Thursday, August 25, 2016

One Summer - America, 1927 - Bill Bryson

   2013; 456 pages.  Full Title : One Summer – America, 1927.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction; American History.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Hey, do you remember what all went down during the summer of 1927?

    Well, that was a bit before my time.  But as a baseball buff, I do recall that the 1927 New York Yankees kicked butt that whole season, with Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs and Lou Gehrig slugging almost as many.

    And upon further reflection, I think that was the year Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop, transatlantic flight, going from New York to Paris, and all by hiself to boot.   But that’s about all I can come up with.

    Well, Bill Bryson has dug up all sorts of other newsworthy events that happened in America that summer.  Some of them were world-changers, others made a brief splash in the newspapers, then faded quickly from public memory.

    But all of them were important to someone, and, when written about with Bryson's deft pen, are fascinating to read about.

What’s To Like...
    The title tells you everything you need to know about the book: One Summer – America 1927 is all about what made the headlines across the country during a busy time in our nation's history.  There are gruesome murders, historical flights, memorable sports events, idiotic regulations (Prohibition), foolish business adventures, and many more.  Bill Bryson divides the book up into 30 chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue), and clumps them loosely into five main sections that focus on the bigger stories : “The Kid” (Lindbergh), “The Babe” (Ruth), "The President" (Calvin Coolidge), "The Anarchists" (Sacco and Vanzetti), and the catch-all “Summer’s End”.

    The topics in the chapters jump around a bit, which keeps thing fresh.  Bryson’s research is deep, fascinating, and meticulously detailed.  Almost every character encountered in the book has their own idiosyncrasies (aka, skeletons in the closet), and the “dirt” Bryson reveals will keep you turning the pages.  The last chapter in the book, the Epilogue, wraps things up nicely, and is particularly moving.

    The major storylines are of course interesting, but I especially enjoyed reading about events that have long disappeared into the mists or conveniently covered up.  To wit:

    Henry Ford’s insane attempt to build a company community in the jungles of Brazil (“Fordlandia”).
    The US government deliberately poisoning its citizens via industrial alcohol.  If you died from drinking it, well, you got what you deserved.
    Wayne Bidwell Wheeler’s zealous and insane efforts to develop the Prohibition movement.
    The origin of hot dogs.
    The eccentric and rich Van Sweringen brothers.
    The forcible sterilization of 60,000 Americans deemed to be sub-human.
    The cultural silliness of flagpole-sitting.
    The start of the sculpting of Mount Rushmore.
    The rise of the Age of Radio, and the dawning of the Age of Television.

    The book is well-formatted, with an Index, a “Further Reading” section, and some way-kewl photographs.  As always, Bryson’s writing, wit, and attention to minutiae will hold your interest throughout.

Kewlest New Word ...
Farrago (n.) : a confused mixture; hodgepodge
Others : Swart (adj,; archaic)

    In desperation, lawmakers tried to legislate probity.  In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a local law made it an offense for dancing partners to gaze into each other’s eyes.  In Utah, the state legislature considered sending women to prison – not fining them, but imprisoning them – if their skirts showed more than three inches of leg above the ankle.  In Seattle, a group called the Clean Books League even tried to get banned the travel books of the adventurer Richard Halliburton on the grounds that they “excited to wanderlust.”  (pg. 70)

    The plot of Rio Rita was interestingly improbable.  Set in Mexico and Texas, it involved an Irish American singer named Rio Rita, a Texas Ranger traveling incognito while looking for a bandit named Kinkajou (who may or may not have been Rita’s brother), a bigamous soap salesman named Chick Bean, and a character identified only as Montezuma’s Daughter.  These characters and some others of equal implausibility engaged in a series of amusing misunderstandings interrupted at intervals by songs that had little or nothing to do with the action that preceded or followed.  A cast of 131 and a full orchestra provided a great deal of happy noise and spectacle, if not always an abundance of sense.  (pg. 86)

 “As an author Lindbergh is the world’s foremost aviator’.”  (pg. 229 )
    As fascinating as One Summer – America, 1927 was, it was a slow read for me, mostly because I’m a history buff, and I didn’t want to gloss over any of the details.  But it was also slow because, outside of a couple grisly murders and executions, there’s not a lot of “action”.  This of course, is something Bill Bryson had no control over.  America was in between World Wars, and for the moment everyone was making money on the stock market.

