Friday, February 24, 2017

Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari

   2015; 415 pages.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Anthropology; History; Civilization & Culture.  Laurels : National Library of China’s “Wenjin Book Award” for 2015.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The title says it all.  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (let’s shorten it to “Sapiens” from here on in) is an ambitious attempt to present the entire history, anthropology, and culture of the human race from the day we distinguished ourselves as Homo Sapiens up through the present, and briefly into the near future.

    To do this in just a smidgen over 400 pages is no small undertaking, but Yuval Noah Harari gives us a remarkably concise yet detailed effort, managing to address a wide range of topics from the Neanderthals, “imagined orders”, how science and money worked hand-in-hand with imperialism, and the evolution from polytheism to monotheism.

    But be forewarned.  Prepare to have your core beliefs assailed on every front, with sacred cows given short shrift and everything you’ve taken for granted being open to question.

    And let’s see if, by then end of the book, your prediction for mankind’s future matches up well with Harari’s.

What’s To Like...
    Yuval Noah Harari divides Sapiens up into four chronological sections: The Cognitive Revolution (1% Kindle), where we learn to think differently.  The Agricultural Revolution (16%), where we stop being hunter-gatherers and start being farmers.  The Unification of Mankind (34%), where start banding into larger groups and getting into Imperialism.  And the Scientific Revolution (51%), where we start focusing on learning from other cultures in the hopes that it’ll further our aims.  As can be seen from the Kindle starting points, the sections are not equal in size, probably because we know a lot more about the last 5 centuries than we do about the time before we learned to farm.

    Each of those sections is further broken up into chapters, and frankly, this is the best e-book yet that I’ve found for easy jumping from one chapter to another via the table-of-contents.  Even the footnotes and links to bibliographical sources work slickly.  I thoroughly appreciated that.

    My favorite chapters were :
1.3.  A Day in the Life of Adam & Eve.  What it was like to be a hunter-gatherer.
2.2.  Building Pyramids.  Harari introduces the concept of “imagined orders”.
3.4.  The Law of Religion.  How polytheism evolved into monotheism, dualism, and other isms.
4.4.  The Wheels of Industry.  Consumerism, energy, and the industrialization of agriculture.
4.6.  And They Lived Happily Ever After.  Are we happier now than when we were living in caves?
    Your faves will probably be different from mine.

    The writing is a masterful blend of technical data and the author’s cultural and anthropological opinions.   I found it to be kind of a non-fiction version of Stephen Baxter’s masterpiece, Evolution (reviewed here).  It’s written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, but that wasn’t a distraction. 

    But the best part of Sapiens is the literary style.  Yuval Noah Harari challenges you to re-examine your belief-systems about history, your fellow humans, and society’s ethics.  I think this was deliberate, and among the groups he targets are devout theists, nationalists, bigots, capitalists, communists, Reaganomics adherents, humanists, carnivores, and liberals (in the European sense of the word).   Lots of reviewers seemed annoyed by this; I thought it was great.

    Sapiens is a relatively recent book (February, 2015), but there has been an incredible response to it.  At Amazon, as of this writing, 2,576 people has taken the time to write reviews.  Wowza!  The Goodreads stats are even more amazing: 43,385 ratings, 4,081 reviews, and an overall rating of 4.36.

    The book closes with a couple chapters on Harari’s predictions for the future of Homo Sapiens.  He makes no guarantees or firm prophecies, and apparently this serves as a segue for the book’s sequel.  See the “Kindle Details” section, below.

    The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans.  It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies.  The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman.  (loc. 3321)

    The figures for 2002 are even more surprising.  Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence).  In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide.  It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.  (loc. 5738)

Kindle Details...
    Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind sells for $16.99, which seems steep until you realize it’s a top-tier, recently-released, non-fiction book.  Yuval Noah Harari has only one other e-book available for the Kindle, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (the sequel to Sapiens), and it sells for $17.99.

 Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?  (loc. 6535)
    There are some quibbles.  First, and least-most, there were a bunch of kewl pictures, graphs, and maps, but they were small and didn’t enlarge when you clicked on them.  I guess there are still some advantages to reading a non-electronic book.

