Saturday, December 31, 2016

Driving Me Nuts - P.J. Jones

    2011; 206 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dark Humor.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Ruckus and Fred sure are a couple of guys who like to live life on the wild side.  For a good time they drive over to the used-book store and then to the Dairy Queen for ice cream.

    Yeah, I know, that doesn’t exactly make you hear “Born To Be Wild” as background music.  But Fred and Ruckus are both inmates at the Shady Grove Home for the Mentally Insane, and leaving the premises is a major no-no.

    To boot, their choice of wheels is a ’69 Mustang convertible, which belongs to Mr. Otis, one of the caretakers at Shady Rest.  And when he’s neck deep in triple tequila peach lime smoothies, he’s in no condition to tell whether anyone is joyriding around in his automobile.  So while Mr. Otis is snoozing, the boys can go cruising.

    But when one of the female inmates horns her way in on the action, you can bet it’s gonna lead to trouble, Especially since she’s got an agenda of revenge.

What’s To Like...
    Driving Me Nuts is a fast and easy read.  The action starts immediately, and continues throughout the whole book.  For the most part, we see things from Ruckus’s POV, with Fred and Apple (the female femme fatale) also getting prominent ink.  There aren’t a lot of other characters to keep track of, but they're an interesting bunch, especially Preacher and Mama Louise.

    Except for the Epilogue, the entire storyline consists of a single night of avenging antics, as Apple squares things away with a number of tormentors from her past.  Fred is little more than a drooling puppy, so it is up to Ruckus to somehow get the threesome, and the ’69 Mustang convertible, back to Shady Grove in one piece and with no one the wiser.  Yeah, like that has any chance of happening.

    This is my third P.J. Jones book; the other two are reviewed here and here.   Of the three, I liked this one the best.  The tone is darker here, and at just over 200 pages, it is the longest book I’ve read by this author, with the most complex storyline of the three.  For me, it was a “broadening” of Ms. Jones’ literary repertoire, even though it predates the other two books.

    There is a lot of cussing, and a bunch of unsavory and/or adult topics such as child molestation, rape, oral sex, jerking off, and erections.  If these offend you, you would be well-advised to stay away from Driving Me Nuts. or any of P.J. Jones’s stories for that matter.  It is her natural genre to write in an R-rated manner.  To do differently would be akin to asking Allen Ginsberg to only write G-rated poems.

    There is a way-kewl Author’s Note at the front of the book.  Despite the multitude of mayhem, the ending ties everything up in a relatively happy manner.  This is a standalone novel; AFAIK, P.J. Jones has not written any series.  Some of us think that’s a plus.

    Mr. Otis didn’t always break the rules.  Lights out at nine-thirty.  That was one rule Ruckus wished he would bend.  No pissing on lunch trays.  That was another rule.
    One of Ruckus’s biggest pet peeves was inconsistency.  Either break all the rules or none at all.  People and their ‘socially acceptable behavior’ bothered him.  (loc. 69)

    “Are you sure you’re not my dad?”
    “Fred,” Ruckus grumbled.  “Your dad has your green eyes.  Garth Vader has brown eyes.”
    Vader straightened his bony shoulders and puffed up his chest.  “Do you find fault with my anatomy?”
    “Brown is nice,” Fred interjected.  “Brown is the color of tree branches.”
    Vader nodded.  “And the stain in my intergalactic underpants.”  (loc. 1022)

Kindle Details...
    Driving Me Nuts sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  P.J. Jones has a number of other books available for the Kindle, ranging from $0.99 to $3.99.  She is also part of “The Eclective”, a group of short story writers, and many of their anthology offerings are free.

“I don’t recall proliferating any life forms on this planet.”  (loc. 1022)
    There are some minor quibbles.  I thought there were a couple sections that could've been strengthened by "showing” instead of “telling”.  And the writing style might best be described as “very straightforward”.  Some additional polishing would’ve made this a really delightful read.

     But, as with the R-rated stuff, this is all inherent to the author’s writing style.  The added polishing and showing would be technical improvements, but perhaps in the end, it just wouldn’t be the real P.J.

    7 Stars.  Don’t let the quibbles dissuade you from reading Driving Me Nuts.  The bottom line is that I found it to be fast-paced, both dark and funny (a somewhat dicey combination of genres), and the most ambitious literary effort yet that I’ve read by P.J. Jones.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Century Rain - Alastair Reynolds

   2004; 623 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Paris, 2266 AD.  In a setting devoid of any life, archaeologist Verity Auger leads a team looking for priceless relics from a bygone age: a page from a newspaper, a piece of a map, or perhaps even a bit of printed matter ripped from an ancient (21st century) book.

