Friday, March 29, 2019

Under The Persimmon Tree - Suzanne Fisher Staples

    2005; 280 pages (includes Glossary and Author Interview).  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Middlebrow Lit; YA; Juvenile Fiction/Children’s Books (wtf?); Afghanistan History; War.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It’s time for Najmah to leave Golestan.  The Taliban came to town and “forcibly recruited” Baba-jan and Nur, her dad and brother, and it's only by luck that she’s still alive.  Although it’s very unlikely, she hopes that her father and brother find an opportunity to escape the guerillas at some point in the future.

    If they do, they’ll most likely head to Peshawar, a city across the border in nearby Pakistan, where there is a large refugee camp for Afghans fleeing their country's strife.  So that is where she must go.  Good luck, Najmah.  You’re a young girl, all alone in the world, and you’ll almost certainly perish during the perilous, weeks-long trek to Peshawar.

    Meanwhile, in Peshawar, a woman named Nusrat also faces a crisis.  She’s an American (her "Western" name is Elaine), who converted to Islam, married a doctor named Faiz, and moved with him to Pakistan.  Faiz has ventured into Afghanistan and set up a clinic perform much-needed surgeries for its war-ravaged civilians.  But it has now been weeks since Nusrat last heard from Faiz, and she fears for his safety.

    Despite the great distance currently separating them, Fate has decreed that the paths of Najmah and Nusrat shall cross.  Let’s hope it’s all for the best.

What’s To Like...
    Under The Persimmon Tree is set in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area soon after the September 11th Twin Towers destruction.  There is no stable government in Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban and the Mujahideen to battle for supremacy, while America jets drop bombs all over the place.  Afghan civilians are at the mercy of all three sides, undergoing enormous suffering.  It was enlightening to see the 9-11 aftermath from their viewpoint.  Their options were few.

    The book also gives Nusrat’s thoughts about the interplay of Christianity, Islam, and science, all of which have impacted her life.  It's refreshing to read a book where every Muslim character is not a militant extremist or enamored by the Western lifestyle.

    I also enjoyed being able to glimpse the daily life in this part of the world.  Najmah’s family are rural farmers, while Nusrat experiences city life in urban Peshawar.  Suzanne Fisher Staples sprinkles many native words (mostly Tajik) into the text, and the vocabulary glossary in the back came in very handy.  I know “naan” and “ghee” from doing crossword puzzles, but most of the rest of the native words were unfamiliar to me.  I'm also aware that the Red Crescent is the Moslem equivalent of the Red Cross, but learning about the tenets of Islam was new for me.  I was not surprised to learn that opium is the main cash crop in the region, and that growing it is very risky.

    There are 23 chapters covering 270 pages of text.  Besides the glossary, there is a brief interview with the author in the back that is quite skippable.  I blame that mostly on the interviewer; the questions were banal.  In the front there is a map of the area, which I used for geographic reference a lot.  The “Author’s Note” at the front is also worth reading.  The book’s title is explained on page 50.

    The ending was a letdown for me.  The book ends at a pivotal point in both Najmah and Nusrat’s lives, but none of the plot threads are resolved.  The storyline screams for a sequel, but ANAICT, Suzanne Fisher Staples hasn’t written one in the 14 years since Under The Persimmon Tree was published, which makes me doubt there will be one.

    “This afternoon,” Nusrat begins after they’re settled, “we will talk about time and space.  Last week we talked about a star that exploded 160,000 monsoons ago.  The star was so far away that we’re just now seeing the explosion.  Does anyone have a question?”  Farid stands.
    “Uncle says this is wrong.”  He speaks so quietly Nusrat can barely hear him.  “He says this is an un-Islamic idea.”
    “It is neither an Islamic idea nor an un-Islamic one,” says Nusrat.  “It’s science.  But the Koran has great wisdom about the heavens and how they expand, even though it came long ago.  People who didn’t know what was in the Koran invented myths to explain what they couldn’t understand.”  (pg. 76)

    In Faiz’s apartment she felt a sense of having found something familiar and significant – a connection to a history and a way of life that she wanted to know more about and become familiar with, as if it were a part of her own past that she’d almost forgotten.
    In the half hour they spent together on that still-rainy Saturday before each of them went their separate ways to work, Elaine discovered that (1) Faiz was Persian – he had grown up in Afghanistan; (2) he was a physician at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital; (3) love at first sight was not the ridiculous romantic notion she’d always thought it to be.  (pg. 122)

Kewlest New Word…
Carrel (n.) : a small cubicle with a desk for the use of a reader or student in a library.
Others : Valance (n.).

