an array of interplanetary races – the Obin, the Arrisians, the Whaid, and four or five others.

    The best part of the world-building is the characters themselves.  John, Jane, and Zoe we already know.  But is Manfred Trujillo a help at Roanoke or a snake in the grass?  Ditto for Generals Gau and Rybicki.  The former is in theory a foe, and the latter an ally.  But those designations get delightfully blurred.  And if Hickory, Dickory, and Savitri don’t make you chuckle at times, something’s wrong.

    Finally, there’s the twists and turns in the plotline and the multiple layers of deception.  Everyone has hidden agendas, and it seems the closer they are to John and Jane – and especially Zoe – the less they can be trusted.  The Obin rules for Hickory and Dickory protecting Zoe may be amusing, but if saving Zoe means killing John and Jane, they will do it.

    Gau’s lieutenant approached him.  “What did he mean when he said you’ll hear his answer, General?” he asked.
    “They chant,” Gau said, and pointed toward the colony, still under spotlight.  “Their highest art form is a ritualized chant.  It’s how they celebrate, and mourn, and pray.  Chan was letting me know that when he’s done talking with his colonists, they would chant their answer to me.”
    “Are we going to hear it from here?” the lieutenant asked.
    Gau smiled.  “You wouldn’t be asking that if you’d ever heard a Whaidi chant, Lieutenant.”  (pg. 167)

    “You don’t trust him, “ Jane said.
    “Let’s just say I have concerns,” I said.  “Rybicki didn’t go out of his way to offer up anything, either.  I asked him if he thought the Conclave would let us just walk away from this planet if we wanted to, and he suggested that they wouldn’t.”
    “He lied to you,” Jane said.
    “He chose to respond differently than total honesty would dictate,” I said.  “I’m not sure that’s exactly a lie.”  (pg. 187)

“There’s a goat in your office.”  “I thought we’d sprayed for those.”  (pg. 4)
    John Scalzi’s writing is once again superb, but this was the first book in the series where I felt the storytelling was at times rushed and disjointed.  Opportunities for excitement were missed, and plot holes developed.

    In the former category, Zoe gets sent on a diplomatic mission critical to Roanoke’s survival.  But she’s just a kid; so will she be in over her head?  Will there be witty repartee?  Will she have difficulty winning over the person she is meeting?  We’ll never know, since Scalzi zips straight to the result of her diplomatic task, skipping all details in between.

    The plot holes are even more vexing.  At least one of the indigenous species on Roanoke’s planet is both sentient and savage; and gave the humans all the trouble they could handle in the first encounter.  Kewlness. But then they completely disappear from the story, and their threat is thereafter totally ignored by the colonists.  WTF?

    But these are afterthoughts that only arose when I was done reading the book.  Overall, The Last Colony is an exciting page-turner that kept me up way past my bedtime as I wondered how the human race was going to avoid being blasted into stardust for their indiscretions.

    8 Stars.  Listen, The Last Colony wasn't quite as good as the first two books, but it still kept me on the edge of my seat.  And frankly, maintaining the level of excellence of Books 1 and 2 (reviewed here and here) borders on the impossible.  So do yourself a favor - read this series in order, so you can see right away Scalzi at his best.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States - Sarah Vowell

   2015; 275 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : History; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Quick! How many battles in the American Revolutionary War can you name?  Well, let’s see now.  Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, and Yorktown.  That’s about it.

    Not bad, now how many generals from that war can you name?  Well there’s Washington.  Hmm.  And Cornwallis.  Oh, and that French guy, Lafayette.

    And what did Lafayette do in the war?  Umm.  I don’t know.  Brought us the Statue of Liberty perhaps?  You know, maybe I should read a book about it.

What’s To Like...
    Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is Sarah Vowell’s wonderful book about a subject we Americans ought to, and usually don’t, know much about – our war of Independence.  It is aptly titled,  since Vowell focuses on both the conflict itself, and one of the most fascinating characters associated with it.

