Sunday, December 10, 2017

Living Dead In Dallas - Charlaine Harris


   2002; 291 pages.  Book 2 (out of 13) of the “Sookie Stackhouse” series, aka “The Southern Vampire Mysteries”.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Vampires; Paranormal Mystery; Gothic Romance.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Sookie Stackhouse has been traded to Dallas!

    Well, okay, actually the vampire clan in Area 5 (Shreveport) has loaned Sookie to the vampire clan in Area 6 (Dallas), and for a healthy fee, of course.  If Sookie does well, she might even get a cut of the rental money.

    Being a telepath makes Sookie a valuable commodity.  One of the Dallas vampires’ brethren has gone missing, and they’re pretty sure one or more of the humans that work in the vampire bar where he was last seen know something about his disappearance.  Of course, no mortal in his or her right mind would admit such a thing to their vampire employers, hence the need for Sookie.  You can keep the lips closed, but you can’t keep the mind from thinking about it.

    So have fun in Dallas, Sookie.  Go read a couple minds, let the vampires know what you “see”, and come back to Louisiana and claim some easy money.

    What could possibly go wrong?

What’s To Like...
    Living Dead In Dallas is the sequel to the mega-popular Sookie Stackhouse book Dead Until Dark, and Charlaine Harris takes the opportunity to do some story-world and critter expansion.  Book 1 had only one vampire clan (Shreveport); now we’re treated to a second (Dallas).  There’s a couple more shapeshifters this time around, where there was only one before.  We meet a couple werewolves, although they seem to be a subspecies of the shapeshifters.  And we cross paths with a maenad, which is totally new.

    There are three main storylines:  a.) the dead body in a car at the bar where Sookie works;  b.) the Maenad wishing to send a message to the vampires; and c.) Sookie’s stint with the Dallas vampires.  The action starts right away: the corpse-in-a-car is on page 5; and the pace never lets up.  Sookie gets beat up more times than Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie, and when the bad guys aren’t pounding on her, they’re chasing her.

    Once again, the tale is told in the first-person POV (Sookie’s), and once again there’s lots of sex, cussing, and adult situations.  Things culminate with Sookie going to her first (and presumably, last) orgy, and it was fun to see whether she was going to be able to do this without parting with her clothes and/or partaking of the activities.

    There’s a new set of baddies to deal with – The Fellowship of the Sun, and they’re a foe that’s both formidable and relentless.  I get the impression that they’re going to be around for a few more books too, and I’m looking forward to that.  The Fellowship of the Sun serves as the instigators of the main serious theme in Living Dead In Dallas: religious bigotry/fanaticism.  If that turns out to be a recurring theme, I could really start getting into this series.

    Living Dead In Dallas is a standalone story, as well as part of the Sookie Stackhouse series.  All three plotlines get tied up by book's end, and the reader is left wanting to know where the Sookie/Bill relationship is going next, and who will be beating the crap out of Sookie in Book 3.

Excerpts...
    “By the way, I haven’t heard an ‘I’m sorry’ from you yet.”  My sense of grievance had overwhelmed my sense of self-preservation.
    “I am sorry that the maenad picked on you.”
    I glared at him.  “Not enough,” I said.  I was trying hard to hang on to this conversation.
    “Angelic Sookie, vision of love and beauty, I am prostrate that the wicked evil maenad violated your smooth and voluptuous body, in an attempt to deliver a message to me.”
    “That’s more like it.”  (pg. 40)

   I sighed deeply, and called Fangtasia, the vampire bar in Shreveport.
    “You’ve reached Fangtasia, where the undead live again every night,” said a recording of Pam’s voice.  Pam was a co-owner.  “For bar hours, press one.  To make a party reservation, press two.  To talk to a live person or a dead vampire, press three.  Or, if you were intending to leave a humorous prank message on our answering machine, know this: we will find you.”  (pg. 241)

Kindle Details...
    Living Dead In Dallas sells for $5.99 at Amazon.  The first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, goes for $2.99, the rest of the books in the series are all $7.99 apiece.  This is a completed series, the last book (#13) having been published in 2013.  Charlaine Harris has started several new series since then.

 “Can’t you date someone alive?”  (pg. 208)
    There are some quibbles.

    The three storylines aren’t cohesively woven together.  After the discovery of the corpse, that thread gets completely ignored while Sookie and Bill journey to Dallas, even though the victim was a close acquaintance of Sookie’s.  The maenad-with-a-message thread was also clunky, and my impression was that she was just a convenient means to disclose the killers so that Sookie and her telepathic talent didn’t have to snitch on anyone.

    I kept waiting for the three storylines to eventually mesh, but they never did.  It’s almost as if the author realized that none of them would be long and complex enough for a full-length novel, so she just stitched them together piecemeal.  It was strangely similar to To Ride Pegasus, the review just previus to this one, but in fairness Living Dead In Dallas is a lot more entertaining and exciting.