“Mande nabash.”  (“May you never be tired”, and the traditional friendly greeting.)   (pg. 15)
    Amazon lists Under The Persimmon Tree as being a “Children’s Book”, which I find jaw-dropping due to the horrors-of-war described in the book.  I’m guessing they got that from the Library of Congress data in the front of the book, wherein the label “Juvenile Fiction” is included.

    It is true that Suzanne Fisher Staples’ writing style is very straightforward and tailored to juvenile readers.  But anything involving the Taliban and the atrocities they commit is not suitable for young, impressionable minds.

    In fairness, Amazon also recommends the book for a YA audience:  Ages 12-18; Grades 7-12, and I think that is appropriate.  I think I would’ve enjoyed the writing style back in my junior high school days, but adult readers may find it a bit too simplistic.

    7 Stars.  Add 1½ stars if you are part of the teenage target audience.  Yet even as an adult, I found the even-handed treatment of the Taliban/Mujahideen/American Air Force combatants and the Science/Islam/Christianity teachings to be an enlightening experience.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Stalking The Angel - Robert Crais

    1989; 276 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #2 (out of 17) in the “Elvis Cole” series.  Genre : Crime Thriller; Hard-Boiled Mystery; Psychological Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Someone has stolen Bradley Warren’s copy of “Recorded Words of the Hagakure Master”, a book about “Bushido”, the code of conduct for samurai warriors who didn’t know how to act when there wasn’t a war going on(Really.  Wiki it.)  Bradley’s copy is an early printing of the book, which means it is worth quite a bit of money.

    Bradley wants the best private investigator on the case, and that happens to be our protagonist, Elvis Cole.  The relationship between the two is immediately and inherently strained; Bradley likes to boss his underlings around (after all, he is paying Elvis good money to recover the book), and Elvis is not the type of guy to take crap from anyone, and in any case does not view himself as one of Bradley’s employees.

    The book is Bradley’s most prized possession, and Bradley has a lot of possessions.  He also has a wife and teenage daughter.  When the thief-or-thieves threaten his family to stop him from attempting to recover the Hagakure, it forces Bradley to reevaluate what’s most important in his life.  After a surprisingly short amount of time, he comes to a startling conclusion.

    Yep, it’s still the Hagakure.

What’s To Like...
    Stalking The Angel, the second book in Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole series, is a fast-paced sleuth story with both lighthearted banter and a dark tone.  Our protagonist, Elvis Cole, reminds me of Bruce Willis’s character in the old TV series, Moonlighting.  He‘s keen of wit, has great tastes in cars (he drives a yellow 1966 corvette), is charming with the dames, and is reasonably rough-&-tough.  And if the bad guys happen to be even tougher than him, he can always send in his rougher-and-tougher partner, Joe Pike.

    I like the setting – the greater Los Angeles area in the 1980’s.  I lived there for three summers in the 1970’s, and the descriptions of the parts of town that Elvis visits in his investigation brought back old memories.  The Tower Records store there was an iconic landmark; so were the Denny’s coffee shops and Bob’s Big Boy restaurants.  I’m not as familiar with the Chinatown and the Japanese sections, so those were fun to get acquainted with.  I think it’s safe to say that Los Angeles is Robert Crais’s old stomping grounds.

    Other bits of pleasant nostalgia were the nods to Disney characters (such as the book’s cover), the Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Life magazine, and Salem Lights (are those still around?).  The literary references were neat – Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and the pithy “Who watches the Watchmen?” adage.

    The snarky digs at Donald Trump seem eerily prophetic, and I enjoyed the Japanese culture tie-ins, such as the martial arts topics of Bushido, Yakuza and the Hagakure, plus the artistic wood block prints, which I recently read about in the book Paper, reviewed here.

    Stalking The Angel has lots of cussing in it, which I thought fit the ambiance quite well.  The story is told in the first-person POV (Elvis’s), and the 37 chapters cover 276 pages in the Kindle version.

