Thursday, June 28, 2018

Dragon Teeth - Michael Crichton


   2017 (1974, actually); 333 pages.  New Author? : Of course not.  Genre : Coming-of-Age; Action; Western Adventure; Archaeology.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    William Johnson has it made.  He’s 18 years old, from a well-to-do family, and a freshman at prestigious Yale University.  Like most freshmen, he is shy around girls, and prone to doing stupid things in his spare time, such as making idle bets with other, equally well-off students.

    Othniel Charles Marsh is a professor at Yale and a leading expert in the new field of paleontology.  Dinosaurs, or to be more exact, dinosaur bones, are a recent discovery and are all the rage in archaeology right now.  Marsh’s hobby during summer break is to fund a trek by a select group of Yale students out into the wild and untamed west in search of dinosaur bones.

     Johnson has no interest in joining in on such an adventure.  His goal for summer break is to lay around the mansion.  But a thousand-dollar bet with a rival classmate over whether he’s too chicken to go along on Marsh’s expedition changes things.  That’s a lot of money, even for a spoiled rich kid.

    Which is why, William Johnson, writing in his journal, remarks that, “I realized that, through no fault of my own, I would now spend the entire summer in some ghastly hot desert in the company of a known lunatic, digging up old bones.”

What’s To Like...
    Dragon Teeth was published in 2017, nine years after Michael Crichton died.  This may seem preposterous, but he actually wrote it in 1974, and it languished as an early effort that he chose not to have published.  Sixteen years after penning this tale, Jurassic Park was published, and I'm pretty sure Crichton forgot all about this manuscript.

    Genre-wise, this is first and foremost a coming-of-age tale.  Johnson starts out as a spoiled brat, and comes back a mature man.  Wikipedia calls it a “forerunner to Jurassic Park”, but if you read it in hopes that velociraptors will go stomping around, chomping on puny humans, you are going to be sore disappointed. Instead, it is a tale of an adventure out West, with some paleontology thrown in as an added bonus.

    This may be a rookie effort, but Michael Crichton’s writing skills are already evident.  You get a nice “feel” for frontier life in the 1870’s, and his descriptions are blended smoothly with his research about the wild West, digging for dinosaur fossils, and boom towns springing up anywhere that gold was found.  The Sioux are still on the warpath, and Custer is about to be made aware of that fact.

    The chapters are short, of James Patterson-ish length.  They are neither numbered nor listed in the front, but each one has a descriptive title to clue you in as to what’s about to occur.  There’s a map at the front of the book, which helped me keep track of where the fossil-hunters were traipsing around, although its resolution is poor.  There are a couple cusswords, but that’s about it for R-rated stuff.  Both Johnson and I enjoyed meeting Emily Williams, or whatever her name really was.

    I really liked the photography sections of the story.  There was no such thing as film, a store nearby that would develop your pictures, or digital cameras.  My father had his own darkroom, and I used to assist him in developing film into slides.  My grandfather had some ancient photographs, on old sepia-colored glass plates, which are referenced here.  This brought back some great memories for me.

    Michael Crichton weaves his insights about some subtle topics into the storyline, most notably some thoughts about Science-vs-Religion (pgs 132-35), and blind faith (pgs 174-5).  And if you're a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, Deadwood Gulch is your kind of town.  Imagine living in a place where there are no rules, laws, and/or enforcement agencies.  Surely, this is Anarchist Paradise.

    The ending is satisfying, albeit not overly exciting.  Appended to the story are a couple neat extra sections:  a Postscript, in which Crichton tells you what happened to some of the real-life figures encounters in the story; an Author’s Note, where he separates fact from fiction, and a touching Afterword from his widowed wife, giving some background about Michael and this book, and leaving a lump in my throat.

Kewlest New Word ...
Nymphs du pave (n.; phrase) : a streetwalker; a prostitute who solicits in the street.  (French for “nymph of the pavement”)

Excerpts...
    “You are saying this Neander skull is human?” Morton said.
    “I don’t know,” Cope said.  “But I do not see how one can believe that dinosaurs evolved, and reptiles evolved, and mammals such as the horse evolved, but that man sprang fully developed without antecedents.”
    “Aren’t you a Quaker, Professor Cope?” (…)
    “I may not be,” Cope said.  Religion explains what man cannot explain.  But when I see something before my eyes, and my religion hastens to assure me that I am mistaken, that I do not see at all … No, I may no longer be a Quaker, after all.”  (pg. 169)

    “And me?”
    “You’re different,” she said.  “You’re brave, but you are also refined.  I bet you kiss real refined, too.”
    She was waiting.
    “I learned,” Johnson wrote in his journal, “one immediate lesson, which was the unwisdom of kissing aboard a bucking stagecoach.  My lip was deeply bitten and the blood flowed freely, which inhibited, but did not stop, further explorations of this nature.”  (pg. 303)

I still regard three months in the West in much the same way I would three months forced attendance at the German Opera.  (pg. 20 )
    The quibbles are minor.  The thrills and spills don’t really start until about halfway through the book, so after a hundred pages or so, I was beginning to wonder if all we were going to do was ride around the countryside and dig up fossils.  Yet Michael Crichton can make even that interesting, whic is no small feat.