    8 Stars.  Almost, but not quite, as good as Dead Until Dark (reviewed here), and still well worth your while to read.  Add ½ star if you’ve never been to an orgy.  Neither have Sookie or I, and now we know what to expect.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

To Ride Pegasus - Anne McCaffrey


   1973; 244 pages.  Book 1 (out of 3) of the “The Saga of the Talents” series.  New Author? : Yes, well probably; I may have read one of her “Pern” book decades ago, but I don't recall anything about it.  Genre : Paranormal; Dystopian Fiction.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Hey wouldn’t it be great if we had some bona fide psychics in our midst?  You know, people who really could tell us our future, or what some person was thinking, or whether our favorite sports team was going to win their next game?

    Of course, it would be even neater if we were that sort of person.  We could set up our own little “Madame Cleo Sees All” shop, and people would pay us big bucks for some reliable prognostication.  And we could “see” what some hot guy or girl thought about us when we made a pass at them.

    Hmm.  OTOH, we probably wouldn’t like to be around such people.  I don’t know that I’d like somebody peeking into my brain for my innermost thoughts, or practicing telekinesis by conjuring up, and dumping a pail of water on top of my head.  And come to think about, even if *I* had such a gift (let’s call it a Talent). I’d just as soon not be able to tell the exact moment somewhere in the future when I’m going to keel over and die.

    So let’s reconsider how we’d feel about those psychics dwelling among us.  Maybe we’d resent them, or be jealous of them,  or sue the pants off them if they predicted something that then didn’t come true.  And maybe if we had one of the Talents, it would be more of a curse than a blessing, or it might drive us crazy because we felt so different from everyone else.

    That’s what To Ride Pegasus explores.

What’s To Like...
    To Ride Pegasus has no chapters.  Instead it is divided into four sections, three of which (parts 2 through 4) are actually short stories that had previously been published elsewhere.  The four parts are:

“To Ride Pegasus” (pg. 1)
    The only “new” material part of the book, and an introduction to the subject matter.  Henry Darrow establishes the Parapsychic Center.
“A Womanly Talent” (pg. 56)  (1969)
    Tests show that Ruth Horvath has a parapsychic Talent.  But who can tell what it is?
“Apple” (pg. 120)  (1969)
    Someone has stolen goods from Cole’s Department store, and it is obvious that they did it via telekinetic means.
“A Bridle for Pegasus” (pg. 156)  (1973)
    A singer’s performance is really moving, despite her rather mediocre musical abilities.  Hmm.  I wonder how she managed to “touch” everyone in the audience?

    All of the Talented are not blessed with the same gift, and Anne McCaffrey focuses on the following five major groups:
    “Precogs” – who ‘see’ things that are about to occur.
    “Telekinetics” – who can move things with their minds.
    “Empaths” – who can ‘feel’ the emotions and mental moods of others.
    “Finders” – who can mentally ‘locate’ objects and/or people.
    “Telempaths” – who can ‘project’ feelings and emotions on large groups of people.

    Those are all pretty nifty Talents, but they also all have some limitations.  Telempaths may be able to influence others, but they are in turn susceptible to more powerful Telempaths influencing them.  Finders can locate things, but all they can see is the immediate vicinity.  So if a stolen article is setting in a nondescript room, they still won’t be able to tell you the address of that location, just what it looks like.  And a Precog who is able to foresee the exact time of his own death, is not particularly better off for having that knowledge.

    There is an overarching theme throughout all four sections.  Anne McCaffrey examines how we’d react if we suddenly became aware that people among us had legitimately proven parapsychic talents.  It is a basic human reaction to distrust anything and anyone we perceive as being “different” from us, and from that, prejudices and bigotry arise.  Good food for thought.

    The title is explained early in the book, as well as in the first excerpt below.  A parapsychic Talent is a gift, but it has to be controlled or ridden or bridled.  The stories are all set in a somewhat dystopian future, and primarily in parts of New York state, in and around a fictional place called Jerhattan (“Jersey” plus Manhattan”?).

    You get a slew of characters thrown at you right away in each section, although I think the only one that carries over into the sequel is Dorotea.  I chuckled when one of the antagonists called the Precogs “mental chiropractors”, and an electronic judge at the trial was an interesting tweak.  I enjoyed reading the author’s idea of where our judicial system is headed, and I also detected a bit of anti-labor in her description of the Waiters’ Union.

Kewlest New Word ...
Waldo (n.) : a remote manipulator, as for puppets, operated either mechanically or electronically.
Others : Swivet (n.); Anodyne (n.); Concomitant (adj.); Expatiating (v.)

