Thursday, March 29, 2018

Club Dead - Charlaine Harris


   2003; 275 pages.  Book 3 (out of 13) of the “Sookie Stackhouse series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Vampires; Paranormal Thriller; Gothic Romance.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    The vampire Bill Compton has gone missing in action!  He’s Sookie Stackhouse’s sometimes boyfriend, sometimes lover and full-time source of anxiety and frustration, and it goes without saying that Sookie’s upset.

    Of course, the reason why she’s upset is a little complicated.  The last time he was with her, Bill told Sookie he had to do a top-secret project for the (Vampire) Queen of Louisiana.  Hush-hush, very dangerous, and if anything happens to me, please hide my computer and its hard drive.

    But it turns out that Bill isn’t in Louisiana, he disappeared while in Mississippi.  And the word on the street (okay, in the vampire bars) is that he’s being held captive by the local bloodsuckers.  Oh yeah, and those local vamps include his ex-lover, Lorena, with whom he had a long and passionate relationship.  Could it be that Bill was in the process of dumping Sookie to rekindle a relationship with Lorena?

    Now you know why Sookie’s as mad as ...well... a jilted lover.

What’s To Like...
    Club Dead is the third installment  in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and broadens the setting a bit more.  The first two books were set in Louisiana and Texas, respectively; here Sookie is off to adventure and mayhem in Mississippi.  We get to visit a new vampire nightclub, ‘Jospehine’s’, also known as the titular ‘Club Dead’, and learn that vampire royalty: kings and queens, rule the undead territories we mortals know as our 50 states.

    The storyline has the usual structure:  Sookie goes on a quest on behalf of the vampires; she gets beat up a lot and has relationship issues with Bill; the action speeds up and the good guys, girls, and ghouls eventually kick undead ass.

    A character from Book One is back, “Bubba”, and he’s one of my favorites.  There are a bunch of Mississippi undead to meet as well.  Vampires are still the most prevalent beasties we run across, but we learn a lot more about the various shapeshifters, generically called “Weres”, of which the Werewolves are the dominant type.  We also cross paths with a goblin, and I think that's a new beast for the series.  It’s also hinted that witches will make an appearance soon.

    The vampire Eric plays a larger-than-usual role here, but most of the other Louisiana characters – the patrons and workers at Merlotte’s Bar, Sookie’s brother, and the Bon Temps locals – are limited to cameo appearances.  I enjoyed the brief nod to Samhain, and I’d still like to take at least one flight on Anubis Airlines.

    Sookie gets her first mani-pedi, as well as her first killing.  There’s some sex and lots of cussing, but that’s the norm for this series.  The ending is adequate, but not spectacular.  Instead of a tension-built climax, it felt to me like it was rushed, and then coasted along another 50 pages or so afterward.  A major thread remained unresolved (Bill’s mission for the vampire queen of Louisiana) although this could also be him BS-ing Sookie.  Either way, the main plotline, Bill’s abduction, is tied up completely, and Club Dead is both a standalone tale, as well as part of a series.

Kewlest New Word…
Virago (n.) : a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman.

Excerpts...
    “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” I told myself.  That had been Gran’s favorite Bible quotation.  When I was about nine, I’d asked her to explain that to me, and she’d said, “Don’t go looking for trouble; it’s already looking for you.”  (loc. 2655)

   “Did this Alcide kill him?”  Bill looked down at me, reconsidered.  “Or Sookie?”
    “He says no.  They found the corpse in the closet of Alcide’s apartment, and they hatched a plan to hide his remains.”  Eric sounded like that had been kind of cute of us.
    “My Sookie hid a corpse?”
    “I don’t think you can be too sure about that possessive pronoun.”
     “Where did you learn that term, Northman?”
    “I took ‘English as a Second Language’ at a community college in the seventies.”   (loc. 3332)

Kindle Details...
    Club Dead sells for $7.99 at Amazon.  The rest of the books in the 13-volume series also go for $7.99, except for Book 1, Dead Until Dark, which is only $2.99.  Charlaine Harris has several other series started, and their books range in price from $2.99 to $13.99.

