Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Burglar On The Prowl - Lawrence Block

    2004; 350 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #10  (out of 11) in the Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” series.  Genre : Crime-Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Surveillance cameras are cropping up all over the place these days.  Inside apartment buildings, along all the aisles in department stores, on the city streets, and above many sidewalks.  It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to make a living as a law-un-abiding citizen.

    Heck, you don’t even have to be in the process of committing a crime.  If you’re a not-so-well-to-do person walking around in a well-to-do neighborhood, and your face shows up on a surveillance video, well, people are bound to wonder what you’re doing there.

   Like, for instance, our protagonist, Bernie Rhodenbarr, who's the owner of a used bookstore by day, a small-time, part-time burglar by night, and known to a local police detective for both of those vocations.

    So when someone kills three people during a robbery in an upscale neighborhood, and Bernie’s face gets caught on a nearby sidewalk camera, guess who instantly becomes the prime suspect?  After all, what other reason could a known petty thief have for traipsing around the street there in the dead of night?

    Truth be told, Bernie had another reason to be there, and was completely unaware of the murder-robbery taking place.  He was checking out the neighborhood in preparation for a burglary of his own.  Which is not a very good alibi to give to the police.

    Good luck on wiggling out of this one, Bernie.

What’s To Like...
    The Burglar On The Prowl follows Lawrence Block’s standard pattern for this series: Bernie becomes the prime suspect in a crime, usually while perpetrating his own bit of larceny, and is therefore forced to solve it to clear his name.  His friend Carolyn Kaiser lends some well-intentioned but amateurish assistance, while Police Detective Ray Kirschmann waffles between arresting Bernie and/or aiding him, the latter option being contingent upon Ray getting the credit for solving the case.

    The may sound banal, but it works due to the abundance of wit, the lively pace, and the complex and intriguing plotline.  Bernie’s tasks here are to figure out a.) who killed a rich couple and their doorman (and why?), b.) who robbed Crandall Rountree Mapes (and what did they steal?), c.) who violated a trust in the worst way during a blind date, and d.) why would someone pay $1300 for a $12 book and then get killed for it?

    As usual, Lawrence Block gives nods to a bunch of his fellow authors.  Here he tips his hat to Graham Greene, Leon Uris, Joseph Conrad, George Gissing (who?), Marcel Proust, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Sandford.  The nod to the last one is quite clever: Sandford has a 30-book “Prey” series (Shadow Prey, Winter Prey, Chosen Prey, etc.) so Block “invents” a new title: Lettuce Prey.

    I enjoyed the somewhat dated references to LP’s and Amway.  There’s a sprinkling of Spanish mixed in, including one cussword.  I’d never heard of “milk chutes” before, and the “McGuffin which is really a false McGuffin” literary device made me chuckle.  I liked the several references to the 20th-century history of Latvia; it’s something near and dear to my heart.

    The ending is vintage Lawrence Block.  Bernie presents four different versions of it, which seemed a bit convoluted and confusing, but hey, it made things interesting.  Also, one of the bad guys gets away, and I’m always like that sort of thing.

    “The man,” said my friend Marty Gilmartin, “is an absolute … a complete … an utter and total …”  He held out his hands, shook his head, and sighed.  “Words fail me.”
    “Apparently,” I agreed.  “Nouns, anyway.  Adjectives seem to be supporting you well enough, but nouns... “  (pg. 1, and the opening lines)

    “Only thing we found in the room was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, an’ the last I heard they were lookin’ for someone to translate ‘em.”
    “Pardon my Latvian,” I said.  “I assume that’s the language they’re in?”
    “Some’s Russian, goin’ by the letters.  They’re in that alphabet they got, that’s like Greek but worse.”
    “No, I’m pretty sure it’s Russian.”  (pg. 224)

When a cop’s not near the suspect he suspects, he suspects the suspect he’s near.  (pg. 118)
    I found The Burglar On The Prowl to be an entertaining read, although it might not be to everyone’s taste.  For starters, there’s a bunch of cussing in it, but that’s also true for the whole series.

    More serious is the blind date infraction.  This apparently offended some readers, and I admit it’s rather edgy.  Still, it’s a real risk in today’s dating scene, so perhaps it will serve as a warning about going home with someone you know absolutely nothing about.

    Personally, my only quibble was that there seemed to be more philosophical “asides” by Bernie as he tries to justify his larcenous proclivities, but this is nitpicking on my part.

    8 Stars.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Hokas Pokas - Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson

   2000; 278 pages.  New Authors? : No, and No.  Genre : Classic Science Fiction; Anthology; Humor; YA.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    The book cover picture tells you all you need to know to understand Hokas.  They’re teddy bears on steroids.  They’re Ewoks with panache.  They’re charismatic and cuddly.  Well, I’m not too sure about the “cuddly” part, but by nature they’re friends with almost everybody they meet, and can drink all other species under the table.  Hokas are also avid readers, and are especially partial to the classics and anything that has to do with history.

     But they’re extremely impressionable, and routinely become completely immersed in role-playing according to whatever Terran tale they’ve last been exposed to.  If you gave them a Harry Potter book or movie, the next thing you know, they’d all be waving wands and trying to fly around on brooms.  If they're taught about Columbus, they’re apt to build a couple wooden ships and go sailing over the oceans on their home planet of Toka, hoping to discover new lands.

