Thursday, August 30, 2018

Stupefying Stories 21 - Bruce Bethke (Editor)


    2018; 213 pages.  New Author(s)? : Yes, all 9 of them.  Genre : Short Stories; Anthology; Horror; Fantasy; Sci-Fi; Time-Travel.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Are you old enough to remember The Twilight Zone?  No, not the 1983 movie, although that was great, too.  Rather, the black-&-white TV series that ran from 1959 to 1964.  Rod Serling was the host, and his opening and closing monologues were always memorable.

    I was a devoted viewer of the show, mostly because you never knew what to expect.  One week, it might be a Time-Travel episode, such as The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms, where a modern-day tank crew returns to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  The next week would bring a Horror story, such as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, featuring an early William Shatner.  (Wiki it.)  Or you might get a Fantasy story, such as Jack Klugman beating Jonathan Winters in a billiards game in A Game of Pool.  Or some weird Science Fiction story, such as the episode with the unforgettable title of To Serve Man.

    The neat thing was, you could never guess what genre you were about to watch, or what the tone would be.  Some episodes were dark and scary.  Others were whimsical or poignant.  In a word, you could call them strange.  Or varied.  Or eerie.  The editor Bruce Bethke has his own word to describe such a diversity in tones and genres.

    He calls them Stupefying.

What’s To Like...
    Stupefying Stories 21 is comprised of nine tales, each by a different author, all of approximately equal lengths, that being about 20 pages apiece.  The titles, Kindle locations, authors, and teasers are:

Table of Contents (spoiler-free)...
01)  The Crippled Sucker (01)L. Joseph Shosty
    Poker on the Polar Express.
02)  My Disrupted Pony (15)Jeff Racho
     Get in and drive.
03)  Cog and Bone (25)M. Lynette Pedersen
    Music and mortality do mix.
04)  Dew Line (37)K.H. Vaughan
    Cold War chills in Canada.
05)  Tendrils Beneath the Skin (49)Derrick Boden
    Here, have a little vine.
06)  The Phoenix of Christ Church (59)Rebecca Birch
    A blitz in Time saves mine.
07)  Lenses (66)Eric Dontigney
    Caught on film.
08)  The Search For Josephine (75)James Mapes
    So you think your in-laws are different?
09)  Wayfaring Stranger (89)Peter Wood
    The soul of ET.

    Stupefying Stories 21 is an incredibly fast and easy read, so if you have a book report due tomorrow and you haven’t even started to read anything, this is the one to choose.  You can easily finish it in a single sitting.

    All of the tales are well-structured and well-written.  I was pleasantly surprised that none of the writers were "weak links", nor did any of the stories feel like they were "mailed in".  Perhaps that merits a tip-of-the-hat to the editor, either for his selection of the writers or for demanding a certain level of quality in the entries.

    Only one of the stories is in the first-person POV (My Disrupted Pony).  There is just a smidgen of cussing, and I only recall one roll-in-the-hay.  I liked the concept of a reverse camera, and enjoyed being introduced to Lok’tus and Chickenpeckers.  Ditto for the music nods to Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Beethoven’s Fur Elise.  They all resonated with me; and anytime you mention Jackson Pollock or throw in a bit of French, you’ve got me hooked.  Finally, I hadn’t thought about the (now defunct) DEW Line in ages; thanks for reviving that bit of nostalgia.

Excerpts...
    It had been two years since Reverend Hale had found her huddled on the front steps, cold and shivering in the bleakly gray December of London, 1938.  He hadn’t asked questions, which was just as well.  Mary had no answers to give.  Her last memories were of collapsing into a fitful slumber in 2012, beside the smoldering remains of the blood-stained rug where she’d found her brother, the contents of his skull painting her bedroom in a Pollock-painting spray.  (loc. 1281)

    He never expected to live an extraordinary life and took great comfort in the knowledge that his modest talents supported his modest aspirations.  He lived alone and, although he sometimes thought about marriage, he found women perplexing.  When his friends set him up on blind dates, he went and did his best to be charming.  He was occasionally rewarded with a second date, but never a third.  (loc. 1446)

“It’s like Waiting For Godot but with supply airplanes.”  (loc. 986)
    I’m a bit leery of mentioning my personal favorites from any anthology book, because everyone’s literary tastes are different.  Nevertheless, here are the ones that stuck out in my mind, in no particular order.

    The Phoenix of Christ Church.  Because I'm partial to time-travel stories.

    Tendrils Beneath The Skin and Wayfaring Stranger.  Because both stories ask tough, situational-ethics-type questions.