 “This Blood’s For You.”  (loc. 440)
    I had some quibbles.  For me, the book started out slow, although in fairness, that may have been a necessary evil as Charlaine Harris introduces a slew of the recurring characters to any reader that might be making Club Dead their first book in the series.  However, since most of these meet-&-greets play no part in the story, this was just lag time for me.  Even the Book Two baddies, the Brotherhood of the Sun, appear briefly later on, presumably for the same reason.   Still, once the introductions are over, around a quarter of the way through the book, the pace picks up nicely, and its lots of thrills and kills thereafter.

   A more significant problem was the storyline as a whole, which felt disjointed to me.  It was never really made clear (at least to me) why Bill was kidnapped.  Nor, as already mentioned, was it clear whether he was actually on a secret mission for the queen.  Busting Bill out of captivity seemed way too easy, and the subsequent “chase” seemed contrived and way too speedily put into action by the baddies.  All in all, the whole storyline felt formulaic.

    True, Bill has a computer program that would be useful to all sorts of factions.  But is it worth engaging in kidnapping and torturing, and risking a war with various other undead for?  It didn’t seem so to me.

    Maybe the author had a deadline to meet, or maybe my brain was just too tired or dense to see the answers to my quibbles.  I've read the first three books in this series, all in the past six months.  Maybe I'm a tad bit burnt out on it.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 star if this is your first Sookie Stackhouse book.  You'll find it a fascinating series.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Shakespeare: The World As Stage - Bill Bryson


   2007; 197 pages (plus ‘Extras’).  Full Title : Shakespeare: The World As Stage.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Biography; History; Non-Fiction; Authors.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    “Hey, how much do you know about the life of William Shakespeare?”

    “Oh, lots!  He wrote a bunch of plays that we were forced to read, one per year, in high school English.  He lived in Stratford-on-Avon.  Or maybe London.  Hmm.  Or maybe both places.  I can picture his face – a high forehead with, bald on top, and dark hair on the sides.”

    “Not bad.  Anything else?”
  
    “Yeah, his wife’s name was Anne Hathaway.  They were deeply in love, just read his sonnets.  And, hey, I can even spell his name correctly: S – H – A – K – E – S – P – E – A – R – E.”  That’s about it.  Pretty good, huh?”

    "It is!  But what if I told you there are only three “originals” of Shakespeare's face, all done years after his death, and all very questionable in accuracy?  Or that Shakespeare only bequeathed his wife the “second-best bed” from their home?  Or that Shakespeare spelled his name all sorts of ways, but never the way we spell it today?  Or that lots of self-titled scholars down through the centuries have claimed he never existed, and that those plays you list were actually written by someone else?”

    “Hmm.  Then I guess I better go read a good biography of Shakespeare, to find out what the truth is.  Do you happen to know of any?”

    "Funny you should ask..."

What’s To Like...
    Shakespeare: The World as Stage is part of a biography series called “Eminent Lives”; more on this later.  Bill Bryson is of course a writer who could make a 250-page book on watching paint dry seem interesting.  That serves him well here, because the truth is, very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, which makes writing his life story quite the challenge.  Bryson solves this by writing a book focused as much on describing life in England in the late 1500’s/early 1600’s as on Shakespeare’s personal life.  He succeeds eminently.

    The book is divided into 9 chapters:

1.  In Search of William Shakespeare.
        How little we know about him, including what he looked like.
2.  The Early Years 1564-1585
        Shakespeare’s marriage and his three kids.  Plus how easily you could die.
3.  The Lost Years 1585-1592.
        Shakespeare goes to London.  Was he a closet Catholic?
4.  In London.
        The Golden Age of Theaters in England.  Talk about good timing!
5. The Plays.
        Which ones came first.  His writing strengths and weaknesses.
        New Words, New phrases, New literary devices.
        What lines and words he stole.
6. Years of Fame  1596-1603.
        Shakespeare gets rich and famous.  His son dies.
        He writes his best plays – Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.
7. The Reign of King James  1603-1616.
        His sonnets and later plays.
        His brother and mother die.
8. Death.
        Died in April, 1616.
        His family line dies out within a couple generations.
        Theaters die out too, thanks to the Puritans.
        Shakespeare’s reputation down through the centuries.
9. Claimants.
        Was there really a William Shakespeare?
        Identities of the proposed “pretenders”.

