Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Last Goddess - C.E. Stalbaum

   2011; 350 pages.  Book 1 of the Shattered Messiah series.   New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The Kirshal, the long-awaited messiah that will free the world’s gods from their present imprisonment, has been found!  At least, that’s what the scavenger Marek claims.  And despite his dubious reputation, he says he has her, albeit in a glass coffin, unconscious but breathing.

    So when Marek offers to sell her to Nathan Rook, a merchant, trader, and most often, “information broker”, it may be Rook’s opportunity for quick and substantial financial gain.  However, a close inspection of “the goods” by Rook and his partners raises some doubts

    Still, it can’t be proven that what Marek has for sale isn’t the Kirshal.  And if it turns out she’s the real deal, whoever has possession of her would stand to make a lot of money.  Or be a target of a lot of assassination attempts.

    Come to think of it, the same would be true even if she’s a clever fake.

What’s To Like...
    The Last Goddess is a fantasy tale, in the “Musket and Magic” subgenre, which I like a lot.  We tag along with Nate and his bodyguards - Van, Rynne, and Tiel – as they try to figure out what to do with the purported messiah.  The central question throughout the book is whether she really is the Kirshal, but that can also be applied to whether the Six Gods are real.  Both are eventually answered.

    The action starts immediately, and continues unabated.  The only pauses are for conversations that flesh out the various characters, which I liked as well.  Besides the main storyline given above, we also follow three other ones: an exiled prince plotting his return, his princess sister trying to avoid an arranged marriage, and a battle-hardened general also seeking to avenge his exile.  This may sound like it’s confusing, but C.E. Stalbaum’s storytelling is up to the task.

    The world-building is complex and interesting.  The weapons are flintlock pistols, crossbows, and of course, the always useful vial of poison.  There are three levels of magic-users: the magi (skilled), the krata (less skilled), and the torbos (no magic abilities at all).  And the use of magic by anyone, no matter how adept, comes at a life-force cost.  I liked that idea.

    I was pleasantly amused by the “sending stones”, a handy little communications system.  I was especially impressed by the handling of the religious systems.  Each deity has its devoted followers, and they all believe theirs is the one true path.  Our own spiritual zealots can learn some lessons here.

    The storyline has a (for me) unexpected twist at about 73%, and everything builds to a nice, if somewhat straightforward, ending.  This is a standalone story, as well as Book 1 in a series.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Screlling (adj.) : The pejorative interjection/adjective equivalent of our own word: “F*cking” (a made-up word from the author and I kinda like it.  It's a nice way to deal with readers who don’t like cursing in their stories)

    “So then I’m just a fool who can’t remember her own name,” she murmured.  “Fantastic.”
    “You’re a victim, not a fool.”
    “That isn’t much better.”
    Rook smiled.  “Sure it is.  Victims can find justice; fools are doomed for life.”  (loc. 6238 )

    Lepton swallowed heavily and continued to shake his head in bewilderment.  Rather than continue to explain, Tryss reached out and embraced him again.  He was, in any tangible sense, the closest thing to a father she’d ever had in her life – maybe even the closest thing to a real parent.  He wasn’t blood; he was something even more important.
    He was family.  (loc. 8512)

Kindle Details...
    ANAICT, The Last Goddess is always free at Amazon.  The other two books in the series, The Last Empress and The Last Sacrifice, sell for $4.99 and $5.99, respectively.  C.E. Stalbaum offers a number of other e-books ranging in price from free to $5.99.  These are all of the Fantasy genre, and some are written under a separate pen name, Jennifer Vale.

 “Naivety. (…)  It’s almost cute when it doesn’t get you killed.”   (loc. 3671)
    The quibbles are minor and are mostly about the structure of the book, not the writing itself.  There’s a map at the beginning of the e-book, but it has an annoying tendency to always be turned 90 degrees clockwise.  There's a very useful Appendix that explains a lot about the world C.E. Stalbaum has created , but it’s at the end of the book.  It really needs to be placed at the front.  Lastly, the Table of Contents formatting is non-existent.  Want to go back to Chapter 10 via it?  Sorry, no can do.

