Saturday, October 27, 2018

Mort - Terry Pratchett

    1987; 243 pages.  New Author? : Heavens, no.  Book #4 (out of 41) in the Discworld series.  Book #1 (out of 5) in the “Death” sub-series.  Genre : Humorous Fantasy; Satire.  Laurels : #65 in the 2003 British reading survey, “The Big Read”.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Everyone needs to take some time off once in a while.  Kick off the shoes, put aside the scythe, and just forget about the stresses of the job.  This is true, even if you’re Death.

    Of course, you also need to have someone fill in for you while you’re away, especially if you’re Death.  It just won’t do to have the whole living/dying process put on hold. Time would grind to a halt, things would get crowded been should-be-dead critters, and there’s no telling what sort of Temporal Paradoxes would be spawned in the Multiverse. 

    But who can substitute for Death?  It’s not a profession that has a huge pool of practitioners, and it certainly wouldn’t do to have some amateur mucking around, screwing up the job.  It seems like there’s only one option available for Death.

    Head out to the next job fair and hire an apprentice.

What’s To Like...
    The three main story threads in Mort are a.) Mort learning on his own how to be Death’s  replacement (he gets zero on-the-job training), b.) Death’s R&R follies, and c.) the efforts to repair Mort’s first big career mistake.

    Death’s antics, as he tries to understand what it means to be a human, are especially entertaining.  He applies for a job, goes fly-fishing, gets drunk, dances, and gambles, all in order to learn the meaning of “fun”.  You’ll be amazed at what the first job he finally lands is.

    I always enjoy it when Multiverses show up in a story, and Terry Pratchett finds a unique  and imaginative way to handle the Temporal Paradox that Mort inadvertently creates here.  I chuckled at the Caroc Cards and the Ching Aling of the Hublandish, both fortune-telling devices, as well as Octarine, the magical eighth color of the spectrum.

    The wizards at the Unseen University get a lot of ink, and that’s a plus.  I don’t recall meeting any dwarves, trolls, elves, or guards from the Night Watch, but there is a gargoyle and a princess.  Plus the Librarian makes an appearance (ook!!), with Rincewind serving as his assistant.

    As with all Discworld novels, Mort is both a standalone story as well as part of a series.  There are a couple cusswords, but they’re few and far between.  You won’t miss much if you don’t read the Discworld books in their proper order.  As (almost) always, Terry Pratchett abstains from using chapter divisions, and sprinkles a fair amount of footnotes throughout the pages.  You don’t want to skip over those.  There are even “footnotes to footnotes”, which is something I don’t recall encountering before.

Kewlest New Word...
Calcareous (adj.) : chalky; containing Calcium Carbonate
Others :  Brassica (n.); Declamatory (adj.); Actinic (adj.); Bollard (n.).

    Reannuals are plants that grow backwards in time.  You sow the seed this year and they grow last year.
    Mort’s family specialized in distilling the wine from reannual grapes.  They were very powerful and much sought after by fortune tellers, since of course they enabled them to see the future.  The only snag was  that you got the hangover the morning before, and had to drink a lot to get over it.  (pg. 2)

    The Disc’s greatest lovers were undoubtedly Mellius and Gretelina, whose pure, passionate and soul-searing affair would have scorched the pages of History if they had not, because of some unexplained quirk of fate, been born two hundred years apart on different continents.  However, the gods took pity on them and turned him into an ironing board (when you’re a god, you don’t have to have reasons) and her into a small brass bollard.  (pg. 110)

“You drunk I’m think, don’t you?”  (pg. 150)
        The overarching theme of Mort is, of course, Death.  Even the title is a nod to this, since besides being short for the protagonist’s name, Mortimer, it’s the French word  for “death”.  Terry Pratchett’s thoughts on the subject here are both heartwarming and whimsical, yet theywere also sobering to me, since he’s no longer with us.

    I thought the ending, which is primarily the resolution of the Temporal Paradox, was quite clever, although some nit-picky readers  might deem it a bit “convenient”.

    In summary, Mort is one of the top-tier Discworld novels, highly entertaining, well-focused, and as good of a place as any to start reading this series.

    8½ Stars.  It should be mentioned that Mort ranked #65 in the 2003 Great Britain reading survey called “The Big Read”Five Discworld books claimed spots in the Top 100 places, and fifteen in the Top 200, which is absolutely phenomenal.  You can read more about The Big Read here.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Princesses Behaving Badly - Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

   2013; 301 pages.  Full Title : Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History without the Fairy-Tale Endings.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Non-Fiction; Women in History; Biographies.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    It seems like the dream of almost every little girl nowadays is to be a princess.  With a tiara in her hair, a wand with a star on the end, a frilly, fluffy skirt, and with the dominant color being pink or purple.  Author Linda Rodriguez McRobbie blames this on the Disney marketing campaign – its movies, toys, Halloween costumes, and whatnot.   Who wouldn’t want to be Belle, Ariel, or Cinderella?