Excerpts...
    “The Talented form their own society and that’s as it should be: birds of a feather.  No, not birds.  Winged horses!  Ha!  Yes, indeed.  Pegasus … the poetic winged horse of flights of fancy.  A bloody good symbol for us.  You’d see a lot from the back of a winged horse…”
    “Yes, an airplane has blind spots.  Where would you put a saddle?”  Molly had her practical side.  (loc. 168)

   “Do you happen to know,” asked Henner casually for he’d got control of himself again, “the exact date of my death?”
    “As I know the exact time of mine, Mr. Henner.  You will die of a heart attack, the aorta will be closed by a globule of the arteriosclerotic matter coating your veins, at nine-twenty-one PM, exactly one year, nine months, and fourteen days from now.”
    A gleam of challenge livened to deadly intent of Henner’s gaze.  “And if I don’t?”  (loc. 576)

Kindle Details...
    To Ride Pegasus presently sells for $2.99 at Amazon for the Kindle version.  The second e-book in the series, Pegasus In Flight, goes for $4.99; and the third, Pegasus In Space is priced at $7.99.   Anne McCaffrey was a prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer, whose career spanned 46 years.  Her e-book novels are extensive, and range from $2.99 to $9.99.

“You’re a Gemini.  What’s your name? You’re going to marry me.”  (loc. 102)
    Unfortunately, there are weaknesses in To Ride Pegasus, most of which are probably due to attempting to paste together three short stories to make one full-length novel.  Sometimes that works; here it doesn’t.  There are gaps between the four sections, including the main protagonist from Part 1 dying “offstage” between that story and the beginning of Part 2.

    To boot, there is frankly very little action in the first two parts, as the Head of the Parapsychic Center keeps drilling into everybody’s head why and how the Talents are being discriminated against.  The action does pick up a bit in Part 3, and things even get a bit more exciting in the last section.  But still, the overall pacing was slow, and there were too many slow spots for me.    

    It also didn’t help that Part 2, a female Talent “finding” her gift, was datedly chauvinistic.  Granted, it was written in 1973, and things were different back then.  So let’s just say it didn’t age well.  And this from a female author.

    The good news is: Books 2 and 3 reside on my TBR shelf, and it looks like both are more typical Anne McCaffrey sci-fi/fantasy tales, without any awkward cobbling together of a bunch of short stories.  So my advice is to skip To Ride Pegasus, and go straight to reading Pegasus In Flight.

    5 Stars.  FWIW, the genres that Amazon lists for To Ride Pegasus (“Dragons & Mythical Creatures”, “Time Travel”, and “Sword & Sorcery”) are totally bogus.  There’s zero amount of any of those in the book.  Somebody just cut-&-pasted Anne McCaffrey’s usual genres in the Amazon blurb.  Dude, you had one job…

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Road Games and Other Weird Tales - Marlin Williams


    2017; 309 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Short Stories; Anthology; Horror-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Say, does the phrase “Tales From The Crypt” ring any bells for you?  There were a couple films with that title in the 70’s; and a similarly-named TV series in the late 80’s to early 90’s.  And if you’re a member of the senior citizen crowd, you might even remember the comic-book series with that title that started it all was back in the 50’s.

    The comics are slightly before my time (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), but I do remember sometimes finding them at used-book stores and picking them up for next to nothing.

    I always enjoyed reading those comic books because, as a kid, they could scare me without giving me nightmares.  Regardless of theme or setting, each ‘tale’ had a twist to it, plus a dab of macabre humor, and that’s what kept me looking for more back issues of it.

    And if creepy tales with twists tickle your reading fancy, you might give Road Games and Other Weird Tales a try.

What’s To Like...
    Road Games and Other Weird Tales is comprised of 10 short stories that sprang from the creative brain of Marlin Williams.   The stories vary in length from 2-to-56 pages; from lighthearted to somber, and from the mundane to the paranormal.  So if you’re reading one of the stories, and it doesn’t float your boat (which will happen with almost any anthology book), there’s a good chance that the next tale will.

Table of Contents (spoiler-free)...
01)  Lickety Split – There’s more to losing weight than losing weight.
02)  Life Form – Black holes and bio-ships don't mix.
03)  Them – Aliens in a diner.
04)  The Killing Kind – I’d like my Ted Bundy with a twist, please.
05)  The Same Old Nightmare – A feeling of dread we all share.
06)  Boucherie – Vampires, werewolves, and things that go ROWR in the night.
07)  The Agency – An Oscar performance by a long-forgotten thespian.
08)  Lint – What's the word for  'fear of laundry day'?
09)  Cracked – What’s the word for ‘fear of aphorisms’?
10)  Road Games – Smokey and the Bandit meets Deliverance.  Plus bubbles.

    My favorite story was the titular Road Games.  I had a fun time wondering, along with our two protagonists, what the fiendish-but-innovative Wilkerson brothers would come up with next.  One part of it reminded me of a scene from the Will Smith movie The Wild Wild West, and that was kewl.

    My other faves were The Killing Kind, The Same Old Nighmare, Boucherie, and Lint, but honestly, all ten tales kept my interest.  Your favorites will probably be different from mine.

    You’ll meet Miss Coaly Banks in the very first story, Lickety Split, and I grew to like her.  She pops up again in the two shortest stories, so that was a treat.  She’s the only recurring character though.