    One small note about the story itself.  Although this is a fantasy story due to the prominent role of magic, there aren’t any fantasy creatures.  Only humans, with the possibility of gods and messiahs.  If you’re in the mood for dragons and hobbits, you'll be in for a bit of a letdown.

    But I pick at nits.  For me, this was a satisfying tale, without any need for otherworldly critters.  I had high expectations from reading another of C.E. Stalbaum’s books (reviewed here), and I wasn’t disappointed.

    8 Stars.  If you like Musket & Magic fantasy series, Book 1 of another one I enjoyed is reviewed here..

Friday, October 21, 2016

Reliquary - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   1997; 464 pages.  Book #2 (out of 15) of the Agent Pendergast series.  New Authors? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Beneath the sidewalks of New York City – indeed, beneath the sewers of New York City – lies a whole new unmapped world.  In some long-abandoned subway tunnels, as well as other old excavations, live the mole people.  Most of them never see the daylight, although a few – they’re called ‘runners’ – surface occasionally to scavenge for food, drugs, and other necessities.

    The life expectancy of the moles is short – on the average they die about 22 months after they begin living belowground.  But lately, something’s been lowering that average still further, by brutally murdering and decapitating some of the subterranean dwellers.  Mephisto calls them “the wrinklers”.

    Well, no big deal, eh?  If a few of the houseless (they prefer that term because they consider the underground their ‘home’) get murdered, why should anyone up where the sun shines care?

    But when the daughter of a wealthy New York socialite is the next victim, things change.  And suddenly the mayor and the chief of police are under tremendous pressure to stop these killings.  So who wants to volunteer to go crawling around down below?

What’s To Like...
    Reliquary is the sequel to the original book in the series, Relic, which I read a long, long time ago, and which is reviewed here.  All the characters I remember from Relic are back, most notably Margo Green, Lt. Vinnie D’Agosta, Sergeant Laura Hayward, and of course, Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast.  The four of them share the spotlight somewhat equally; this will of course change as the series progresses and the authors come to realize Pendergast is by far the most charismatic character.

    Structurally, the two books are very similar: the pacing is fast, there’s lots of thrills & kills, and everything builds to an exciting, protracted ending in a “confined space” setting.  There will be no running away by anyone involved in the final showdown.

    The chapters are short, and there’s a kewl Authors’ Note at the end of the book, addressing what is and isn’t true about the NYC subterranean setting.  You’ll enjoy the “track rabbit” cuisine, but be wary of the NYPD “rousters”.  One of the characters is a journalist named Smithback, who I didn’t remember, but who apparently was also in Relic.  For the most part he’s your stereotypical newshound, but I liked the “swimming” scene with him and D’Agosta.

    If you haven’t read Relic (or, as in my case, waited eight years to read the sequel), Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child give the backstory on pages 103-04.  The book’s title is explained on page 432.  This is both part of a series and a standalone novel.

Kewlest New Word ...
Mephitic (adj.) : foul-smelling; noxious (especially of a gas or vapor).
Others : Attenuated (adj.); Animicule (n., and apparently a variant of “animalcule”)

    “Did you visit the Pitti Palace?”
    “Pity who?”
    “It’s an art museum, actually.  Quite exquisite.  There’s an old medieval map painted as a fresco on one of its walls, done the year before Columbus discovered America.
    “No kidding.”
    “In the place where the continent of America would later be found, the map is blank except for the words Cui ci sono dei mostri.
    D’Agosta screwed up his face.  “Here there are … mostri.  What’s that?”
    “It means, ‘Here there be monsters.’”  (pg. 133)

    ”He’d painted the inside of the windows black, but one of them got broken somehow and I got a look inside before it was repaired.”  He grinned.  “It was a strange-looking setup.  I could see microscopes, big glass beakers, boiling and boiling, gray metal boxes with lights on them, aquaria.”
    “One aquarium after another, rows upon rows.  Big things, full of algae.  Obviously, he was a scientist of some kind.”  Kirtsema pronounced the word with distaste.  “A dissector, a reductionist.  I don’t like that way of looking at the world.  I am holist, Sergeant.”
    “I see.”  (pg. 189)