    Risks are inherent in the toxic environment.  But when one of her underlings nearly dies in an ill-advised mishap, Verity finds herself facing a trial where, if she’s lucky, all she’ll lose is her job and career.

    Paris, 1959 AD.  Private detective Wendell Floyd (call him “Floyd”) and his partner AndrĂ© Custine are asked to investigate the death of an American tourist named Susan White (from Dakota) who died after a 5-story fall from her apartment balcony.  The police call it an accident.  But maybe she was pushed.  Or maybe the balcony railing was defective.

    Well, since the person wanting to hire them is the landlord of the apartment, let’s hope that that last scenario is not the cause.

    But the space-time continuum can be a quirky thing.  The paths of Floyd and Verity are about to cross, with confusion running amok since they have different agendas for resolving the mystery of Susan White’s demise.

    And of course, it doesn’t help that someone’s trying to kill both of them.

What’s To Like...
    Alastair Reynolds is a top-tier “Hard” Science Fiction writer, and Century Rain is clever blending of Murder-Mystery with his forte genre.  There’s even a bit of Romance in the story, but don’t worry, this is first and foremost a Sci-Fi tale.  It takes a while for Verity and Floyd to meet up, and until then the storyline flips between the two perspectives.  There’s also a kewl mystery that involves trying to figure out why someone wanted three giant, precisely-fabricated aluminum spheres set up – one in Berlin, one in Paris, and the third in Milan.

    You’ll run across a slew of acronyms and catchphrases.  The former includes ones like “UR” (Universal Restorative). “USNE” (The United States of Near Earth), and my favorite, “ALS” (Anomalous Large Structure).  The latter includes The Forgetting, The Nanocaust, Silver Rain, Neotenic Infantry, and the fascinating “Amusica Virus”.  Reynolds usually defines each of these when he introduces them, but jot them down anyway, because he expects you to remember what they mean when they pop up again 50 pages later.

    I thought the world-building was fantastic and delightfully detailed.  The 23rd-century solar system is divided into warring factions: the Slashers and the Threshers, and it is also obvious that some vastly technologically superior beings were here many millennia in the past.  You’ll enjoy the “language app”, a nanobotic way to instantly learn a new language, although it degrades with time (a tip of the hat to Flowers For Algernon?).  And you’ll discover what Guy de Maupassant thought of the Eiffel Tower, and how he expressed his feelings about it.

    The book is written in “English”, not “American”, and I always enjoy that.  Cuss words are common in the dialogue, as would be expected in the real world.  As with any Hard Sci-Fi novel, Alastair Reynolds spends a lot of time explaining the Quantum Physics of the 23rd-century cosmos.  I found it mesmerizing, but if you find technical tangents tedious, a book in the  Space Opera subgenre may suit your fancy better.

    It won’t take you long to notice some anomalies in the 1959 Paris, so it’s not a spoiler to say this is also an Alternate History tale.  Yet all the genres fit together nicely for an epic story.  This is a standalone novel, and is not set in Reynolds’ signature Revelation Space cosmos.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Quincunx (n.) : an arrangement of five objects, with four at the corners of a square or rectangle, and the fifth at its center.
Others : Spivvy (adj.); Neotenous (adj.); Penury (n.); Blancmange (n.); Syrinx (n.); Cladding (n.).

    “The moons offer the perfect strategic platform for defending the planet against Slasher incursions.  Given the existing security measures already in place, they’re also a perfect venue for conducting any sensitive business that might come our way.”
    “Do I count as sensitive business?”
    “No, Auger.  You count as a pain in the ass.  If there’s one thing I hate more than civilians, it’s having to be nice to them.”
    “You mean this is you being nice?”  (pg. 114)

    ”According to the late Mr. Blanchard, and judging by what I saw when he let me into her room, your sister had a mania for collecting things.  Her room was a holding area for huge numbers of books, magazines and newspapers, maps and telephone directories.  It looked as if she collected just about anything she could get her hands on.”  Floyd waited a beat.  “Pretty odd behavior for a tourist.”
     "She liked souvenirs.”
    “By the ton?”  (pg. 313)

 “(Y)ou don’t know a wormhole from your butthole.”  (pg. 429)
    The ending is good but not complete.  The main plotline issue – why did someone kill Susan White? – is answered nicely (the “whodunit” aspect is resolved fairly early), but several threads are left dangling.  The Verity/Floyd relationship is not over, Custine still has the cops on his tail, and the Slashers and Threshers have an uneasy truce at best, all of which is surely good fodder for several more books’ worth of thrills and spills.

    Alas, per Wikipedia, this is a one-off novel, and Alastair Reynolds has stated that there will be no sequel.  So the Furies, the Censor, and the Hyperweb will not be explored any deeper, and the other loose threads will not be tied up.