    Bill Bryson is best known for his travelogue tales, but I’m also impressed with his ability to vividly describe historical times (see here *** for an example).  The way he paints England in Shakespeare’s time is breathtaking.  Plague and religious strife were rampant.  Tobacco, a recent import from the New World, was prescribed for all sorts of health ailments.  Guy Fawkes and others plotted to blow up Parliament.  Uneasy lay the head that wore the crown.

    It sucked to be poor, and most people were.  Yet somehow, they had time and money for the theater, which had only recently sprung into existence.  And what a joy it was to go to, or even work in the theater!  James Burbage was the leading actor of the day, and Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were other noted London playwrights of the day.   There wasn’t a better time for Shakespeare to show up with pen in hand and plays to write.

    The literary parts of the book are as fantastic as the history portions.  Bill Bryson is neither jealous nor in awe of Shakespeare, both the man and the playwright, and does does his best with the very limited amount of direct knowledge we have about Shakespeare.  When he’s forced to rely on conjecture, he lets the reader know.  He’s not afraid to tackle subjects such as: Was Shakespeare Catholic?  Was Shakespeare gay?  Did he plagiarize lines from other people’s works?  Was Shakespeare even real?

    The quibbles are minor.  There are a bunch of “extras” at the back of the book: a bibliography, acknowledgements, About the Author, etc.  But all of it seemed "skippable".  There is no such thing as a boring Bill Bryson book, but I did hit one slow spot when he went into length about the reliability of other biographers’ versions of  William Shakespeare’s life.  And at 197 pages, the book was over way too quickly.   

    We’ll close this section by offering three trivia teasers about the Bard of Avon.  Answers are in the Comments section.
    a. How many new words did Shakespeare add to the English language?
    b. How many different ways did Shakespeare use to spell his name?
    c. How many different ways has his name been spelled (in English only) by others?

Kewlest New Word…
Anatopism (n.) : something that is out of place.  (e.g.: an outrigger canoe in Madrid)
Others : Prolix (adj.); Lexeme (n.); Insuperable (adj.); Ambit (n.); Amanuensis (n.).


Excerpts...
    This disdain for female actors was a Northern European tradition.  In Spain, France, and Italy, women were played by women – a fact that astonished British travelers, who seem often to have been genuinely surprised to find that women could play women as competently onstage as in life.  Shakespeare got maximum effect from the gender confusion by constantly having his female characters – Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night – disguise themselves as boys, creating the satisfyingly dizzying situation of a boy playing a woman playing a boy.  (loc. 943)

    Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, critical, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including countless).  Where would we be without them?  (…)
    (M)any of them failed to take hold.  Undeaf, untent, and unhappy (as a verb), exsufflicate, bepray, and insultment were among those that were scarcely heard again.  (loc. 1393)

Kindle Details...
    Shakespeare: The World as Stage sells for $8.24 at Amazon, which is not bad for a well-known author like Bill Bryson.  There are a slew of Bryson's books available for your Kindle, ranging in price from $7.99 to $13.99.

 O paradox! black is the badge of hell, the hue of dungeons and the school of night.  (loc. 1279, from “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, and considered one of the most unfathomable lines from a Shakespeare play)
    As mentioned earlier, Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage is part of something called the Eminent Lives series.  There apparently are 12 books in the series, at least at the time Bryson's contribution was published as an e-book.

    All the books are deliberately short – 200-250 pages or so.  Each biography is written by an author you don’t ordinarily associate with this genre.  I gather the intent of the series is to write biographies for people who don’t normally read biographies.  I fall into that category.

    The 12 books in the series are listed in the back of Shakespeare: The World As Stage.  Some are about people you’d expect: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Beethoven, etc.  Some are about people I've never, or barely even heard of: George Balanchine, Frances Crick, Alexis de Tocqueville.  Some are about people that pique my interest: Muhammad, Machiavelli, Caravaggio.  Each is written by a different author.

    Most of these books are about 250 pages long, and the price range seems to be $9-$15.  That’s a bit rich for my reading tastes, so here’s hoping they show up at one of the discounted e-books sites at some point in the future.  Shakespeare did.

    9½ Stars.  Highly recommended, especially if you're bananas about Bryson, and/or don't normally read biographies.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Doughnut - Tom Holt


   2011; 344 pages.  Book 1 (out of 4) in Tom Holt’s (completed) Doughnut series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; British Humor, Multiverses.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Decimal points are such small things.  A mere dot on the spreadsheet.  A period.  A ‘full stop', if you happen to be British.  So easily overlooked.