    I’ve read a number of Bill Bryson’s Travelogue books, but I had never tackled any of his History-themed efforts.  OS-A1927 was every bit as good as books like A Walk In The Woods (reviewed here), and I may have to broaden my Bryson reads.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you’re into hero-worship.  Bryson has never been one to cover up the warts of our sacrosanct historical figures.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hour of the Octopus - Joel Rosenberg

   1994; 263 pages.  Book #2 (out of 2) in the D’Shai series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Kami Dan’Shir is called many things.  Kami Khuzud.  Historical Master.  Eldest son.  Discoverer of Truths.  And there are some of those among the nobility who use much less complimentary terms to describe him.

    He is also very clever when it comes to solving puzzles, which almost everybody likes; and showing up the nobility, which almost nobody likes.  So when a nobleman attending a royal wedding is killed, Kami Dan’Shir is the logical choice to solve the mystery.

    Do give it your best effort, O Discoverer of Truths.  Because someone has to pay for the slaying of the nobleman.  And if you don’t find the perpetrator, the glorious ruling class will pick a scapegoat.  Someone clever.  Someone who they won’t miss at all.

    Someone like you, Kami Dan’Shir.

What’s To Like...
    If you’re the kind of person who likes detailed, complex world-building, Joel Rosenberg’s Hour of the  Octopus is the book for you.  In a nutshell, this is a sword-&-sorcery alternate universe, very similar to Rosenberg’s better known Guardians of the Flame series, which he was writing at the same time.

    Most of the book is written in the first-person (Kami’s) POV; the only exceptions being a couple of short “Interludes” scattered throughout the book.

    Kami is a juggler by trade, having recently departed from his father’s traveling acrobat troupe.  Since there is no such thing as a juggling troupe, he is deemed the founder of the guild.  This allows him to move up one social class, from the lowly peasant class to middle-of-the-pack bourgeois. Such a jump is almost unheard of in the world of D’Shai, where a strict social caste system is rigidly enforced.

    The usual Rosenberg wit is present, and the magic doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the world-building.  The wizards were my favorite characters, much akin to Terry Pratchett’s treatment of them in his Discworld series.  I particularly like the owl-transformation scene.

    The pacing was not to my taste.  The murder doesn’t take place until page 171, so for the first 2/3 of the book, we wander about with Kami, as he hobnobs with the nobility, learns how to socialize and hunt, and generally pisses off everyone around him.  But if you can make it through all that tedium, you will be treated to a well-crafted murder-mystery, with ample twists  and a satisfying conclusion.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Defalcation (n.) : the act of embezzling.
Others :  Solecism (n.); Concatenated (adj.); Delectation (n.); Indition (n., and not found anywhere by googling, so a typo, maybe?).

    She was in the same robes she had worn earlier, but she had belted them less tightly about her waist; mentally, I worked at untying the seven-bend knot over her belly.
    I smiled.  Silly, silly Kami Khuzud, my sister would have said.  What is the rush?
    You live here now; you will be in Den Oroshtai for the foreseeable future, probably forever.  Take some time; enjoy the moment, the game.  Life is to be eaten one bite at a time so that you can enjoy it, not swallowed whole to curdle untasted in the stomach.  (pg. 68)

    He tilted his head to one side.  “I do hope you know what you’re doing Kami Dan’Shir,” he said.  “It could be … inconvenient if you do not.”
    “The worst they can do is kill me,” I said.
    Dun Lidjun shook his head.  “No, the worst they can do is to kill you slowly.”  (pg. 186)

“Frank speech and long life are not often paired, Lord.”  (pg. 247 )
    This is my second Joel Rosenberg book; the other one is reviewed here.  My criticisms of the two books are pretty much the same.  Besides the main storyline not starting until late in the book, there just isn’t much action such as you’d expect in a fantasy series.  At least Not Quite Scaramouche had dragons; I don’t recall any fantasy critters here.

    I also grew tired with Kami’s/Rosenberg’s fixation with the hypocrisy of an ironclad social caste system.  It’s not that I disagree with the premise; it’s just that I resent being beaten over the head with it time and time again, at the cost of an engaging plotline.  In fairness though, Kami does get his comeuppance about this from Lord Tothtai at the end of the book.