    So care must be taken as to exactly what sort of Earthly culture one might expose the Hokas to.  If you let them read up on Genghis Khan, the resulting role-playing could be deadly.  If they are taught about Napoleon, they might break off into the British side and the French side and civil war might erupt, all in the spirit of pretending.

    Which is what that book cover is all about.

What’s To Like...
    Hokas Pokas! is a collection of three stories previously published in Sci-Fi/Fantasy magazines.  They’re of unequal length (the final tale takes up 2/3 of the book) and are:
    1.)  Full Pack  (pg. 1)
    2.)  The Napoleon Crime  (pg. 37)
    3.)  Star Prince Charlie  (pg. 99)

 Each story features the Hokas’ take-off of some book or historical situation.  “Full Pack” uses Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books“The Napoleon Crime” taps into both Lord of the Rings and the 1800’s military campaign in Spain pitting Napoleon against Lord Nelson.  “Star Prince Charlie” loosely follows the Scottish uprising led by Charles Edward Stuart, aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie”.  I’m both a bookaholic and a history buff, so the book's genres was a nice fit for me.

    The third tale is the only one with chapters, and Gordon R. Dickson and Poul Anderson title them to give some other authors.  It’s possible that all 17 chapter titles do this, but some of the ones I recognized were Kidnapped, Fahrenheit 451, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Redheaded League, The Return of the Native, The Prince, and an earlier Hoka anthology by Anderson and Dickson, Earthman’s Burden.

     I think the target audience is YA boys since there’s not a hint of romance in any of the stories.  There is a small amount of cussing, and some alcohol gets consumed, but but this is mostly incidental.  I liked one of the Hokas’ quaint version of a cussword they’d recently learned, “damme”.  YA-oriented or not, the authors also manage to work in several neat, obscure vocabulary words; they're listed in the next section.

    I chuckled at the reference to “Lemuria”, a mythical lost continent aka as “Mu”.  The riddle contest in Star Prince Charlie was a neat take-off on some classic posers, and there’s a modicum of French, Spanish, and German vocabulary worked into The Napoleon Crime.  I thought the “five feats of the Prince” (on page 130) was a quite clever plot device.

    I wasn’t impressed with the way the first two stories ended.  Both felt contrived and hasty to me, but maybe that’s a function of being written as short stories in a magazine.  The Star Prince Charlie ending was better; it at least had a worthy moral to it: Freedom wins, as does the Common Man.

Kewlest New Word  ...
Sophont (n.) : a being with a base reasoning capacity equivalent to, or greater than that of a human being.
Others : Chivvy (v.), Cozen (v.), Calefaction (n.).

    “Ouch!” howled Heragli, regaining full consciousness.  “What the sputz?  Get the snrrowl off me!  Leggo, you illegitimate forsaken object of an origin which the compilers of Leviticus would not have approved!  Wrowrrl!”  And he made frantic efforts to reach over his shoulder.
    “Striped killer!” squeaked Bagheera joyously.  “Hunter of helpless frogs!  Lame Thief of the Waingunga!  Take that!  And that!”
    “What’re you talking about?  Never ate a frog in m’ life.”  (pg. 34)

  “Not only is yakavarsh an excellent means of self-defense, Prince; it is in truth an art, yes, a philosophy, a way of life.  Consider the lovely curve as a body soars through the air!  Create an infinity symbol when you elegantly dislocate his arm!  See a gateway to eternity in the angle of his broken neck!”  (pg. 172)

 “It’s enough to make a paranoid out of a saint.”  (pg. 49)
    A great YA Fantasy series is one that entertains both adults and YA’s.  Examples are Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and His Dark Materials.  This was my third Hokas book, and unfortunately, none of them are in that category.  I’m pretty sure I would’ve enjoyed Hokas Pokas! when I was in junior high.  But now, the plots seem simplistic, the resolutions forced, and the wit repetitive.

    It must be kept in mind that Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson originally wrote these stories for Sci-Fi/Fantasy magazines, whose readership was mostly young boys, and just like “professional wrestling”, they should be judged by their YA standards.

    Both Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson were prolific science fiction writers.  The total number of Hoka short stories is less than 10, and the fact that neither author tried to develop the Hoka universe into a long-term series seems noteworthy.  I’m guessing that the Hokas occasionally garnered them a few extra bucks from the magazines, but I doubt either one of them wants their careers to be defined by Hokas.

    5 Stars.  Add 2 stars if you're in the target audience; you’ll likely find these stories hilarious.  And even if you’re an adult, you can still build your vocabulary, learn a couple foreign phrases, get acquainted with some classic novels, and pick up some interesting history tidbits.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Q Is For Quarry - Sue Grafton

    2003; 408 pages.  Book 17 (out of 25) in the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet series  New Author? : Yes.  Murder-Mystery; Police Procedural; Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction; Cold Case.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    As far as cold cases go, this one’s in deep-freeze.  Eighteen years ago, a young (fifteen- to twenty-year-old) woman was stabbed multiple times, had her throat slashed, and was dumped down the side of a little-used country road outside Santa Teresa, California.  Her body remained undiscovered for quite some time, and was badly decomposed by the time it was found.  There was no identification on her, and although the police investigated it as best they could, they soon exhausted all the leads.

    Now two of the detectives that handled the case want to reopen it.  They’re both up in years and have health issues, so they’ve asked 36-year-old Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator, to assist them.  Maybe a new set of eyes, looking over the old reports and evidence, can find some new angle to probe.  Old cops don’t like to leave unsolved cases on their record.