    Theo Bernstein was supposed to move the decimal point one place to the right.  Instead, he moved it one place to the left.  If he was an accountant, that would probably cost somebody a few dollars.  Or give somebody a few bucks extra.

    But Theo operates the VVLHC.  That stands for “Very Very Large Hadron Collider”.  He was hoping to generate and detect some new subatomic particle.  Instead he generated an explosion.  Which wiped out an entire mountain in Switzerland.  Along with the VVLHC.  His mistake was detected by all sorts of people.

   No VVLHC means Theo Bernstein no longer has a job.  And you know what they say:

    “The world is an unfair place.  Blow up just one multi-billion-dollar research facility, and suddenly nobody wants to be your friend.”

What’s To Like...
    Doughnut is chronologically the first book in Tom Holt’s 4-volume “YouSpace” series, aka the “Doughnut” series.  I’ve read the other three books and this one follows the standard format.  Theo, our hapless protagonist, finds himself at a new job, with a bunch of bizarre coworkers and strange, nonsensical rules to follow.  The first half of the book is utter mayhem, and the second half of it works slowly but diligently to straighten things out.

    Doughnut is divided into five sections, with some imaginative titles such as “Doughnut Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “One Empty San Miguel Bottle To Bring Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them”.   There are no chapters, but you can always find a good place to stop: they’re signaled with a cute little doughnut icon.

    The main motif of both this book and this series is Tom Holt having fun with Quantum Physics, with particular emphasis on Multiverses.  The titular doughnut is explained on page 78, although I was already familiar with it, since I read the series out-of-order.   I chuckled at the VVLHC, as well as the “Rope Theory”, a playful poke at Stephen Hawking’s “String Theory”, which seems hauntingly timely, since Hawking just passed away last week.  If you’re a lover of calculus, you’ll enjoy the Ultimate Doomsday Equation, which poor Theo has to solve on page 35.

    Most of the critters to meet are cartoon characters.  Yes, a goblin makes a cameo appearance early on, and a talking bird shows up a short time later.  But the real fun starts when one of the multiverses is inhabited by Disney characters with decidedly unfriendly attitudes.  Ditto for the beasties from A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh stories.  Still, Theoretical Quantum Physics dictates that when there are an infinite number of parallel universes, at least one of them will feature Minnie Mouse looking for a fight and packing an automatic rifle.

    As always, there is an abundance of dry humor and British wit.  Indeed, this is the main reason to read any Tom Holt book.  The ending has a couple of twists and adequately addresses all the bizarre things that happen to Theo.  Doughnut is a standalone novel, as well as being part of a mini-series.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Secateurs (n.) : a pair of pruning clippers for use with one hand.  (a Britishism)
Others : Whinneting (v., a made-up word).

Excerpts...
    In the beginning was the Word.
    Hardly likely, is it?  In order for it to be a word, it would’ve had to belong to a language; otherwise it’d just have been a random, meaningless noise – zwwgmf, prblwbl, bweeeg.   You can’t have a one-word language; words need context.  Therefore, of all the things that could possibly exist in isolation at the Beginning, a word is the least plausible.  All right, back-burnerise the Word for now, let’s try something else.  (pg. 199)

    He’d never really thought about death before, except in a vague, objective kind of way.  He was aware that it existed, but so did Omsk; both of them were distant, irrelevant and not particularly attractive, and he had no intention of visiting either of them.  The thought that he might die alone, pointlessly, unnoticed, unaided and quite possibly at the paws of a viciously predatory cartoon character would never have occurred to him, and he was entirely unprepared to deal with it.  (pg. 207)
  
 Sucrofens, ergo est; it’s sticky; therefore it exists.  (pg. 84)
    I enjoyed Doughnut, although I admit that reading Tom Holt books is an acquired taste.  You have to be ready for a convoluted plotline, which meanders hither, thither, and yon, often seemingly without any literary control by the author.  You can rest assured that Tom Holt will eventually pull it all together, but the fun in each story is in seeing how long it takes him to do so.

        Holt's books also invariably contain some cusswords, which may seem an awkward fit with all the tomfoolery and satire going on.  But somehow, it always works.  Doughnut is no exception, and bear in mind that the cussing in sot excessive.

