Sunday, August 20, 2017

Summer Knight - Jim Butcher


   2002; 379 pages.  Book 4 (out of 15) of the “Dresden Files” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Urban Fantasy; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Someone has slain the Summer Knight, the reigning champion of the Summer Faeries.  They stole his mantle as well, which is a source of great power.  Suspicion naturally falls upon Mab, the Winter Queen of the Sidhe (Faeries), and she’d like someone to find proof that she didn’t do the dirty deed.

    Who better to turn to than Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only wizard that has a listing in the Yellow Pages, and extensive experience with the Windy City’s “other world”?  It also helps that Mab has just purchased Harry’s “debt” from his fairy godmother, a debt she’s willing to rescind if Harry does her three favors.

    It is hard for Harry to turn down a prospective client; he can certainly use the business.  But Queen Mab, or any faerie for that matter, is not the sort of customer anyone would want.  When you strike a deal with a member of the Sidhe, you just know you’re going to regret it.  Better to walk away from this one, Harry.

    And Mab is famed for her resourcefulness, with lots of friends on the Wizards Council.  So watch your step, Mr. Dresden.

    Oh, and one other thing, Harry.  Please note that Mab didn’t exactly ask you to find out who the killer was.  She just asked you to come up with proof it wasn’t her.  Those aren’t the same things.

What’s To Like...
    Summer Knight is the fourth book in Jim Butcher’s incredibly popular series “The Dresden Files”, and focuses primarily on the goings-on of the Sidhe (“Faerie”) Kingdom.  This is a nice variation; earlier books in the series focused on Vampires, Werewolves, and Wizards, so it’s fun to see the author develop yet another aspect of the magic world.

    Besides investigating who killed the Summer Knight, Harry also takes on a second case (and a paying one!) of finding a Changeling named Lily.  Not surprisingly, the two threads eventually merge.  There are critters aplenty to meet and defeat: ghouls, werewolves, faeries, ogres, pixies, changelings (half mortal, half faerie), a chlorofiend (say what?), trolls, sylphs, and a unicorn and a centaur that you do not want to mess with.

    As always, the action starts right away and doesn’t let up.  The story is told from a first-person POV (Harry’s), and there’s a fair amount of cussing.  I liked the concept of the Undertown; it reminded me of Preston & Child’s Reliquary.  I also was delighted to come across the fable “The Fox and the Scorpion”; it’s been a lifelong guiding principle for me.

    There was only one bout of Bob and Harry engaging in witty repartee. These conversations are probably my favorite parts of this series, but at least it was a fairly long session.  We and Harry spend a fair amount of time in the Nevernever (the Spirits’ home dimension), and that was a treat, at least for the us readers.  Everything builds to a suitably exciting ending.  This is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

    A couple threads remain unresolved.  Harry still owes a debt to Mab (two more favors), and he still hasn’t found a vampire cure for his girlfriend, Susan.  I don’t really have any quibbles with Summer Knight.  The worst I can say is the book’s overall structure is formulaic, but since I happen to like the formula, I’m okay with that.

Excerpts...
    “Mab?  The Mab, Harry?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Queen of Air and Darkness?  That Mab?”
     “Yeah,” I said, impatient.
    “And she’s your client?”
    “Yes, Bob.”
    “Here’s where I ask why don’t you spend your time doing something safer and more boring.  Like maybe administering suppositories to rabid gorillas.”
    “I live for challenge,” I said.  (loc. 1871)

   “A guardian?”
    “Obviously,” Elaine said.  “How do we get past it?”
    “Blow it up?”
    “Tempting,” Elaine said.  “But I don’t think it will make much of an impression on the Mothers if we kill their watchdog.  A veil?”
    I shook my head.  “I don’t think unicorns rely on the normal senses.  If I remember right, they sense thoughts.”
    “In that case it shouldn’t notice you.”  (loc. 4299)

Kindle Details...
    Summer Knight sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  The pricing structure of the rest of the series is this: Book One @ $2.99; Book Two @ $5.99; the rest of the books @ $9.99.  Jim Butcher is the author of another series, The Codex Alera, which has an identical price structure.  I think it’s a fine marketing strategy for a top-tier writer.

 She was also mad.  Loopy as a crochet convention.  (loc. 5174)
    “The Dresden Files” is one of the most enduringly popular urban fantasy series out there.  The books/e-books are almost always borrowed at my local libraries, and I was lucky to snag this one for free when it became providentially available.