    The Crippled Sucker.  Because there are very few writers who can make playing poker on a train into a fascinating story, and that was the case here.

    Your faves will almost certainly be different from mine.  A reviewer at Amazon cited My Disrupted Pony as a stand-out story, and I certainly can’t disagree with that choice, or any other selection.

    8½ Stars.  I can’t think of anything to quibble about in Stupefying Stories 21, except for: at only 9 stories and 213 total pages, it was over far too quickly.  Another half-dozen tales would’ve been nice.  Then again, if that means adding a bunch of short stories that don’t measure up to these 9 in quality, I’d probably be griping about that.  Readers are a picky lot.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Who Discovered America? - Gavin Menzies


   2013; 247 pages (or 326 pages, if you include all the “Extras”).  Full Title : Who Discovered America? (The Untold Story of the Peopling of the Americas) .  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Speculative Non-Fiction; Pseudohistory; China; Discovery .  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    The title seems like such an easy question: Who Discovered America?  Heck, they taught us the answer way back when I was in grade school.  “In fourteen-hundred ninety-two; Columbus sailed the ocean blue”.

    Even then there was murmuring about some Viking upstart named Leif Erickson, who some claimed had the audacity to bump into the New World 500 years before Columbus did.  The experts said that didn’t count because he never established a settlement there.  And when the remains of a settlement was found, they said it didn’t count because it obviously didn't turn out to be a permanent settlement.

    Of course, if you want to get technical about it, neither Chris nor Leif was the discoverer of American, since there was already a huge population of Native Americans here when they arrived.  The experts say they came here from Asia, via a land bridge across the Bering Strait that has long since disappeared due to the sea levels rising when the Ice Age glaciers melted.  That makes sense, I suppose, and if you don’t like that theory, how else are you going to explain their presence all the way from the top of Alaska down to the southern tip of South America?

    Well, Gavin Menzies offers an alternative explanation.  He agrees they came from Asia, for the most part from China.  But instead of trekking thousands of miles through melting glaciers, freezing their knickers off, he says they sailed here in boats.

    Oooo.  The experts don't like that one at all.

What’s To Like...
    Gavin Menzies divides his theory about the Chinese sailing to America into two main hypotheses.  The first one concerns a bunch of randomly-timed ancient voyages, mostly one-way trips, over the course of several millennia.  The second one is more recent and specific: a guy named Admiral Zheng He commanded two vast armadas with the purpose of establishing trade and mapping the world.  One sailed in 1421, and explored the whole west coast of the Americas.  The other commenced in 1434, sailed down around the southern tip of South America, and explored the East coast of the Americas, then the Azores Islands, and finally visited several European kingdoms.

    It should be noted that these propositions are presented in greater detail in Menzies’ two earlier books, appropriately titled 1421 and 1434.  Our book, Who Discovered America?, is really just a later (2013) supplement to those two works, in which Menzies gives newer evidence he's uncovered that supports his claims since publishing the first pair of books in 2002 and 2008.

    The text of the book is short, only 247 pages long.  Amazon’s  blurb claims its length is 326 page, but that includes a bunch of “extra” sections – Acknowledgements, Notes, a Bibliography, Permissions, an Index, Photos, and a half-dozen other sections.  I checked out the photographs, but skipped the rest of those supplements.  Kindle-wise, the text ends at 56%.  Interspersed in the text are some neat drawings, and at the beginning there are charts of our world's major ocean currents, along with a convenient timeline of various ancient civilizations.

    Gavin Menzies does not write in a dry, academic style.  At times Who Discovered America? reads more like a Bill Bryson travelogue, for instance, when he and his wife travel to twelve cities on the historic "Silk Road" trade route, far from the touristy areas of central Asia.  Other times, it reads like an archaeology treatise, such as when he recounts Schliemann's discovery of Troy.  Also, I noticed Menzies tends to repeat his various “proofs” several times throughout the book.

    Note: The book lists the book as being written by two authors, Gavin Menzies and Ian Hudson, but most of it seems to have been written by Menzies, and his name is certainly the “hook” on the book's cover.  But for sake of brevity, I refer only to him as the author in this review.  

    Besides the “Chinese” angle already mentioned, Menzies sets forth a couple other controversial propositions, namely:

    a). The ancient Minoans could’ve reached the Americas by crossing the Atlantic.
    b.) Korean and Japanese sailors accompanied the Chinese on a lot of these voyages.
    c.) The traditional Bering land route theory is untenable for all sorts of cold-weather reasons.