    I, for one, am disappointed, since I thoroughly enjoyed Century Rain.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you prefer the “Science” in Science Fiction to be downplayed.  Add 1 star if Alastair Reynolds changes his mind and pens a sequel.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Hangman's Daughter - Oliver Potzsch

   2011; 431 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book One (out of five and soon to be six) of the series “The Hangman’s Daughter”.  Translator : Lee Chadeayne.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Poor little 12-year-old Peter Grimmer is dead.  It looks like he drowned in the river, but perhaps it wasn’t an accident.  Say, didn’t he hang out with those orphan kids down at that midwife’s house?  I never liked her anyway, so maybe she killed him.  And she uses strange herbs to heal people, so I bet she’s a witch.  Yeah, that’s why she killed little Peter.  Witchcraft is afoot!

    Let's lock her up and call for the Hangman.  We can’t burn her at the stake until she confesses, and torture is part of the Hangman’s job.

    But what if she’s innocent?

    Really, it’s better that the midwife confesses quickly and is burned at the stake immediately thereafter.  Otherwise the town will work itself into a witch-hunting frenzy, and all sorts fingers will get pointed at all sorts of townspeople.  And who knows how many innocent people will die then?

    So, Hangman, your job isn’t to determine whether or not she’s a witch.  Your job is to get a confession out of her, the sooner the better.

What’s To Like...
    The Hangman’s Daughter is a pleasant combination of historical fiction and murder-mystery.  The setting is a small (and real) town in southern Germany ("Bavaria", back then) called Schongau in the 1600’s, when witch-hunting was rife in both Europe and the colonies in America.  I’ve always wondered how such craziness could flourish, and Oliver Potzsch certainly presents a plausible mindset for it.

    The historical aspect – life in Bavaria in medieval times – is well done.  The descriptions set the scene nicely, and we learn about things like dwarfs' holes, what the people ate, and the various roles a hangman had to assume to earn his keep.  It’s also enlightening to compare modern medicine with what was practiced in the 17th century.  Finally, in a time of high mortality rates during childbirth, the issue of what to do with the town’s orphans is examined at length.

    The murder-mystery is also handled deftly.  This isn’t so much a whodunit, as it is a “why done it”.  There are lots of questions to probe beyond why someone's started killing kids.  Who burned down the stadel, and why?  Why does someone think there’s something valuable buried on the lot where the leper house is being built?  And why do all the victims have a witch’s mark tattooed on their shoulders?  Hey, maybe there really was witchcraft involved!

    There’s a handy Cast of Characters at the beginning.  Bookmark it, you will be using it more than once.  There’s lots of action, and some torture, adult language, and assault.  There are some way-kewl illustrations, done in black, white, and red, but on the Kindle they are very small in size.

    The three main characters – the hangman, his daughter, and the young physician – are all developed nicely.  I didn’t realize this was part of a series when I picked it up, and if this trio of protagonists becomes a sleuthing team in the books that follow, then count me in for reading more of them.

Kewlest New Word...
Trass (n.) : a light-colored variety of volcanic ash, used in making cement.

    Though autumn had already come, the sun was shining brightly on that part of Bavaria they call the Pfaffenwinkel – the priests’ corner – and merry noise and laughter could be heard from the town.  Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged, and somewhere a fiddle was playing. The aroma of deep-fried doughnuts and roasted meat drifted down to the foul-smelling tanners’ quarter.  Yes, it was going to be a lovely execution.  (loc. 99)

    The hangman looked angrily across to Simon.  “Did you tell?”
    The physician held up his hands trying to calm him down.  “I never!  I only told her about poor Johannes … and that you had examined the fingernails very closely.”
    “You idiot!  You must not tell women anything, above all my daughter.  She’s too good at reading between the lines and figuring things out.”  (loc. 3660)

Kindle Details...
    The Hangman’s Daughter presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon right now.  The other four books in the series all also see for $4.99.  Oliver Potzsch has another half-dozen or so novels for the Kindle, ranging in price from $3.99 to $14.99.  

 “A rumor is like smoke.  It will spread, it will seep through closed doors and latched shutters, and, in the end the whole town will smell of it.”  (loc. 861)
    The ending is a mixed bag.  The tension builds steadily to the final confrontation, but then we miss out of actually getting to watch/read about it.  The Hangman emerges victorious, of course, but his adversary was no slouch, and I was mildly disappointed in only hearing about their last encounter secondhand.  Also, the resolution of the various mysteries is not particularly twisty.  But I suppose from a historical standpoint, that’s a logical outcome.

    OTOH, the epilogue is excellent, and the Author’s Note (Oliver Potzsch calls it “A Kind of Postscript”) is most enlightening.  In the 1600’s, most careers were hereditary, and the author apparently has a number of hangmen in his family tree.