    There’s even less evidence to study now; all that’s left of the body are the upper and lower jawbones.  Some of the other detectives who were in on the case have moved on, but there are police reports to re-read and persons-of-interest to re-interview.  Already, one aspect of the case has Kinsey puzzled.

    How come no missing person alert was ever matched up with the victim?

What’s To Like...
    Q Is For Quarry is my first Sue Grafton novel, despite it being the “Q” book in her Alphabet series.  I was delighted to find it to be a “police procedural”, as that’s probably my favorite type of murder-mystery.  Kinsey is the protagonist in the series, and the books are written in the first-person POV, hers.

    Kinsey’s stomping ground is the fictional city of Santa Teresa, California, presumably a suburb in the greater Los Angeles area.  Q is For Quarry starts there, but later shifts to the California-Arizona border, for reasons that would be spoilers.  I liked Sue Grafton’s attention to the titular “Q”: in addition to the double-meaning of “Quarry” (the rock place and another word for ‘prey’), there was a “Q Street” and a fictional town called Quorum.  Quartzite, Arizona also gets mentioned; it’s real, it’s close to California, but our heroes never make it across the state border.

    The story is set in 1987, and it was fun to see how much life has changed since then.  The police records were in microfilm format; there was no such thing as a cell phone (except for Maxwell Smart’s shoe); Kinsey lugs a portable typewriter with her wherever she goes; she also uses a Polaroid camera that can spit out a developed photograph; the minimum wage was $3.35/hour; gas stations offer full-service (although that was on its way out); and refrigerators had plastic ice trays, not built-in ice-makers.

    The dialogue is often witty, and I chuckled at the smidgen of French: “Quelle bummeur!”  There’s quite a bit of cussing, which fits in well with the gritty tone of life in the police force.  The storyline stays focused: first find out the identity of the victim, then figure out who killed her and why.  Being a police procedural, there are investigative dead ends and lots of persons-of-interest, many of which are hiding secrets that may or may not be relevant to the crime.  There’s more intrigue than thrills-&-spills, yet I still found Q Is For Quarry to be a page-turner.  That speaks well of Sue Grafton’s writing skills.

    The ending is a spike in the excitement level, although the presence of the firearm seemed just a tad bit convenient.  All the story threads are tied up nicely by the close of the book.  Q is For Quarry is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.  By not reading these books in order I’m clueless about the details of the family drama that Kinsey is embroiled in, and I don’t know which of the characters are recurring.  But that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying my initiation into this series.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Widow’s Walk (n.; phrase) : a railed or balustraded platform built on a roof, originally in early New England houses, typically for providing an unimpeded view of the sea.

    “You know much about the desert?”
    “I’ve picked up the occasional odd fact, but that’s about it.”
    “I’ve been reading about scorpions.  Book claims they’re the first air-breathing animal.  They have a rudimentary brain, but their eyesight’s poor.  They probably don’t perceive anything they can’t actually touch first.  You see two scorpions together, they’re either making love or one of them is being eaten by the other.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I can’t figure out what.  Probably has to do with the nature of true love.”  (loc. 2707)

    “Cathy Lee came on to him.  She was a gold digger, pure and simple.  All moody and temperamental.  Frankie said she was violent, especially when she drank, which she’d been doing that night.  She turned on him just like that.”  Iona snapped her fingers.  “Came at him with a pair of scissors, so what was he supposed to do, let her jam the blades through his throat?”
    Dolan’s expression was bland.  “He could have grabbed her wrist.  It seems somewhat excessive to stab her fourteen times.  You’d think once or twice would have done the job.”  (loc. 2804, and not a spoiler.)

Kindle Details...
    Q Is For Quarry presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon, although I've seen it discounted once or twice.  The other books in the series go for $4.99-$13.99, with most of them priced at either $8.99 (the older ones) or $9.99 (the newer ones), and one or two only $4.99.

“You’d think someone would notice a ‘Cathy Lee Pearse’ with no boobs, a mustache, and a two-day growth of beard.”  (loc. 501)
    Sue Grafton died in December 2017, just one book shy of completing her 26-book “Alphabet” series; the last one being titled “Y is for Yesterday”.  The only one that doesn’t conform to the * is For * format is the “X” book.

    According to Wikipedia, there will never be a “Z” entry.  Sue Grafton was not keen on anyone ghost-writing her stories posthumously.  She was also against selling the TV and/or movie rights to anyone, so don’t look for a film version of any of these coming to a screen near you anytime soon.

    Personally, I think her standing by her principles about these things is kind of neat.

    8½ Stars.  Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the back of the book. Q is For Quarry is based on an actual cold case that happened in Santa Barbara County in 1969, thirty-three years before Sue Grafton penned this book.  She provides a number of details about that case, including a digital reconstruction of the victim’s face, somehow developed from only her two jawbones (the mandible and the maxilla).  Four pictures of “Jane Doe’s” face are included in the book.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Management Style of the Supreme Beings - Tom Holt

   2017; 369 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Humorous Fantasy; Satire; Christmas.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It must be great to be a god.  You live forever.  You have your own world to oversee.  You get to do things like perform miracles for your adoring little humans, monitor the whereabouts of every sparrow in your domain, and count the hairs on everybody’s head.  And you get to do this forever.