    Overall, Who Discovered America?  was an interesting read, but I found most of Menzies’ “proofs” to be unconvincing, particularly the ones concerning Admiral Zheng He.  The odds that a pair of voyages in the early 1400’s, involving hundreds of Chinese ships sailing all over  both oceans and visiting all sorts of places, yet remaining completely unnoticed and leave no traces of their contacts is simply unbelievable.

    Also, Menzies loses a lot of credibility in my eyes when he touts the writings a century ago by one James Churchward.  I read four of Churchward’s books back in my youth; they put forth the proposition that, besides the lost continent of Atlantis, there was another lost continent in the Pacific, which he called “Mu”.  Churchward’s “evidence” was sketchy at best, ridiculous at worst, and he’s pretty much been relegated to the historical trash pile called "pseudohistory".  This is not someone you want to be citing in your books as corroboration.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Tumuli (n., plural) : ancient burial mounds; barrows (the singular is “tumulus”).
Others : Cartouche (n.).

Excerpts...
    Once entering the Black Current off the Asian continent, ships in the period of the Shang dynasty onward could ride along east toward the Americas, but probably could not return, as the westerly current from the Americas is too weak.  So Chinese voyages to the Americas would be in desperation, to avoid some terrible event at home without the likelihood or consideration of returning – a one-way ticket.  (loc. 744)

    The Great Dismal Swamp appears to hold just such a mighty piece of evidence.  The swamp was drained on commission by some friends of George Washington in 1769.  In the course of their work, they came across a huge old Chinese junk.  It was the stuff of rumor and legend; the fact was that no one could explain how an ancient Chinese sailing ship ended up in the muck on the Atlantic coast between North Carolina and Virginia.  (loc. 2677)

Kindle Details…
    The Kindle version of Who Discovered America? sells for $11.99 at Amazon.  1421 doesn’t seem to be available as an e-book, but sells for $8.00 in paperback.  1434 will cost you $14.49 for the e-book version.  Menzies has a semi-related book, The Lost Empire of Atlantis, and it goes for $11.99.  Speculative non-fiction books don’t come cheap.

 Gallipoli was, like the Trojan War, appallingly futile, a disgrace to European civilization.  (loc. 560 )
    The Zheng He assertions may be dubious, but the traditional Bering Land Bridge hypothesis is worthy of closer scrutiny.

    Wikipedia covers this in a posting called “Clovis First”, which refers to an archaeological site in Clovis, New Mexico, where evidence of human activity can be carbon-dated back to about 13,390 years ago. That just happens to coincide with the “beginning of the end” of the last great Ice Age, when the huge ice sheet covering Canada began to melt, starting along the western coast of the Americas.

    Even as a student, I was leery of this theory, since it postulates that once the Asian trekkers made it across to Alaska, they rapidly spread all the way to the southernmost tip of South America in only 14,000 years, which is a mere anthropological blink of the eye.

    As long as the Clovis site was the earliest evidence of humans in the Western Hemisphere, the Bering Land Bridge explanation was at least tenable, despite a lack of any direct archaeological evidence.  But since then a number of earlier sites have been discovered, most notably Monte Verde in Chile (carbon-dated 32,000-60,000 years ago) and Petra Furada in Brazil (carbon-dated 14,800-18,500 years ago).

    The excavations of these sites are not yet complete, and some of those carbon-dating numbers are still being challenged.  But if those estimates hold up, the whole “Bering Land Bridge” theory falls apart, since the great Canadian ice sheet would not yet have begun to melt.  And if that’s the case, a populating of the New World from the sea becomes a lot more plausible than traveling thousands of miles across a sheet of ice.

    6½ Stars.  In reading the reviews at Amazon and GoodReads, as well as the various Wikipedia articles on Menzies, Clovis First, and early settlements in the Americas, I have noted a marked bitterness in the tone of the dialogues and articles.  People don’t just disagree with Menzies, they call him things like “a charlatan or a cretin”.  The defenders of Menzies are equally caustic.

    Folks, History and Archaeology are not dead studies.  New findings will continue to be made, and established theories that were based on older, less-complete data, will inherently have to be tweaked.  That’s the way the scientific process works.  Menzies may not have all the right answers, but it is statistically ludicrous to assume that we just happened to find the  vrey earliest settlement in all of the New World in our first excavation at Clovis.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Skinny Dip - Carl Hiaasen


   2004; 355 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime-Humor; Florida Noir; Satire.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    To celebrate their second wedding anniversary, Chaz Perrone treated his wife Joey to a Florida cruise.  It was so romantic.  Joey adored it.