    For a historical princess, the reality was somewhat different.  Sons of a reigning king grew up to be rulers – the eldest became the next king, and the rest became dukes.  Daughters became a marketable commodity – usually to be utilized to create or strengthen a political alliance via an arranged marriage, and the gods forbid that any princess should ever dream of marrying for love, courting a commoner, or (worst of all) getting a divorce.

    After that, her sole purpose in life is to produce a male heir for the throne.  Extramarital affairs by both king and queen were tacitly permitted, provided of course, one used a bit of discretion when engaging in them.   And being a princess in a royal household was much better than being a peasant.  At least you usually got to spend daddy’s riches.

   Still, some princesses are just not cut out for a life like that.  They might prefer to lead an army, steal a throne for themselves, hatch some diabolic political plot, sleep around, party all night, or live la vida loca..

    Their royal parents might call it “marching to the beat of a different drummer” or “just a stage she’s going through”.  Linda Rodriguez McRobbie calls it Princesses Behaving Badly.

What’s To Like...
    Princesses Behaving Badly is divided into 30 short biographies of daughters born into royalty (or pretending to be) in empires all around the world and ranging in time from 1500 BC (Hatsheput) to still-living today (Gloria von Thurn und Taxis).

    Interspersed among those chapters are another 15 sections on diverse subjects such as Royal Family Incest (there were reasons for practicing it), Warrior women who weren’t quite princesses, Six Ways to Fake Princesshood (useful advice?), and various princesses about whom there just aren’t enough details to warrant a discrete biography.

    All told, there are probably about 50 women examined to various degrees here, of which I’d heard of only five: Boudicca, Anne Boleyn, Lucrezia Borgia, Princess Margaret, and one of the “Anastasia” pretenders.  As a history buff, I was in hog heaven.

    The 45 biographies and tangents are grouped into seven sections, namely:
        01.) Warriors
        02.) Usurpers
        03.) Schemers
        04.) Survivors
        05.) Partiers
        06.) Floozies
        07.) Madwomen
     Also included in each biography are portraits of each princess, a catchy title, and one-paragraph teaser intros for them.  All of those literary devices worked great.

    Some examples of the titles: “The Princess Who Slaughtered Her Way to Sainthood”, “The Princess who Kept Male Concubines in Drag”, “The Princess Who Didn’t Wash”, and “The Princess Who Caused a Bank Robbery”.  Do any of those tickle your fancy?

    As expected, there are tons of interesting trivia and historical minutiae.  One princess stalked a guy by the name of Cecil Rhodes who happens to be the namesake of both “Rhodesia” and the “Rhodes Scholarship”.  Hernando Cortés defeated the Aztecs not so much with superior armor and weaponry (which is what I was taught way back when), but by bringing along with him the smallpox plague. And, to my utter amazement, the British Secret Intelligence Service (“MI6”) once staged a bank robbery in order to recover some nudie photos of Princess Margaret that were being used to blackmail her.  At least that’s the rumor.

    Personally, I found Princesses Behaving Badly to be thoroughly entertaining and quite enlightening.  I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer number of bad-ass and outrageous princesses the author was able to come up with.

Kewlest New Word ...
Excoriated (v.) : censured or severely criticized.

    Though she was petite – barely five feet tall – and delicate, Christina walked and talked like a man.  She strode around in flat shoes, swore like a sailor in a deep gruff voice, and tended to smack her servants around.  She slouched, preferred short skirts and trousers to overstuffed female fashions, and had no time or patience for things like embroidery and etiquette.  She was often too busy to comb her hair and none too keen on bathing (in her defense, no one really was back then).  (loc. 2182)

    Her health wasn’t the only thing fragile about Alexandra.  At age 23, the pretty, dark-haired princess was found walking slowly, carefully, bow-leggedly down the corridors of the royal palace.  When questioned by her worried parents, she claimed that as a little girl she had swallowed a full-size glass grand piano.  The princess was worried that if she bumped into something, the piano inside her would shatter and leave her in bloody shreds. (…)
    Gossips claimed that she also believed she had a sofa in her head.  (loc. 3546)

Kindle Details…
    The Kindle version of Princesses Behaving Badly currently sells for $10.99 at Amazon.  ANAICT, this is the only book offered at Amazon by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie..