   Jim Butcher is a gifted writer, and that’s certainly a factor.  But so is his attention to details in the world-building.  Anyone can write in a werewolf, a faerie, or a wizard to a fantasy story.  But Butcher develops complex hierarchies for each genus of magical beings.

    Here, the Faeire Hierarchy is comprised of three sets of dual (Summer and Winter) rulers: Those Who Were (the Mothers), Those Who Are (The Queens), and Those Are To Come (The Ladies).  You also have Lord Marshals for each side, as well as their champion Knights.  I remember when I was reading Fool Moon (reviewed here) that the Werewolf society was equally complex.

   It’s got to be an art to create these intricate orders while avoiding getting bogged down in the minutiae.  The fantasy authors who can pull that off are few, but Jim Butcher is one of them.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you aren’t reading the books in this series in order.  I made the mistake of reading Book Six (reviewed here) immediately after Book One, and I was at times rather confused.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flapjack - Daniel Ganninger


   2014; 296 pages.  Book 1 (out of 6) of the Case Files of Icarus Investigation” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime-Mystery; Action-Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Doctor Edward Sloan has been busy lately, working on an interesting scientific project – a kind of “super battery” that would significantly impact energy consumption in everything from driving cars to supplying electricity in your home, even to powering up your e-reader.  That would be fantastic, and everybody wins, right?

    Well, not everybody seems to be pleased about it.  A team of commandos just hit his laboratory in the Engineering & Physics building at Dartmouth University, stole two of the battery prototypes, and blew up the place.  Talk about making a statement.

    Maybe they were greedy, and want to cash in on the breakthrough discovery.  Maybe they work for the electric company or a car battery manufacturer.  Nobody, including the FBI, knows for sure.

    Funny thing though.  Doctor Edward Sloan is blissfully unaware of all the ruckus.  He left Dartmouth just before everything went kablooey, and is currently MIA.  Someone ought to go find him and make him aware of his precarious situation.

    Oh, and he took the latest working model of the super battery with him.  So, about those two prototypes that were stolen from the now-demolished laboratory?  Yeah, they’re practically worthless.

    Somebody evil is going to be very, very angry.

What’s To Like...
    Flapjack follows two guys as they endeavor to get their own Private Eye enterprise up and running.  Dan Galveston brings his sleuthing experience to the venture, while Roger Murphy brings the business savvy.  The story is mostly, but not completely, told from the first-person POV, Roger’s.  It is an ambitious mix of several genres: about equal parts of Action, Romance, Intrigue, and Humor.

    There’s a nice variety of settings, both overseas and domestic.  The local spots are San Diego, Memphis, Washington DC, and Chicago.  The exotic spots are Mexico, London, and Brazil.  There’s a kewl “Behind the Scenes Look on Making Flapjack” section appended after the end of the story, which I found really enlightening.  Think of it as an “Author’s Afterword”.

    There are 74 chapters covering the 296 pages of the story (James Patterson would be proud), so  there’s always a good place to stop for the night.  The enigmatic book cover and title are explained in Chapter 69 (87% Kindle).  I liked the MO used to kill off one of the baddies.  Gotta watch out for those statues.

    Everything builds to a suitable climax.  Daniel Ganninger’s infuses an abundance of wit throughout the tale, and that's always a plus for me.  He only stoops to giving us his personal opinion once; apparently he is not keen on “eco-friendly” politicians.  Flapjack is a standalone story, without cliffhanger or teaser for the next book in the series, which is greatly appreciated.

Excerpts...
    He stopped and smiled.  “Also, I need someone who doesn’t have anything else going on.”
    “Oh, thanks.  Does my life have that little meaning?”
    “Right now it does.  I mean, come on, I’m offering you low wages, unpredictable prospects, terrible hours, days of uncertainty, and a wish you had never come into contact with me.  Who would pass that up?”
    “Well, when you put it like that.”
    “Yes, and don’t forget the travel.  Piss poor hotel rooms, little sleep – that just sweetens the pot.”
    “How can I possibly say no?”  (loc. 350)

