Tuesday, November 29, 2016

High Druid of Shannara - Jarka Ruus - Terry Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Blonde Bombshell - Tom Holt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Adventure of English - Melvyn Bragg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Saturnalia - John Maddox Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Myth-ion Improbable - Robert Asprin

   2001; 198 pages.  Book #11 (out of 20) of the “Mythadventures” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor; Dimension-Travel.  Overall Rating : 4½*/10.

    Our hero, the apprentice wizard Skeeve, is overjoyed.  He’s just purchased a treasure map, and got it for a dirt-cheap price.  Of course, as his mentor, Aahz, points out, the odds of the map being legitimate are rather slim.

    Still, the treasure is a living, breathing, “golden cow”, and if the map does turn out to on the up-and-up, such an acquisition would do wonders for the finances of our two daring protagonists. 

    Ah, but it appears the treasure map is also a magic map, and the requisite dimension-hopping will take our adventurers to remote and scarcely-visited alternate universes.  It looks like they will need some unwanted partners.  And the inherent problem with dimension-hopping isn’t the act of doing it; it’s trying to get back to your home dimension again.

    What could possibly go wrong in such a scenario?

What’s To Like...
   Myth-ion Improbable was published after an 8-year hiatus in the series, during which the IRS and Robert Asprin engaged in a protracted dispute about the latter’s taxes.  There’s a revealing Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, wherein Asprin touches upon the impact this had on his writing, and that Myth-ion Improbable was an attempt to get back into the writing style he had used in the earlier books.

    He picked a good place in the series’ story to begin again.  My two favorite characters, Aahz and Skeeve, are here, along with Tanda.  My two least-favorite characters, Guido and Nunzio, are not.  Gleep makes a token appearance, but essentially is left out.  Other than that, there are only a couple new characters to keep track of.

    Asprin’s trademark “pseudo-quotes” are once again at the beginning of each chapter.  The plotline is straightforward, and you’ll watch Skeeve and Aahz search for the treasure, chit-chat with vegetarian, cow-worshipping cowboys, and tread cautiously in the presence of possessed bovines.  The wonders of carrot juice are extolled, and there’s a bit of a more serious theme about addiction to speed.

    The storyline’s not so much a matter of building the tension as it is about our fearless band of heroes hopping around until they stumble upon the treasure.  This is an quick and easy read, and despite being part of the series, it is pretty much a standalone novel.  The Asprin wit is present, at least in a limited amount. But his puns are missing.

    “Aahz, you might really want to look at this.  It’s a map to a creature called a cow.”
    “So?” Aahz said, shaking his head.  “Remember the last time we were at the Bazaar at Deva?  Where do you think that steak you ate came from?”
    I stared at him.  I had no idea steaks came from creatures called cows.  I had just assumed they came from creatures called steaks.  Trout came from trout, salmon came from salmon, and duck came from duck.  It was logical.  Besides, there were no cows in this dimension.  At least, none that I had ever met.  (pg. 4)

    Every person in the place glanced up at us as we entered, then went back to eating and talking as if they saw strangers every day and just didn’t care.  I considered that a good sign.
    “Howdy, folks,” the guy behind the bar said, wiping a spot off the wood surface in front of him.  “What’s your pleasure?”
    I had no idea what the guy meant.  I sort of understood the words, but standing in the middle of a bar, I sure didn’t understand why he was asking me about pleasure.  Just a little too personal of a question for someone I didn’t know.  (pg. 58)

 I didn’t need compliments from a woman who left me to rot in a town full of cow food.  (pg. 125)
    Sadly, Myth-ion Improbable completely fails to catch the humor, the fun, the world-building, and the sparkle of the early books in this series.  There’s a slew of dimension-hopping, but no effort was made to make them unique or interesting.  Indeed, once the dimension-traveling started, the settings were limited to a cabin, a saloon, a meadow, and a castle.  Yawn.

    The plotline was equally disappointing.  There were no twists, our heroes just wander around from one town/dimension to the next, with them all looking the same, as they wait for a deus-ex-machina to appear.  At one point, Skeeve is lying on a bed, staring upward into space, and conviently notices the key to his problem inscribed on the ceiling.  No logical reason for it to be there; it seemed like Asprin didn’t want to expend the effort to think of an interesting way for Skeeve to find that key resource.  I felt like I could’ve written the storyline, and that is not a compliment.

    I’d like to blame this on the IRS, but I remember reading the series 20 years ago and thinking that somewhere along the line, Asprin utterly lost his Muse.  I can’t tell you which book it was, but it’s when the Mafioso was incorporated into the story.  Really, Mr. Asprin?!  You’re writing a fantasy series, with bizarre worlds to create and explore, and the best you can think of is stereotypical gangland characters?  How underwhelming.

    4½ Stars.  If you’re never read a Mythadventures book, don’t start with this one.  Start at the beginning (Another Fine Myth), and continue until you meet up with Guido and Nunzio, then quit and read something else.  You’ll thank me for this.