    The pacing is good throughout all of the stories; there really aren’t any slow spots.  There’s a neat, short bit of prose by Marlin’s wife, Sheila, at the beginning of The Killing Kind.  And I enjoyed the nod to Fantasia in Lickety Split, and a second nod to it (specifically the ‘bubbles’ in the subpart of it, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) in Road Games.  I chuckled at the made-up word “metaphoribly” in Road Games; I will have to work it into one of my reviews somewhere down the road.

Excerpts...
    “It was a satellite, or pieces of it anyway.”
    He shook his head.  “It was a flying saucer.”
    “What makes you think that?” he asked.
    “Why else would NASA be out here after that thing came down?”
    “Because it was their satellite.”
    “The men in black were with them.”
    “FBI!”
    “They had tracking dogs,” said Mr. Robbins.  He raised his chin at Ernie, looked down at him, and doled out his next statement in disjointed words.  “Sniffing-out-little,-gray-skinned-aliens.”  He sniffed.  (pg. 89)

    “If your plan is to confront a clan of vampires, aren’t we going to need things like wooden stakes, holy water, and stuff like that?”  (…)
    “I’ve got something better.”
    “What’s that?”
    She patted her handgun.  “A silver bullet in the heart.”
    “I thought that was for werewolves.”  He chuckled at his joke and ended it with a smirk.
    “It will kill a loup-garou as well,” she replied in a matter of fact tone.
    He lost the smirk and wrinkled his brow.  “What the hell is a loup-garou?”
    “Pray you never have to find out.”  (pg. 160)

“Waitress, there’s a piece of space shuttle in my lunch.”  (pg. 88)
    The quibbles are minor and not about the storytelling or the writing.

    First, there are no page numbers, which messes up an OCD note-taker like me.  Second, although the paragraphs themselves are properly aligned to the left, they aren’t justified.  Kinda like the paragraphs in this review, but blogs can be excused from this.  Last, and least, although there’s no need for chapters in any short story, here there weren’t any breaks between one paragraph to the next when the scene shifts, and that got confusing once or twice.

    So I numbered the book pages myself, to appease my inner OCD.  And ignored the paragraph breaks and justification issues, both of which can be easily fixed in the subsequent editions.

    One last point about the stories themselves.  For me, the best thing about reading Road Games and Other Weird Tales was trying to anticipate what the twists in each story were going to be.  Marlin Williams is known for his “double twists”: just when you congratulate yourself for correctly guessing what wrinkle he has in store in a tale, he up and adds an unforeseen “twist to the twist”, which makes the stories' endings delightfully  surprising.  This “twofer” occurs in all of the tales here except the two shortest ones, and it keeps you on your toes when reading the book.

    8½ Stars.  Bottom Line: If you liked Tales From The Crypt as a kid, in any of its formats, you’re going to enjoy Road Games and Other Weird Tales.  And after you've finished, give Marlin's novel, The Attic Piranhas, a try, and keep an eye out for a pair of new full-length books he’s rumored to be writing.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island - Claire Prentice


   2014; 418 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Full Title : The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Anthropology;  Social Sciences; American History.  Laurels : New York Post “Must Read” – October 2014; Amazon Best Book of the Month (History) – October 2014; shortlisted for the 2015 Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    One of the most popular exhibits at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition was created by the Philippines.  1,300 Filipinos from a dozen tribes were brought over to the heartland of America, so that visitors to the fair could see firsthand what ‘savages’ populated the recently-acquired American territory.  The exhibit covered 40 acres and was a real crowd-pleaser.  Alas, expositions are short-lived, and pretty soon everyone returned to their home countries.

    Dr. Truman Hunt has spent time in the Philippines, and part of it was spent in the villages of one of the tribes there, the Igorrotes.  And a year after the St. Louis display, he can see an enormous opportunity to make big money showcasing these natives around the rest of the United States.

    There are plenty of Igorrote tribesmen willing to take part in the show, even though it means being separated from their families for a full year.  But the pay will be phenomenal - $15 per month, plus tips, plus any money made by selling their handmade trinkets to American tourists.  The show itself has “can’t miss” written all over it.  And Truman Hunt is a natural-born showman whose instincts for making money are a proven asset.

    What could possibly go wrong?

What’s To Like...
    For me, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is a delightful trip back in time to the turn of the 20th century.  Amusement parks were at the height of their popularity, and the best place to visit one of them was New York City's Coney Island, which at the time had three separate amusement parks trying to outdo each other with thrilling rides, bizarre freak shows, and glimpses of foreign places that were both exotic and faux.

    Truman Hunt and his band of Igorrotes reached Vancouver on April 18, 1905, and arrived in New York City a month later, where one of the Coney Island amusement parks, Luna Park, immediately and enthusiastically snapped them up gave them top billing.  The savages instantly become a smash hit.

    But don’t mistake this for a National Geographic article.  Claire Prentice makes it a character study of Truman, as he gradually morphs from a trusted father-figure for his showcased Igorrotes to a person who lies to them, steals their money, and reneges on his promise to send them back to their homeland after one year.  The title is a bit misleading: although the main part of the book deals with the summer on Coney Island, both Truman and the Igorrotes then go on an extended run from the law, culminating in a long, drawn-out trial.