   “Do you see that man over there?” Galveston asked, awaiting a response.
    “Yes,” Placer answered slowly.
    “He practices the ancient art of Kilim.  If you don’t talk, he’ll get you to talk.  He can break a man’s legs with just his hands.  I would prefer not to resort to using him.  Do you understand?” Galveston threatened, and then looked at me.
   “Yes, okay.  Please don’t hurt me, I’ll answer whatever you want,” he pleaded.
   The ancient art of Kilim?  I had no clue what he was talking about, but I went along with it.  Unbeknownst to me, a Kilim was a Persian or Turkish woven carpet.  (loc. 4564)

Kindle Details...
    Flapjack presently sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Its sequel, Peeking Duck, goes for $0.99.  The other four books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  Daniel Ganninger has a second series, non-fiction, with four books in it, called Knowledge Stew, focusing on trivia, and its books sell for $3.99 each as well.

 “Who pissed in her Wheaties?”  (loc. 3612)
    Unfortunately, Flapjack felt like a “diamond in the rough” to me, in dire need of some rigorous editing and polishing.

    Editing issues.  There were far too many typos, to the point where they got distracting.  The entire “pre-Icarus” section was irrelevant and could’ve easily been omitted.  I kept waiting for it to tie back in to the main story, and it never did.  There’s lots a repetition of various thoughts and dialogue, particularly in regard to Roger sussing out the “who” and “why”.  And both the plotline and the ending, while reasonably exciting, are devoid of twists.  I like it when things don't go as planned for the good guys.

    Polishing issues.  The characters come in three colors: black, white, and gullible green.  I prefer it when the characters are gray.  There’s way too much luck involved in investigating and foiling the baddies.  Even the protagonists notice that and comment about it.  Finally, the first-person POV gets clunky at spots.  It's a plus when it allows the reader to “hear” Roger’s thoughts on matters, but a first-person POV also is inherently limiting when it comes to telling the story.

    5½ Stars.  Despite the quibbles, Flapjack was still an enjoyable read for me.  The talent that Daniel Ganninger has, and and effort that he put into creating this story and series are evident, and some slack has to be cut for anyone’s debut novel.  Books 2 and 3 (Peeking Duck and Snow Cone), are on my Kindle, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the author hones his technique each time.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Long War - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter



   2013; 422 pages.  Book #2 (out of 5) in The Long Earth series.  New Author? : No, and No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Multiverses.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    The Colonials are revolting!  Some of those “steppers” who have transported themselves ("stepped") into parallel universes have sent a sort of Declaration of Independence back to this world (aka “Datum”).  It seems they’re tired of being taxed by the Datum government for some very minimal services.

    The Datum government is reacting!  They’re sending a bunch of military airships, including the Benjamin Franklin commanded by Maggie Kauffman, on a “goodwill tour” to those uppity otherworlds, reminding them of their taxation responsibilities and showing them a sample of the armed protection it provides.

    The trolls are retreating!  Apparently being used as cheap and menial beasts of labor, they’re stepping away to other multiverses.  Or maybe just one specially-chosen dimension.  Nobody is quite sure where they’ve gone to hide out.  Hey, someone should talk Joshua Valient√©, the original stepper and a living legend, into heading out to find them trolls.

    But Joshua’s retired now, happily married and raising a kid out in the sticks in some piddling little town called Hell-Know-Where.  And while he still might have a wanderlust bone or two left in him, it’s a good bet that his family won’t be thrilled if he gets talked into to travel again.

    Especially since it’s an old lover who comes knocking on his door, calling him to adventure.

What’s To Like...
    The Long War is part of a “hard” Science Fiction pentalogy that explores the popular Quantum Physics concept of multiverses.   It is a collaboration of the talents of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, two of my favorite authors.  It feels like Baxter contributed a lot more to this book than Pratchett, possibly due to the latter’s health issues, and it's set in 2040 AD, 25 years after the first “Step Day”.

    The reader is introduced to a slew of characters right away, and it is advisable to take notes of who’s doing what and traveling where with whom.  The characters quickly separate themselves into 4 or 5 storylines, mostly dealing with exploring the millions of other dimensions, which was also the main theme of Book One, The Long Earth.

    The main topics addressed whilst everyone goes exploring are: Slavery – using the trolls as the persecuted race; Colonization – presented with a rather balanced viewpoint; and Sentience – when is a species intelligent enough to be communicated with instead of eaten?