    The first part of the book deals with events leading up to the war, which was something that almost nobody wanted – not England, not France, and not most of the colonists.  Wars are expensive, something none of the European powers could afford.  The French were unsure of the Americans’ resolve.  The English felt it was highly unlikely that they could win a war fought so far from their homeland.  And the colonies were reluctant to supply the massive amounts of supplies – food, clothing, blankets, weapons and ammo, boots, etc. – to equip the ragtag army that spent mosto of their time running away from the Redcoats, rather than fighting them.

    Vowell blends all this in with the early biography of Lafayette, including trivia such as the fact that his dad was killed by a British cannonball, and his mother died when he was 12, leaving him young, but very, very rich.

    The historical aspects are presented objectively.  Washington’s blunders – and there are quite a few – are not covered up.  Neither are the arrogance and complacency of the British.  And both sides were hampered significantly by internal politicking and petty jealousies.  But through it all, Lafayette’s optimism, idealism, and loyalty to the cause shines like a beacon in the gloom.

    If you’ve read any other Sarah Vowell books, you know she has a penchant for tying historical events to present-day issues, and that’s true here as well.  The USA may be a divided country right now, with the Republican hardliners trying to shut the government down.  But Vowell’s point is that we’ve always been like this.

    There are no chapters in the book, which I found odd.  But there are a bunch of caricatures dispersed throughout the book to break the tedium, the last one of which will make you gasp.  And the author gets a tip-of-the-hat for name-dropping one of her friends, Wesley Stace, who will be more familiar to some of us by his stage nane: John Wesley Harding.

Kewlest New Word…
Annus Mirabilis  (n.; phrase)  :  a remarkable or auspicious year.
Others : Frenemies

    The newly dubbed General Lafayette was only nineteen years old.  Considering Independence Hall was also where the founders calculated that a slave equals three-fifths of a person and cooked up an electoral college that lets Florida and Ohio pick our presidents, making an adolescent who barely spoke English a major general at the age I got hired to run the cash register at a Portland pizza joint was not the worst decision ever made there.
    On the one hand, the French rookie got himself shot in the calf in his very first battle.  On the other hand, he was so gung ho that he cut short his recuperation and returned to duty with one leg in a boot and the other wrapped in a blanket.  (loc. 58)

    The reason the American commander was waiting around to react was that, in 1777, Washington’s plan to outsmart and outlive the enemy was to try not to die.  This was the so-called Fabian strategy, named for the Roman general Fabius Maximus, the Cunctator (“the delayer”), who spent years wearing down the deadlier Carthagenians by retreating every time his opponents seemed poised to prevail, thus holding the Roman army together; basically, Fabius annoyed his enemies to death.  (loc. 1052)

Kindle Details...
    Lafayette in the Somewhat United States sells for $13.99 at Amazon, which makes it the most expensive Sarah Vowell e-book out there.  Her other 6 books there are all in the $7.99-$12.99 range.

 You know your country has a checkered past when you find yourself sitting around pondering the humanitarian upside of sticking with the British Empire.  (loc. 2033)
    The quibbles are minor.  There are a host of French functionaries to meet and greet.  I didn’t bother to jot their names and roles down, and it eventually got confusing trying to recall who did what, and how they viewed the American upstarts.  A glossary might have been nice.  Then again, I could’ve taken better notes.

    The book ends at the logical point – Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.  But there was still a formidable British army en route by sea from New York in a belated attempt to save Cornwallis.  I never did figure out why they didn’t attempt to rescue their captured brethren.

    But I pick at nits.  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States was a fantastic read – from the lesser-known battles (such as Brandywine), to the miserable wintry conditions at Valley Forge, to lots of ink devoted to one of my personal Revolutionary War heroes, Nathanael Greene.  And I’m crazy about John Wesley Harding’s music. 

    9 Stars.  Highly recommended to lovers of History.  Subtract 1 star if you’re a teabagger; you’re not going to enjoy Ms. Vowell’s asides.  Better stick to Glenn Beck’s and Bill O’Really’s faux history.