    Also, although the first two sections of Sapiens are fantastic, things did slow down a bit as we got into more modern times, and the writing changed from historical and archaeological to cultural and anthropological.  To some degree, this is unavoidable.  Discussing economics and corporate business strategy just isn’t as exciting as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons coming in contact with each other.

    Finally, it has to admitted that Harari gets preachy at times, with personal opinions replacing scientific objectivity.  Among his pet subjects are Buddhism (he likes it), animal rights (PETA would be proud), and blind religious faith (he minces no words).

    But if you don’t mind being prodded into thinking about your beliefs, or about the many “imagined orders” that are drilled into our minds from an early age, you will find Sapiens to be a thought-provoking masterpiece that just might change the way you think about all sorts of things.  And very few books can do that.

    9 Stars.  Subtract 3 stars  if you're comfortably numb in your beliefs, and get insecure if/when someone or something disturbs them.  Add ½ star if you’re an ancient history fan, and the more ancient, the better.  That's me.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Damnation Game - Clive Barker

    1985; 433 pages.  New Author? : Nope, but this is only my second book by him.  Genre : Horror; Suspense.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Marty Strauss is getting out of prison early!  Well yes, it is a conditional parole, and he’ll be confined to the grounds of Joseph Whitehead’s sprawling estate.  But it's better than sharing a cell at te penitentiary, and he’ll even get paid for his new job: he'll be the personal bodyguard of Mr. Whitehead himself.

    The work itself looks easy enough.  There’s a wall around the perimeter of the estate, and barbed wire atop of that.  There’s a pack of Alsatian guard dogs trained to tear into any intruder.  There are several others on the staff who will keep an eye out for strangers as well.  And there are cameras monitoring the entire house and grounds.  The Devil himself couldn’t get into Joseph Whitehead’s mansion without being detected and intercepted.

     But you’d better be careful, Marty.  Old Man Whitehead may be crazy, but there’s a reason for his paranoia.  And if the Devil does come calling, you’re expected to sacrifice your life for the sake of your employer.

What’s To Like...
    The Damnation Game was Clive Barker’s debut full-length novel, but he had already established himself as a promising author of Horror tales via his set of six short stories, Books of Blood.  The settings in TDG are sparse, and the first, World War 2 Warsaw, is almost entirely confined to the Prologue.  The rest of the book takes place at various spots in the greater London area.

    There’s about a hundred pages of world-building to plod through at the beginning, but this was also true of the other Clive Barker book I read, which is reviewed here.  Structurally, the book is perfect, evolving steadily from a relatively peaceful, if somewhat dysfunctional, start to abject terror, as Joseph Whitehead’s adversary lays siege to Marty and company and everyone else at the mansion.  The tension builds throughout the story to an exciting showdown at the end.  Clive Barker knows how to write a horror story.

    I liked the UE (Ultimate Evil), he is incredibly powerful, and yet is neither omnipotent nor omniscient.  His henchman are also suitably scary, and, in the case of his two missionaries, also a bit funny.  The backstory for the UE also gets recounted, which I appreciated.  He is a resourceful chap (aren’t all well-crafted UE’s?), and his way of “scouting” Whitehead’s mansion was quite innovative.

    The Damnation Game is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, but it’s hardly noticeable.  R-rated stuff abounds, but hey, wouldn't “cozy horror story” be an oxymoron?  This is a standalone novel, and ANAICT, there is no sequel, although I am certainly not an expert on Clive Barker’s bibliography.  Finally, the last chapter is a way-kewl epilogue that wraps things up nicely.

Kewlest New Word...
Doggo (adv.) : remaining motionless and quiet to escape detection.
Others : Welter (n.); Baize (n.); Farrago (n.); Unblenched (adj.); Peristalsis (n.).