    Now, it's the last night of the cruise, and he's topped it off by suggesting they take one last stroll around the deck.  Yes, it’s way past midnight, and yes, anyone with any sense is in bed, resting up for the back-to-reality that tomorrow will bring.  But it’s still a perfectly romantic way to cap off a fantastic week.

    It’s obvious that the night will end with one last round of passion.  Joey can’t imagine any way this last night of the cruise can go wrong.

    Except when Chaz pushes her overboard, and the ship sails on without her.  Yes, that definitely has ruined the whole ambiance.

What’s To Like...
    Skinny Dip has all the usual tropes in a Carl Hiaasen Florida noir novel:  the resilient female protagonist, hiding out from the fellow who wronged her, and in the arms of a studly, loner-type male protagonist; plus a jaded detective trying to get to the bottom of everything, and a UE (Ultimate Evil) guy who is wrecking the Florida ecosystem in his own diabolical way.

    That may sound banal, but it works because Hiaasen develops each of these, along with various secondary peeps, into unique, quirky, charismatic people.  Even the bad guys are fun to meet.  There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of; mostly it’s just the five main ones listed above, plus a goon and a granny.

    I chuckled at Benny Middenbock’s bizarre death (which is not a spoiler; he’s Joey’s first husband and is already dead when at the start of the book), and ROFL’d at Chaz’s ill-timed attempts to partake of the wonders of Viagra.  Rolvaag’s two pet albino pythons struck a chord with me; I knew a guy in college that kept a pair of these in his apartment.

    There are 32 chapters covering 355 pages, so it’s easy to find a convenient place to stop reading for the night.  Readers new to Hiaasen should know that there’s a lot of cusswords, meds, booze, sex, and adult situations in any of his Florida noir books; all balanced out by an abundance of wit and satire  This is neither a whodunit nor a police procedural.  Wikipedia calls it a “caper story”, which was a new term to me, and quite apt.

    The ending was a mixed bag.  Things didn’t build to an exciting climax, but there were some neat storyline twists, all the threads were resolved (albeit some in a bittersweet manner), everyone gets their just desserts.  Skinny Dip is a standalone novel.  Amazon claims it is part of a series called Skink, but I beg to differ.  Wikipedia’s entry for the book makes no such mention.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Scrofulous (adj.) : having a diseased run-down appearance.
Others : Pullulating (v.).

Excerpts...
    Glossy with perspiration, Tool lumbered into the kitchen to check on the entrĂ©e.  “Three more minutes,” he announced, and walked out.
    “He’s staying here with you?” Rolvaag asked.
    “Yeah.  While his double-wide gets fumigated.”
    “What’s with the highway crosses?”
    “I’m not sure,” Chaz Perrone said, “but it might have something to do with him being a deranged, half-witted sociopath.”
    “Right.”
    “He claims to be carrying a bullet slug in the crack of his butt.”
    “Everybody’s got problems,” Rolvaag said.  (pg. 180)

    “Joey was the star of our book club, without a doubt!” Rose began.  “She was the one who got us hooked on Margaret Atwood and A.S. Byatt and P.D. James,” Rose bubbled.  “Heck, we would’ve wasted six whole weeks on Jane Austen if it weren’t for Joey.  She was a sweetie pie, sure, but she was also a firecracker.  Not afraid to kick off her shoes, no ma’am.  You should’ve heard her reading the juicy parts from Jean Auel’s latest!  Lord, she almost made the walls blush.”
    Stranahan thought: My Joey?  (pg. 270)

 “Chaz is slicker than pig snot on a doorknob, or however the saying goes.”  (pg. 52)
    There’s a different environmental theme in each Hiaasen novel, and I was intrigued by the one used here: the runoff from using chemical fertilizers is wreaking havoc on the Everglades flora and fauna due to small, but persistent, amounts of phosphates in them.

    This piqued my interest because the company I work for manufactures chemical fertilizers, and Florida is one of our key markets.  We do not make any phosphate-containing products, however.  And while I don’t question Carl Hiaasen’s research diligence, I am surprised that such a small amount of phosphate (300 parts per billion may sound like a big number, but it’s actually less than ½ part per million) can cause so much damage to the swamp ecosystem.