    Finally, it should be noted that Tom Holt writes in English, not American.  So you will meet words and spellings like colour, realise, Selloptape, maths, whisky, sceptic, and storeys.  This may be off-putting to some (Spellcheck certainly doesn’t like it), but I find novels written in 'English' to be fascinating.

    8 Stars.  There is no such thing as a poor Tom Holt book, although my favorite ones are from his earlier years, when he uses themes from myths and legends, such as the ones reviewed here and here .  All his works are highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin


   1974; 387 pages.  Full Title (in the original version) : The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.  New Author? : Yes.  Laurels : Locus Award – Best Novel (1975, won); Nebula Award – Best Novel (1974, won); Hugo Award (1975, won); John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1975, nominated).  Genre : Utopian Fiction; Science Fiction; Political Science; Quantum Physics Fiction; Middlebrow.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    There’s little love between the planets Urras and Anarres, despite the fact that they serve as each other’s moon.  It’s been that way for more than a century, after a group of dissenters left Urras to resettle on Anarres and set up a Anarcho-Utopian society.  Since then, the two worlds have been almost completely isolated from each other.

    There are some exceptions.  One spaceport on Anarres, Abbenay, allows Urrasti freighters to dock several times a year, and goods are exchanged.  Anarres is a barren world and needs manufactured goods; Urras is a lush, but heavily resource-exploited world and needs minerals and other raw materials.  In addition, there is limited communication by radio.

      So it is a truly historic and unprecedented event when Urras agrees to allow Shevek, an Anarresti “rebel”, to come visit their world.  Of course, the fact that he’s also a renowned physicist who can work with their scientists to develop the next leap in Quantum Physics figures into their decision.

  But beware, Shevek.  You think that while you’re there, you’ll be able to extol the virtues of Anarchism to all sorts of people.  Perhaps the government officials on Urras are planning to do the same sort of thing through you.

What’s To Like...
    The Dispossessed is a clever blend of three genres: Science Fiction, Political Science, and Quantum Physics.  The Poli-Sci angle was truly groundbreaking.  Ursula K. Le Guin contrasts the political ideal of Anarchy to that of Capitalism and Communism; the latter was still a dominant force back in 1974.  Utopian Fiction (not to be confused with its Dystopian cousin) had already been infused into Science Fiction, but it always was presented as an ideal.  Here, Ursula K. Le Guin presents a Utopia with its own set of warts and blemishes, a never-before-considered concept.

    The Dispossessed is the story of our protagonist, Shevek, but it is not told in a linear fashion.  More on this in a bit.  Shevek is an interesting character study – brilliant in some ways, incredibly na├»ve in others.  There are a bunch of his friends, family, and professional associates to meet and greet, and Kindle has a new feature called “Shelfari” which was a handy resource in determining which of these characters were important enough keep make notes about.

    The world-building is fantastic.  I loved the attention to the two languages, Iotic on Urras, and Pravic on Anarres.  Ursula Le Guin invents some words for these languages, but the important ones are footnoted.  I liked the epithets, such as “Propertarian”, “Profiteer”, “Egoizing”, and “Archist”, the latter being the opposite of “Anarchist”.  And I chuckled at the mention of Dr. Ainsetain, a physicist from long ago on Terra, whose Relativity theories are regarded now as quaint but outdated.

    The book is a primer on Anarchism.  I had only a rudimentary understanding of what that was about (Down with Government!), so it was enlightening to have it presented in a practical manner.  There’s a recurring motif of “walls”, which basically embody anything – physical or otherwise – that separates people from each other.  If you’re a fan of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, you’ll have no trouble with this idea.

    The boys “playing prison” early in the book is a particularly riveting event.  But there are also some lighter moments, such as Shevek “exploring a bathroom” when he first gets to Urras.  The Pravic language doesn’t recognize bodily functions as being dirty, nor does it view any words as “cussing”, so be prepared to be shocked a bit by some of the language here.

    I found The Dispossessed to be a slow read, but not a difficult one.  The chapters are fairly long – thirteen of them for 387 pages of text.  The ending is okay, but not spectacular.  This is a standalone novel, despite being set in the author’s “Hainish Cycle” world.