    The ending contains several twists, which is always a plus in a mystery novel.  One major plot thread is left unresolved, but I think that was deliberate and it works well here.  I never did figure out the reason for the book’s title. Stalking The Angel is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Priest (n.) : Apparently slang for a nightstick, although I couldn’t confirm this, even after googling it.

    Downtown Los Angeles does not feel like Los Angeles.  It is Boston or Chicago or Detroit or Manhattan.  It feels like someplace else that had come out to visit and decided to stay.  Maybe one day they’ll put a dome over it and charge admission.  They could call it Banal-land.  (loc. 386)

    She then reminded me that today was the Pacific Men’s Club Man of the Month banquet.  The banquet was to begin at one, we were expected to arrive at the hotel by noon, and would I please dress appropriate to the occasion?  I told her that my formal black suede holster was being cleaned, but that I would do the best I could.  She asked me why I always had something flip to say, I said that I didn’t know, but having been blessed with the gift, I felt obliged to use it.  (loc. 1039)

Kindle Details...
    Stalking the Angel sells for $7.99 right now at Amazon.  The rest of the books in the series sell for $6.99 to $9.99.  Elvis’s sidekick, Joe Pike, has his own series, and those books are all $9.99.  Robert Crais also has a couple standalone novels; they go for anywhere from $7.99 to $9.99.

Not thinking, properly done, creates a pleasant numbed sensation in the brain that I like a lot.  There are women who will tell you that not thinking is one of my best things.  (loc. 1946)
    There are a couple of nits to pick.  A couple of the characters pop into the story without any background info.  Charlie Griggs is one of them.  This left me confused for a bit, but perhaps they were introduced to the reader in the first book in the series.  There are some inherent advantages to reading the books in a series in order.

    Also, most of the characters seemed black or white to me, and in general, I find that gray characters are more interesting.  In a similar vein, anyone in the book who doesn’t get along with Elvis is a good candidate for not failing to make it to the end of the book.

    But I quibble.  I kinda get the feeling that Stalking The Angel was written in “pulp fiction” style, and as such character depth takes a backseat to an interesting plotline.  The bottom line is, I found the book to be thoroughly entertaining.

    8½ Stars.  According to the Wikipedia article on Robert Crais, Stalking The Angel is the only one of the first 15 books in the series that didn’t get nominated for and/or win a literary award. This means any other Elvis Cole novels that I read should be even more of a treat, and I have several of them on my Kindle and TBR shelf.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson

   2010; 1,252 pages.  Book #1 (out of 3) of the Stormlight Archives series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Epic Fantasy; Military Fantasy; Sword & Sorcery.  Laurels: 2010 Whitney Award – Best Novel (winner); 2010 Whitney Award – Best Speculative Fiction (winner); 2011 David Gemmell Legend Award (winner); 2010 Goodreads Choice Award – Best Fantasy Novel (nominated).  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The Radiants have fled, abandoning the world to whatever fate the gods have ordained for it.  Of course, the Voidbringers are gone as well, although no one seems to know exactly why they  left and where they went.  This all happened eons ago, so it’s also possible that the Radiants and Voidbringers never existed at all, they’re merely legends concocted  over the centuries.

    Meanwhile the land of Roshar carries on without divine interference.  Kingdoms war with one another for land, power, and the precious gemstones and shards.  Even when a realm isn’t trying to invade some foreign land, its highprinces still pass the time fighting each other.

    Alethkar is one of the stronger kingdoms in Roshar, but it is fragmented into a dozen or so separate fiefdoms,  Each is ruled by its own Brightlord, and each refuses to cooperate in any way with any other brightlord.  They pay lip-service  to the King, but will only come to his aid if the kingdom as a whole is threatened.

    It would of course be beneficial to unite into one force and sweep over the neighboring lands in a wave of conquest.  But that would mean trusting each other and bowing to the king.

    Fat chance of that ever happening.

What’s To Like...
    The Way of Kings is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy series, “The Stormlight Archives”.  It is planned to be a 10-book series; but so far just the first three have been published.  The book’s style is similar to the author’s “Mistborn” trilogy: a sweeping tale of Sword-&-Sorcery; an extensively detailed world; a gazillion characters to meet and greet; and a complex and well-developed magic system.