    But this is mostly just a technical musing on my part.  I don’t really have anything to quibble about in Skinny Dip, so I'm reduced to nitpicking

    8½ Stars.  ANAICT, Skinny Dip is one of Carl Hiaasen’s better-known and highly-regarded novels, and personally I found it to be fully deserving of that reputation.  This was my sixth Carl Hiaasen book (although the first since 2014), and overall I seem to be warming to his style of storytelling.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Infernal Aether - Peter Oxley


    2014; 348 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book One (out of three, plus a novella) in “The Infernal Aether” series.  Genre : Steampunk; Dark Fantasy; Paranormal; Dark Gothic Fantasy (so sez the author).  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    London nights during the Victorian Era can be very dark.  The fog comes on little cat’s feet, sits looking over the harbor and city on silent haunches, then moves on.

    Lately, according to those Londoners who have to walk the streets alone late at night, the darkness has become dangerous.  There are rumors (or, “rumours” in this book) of some of the “working girls of the night” getting snatched up and disappearing into thick air, never to return.

    Of course, any news about a few hookers going missing never reaches the ears of the gentry, and Augustus “Gus” Potts is one of those, albeit one whose financial situation has fallen upon some troubled times.  But even he can see that the darkness has become, well, a lot darker lately.  And eerier.  Who knows what evil might lurk inside it?

    Gus’s brother, Max, is a scientist.  He admits the night’s blackness seems more pervasive lately, but he finds it to be fascinating, not frightening.  He thinks something’s been added to the darkness, and he calls it “the Luminiferous Aether”.  He wants to study it.  After all, it might some sort of communications medium between here and another dimension.

    Well, there’s only one time to do such scientific testing – at night.  And Max seems to be blissfully unaware of the dangers of being out in the Aether, so Gus tags along.  This turns out to be quite prudent when, on their first night out “sciencing”, they came across a guy who’s just been mugged a huge brute of a creature.

    Maybe we should call it “The Infernal Aether” instead, Max.

What’s To Like...
    The Infernal Aether is a nice blending of the Steampunk and Horror genres.  The action starts quickly and the pace is fast the entire way.  I don’t recall any slow spots.  The story is told in the first-person POV, Gus’s.  There are 43 chapters covering 348 pages, and those chapters are further broken down into 8 “parts”.  The first seven parts are pretty equal in length, each one comprising 4-5 chapters.  The final part, the thrilling ending, is about twice as long.

    The book is written in English, not American, which I always enjoy, so you encounter words like storey, sceptical, despatched, glocky, and meagre.  I had fun trying to suss out some of the phrases, such as: “Old Bill” (the London police force), “Burke and Hare” (which reference a series of 16 murders in Scotland in 1827-28 - Wiki it);  and “Cocking a Snook” (detailed in the Kewlest New Word Section, below).

    I liked the how Peter Oxley developed the characters.  I wouldn’t call them “deep”, but what made them stand out was their “grayness”.  Our protagonist, Gus, borders on being an anti-hero.  And the main antagonist, Andras, may be a demon, but he does have a couple - just a couple, mind you – of redeeming qualities.  I don’t recall any of the secondary characters being all-white or all-black, although none of them were “half-and-half” either.  Even the “magic sword” is gray – it can slice through anything, but it overheats if you use it for too long of a time.

    There’s a nice variety of critters to meet and flee from, most of which can rip us puny humans to shreds.  The settings are all in Great Britain, mostly around the greater London area, except for one stay in Yorkshire (where they don’t think much of city slickers), and one excursion clear up to Scotland.  I particularly delighted to visit Seven Dials, (to which I was introduced to in a book I read earlier this year), and Windsor Castle (I’ve been there!), as well as the nods to Fermat’s Last Theorem and the infamous and historic “Window Tax”.

    The overall themes were pretty standard – Deal with the beasties that are wreaking havoc in the Aether, shoo them away, and somehow get everything back to normal again.  You might think that sounds kinda trite, but Peter Oxley has put a fresh spin on it, and tosses in just a smidgen of Goethe’s Faust to spice things up.  I thought it all worked rather well.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Cocking a Snook (phrase) : The posture of holding a spread hand up to one’s face, with the thumb on the nose, preferably with crossed eyes, waggling fingers, and any other annoying gesticulation that comes to mind.  (A  Britishism.  The Yankeeism equivalent is “the five-fingered salute”.)
Others : Glocky (adj.; Britishism); Cove (n. Britishism); Peaky (adj.; Britishism); Louche (adj.) Preternatural (adj.).

