Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted - Harry Harrison

   1987; 262 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Humor & Satire.  Book #2 (in the series timeline) or Book #7 (in the order they were written) in the 12-book Stainless Steel Rat series.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    This is the all-too-soon end for young Jimmy diGriz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat.  He’s hanging by his fingertips at the top of an elevator shaft, with a fall of more than a kilometer (several hundred stories’ worth) in his immediate future, as soon as the strength in his fingers gives way.

    At least he’ll die doing what he’s best at – escaping.  In this case, it’s from a high-security prison after the nefarious Captain Garth double-crossed him.  And even if Jim somehow manages to survive his present predicament, he’d be alone and penniless on a foreign planet.

    Well, suck it up, diGriz.  You’re the Stainless Steel Rat, and if you’re worthy of your reputation, however short-lived it may be, you’ll think of something.

    Before you get splattered all over the roof of that elevator car a long, long way below.

What’s To Like...
    The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted is the second book (timeline-wise) in Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series.  The storyline picks up almost immediately after Book One (reviewed here), with our anti-hero protagonist, Jimmy diGriz, escaping from his life-or-death situation (Oh, come on now, this isn’t a spoiler.  He’s the hero of the series.) and his subsequent escapades, including the titular predicament of being drafted.

    I liked the world-building and the wit.  The technology may be 25th-century – including such critter gizmos like spyrats, communications moths, and radio crows – but humanity has not evolved a whit.  There are still wars and invasions, drill sergeants and double-dealers, and new “isms” looking for converts.

    I chuckled at some of the details Harry Harrison weaves into the story.  There’s “kewarghen” (think ‘pot’) and uppers., and a bit of cross-dressing as well.  I liked the use of a made-up, all-purpose cussword, “cagal”.  It gets the idea across without offending the more prudish readers.  Authors of science-fiction and fantasy should really adapt this literary device.  I also liked Harrison’s nod to Esperanto, the best candidate for a universal language, and the least-likely to become so.

    Beneath all the fun and thrills, Harry Harrison offers his opinions on a couple more-serious topics.  The whole idea of the draft is examined, which young‘uns might have trouble relating to in this day of a volunteer army here in the US.  But us old geezers remember it all too well.  There are also some interesting insights concerning spiritual fads.  In this case, the new rage is something “Individual Mutualism”.

    The story is told in the first-person POV (the Stainless Steel Rat’s).  There are 31 chapters covering 262 pages, so there’s always a good place to stop for the night.  This is a self-contained story, besides being part of the series.  I had mixed feelings about the ending.  On one hand, a bloodless, planetary invasion strained the limits of believability for me.  OTOH, I think this was deliberate on Harry Harrison’s part, and hats off to him for even trying to pull it off.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Chuntering (v.) : muttering or grumbling incessantly in a meaningless fashion.  A Britishism.
Others : Eructation (n.); Fug (n.); Insufflated (v.).

    “You entered this room as fun-loving youths.  You will leave it as dedicated soldiers.  You will now be sworn in as loyal members of the army.  Raise your right hands and repeat after me…”
    “I don’t want to!”
    “You have that choice,” the officer said grimly.  “This is a free country and you are all volunteers.  You may take the oath.  Or if you choose not to, which is your right, you may leave by the small door behind me which leads to the federal prison where you will begin your thirty-year sentence for neglect of democratic duties.”
    “My hand’s up,” the same voice wailed.   (pg. 66)

    I turned to thank Neebe, the gorgeous brown-limbed redhead who was president of the cycling club, but she was just passing the club flag to her second-in-command.  Then she wheeled her bike toward me, smiling a smile that melted my bike handles.
    “May I be very forward, offworlder James deGriz, and force my presence upon you?  You have to but say no and I will go.”
    “Glug …!”
    “I assume that means yes.”  (pg. 230)

 I am.  Therefore I think.”  (pg. 168)
     There were a couple of negatives, albeit it, minor ones.

    The pacing felt slow for the first half of The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, although it picks up nicely in the second.  Even so, it slowed down again, for a bit, when the tenets of Individual Mutualism were expounded upon.

    Then there was Bibs.  She gets introduced early in the story, is fully developed, then disappears, never to return again.  Finally, the whole “rising through the ranks” shtick, while droll, was just too unbelievable for me.

   But I quibble.  Overall, this was still a good read, although not quite on a par with its predecessor, The Stainless Steel Rat Is Born.  I have three other books of the series sitting on my TBR shelf, as well as Harry Harrison’s West of Eden, so we shall see which of the two HH books I’ve read so far is representative of the quality of his writing.

    7 Stars.  I moved this book to the top of my reading list because of Andy Wallace, author of Origins, and reviewed here, cites it as the inspiration for his book.  High praise, indeed; so don’t take my review as the final word on The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Mycroft Holmes - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

   2015; 336 pages.  Book One (out of 2, if you include comics) of the “Mycroft Holmes” series.  New Author? : Yes and Yes.  Genre : British Detectives; Thriller; Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Full disclosure.  We had a 2-volume “Complete Tales of Sherlock Holmes” on the family bookshelf when I was a kid, and I read those stories – both the long ones and the short ones – over and over again.  My favorite character was neither the infallible Sherlock Holmes nor the unflappable Doctor Watson.