    The chapters are short – 69 of them for 422 pages, and the book is written in English, not American.  There are lots of creatures to meet – the aforementioned trolls, elves (who are baddies here), kobolds, bipedal wolves, walking tortoises, some nasty beagles, and crest-roos.  Oh yeah, and a talking cat named Shi-Mi.  I also liked the music references – Jim Steinman, John Lennon, Bonnie Tyler, The Kinks, and Buddy Holly.  And I appreciated the tip-of-the-hat to Robert Heinlein and the esoteric Ginnungagap.

    It would’ve been nice to have a brief “The Story So Far” section at the beginning, and even a Cast of Characters, since it’s been a while since I read Book One.  I liked the thread of a western child prodigy exploring with a Chinese expedition, even if there was a bit of trite stereotyping of Chinese culture.

    Pratchett’s wit shines through at times – such as the naming of one of the characters Bosun Higgs, and the concept of “the Outernet”, sort of a multi-world Internet.  But Baxter’s influence predominates in epic sci-fi fashion.  It should be noted that there is some cussing.   The focus is on the diversity of the multiverses, and it was a joy to watch Pratchett/Baxter describe the various worlds.  I never got tired of visiting a new world.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Glebe (n.) : a piece of land serving as part of a clergyman’s benefice, and providing income.
Others :  Irruption (n.); Scry (v.).

Excerpts...
    “Lobsang did this to you.”
    “He did,” she said warningly, “though he used some careless talk from you as an excuse to do it, young man.  We’ll have to have a serious chat about that.”
    “How?  I mean-“
    “Either I was downloaded from my poor dying brain via some kind of neural scan into a bucket of gel, or I was brought back by Tibetan monks chanting the Book of the Dead over my already interred corpse for forty-nine days.  Lobsang tried both ways, he says.”
    Joshua smiled weakly.  “That’s Lobsang, all right.  Always have a backup.”  (pg. 164)

    He knew how she felt.  It was the way he felt, sometimes, if he woke in the small hours, at three a.m., a time when the world seemed empty and stripped of comforting illusion.  A time when you knew you were a mote, transient and fragile in a vast universe, a candle flame in an empty hall.  Luckily the sun always came up, people stirred, and you got on with stuff that distracted you from the reality.
    The problem for Roberta Golding was that she was too smart to be distracted.  For her, it was three a.m. all the time.  (pg. 343)

Humanity … was nothing but the thin residue left when you subtracted the baffled chimp.  (pg. 238 )
    The Long War gets low marks from lots of reviewers over at Amazon, and deservedly so.  First and foremost of the issues is what I call “PWP?”, or “Plot?  What Plot?”  Basically, there is none.  Our various teams of protagonists traipse all over the multiverse, but mostly they're just on sightseeing trips.  Some token action befalls Joshua late in the story, and there’s a seismic occurrence (on several dimensions) at the very end, which is essentially a cliffhanger (I hate cliffhangers) and presumably serves as a teaser for the next book.

    I kept waiting for the titular “Long War” to start, and was informed with about 50 pages to go that it had come to an end, which totally astounded me  There wasn’t any shooting and killing in this “long war”, and I’ve yet to figure out if the title refers to the uppity colonists or the disappearing trolls.

    Maybe this is an inherent drawback from two authors collaborating on a novel.  Perhaps Pratchett thought Baxter would provide the plotline and Baxter thought Pratchett would.  In fairness, it should be noted that Baxter epics are sometimes light on the action and long on the drama, but that’s Hard Sci-Fi for ya.  It’s also possible that Pratchett’s health issues prevented him from adding a ton of his trademark wit to the series.  He did a much better job of that when he collaborated with Neil Gaiman in Good Omens (reviewed here).

    6½ Stars.  The somewhat-blah storyline is saved by the masterful writing skills of both Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, but just barely.  I’ve read the first two books in this series, and have #4 and #5 on my Kindle.  Now it’s just a matter of deciding whether to skip Book 3, The Long Mars, and "step" directly to the last two books in this series.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Why Me? - Donald E. Westlake


    1982; 240 pages.  Book #5 (out of 14) in the Dortmunder” series (plus 11 other short stories, according to Wikipedia).  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime Fiction; Humorous Crime.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The Byzantine Fire is a huge ruby, worth a quarter million dollars as a gemstone, and even more for its historical value.  At Kennedy Airport, the US was about to hand it over to Turkish officials as a goodwill gesture amid tight security, accompanied a couple of NYPD’s finest, when a team of commandos, speaking Greek, up and robbed them of it.