    The pacing is moderate, which is okay for a coming-of-age story.  And a glaring deus ex machina popped up when our protagonist, having lost all his photographic equipment and having no useful skills with which to earn some money in Deadwood Gulch, has the good fortune to learn that a previous resident, also a photographer, had perished in the wilds, but miraculously left all of his equipment behind in the town.  The townspeople, who rob and steal and loan-shark without a second thought, have conveniently left all those photographic plates and chemicals untouched, and now give them to Johnson for fre.

    But I pick at nits.  Dragon Teeth was an extremely quick and easy read, with a catchy plotline and a well-researched setting.  It may not be Crichton at his best (that wouldn’t happen for another 16 years), but it was still a delightful read.

    7½ Stars.  I rarely read Westerns, but if it's written by Michael Crichton, I'll make an exception.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Florence of Arabia - Christopher Buckley


   2004; 274 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Political Satire; Intrigue; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Florence Farfarletti is a low-level functionary in the US State Department in Washington DC.  Her job is humdrum, but she does get to meet foreign dignitaries every so often, or to be more precise in Florence’s case, the wives of foreign dignitaries.

    One such acquaintance is Nazdah al-Bawad.  She’s the wife of Prince Bawad, who is presently serving as Ambassdor to America from the Arab state of Wasabia.  Technically Nazdah is a princess, but in reality she’s just Wife #3 in the prince’s harem.

    Florence and Nazdah’s relationship is casual.  They’ve met for lunch a couple times, and have gone shopping a couple times, but that’s about it.  So it is quite the surprise when Florence answers the phone late one night and hears these words:

    “Flor-ents.  You must help me – I need asylum!  Now, please!”

    Asylum is a word that sends shudders down the rubber spines of State Department workers.  And for Florence, Nazdah’s plea is the first step down a path that will embroil her in a plot to kick-start a Women’s Rights Movement in the Middle East.

    Florence is going to gain some formidable enemies out of all this.

What’s To Like...
    Florence of Arabia is Christopher Buckley’s thinly-disguised critique of Islamic theocracies that embrace Sharia law.  His two imaginary countries are called Matar and Wasabia, which bear an unmistakable resemblance, both theologically and name-wise, to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The Wasabia-Saudi Arabia tie-in may seem less than obvious, until you realize that the dominant Saudi-based religious sect are called the Wahhabis, and Buckley’s Wasabis are their virtual clones.  Like their real-life counterparts, the Wasabis follow the ultra-conservative Sharia doctrine.  And while the Mataris are somewhat more liberal and secular, they too ascribe in part to Sharia Law.  The satire aspect aside, I found the religious contrast between the two groups to be fascinating.

    The settings are limited.  Florence starts out in the State Department in Washington DC, and then travels to the Middle East to Matar.  There, she starts up a television station called TVMatar, featuring programming that easily reaches across to Wasabia and ruffles some powerful feathers.

    The writing is superb.  This is my third Christopher Buckley book (the others are reviewed here and here), and I’ve been blown away by his literary skills every time.  There are a fair amount of characters to follow, but it isn’t difficult.  Of the Westerners, the only ones to keep track of are Florence’s “team” of Bobby, George, Rick Renard, and the mysterious “Uncle Sam”.  Of the Arabs, all you really need to remember is which ones hail from Matar, and which ones are from Wasabia.

    There’s some cussing, which seemed suitable for this storyline.  Buckley sprinkles some French phrases in amongst the text, and I always like that.  But he also treats us to some Arabic words, which was an unexpected delight.   The book has 38 chapters covering 274 pages, so you’re never too far from a good place to stop reading for the night.

    The main theme seems to be Buckley’s ideas about how one might go about “liberating” the women who have the misfortune to live under Sharia Law.  Buckley acknowledges that not all of them may want to be emancipated and I got the impression that he admits that the odds of effecting this fundamental change are rather slim.