    She picked up the receiver and dialed nineteen, the number of Marty’s bedroom.  It rang once, then again.  She willed him to wake quickly.  Her reserves of control were, she knew, strictly limited.
    “Come on, come on . . . “ she breathed.
    Then there was a sound behind her; heavy feet crunched the glass into smaller pieces.  She turned to see who it was, and there was a nightmare standing in the doorway with a knife in his hand and a dogskin over one shoulder.  The phone slipped form her fingers, and the part of her that had advised panic all along took the reins.
    Told you so, it shouted.  Told you so!  (pg. 185)

    The Deluge descended in the driest July in living memory; but then no revisionist’s dream of Armageddon is complete without its paradox.  Lightning appeared out of a clear sky; flesh turned to salt; the meek inheriting the earth: all unlikely phenomena.
    That July, however, there were no spectacular transformations.  No celestial lights appeared in the clouds.  No rains of salamanders or children.  If angels came and went that month – if the looked-for Deluge broke – then it was, like the truest Armageddon, metaphor.  (pg. 277)

“You call me ridiculous.  You.  A talking fog.”  (pg. 314)
    The Damnation Game came highly recommended to me by a friend who considers it Clive Barker’s finest effort, and it did not disappoint.  It didn’t leave me cringing in fear, the way some J.A. Konrath’s books do (such as the one reviewed here), but I did keep worrying the whole way through about how Marty could possibly defeat such as powerful UE.

    The quibbles are minor, and by and large mirrors those I had with the other Clive Barker book I’ve read.  The plot is interesting, but not particularly twisty.  The character development is superb, but it felt like everyone got their predictably just desserts.  The storytelling is great, yet this is by no mean a quick read.

    But I pick at nits.  I enjoyed The Damnation Game, and that says something about the author’s writing skills, since I am not a big fan of the Horror genre.  I have one more Clive Barker book on my ever-expanding TBR shelf, Abarat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I read it later this year.

    8½ Stars.  Add ½ star if you’re a fan of Dean Koontz.  I found the tone of The Damnation Game to be quite similar to his.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Doctor and the Kid - Mike Resnick

   2011; 323 pages.  Book 2 (out of four) of the “Weird West Tales” series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Steampunk; Western; Alternate History.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    There are so many things that are different in this Alternate History of the Old West.  Unfortunately for Doc Holliday, his terminal illness – tuberculosis, or as they called it back then “consumption” – is not one of them.  He has a year or so to live, if he’s lucky, and he’d like to spend his final days in peace at a sanitarium in Colorado.

    That takes money, something which he doesn’t have much of anymore, thanks to one of his vices, gambling.  Ah, but there’s a $10,000 bounty on Billy The Kid, dead or alive, which is more than enough to cover the sanitarium costs.  And Doc’s a retired (or so he says) gunslinger.

    But Billy The Kid’s mighty fast on the trigger, and some say he can even outdraw Doc.  To boot, there are rumors that he’s protected by some medicine man magic that renders all weapons used against him useless.

    Maybe it’s time for Doc Holliday to get some magic of his own.  And who better to seek out and ask for it than that great inventor, Tom Edison?

What’s To Like...
    I liked the world-building.  In this alternate timeline, the US Army is prevented from crossing the Mississippi River due to the powerful magic spells laid down by two Native American medicine men, Geronimo and Hook Nose.  Some towns apparently are allowed – among them Tombstone, Denver, Leadville (Colorado), and Lincoln (New Mexico).  But nary a single soldier can cross over.

    Mike Resnick likes to namedrop, and I mean that in a positive way.  So in addition to the O.K. Corral boys: Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, we meet Oscar Wilde, Susan B. Anthony, Billy the Kid, Sheriff Part Garrett, Geronimo, Kate Elder, Ned Buntline, and Thomas “Tom” Edison.  Those last two are buddies of our protagonist, Doc Holiday.

    This is also a steampunk novel.  Think The Wild, Wild West – either the old TV series, or the more-recent movie version.  Tom Edison and Ned Buntline supply a bunch of really neat inventions, among which are robotic bartenders, horseless stagecoaches, monorails, robotic cooks, tasers, and last but not least, robotic hookers.  I’m not quite sure how the latter work, but customer satisfaction is high.

