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.

    “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.”
    “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.

    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.).

    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)

    “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.).

    “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.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Drunken Botanist - Amy Stewart

   2013; 400 pages.  Full Title : The Drunken Botanist – The Plants That The World’s Greatest Drinks.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Reference, Science, Chemistry, Booze, Botany.  Laurels : NY Times Bestseller, Amazon Best Book of the Month (March 2013); Winner, International Association of Culinary Professionals Judge’s Award (2014).  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Hey, I’ve got a great idea.  Let’s make our own booze!  I don’t care if it’s beer, wine, or whatever kind of hard liquor that floats your boat.  We can customize it to make it a truly unique microbrew.

    Of course, we will have to learn how to make it.  Grab some grapes or something and ferment them, or distill them, or whatever it takes create to a concoction that'll give you a buzz when you drink it.

    Hmm.  I wonder where you go to find out how to produce your own hooch.  Hey, I bet any book that’s titled “The Drunken Botanist” will give us some great tips.

What’s To Like...
    I liked the way Amy Stewart structured The Drunken Botanist.  The sections address topics in descending order of importance, and also kinda chronological.  You make the alcohol first, throw in additives to suit to taste, then adorn your creation with garnishes or mixers.  A brief outline:

Part A : Apertif (1%)
    Author’s Introduction.   
Part B : About The Recipes (2%)
    Tips about choosing glasses, ice, tonic water, etc.
Part 1 : Fermentation & Distillation (2%)
    “The Classics” (from Agave to Wheat)
    “Strange Brews” (from Bananas to Tamarind)
Part 2 : Additives (31%)
    Herbs & Spices, Flowers, Trees, Fruit, Nuts & Seeds
Part 3 : Mixers and Garnishes (65%)
    Herbs, Flowers, Trees, Berries & Vines, Fruits & Vegetables
Part C : Digestif
    Author’s Afterword.

    There’s a drawing included for each plant being spotlighted, and the pictures are all smoothly expandable.  Some of the subsections included are: “Bugs in Booze” (a guide to the critters that might infest those plants); “Grow Your Own” (tips on how to best ‘start from scratch’ when making ingredients yourself), and a slew of drink recipes that will appeal to the bartender in you.

    Amy Stewart also warns the reader of poisonous lookalike plants, should you be tempted to “pick your own”, and cautions you about crazy ideas such as importing some of the cited substances that happen to be illegal here.  She also sprinkles all sorts of historical trivia throughout the book, such as George Washington being the dominant force in the rye whiskey making market in early America, wine making that started as early as 6000 years ago, and the fascinating story of quinine.  A nice added feature is: if you want to look up something, there is a huge Index section at the back of the e-book.  Seriously.  It goes from 72% to 100% Kindle.

    Several of the anecdotal topics resonated with me personally.  Caramel coloring is mentioned as an additive in beer and soda.  My company supplied one of the reactants in this process for many years.  Pennsylvania Dutch country, which is where I grew up, is cited for loving its sarsaparilla.  The amygdalin cited in the apricots section is something I was once hired to develop a process for.  And I laughed at the mention of Theobroma; it played a key role in a book I read recently (reviewed here), and I thought at the time it was a figment of Kage Baker’s imagination.

    Around the world, it seems, there is not a tree or shrub or delicate wildflower that has not been harvested, brewed, and bottled.  Every advance in botanical exploration or horticultural science brought with it a corresponding uptick in the quality of our spirituous liquors.  Drunken botanists?  Given the role they play in creating the world’s great drinks, it’s a wonder there are any sober botanists at all.  (loc. 103)

1 plane ticket to Paris
1 summer afternoon
1 sidewalk café
    Upon arrival in Paris, locate a café that appears to be frequented by actual Parisians.  Secure a seat and order un pastis, s’il vous plaît.  If it is served neat with a jug of cold water, you are expected to mix it yourself, drizzling the water in until you have achieved a satisfactory ratio – usually 3 to 5 parts water to 1 part pastis.  (loc. 2709)

Kindle Details…
    The e-book version of The Drunken Botanist sells for $9.15 at Amazon.  There are two other books in this series, Wicked Plants and Wicked Bugs, which go for $9.99 each.  Both of them await me on my Kindle.  Amy Stewart has written a number of other e-books, including a 3-volume “Kopp Sisters” mystery series.  Those sell for $9.99-$14.99 apiece.

 Next time you pull a piece of silk from between your teeth while you’re eating a fresh ear of corn, remember that you’ve just spat out a fallopian tube.  (loc. 827 )
    The quibbles are minor.  There are a couple links to pages, but since the e-book isn’t formatted to display page numbers, you find yourself at an unknown location when you use the link.

    Also, reading the “mixers and garnishes” sections gets a little bit tedious in spots, when they all start to sound the same.  I think Amy Stewart realized that though, and covers a lot of the most humdrum subsections via mercifully concise data tables.

    But let's not dwell on the minor minuses.  The Drunken Botanist is a fascinating read, and I’m looking forward to exploring the other two books in the series.  We’ll close this review with a quick trivia question to tickle your fancy:

    What is the oldest domesticated living organism?  Answer in the comments section.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you love partaking of mixed drinks and/or beer.  My alcoholic taste buds confine themselves to wine, which means a lot of the sections in The Drunken Botanist weren’t personally relevant.