 “You don’t want to behave like you’re 70 when you’re in your 20s.  And vice versa.”  (loc. 2933 )
    I have only one thing to quibble about in Princesses Behaving Badly.  I thought the decision to arrange all the princesses cited in any given section in chronological order, from oldest to most recent, worked quite well.  So I was a bit surprised that this wasn’t done with the 30 biographies as a whole.

    Instead, they’re arranged in sections, and this got to be just a tad repetitive at times.  For instance, we get five “princesses leading armies” in a row in Section 1.  After the third or fourth, the stories all seemed to sound the same.  But then we’re done with that category, and off we go to a list of a bunch of princesses who all grabbed the throne by force, and we never get to read about any other warring princesses

    I think it might be a bit more interest-holding to just present all thirty in chronological order, as was done in another anthology of biographies I read recently (reviewed here). I very much liked that arrangement.  Spreading those warrior women throughout the whole cast of noteworthy princesses keeps everything fresh.

    But I quibble.  Princesses Behaving Badly is a great book that kept my attention from start to finish, and fully deserving of a 9*/10 rating.

    9 Stars.  Interestingly, the book doesn’t fare so well at both Amazon (3.9 stars out of 5) and Goodreads (only 3.61 stars out of 5).  The main complaint seems to be that some reviewers felt that the “facts” and “sources” for a lot of the biographies were a bit "shaky".  Unfortunately, if a princess lived before the invention of the printing press, the chances of finding reliable details about her life etched in stone (literally) are slim.  To get some idea about this, go see how many rock-solid details you can find about the life of William Shakespeare.  They are few and far between (as Bill Bryson found out when he went to write a biography of The Bard), and Shakespeare lived in the relatively recent 1600’s.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Time Ships - Stephen Baxter

   1995; 530 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Time-Travel; “Hard” Science Fiction; Speculative Science Fiction; Sequels.  Laurels : A slew of them.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    It was going to be a simple thing, really.  Easy-peasy.

    Our hero/narrator had a successful maiden voyage into the far future – to 807,201 AD to be precise, and returned home chastened, but safe and sound.  H.G. Wells found his manuscript detailing the journey, and published it to enormous acclaim back in 1895, calling it The Time Machine.

    But one regret remains, one loose thread, one piece of unfinished business.  Weena, the lovely Eloi girl that our hero became so enamored with, had to be left behind, captured by the evil Morlocks and sure to be their next meal.  Something our hero was powerless to stop, since he was fleeing for his life.

    Yet now, back in his own time, he’s reflected on this, and has come up with a remarkably simple solution: jump into the Time Machine, head out to 807,201 AD once again, land a couple hours earlier than before, and rescue Weena.  He knows where the Morlocks will lie in wait (Time Travel has some inherent advantages), and the Morlocks will never know what hit them.  It’s a well-thought-out plan.  What could possibly go wrong?

    Well, to quote the great Morlock sage, Nebogipfel, “Cause and Effect, when Time Machines are about, are rather awkward concepts.”

What’s To Like...
    To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publishing of The Time Machine, the H.G. Wells estate authorized Stephen Baxter to write a sequel.  The result was The Time Ships, and judging from the number of awards it won and/or was nominated for (listed below), they made a good choice.   The Time Ships is an epic Hard Science Fiction novel, and fully integrates events from The Time Machine (along with numerous nods to other H.G. Wells tales) into its storyline.

    The novel is divided into 7 “books”, plus an Epilogue, each one covering a ‘”jump” in time by our never-named protagonist and his newfound sidekick , a Morlock named Nebogipfel.  The jumps encompass the full temporal spectrum – to both the end of Time itself, and way back to before the Big Bang.

    Along the way, our heroes examine a number of serious themes, such as democracy, God, war, nuclear bombs, forced sterilization (which really occurred in the US back in the 1920’s), and evolution.  Interestingly, the Morlock viewpoint is often at odds with the Human one.  Stephen Baxter also has one huge advantage that H.G. Wells lacked – a century in the development of Quantum Physics.  So things like Multiverses, Temporal Paradoxes, Dyson Spheres, and Sentient Artificial Intelligence are also encountered.

    I was particularly impressed by the treatment of Temporal Paradoxes, such as “what happens if I go back in Time and kill my earlier self?”  A lot of Time Travel novelists take pains to skirt these situations; Stephen Baxter revels in them.

    Outside of our two chrono-hoppers, there aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of, and for all the new worlds we visit, not many new species to behold.  There are the Humans, Morlocks, and Eloi, of course; but besides that, just some post-dinosaur flora and fauna, and the epitome of Evolution – the Universal Constructors.