    Needless to say, this very much embarrassed and angered the Americans and the Turks, to say nothing of the New York City Police Department.  But wouldn’t you know it, someone in turn robbed the robbers of this precious jewel.  Now all sorts of others are enraged – Greeks, Armenians, Lebanese, Bulgarians, a bunch of religious zealots, and even the NYC criminal element when the cops started putting the heat on them because of the heist.

    Whoever stole it from the Greek thieves will find the Byzantine Fire impossible to fence, and will be lucky if he/she/they survive at all as soon as they show it.  Who would do such a stupid, suicidal thing?

    Well, they don’t call this the Dortmunder series for nothing.

What’s To Like...
    Why Me? is book 5 in Donald E. Westlake’s immensely popular “Dortmunder” series, which chronicles the heists perpetrated by the inept, yet lovable, and ultimately successful light-fingered thief, John Dortmunder.  I’ve read five other books in the series, but four of them are from late in the series, so this one was kind of a treat for me.  Most of John’s “gang” have only slight roles, with the exception of Andy Kelp.  And “Tiny” Bulcher, is more of a threat than an ally here, which was an unusual twist.

    Why Me? was published in 1982, and it was kind of weird to see Dortmunder struggling with his first encounter with someone’s (landline) telephone hooked to an answering machine.  I remember those days; they are thankfully long gone.

    The chapters are short – 46 of them covering 240 pages, so you can always find a good place to stop.  The pacing is good; there are no slow spots.  There’s a bunch of cussing; I don’t recall as much in the later books in the series, but it fit in with the tone of the story.  However, the use of the N-word did disturb me, as well as several other ethnic slurs.  I recognize that at one time these were acceptable in a book (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath uses the N-word a number of times), but it grates on my reading nerves, and isn’t necessary nowadays.

    What I did like were the various intellectual debates among the patrons of the O.J. Bar and Grill; those were simply hilarious.  And of course, Donald Westlake’s wit is here in abundance, which is always a treat.  This is a standalone novel, as are all the Dortmunder tales.  I am not reading them in order, and I don’t feel like I’m missing much.

Excerpts...
    “But the main problem right now, “ Cabot said, “aside from the loss of the ring itself, of course, is all the foreign gunmen running around New York, hunting the ring and one another.  This theft is enough of an international incident as it is; Washington would be very displeased if New York were turned into another Beirut, with shooting in the streets.”
    “New York would be displeased, too,” Freedly said.  (loc. 1034)

   “It was circumstantial evidence.”
    “Don’t tell me about circumstantial evidence,” O’Hara said.  “I did a nickel-dime once for hitting a lumberyard safe, and all they had on me was sawdust in my cuffs.”
    “That’s terrible,” Kelp said.  “Where’d they nab you?”
    “In the lumberyard office.”  (loc. 3570)

Kindle Details...
    The Flying Sorcerers sells for $7.99 at Amazon, although I got my copy for free as a library loan.  The other books in the “Dortmunder” series are in the price range of $6.99-$9.99.  Donald E. Westlake also has a bunch more “hard-boiled” crime-mystery  e-books available.  They go for $4.60-$12.99.

 “Valuable things get stolen, am I right?  That’s what they’re for.”  (loc. 755)
    Let’s be frank, Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books are formulaic.  Dortmunder acquires some larcenous loot, sometimes by accident (such as is the case here), more often via some hare-brained but effective scheme he cooks up.  Mayhem ensues, and somehow karma prevails.  The ill-gotten gains are lost to Dortmunder,  but either returned to their rightful owner or given over to some charitable cause.

    Why Me? is no exception to this, and that’s okay by me.  After reading 6 of the 14 books in the series, I’m still not burnt out on it.  FWIW. I’ve read several of Donald Westlake’s “non-Dortmunder” books and have enjoyed them almost as much.  I have not, however, read any of his serious-&-gritty detective stories.

    8 Stars.    It’s a shame Donald Westlake passed away in 2008 after a prolific, nearly writing career spanning nearly 50 years.  Sadly, no one has picked up the mantle and continued the Dortmunder series.  I, for one, would welcome it.