 “The thought of a journalist with a grenade launcher makes me very nervous.”  (pg. 395)
    I had some quibbles with Reliquary.  First and foremost, the timing of the moles surfacing exactly when and where the “Take Back Our City” protest was occurring seemed remarkably convenient.  Second, I don’t recall there ever being an explanation of where and why Pamela Fisher died.  These are not spoilers, since they aren’t crucial to the plotline.  But the former seemed contrived and the latter was for me a loose end.

    It also seemed like if you were fat and/or obnoxious, you were a candidate for being offed along the way.  You might get away with being one or the other, but not both.

    Last and admittedly least, our adventurers “smell methane” on page 385.  I’m sorry, but methane is odorless.  Trust me, I’m a chemist.  You may certainly have smelled natural gas, of which methane is a substantial part.  But what you’re really smelling is a small amount of mercaptans that are added to natural gas, so that it does stink, whereby you smell it and hopefully avoid asphyxiation.

    8 Stars.  My quibbles notwithstanding, Reliquary is a worthy complement to Relic.  If you liked the latter, you’ll like the former.  But you might not want to read them one right after the other, since they’re so similar in setting and structure.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Harvard Psychedelic Club - Don Lattin

   2009; 272 pages.  Full Title : The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Narrative Non-Fiction; The 60’s.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    Ah, the 60’s.  I remember them.  Peace, love, dove, man.  Long hair and beads; eating organic foods and protesting the war.  Smoking pot and taking acid trips.  

    Of course, the 60’s didn’t start out that way.  1960 began with John F. Kennedy, “Camelot”, and a new sense of optimism, especially among the young.  Everyone’s hair was short, drugs were unheard of, and the only armed conflict was some sort of police action in some faraway place in Southeast Asia.

    So what happened?  How’d things change so much in a mere 10 years?  Why’d all those young people start getting high on drugs?

    Don Lattin proposes that it was due in a large part to four academicians whose paths crossed at Harvard University in 1960, when one of them initiated a psychology research project where large doses of LSD were given to test subjects, under carefully controlled conditions, to see what would do things like decrease recidivism, cure alcoholism, and even promote spiritual enlightenment.

    Yeah, you can pretty much bet those "carefully controlled conditions" didn’t last long.

What’s To Like...
    The four members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club are:  Timothy Leary, aka “The Trickster”, and heavily into any and all hallucinogens;  Richard Alpert, aka “The Seeker”, who changed his name to ‘Ram Dass’ after finding his guru during a trip to India; Huston Smith, aka “The Teacher”, who was fascinated by any and all world religions; and Andrew Weil, aka “The Healer”, for whom a passion for holistic health and natural foods quickly overrode experimenting with drugs.

    I liked the book’s structure – a chapter for each phase in the life of the HPC members, and in more or less chronological order.  There’s one on their backgrounds, ‘first trips’, the inevitable falling-outs, migrations to the West Coast, pilgrimages (or in Leary’s case, ‘exile’), “where did they end up”, etc.  Each chapter is divided into four parts – focusing on each member's personal odyssey at that point.

    Don Lattin uses the phrase “narrative non-fiction” to describe the book, which means lots of simulated dialogue based on interviews with friends, family, and acquaintances of the four, as well as conversations with the three of them that were still alive when he penned this book.  It works convincingly.  Besides the fascinating biographies, the reader will learn a lot of other trivia – the origin of the word “psychedelic”, tidbits about Aldous Huxley (one of my lifelong favorite authors) and Carlos Castaneda, and the CIA’s clandestine parallel LSD research project, where they tried to see if it could be used as a truth serum for interrogations, or sprayed from the air on enemy combatants to render them senseless.  Yeah, good luck with that, CIA.