    The titular Time Ships don’t appear until page 447, and I learned what a Catherine Wheel is (the fireworks, not the torture device) and who Kurt Godel was.  I never did figure out what an Everett Phonograph was, nor when and where Filby fit in; but I was happy to see the nod to the town of Staines (I’ve been there!) as well as Henri Poincaré, whom I recently learned about (see the review here).

    There were four neat drawings interspersed throughout the book, although they might not be included in every edition.  77 chapters cover 520 pages, so you can always find a good spot when you want to stop reading for the night.  The entire book is written in the first-person POV.  I read The Time Machine as a preparation for The Time Ships, but in retrospect, I don’t think it was necessary.  The ending won’t be to everyone’s taste.  It has a “2001 – A Space Odyssey” feel to it, but I can’t picture an alternative way to end things.

Kewlest New Word ...
Rum Cove (n., phrase) : a dexterous or clever rogue (possibly a Britishism).
Others : Perforce (adv.); Lenticular (adj.); Peripatetic (adj.); Farrago (n.); Benighted (adj.).

    I could see again.  I had a clear view of the world – of the green-glowing hull of the Time Ships all around me, of the earth’s bone-gleam beyond.
    I was existent once again! – and a deep panic – a horror – of that interval of Absence pumped through my system.  I have feared no Hell so much as non-existence – indeed, I had long resolved that I should welcome whatever agonies Lucifer reserves for the intelligent Non-Believer, if those pains served as proof that my consciousness still endured!  (pg. 455)

    An infinite universe!
    You might look out, through the smoky clouds of London, at the stars which mark out the sky’s cathedral roof; it is all so immense, so unchanging, that it is easy to suppose that the cosmos is an unending thing, and that it has endured forever.
    … But it cannot be so.  And one only need ask a common-sense question – why is the night sky dark? – to see why.
   If you had an infinite universe, with stars and galaxies spread out through an endless void, then whichever direction in the sky you looked, your eye must meet a ray of light coming from the surface of a star.  The night sky would glow everywhere as brightly as the sun…  (pg. 472)

“You and I – and Eloi and Morlock – are all, if you look at it on a wide enough scale, nothing but cousins within the same antique mudfish family!”  (pg. 106)
     The biggest plus to The Time Ships is how well Stephen Baxter manages to capture the writing style and storytelling of H.G. Wells.  Paradoxically, the biggest minus is also how well he captures that writing style and storytelling.

    Science Fiction has come a long way since H.G. Wells penned The Time Machine.  There’s a lot more action now, and a lot more world-building.  I still enjoy reading classic Sci-Fi stories, but I’m also thankful they’re generally less than 200 pages in length.

    Here, we have 500+ pages of century-old Sci-Fi.  The pace is slow, and while Stephen Baxter gives the reader a lot to think about, there aren’t a lot of thrills and spills.  True, this is also inherent in any Hard Science Fiction book that’s done properly.  But if you’re looking for a science fiction novel with galaxy-invading aliens and a protagonist with a liberal libido, you probably should skip this one, and do an Amazon search for “Space Opera”.

    7½ Stars.  Per Wikipedia, the laurels The Time Ships garnered are:  British Science Fiction Award – 1995 (winner); John W. Campbell Memorial Award – 1996 (winner); Philip K. Dick Award – 1996 (winner); British Fantasy Award – 1996 (nominee); Arthur C. Clarke Award – 1996 (nominee); Hugo Award – 1996 (nominee); Locus Award – 1996 (nominee); Kurd-Lasswitz Award, Foreign Fiction – 1996 (winner); Premio Gigamesh Award – 1997 (winner); Seiun Award – 1999 (winner)Wowza!

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Kaiser Affair - Joseph Robert Lewis

   2013; 224 pages.  Book 1 of “The Drifting Isle Chronicles” trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk; Fantasy; Paranormal.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Bettina Rothschild and Arjuna Rana are two of the finest detectives in Eisenstadt.  They work super well together, which is no surprise since they also happen to be husband and wife.  Bettina supplies the beauty and the brains, and Arjuna contributes the brawn and several other useful skills, including having a photographic memory.  Both of them are deadly accurate with their coilguns.

    So it’s no wonder when the head of the Ministry of Justice, Gisele Kaiser, calls them to her private office and commissions them to take on an ultra-sensitive case.  It seems that one of the city’s foremost art-thieves has just successfully managed to brazenly escape from the maximum-security Torghast Prison.

    There are a couple of rather bizarre things about the case though.

    For starters, breaking out of Torghast is no small feat.  There are multiple guards to bribe, and gangland criminals to hire to assist in the getaway.  That takes money and connections, neither of which a mere burglar is likely to have.