    For the most part, the story chronicles the lives of three protagonists, each of which is struggling to come to grips with the overriding theme of The Way of Kings, “Honor above all else.”  That may seem like a straightforward concept, but Brandon Sanderson devises a diabolical set of situational ethics for each one.

    Kaladin is a doomed bridgeman, who paradoxically lives a charmed life.  He defies death in every circumstance, but those around him, whom he loves and cares for, all seem to die in his place.  Shallan is charged with saving the well-being of her family, but it will come at a cost of betraying the trust of someone she’s grown to respect and cherish.  Dalinar is a ruler, but has to decide if his devotion to a chivalrous Code of Honor is worth it when all those around him perceive him at best as a coward, and at worst as a lunatic.

    Three of the secondary characters are worth mentioning.  Syl is a sprite-like companion of Kaladin, who helps him through his dark times and learns from him about how self-contradictory humans can be.  Szeth is forced to obey every wish and command by whoever happens to possess the magic fabrial he's linked to.  And although Wit is presently relegated to being a court jester, it's obvious that isn’t his true calling.  For now, he supplies some much-appreciated witty repartee to the storyline, but I foresee bigger things for him as the series progresses.

    I enjoyed the philosophy debates between Shallan and Jasnah, chuckled at the discourse about Romance novels of pages 156-57, and liked the mention of an opiate called “firemoss”.  I was impressed with the author’s innovative way of introducing instant-messaging into a sword-&-sorcery setting.  I’ll leave it to you to guess how he accomplished that; I thought it was quite clever.

    The ending is superb, with everything building steadily to an exciting, protracted, and action-packed battle.  There are a couple chapters of 'epilogue’ content after that, and they are also quite enlightening.  At book's end, Szeth, Dalinar, Shallan, and Kaladin all reach pivotal points in their lives, and their futures are altered irrevocably.  This is not a cliffhanger ending, but there is a plethora of plot threads still unresolved that will whet your appetite for the sequel, Words of Radiance.  All  1328 pages of it.

Kewlest New Word...
Heliodor (n.) : a clear yellow variety of beryl used as a gemstone.

    “Why did your father want to make a treaty with the Parshendi?” Shallan found herself asking as she walked.
    “Why wouldn’t he want to?”
    “That’s not an answer.”
    “Of course it is.  It’s just not one that tells you anything.”
    “It would help, Brightness, if you would give me a useful answer.”
    “Then ask a useful question.”  (pg. 653)

    Kaladin turned toward the stranger.  His flute was carved from a dark wood that was almost black.  The instrument seemed too ordinary to belong to a lighteyes, yet the man held it reverently.
   “What are you doing here,” Kaladin asked.
    “Sitting.  Occasionally playing.”
    “I mean, why are you here?”
    “Why am I here?” the man said, lowering his flute, leaning back and relaxing.  “Why are any of us here?  That’s a rather deep question for a first meeting, young bridgeman.  I generally prefer introductions before theology.  Lunch too, if it can be found.  Perhaps a nice nap.  Actually, practically anything should come before theology.  But especially introductions.”
    “All right,” Kaladin said.  “And you are …?”
    “Sitting.  Occasionally playing … with the minds of bridgemen.”  (pg. 997)

 “Respect is like manure.  Use it where needed, and growth will flourish.  Spread it on too thick, and things start to smell.”  (pg. 141)
    My quibbles about The Way of Kings are minor.  There are two maps in the front of the book, one of Roshar (which apparently is a supercontinent), the other of Alethkar.  But neither is particularly user-friendly when one is trying to determine the location of some city or kingdom cited in the book.  The Roshar map is particularly difficult, since it is spread over two pages and therefore has a huge crease running down its middle.  I read the mass-marketing paperback version, perhaps the Hardcover maps are better.

    There are short quotes of “final words of dying people” at the start of most of the chapters, but they were uninspiring.  But their significance is explained late in the book (page 1222), which means they will probably make a lot more sense in the sequel.  More importantly, there is no “Names and Terms” section at the back of the book, which is vital when you have dozens upon dozens of characters to keep track of.  I’d normally chalk this up to the whim of the author, but jeez, Mr. Sanderson, sir, you had a “Names and Terms” section in the Mistborn trilogy!