    These are “warts and all” biographies.  Lattin neither idolizes nor vilifies these four trailblazers.  They fight among themselves, thumb their noses at the authorities, and run when said authorities react in a predictable, forceful manner.  Oh, and if you ever wondered how the prestigious Ivy League colleges fill their professorial positions, the mechanics here will open your eyes.

    The book closes with Don Lattin giving his personal story about doing hallucinogens.  Some readers found this off-putting, but I thought it worked very well.  He apparently took two acid trips – one of which was very good, the other of which was very bad.  Of the latter, he offers this sage advice: “It’s not a good idea for hippies to drop acid at hunting lodges”.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Antinomianism (n.) : the belief that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary; the rejection of established morality.
Others : Ex-cathedra (adj.); Ontological (adj.)

    Hoffman had the world’s first intentional LSD trip late in the afternoon of April 19, three days after getting the accidental dose.  About fifty minutes after taking the drug, the chemist scribbled in his notebook what he was feeling in his mind, reporting “slight dizziness, unrest, difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh.”  Hoffman was soon too stoned to write.  (loc. 941)

    Social and political activism was never a priority with Leary or Alpert.  They were not out marching to stop the war in Vietnam, not even talking about it.  In fact, they helped set the tone for the political disconnectedness of much of the human-potential and New Age movements, whose politics – or lack of it – were reflected in that line from the Beatle’s (sic) tune “Revolution.”  If you want true freedom, the song suggests, “You better free your mind instead.”  (loc. 2869)

Kindle Details...
    The Harvard Psychedelic Club sells for $13.99 although I’m pretty sure I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted.  Don Lattin has three other e-books available, ranging in price from $7.99 to $11.49, and all seemingly dealing in one way or another with the topic of spirituality.

 “To fathom hell or soar angelic; just take a pinch of psychedelic.”  (loc. 993)
    For me, The Harvard Psychedelic Club was a fantastic read.  The 60’s were my teenage years, although I did not become acquainted with the subject matter until the early 70’s.  Those days were indeed consciousness-altering times for all concerned, and an era that probably will never be repeated.  A couple of minor points should be made however.

    First, the focus here is very narrow: our four Harvard Psychedelic Club members and their hallucinogenic and spiritual life paths.  Other major events, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the massive protests, are barely mentioned at all.  I think this is a plus here, but you may disagree.

    Second, while I have no way of correlating the amounts of LSD given to test subjects in the book compared to my own experiences, I will say that some of the hallucinations described herein (palaces, courts, arcades, gardens, a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot, or camel caravans – location 591) never happened to me.  Yes, everything looks different on acid, and yes, prismatic colors will pop out all over the place.  But no, discrete apparitions will not appear out of nowhere and you won't receive any celestial messages from God.

    But maybe I just needed to up my dosages.

    10 Stars.  This is fantastic read for anyone who lived through the 60’s, or is fascinated by old flower children reminiscing about that time.  Subtract 1 star if you frankly get tired of hearing old hippies blather on about their psychedelic sillinesses.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Quozl - Alan Dean Foster

   1989; 344 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction; First Contact; Satire. Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    For the interplanetary travelers aboard the settlement spaceship Sequester, it’s been a long, long journey from their home planet, Quozlene.  In fact, this is now the sixth generation that’s spent their entire life on the Sequester.  But at last their destination is in sight, a planet they’ve named Shiraz, and which long ago their scientists determined might support Quozl life.

    The good news is that more detailed observation from the Sequester detects abundant life on Shiraz.  There’s plenty of water, and lush plant life on a pair of supercontinents.  There’s even lots of trees, and the Quozl revere wood.

    The bad news is that animal life has been detected as well.  Sentient beings.  With powerful weapons and a proclivity for ceaseless, intertribal warfare.  This is quite a shock, since up until now, the Quozl had assumed they were the only intelligent species in the universe.

    Hmm.  I wonder if Shiraz is a planet we’re familiar with.