Excerpts...
    “Oh come on!” she said.  “You must have heard the rumours about the creature that stalks the streets in the early hours, picking off girls when they’re on their way home?  They say it can jump over buildings and walk through walls.”
    “If it can walk through walls, why go to the effort of jumping over buildings?” I asked.  “Sounds like quite a waste of-“  (loc. 557)

    Lieutenant Pearce, though, greeted the man like a hero from his favourite book.  “I have heard so much of your exploits,” he said.  “I did not truly believe that it was you we were going to meet.”
     Freddie glared at him.  “Young man, have I really slipped so far from the danger list as to warrant the respect of Her Majesty’s finest?  Time was, my name inspired fear and loathing.  Such happy days…”   (loc. 4285)

Kindle Details...
    The Infernal Aether sells for $4.99 at Amazon, as do the other two full-length books in the series.  The novella goes for $2.99.  Or you can buy the boxed set of the four books for $7.99, which is a significant savings.

”I don’t have the time for this.  I have some intense moping around to do.”   (loc. 1563)
    The quibbles are minor.  I never did see any reason for one of the characters to scamper off all the way to Scotland, other than to induce a time crisis for our heroes.  Then again, I’ve seen Steve Berry pull this same stunt and get away with it, and I must admit it generates an impressive amount of tension.

     Second, although it's true that the primary and secondary characters aren’t totally black or white, the fact that they all “lean” one way or the other makes it easy to slot them into the proper “good guys/bad guys” category, and quickly spot any potential double-dealers.  Yes, I’m picking nits about the shades of grey.

    The ending is an ambitious one: it’s reasonably exciting, somewhat twisty, completes the immediate story, and sets up the sequel.  Overall, The Infernal Aether falls into the “purty durn good” category, and I’m surprised Peter Oxley hasn’t written any more Dark Gothic Fantasy series since completing this  one. 

    8 Stars.  Add 1 Star if Steampunk novels float your boat.  Subtract 1 star if reading books written in English make you want to cock a snook at them.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card


   1985; 324 pages. Book One of the Ender’s Game” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dystopian Fiction; Military Sci-Fi.  Laurels : Nebula Award – Best Novel (1985); Hugo Award – Best Novel (1986); NY Times Bestseller – Mass Market Paperback (2013); Publishers Weekly Bestselling Science Fiction Novel (2012); and a bunch of readers polls.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    You could call it a “Goldilocks” situation.

    All of the kids in the family showed promise.  The military tested the oldest son first, Peter.  He had talent, but unfortunately was pathologically too mean.  He’d kill too many people, or they'd kill him, before he could be fully trained to be a leader.

    So next they tested the middle child, Valentine.  She was equal in talent, but simply too nice.  She’d be friends with everyone else in a group, and we all know a good commander can't be pals with the soldiers under him/her.

    In desperation, they tested the youngest son, Andrew.  Just six years old, he’s a little young to be giving orders to a fleet of starships, while the fate of humankind rides on his performance.  Yet all the monitoring shows that he’s their best choice – a happy medium between the psychological profiles of his two older siblings.  Not too mean; not too nice; he’s just right.

    It’s a pity then, that in order to mold him into the perfect leader, the military's going to have to crush him, both mentally and emotionally.

What’s To Like...
    Ender’s Game is an insanely popular sci-fi book from the mid-1980’s.  It garnered all sorts of awards when it came (some are listed above in the header), then did it all over again in 2013 when the movie came out.

    The book chronicles the life of Andrew Ender from age 6 to 20, as he undergoes grueling military training.  The main plotline is, of course, saving the universe, but Orson Scott Card also offers some interesting insight about bullying, screwing with people’s minds, problem-solving, leadership qualities, the importance of family, and the risks involved in any “first contact” scenario.

    The majority of the book involves Ender playing war games, at first on a computer, and then for an extended time excelling in what I can only describe as “Laser Tag in Zero Gravity”.  This may seem ho-hum, but it was cutting-edge technology back in the 1980’s.  I’ve played Laser Tag once or twice, and personally, I think it would be a fascinating endeavor to try it in a weightless atmosphere.

    Ender’s Game is a quick read, but not an easy one, due mainly to all the tactics that Ender has to come up with for his team to keep winning against increasingly stacked odds.  There are 15 chapters covering 324 pages, plus a 26-page (!) introduction by the author, which I skipped.  Each chapter starts with a dialogue by the military manipulators, discussing how they’re molding and warping Ender’s fragile mindset.  There is some cussing, which surprised me, but no sex, booze, or drugs.  I liked the childhood game of “Buggers & Astronauts”; it reminded me of a similar game we played as kids reenacting the battle of the Alamo.  For the record, I always chose to play on the “Mexican” side.