    There are 32 chapters, each of which starts with a photograph of something or someplace from that era.  These are expandable, and stay sharp even when zoomed out.  I found them to be absolutely fascinating.  The footnotes are user-friendly, and there’s a Cast of Characters at the beginning, which turned out to be extremely useful.  Finally, the Afterword at the end of the book gives a “Whatever Happened To” for each character that Claire Prentice could trace.  Unsurprisingly, most of the Igorrotes fade into obscurity as soon as they get back to the Philippines.

    I liked the “feel” the author gave to experiencing America in 1905-06.  Some were warm and fuzzy, but it was also neat to see the difference between then and now.  For example, showing ‘savages’ in their native habitat was mesmerizing back then; it would be condemned nowadays.  Bigamy apparently was prevalent and despised back then. Today it wouldn’t even be worthy of  making it into a newspaper article.  And Southern justice back then was anything but that; and it is hopefully better than that now.

Excerpts...
    Coney Island was made of tall tales.  The birthplace of the hot dog and the roller coaster, it was the poor man’s paradise, offering sensation for a nickel.  Coney bent the rules of time and space.  Its currency was the huge and the tiny, the ten-ton woman and the ten-inch man.  Freaks and curiosities lived alongside detailed recreations of kingdoms from beyond the seas.  Part Victorian cabinet of curiosities, part compendium of global delights, at Coney the extraordinary was commonplace and the humdrum of everyday life could be forgotten.   (loc. 1181)

   Much was said in the corridors of power and written in the press about the manifold ways in which America could “civilize” the Igorrotes, but the tribespeople had their own ideas.  Before he left Coney Island, Chief Fomoaley shared his impressions with a journalist.
    “I have seen many wonders [in America], but we will not bring any of them home to Bontoc.  We do not want them there.  We have the great sun and moon to light us; what do we want of your little suns [electric lighting]?  The houses that fly like birds [trains and cars] would be no good to us, because we do not want to leave Bontoc.  When we go home there, we will stay, for it is the best place in the world.”.  (loc. 5673)

Kindle Details...
    The Lost Tribe of Coney Island sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Claire Prentice has only one other e-book to offer on Amazon, titled Miracle at Coney Island.  It sells for $2.99.

Dressed alone in my complexion, with a palm-leaf fan, perchance,
I would rather be a savage, Than a magnate wearing “pants”.  (loc. 1851)
    The quibbles with The Lost Tribe of Coney Island are minuscule.  The author can get repetitive at times, such as when she again-and-again points out Truman’s greed or reminds the reader of the $15/month lost wages.  But it never got to where it became annoying.

    The ending is both sweet and sad, and a tad bit anticlimactic.  However, this is non-fiction, which means the writer is stuck with whatever the final outcome was.

    I was intrigued by the politics behind the whole “showcasing the savages” bit.  The US had just won the Spanish-American war, and had inherited the Philippines, whose inhabitants were thankful we had liberated them from Spain, and expected full independence forthwith.  The United States wanted to delay this as long as possible, and showing the American public what a bunch of uncivilized savages they were (they eat dogs, for Pete’s sake!), helped establish the self-serving (for the United States) tenet that “they just aren’t ready for independence yet”.

     Some may not like these political tangents in the story, but I think they have relevance for this country, particularly under our present regime.

    8½ Stars.  The whole “eating dog meat” issue resonated with me.  Even in 1905, such a concept was abhorrent, yet mesmerizing.  The same people who condemned it regularly paid to watch it.  The odd thing was, dog meat was a delicacy for the Igorrotes, usually only eaten during a special feast.  Yet now, in order to satisfy the American tourists, they were forced to partake of it on a daily basis.  The irony just drips.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Railsea - China Miéville


   2012; 424 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : YA; Steampunk; Fantasy; “Weird Fiction” (per the author).  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    On a far-in-the future Earth, things are markedly different.  The ground, and there’s a lot of it, is lethal.  No, it's not poisonous, but it's full of burrowing animals of enormous size, all of which have a taste for human beings.

    Mankind and his civilization are confined to stretches of rocky outcroppings.  Burrowing beasties may be deadly, but they can’t dig through solid rock.  Crops are grown on the patches of ground that lay on top of the rock formations.  But it still would be pretty much a hopeless existence.  Except for the railsea.

    Crisscrossing the predator-laden ground are innumerable sets of railroad tracks, going here, there, and anywhere, but never in a straight line.   An expert railsea crew is essential to navigate them, for there’s a lot of switching, doubling-back, braking, and maneuvering through perilous curves along the way.  There are also a few lighthouses to help guide the trains to far-flung towns, where goods can be traded.

    But trade is not the only activity on the railsea.  There are forlorn wrecks of ancient trains, whose salvage is a profitable business.  And a speeding train with a crew of skilled harpoonists can reverse the roles of predator and prey.  Killing a giant moldywarpe can furnish meat for weeks on end for a hungry train crew, and is in huge demand at any port of call.