    Finally, keep in mind that religion plays a significant part in any Brandon Sanderson novel, and that’s true here.  He can occasionally tend towards “preachiness” at times (see chapter 33), but at least he isn't overbearing about it.

    9 Stars.  The incredibly high ratings that The Way of Kings gets at both Amazon and Goodreads are fully deserved.  My only concern is the pace of the publishing.  Next August will mark the ninth anniversary of Book One, with just two more installments added since then.  At this rate, it will be another 15-20 years before the series is finished.  Shades of Robert Jordan's WoT!!  That’s a long span of time.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton

   1908; 121 pages.  Full Title: The Man Who Was Thursday - A Nightmare.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Satire; Philosophical Conjecture; Middlebrow Literature; Surreal Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme are poets.  They are also self-styled philosophers which means they love to have debates just for the fun of it.  Right now (in Edwardian-era London) they’re discussing the philosophy of the anarchist movement, a subject which they are pleased to have opposing views about.

    Gregory feels that anarchy is the highest form of poetry.  Bombs going kerboom! and revolting peasants are the ultimate expression of any of the arts.  Syme disagrees.  The embodiment of poetry is the Law, not Revolution; and his fellow poet deceives himself when he thinks he’s a serious anarchist.

    This upsets Gregory, and he feels compelled to prove his point.  He takes Syme to a secret anarchist meeting, but first makes him swear by everything sacred not to reveal what he is about to witness to anyone else.  Syme complies but in turn requires Gregory to swear not to tell anyone else a secret Syme’s about to tell him.

    Syme is an undercover detective for Scotland Yard, working in their anti-anarchy department.

What’s To Like...
    The Man Who Was Thursday is a bizarre piece of classic literature, first published in 1908, which defies being pigeonholed into any single genre.   I initially thought it was going to focus on the honor of keeping one’s word, no matter what.  Later I thought that it would give me a good idea of what the turn-of-the-20th-century world thought about anarchists.  Alas, neither of these expectations panned out.

    The story is filled with G.K. Chesterton’s wit, which was my main motivation for reading this book.  He might not offer any deep insights into the anarchist movement, but I enjoyed his sardonic views on revolutionaries, law enforcement agencies, honor, and putting on airs.  The settings are minimal – the greater London area and a brief excursion to the coast of France - but I have visited, and thoroughly enjoy, both of those places..

    I liked the “feel” of life back then.  Skyscrapers were a new phenomenon, motor-cars were around but much less common than horse-drawn carriages, and you went by ship to get from London to France because, well, commercial flights didn’t exist.  The philosophical debate in chapter one was fun to listen in on, and I always enjoy learning a new French phrase, in this case: “Pagens ont tort et Chretiens ont droit.”

    The book is written in English, so you see navvies at work, find yourself disorganised yet cosy, push a perambulator (and only now did I realise that’s the longer form of “pram”), study at Board Schools, and entertain guests in your parlour.  I never did figure out what a man described as “somewhat of the type of Mr. Tim Healy” was like, nor why the phrase “what about Martin Tupper now?” was uttered.

     The pacing felt uneven.  The philosophy debate went by fast, but the recruitment section seemed to drag.  The first chase (the good guys running from the bad guys) zipped along just fine, but it was immediately followed by a second chase (the bad guys running from the good guys), and by then I was ready for the storyline to get going again.

    The book is short – only 121 pages – which barely qualifies as a novel.  There is a poem at the beginning which, although well done, didn’t seem to contribute to the story at all.  The ending is positively surreal, which I liked, and there's an offbeat “Row, row, row your boat” twist in the epilogue.  I’d attribute these to the ingestion of LSD by Chesterton, but acid wouldn’t be discovered for another 20 years.

Kewlest New Word ...
Bally (adj.) : a euphemism for bloody; a Britishism used as an intensive, as in “a bally stupid idea.”
Others : Falneur (n.); Cicerone (n.); Badinage (n.).

Kindle Details...
    You can get the e-book version of The Man Who Was Thursday for anything from free to $7.99 at Amazon.  Needless to say, I opted for the cheapest option.  Quite a few of G.K. Chesterton’s e-books at Amazon go for $0.99, and you can even get a 50-book collection of his works, which includes The Man Who Was Thursday, for a mere $1.99.  These things happen when the copyright protection has expired.

    Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.  That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. (loc. 1293)

    “He insulted my mother.”
    “Insulted your mother!” exclaimed the gentleman incredulously.
    “Well, anyhow,” said Syme, conceding a point, “my aunt.”
    “But how can the Marquis have insulted your aunt just now?” said the second gentleman with some legitimate wonder.  “He has been sitting here all the time.”
    “Ah, it was what he said!” said Syme darkly.
    “I said nothing at all,” said the Marquis, “except something about the band.  I only said that I liked Wagner played well.”
    “It was an allusion to my family,” said Syme firmly.  “My aunt played Wagner badly.  It was a painful subject.  We are always being insulted about it.”  (loc. 1662)

 “If you’d take your head home and boil it for a turnip it might be useful.”  (loc. 1038)
    The main problem with The Man Who Was Thursday is its incoherent storyline.  It starts off as a Philosophical treatise (what is anarchy?), then switches to a tale of Intrigue (who’s a cop, who’s not?), then does the Chase trope, not once but twice, and finishes up with a Surreal get-together that would’ve made Salvador Dali get all misty-eyed.

    There are some plot twists but they all seemed either telegraphed or forced.  Finally, one of the protagonists, Lucian Gregory, goes MIA after a few chapters, and doesn’t reappear until the very end.

    I sort of got the feeling G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) had some fascinating and adventurous ideas for our two philosopher-poets to experience in the world of anarchists, but tried to jam them all into a single hundred-page story.  Personally, I think it would've been better to spread them out into a series.

    5½ Stars.  I found The Man Who Was Thursday to be witty, but oftentimes confusing and incoherent.  If I had to describe it in one sentence, it would be: “How Monty Python’s The Holy Grail would sound like if it had been written in 1908”.  That may sound fantastic, and the book certainly has its moments, but in the end it just doesn’t hold together well.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Aye, Robot - Robert Kroese

    2017; 267 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book Two (out of 4, if you include the prequel) in the Starship Grifters series.  Genre : Spoof; Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Something’s wrong with Rex Nihilo lately.  His trusty robot sidekick, Sasha, is sure of it.  He’s too nice, and way too generous.  He doesn’t miss a chance to freely give some possession of his to anyone and everyone he meets.  And for a wheeling-dealing, what’s-in-it-for-me shyster like Rex, that’s totally out of character.

    This has been going on ever since they landed here, on Beltran Prime.  Maybe it’s due to something in the air, or in the water, or in the booze.  Maybe it was going on sometime before they landed, but curiously, neither Sasha nor Rex can recall anything from before Beltran Prime.  It’s strange that this bout with amnesia has affected them both, since Sasha, being a robot, doesn’t eat, drink, or breathe.

    Things are getting serious.  Rex has just given away the last of their money, so who knows where they’ll stay or how Rex will pay for his next meal.  It’s time to jump in their spaceship, and get out of here.

    Oops.  Rex just gave away their spaceship to a couple of religious cultists passing by.

    Now what?

What’s To Like...
    Aye, Robot is the sequel to Starship Grifters, which I read last year and reviewed here.  Rex and Sasha, our two protagonists, are back, along with the sexy Pepper Mélange and the dastardly Heinous Vlaak.  There are a slew of new characters as well.  Ensign Boggs joins Rex’s crew; so do a pair of robotic constructs, Donny (who likes to talk in the third person) and Steve-the-Parrot (just call him “Squawky”).  There are new baddies as well.  Space pirates.  Lots of them.

    If you read Starship Grifters and liked it, this is more of the same.  The pace is frenetic, the action is non-stop, the wit is Monty Python-ish, and the antics are over-the-top.  The plot meanders all over the place.  I was almost halfway through the book before I figured out what the main storyline was.

    Like any good space opera, the reader is treated to a bunch of planetary settings, including: Xagnon, New Borculo Nova, Schufnassik Six, and the ambiguously-labeled Secret Pirate Lair.  The spaceships also have intriguing names: Coccydynia, our heroes’ Flagrante Delicto, and the Chronic Lumbago.  Acronym lovers will thrill to learn the meanings of SLACS, WACS, IGA, HIM, and most-importantly, SASHA.