    5 StarsHour of the Octopus is book 2 of a short-lived series.  I've never seen  Book 1 i at the used-book stores, and according to Wikipedia, a third book was written, but never published.  Wikipedia gives no hint as to why he discontinued the D’Shai series.  Perhaps it was just a matter of “one or the other”, and Guardians of the Flame seemed much more promising.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Provençal Mystery - Ann Elwood

   2012; 233 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Mystery; Murder Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    For California historian Pandora (“Dory”) Ryan, it is an amazing find.  There, in the musty shelves of Avignon’s Archives de Vaucluse, she comes across a centuries-old diary of a local nun.  It is truly a noteworthy find, since nuns were forbidden to keep diaries in the Middle Ages; writing about one’s life was viewed as a sin of pride.

    Unfortunately, the diary cuts off in mid-sentence, almost like someone didn’t want the ending to be read.  Now, hundreds of years later, where could one even hope to find the rest of the narrative?  And besides some strange goings-on in the convent (the Mother Superior is entirely too fond of self-flagellation), the diary speaks of a murder of one of the sisters.

    So it is quite a shock to Dory, when one her fellow, modern-day researchers, Sister Agatha, dies on-the job, since she too was a nun at the still-in-operation Our Lady of Mercy convent.  It happened right there at the Archives, in a back room, while everyone else was engaged in their various research projects.

   Well, except for one of them, who apparently was busy murdering Sister Agatha, since her death is anything but an accident.

What’s To Like...
    A Provençal Mystery is an ambitious tale of murders and mysteries, spanning three different time periods – 1944, 1990, and 1659.  Ann Elwood’s descriptions of Provençe in those three eras is quite good, albeit the 1944 Nazi-occupied one is brief, and the 17th-Century one is by-and-large limited to the confines of the convent.  But I frankly had no trouble following the three plotlines as the story jumped from one to another.

    For both murder-mysteries, Ann Elwood introduces us to a variety of characters, and kind of allows them to take turns being the prime suspects in the two cases.  The book is almost completely in the first person – Dory in 1990, and Sister Rose, the diary-keeper, in 1659.

    The story takes place entirely in the Provençe section of France, and I'm always partial to that setting.  The author sprinkles in a lot of French phrases, which is also a plus, although they felt awkward a lot of the time.  And suspect.  When one character said, “Je suis Martin Fitzroy”, I winced.  The correct French expression is “Je m’appelle Martin Fitzroy.”  True, Mr. Fitzroy is an American, so he might be excused for the slip, but anyone’s who taken French 101 will know the proper way to introduce oneself.

    There is a supernatural element that seems to tie the two murders together.  But while it certainly intrigued me, it is never fully resolved.  Ditto for some plot holes. Including a literal one.  At one point, Dory excavates a wall in the convent. But apparently it gets overlooked by the convent nuns.

Kewlest New Word…
Insouciance (n.) : a casual lack of concern; indifference.

    Professor Martin Fitzroy.  A handsome and formidable man, who knew he was a handsome and formidable man.  He marched up to Chateaublanc’s desk with what I could only call an “air” – an air of superiority, an air of expecting that superiority to be recognized.  It was clear that he knew all too well that he was eminent.  I had read his books on the history of purgatory and knew that he deserved his eminence.  He had broken new ground and done it with elegance.  (loc. 1177)

   Academics frown on genealogists – they are too interested in the stories of their own families.  Doing history is not supposed to be about telling stories, unless you are an antiquarian, who by definition has no talent for theory, and there is nothing worse than that.  Historians look down upon antiquarians and genealogists because they never, in historians’ minds, wrestle with “big ideas.”  (loc. 2067)

Kindle Details...
    A Provençal Mystery presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Ann Elwood has a bunch of other books available, but most of them are not in e-book format.  Of the few that are available for the Kindle, none appear to be in this genre.

 “There is something strange about a religion that saves the body parts of dead holy people and encases them in boxes.”  (loc. 3608)
    There are some weaknesses.  The ending seems rushed, and lacking any twists.  It’s simply a matter of one of the several plausible motives/suspects panning out in the main plotline.  The perpetrator needlessly leaves a lot of clues around, and seems too easily persuaded to confess.  It's as if he wants to be caught.

   The 1659 murder is never fully resolved, although realistically that’s kinda expected.  Still, this is fiction, the storyline links the two crimes, and as a reader, I was anticipating a resolution of some sort.

    Finally, the book is in bad need of an editor.  I tend to forgive spellchecker errors (loose/lose, for/fro, etc.), but when one of the diary entries gets the year wrong, that’s just sloppiness.  And yet…

    For all the negatives, I still found myself staying up late and turning the pages to get in just one more chapter.  The story and its writing may have some flaws, but the fact that it’s so ambitious apparently drew me in.