    So come along with young Shamus (“Sham”) Yes ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice on the good ship/moletrain “Medes”, and get a taste of the thrill of the hunt.  You never know what surprises might turn up.

What’s To Like...
    Railsea is another masterpiece of YA steampunk fiction from China Miéville, who I consider to be arguably the most talented author around nowadays.  As with all of his books, the world-building is fantastic, the storytelling superb, and the writing masterful.  Miéville is at his finest here – confident enough to break down the fourth wall at times, and replacing the word “and” by an ampersand (“&”) every time it appears.  This last nuance apparently annoyed some readers, but I thought it was great, and its rationale does get explained on page 163.

    Miéville also tips his hat to some great classics from the past.  You’ll easily recognize the influences of Moby Dick, Dune, and Treasure IslandRobinson Crusoe gets a brief nod towards the end of the story, and so does Shikasta, which I’m assuming is a quick bow at the great Doris Lessing.

    There are predators aplenty, both in the sky and beneath the soil, and each section starts with a way-kewl drawing of one of them, including my favorite – the blood rabbit.

    I loved the attention to detail.  The futuristic world may be bleak, but it is also rich and complex.  Although this is a steampunk world, there are submarines (which burrow through the underground, just like the critters), and even a few vintage-WW1 era airplanes.  The captains of the ships/trains aspire to have a “philosophy”, which is a nemesis akin to Captain Ahab’s Moby Dick, and it is considered a high honor if one’s philosophy has cost one’s captain an arm or a leg.  Literally.

    The chapters are short: 87 of them for 424 pages.  Those illustrations are an added bonus.  Railsea opens with an exciting moldywarpe chase, which helps the reader instantly get caught up in the daily life of the crew on a moletrain.  Somehow, despite all the attention to detail, the pace of the story remains brisk.

    The ending is superb.  Just when you think we’re going to wander around forever, the focus shifts to a quest for understanding the situation, something that’s been tickling the back of Sham’s mind for most of the book.  In the end everyone, including the reader, is given an inkling of who built the railsea, and why the terrain is the way it is. Railsea is a standalone story, and although it leaves room for a sequel, I don’t think China Miéville has any plans to do one.

Kewlest New Word...
Pootling (n.) : moving or traveling somewhere slowly and with no real purpose.  (a Britishism)
Others: Bolshy (adj.); Phonemes (n., pl.); Chthonic (adj.); Strigine (adj.); Sett (n.); Snaffled (v.).

Excerpts...
    From beneath came a dust-muffled howl.
    Amid strange landforms & stubs of antique plastic, black earth coned into a sudden hill.  & up something clawed.  Such a great & dark beast.
    Soaring from its burrow in a clod-cloud & explosion it came.  A monster.  It roared, it soared, into the air.  It hung a crazy moment at the apex of its leap.  As if surveying. As if to draw attention to its very size.  Crashed at last back down through the topsoil & disappeared into the below.
    The moldywarpe had breached.  (pg. 6)

    Their antique & reclaimed wares were set on stalls on the dockside, according to various taxonomies.  Pitted & oxidized mechanisms from the Heavy Metal Age; shards from the Plastozoic; printouts on thin rubber & ancient ordinator screens from the Computational Era: all choice arche-salvage, from astonishingly long ago.  & the less interesting stuff, too, that discarded or lost anything from a few hundred years ago to yesterday – nu-salvage.  (pg. 109)

 “Sentiment & moletrains don’t mix.”  “There is nowhere,” Fremlo said, “more sentimental than a moletrain.  Thankfully.”  (pg. 319)
    I can’t really think of anything to quibble about for Railsea.  It took me a while to get the hang of the author’s use of whaling/shipping terms for adventuring aboard a land-bound train.  But I blame that mostly on me.  Miéville does stop to give explanations at times (“there are two layers to the sky, & four layers” – page 30), but usually I was like: “Yeah, whatever. Now what happened next?” And one can always consult Wikipedia for a concise synopsis of the Railsea world.

    My rule thumb is if I can’t think of any negatives, even trivial ones, about a book, and if the storyline and writing resonates with me, then there’s only one rating to give it.  Hence:

    10 Stars.  I’ve enjoyed every China Miéville book I’ve read, my favorite being another YA novel of his, Un Lun Dun (reviewed here).  I’ve still got 4-5 of his books to go.  I don’t have any good explanation for why I’m behind reading his stuff, except to say that his books rarely show up in used-book stores.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Bite On The Line - Simon Cantan


   2014; 291 pages.  Book 1 (out of 5) of the “Bytarend” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Steampunk (sort of); YA (maybe) .  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Prince Tondbert is on the run.  Castle Latraio has fallen, and the rest of the royal family is either dead or fleeing for their lives, and his bodyguard has been slain doing what bodyguards get paid to do.  It’s time to disguise himself as a “thief king”, and seek safety in the neighboring town of Wikeadward.  Maybe he can find a job there, since his princely career seems to be over

    Sergeant Osric Ward has a job.  But his career is on the line yet again.  This is not the first time he’s punched a partner in the nose, and he’s getting to be very unpopular with his fellow city guards.  But this time that’s not what’s got him in hot water in Wikeadward.