    The ending was so-so.  It wasn’t very twisty and you'll easily guess the means employed to rescue  Florence from her situation.  Nevertheless, it is an adequate resolution of the tale.  Be sure to read the Epilogue, though.  It has kind of a “whatever happened to” structure, and Florence (and the reader) finally discover who Uncle Sam is.  Florence of Arabia is a standalone novel.  I don't think Christopher Buckley has ever written a series.

Kewlest New Word  ...
Lysystrata (proper noun., but used here as an adjective.) : the title character in an ancient Greek play by Aristophanes.  She persuades the women of Athens and Sparta (who are at war with each other) to refuse sexual contact with their husbands until the two cities make peace..
Others : Patronymic (adj.); Surcease (n.).

Excerpts...
    Alas, this doomed Wasabia to becoming – as one historian put it – the Middle East’s preeminent “no-fun zone.”  Unless, as he dryly noted, “one’s idea of fun includes beheading, amputation, flogging, blinding and having your tongue cut out for offenses that in other religions would earn you a lecture from the rabbi, five Hail Marys from a priest and, for Episcopalians, a plastic pink flamingo on your front lawn.”  A Google search using the key phrases “Wasabia” and “La Dolce Vita” results in no matches.  (loc. 893)

   One moment he was scowling in the direction of the youths being beaten by the muks; in the next there was a very loud noise coming from directly beneath him, and he became aware of being propelled upward into the fierce morning sky at a rate similar to that experienced by astronauts launched into space, escaping – how does the poem go? – the surly bonds of earth.  His ascent became dreamlike, understandable since at this point he had lost actual consciousness.  He found himself happily swinging from star to star, like a delighted young child.  Alas, this innocent, carefree state of mind did not last, and as Maliq regained consciousness, he was still a hundred feet or so up in the air and – alas again – earthbound at a rate commensurate with the implacable laws of gravity.  (loc. 4160)

Kindle Details...
    Florence of Arabia sells for $10.99 at Amazon, but I borrowed it from my local library.  Christopher Buckley has about 9 novels available in e-book format at Amazon, all in the $9.99-$13.99 price range.

 “(A)ncient Matari proverb: Dung beetles cannot crawl into shut mouths.”  (loc. 3930)
    I had some issues with Florence of Arabia, mostly with the degree of stereotyping used in the story.  Every male Arab from Wasabia is a thug, every male Arab from Matar is a hypocrite, and every Frenchman is a dirty double-dealer.  Every Arab woman that we meet seems to yearn to be free, usually with dire consequences.

    Conversely, every American on Florence’s team has a specialty that works to perfection as she carries out her strategic plan.  And every Arab that tries to match wits with our heroes is pretty much an idiot doomed to failure.

    I recognize that the hyperbolic stereotyping contributes to the wit and humor of the storyline.  But when everyone in a demographic thinks exactly the same way, the plot tension suffers.  The author seems to think substituting “mutter” for “matter” and “moolah” for “mullah” is exceptionally witty; he repeats these two plays on words to excess.

    All these annoyances would normally be show-stoppers, but I am happy to say that Buckley’s writing and storytelling skills were sufficient to offset them.  Florence of Arabia kept my interest, and it felt good to read another Christopher Buckley book, after a 6½-year hiatus.

    7½ Stars.  I don’t claim to be an expert on Human Rights issues in the Arab Middle East, particularly those involving the rights of women.  I am aware that in Saudi Arabia, women are still forbidden to drive cars, and that floggings and stonings are still meted out unto those miscreants unfortunate enough to get caught at adultery, etc.

    So it’s not that I think Christopher Buckley is making up the abuses that he inserts into Florence of Arabia.  But neither do I every last Arab is a religious extremist or a moral hypocrite.  The violations of civil rights are there, but I don't think they occur with the frequency he implies.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Dead Red Oleander by R.P. Dahlke


   2011; 310 pages.  Book 3 (out of 5) of the Dead Red Mystery” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Women Sleuths; Cozy.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It certainly wasn’t the best party Lalla Bains had ever attended.

    The first downer was the theme of it: a going-out-of-business get-together.  The family crop-dusting company that Lalla and her father have managed for years was to be sold at the end of the spraying season, and that wraps up next week sometime.

    The second downer was that Aunt Mae and Cousin Pearlie flew in from Texas for Lalla’s upcoming wedding, and were at the party as well.  Lalla’s dad refers to Aunt Mae as “that old bat”, and Cousin Pearlie is not above hitting on any eligible and hunky man for the possibility of matrimony, even if he's already spoken for.  Such as Lalla’s beau, Caleb.