What’s To Like...
    Alan Dean Foster does a fabulous job of building a detailed picture of Quozl society.  The book cover shown above gives a good rendition of their physical characteristics, and the concept of bipedal, human-sized, sentient rabbits is certainly refreshingly innovative in the sci-fi genre.  Quozl are heavily into meditation, ritual and ersatz combat (they have long since transcended their warlike ways), apologizing profusely for almost everything, and of course, as all rabbits are wont to do, coupling.  The first half of the book is set in the wilds of Idaho; the second half moves down to sunny California.

    There are a slew of Quozl to meet, and they all have three-part names, such as Looks-at-Charts, Stands-while-Sitting, etc.  The book also comes with a “flip-a-mation” cartoon sequence in the upper right-hand corner of the pages.  I haven’t seen one of those in a book since I was a kid.  There’s a smattering of cussing, and of course, a lot of coupling; but none of this is in any way lewd.  I liked the Disneyland goons; you really don’t want to run afoul of their legal department.

    The book cover made me think this was going to be a barrel-of-laughs tale.  It isn’t.  There is satire throughout, and some the tone is for the most part light-hearted.  But some characters get killed, and others die from natural causes; the latter due to timespan of the book – a human lifespan or a couple Quozl lifespans. I am still not sure who the target audience is.

    Beyond all the satire and silliness, Quozl tackles some serious themes, among which are maintaining the environment, xenophobia, and the US Immigration policy.  The ending gets a bit preachy in this regard, but the epilogue (the final chapter) leaves the reader with a nice twist.  This is the second book I’ve read recently where a society under extreme stress (in this case, the Quozl) adopt a “hive mentality” in order to cope .  The other book with this motif is reviewed here.

 Kewlest New Word...
Xenologist (n.) : a person engaged in the scientific study of alien biology, cultures, etc.  (chiefly in science fiction)
Others : Sybaritic (adj.); Philology (n.).

    “You called me what?”
    “A Shirazian.  That is our name for your world.”
    “Kinda nice.”  Chad rolled the alien sounds around his tongue.  “Has more flavor than ‘Earth.’”
    “You must not think very much of your world to call it dirt.”  (pg. 171)

    There were some problems with certain religious groups.  After all, if God had made man in his own image, where did that put the Quozl, who were clearly at least as intelligent as any human?  The debate was not restricted to one side of the relationship, for certain Quozl philosophers had difficulty accepting the fact that not only weren’t the Quozl not the only intelligent creatures in the universe, the other ones were bald giants with tiny eyes and nonexistent ears and feet.  (pg. 333)

 “One can plan forever, but individuals make fools of us all.”  (pg. 504)
    There are a couple quibbles.  First, the pacing for me was incredibly slow for much of the book.  We’re fifty pages through the book before touchdown on Shiraz, and except for a brief (and inconsequential!) bit of violence soon thereafter, the reader has to wait until a third of the way through Quozl before “first contact” is made.

    Second, there’s very little action and intrigue in the storyline,  so for the most part, we’re left with drama.  The excitement is limited to things like Looks being late for a rendezvous, or Chad needing to sweet-talk his parents into letting him camp out in the wilds overnight.  This may work for readers who like Marley and Me, but not for those looking for a thrilling sci-fi tale featuring first encounters with extraterrestrials.

    The pace does pick up once the setting moves to Los Angeles, and it becomes positively frenetic towards the end, as the Quozl become assimilated into the world societies.  To me, that would have been the more interesting part of the tale.  It was almost as if Alan Dean Foster had planned to make this Book 1 of a series, and then decided after writing most of the book to instead just make it a standalone.

    7 Stars.  Alan Dean Foster is a prolific sci-fi writer, best known as the author of the novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I’ve been meaning to pick up one of his books for quite some time now.  Perhaps I just selected one of his lesser efforts.  Quozl was an okay read, but it won't keep you up late at night reading "just one more chapter".

Monday, October 3, 2016

Coyote Waits - Tony Hillerman

    1990; 368 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #10 (out of 18) in the “Leaphorn and Chee” series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Native American Fiction; Police Procedural.  Laurels : Winner of the 1991 Nero Award.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s something that will haunt Officer Jim Chee for the rest of his life.