    Then there’s the request by Gisele Kaiser that the investigation be handled in utmost secrecy.  Well, that’s somewhat understandable, since the art thief’s name is Ranulf Kaiser, Gisele’s brother.  If word gets out about this, the political scandal will be enormous.

    But the oddest part about the case is the timing.  Ranulf Kaiser had just about completed his prison sentence.  He was due to be released from prison in less than a month.

    What’s so important that he’d jeopardize his entire future by escaping now?

What’s To Like...
    If you’re a fan of Steampunk, you’ll love The Kaiser Affair.   World-building is a Joseph Robert Lewis forte, and he doesn’t disappoint here.  There are some neat gizmos: you can drive around in (steam-powered) autocarriages; shoot  your coilgun at criminal lowlifes, and if you’re daring enough, take a flight in the just-been-invented autogyros.  There’s a huge “drifting isle”, called Inselmond, floating  about a mile above Eisenstad, and if you listen carefully enough, you’ll find that all sorts of birds can talk, which sometimes makes them a very convenient source of information.

    Legends abound about how and why the drifting isle got there, and there’s even speculation that it might be populated.  No one can tell, because all you can see from earth is the rocky bottom of it.   There’s also talk about some sort of secret society of assassins in Eisenstadt, called “The Shadows”.  But nobody’s ever seen them, so who knows if it's true or not?

    I liked the strong female leads for both the good guys and the baddies.  Ditto for the fact that Bettina, although still rather young, has to use a cane to get around.  Perhaps this is a subtle tip-of-the-hat to Robert Heinlein, who used to frequently endow his heroes with disabilities in his Sci-Fi stories was back in the 1950’s.  Education-wise, Bettina has earned a degree in Chemistry and one of the other female characters has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering.  It’s a neat world where women are just as educated as the men.

    The pacing is brisk, and there’s lots of action to keep you turning the pages.  There is an element of Fantasy also woven into the story:  some of the weaponry is magical, and you can consult astrologers (called “starcasters”) if you want, although their helpfulness is at times limited.  Along with all the thrills and spills, Joseph Robert Lewis also touches on a serious theme – racial prejudice – and I thought this was a very nice touch.  Finally, the banter between our two protagonists is often hilarious and always witty.

    There are 23 chapters, plus an epilogue, covering 224 pages, so it’s easy to find a good place to stop reading for the night.  The R-rated stuff is limited to a couple cusswords, one roll-in-the-carriage, and some implied (but never carried out) mild bondage.  The settings are limited to Eisenstadt and the Drifting Isle, but that allows the author to develop both sites in detailed fashion.   Everything builds to a suitably exciting ending, with a twist or two in it that I didn’t see coming.  The Kaiser Affair is a standalone story, with all the story threads tied up nicely.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Riparian (adj.) :  relating to or situated on the banks of a river.

    “A murder of ravens, a parliament of owls, a brood of chickens, and a flight of swallows,” Bettina said.  “But a flock of birds. A flock.
    Arjuna looked up from his waffles slathered in syrup, butter, and strawberries.  “I’m sorry, what?”
    “A flock, Arry,” Bettina sipped her tea and peered thoughtfully out through the café windows at the bright morning light on the bust street outside.  “I know what a murder is, and a parliament, and a brood.  They’re all real words.  But what is a flock?”
    He smiled and finished his coffee.  “It‘s a word, dear.  Try not to overthink it.”  (loc. 443)

    “I asked you, what is that thing in your hand?”
    The tall Dumastran turned his head and looked at the shining silver bow resting on his shoulder as though he were seeing it for the first time.  “Oh this?  Yes, well, Strauss smashed my poor little coilgun in  that miserable tomb, so I had to make do.”
    “Make do?”  Bettina cleared her throat.  “Dear, when one makes do in a miserable tomb, one usually manages with a dusty old rock or a filthy old bone.  One does not make do with an ancient recurve bow, doubtlessly forged from strange alloys using long-lost metallurgical secrets.”  (loc. 2226)

Kindle Details...
    The Kaiser Affair currently sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The other two books in the series, Black Mercury by Charlotte E. English, and The Machine God by MeiLin Miranda, both sell for $3.99.  Joseph Robert Lewis has a slew of other Fantasy e-books to offer, ranging from free to $2.99 apiece.  I read the Aetherium series a few years ago, when it was just a trilogy and the books had different titles.  It is now a (completed) 8-book series, and you can pick up the Omnibus edition, containing all eight stories for $9.99, which is a really good deal.

 A mind like a library, the body of an angel, and the stomach of an adolescent.  Two out of three aren’t bad, I suppose.  (loc  582)
    The Kaiser Affair has fabulous world-building, lot of action and adventure, and fascinating characters.  Yet one important thing is missing: a compelling storyline.  As other reviewers noted, this really is just a 225-page chase scene.  Entertaining, yes.  Epic, no.