    There are some kewl drawings scattered throughout the book, which I really liked.  There is some cussing, which is certainly realistic, but I didn’t think was absolutely necessary.  More on that in a moment.  There are also five appendices in the back, to wit: a list of “further reading”, movie stars who played played the various characters we meet in the book, some brief, “non-alternate” biographies of the main characters, an account by Pat Garrett concerning Billy the Kid’s  escape, and an account by Bat Masterson about his acquaintance with Doc Holliday.  Of the five, I liked the biographies one the best.

    The ending is okay, but not very twisty.  Doc squares off against Billy the Kid; and Geronimo and Hook Nose do the same.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.

    “Are you the notorious Doc Holliday?” asked the man.
    Holliday checked to make sure the man was unarmed.  “I am,” he replied.
    The man extended a hand.  “I am the notorious Oscar Wilde.  I wonder if I might join you?”
    Holliday shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”
    Wilde sat down opposite him.  “I didn’t see you at my lecture last night.”
    “Good?” repeated Wilde, arching an eyebrow.
    “It means you’re not hallucinating.”  (loc. 57)

    “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” he said.  “All I have to do is destroy men and buildings that are impervious to arrows, bullets, cannonballs and fire, and in exchange for that, a sick, dying man gets to face the greatest killer in the West on even terms, is that your offer?”
    “That is my offer.”
    “Give me a minute to think about it,” said Holliday, staring down at the ground.  (loc. 692)

Kindle Details...
    The Doctor and the Kid sells for $9.99 at Amazon right now.  The other three books in the series all go for that price as well.  Mike Resnick has been writing Sci-Fi stories for a long time, sometimes alone, sometimes as a co-author, and sometimes as a contributor of short stories for sci-fi anthologies.  So there are a slew of e-books at Amazon that bear his name, usually in the $0.99-$9.99 spectrum.

 “(T)he next argument I win with a woman will be the first.”  (loc. 2487)
    The Doctor and the Kid isn’t perfect.  There are some annoyingly repetitive themes, such as Doc reminding everybody that he’s terminally ill, everybody wanting to hear him tell about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Billy the Kid mentioning to Doc how much he likes him.

    Also, while there’s an adequate amount of action, the plotline itself doesn’t progress much.  For most of the book, Doc keeps tabs on Billy, and Edison tries to figure out how to combat the medicine man magic.  The “Science vs. Magic” theme may be realistic: keep trying ideas until one of them works, but in a storyline, it makes for a lot of spinning of one’s wheels.

    I was confused as to the target audience.  The story was simplistic enough to make me think it was aimed at teenage boys, but then why have all the cussing?  Finally, for all the kewl appendices, why not also have one with a map of the settings?

    7 Stars.  Don’t get me wrong, The Doctor and the Kid was still an enjoyable read, and part of my problems with it may be the fact that I didn’t realize it was book 2 of a series.  I struggled to understand the details of the alternate history, and perhaps all this was already given in the first book, The Buntline Special.  I’ve added that to my TBR shelf (which has a couple hundred other books), and will probably read it in the next few months.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Myth-Fits - Jody Lynn Nye

   2016; 305 pages.  Book #21 (out of 21) of the “Mythadventures” series.  New Author? : No, but the first one where she’s not just a co-author.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor; Dimension-Travel.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Business has been a bit slow lately at Myth Inc.  Some of that is due to the competition undercutting their prices – Myth Inc. is the best at recovering priceless artifacts, and generally they only take the top-dollar cases.  They still have a healthy amount of money in reserve.

    So when a man named Looie approaches them to find something for him in an alternate dimension, and wants a price-break to boot; they turn him down.  Even when the head of Myth Inc., Bunny, wants them to take the job.

    But when they find out just where Looie’s artifact is located – in Winslow- attitudes change.  Winslow is the most luxurious vacation spot in the dimension, and it prides itself on never saying “no” to any request from any of its customers.

    What’s wrong with combining business with pleasure?