    No, what made it the worst party ever was the presence of the newly-hired pilot, Dewey Treat, and his nice wife, Nancy.  Dewey will be out of a job as soon as the sale goes through.  He's a nice enough fellow, but he ruined the whole party atmosphere.  By falling over dead.

    The police think it might be foul play, although that won’t be confirmed until the autopsy is completed.  But the number one suspect has already been identified.

    His wife, Nancy.

What’s To Like...
    A Dead Red Oleander is the third installment in R.P. Dahlke’s 5-book Dead Red series.  I’m not sure if it is a completed series or not.  The setting is the Modesto Valley in California, where Lalla juggles being a crop-dusting pilot, keeping the business afloat, humoring her curmudgeon of a dad, trying not to get into too many prenuptial squabbles with her soon-to-be husband, and occasionally solving murder mysteries by not minding her own business.  Life’s been busy lately for Lalla.

    The story is told from a first-person POV (Lalla’s), with 25 chapters covering 248 pages.  There’s an abundance of wit, and I enjoyed tagging along with Lalla as she tries to cope with all the havoc in her life.

    I'm pretty sure Aunt Mae and Cousin Pearlie are both new and noteworthy characters.  Pearlie in particular plays a significant role in the investigation of Dewey’s death.  My favorite literary car, the Dead Red Cadillac from Book One is back.  And the titular Dead Red Oleander shows up at 27%.  It doesn’t impact the storyline much, which is not a spoiler, and I couldn’t help but think of it as a – (wait for it) Dead Red Herring.

    R.P. Dahlke tips her hat to several of her contemporary authors, including two that have series in this same literary niche genre: amateur women sleuths.  One is well-known: Janet Evanovich, she of the hugely-popular Stephanie Plum series.   The other is perhaps lesser-known: Jinx Schwartz who pens a series starring Hetta Coffey, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of her books from this series (reviewed here.  R.P. Dahlke mentions a third author, one who I’m unfamiliar with: Beryl Markham, and her signature book West With The Night.  By coincidence, that book surfaced as an Amazon daily discount the day after I finished this book; it now resides on my Kindle.

    A Dead Red Oleander is an incredibly fast and easy read, as are all the books in this series.  It is a standalone novel, and you don’t need to read these books in order, although I am doing so.  There’s only a smidgen of cussing, and I don't hesitate to label this a Cozy Mystery.  I enjoyed meeting Pearlie, and here’s hoping that she gets promoted to “recurring character” status, and becomes – (wait for it again, as I also pay tribute to Janet Evanovich) – Lalla’s Lula.

Excerpts...
    “Will you please explain to your pig-headed father that goats are farm animals?”
    When Spike, my dad’s arthritic Chihuahua, passed away this last winter, my dad simply wasn’t ready to get another dog.  The goat was a gift from a neighbor.
    My dad held up his hand to stop the argument.  “Bruce is a pet, Aunt Mae.”
    “Bruce!”  Aunt Mae threw up her hands.  “Your father has Disneyfied a farm animal, and calling him Bruce isn’t going to change the fact that he’s part of the food chain and best served with chipotle sauce.”  (loc. 400)

   Bud’s Bar squatted on a dusty corner of a nearly abandoned strip mall in Turlock.  A neon biplane mounted on top of the building identified the bar as a place for pilots and wanna-be pilots.  I expected to be the only woman in the place at this time of day, since most women, the ones that loved to hang out with pilots for fun and profit, were more likely to show up at night.  By closing time, anyone still here would have divided their paychecks between drinks and something that passed for an hour’s worth of affection.  (loc. 1947)

Kindle Details...
    A Dead Red Oleander sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  The first book in the series, A Dead Red Cadillac, sells for $2.99, all the others go for $3.99 apiece.  The first three books in the series are also available in a bundle for only $4.99, which is quite a good deal.  R.P. Dahlke has two additional books to offer from another trilogy, titled “Pilgrim’s Progress”.  Those books go for $2.99 each, or you can get them bundled with the first three books in the Dead Red series for $7.99.

 “Aunt Mae does tend to find the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle.”  (loc. 1617)
    I had a couple quibbles, mostly with the “mystery” aspect of A Dead Red OleanderNote: the following comments are spoiler-free.

    First of all, t was never clear to me just how the Ultimate Evil (“UE”) carried out the dastardly deed of Dewey’s demise.  I kept waiting for a clever twist in this regard, but it never came.  I was also amazed that, however the crime was pulled off, Dewey’s wife was never aware of it until her hubby collapsed.