    Instead, it was Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft Holmes.  He was a bit character.  I would have said he only appeared in two stories, but Wikipedia says it was four, and I trust Wiki over my own memory on this.

    Mycroft was even more brilliant and discerning than Sherlock.  But he had no ambition to get out of his chair and go investigate and prove his hypotheses, since, well, he was supremely confident that he was correct.  Which vexed his younger brother greatly.

    I consider Mycroft to be a worthy role model.

What’s To Like...
    Mycroft Holmes is the debut fiction novel by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with the help of a co-author, Anna Waterhouse.  I don’t think this is merely a crass case of name-dropping.  Kareem had already penned a number of non-fiction works, mostly about his basketball career and his black heritage.  The man can write.

    I liked that Mycroft is not a clone of Sherlock, and I liked that the storyline was not a cheap imitation of an Arthur Conan Doyle tale.  There is certainly a crime to be solved – someone is killing children on Trinidad for no rational reason.  But overall, this is more of a thriller story than a murder-mystery.

    The settings are kewl – 1870, first in London (to tie in to the Sherlock Holmes timeline), then on a slow boat to the Caribbean, and finally on Trinidad and its surrounding islands.  It is obvious that the book was well-researched, with lots of details given about the settings, and without sounding like an info dump.  I enjoyed learning about the “Merikens” on Trinidad, and presume this was factual, and chuckled at the mention of “shoofly pie”.  Yum yum!

    There are 49 chapters, which cover 336 pages, so you can always find a convenient place to stop for the night.  There’s a smidgen of Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, and Russian thrown into the text, and I liked that.  You’ll also learn to fear the douen (the lost souls of dead children) and the lougarou (vampire mosquitoes).  There is some mild cussing (“piss” and “shit”), and of course, some violence.  This should be expected when reading a thriller.  The “sparring sessions” between Mycroft and Sherlock (both the physical and the verbal ones) are a complete delight.  Overall, this was a fast and easy read.

    Beyond all the thrills and spills and Holmesian detecting, there are some serious topics woven into the plotline.  Kareem is, of course, black, and a practicing Muslim as well.  So there are sub-themes of racial and religious tolerance here, something you won’t find in Conan Doyle’s stories, nor in the real world of 1870 England and its Caribbean colonies.

Kewlest New Word...
Jumbie Beads (n.) : West Indian trees which have seeds that are often made into a bracelet, and which, when ground up, are quite toxic.
Others : Crepuscular (adj.); Ideologue (n.); Chatelaine (n.)

    “I am quite unsettled that I am once again forced to ask this question,” he said, “but what on earth was that about?”
    “I have much to tell you,” Holmes replied with a smile.  “But first, what do you infer?”
    “Aside from the fact that you can be an insufferable ass?” Douglas shot back.
    “That aside, yes,” Holmes replied equitably, folding his thumbs together, his index fingers tapping against each other.  (loc. 1813)

   “Perhaps you should have mentioned sooner the folly of this venture,” Little Huan said with a smile.
    Holmes smiled back.  It was the most he had ever heard the young man say in one breath, and he was gratified to know the lad had humor, as well as strength.
    “The foolish will tread where the wise will not,” Holmes replied.  “If we waited for the wisdom of this venture, Douglas and I would still be in London.”
    “To fools, then!” Little Huan exclaimed.
    “To fools!” the others declared(loc. 3555)

Kindle Details...
    Mycroft Holmes sells for $8.99 at Amazon.  There is a sequel, of sorts, titled Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook, but it is in comic book omnibus format.  It sells for $9.99.  As mentioned above, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written another dozen or so books, mostly non-fiction, and quite often with co-authors.  His non-fiction books are mostly about his basketball experiences and about black heritage.  The e-book versions of these books are in the $4.17-$14.99 price range.

“My dear, you have lived in London four long years – does the Thames still charm you?”  (loc. 612)
    The quibbles are minor.

    The action starts immediately in the Prologue, but when the scene then shifts to England, things slow down markedly as the authors take great pains to describe the details of Victorian London.  Admittedly, those details are impressive, but if you’re already familiar with the locale (i.e., if you’ve already read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series), then things can get a bit tedious.

    Ditto for the voyage across the Atlantic.  Although we (and Mycroft) pick up some important clues along the way, we also spend a lot of time chitchatting away the hours and trying to avoid being seasick.  At times, the story bordered on being “TMD(“too many details).

    But I pick at nits.  Mycroft Holmes is a literary delight, and probably the best Sherlock Holmes spin-off I’ve read since the copyright expired on Conan Doyle’s characters, and every Tom, Dick, and Laurie started writing mediocre take-offs of that fantastic series, and which pale in comparison to the original.

    8 Stars.  I get the impression that Kareem was not totally satisfied with Mycroft Holmes, since the only sequel(s) are in comic book format.  I’m not all that big on graphic novels (although I enjoyed both Watchmen and a couple of the Girl Genius ones), so unless Kareem returns to writing full-length fiction novels, this is probably the first and last of his books that I'll end up reading.

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.

    “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.)

    “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…