    The recruitment portion of the story reminds me of John Scalzi’s fantastic novel, Old Man’s War, which is reviewed here, except here kids are pressed into service, whereas Scalzi's story used geezers.  I also liked the “Locke/Demosthenes” thread; it is eerily applicable to our present-day problem with Talking Heads on the internet using Fake News to fleece uninformed listeners.

    A word to the wise – if you find the storyline starts to drag because game-playing is not your shtick, stick it out.  The ending has a couple of twists that are, in a word, fantastic.  The book is both a standalone story and a set-up for the rest of the series.  I was completely unaware that this was anything more than a one-and-done story.

Kewlest New Word ...
Philotic (adj.) : concerning the interconnection of all sentient beings in the universe.  (a made-up word in the book)
Others : Hegemony (n.)

Excerpts...
    “The sister is our weak link.  He really loves her.”
    “I know.  She can undo it all, from the start.  He won’t want to leave her.”
    “So, what are you going to do?”
    “Persuade him that he wants to come with us more than he wants to stay with her.”
    “How will you do that?”
    “I’ll lie to him.”
    “And if that doesn’t work?”
    “Then I’ll tell the truth.  We’re allowed to do that in emergencies.”  (pg. 16)

    “This isn’t just a matter of translating from one language to another.  They don’t have a language at all.  We used every means we could think of to communicate with them, but they don’t even have the machinery to know we’re signaling.  And maybe they’ve been trying to think to us, and they can’t understand why we don’t respond.”
    “So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.”
    “If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you.”  (pg. 253)

 “Me? I’m nothing.  I’m a fart in the air conditioning.  I’m always there, but most of the time nobody knows it.”  (pg.  42)
    I had a couple quibbles.  First, it is a fact that Orson Scott Card is a Mormon, and so I was not totally shocked to see a little bit of his religion sneaking into the storyline, along with a couple other biblical quotes.  I think I counted three of these little spiritual plugs and they were all awkward fits.  But there were none after about page 100, so maybe he got it out of his system.  Because, let's face it, if you’re going to inject religion into your science fiction story, the proper course is to invent one.

    Second, is anyone else tired of the baddies in sci-fi novels always being either robotic or insectoid?  I recognize this is so sensitive young minds don’t get too upset about we noble humans splattering extraterrestrial innards all over the universe.  But just once, I’d like to see Earthlings have to mow down an invading army of ruthless and murderous Ewoks.

    Finally, and this is more of a bit of advice than a quibble: I enjoyed Ender’s Game a lot more once I started reading it as a piece of Dystopian Fiction.  As a Sci-Fi novel, the book is rather blah.  We already have most of the technology presented in the book, so there simply isn’t much fiction to be entertained by.

    But as an examination of a dystopian world, the book shines.  There are strong deterrents for anyone wanting to have more than two kids, and Ender suffers from being a "third".  The government can insert “monitors” into the heads of small children to see if they have qualities befitting a military leader.  And while they can’t unilaterally take a promising kid away from the parents, they are permitted to give the tyke a sales pitch about leaving the family for a multi-year education at Battle School, where they can totally mess up his psyche.  I was fascinated by all this.

    8 Stars.  I found Ender’s Game to be much more akin to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than to H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds.  For me, that’s a huge plus.  And I never did figure out why the protagonist’s name changed from Andrew Ender to Ender Wiggin when he entered Battle School.  Perhaps it was too late at night when I read that part.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Lion In The Valley - Elizabeth Peters


   1986; 418 pages.  Book 4 (out of 20) of the “Amelia Peabody” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Mystery; Murder Mystery; Crime Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It’s a new year, and for the husband and wife team of archaeologists, Amelia Peabody Emerson and Professor Radcliffe Emerson, that means heading back to Egypt from their home in England to explore a new pyramid – two of them, actually.

    This is going to involve crawling around in stifling, bat-infested corridors of the larger of the two pyramids, and mucking through the muddy, flooded burial chamber of the smaller one.  There’s also the challenges of the Saharan heat, the blowing sand, the omnipresent dust, and the Bedouin tribesmen roaming the nearby dunes, all the while trying in vain to keep track of their eight-year-old son, Ramses, a youngster who has a phenomenal talent for getting in trouble, getting lost, and always finding a tenable defense to justify his antics.

    Still, things can’t help but go better than last year, when the Emerson family crossed paths with the notorious “Master Criminal” (nobody knows his true name), and only survived due to some heroics by Ramses.  Surely that’s all over and forgotten now, and this year they can concentrate on the excavations.

    Yet it is a curious fact that Amelia and Radcliffe never need to go looking for trouble.  It always seems to find them.