    Fellow Tribal Officer Delbert Nez radioed him to tell him he was about to catch the pesky graffiti artist who had recently started dabbing the nearby sacred mountains with white paint.  The radio transmissions were patchy – which was nothing unusual in among all the mountains in the area.  But Nez sounded relaxed, and even chuckling as he told Chee he’d be a couple minutes late for their nightly rendezvous at the local coffee shop.

    But when “a couple minutes” started stretching out to a much longer time, Chee realized he should’ve immediately have supplied back-up for Nez, despite the vandalism seeming to be a minor misdemeanor.  And when he belatedly tore down the dark road, all his fears became nightmares when he came across Nez’s police car, in flames, with Nez still in the driver’s seat, dead from a gunshot.

    Why would some petty paint-sprayer resort to killing to avoid arrest?

What’s To Like...
    Coyote Waits is my third “Leaphorn and Chee” novel, the first since 2014.  It has the usual Tony Hillerman literary structure: a mystifying murder on the Navajo reservation, and a methodical investigation by the two Native American policemen, in this case, working separately for most of the book.   Indeed, in this story, they don’t think too highly of one another, their limit apparently being grudging respect.  Chee is still heavily into “the Navajo way” (he wants to become a shaman), Leaphorn has long since dismissed the tribal mysticism as a bunch of hooey. 

    The murder-mystery is well-crafted.  The reader rides along as both investigators gradually find clues as to who did it, and why.  There are an adequate number of twists and red herrings, yet everything unfolds in a sensible order.

    As usual, the story takes place in the Four Corners area of the US, and I was happy to see one of my alma maters – Arizona State – get a brief mention.  Also as usual, the reader learns Navajo words (“Ya’eh t’eeh!”), Navajo culture, and the Navajo mindset, as well as some entertaining interplay between mystical forces and cold, hard evidence.  This is true for all of the books in the series, and that’s a real treat.

    It was also fun to once again cross paths with the titular Coyote god.  The trickster was also featured in books by Christopher Moore (reviewed here) and Kage Baker (reviewed here).  Things are never what they seem when he’s around.  The storyline moves at a nice, jaunty pace, and this was a quick read for me, which was just what I wanted.

    “I haven’t brought up the subject of snakes,” Janet said.  She was brushing the dirt from her hands on her pant legs.  “If I do, I hope you’ll try to say something positive.”
    Okay,” Chee said.  He thought for a minute, catching his breath.  “If you like snakes, this is a fine example of the places you come to find them.”  (loc. 916)

    Pinto’s eyes moved across the courtroom, hesitating a moment when they came to the Navajo panelist, hesitating another moment when they met the eyes of Jim Chee.
    Chee looked away, down at his itching hand.
    No one knew Hosteen Ashie Pinto.  The whites didn’t know him, nor the Hispanics, nor the Apache, nor the Pueblos, nor the Asian.  Nor Janet Pete, nor me.  He is a shaman.  He is a stranger to us all.  (loc. 2309)

Kindle Details...
    Coyote Waits sells for $8.99 at Amazon, which, coincidentally, is the same price you’d pay for the paperback version there.  The rest of the e-books in the series are all in the $4.99-$9.99 range, with the majority of them going for $8.99.

“Things seem random only because we see them from the wrong perspective.”  (loc. 2239)
    There are a couple quibbles.  At one point, a(nother) shooting victim takes time, while dying, to write not one, but two quick messages in his own blood on the wall.  Shades of Sherlock Holmes!  But I find it hard to believe that’s what I’d be doing with my final breaths.

    Equally vexing was what I call the “Perry Mason” ending.  Chee has finally figured out the who-and-why, but frankly, he doesn’t have a shred of proof.  How convenient, then, when the perpetrator fully confesses to the crime without any coercion whatsoever.

    Lastly, and leastly, there are a slew of extra “goodies” at the end of the book, taking up the final 13% of the Kindle, none of which are worth spending any time on.  Most are just plugs for the other books in the series.

    8 Stars.  The quibbles notwithstanding, this was still a very good book.  Add ½ star if you enjoy learning more about the Navajo way of life.