    At the end of the e-book, there’s an “extra” that perhaps sheds some light on this.  Titled, “A Note about The Drifting Isle Chronicles”, it gives the background of how the story came to be, which is a rather unique process.

    First, a group of writers with diverse genre focuses got together and spent weeks doing the world-building.  Once that was finished, each author took a separate piece of this new world (which essentially is just Eisenstadt and Inselmond) and wrote a novel in whatever genre they specialized in.  The result was a trilogy having three different authors.

    I can think of two other writers who have tried something similar, albeit in both cases, it was aimed at encouraging Fanzine Fiction.  John Scalzi developed one in his Old Man’s War universe, and Eric Flint did one in his 1632 alternate dimension series.  My impression is that neither one went over particularly well.

    I suspect that any “shared” setting has an inherent weakness: nothing earthshaking can happen.  For example, Joseph Robert Lewis can’t annihilate half the population of Eisenstadt with a neutron bomb, because two other authors are using the same setting and would have to accommodate such an event in their storylines.  Thus, you're limited to penning stories that don't disturb the world-building and don't kill off any of the main characters.

    Whether this had any impact on this particular collaborative world-setting I can’t say.  But I note that in the end, only three writers used the world that they (and others?) built, and ANAICT none of them ever penned a second novel set in it.

    8 Stars.  There may be nothing “epic” about the storyline in The Kaiser Affair, but I still enjoyed it from the first page to the last.  Joseph Robert Lewis can probably write a story about paint drying that will still keep a reader turning the pages.  If you can be happy with a Steampunk story that doesn’t involve saving humanity, then this book's will be a delight.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Just Add Water - Jinx Schwartz

   2011; 414 pages.  Book 1 (out of 10) of the “Hetta Coffey” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Comedy; Romantic Suspense; Women's Fiction; Women Sleuths.  Laurels : “Eppie Award – Best Mystery” Winner at some point (more on this in a bit).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Hetta Coffey is on the prowl.  She’s looking for good-looking, rich, eligible men, and if they’re eligible and rich, frankly, that “good-looking” qualification can be overlooked.  Anything from young to old is fine, although middle-aged candidates might fit best, since Hetta is in that category, and she’s usually with her best friend and fellow-prowler, Jan, who is younger, perkier, curvier, and usually gets the pick of the prospective pack of suitors.

    The trouble is, despite diligently hitting the local bars and nightclubs, the pickings of the prospective packs of suitors have been rather meager lately.  Part of this is Hetta’s fault, she still hasn’t gotten over getting dumped a couple years ago in Japan by one dastardly, smooth-talking (and married!) bastard named Hudson Williams.

    But perhaps the average bar in Oakland, California is just not the best place to find quality potential lovers.  So maybe the time has come to find another pick-up perch.  Hey, I’ve got an idea!  How’s about going to a Yacht Club?  They serve lots of booze there, and all the clientele are going to be rich, boat-owning sailors.  In fact, there’s only one drawback...

    To get into those clubs, Hetta will have to own a yacht.

What’s To Like...
    Just Add Water is the Book One in the Jinx Schwartz “Hetta Coffey” series.  I read Book 6 last year (it is reviewed here), so it was neat to now go back and read how the overarching storyline began.  With the exception of the first chapter, which is actually a prologue, Just Add Water takes place in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, a lot of it on water.  I was tickled to see that Half Moon Bay gets a brief mention.  I’ve been there.

    The book’s cover boasts it winning an “Eppie Award – Best Mystery”, but there isn’t a lot out on the Internet about that laurel.  I gather “Eppie” is related to the acronym of a now-defunct group called “EPIC”, which stands for “Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition”, and that they closed up shop this past May.

    Having read two books in the series now, I’m gradually getting the feeling that it’s better to read these books as Women’s Fiction stories, than as Mysteries.  You’ll have more fun following the crazy lives of Hetta and Jan than trying to figure out whodunit.  Here, the murder-mystery itself doesn’t even show up until 52% Kindle, which means you’re clueless about the relevance of the prologue until you’re more than halfway through.

    If you like perky female protagonists, you’ll love meeting Hetta.  Witticisms just flow from her lips.  Jinx Schwartz works a bunch of French phrases into Hetta’s dialogue thoughts, and I always like that.  Hetta and I also learned to be wary of anyone whose nickname is “Dilly”.

   With the exception of the prologue, the book is written in the first-person POV (Hetta’s), and the 414 pages are split into 50 chapters, so you can always find a good place to stop for the night.  There is a bunch of cussing, but I thought that fit in well with Hetta’s sassiness.  Just Add Water is a standalone tale, as well as the first book in the series, and there’s a heartwarming Epilogue that ties up one of the threads.