    Secondly, I’m not sure the local authorities, including Lalla’s boyfriend, Caleb, who happens to be the local sheriff, would approve of the way Lalla and Pearlie deal with the bad guys they encounter.  Their method of dealing with the UE particularly strained at my believability threshold, and the fact that the police were okay with it was even harder to swallow.

    Thirdly, the UE several times passes on the opportunity to eliminate pesky little Lalla from dogging his trail.  Yes, an explanation is given for this, but I didn’t buy it.  Watching the Austin Powers movies has made me jaded about bad guys delaying in killing heroes due to hubris.

     Lastly, I had a problem with how long it took Lalla to figure out who the UE was.  I found the key piece of evidence for solving this to be blatantly obvious.  Yet it takes Lalla the whole second half of the book to catch up to me. 

    7 Stars.  Don’t let my quibbles discourage you from reading A Dead Red Oleander.  It’s a fun, fast-paced, and entertaining book, and you’ll enjoy every minute of it.  It’s an ideal beach or airplane read.  Just remember to put your brain to sleep before opening up the book.  Add 1½ stars if you get a thrill solving a book's mystery before the title character does.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Judas Unchained - Peter F. Hamilton


    2006; 1,008 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book Two (and final book) of the Commonwealth Saga series.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Space Opera; Epic Science Fiction; First Contact.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Round Two of the galactic Armageddon is imminent!

    The first round, covered in the Pandora’s Star and reviewed here, resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for mankind.  Yes, the invasion by the evil force called the Prime was beaten back.  But we lost 23 planets (in a single day!) to the aliens, along with most of our star fleet.  One more “victory” like that, and we will surely be obliterated into space dust.

    Moreover, we’ve learned that their wormhole capability is more advanced than ours, and that the concept of coexistence doesn’t exist in their annihilation-only mindset.

    But there is still a chance for us.  Our galactic navy is working on a couple new types of mega-bombs.  Those are still in the development stage, but they have obviously been moved up to Priority One.  They’re also designing some  improved FTL (Faster Than Light) starships, and Wormhole Technology.  It’s all a matter of whether we have enough time before the Prime strikes again.

    And if all else fails, we can always do like the rich-and-powerful dynasties are doing.  Build your own FTL spaceships and hightail it out of this end of the galaxy to a much more remote section f it.

    Of course, for us peasants, bumming a ride with them may be a life-or-death challenge.

What’s To Like...
    Judas Unchained is not a standalone novel; it’s really just the second half of a 2,000-page epic that starts with Pandora’s Star.  There are a bunch of complex and interweaving storylines, which are listed in the linked review above, so instead of repeating them, here’s a list of who’s fighting who:

    1.) The Commonwealth vs. the Prime
    2.) SI (Sentient Intelligence) vs. the Guradians vs. the Starflyer vs. maybe the Commonwealth
    3.) The Barsoomians vs. anyone fighting the Guardians
    4.) The Guardians vs. the Institute
    5.) The Raiel and the Silfen don’t seem t care who wins, but they enjoy watching us fight for our lives.

    There is a Dramatis Personae at the start of the book.  Mark it, as you’ll be referring to it a lot.  I kept a separate list of characters in my notes.  It turned out to be 2½ pages long, and that didn’t include a bunch of minor characters. 

    The writing is once again topnotch.  The storylines are complex, but Peter F. Hamilton keeps switching from one to another, so things never get boring.  There are 20 chapters covering 1,008 pages, but frankly, you can stop anytime there’s a switch in the plot threads, and those are indicated by a line of four dots at the end of a paragraph.

    There’s a fair amount of both cussing and sex.  A bunch of characters die, although that’s a rather nebulous term since most humans can be “re-lifed”, along with selective memory erasures and genetic enhancements.  But for all the warfare and killing, I don’t recall a lot of gore., and it should be noted that Peter F. Hamilton mixes in a mild but persistent strain of humor throughout the story, most of it coming during the long side-trek undertaken by Ozzie, Orion, and Tochee.

    I liked the all-purpose cuss phrase, “Dreaming Heavens”, which, for some reason, replaced the “Jesus Wept” epithet used in Pandora’s Star.  Hypergliding returns here, a recreation which makes hang-gliding seem like a sport for wussies.  The first half of Judas Unchained is mostly about and games of deadly intrigue perpetrated by the various factions.  But after the Prime launches its second invasion (page 544), the last half of the book is almost all space opera action and adventure.

    The ending is simply superb.  The tension keeps building throughout the book, and, like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, we’re treated to an epic final struggle lasting more than 100 pages.  There’s even an epilogue-like “whatever happened to so-and-so…” addendum that I really liked.  The series may be over, but I still wanted to know what happened to a bunch of the characters. 