    Lastly, mention should be made of the translating.  Oliver Potzsch’s native tongue is German, and I thought Lee Chadeayne succeeded nicely at putting the “feel” of the writing into English.

    8½ Stars.  The Hangman’s Daughter was a treat – both as Historical Fiction and as a Murder-Mystery.  It’s always nice when a book with multiple genres does them all well.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Monster - A. Lee Martinez

   2009; 295 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Question: What’s a yeti doing in the walk-in freezer at the Food Plus Mart?

    Answer: Anything it wants, but mostly devouring everything in sight, especially the Choc-O-Chiptastic Fudge ice cream.  Well, not quite everything.  It doesn’t seem to like the vanilla.

    For Judy Hines, this is an annoyance, since the beast’s appetite is going to seriously slow down her nightshift chore – to restock the frozen food section.  So, who ya gonna call?

    Wrong, you call Animal Control Services.  Who don’t do yetis, but surprisingly, don’t treat Judy’s call as if it were a prank.  Instead, she gets transferred to some department called Cryptobiological Containment and Rescue Services.  And they say they’ll send a guy right over to take care of things.  Should be there in 15 minutes to so.

    Just one guy, eh?  I can’t wait to see how he deals with a huge, insatiably-hungry, mean-tempered yeti.

What’s To Like...
    The storyline in Monster will remind you of Ghostbusters and/or Men In Black, except that instead of ectoplasmic entities or an interstellar witness relocation program, we’re dealing with infestations of mystical and mythical beasts.  A Lee Martinez throws all sorts of them into the story, so if you’re a critter-lover (I am, and actually, they’re called “parahumans”), you’re in for a treat.

    The title refers to one of our two protagonists – an ordinary chap nicknamed “Monster” – who teams up reluctantly and temporarily with Judy in exchange for her driving him to his parahuman-purging jobs when his van gets trashed.  The secondary characters are well-developed.  Monster’s girlfriend is a demon with a penchant for cussing, but due to her hellish nature, her nasty words are ones like “blessed”, “”Elyisan”, and “sacrosanct”.  Monster’s cohort is a being from the 6th dimension who specializes in shape-shifting origami.  You may not think a paper butterfly is much of an opponent, but just try swatting one.

    I liked the attention to the world-building details.  Things like a “misfortune hex” (a minor, pesky curse), memory glyphs, and a part of our brain called “Merlin’s lobe” which tends to inhibit the belief in magic and fantasy in most adults.  This means that when our mind has to deal with, say, yetis in the freezer, it quickly adjusts our memories of the incident once it’s over to explain things in more realistic terms.  A yeti, you say?  Nah, I think it was just a big raccoon.  Or something like that.

    There is some cussing and sex in the book, but I thought it fit in well.  We learn that humans are divided into “Cognizants”, “Light Cognizants”, and “Full Incogs” (think 'Muggles) when it comes to being able to remember the unexplainable.  And that angels are real.  And easy.

    Monster is a standalone novel, and a quick, fun, easy read.  I picked the hardcover version up at my local library, but I note that they also carry it, and three other books by this author, as free-to-borrow e-books.

    “So you’re married, then?”
    “In a manner.  My true nature is hard to explain in terms you could understand.”
    “Because I’m a monkey,” said Judy.
    “I never said that.”
    “But you were thinking it.”
    “I don’t judge,” said Chester.  “I rather like you lower entities.  You’ve done quite well for transient globs of possibly sentient protoplasm.”
    “Possibly sentient?”
    “The jury is still out.”  (pg. 90)

    “If you’d handled Judy with more delicacy …”
    “Karma, huh.”
    “Karma is just a philosophical construct, a rather simplistic punishment/reward theory that satisfies your egocentric perception of your universe.”
    “I was just about to say that.”
    “You can dismiss my observation with levity –“
    “I just did.”  (pg. 174)

 “My girlfriend is a demon … but I don’t really like her.”  (pg. 141)
    Don’t let the title fool you: this is a witty and humorous book first, and a fantasy tale second.  There is a significant “Christopher Moore” feel to the dialogue and storyline, so if you like that author, you’ll enjoy Monster.

    My only quibble, and it’s minor, is the ending.  The plotline builds steadily to the requisite cosmos-saving final fight, but it seemed straightforward to me.  There were hijinks and mishaps along the way, but no major twists.

    But in fairness, the epilogue – which is actually the final chapter – did hold a nifty surprise for me, and makes me wonder if there is some sort of sequel to Monster either in the works, or that already exists.

    8 Stars.  Listen, if you’re going to emulate someone like Christopher Moore, you’d better do a good job of it, or else the critics at Amazon will eat you alive.  IMNSHO, A. Lee Martinez pulls it off quite nicely.