    7 Stars.  This book wasn’t what I expected it to be.  I sorta assumed it was going to be akin to a Brother Cadfael mystery, entirely set in the distant past.  But it’s still a worthwhile read, especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for all things French, like I do.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett

   2003; 401 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #30 (out of 41) in the Discworld series; Book #1 (out of 5) in the Tiffany Aching series.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Tiffany Aching is only nine years old, and she’s already decided what she wants to be in life: a witch.  This is not surprising – her grandmother, Granny Aching, was a witch.  Even though Granny denied it and said she just had a special way with healing animals, especially sheep.

    This was prudent on Granny’s part, because here in the Chalk, even being suspected of being a witch can be a life-threatening situation.  Just ask poor Mrs. Snapperly, who was accused of stealing the Baron’s son via magical means.

    Even a child like Tiffany could see the evidence was circumstantial, but it cost Mrs. Snapperly her life.

What’s To Like...
    The Wee Free Men is the first book in Terry Pratchett’s YA sub-series, centering on Tiffany Aching.  They are still set in Discworld, and I’ve read two of the five books in the series (reviewed here and here), and found them enjoyable.  But It is nice to read the first book, and find out the the origins of both Tiffany, and the titular Wee Free Men, otherwise known as the Nac Mac Feegles.

    Tiffany’s an ideal role model for young adults – she’s not afraid to question things, and doesn’t blindly accept stories and beliefs put forth by adults.  Most of the characters will be new to the Discworld reader, but Granny Weatherwax and Mrs. Ogg make a cameo appearance, and you’ll be delighted to meet Sneebs as well.

    There’s a ton of new critters to encounter, among them dromes, a talking toad, grimhounds, the bumblebee women, Jenny Green-Teeth, and the scariest beasts of all – lawyers.  There’s a bit of synesthesia, which I always like, and if you liked the “Dream Within A Dream” concept in the movie Inception, you’re going to enjoy this storyline.  The book has chapters, which is unusual for a Discworld novel, and a number of the always-popular Pratchettian footnotes.

    The ending is good – it has a couple of plot twists, and good lessons for both YA’s and adults to ponder.  Keep in mind the target audience is YA, not Juveniles.  There’s no sex or  drugs (or even romance), but the Nac Mac Feegles consume copious amounts of alcohol, tobacco juice is mentioned, and some characters – both the good and the bad - get killed.

Kindle Details...
    The Wee Free Men sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  The rest of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books run in the range of $4.99-$11.99 for the Kindle version.

    “My name,” she said at last, “is Miss Tick.  And I am a witch.  It’s a good name for a witch, of course.”
    “You mean blood-sucking parasite?” said Tiffany, wrinkling her forehead.
    “I’m sorry?” said Miss Tick, coolly.
    “Ticks,” said Tiffany.  “Sheep get them.  But if you use turpentine -“
    “I meant it sounds like ‘mystic,’” said Miss Tick.  (loc. 501)

    Tiffany turned him around to face the things.  “What are these?” she said.
    “Oh, doak! Grimhounds!  Bad!  Eyes of fire and teeth of razor blades!”
    “What should I do about them?”
    “Not be here?”  (loc. 1659)

 “Never cross a woman with a star on a stick, young lady.”  (loc. 1174)
    The Wee Free Men contains a goodly amount of Pratchett wit and humor, although since it’s a YA novel, it may feel a bit watered down to an adult reader.  But beyond all the shenanigans and humor, Pratchett examines several serious themes and issues, including:

    Sibling jealousy.
    Blind belief in stories and allegations without evidence.
    Duty – both familial and career-wise.
    Tolerance of others who believe differently.
    What to do when someone gets the credit for something you did.

    Finally, Pratchett presents the concept of witchcraft in a remarkable mash-up that is both literarily-pleasing yet historically-accurate.  The principles of modern-day Wiccans, which are much akin to their ancient forerunners, the Druids, are blended smoothly with the classic “Hollywood" stereotypes – pointed black hats, familiars, and magic so simple even a wizard could learn to use it.

    And flying around on broomsticks is incredibly kewl.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you’ve already encountered the Nac Mac Feegle in one of the other Discworld books, and find them to be your favorite Pratchett characters.