Kewlest New Word...
Sulci (n., plural) : grooves or furrows.  (the singular is 'sulcus'.)
Others: Triturated (v.); Decussation (n.).

Excerpts...
    “So far so good,” he muttered.
    “Absolutely.  Here’s hoping we don’t have a Fermi moment.”
    “A what?”  Mac rally didn’t like the uncertainty in her voice.
    “During the Trinity test of the very first atom bomb, Fermi wondered if the detonation would ignite the Earth’s atmosphere.  They just didn’t know, you see.  We think the quantum disruption won’t propagate.  If it does the whole universe gets converted into energy.”
    “Oh, great, thanks for sharing.”  (pg. 342)

    “Who are you?” Ozzie asked.
    The Silfen’s circular mouth opened wide, allowing the long slender tongue to vibrate between his rows of teeth.  “I am the one who dances in the endless wind streams which flow along the tumbling white clouds as they circle in eternal orbit within the star of life.”  He gave a sharp whistle.  “But you may call me Clouddancer.  I know how you humans have to be so quick and shallow.”
    “Thanks.”  Ozzie tipped his head to one side.  “Why the German accent?”
    Clouddancer’s tongue quivered.  “Authority.  I look like one of your legendary demons.  If I start talking like some stoner hippie then I’ve got a serious credibility problem, right?”  (pg. 579)

“Humm, remind me.  How many angels have we counted on that pinhead now?”  (pg. 616)
    I can’t think of anything to quibble about.  Some reviewers grumbled at the length of the book, but hey, you know going in that it’s gonna be a long read.  And it’s more interesting than Russian Lit.

    So the real question is – is this 2,000-page duology (how come no one wants to call this a 'bilogy'?) worth your time and effort?  I asked myself that same thing back in 2011 when I tackled Peter F. Hamilton’s 3,600-page Night’s Dawn trilogy, and my answer is the same.

    If you’re a fan of science-fiction, especially space opera, and you don’t have a book report due tomorrow, and reading something a thousand pages long doesn’t make you break out in a cold sweat, then yes, both of these series are well worth your time, and are highly recommended.  I thought they were great.

    9½ Stars.    Subtract 2 stars if you didn’t read Pandora’s Star first.  You’ll still be drawn in by all the fascinating things going on, but you will probably find yourself lost as to the “why” of them.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Eclective - The Celtic Collection


   2017; 130 pages.  New Authors? : Yes for four; No for two.  Genre : Short Stories; Anthology; Ireland.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    “Hey, I’m in the mood to read something set in Ireland.  Whattaya recommend?”

    “How about a Harlequin Romance, maybe with a Highlander setting?”

    Oh, good yucky graciousness, no!  I don’t want anything with even a trace of Romance in it.”

    “Okay, then I suggest the book “The Celtic Collection”.  Six short stories, all with an Irish tinge, and all from the twisted minds of a group of writers that call themselves “The Eclective”.  I’ve read anthologies by them before.  They’re quite the talented group.  But I must tell you, there is a trace of Romance in it.”

    “Hmm.  I don’t know then.”

    “Did I mention: it’s a free download at Amazon?”

    “Really?!  Well, I’ve just changed my mind.  I think I can tolerate a bit of the lovey-dovey stuff.”

What’s To Like...
    The six tales in The Eclective: The Celtic Collection are:

01.)  Irish Kiss (by Shéa MacLeod)
    Fantasy; Leprechauns and Larceny.
02.)  The Luck of the Irish Brigade (by M. Edward McNally)
    Historical Fiction; Whiskey and Warfare don’t mix.
03.)  Song of the Banshee (by Heather Marie Adkins)
    Paranormal; A wail of a love story.
04.)  The Red Veil of Vengeance (by Jack Wallen)
    Horror; Fangs be to God.
05.)  Zombies Eat Leprechauns (by P.J. Jones)
    Faerie Tales; You can take it with you, but you have to sign for it.
06.)  Five Shamrocks (by Alan Nayes)
    Romance; How long will you wait for me?

    Appended to each story is a short, witty, tongue-in-cheek blurb about each author, as well as a plug for their book(s).  That might sound like a cheap advertising gimmick, but I thought it was a kewl touch.

    For a mere six stories, there is a remarkable variety of tone (anywhere from light and silly to dark and heavy) and  genres (listed above).  I enjoyed all the tales, but my favorites were #2, #3, and #6.  Your faves will almost certainly differ from mine.