    Indeed, both Tondbert and Osric share an unhealthy talent: pissing off the nobility in Wikeadward.  Something needs to be done about that.  Hey, no one’s heard anything from the town of Bytarend for a long time.  Why not send these two troublemakers up there to investigate?  If they can solve whatever’s the matter there, so much the better.

    And if they fail, well a suicide mission also takes care of a couple of problems for the nobles now, doesn’t it?

What’s To Like...
    The Bite On The Line is the debut book in a fantasy series by Simon Cantan.  It is a quick and easy read, with sufficient wit to keep the overall tone lighthearted, much like in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.  Indeed, the whole “city guard” setup reminded me of Sam Vimes and the Night Watch in Ankh-Morpork.

    There are a slew of characters to meet and greet, a lot of which have only cameo roles here, but perhaps will play greater parts as the series progresses.  I enjoyed meeting the humanoid varieties too: the blue-skinned desertmen, and the larger, more technically-advanced greymen.  The “critters” are limited to lifeleeches, animal leeches, and the lifeless, but when coupled with baddies, that's plenty to keep the story's pace a-hopping.  And I suspect other beasties will be introduced in the subsequent books

    The book is written in English, not American, so you will encounter word spellings like metres, labourers, sceptically, and storeys, not to mention the new (for me) slang word, taffer.  I liked the Author’s Note at the end of the book; Simon Cantan lists Harry Harrison, Robert Asprin, Terry Pratchett, and Piers Anthony as inspirations for his choosing to pursue a career as an author.  I’ve read books by all of those, and it is a great set of writers to emulate..

   The writing style is a mixed bag.  Overall, it reads like a YA tale aimed at boys – the storyline is straightforward, the romance is minimal, the action is non-stop, and there’s plenty of humor, but not to where it smothers the action.  I chuckled at the “Gallant Mayoral Medal of Gallantry”.  OTOH, there are some whores and prostitutes, a chin-to-brain sword thrust, and even a cross-dresser.  So I’m not 100% sure the author intended this to be YA.

Kewlest New Word…
Taffer (n.) : a common criminal; any sort of lowlife person.  (a made-up word, per Google)

Excerpts...
    “Be very afraid, Budic,” Osric said.  “I have a long, pointy sword, and I know how to use it.”
     Budic stared at Osric for a moment, then spun on his heels and ran away.
    “What’s wrong with him?” Osric asked.
    “You catch more flies with honey, Captain,” Lewelin said.  “You asked me to come with you to talk to people.  Why not let me?”
    “Why would I want to catch flies?” Osric asked.  “What a waste of honey.”  (loc. 2201)

    “Alright Captain, hop up here,” the professor said, indicating the seat at the end of the catapult arm.
    “You’re going to shoot me at the castle, aren’t you?” Osric said.
    “Of course not,” the professor said.  “You’d never get there with just the energy of the catapult.  We have to boost the launch with explosives.  Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.”  (loc. 3204)

Kindle Details...
    The Bite on the Line sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other four books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  Simon Cantan has a dozen or so other e-books available, some of which are parts of a couple other series, and they range in price from $2.99  to $6.99.  He also has one novella, the first book of one of those series, for free.

 “Bodies should have the common sense to stay still after they’re dead.”  (loc. 387)
    Alas, The Bite On The Line has a couple issues, besides the “Is it or isn’t it a YA novel?” conundrum.

    Most notably, the storytelling, while action-packed, suffers from a lack of focus.  Things start with a quest to find a small, grey box.  Then Nick and Harry enter, as apparently major players, only to exit soon afterward, never to return.  Then our dynamic duo investigates a serial killer, but this is merely a prelude to the forced exile to Bytarend.  So the main plotline doesn’t begin until we’re more than a quarter of the way through the book.

    The character development seemed weak to me, although this would be excusable if the target audience was YA boys.  And while everything builds nicely to an exciting ending, the defeat of the Ultimate Baddie was somewhat of a letdown.  After putting up a staunch fight, he just sort of suddenly quits.

    And lastly, I never did figure out what the book’s title meant.  One of the chapters  is similarly named, and I went back and reread it, but even then, I couldn’t see a tie-in.  Maybe I’m getting to be too dense for a YA plotline.

    5½ Stars.  It is an added bonus whenever a YA book can entertain both youngsters and adults alike.  Unfortunately, The Bite On The Line seems likely to only keep the interest of young-teen boys.  Let’s be clear, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  I read the Hardy Boys books with a passion back in my salad days, and that series, along with Nancy Drew for young girl readers, were immensely popular at the time.  But I cringe at the thought of having to read a Hardy Boys book as an adult.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Confession of Brother Haluin - Ellis Peters


   1988; 196 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 15 (out of 20) of the “Brother Cadfael” series. Genre : Murder-Mystery, Historical Fiction, Cozy Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Ah, yes.  Those deathbed confessions.  They’re good for your soul.  Especially when you’ve been carrying around an unconfessed sin for close to 20 years.