    But what if all that god-work gets old?  Can a Supreme Being just up and retire?  Take off with his son and go fishing on some faraway world like Sinteraan, where even the smallest fish are ninety feet long and weigh a quarter of a ton?

        It must be okay since he’s a god and everyone knows that gods can’t make mistakes, can they?  The humans will be well taken care of; just sell the terrestrial franchise to some other venture capitalist deities, and they can run the world as they see fit.  Oh, and there’s no need to tell any prospective buyer about that one old, elusive, primeval thunder god who’s living somewhere up around the North Pole.  Nobody believes in him anymore, anyway.

    Ho. Ho. Ho.

What’s To Like...
    The overall storyline of The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is readily apparent: Earth finds itself under new spiritual ownership, the rules of conduct have changed, and whatcha gonna do about it?  The fun is trying to figure out how the various subplots will somehow merge into a plausible ending.  Dad and Jay retire and go fishing.  Jersey (a grave robber) and Lucy (a heavenly emergency helpline receptionist) meet up on Earth.  So do their Flipside counterparts, Bernie and Jenny.  Kevin, Dad’s less-favored “other” son, eschews the fishing invitation and journeys to Earth to figure out his destiny.  And nobody know who that north pole Merry Prankster is, where he’s at, or what he’s up to.

    Tom Holt is London-born, hence the book is written in English, not American.  Thus you may be a cissy munching on a Weetabix (I had to Wiki that), or have a coloured chequebook.  There are some great-but-really-obscure references, such as Nigella Lawson, and the Lawrence Oates’s farewell Antarctic quote: ”I’m going outside now.  I may be gone for some time.”  And I liked the nods to the not-so-obscure Vivaldi and Salvador Dali watches.  The pseudo-cussword “usdamn” was clever; so were the mathematical thweeps and sningies.

        There are a bunch of otherworldly creatures to meet and cope with.  They might even outnumber the human characters, and include everything from Archangels to Flipsiders, from goblins to Martians, and from the squishies to the inscrutable Dao Wei-qiang, who will lend you money at unbelievable interest rates.

    The mayhem and wit are as always superbly entertaining, but beneath all the hijinks Tom Holt poses a subtle theological question:  What would happen if issues like right/wrong and heaven/hell were phased out of our lives?  Would we be better off or worse?  Happier or sadder?

    The ending is done in the usual Tom Holt manner.  All the subplots are deftly brought together and tied up.  It may not be the most exciting ending ever, but that's okay, it's extremely clever.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Pulled a face (v., phrase) : showed a feeling such as dislike or disgust by contorting one’s face.
Others: Serried (adj.).

    “It’s called an eclipse.”
    “A what?”
    “It’s a natural phenomenon,” Lucy said.  “It happens from time to time when the Earth’s orbit round the sun happens to coincide-“
    “No, no, you stupid child, you’ve got it all wrong.  The sun orbits round the Earth.  Everybody knows that.”
    Lucy sighed, but not into the mouthpiece.  “Silly me,” she said.  “Yes, of course it does.  What you’re experiencing is a minor exhibition of divine displeasure, caused by someone in your community committing one or more abominations unto the Lord.  You can fix it yourself quite easily by sacrificing a goat and rooting out the evildoers among you.”  (pg. 40)

    “You have the right to remain silent, but anything you do say will be taken down in analog form and cynically twisted to mean what we want it to.  You have a right to an attorney, but trust me, you’re in enough trouble already without getting involved with one of those bloodsuckers.  Now, please indicate that you understand what I’ve just told you by saying the word guilty.”
    “Close enough.”  (pg. 214)

Bother, he thought, or a monosyllable to that effect.  (pg. 319)
    The Management Style of the Supreme Beings contains a small amount of cussing; this is normal for a Tom Holt book.  It’s not overdone and I thought it fit in well with the tone of the story.  You should also know that is a religious satire; if you’re a thin-skinned Trinitarian, you probably should give this book a pass.

    This is Tom Holt’s 34th (if I counted correctly) Humorous Fantasy novel.  I think it is a solid effort and a fresh departure from his previous four books, which were all YouSpace-themed.  We shall see if this is the start of another subseries.

    8 Stars.  I'm claiming The Management Style of the Supreme Beings as my 2019 "Christmas read".  Full disclosure:  I didn't know the guy with the flying reindeer was in the book when I borrowed it from my local library.  I got it mostly because I'm a huge Tom Holt fan.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Unthinkable - Helen Thomson

   2018; 253 pages (plus Extras).  Full Title : “Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains”.   New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Neuropsychology; Science; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Back when I was in junior high school, once a week – Wednesday, last period, IIRC – we had something called “Assembly”.  It was pretty neat, all us students would be “assembled” in the auditorium, and we were treated to some sort of cheap entertainment act that the principal had presumably found.  One time it was this guy who did memory tricks.  I remember two of his acts, although I’m certain he did more that day.

    In the first, several Sears catalogs (remember those?  They were 500 pages or so thick), previously torn into 25-page sections, were distributed to random students in the audience.  Each kid then chose a page in the section given them and when called upon, asked the guy onstage what was on that page.  It sticks in my mind, because one of those students was a friend of mine, and when it was his turn the page he selected  (and which the man correctly identified) had “women’s foundation garments” on it.  Let’s hear it for the ladies’ underwear sections of those old Sears catalogs.