Kewlest New Word…
Contretemps (n.) : a minor dispute or disagreement.

    “Men ‘n’ dawgs.  Dogs ain’t worth a diddlydamn until they’re five, and men ‘til they’re fifty.  Canine maturity must have something to do with getting their pockets picked at an early age.  And they skip the infernal midlife crisis stuff.  Must be why dogs don’t buy corvettes and yachts.”  (loc. 370)

    Chills.  Fever.  Dizziness, nausea and delirium.
    Recognizing the symptoms, I hoped it was simply a reoccurrence of childhood malaria, but I suspected the dreaded love bug.
     I was right.  Malaria, after several days of pure horror, goes away.  Love’s repugnancies burrow in.  Why can’t I throw up and get it over with?  And if falling in love is painful, falling into unrequited love is downright agony, although I’ve always found it does wonders for the waistline.  (loc. 3579)

Kindle Details....
    Just Add Water sells for $3.99 at Amazon, which is the price for all the other nine books in the series.  Jinx Schwartz offers two 4-book bundles of the series for $9.99 apiece, and has one or two other books, unrelated to this series, available in the $0.99-$3.99 price range.

The world would be a much safer place if foreplay and hindsight could be reversed.   But boring.  (loc. 2573)
    The ending is a mixed bag.  It’s suitably exciting and the Ultimate Evil wasn’t who I expected it to be.  OTOH, figuring out the reason why Hetta’s boyfriend jilted her was blatantly easy.  And if you’re hoping to figure out the whodunit before Hetta does, forget about it.  There aren’t any clues strewn about, and Hetta doesn’t give the whole thing much attention.

    The manuscript needs another round of editing.  I can overlook spellchecker errors, particularly when reading something self-published and/or by an Indie author, but forgetting how you spelled the name of a company you just made up (is it Comtec or Comptec?) is sloppy, and misspelling Mean Joe Greene’s last name is just downright sacrilegious to this Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

    Also, there’s a fine line between being wittily snarky and being annoyingly rude, and that line gets crossed a lot in Just Add Water.  One example: when a minor character who is Japanese gets introduced into the story, the background given is that he has a neighbor who’s Korean and he hates him because, well, you know, all Koreans are racists.  If this had been critical to solving the murder-mystery, then that would be justified.  But it wasn’t, which means it's just crass. 

    Finally, it doesn’t take a Fox newscaster to discern what the author’s political views are.  That might be okay for a political drama novel, but when I read a mystery, I’m interested in figuring out who the perpetrator is.  I don't care to know the author's political views, and I'm just as sure the author doesn't give a sh*t about mine.  Slipping one’s personal political views into the plotline isn’t clever, it’s amateurish.  

    7½ Stars.  Despite the right-wing bent to the book's banter, I still enjoyed Just Add Water.  So Just Add 1½ stars if, when you look in the mirror, your neck is red.

Monday, October 1, 2018

On Giants' Shoulders - Melvyn Bragg

   2009; 360 pages.  Full Title : On Giants’ Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries, from Archimedes to DNA.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction, Science, Mathematics, Science History; Biography.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    I think it’s fair to label Melvyn Bragg a polymath.  Wikipedia lists him as being a broadcaster, a scriptwriter, an interviewer, a presenter, and a novelist.  He’s won 18 prestigious awards in these various areas, and his published writings include novels, non-fiction books, children’s books, and screenplays.  

    My friends in England tell me he’s a well-known TV personality; his career began in 1961, and continues even into the present, Mr. Bragg now being 78 years old.  I know of him from reading one of his non-fiction books back in 2016, titled “The Adventure of English” which is reviewed here

    As brilliant as he is, you’d think he’d be a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon or something.  But in the introduction to this book, he confesses that he avoided anything even close to science throughout his schooling.

    But there came a day when he wondered if he was missing out on something by eschewing all things scientific.  After all, you never see an unhappy chemist, a math whiz who hates doing differential equations, or a physicist who’d rather be driving a truck.

    So he made it a point to look into a history and culture of Science.  He contacted some of the most eminent present-day scientists, and quizzed them to find out what made them tick.  He aired a series of programs on British radio, with the interviews and the feedback he received.  From there, he chose his personal top dozen scientists of all time, and asked his newly-befriended scientific peers what they thought of his choices.

    And then he wrote On Giants’ Shoulders so he could share his discoveries with the rest of us.