    I’ve read full-length books by two of these authors, so I knew what to expect from their contributions.   M. Edward McNally has penned an epic, 5-book sword-&-sorcery series called The Norothian Cycle, which I am totally enthralled by.  The first book in the series, The Sable City, is reviewed here, and it is a free download over at Amazon.    P.J. Jones gives a whole new twist to things like Fairy Tales, Vampires, Pride and Prejudice, and the mentally unstable.

    It should be noted that P.J. Jones’ story here is actually (I think) from her book Attack of the Fairytale Zombies, which I've read and is reviewed here, so if you enjoy this excerpt, and want more of it, her novel awaits you.  M. Edward McNally is well-known for his attention to historical detail, so if you’re a history buff –be it fiction or non-fiction – you’ll find his story here a pleasant read.

    For me, Alan Nayes’ Five Shamrocks was the highlight of the book, which is amazing since it is essentially a love story, and my reading maxim about romance is “the less the better”.  It is a powerful piece of writing, and if it doesn’t leave a lump in your throat when you finish reading it, there’s something wrong with you.  I have two of his full-length novels on my Kindle, but haven’t read them yet.  Perhaps this is a wake-up call for me to rectify that.

Kindle Details...
    The Eclective: The Celtic Collection is free at Amazon, as are five of the other six anthologies penned by the group.  Only their most-recent offering, The Eclective: The Time Collection will cost you anything, and it’s only $0.99.  You can’t beat those deals.  All of the authors also have solo novels at Amazon.

Excerpts...
    He shouted “Aye!” when the sergeant called for “Corcoran, Francis,” though outside of roll call no one in the regiment called Corcoran by his given name.  He had become “Corky,” predictably, though that had changed when it turned out there was a James Corcoran over in Company D.  So he had become “Corky II,” which over the months had become “Corky, too,” and finally, “Corky, also.”  Now, even his mess mates tended to call him “Also.”  (loc. 368)

    Mattie sensed a soft breeze blow over her – whoosh – and then she was standing beside him.  No aches, no pains, and when she looked at her hands, the skin was smooth and vibrant.  All the blotches and age spots had vanished.  She reached up.  Her hair was thick and full.  I’m young again.
     When he kissed her, she felt carried away by a tidal wave of passion.  “I am ready, Joe.  I am!”  (loc. 1319)

“I don’t understand how a mermaid and a Leprechaun can possibly have a relationship.”  (loc. 141)
    The quibbles are minor.  First, there are only six stories, yet two of them involve leprechauns and their pots of gold.  I’ve seen such an overlap before in anthologies; I think this can be avoided by having some sort of editor-in-chief who keeps track of who’s writing about what, and squelches any  similar or duplicate storylines.
  
    Second, any anthology that only contains six short stories will be inherently a brief read.  I was disappointed that there weren’t more stories, but hey, the book is free, the writing is witty no matter what its tone, and if it leaves you thirsting for more, well, the authors have accomplished their task.

    Finally, if you happen to have a book report due tomorrow, and haven’t even started reading one yet, well shame on you, but The Eclective: The Celtic Collection might just be your saving grace.  You can easily read the entire book in less than 2 hours.  For me the book was a welcome counterbalance as I worked my way through a thousand-page piece of epic science fiction.

    7½ Stars.  Sadly, it appears these authors have disbanded as a group.  They put out seven of these anthologies during the 2011-13 years; but none since.   RIP, The Eclective.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Madonna In a Fur Coat - Sabahattin Ali


    1943; 201 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Highbrow Lit; Turkish Literature; Romance.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Never has Raif Efendi had his life touched this profoundly!  Maybe it's her enigmatic smile.  Perhaps it's her eyes, filled with anguish and resolve.  It might even be the fur coat she’s wearing.  Or her plump lips, her slightly swollen eyelids, her long nose, or even her slightly upturned chin.  Probably it’s a combination of all these features.

    Alas, 'tis a pity that this is a painting, not an actual person.  It’s hanging in an art gallery at an exhibition.

    But do not despair, Raif.  There must be some information listed in the exhibition catalog.  And sure enough there is.

    The painting is titled “Maria Puder, Self-portrait”.   So now you have a name, and possibly even a picture of your dream woman.  That’s a start.

    Unfortunately, you’re in Berlin, and you’re a poor Turkish immigrant, here to learn the soap-making trade.  You can barely find your way to the soap factory, and this is post-World War One Germany.  The Yellow Pages haven't been invented yet.

    But where there’s a will, there’s a way, Raif.  So maybe if you just go walking around the city, you’ll run into her.  Your Madonna In A Fur Coat.