    In the second act, a student volunteer was called onstage, given a deck of cards, and asked to shuffle them.  There was a blackboard on the stage as well, with the numbers 1-thru-52 written on it.  The student called out each card, one at a time, and chose at random to one of the 52 numbers on the board.  After all the cards in the deck had been tagged with a number, the man proceeded to rattle off each selection.

    “Number one - seven of hearts; number two – Queen of Spades; number three – three of Diamonds”, etc., all the way through the 52 numbers.  I was in awe of the feat.  It impressed upon me that some people’s brains function quite differently from how the rest of us “think”.

    That’s what the book Unthinkable is all about:  People who are blessed (or cursed), with various and rare mental anomalies.

What’s To Like...
    Unthinkable has eleven chapters:  an “Introduction” at the beginning, a “Conclusion” at the end, and nine “case studies”, each about a strange neuropsychological (her term, not mine) oddity she investigated.  Each case study highlights a main “patient”, although quite often Helen Thomson interviewed and investigated others who have that disorder, and worked their stories into the chapter.  Briefly:

1.  Bob: Never Forgetting a Moment.
    “HSAM” (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory).
    Side note: the actress Marilu Henner (“Elaine” in the Sitcom “Taxi) has HSAM.  Wiki her. 
2.  Sharon: Being Permanently Lost.
        Prosopagnosia, Topographical Disorientation.
3.  RubĂ©n: Seeing Auras.
4.  Tommy: Switching Personalities.
        Hypergraphia, Sudden Artistic Outburst.
5.  Sylvia: An Endless Hallucination.
        Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
6.  Matar: Turning into a Tiger.
        Clinical Lycanthropy, Schizophrenia.
7.  Louise: Becoming Unreal.
        Depersonalization Disorder.
8.  Graham: Waking Up Dead.
        Walking Corpse Disorder, Cotard’s Syndrome.
9.  Joel: Feeling Other People’s Pain.
        Mirror-Touch Synesthesia, Empathy.

    My favorite chapters were Bob, Ruben, Tommy, and Joel; your faves will probably be different   I know two people who are synesthetes, another who suffers from schizophrenia, and quite a few chess-players who are able to memorize an incredible number of “book” moves.  Thus a lot of this book resonated with me.

    I loved Helen Thomson’s writing style; it reminded me of Mary Roach’s science books or Sarah Vowell’s history works.  Each chapter is packed with fascinating details; things like “The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine”, a 1985 book titled “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, the “Jim Twins”, and “Xenomelia” (the desire to amputate a healthy limb).

    Equally enlightening are the practical “how-to’s”.  You’ll learn  how do amazing memory feats; how to make your own hallucinations (without drugs); and how to train yourself to be a synesthete.  You can also test yourself for schizophrenia and scientifically determine if you’re an extrovert or an introvert.  You can even experience the sensation of a “phantom limb”.

    I started my journey in America, where I met a TV producer who never forgets a day in his life, and a woman who is permanently lost – even in her own home.  In the UK, I spent time with a teacher whose memories don’t feel like her own, and the family of an ex-con whose personality changed overnight.  I flew across Europe and the Middle East to meet with a man who turns into a tiger, a woman who lives with a permanent hallucination, and a young journalist who sees colors that don’t exist in real life.  And then there was Graham, a man who, for three years, believed he was dead.  (loc. 211)

    A synesthete (…) might experience the number five as having a pink hue, or taste strawberry at the sound of a horn.  Music might be perceived as having a particular shape; months of the year might be seen as a ribbon in space.  My favorite description of synesthesia comes from the Russian author Vladimir Nabakov.  “The long a of the English alphabet … has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony,” he says in his autobiography.  "I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. … In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h."  (loc. 1121)

Kindle Details...
    Unthinkable sells for $11.99 at Amazon right now, although I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted.  At the moment, it appears this is the only e-book Helen Thomson offers.

“She’s writing a book about crazy people (…) and I’m one of them!”  (loc. 929)
    There really isn’t anything to quibble about in Unthinkable.  The only nit I can pick is its brevity.  Amazon lists it as being 278 pages long, but the text actually stops at page 253 (86%).  The rest of  the book is “Extras”: Acknowledgements, Notes and Sources, and an Index.  But hey, when I say that a book ends too quickly, I mean that as a compliment.

    There are a couple cusswords in the text, but that happens only when Helen Thomson is giving a direct quote by someone, usually one of her interviewees.  If you’re quoting someone and they cuss, you're obligated to write it exactly as they said it. 

    The low-star Amazon reviews seem to be primarily other neuropsychologists who either didn’t like Helen Thomson’s writing style or disagreed with her clinical conclusions.  My degree's in chemistry, not psychology, but frankly, the author’s scientific reasoning seemed logical to me.

    For me Unthinkable was a fascinating read.  I have a keener insight to the various syndromes and disorders presented in the book, especially the ones that I have firsthand experience with via friends and coworkers.

    9½ Stars.  A closing word about one of the “memory wizards” cited in Unthinkable.   George Koltanowski was a well-known Belgian chess grandmaster back in the 1920’s.  I play chess, and have on occasion played it while blindfolded.  Not surprisingly, my talent level falls off, but with much concentration I can at least envision the board and make correct moves.