    The Sp’ossels are back, and I gather they will be recurring adversaries for Rex and Sasha, which I think is great.  Ditto for Heinous Vlaak.  There’s a new cult called the "Collective of the Inverted Ego", but I suspect they’re limited to being in this story only.  The "Retbutlerian Jihad" made me chuckle, and as a chemist, I’m interested in seeing where I can get some of the elemental "Zontonium".  Rex’s extended banter with the vendor about four arms and forearms is as hilarious as any Abbot & Costello routine.

    The story is told in the first person POV (Sasha’s), and 40 chapters cover the 258 pages, meaning there's a good place to stop about every 6½ pages.  The closest this book comes to being R-rated are a couple uses of the word “hell”, the galactic drug, Pheelsophine; and a mention of pain meds.  Aye, Robot is a standalone story, part of a 4-story series, and reading the books in order does not seem to be a requisite.

    The ending is suitably over-the-top, with everything working out for the good guys.  The main story thread is resolved, and there’s a teaser for Rex and Sasha’s next adventure, The Wrath of Cons, which was published last October.  The prequel, which is actually the third book in the series that Robert Kroese wrote, is called Out of the Soylent Planet, and awaits my attention on my Kindle.

    “What are you seeing, Rex?” HIM asked.
    “It’s … it’s so beautiful,” Rex gasped, staring into empty space above the box.  His eyes were welling with tears.
    “We can’t see it, Rex,” said HIM.  “What is it?”
    “It’s… I can’t even describe it,” Rex said, his voice barely above a whisper.
    “Please try.”
    “It’s like someone mixed matter and energy together in a cosmic cocktail mixing glass, filled the glass with cubes of time, and then strained it into a martini glass the size of the universe.”
    HIM frowned.  “You’re seeing…”
    “A cosmic martini,” said Rex, still wide-eyed.  “My God, it’s full of olives.”  (loc. 403)

    “Mister Primate, sir,” said Rex, “If I may interject a moment, I think you’ll find once you’ve reviewed the evidence in my possession that Vlaak’s actions were fully justified and that he is, in fact, a bona fide hero of the Malarchy, deserving of medals and suchlike.”
    “Who are you?” the Primate demanded.
    “Rex Nihilo, Your Poignant Vibrancy.  And can I just say what an honor it is to meet an unquestioned despot such as yourself?  The way you subdue the entire galaxy with an iron grip is truly inspirational.”  (loc. 3608)

Kindle Details...
    Aye, Robot currently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Books One and Three are also $4.99, while Book Zero, the prequel, but the third book written, goes for $0.99.  Robert Kroese offers three other fantasy/sci-fi/satire series (Mercury, Iron Dragon, Land of Dis) and a couple of standalone mystery/sci-fi novels.  Most of his books are in the $0.99-$4.99 range, but the two mysteries are $7.99 and $13.99.

“Don’t get philosophical with me, you clockwork Kierkegaard.”  (loc. 225)
    The last 60 pages of Aye, Robot is a novella titled The Yanthus Prime Job, which starts at 77% and stars Pepper Mélange as a daring jewel thief.  The tone is darker and there are fewer yuk-yuks.  This is more of a “how’s she gonna pull the heist off” tale.

    The gem to be stolen is called the “Emerald of Sobalt Prime”, and the story is still set in the Rex Nihilo universe.  Pepper of course has lots of futuristic gadgets at her disposal, such as contact lenses that double as video-recording devices.  But the museum's security department also has access to that level of technology and builds some pretty sophisticated defenses for the gem.  The drug “Uforium” replaces Pheelsophine, and the ending has a couple of neat twists.

    I found The Yanthus Prime Job to be a great “extra” to Aye, Robot, and now wonder if some of Robert Kroese’s other series are more serious in nature.  I just assumed they were all as crazily over-the-top as the Rex Nihilo ones.  Fortunately, I have at least one book from each of his series on my Kindle, so I have no excuse not to investigate.

    7½ StarsAye, Robot is a lighthearted book that isn’t intended to be taken seriously.  It’s aim is to be delightfully absurd and hold the reader’s interest, and it succeeds nicely on both of those counts.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Liandra and the Dream Reader - Belart Wright

   2015; 86 pages.  Full Title: Liandra and the Dream Reader, An Average Joe Extraordinary Tale, Part 0.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Young Adult Urban Fantasy Adventure (according to the Amazon blurb); Novella).  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Liandra Keyrouz suffers from recurring nightmares.  She’s been having them for six years now, ever since she was ten years old.  They leave her drained, waking her up with dread feelings of panic and terror.  Needless to say, her total exhaustion is having a negative impact on her grades in high school. 