What’s To Like...
    Melvyn Bragg’s list of his 12 "greatest-ever" scientists, along with his sobriquets, is:

01.) Archimedes (287-212 BC) “The first Scientist”
02.) Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) “The Columbus of the Stars”
03.) Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”
04.) Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1797) “The Revolution does not need Scientists”
05.) Michael Faraday (1791-1867) “The Great Experimenter”
06.) Charles Darwin (1809-1882) “The Conservative Revolutionary”
07.) Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) “The Man who discovered Chaos by Accident”
08.) Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) “Science or Art?”
09.) Marie Curie (1867-1934) “A Woman’s Place is in the Lab”
10.) Albert Einstein (1879-1955) “The first Celebrity Scientist”
11. & 12.) Francis Crick (1914- ) & James Watson (1928- ) “The Meaning of Life”

    There’s also an introduction, where Bragg discloses that the book’s overall motif will be “Science for the non-scientist”, plus an “afterword” final chapter, in which the author and his science friends contemplate what might happen in the next hundred years of science.  For the record, since I am a chemist by profession, I’ve heard of all of the people on Bragg’s list, except #7 (“Chaos Theory”), #11, and #12 (“DNA”).

    This is not a science textbook.  Bragg has no intentions of teaching you how to replicate DNA, or the physics behind the theory of Multiverses.  Instead, he focuses on the impact each scientist’s work had on the world they lived in, and discusses with his colleagues questions like:  a.) What if said scientist had not made his major discovery?, b.) What kind of drive did that scientist have that led him to his breakthrough?, and c.) Upon whose shoulders was that scientist standing in order to make his discovery?

    Both the author and his contemporary scientist friends refrain from gushing over these twelve greats, and I liked that.  Einstein is called “lazy” by some, since he never bothered to prove any of his groundbreaking theories.  He merely wrote them down and left it to others to do the verifying.  Galileo’s famous trial by the Inquisition was not a “Science vs. Religion” issue, the Church was mad that he trashed the biblical “the Sun revolves around the Earth” theory while admitting he couldn’t disprove it.  Lavoisier, guillotined during the French Revolution, lost his head because he was a hated tax collector for the King, not because he was part of the nobility.  Darwin never once used the term “Evolution” in his writings; and the term “scientist” didn’t come into use until the 1830’s.

    On Giants’ Shoulders is written in English, not American, so you have plural maths, are educated in the sixth form (I still don’t know what that means), are sceptical, have fervour, and might contract leukaemia.  Melvyn Bragg starts each chapter with a page-long timeline for each scientist, along with a portrait.  Those extras were really neat.  Finally, despite the “heaviness” of the subject matter, I found the book to be a fast read.

Kewlest New Word ...
Fatuous (adj.) : Silly and pointless.
Others : Synoptic (adj.).

    Faraday did not invent the electric motor.  Faraday did not invent the electric light bulb.  Faraday did not invent any particular technology and in fact Faraday himself would have been most horrified most probably at the imputation that he was a mere inventor.  As far as Faraday is concerned, he is a discoverer of great natural philosophical principles.  He is certainly not going to be engaged in the rather sordid business of inventing, which is something that craftsmen or entrepreneurs or people who are not gentlemen do.  (pg. 145)

    We are told that the universe came into existence about fifteen billion years ago with the Big Bang.  On our earth, for most of the four thousand million years it has been in existence, there was no living creature or thing.  If we equate the age of the earth to a twenty-four-hour day, the first signs of life appear after the twenty-third hour and human beings emerge in the last few minutes before midnight.
    The analogy of the clock is often used.  It seems to me to carry a fatal pessimism.  For when midnight strikes – is that not the Apocalypse, the end of everything?  Why could our few minutes not be the first of another fifteen billion year adventure?  (pg. 360)

 We are better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it will rain on Aunty’s garden party three Sundays from now.  (pg. 187)
    I can't think of anything to quibble about in  On Giants’ Shoulders, but if you’re not of a scientific mentality, and/or don’t want to be, then reading chapter after chapter about  mostly dead mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, and chemists might get tedious.  Ditto if you were looking for someone who can make learning about Quantum Physics so easy a caveman can comprehend it.

    OTOH, there are some very interesting “speculative” questions about science posed, that are  worthy to be thought about.  Such as:

    If the (ancient) Greeks hadn’t invented science, would it have ever happened at all?  (pg. 16)
    If we razed the planet clean and started again, would Homo Sapiens inevitably turn up, or would it be purely a matter of chance?  (pg. 176)

   It's rather interesting to see the diversity in the answers that Bragg's science friends come up with.

    9 Stars.  On Giants’ Shoulders is my second Melvyn Bragg book, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both of them.  I haven’t ventured into his fiction books yet, but I'm now tempted to go out and try to find one, just to see if he is equally adept when making things up.