What’s To Like...
   Myth-Fits is the 21st, and latest, entry into (the late) Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures series, and I espied it in my local library’s “Recent Additions” section the last time we were there.  I recently read another one of the later entries (reviewed here), and was rather disappointed.  I am happy to say this one does a much better job of catching the initial spark in the series.

    I liked the choices of the Myth Inc. characters here.  It was good to see Aahz get some major ink, as well as my favorite MacGuffin, Gleep, tagging along.  The rest of Skeeve’s crew: Tananda, Bunny, Chumley, and Markie, all lend their unique slants to the story, and happily, my three least-favorite characters, Guido, Nunzio, and Uncle Bruce, get either scant or zero attention.

    Winslow was a neat new dimension to explore, a whole city dedicated to providing for you as if you were on a cruise or lounging around at Club Med.  There are four main plotlines: (1) find the Loving Cup; (2) find out why the lines of magic at Winslow are so hard to draw power from; (3) figure out who the “other magician” is that evidently is also searching for the Loving Cup; and (4) get Bunny to tell why she's suddenly so worried about the business's bottom line.

    As usual, the story is told from a first-person POV (Skeeve’s); and as usual, there are witty pseudo-quotes to start each chapter.  I enjoyed going on the scavenger hunt with Skeeve and Company, and it’s always neat to come across that delightful British phrase “and Bob’s yer uncle!”

    There is a decent, slightly twisty, stutter-step ending.  As always this is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.  It does help if you’ve read the initial book though, just to understand the Aahz/Skeeve relationship.  There’s a bevy of various beasties vacationing on Winslow, a couple of way-kewl artifacts to search for, lots of magic, and plenty of Asprin-inspired wit.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Fleering (v.) : laughing imprudently or jeeringly.
Others : Dirndl (n.); Ambit (n.);

    “(She) must be looking for the Loving Cup, too.”
    “Why do you say that?” I asked.  She could have been looking for anything!”
    “Occam’s razor, kid,” Aahz said, wearily.
    “Was he a barber?” I asked.  (pg. 52)

    “They threw me out of the Central Help Desk!”
    “No reason!”
    “No reason?” she asked, with a little smile.  “You managed to provoke Winslovaks into making you leave the courtesy desk instead of letting you do what you want?  Jeopardizing their dimension-wide reputation for never saying no to any request?”
    Aahz pursed his lips until he managed to squirt the words out.
    “I was just trying to push them a little.  The sooner we get that cup back, the sooner we can get out of here.”
     “And by push you mean bully, cajole, and harass the staff and probably everyone who was waiting in line. Maybe even random passersby who were minding their own business?”
    “. . . Maybe.”  (pg. 182)

 “Stop trying to make me have fun!”  (pg. 190)
    The quibbles are minor.  For a fantasy series that is rooted in the concept of dimension-travel, we don’t travel to a lot of places in Myth-Fits.  There are three: Myth Inc’s headquarters in the bazaar on Deva, Winslow, and a brief-but-perilous detour to a dimension called Maire.  Still, both Maire and Winslow are new places for the reader, and they’re the setting for at least 90% of the book.

    Some of the plays on words are overused and get tiring very fast; in particular the Pervect/Pervert witticism.  There are some footnotes, but they’re just cheap plugs for earlier books in the series.  Terry Pratchett’s Discworld footnotes have me spoiled, I guess.

    But these pesky things are minor.  Myth-Fits is a fun, fast, easy read, and it was a pleasure to discover that this series has regained some of its pizzazz.

    7½ Stars.  Some authorship data, gleaned from Wikipedia.  Myth-Fits is Book 21.  The first 12 books were penned by Robert Asprin alone, and the next 7 were co-authored by him and Jody Lynn Nye.  Only the last two (Books 20 and 21) are attributed solely to Ms. Nye.

    It was therefore a happy surprise to read this latest work, and find it to be the equal of the earliest works in the series, which happen to be my favorites.  My two-cent opinion is that Jody Lynn Nye has basically saved this series from the dustbin, similar to the fine job Brandon Sanderson did for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series after the latter passed away.

    Bravo, Ms. Nye!  May you be inspired to write many more adventures for Skeeve and Aahz.