    George Koltanowski once played 34 games of blindfold chess at the same time.   His score was 24 wins, 10 draws, and zero lossesFreaking incredible.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Long Mars - Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

   2014; 445 pages.  Book #3 (out of 5) in The Long Earth series.  New Author? : No, and No.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Multiverses.  Overall Rating : 4½*/10.

    You and I would call them “Multiverses”, but in the near future (2040 AD or so), when humans first learn how to transverse them (which they call “stepping”), the preferred term is “the Long Earth”.  Each parallel world is different, often only marginally so, but you are always in the same geographic spot.  If you "step" from Oshkosh, by gosh, you still end up in the same geographical spot on the neighboring "Earth".

    Oshkosh may or may not be there, of course, depending on how the timeline played out in that particular dimension.  So here’s a handy tip:  Don’t ever go stepping from the basement of a house.  In the next Earth, you may find yourself ten feet underground, buried alive.

    Just how many multiverses are there?  No one knows, but earlier “stepping voyages” have made it across millions of Earths.  Perhaps the answer is “infinite”.  Or maybe we should say “double infinity”, since you “step the other direction” and return through the worlds you came from.

    Now there is a new revelation.  If you journey to Mars (in a few select multiverses) and “step” away from there, you come across what appears to be a whole new set of multiverses, based on the timelines of Mars, not Earth.  And it’s pretty obvious what we should call that phenomenon.

    The Long Mars.

What’s To Like...
    There are three main storylines in The Long Mars, each one getting about equal time.  1.) Captain Maggie Kauffman heads a two-ship expedition across the Long Earth determined to set a new record for the number of multiverses in one direction.  There are whispers that some of her passengers have ulterior motives for making the journey, but no one has any details.  2.) Sally Linsay and two others start the inaugural voyage across the Long Mars, and it's anybody's guess what to expect on that trip.  3.) Joshua befriends a precocious-but-troubled youth named Paul Spencer Wagner to try to figure out why he’s so extraordinarily bright.

    I thought the writing was well done, which you’d expect from Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.  The story takes place mainly in the US, which is impressive given that both authors are British.  The story is written in English, not American, so your flashlight is called a torch, your grey and ageing plough might be made of aluminium, and you have tyres on your car.

      I liked the nods given to other writrs of science fiction and fantasy, including Tolkien, Niven, Clarke, Asimov, and Herbert.  There was an obscure (for me) nod given to one Chesley Bonestell, which I had to look up in Wikipedia to understand.  The Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, also gets a nod, and I smiled when some Dune-esque sandworms appeared.

     The emphasis here is on “Hard Science Fiction”, and I think the aim of the authors was to give some idea of what it might be like if we ever did discover how to explore multiverses.  The inclusion of the “beanstalk” apparatus was a nice touch in this regard.  There is a minor story thread concerning rejuvenation, which I’m hoping will be followed up on later in this series.  And the brief mention of canisters of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gave me a chuckle; I’ve worked with them both in my career.; they make thiosulfates.

    There are lots of space beasties to meet and avoid being eaten by.  The trolls, elves, kobolds, and “First Person Singular” are all from the previous two books; now we get to deal with talking cats, beagles, sentient crustaceans, and “the Next”.  And thanks to multiverses, we learn that the Plural of Mars is “Marses”.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Extirpation (n.) : the act of totally destroying or killing off of something.

    “I do see that going through a soft place would be like wearing seven-league boots, Wotan – may I call you Wotan?”
    “No, you may not.”
    “But it would help if I understood how you can make these seven-league-boot jumps.”
    “Actually a better metaphor for a soft place is a wormhole.  A fixed passageway between two points.  As in the movie Contact.  You remember that?”
    “Is that the porno where-“
    “No.  Stargate, then.  What about that?  Oh, for some modern cultural references.”  (pg. 211)

    They weren’t like ordinary kids in the way that the nearest of them immediately rounded on Joshua when he stepped in with Paul, all armed with bronze knives, and a couple further out with raised crossbows.
    “It’s OK,” Paul said, hands held high.  He squirted out some of the high-speed babble.
    Joshua was still subject to suspicious stares, but the knives were lowered. (…)
    “What did you say to them?”
    “That you’re a dim-bulb.  No offence, Joshua, but that was obvious to them already.  Just from the way you looked around, with your jaw slack.  Like you showed up dragging your knuckles, you know?”
    “A dim-bulb?”  (pg. 261)

“You look as blank as a chimp faced with a banana fitted with a zip.”  (pg. 212 )
    Sadly, the disappointments I encountered in the previous book in this series, The Long War, reviewed here, continue in The Long Mars.  There is no advancement of the overall plot of this series, whatever that might be.   Even worse, the story is almost devoid of any action, a sci-fi requisite.  Here’s a list of every bit of excitement (without spoilers) over the course of the book:

a.) one gunshot is fired, but it's of no consequence,
b.) the survivors of a wrecked spaceship are found, with minimal intrigue ensuing.
c.) a being dies, onscreen no less, but it has no consequence on subsequent events,
d.) there’s a jailbreak, but it happens off-screen and we aren’t given the details.

    That’s it.  The rest of the book is predominantly character interaction and world(s)-building.

    The ending is mediocre at best.  The three storylines are hastily tied together, but nothing gets resolved.  Things close with Maggie listening to a scholarly debate about the plusses and minuses of extirpation.  Yawn.  Overall, it felt like the only purpose for The Long Mars is to set up events in the sequel.  At least I hope it does that.