    Such is the burden Brother Haluin’s bearing.  But he’s slipped from the icy roof of the abbey’s guest hall while trying to clear the snowfall off.  It was a 40 foot drop, and now he lays at death’s door.  Best to confess the grievous transgression that drove him to take up the cloth in the first place.

    As head of the abbey, Abbot Radulfus is duly called to hear Brother Haluin’s final confession.  Brother Cadfael is also present, since Haluin says the sin was also against him, even though Cadfael was unaware of it.  And it is indeed a vile misdeed, something that definitely needed to be gotten off one's chest before approaching the pearly gates.  There’s just one problem.

    What do you do about it when, against all odds, Brother Haluin makes a dramatic recovery?

What’s To Like...
    The Confession of Brother Haluin is the ninth book I’ve read in this series, so I’m about halfway in completing it.  The plotlines are by-and-large formulaic: there’s always a heartwarming-but-forbidden love, somebody gets murdered, one or the other of the lovebirds gets accused, and Brother Cadfael saves the day via 12th-century sleuthing.

    This book is no exception to this format, but the first half of the story is mostly about Haluin resolving to undertake a pilgrimage of penance, despite being unable to walk without crutches.  By page 100, I was muttering “Where’s the Murder?”  and “Where’s the Romance?”  I shouldn’t’ve fretted.  Both show up shortly thereafter, and things hum along swimmingly through the rest of the pages.

    Ellis Peters tackles some controversial issues here – abortion and incest – and I was wondering how she planned on resolving both while still maintaining the “cozy mystery” style.  Well, she managed this quite successfully and with impressive plausibility.

    All Brother Cadfael books are a vocabularian’s delight.  The best words of the bunch are listed below, and I was proud that my brain is retaining some of the medieval words, such as “lief” and “assart”.  The use of the word “solar” as a noun was totally new to me.

    The settings for the story are somewhat unusual in that very little takes place at the abbey and the nearby town of Shrewsbury.  Haluin makes his pilgrimage to a place somewhat removed from the abbey, and Cadfael accompanies him.  So most of the regulars are either missing or have only minor roles.  Ah, but this meant meeting lots of new people and going to lots of new places, and I enjoyed that.

   I also liked that none of the characters were totally black or white, not even those who perpetrated the murder.  Even Cadfael has some moments of self-doubt, such as when he reflects on his “meddling” in the past.  Everything builds to great, and somewhat surprising ending which, like any cozy should, will leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling, despite a loose thread or two.

Kewlest New Word...
Solar (n., Middle English) : a loft or upper chamber forming the private accommodation of the head of the household in a medieval hall.
Others: Chilblained (adj.); Elegiac (adj.); Garth (n.); Colloquy (n.); Advowson (n.).

Excerpts...
    “You do know about my marriage – that Jean comes here today?”
    “Your brother has told us,” said Cadfael, watching the features of her oval face emerge softly from shadow, every plaintive, ingenuous line testifying to her youth.  “But there are things he could not tell us,” he said, watching her intently, “except by hearsay.  Only you can tell us whether this match has your consent, freely given, or no.”  (…)
    “If we do anything freely, once we are grown,” she said, “then yes, this I do freely.  There are rules that must be kept.  There are others in the world who have rights and needs, and we are all bound.”  (pg. 106)

    It is a terrible responsibility, thought Cadfael, who had never aspired to ordination, to have the grace of God committed to a man’s hands, to be privileged and burdened to play a part in other people’s lives, to promise them salvation in baptism, to lock their lives together in matrimony, to hold the key to purgatory at their departing.  If I have meddled, he thought devoutly, and God knows I have, when need was and there was no better man to attempt it, at least I have meddled only as a fellow sinner, tramping the same road, not as a viscount of heaven, stooping to raise up.  (pg. 114)

 Murder brings out into the open many matters no less painful, while itself still lurking in the dark.  (pg. 128)
    The quibbles are negligible.

    I‘m getting to the point, having read so many of these Brother Cadfael books, that I can anticipate the plot twists coming up.  But I still marvel at how plausible Ellis Peters makes them seem.

    Also, the pacing of the first half of the book kinda dawdles for a while as Cadfael and Haluin traipse around, and the reader waits for someone to get killed.  Plus, there were one or two incredible coincidences that strained my bridge of believability, but it has to be said they served to move the story along.

    Last, and least, if you like cozies but don’t like historical fiction, this series may not be your cup of tea.  Cadfael and the sheriff Hugh Beringar spend about 10 pages at the beginning discussing the ongoing civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud (yes, England did have an Empress once upon a time).   I love history, and so for me this was fascinating.  But for those who aren’t history buffs, it may be a bit tedious.

    8 Stars.  At Book 15 out of 20, The Confession of Brother Haluin comes rather late in the series, and most of the ones I’ve read so far are earlier entries.  So it was a nice surprise to see the series hadn’t lost any of its luster as it aged.