Kewlest New Word ...
Apocopations (n., plural) : words formed by removing the end of a longer word.  (Examples:  “street cred”; "bro"; "sis")

Kindle Details...
    The Dispossessed sells for $6.99 at Amazon.  Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific science fiction/fantasy writer, and her full-length novels are in the $5.99-$14.99 range for the Kindle versions.  She also wrote several short books for children, which are even cheaper.   

Excerpts...
    “The singular forms of the possessive pronoun in Pravic were used mostly for emphasis; idiom avoided them.  Little children might say “my mother,” but very soon they learned to say “the mother”.  Instead of “my hand hurts,” it was “the hand hurts me,” and so on; to say “this one is mine and that’s yours” in Pravic, one said, “I use this one and you use that.”  (loc. 870)

    “I used to want so badly to be different.  I wonder why?”
    “There’s a point, around age twenty,” Bedap said, “when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
    “Or at least accept them with resignation,” said Shevek.
    “Shev is on a resignation binge,” Takver said.  “It’s old age coming on.  It must be terrible to be thirty.”  (loc. 3661)

 “You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them.  You can only crush them by ignoring them.”  (loc. 2399)
    Despite all its awards and plaudits, I did not find The Dispossessed to be a compelling read.  I think this was because I was expecting a science fiction tale, filled with excitement and ET’s, and exotic worlds.  It isn’t.

    Shevek visits.  Shevek contemplates.  Shevek expounds upon the merits and challenges of Anarchism.  Shevek points out the shortcomings of both Capitalism and Communism.  At one point Shevek gives a speech at a demonstration.  Ho hum.

    I also found the Quantum Physics parts to be an awkward fit, although it has to be said that QP was in its infancy at the time Le Guin was writing this, and it has evolved significantly since then.

    The book’s structure was also a challenge.  It opens smack dab in the middle of the storyline.  The chapters then alternate between Shevek’s present situation on Urras and his past history on Anarres.  But the reader has to suss this out for himself.

    To be fair, there’s a handy Study Guide at the end of the book, which will help you make sure you don’t miss anything important.  Also, I consulted Wikipedia after finishing the first chapter in a confused state of mind, and it helped straighten things out considerably.

    So here's my advice.  Read The Dispossessed as a Political Science treatise, not as a tale of galactic adventure.  Skim over the Wikipedia entry beforehand; then make use of the Study Guide after each chapter.  You’ll enjoy the book a lot more if you do.

    7 Stars.  I am a fan of the main genres that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in: Science Fiction and Fantasy.  She was also an ardent Anarchist, which fascinates me.  I am at a loss to say why I haven’t read any of her books before this, particularly the Hainish Cycle and the Earthsea series.  She passed away recently (01/22/18) at the ripe old age of 88, so reading this book is kind of a small tribute on my part to her.  Two more of her books reside on my Kindle, including the first Earthsea novel, so I intend to read more of her stuff.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Guardian of the Red Butterfly - D.S. Cuellar


   2013; 294 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book 1 (out of 2, so far) in the “Guardian” series.  Genre : Action-Thriller; Martial Arts.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    The wonderful city of Portland, Oregon has not one, but two undergrounds.  There is a literal one, a labyrinth of passageways leading from various hotels and bars to the dockside on the Willamette River.  A long time ago, they were used to move cargo from ships to various establishments without having to deal with urban traffic.  Wikipedia has an article about this; you can find it here.

    Portland’s other underground is more figurative.  It refers to the clandestine and forced transport of human beings out from the city to waiting ships, to be used as slave labor.

    Sometimes the two undergrounds overlapped into one operation.  In the early days, able-bodied men were kidnapped and moved via these tunnels onto ships, and forced into grueling manual servitude.  This practice was nicknamed “shanghaiing”, hence the local name for the underground, the “Shanghai Tunnels”.

     Now a new, modern-day enterprise has sprung up.  Someone is using the Portland underground for sex trafficking, sneaking underage girls from the city to overseas destinations.  And the Shanghai Tunnels have inherited a new moniker because of this.  The perpetrators now call it “The Unheavenly City”.

    The Portland Police Department really needs to infiltrate this despicable operation and shut it down.  But how?