What’s To Like...
    Madonna In A Fur Coat is a Turkish novel written in the 1940’s, set in Turkey in the 1930’s, with the main character, Raif, reminiscing about the time he spent in Berlin in the 1920’s.  The story is written in the first-person POV: by our never-named narrator for the first quarter of the book, then by Raif writing in his notebook for the rest of the way.

    The book is a masterful character study of the two protagonists.  Our narrator sees Raif as a mouse of a man, manipulated by the rest of his family, and stoically cowed at work .  He reminded me of Gregor Mamsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman.  But everything changes when he meets Maria, our other protagonist, who’s just as fascinating.  She's a strong female lead, and that may be commonplace nowadays, but not back in the 1940’s.

    The writing is impressive, given that this is an English translation from the original Turkish.  I liked the literary nods Sabahattin Ali gives to other prominent writers , both Turkish and worldwide: Turgenev, Theodor Storm, Jakob Wasserman, Michel Zevaco, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Ahmet Mithat Efendi, and Vecihi Bey.  There were also a couple of kewl art references.  I was introduced to Andrea del Sarto’s painting, Madonna of the Harpies, and was awed by it.

    This is a short book, barely 200 pages.  Wikipedia calls it a novella, but I think it’s too long for that designation.  Paradoxically, this was an easy read, despite the depth of the storyline.  I liked the post-WW1 “feel” of the settings, both in Turkey and in Germany.  These are countries that were on the losing side of that conflict, and their national psyches were impacted by that.  

    There’s not a lot of action in the book, which will turn off some readers.  Overall, this is a very sad tale, similar to classics like Flowers For Algernon and Doctor Zhivago, and that will turn off others.  It is also a Romance novel, which normally would cause me to run away from it.  Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  It is an emotional rollercoaster ride, with incredible highs and lows, and with Fate dealing our two lovers some cruel twists.  Such is life at times.

Excerpts...
    He was rather ordinary, with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.  Indeed, there was no part of his life – public or private – that might give rise to curiosity.  He was, in the end, the sort of man who causes us to ask ourselves, “What does he live for?  What does he find in life?  What logic compels him to keep breathing?  What philosophy drives him as he wanders the earth?”  But we ask in vain if we fail to look beyond the surface – if we forget that beneath each surface lurks another realm, in which a caged mind whirls alone.  (loc. 39)

    All my life, I’d shied away from human company, never sharing my thoughts with a soul.  How pointless this seemed now, and how absurd!  I’d thought that it was life itself that had ground me down, that my sadness stemmed from spiritual malaise.  After spending two hours with a book, and finding it more pleasurable than two years of real life, I’d remember again that life had no meaning and sink back into despair.
    But since first setting eyes on that painting, everything had changed.  (loc. 1271)

Kewlest New Word…
Pension n.; European) : a type of guest house or boarding house.
Others : Contretemps (n.).

Kindle Details...
    Madonna in a Fur Coat sells for $8.99 at Amazon.  Amazon doesn’t offer any other books by Sabahattin Ali in English, not even in paperback.  But if you’re fluent in Spanish or German, then there are several more options at Amazon.

“Even when he has a lamb between his teeth, a wolf can hide his savagery behind a smile.”  (loc. 1203)
    A few words should be said about Sabahattin Ali.  He was born in 1907, and died in 1948.  He was arrested in 1933 for writing a poem that was viewed as criticizing the policies of Turkey’s leader at the time, Kemal Ataturk, who's their equivalent of our George Washington.  He was jailed for several months, released, pardoned via amnesty, but required to write a nationalistic poem to prove his allegiance to Ataturk.

    He served in the Turkish military during World War 2, and was imprisoned and released once more in 1944.  He was subsequently denied a passport, and was murdered along the  Bulgarian border in 1948,  either by the smuggler he trusted, or the Turkish National Security Service.

    You might think this is just a product of Cold War mentality, but in 2005, the Turkish author (and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006) Orhan Pamuk was also persecuted by the Turkish government for expressing pro-Kurdish sentiments.  The specific charge was “insulting Turkisnness”.

    Apparently the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” is feared in Turkey.

   You can read the English-language Wikipedia article about Sabahattin Ali here.  There is a more complete Wkipedia article on him in Turkish, but unfortunately my knowledge of that language is limited to about two words.

    8½ Stars.  We’ll count this as my once-a-year highbrow read, even though it is probably more middlebrow (i.e.: “book club”) material.  It is also the fifth Turkish book I’ve read over the years, albeit only the second one since starting this blog.  The others are: Death In Troy, by Bilge Karasu; The Long White Cloud – Gallipoli, by Buket Uzuner; and two books by Orhan Pamuk, Snow and My Name Is Red.