    One last disappointment: The Chinese depicted in the book are markedly stereotyped. They're uncooperative with Maggie and her crew, only give vital food shipments for a starving Earth if attached political strings are complied with, and should first and foremost be remembered for their  repression of Tibet.  It would've been nice if some of them were a bit "gray" in character.

    4½ Stars.  I’m beginning to think this is one literary collaboration that just didn’t work out well.  The Pratchett wit is completely missing here, along with any semblance of a story.  Maybe each author was afraid to mess up whatever plotline the other was planning.  Two books remain in this 5-book series, and there's no doubt that I’ll read them.  But I no longer expect much out of this series.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

An Idiot In Love - David Jester

   2016; 236 pages.  Genre : Coming of Age; British Humour; Dark Romance.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    It’s what you’d call a mixed blessing for Kieran McCall.  On one hand, girls have always seemed to be attracted to him.  Even way back in elementary school (or whatever they call it over in England) when girls were known to be infested with cooties

    It continued through the higher grades, when girls definitely became more interesting.  And after he’d finished school, women still were hitting him up in the workplace.  Kieran was certainly “gifted” when it came to the opposite sex.

    Alas, there was a downside as well.  Maybe even a couple of them.

    First of all, Kieran was kind of a nerd in school, and bullies took it personally if he flirted with the girls they were chasing.  Second, all the attractiveness that girls and women saw in him disappeared as soon as Kieran opened his mouth.  Amazingly stupid words always came out of it.

    Or even grosser things.

What’s To Like...
    An Idiot In Love is a coming-of-age tale, and we tag along with Kieran as he tries to fathom the complexities of the opposite sex, searches for love in all the wrong places, and usually ends up settling for simple lust.  The plotline is similar to the book Veins by “Drew” and reviewed here, but Drew’s protagonist is mostly obnoxious while David Jester’s is, as the title suggests, an idiot.

    The book is written in English, not American, and in addition to the spelling variations of certain words (favour, pulverise,  etc.) and calling soccer “football”, there were a bunch of strange terms and phrases to suss out, such as: netball, Minstrels and Maltesers (types of candy, I gather), bungled (= bundled), scuppered, football stickers, skint, punters, a spotty waiter, and the mysterious numpty.  I love trying to figure these things out.

    Depsite being a coming-of-age tale, this is not a book for the kiddies.   There’s a lot of cussing, which is the norm for schoolyard and workplace guy-talk, plus Fate puts Kieran through all sorts of adult situations in his search for true love.  Things like nudist beaches, speed dating, getting arrested for public nakedness, and other things (including Rampant Rabbits) that you wouldn’t want little Johnny or Susie reading about.

     The humor is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but I liked it.  The “Pink Panther vs. Monty Python” debate is correctly answered, and I liked the nod to the movie “Aliens”.  Hey, it scared the crap out of me as well.  The book is written in the first-person POV (Kieran’s), and overall I found An Idiot In Love to be a fast, easy read.

    The ending is rather predictable, although I say that about all romance books and movies.  But it was also clever and had a couple twists to it that I didn’t see coming.   I’d call it both logical and a bit over-the-top, neither of which is a criticism.

    I slumped down next to Max who was hacking away at the paper.  “I’ve got a girlfriend,” I said, my voice trickled out my mouth like it didn’t want to leave.
    Max didn’t take his eyes off his painting.  “Laura?”
    “I didn’t know you liked her.”
    “Me neither.”  (loc. 901)

    She held out a hand, and offered a smile.  “Doctor Peterson,” she said.
    I mumbled something, snapped out of my trance and said: “Kieran,” suddenly not entirely sure that was my name.
    She sat down opposite and took a folder out from a bag she had carried in with her.  I studied her intently.
    “So, Kieran,” she spoke slowly.  “What brings you here?”
    She was joking, but I answered her anyway.  “Two guys claiming to be police officers.  You?”
    “A naked guy carrying a wooden leg.”  (loc. 6062)

Kindle Details....
    The Kindle version of An Idiot In Love sells for $10.99 at Amazon, while the paperback version goes for only $7.69.  You can draw your own conclusions about that.  There is a sequel, An Idiot In Marriage, which also sells for $10.99.  David Jester has several other full-length books to offer (mostly thrillers), as well as several novellas in the horror genre.  The novels are priced in the $9.99-$12.99 range; the novellas at $0.99.

She was a nine year old underachiever with the charm of a fairy-tale stepsister.  (loc. 32)
    There are a couple of quibbles.  The writing style is what I call storytelling mode:  in the “Kieran did this, then he did that” format; and without any depth-of-character.  For this sort of story though, I think it suffices.

    The way most of the females instantly cotton to Kieran is a bit hard to believe, but it has the upside of keeping the story moving along briskly.

     The most serious deficiency is the need for some competent editing, in particular to correct the lack of commas when a person is directly addressed in the dialogue.  To borrow an oft-used example, there is a huge difference between “Let’s eat, Timmy” and “Let’s eat Timmy”.  This got distracting after a while, and there were numerous  other “spellcheck errors”.

    6 Stars.  An Idiot In Love wasn't a spectacular read, but it entertained me, and sometimes that’s all you ask a book to do.  Add 1 star if you can relate to any of the awkward situations that Kieran endured.  I did.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Dead Beat - Jim Butcher

   2005; 513 pages.  Book 7 (out of 15) of the “Dresden Files” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Urban Fantasy; Humorous Fantasy; Urban Mystery.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Halloween is just three days away, and in Chicago, Harry Dresden’s stomping ground, just about everyone’s excited.