What’s To Like...
    The action in Guardian of the Red Butterfly starts immediately and never lets up.  I suspect D.S. Cuellar made a conscious to do this, and he succeeded nicely – simply put, there are no slow spots.  The writing style is story-driven; things are presented in a very straightforward manner, with sparse descriptions and little or no philosophical musing.  I call it the “Clive Cussler” approach.

    This is a “sex and thrills” story, so expect a lot of both, along with the concomitant cussing.  I liked the characters; even the bad guys were interesting.  There are 32 chapters covering the 294 pages, so there’s always a convenient place to stop for the night.   The formatting of the text is not justified, which bugged my OCD mind.  But it probably won’t bother most readers.

    The core idea for the novel is very good: sex trafficking and the toll it takes on its victims makes for a powerful theme.  I enjoyed learning about medieval Japanese culture – the geisha, samurai, and a pair of “companion” swords.  You’ll learn who the “guardian” is on page 75, and who the “Red Butterfly” is on page 208.  I chuckled at the cultural nicety of using two hands to present something politely to another person.  Years ago, I had to learn to do this when giving my business cards to customers on a week-long business trip in the Far East.

    Everything builds to a suitably tense climax.  There were some parts of it I had trouble visualizing, and a couple details strained my believability limits.  But I say that about Dirk Pitt novels too.  And oh yeah, I liked the cat!

    Guardian of the Red Butterfly is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.  The sequel, Guardian of  the Monarch Moon is already available, as is a D.S. Cuellar book with a separate storyline, Dead To Rights.  All three are available as e-books at Amazon, as well as paperbacks.  

Excerpts...
    “I need you to connect me to Captain Frank Morrell.”
    Steven observed a startled reaction in Karina’s body language at the mention of the name.
    Karina spoke in a hushed voice.  “Frank Morrell was one of the names I saw on my husband’s files.  Victor only kept a file on you for one of two reasons; either Frank is a sworn enemy or he is corruptible.”
    “Hello, this is Captain Morrell.”
    In a hesitant voice Steven said, “Hey, Dad, I think I need your help.”  (pg. 39)

    “What is it about this sword?”
    “This sword may not have any meaning to you but it is one of three swords that represent our family’s legacy.  To have the set restored as one would be a priceless treasure.”  Aiko gave Kyle a heartfelt look.  “Until you find what gives your life meaning, you too will be lost.”  (pg. 212)

“If you don’t officially exist, who’s going to miss you when you’re gone?”  (pg. 207)
    For all the positives, Guardian of the Red Butterfly also has some issues that can't be overlooked.  Most notable is the editing, which, to be blunt, is atrocious.  There are wrong words, misspelled words, paragraphs aren’t indented, and commas and semicolons are abused.  I  don't usually mention these things, since indie authors rarely have the luxury of professional editors to peruse their manuscript.  But here the frequency of these errors was distracting.

    Similarly, the book could do with a fresh round of proofreading.  Eye colors change and some of the fight scene details seemed hard to fathom.  Ditto for the never-any-fun task of polishing the manuscript: inserting info dumps into the tale smoothly, and improving the telling/showing ratio.

    All of this is fixable, and I certainly hope it is done before the next edition of Guardian of the Red Butterfly comes out.  This is a good first effort by a promising new writer; it just needs some rough edges sanded down.

    6 Stars.  Add 2 stars if-and-when an updated version of the book is developed.  I have heard rumors that it is in the works.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Wizard of Time - G.L. Breedon


    2011; 291 pages.  Book 1 (out of 3) of The Wizard of Time series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Time-Travel; Fantasy, YA, Coming of Age.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    13-year-old Gabriel Salvador has dreams.  Strange ones.  Bad ones.  Frightening ones.  And the worst part is, they always come true, usually within 24 hours.

    Of course, Gabriel has learned not to tell anyone about the dreams.  His friends would think he’s weird.  His parents think he’s just making up stories after something’s happened.  A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.  The shrink would think he’s just looking for attention.

    But today’s dream has him scared out of his wits.  It had a new theme – drowning.  And if it follows the pattern and comes true within 24 hours, there’s only one conclusion he can arrive at.

    In less than a day, Gabriel Salvador will be dead.