What’s To Like...
    Lion In The Valley was my introduction to Elizabeth Peters and her Amelia Peabody Historical Mystery series.  This story is set in 1895/96 when Egypt was a British protectorate.  Amelia gets top billing, primarily because the story is written in the form of a journal, in the First Person POV, and being penned by her.  But her husband and son play equally prominent parts in the story.

    The book is a vocabularian’s delight.  Amelia writes in a flowery style, and young Ramses delights in awing adults around him with his fustian.  Wikpedia correctly terms this a “Historical Mystery”, and it was fun to see Elizabeth Peters insert real archaeologists from that time period (including Howard Carter, ho of King Tut’s Tomb fame), and real archaeological sites, such as the Dahshoor (“Dahshur” if you want to find it in Wikipedia) pyramids that our protagonists are about to dig into.

   I would classify Lion In The Valley as a Cozy Mystery.  Yes, there are two bodies to be discovered, but we aren't witness to the actual killings.  Radcliffe might let slip an occasional “damn”, but Amelia is there to nag him into eschewing such language in front of Ramses.  Amelia the diarist is also resourceful in finding tasteful words to describe her and Radcliffe’s frequent “bouts of passion”.

    There are a bunch of Arabic expressions sprinkled throughout the text, and that was a treat for me.  The ending has a couple neat twists in it, and is suitably suspenseful, but also has a WTF which makes it somewhat hard to believe.  Lion In The Valley is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

    Elizabeth Peters is the pen name of one Barbara Mertz, who also wrote under the name of Barbara Michaels.  She received a PhD in Egyptology from the University in Chicago in 1952.  All of which means she paints a very realistic picture of life in Egypt in the 1890’s.

Kewlest New Word ...
Contumely (n) : insolent or insulting language or treatment.
Others : Gazette (as a verb); Haut Monde (n.; phrase); Syllogism (n.); Ensorcelled (v.).

Excerpts...
    As we waited for the workmen to arrive, Emerson said, “You were restless last night, Peabody.”
    “So would you have been had you been wakened hourly, as I was, by someone prowling round the tent.”
    “You talked in your sleep.”
    “Nonsense, Emerson.  I never talk in my sleep.  It is a sign of mental instability.  What did I say?”  (loc. 2646)

   “Peabody,” he said.
    “Yes, my dear Emerson?”
    “Are we surrounded by hostile Bedouin on the verge of a murderous attack?”
    “Why no, Emerson, I don’t think so.”
    “Did a shadowy figure creep into the tent, brandishing a knife?”
    “No.”
    “A mummified hand, perhaps?  Slipping through the gap between the tent wall and the canvas floor, groping for your throat?”
    “Emerson, you are particularly annoying when you try to be sarcastic.”  (loc. 3766)

Kindle Details...
    Lion In The Valley sells for $8.99 at Amazon.  The other 19 books in the series range in price from $1.99 to $9.99.   Individual books in the series are frequently offered at temporarily lower prices, usually $1.99.  Your local digital library is another good place to find copies, both in electronic and "real" formats.

 “Watch your dipthongs, Ramses.”  (loc. 547)
    There were some things that I was mildly disappointed in.

    First of all, both adult protagonists are archaeologists, so I was looking forward to digging and scraping and uncovering and cataloging.  But the storyline is virtually devoid of archaeological details.  Our heroes go off towards work, almost always get sidetracked by visitors or malefactors, and almost never find time to do the excavating they came to Egypt to do.

    The second issue is the Murder-Mystery portions.  If you’re hoping to solve the crimes alongside Amelia, you’ll be disappointed.  Things do eventually get resolved, but it doesn’t come via sleuthing, and its outcome is conveniently tailored to fit in with the personal storylines, not the crimes themselves.

    Finally, Ramses can get very annoying quite quickly with his adult-like vocabulary, convoluted lines of reasoning, and all-around obnoxiousness.  Simply put, his character isn’t believable for an 8-year-old..

    But hey, this was my introduction to Elizabeth Peters.  Lion In The Valley is an early entry, so maybe things get more believable as the series progresses.  Or maybe I haven’t yet grasped the tone and style the author is aiming for here.  That has happened before, with Ruth Downie’s Medicus series, and I eventually warmed up to her books.  We shall see.  I have at least two more Amelia Peabody books on my TBR shelf.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 star if you like Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who ...” books.  The structure of the Historical Mystery in Lion In the Valley is very similar to that used by Ms. Braun and frankly, IMO, Elizabeth Peters does it much better.