    For most Chicagoans, it’s time to stock up on candy, buy or make some costumes for the kids, and get ready for a night of trick-or-treating.  For a few, with a New Age-y bent, it means preparing to celebrate a sacred event, Samhain.  Harry Dresden, however, is filled with a sense of foreboding.

    Because, as Chicago’s resident (and only) practicing wizard, Halloween is the time of year when the barriers between our “real” world and the spirit world (known as the “Nevernever”) are at their weakest.  That means a sharp increase in otherworldly creatures, including demons and faeries, crossing over from the other side to our neck of the multiverse.

    This year, that includes a small band of necromancers, who have their own agenda for this Halloween.  They are up to some sort of deviltry, Harry isn’t sure exactly what, and they need a human to do their bidding: to find and bring to them something called the “Word of Kemmler”.  No later than Halloween night.

    Someone like Harry Dresden.  Who has just been blackmailed by one of the necromancers into taking this assignment.  If he doesn't do it, incriminating photos will get sent to the wrong people.

    Three days is an incredibly short time to do the job.  Especially since Harry has no idea what the Word of Kemmler is, let alone where to find it.

What’s To Like...
    Dead Beat is my seventh book in Jim Butcher’s fantastic ”Dresden Files” series, which means I’m about halfway through it.  There are lots of characters to keep track of, some new, some recurring.  Bob the Skull is back, and he’s one of my favorites.  So is Mouse, who I gather is recurring but who I’ve apparently forgot.  Sue is new, but here’s hoping she’ll get called on again.  Ditto for Waldo Butters, who’s my kind of hero.

    This is vintage Jim Butcher – the snarky wit starts immediately (roommate issues), and the action kicks in shortly thereafter.  As expected, there’s lots of magic involved and a slew of baddies to keep Harry and friends in peril up to their ears.

    If critters are your cup of tea, you’ll love Dead Beat.  I remember faeries, vampires, werewolves, and fallen angels (now demons) from before, along with maybe ghouls, zombies, specters, and an incubus or two.  Now we have necromancers, ectomancers (say what?), Ninja ghouls, a Renfield, corpsetakers, and a reptile added to the menagerie.

    I enjoyed learning about anthropomancy (huh?), and the Vader syndrome, and got a chuckle out of a bad case of “ergot poisoning”.  I liked the literary nods given to Fahrenheit 451 and Watchers, the latter being my favorite Dean Koontz book.

    Interwoven amongst all the mayhem was an interesting bit of situational ethics for Harry to ponder:  Do the ends (saving lots of lives) justify the means (using a kind of magic he’s sworn never to dabble in)?  I appreciated that the author wasn’t afraid to let Harry resolve that question.

    Exciting endings are a Jim Butcher specialty, and he comes through yet again with this one.  It’s both twisty and tension-filled.  A couple plot threads remain open, those involving Cowl and Kumori, the Erlking, and Harry’s mangled hand.  I’m sure all will get addressed down the line somewhere.

Kewlest New Word...
Tulwar (n.) : a curved saber or scimitar used in the Orient and northern India.

    “Your timing is improbable.”
    He sounded amused.  “In what way?”
    “Coming to my rescue just as someone was about to punch my ticket.  You must admit, Marcone, that it smells like a setup.”
    “Even I occasionally enjoy good fortune,” he replied.
    I shook my head.  “I called you less than an hour ago.  If it wasn’t a setup, then how did you find me?”
    “He didn’t,” said Gard.  “I did.”  She looked over her shoulder at Marcone and frowned.  “This is a mistake.  It was his fate to die in that alley.”
    “What is the point of having free will if one cannot occasionally spit in the eye of destiny?” Marcone asked.  (pg. 209)

   “I hear some crazy things.”
    “Like what?” I asked.
    He shook his head.  “That terrorists blew up the power plant.  Or maybe set off some kind of nuke.  How would we know?”
    “I think someone might have noticed a nuclear explosion,” I said.
    “Oh, sure,” he said.  “But hell, maybe somebody did.  Practically no phones, radio is damned near useless.  How would we know?”
    “I dunno.  The big boom?  The vaporized city?”
    The vendor snorted.  (pg. 341)

“Life is a journey.  Time is a river.  The door is a jar.”  (pg. 179)
    The nitpicking is minor, and similar to what I listed in my previous Dresden Files review (shown here).  The title didn’t seem to have any tie-in to the book, but that’s not important.  Michael's MIA, and Murphy was a late-show, but I'm sure both will be back, and there were lots of other people and creatures to keep my interest.

    There seemed a bit more musing and explaining than usual, but I suspect those give vital insight into Harry’s mindset for anyone who isn’t reading the series in order.  A case could be made that the plotlines in these books are formulaic.  For instance, I’ve noticed that if there’s an aged White Wizard in the storyline, his chances of surviving the tale are pretty slim.

    And hey, even if it is formulaic, I like Butcher’s formula.

    9 Stars.  The Amazon and Goodreads overall ratings for this book are 4.7/5 and 4.43/5 respectively.  Those are impressive rankings for both sites, but IMHO completely deserved.  I had high expectations for Dead Beat, and it fully lived up to them.