What’s To Like...
    If you like your time-travel books to visit oodles of new locales and eras, then you’re gonna love The Wizard of Time.  G.L. Breedon is obviously a history buff, and so am I.  The story starts in present-day Great Britain, and Gabriel (and the reader) get to go jumping to all sorts of places/times, including: Cretaceous Era (dinosaurs!), Scotland (at several points in history), Venice, Samos (300 BC), Beijing (12,000 BC), the Battle of Gaugamela (Alexander the Great), the Grand Canyon, and World War 2.  I was in history bliss!

    The storyline grabs your attention immediately – see the introduction teaser, above.  There are 27 chapters covering 291 pages, which means they are relatively short.  The book’s tone had a “Harry Potter-esque” feel to it for me:  a young boy is the chosen one, and lots of people around him want to control or kill him.  It’s also a coming-of-age tale with only a smattering of mild cussing.  There’s no sex, and I don’t recall any booze or drugs, so I’d also put this in the YA genre.  Vocabulary-wise, it’s an easy read.

    I chuckled at the title of the one book considered essential to Gabriel’s study: The Time-Traveler’s Pocket Guide To History.  It makes sense.  If you’re gonna go chrono-hopping, you’d best be knowing what sort of sh*t you’re getting into.  I also liked the nod to Thus Spake Zarathustra, the book by Nietzsche, not the music by Richard Strauss.  The Fantasy genre takes a backseat here.  There’s plenty of magic (more on that in a bit), but the only otherworldly critter we meet is a lone dragon.  But I have a feeling that the fantasy element may get amped up as this series progresses.

    G.L. Breedon’s two favorite words in The Wizard of Time are “concatenate” ("linking") and “bifurcation” ("a branching off into two parts").  The latter refers to the Quantum Physics hypothesis of multiverses, and here it is something that the good guys try to avoid at all costs, though I never did figure out why.

    The Wizard of Time is a standalone story, as well as the first book in an already completed trilogy.  Some Amazon reviewers apparently have issues with a 13-year-old repeatedly thinking like an adult.  The criticism is valid, but it didn’t bother me.  I'll cut Gabriel some slack since he is, by definition, the Chosen One.  You probably grow up fast when that sort of thing's thrust upon you.  The ending is not very twisty, but it's suitably climactic, and is sufficient to set up the next book in the series.

Kewlest New Word...
Matryoska Doll (n.) : a part of a set of Russian nesting dolls. (*)

Excerpts...
    “Dinner was my favorite time.  Everyone there all at once.  All the voices all at once.  My Grandfather and his big booming voice, swearing in Spanish for quiet and my mom insisting that everyone speak English at the dinner table.  And my youngest brother wanting to know if it was okay to swear in English at the dinner table.”   (loc. 532)

    “The branch must be severed within thirty-seven hours of its creation.  Preferably by the hand that created it.”
    “Why thirty-seven hours?” Gabriel asked.
     “Who knows, who know?” Akikane said with a wide grin.  “There are people who like to make theories to explain it, but I prefer to think that it is simply the way it is.  Why is the universe here at all?  Why is time travel even possible?  Why is the speed of light exactly what it is, never slower or faster?  Some people question too much.  It is as it is.”  (loc. 2156)

Kindle Details...
    The Wizard of Time sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The other two e-books in the series sell for the same price.  They are also available as a bundle, for $4.99, which is quite a good deal.  G.L. Breedon has four other e-books available, including the starts for two more series, ranging from $2.99 to $4.99.

“How do you manage to turn every triumph into an excuse for drinking?”  (loc. 4417)
    The issues are negligible.  The magic system is rather convoluted and the author spends considerable time detailing how it works.  I recognize this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of thing, but for me, the mystical minutiae got tedious, and that made for some slow spots.

    I only have two other nits to pick.  First, there was a huge info dump in Chapter 9 about Aztec civilization, and halfway through the lecture, even I was ready to get back to the plotline.  Second, Nefferati’s ancestry seemed ambiguous.  When introduced, she’s said to be from the Euphrates (16%).  But later on, she’s described as being African (54%).  Sorry, those aren't synonymous terms.  I'm also a geography buff.

    But I quibble.  Time-Travel is one of my favorite genres, and G.L. Breedon’s The Wizard of Time is a worthy entry in this field.  I’d been going through time-travel withdrawals, and this book satisfied my craving just fine.

    7½ Stars(*) We’ll close with a trivia question, and leave the answer in the comments section: What's the record for the most Matryoska dolls nested within each other in a single set?