    Curiously, she never can remember the details of the nightmares, just the emotional trauma afterward.  Liandra and her parents are at their wits’ end as to what can be done about this.

    Liandra’s tried amphetamines.  They keep her awake all night, which means no nightmares.  But she has to come down sometime, and then there’s hell to pay.

    Her parents have also sent her to a number of psychologists.  They cost a lot of money, but their help to Liandra has been minimal or nonexistent.  As a last resort, they now want to send Liandra to some sort of New Age quack, who wears funny clothing and cheap trinkets on his fingers, wrists, and neck.

    No doubt he’s just another shyster who wants to take some of her parents’ money.

What’s To Like...
    Liandra and the Dream Reader is a prequel to Average Joe and the Extraordinaires, which I read some years back and is reviewed here.   Liandra is an enigmatic supporting character there, with some amazing supernatural powers.  A number of readers, including me, found her to be more fascinating than Joe, which is not a slam against him; he is, by definition “Average”.  Alas, her backstory isn’t given in AJE, and this book addresses that.

    I liked the two settings – London, England and Stockholm, Sweden.  The latter was mostly in Gamla stan, which I’d never heard of, but is the “old town” section of Stockholm.  Belart Wright is born and raised in Detroit, so it was a bold step to use faraway settings for L&tDR, and it works quite well.

    The target audience is teenage readers who are into Urban Fantasy.  There is a mystical ambiance to the book, with things like “Craftes” and “Life Force”, and that resonated with me.  I liked the reference to Baalbek, since I’m a history buff.  Doing amphetamines, aka “Dexies”, was realistically portrayed, which added to the dark tone of the book.  And I had to google the word “Habibti", a term of endearment used by Mr. Keyrouz.

    The dialogue is punctuated weirdly, the format being the name of the speaker, a colon, and then the quote.  The excerpts below give some examples of this.  Belart Wright also used this in AJE, so I was used to it.  For some reason, the format wasn’t used when the doctor and the beast were speaking.  I have no clue why.

Kindle Details...
    Liandra and the Dream Reader currently sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  Belart Wright has nine other e-books available at Amazon, most of which are full-length novels.  They all sell for $0.99, which is a pretty good deal IMO.  Belart Wright often credits the illustrators of his book covers as co-authors at Amazon, which I think is way kewl.

    Mrs. Keyrouz: “We’ve gotten some good results from your sleep therapist, Dr. Thomas.  He says that you’re actually making progress.  He’s given us a chart here that shows the various chemical fluctuations going on in your body.  He told us that if we regulate the hormones in your body to normal levels that it’s possible for your mind to stop producing these horrible night terrors when you sleep.”
    Liandra: “He’s lying.”  (loc. 976)

    “Have you forgotten about everything else?  Your schoolwork, your college preparation, your future?  Stopping now could derail all your plans.”
    Liandra: “I won’t be able to focus on any of that until I rid myself of these dreams.  I’ll always struggle more than everyone else and will never reach my full potential.  I’ll be too damn tired to do anything.”
    Mrs. Keyrouz: “No cursing in this house.”  (loc. 546)

 “What a foul thing to say, even from a monster.”  (loc. 369)
    I think this book works quite well as an answer for those who read Average Joe and the Extraordinaires and wanted to know more about Liandra’s background.  If you haven’t read AJE, here’s hoping this book piques your interest to read more about her adventures alongside Average Joe.

    Keep in mind this is a novella: only 86 pages long and covered via 14 chapters.  There are only a few characters to follow, there isn’t a lot of complexity or depth, and the action is mostly looking for the cause of Liandra’s nightmares, not taking steps against them.  It’s a quick read (you can finish it in a single sitting), but it’s not a standalone story, and its raison d’etre is to set up, and give background information about, the Average Joe series.  Nothing is resolved here, although I do get the feeling that Liandra will become Joe's main sidekick .

    7 Stars.  The book closes with an indication that, in addition to the Average Joe series (which at this point is a trilogy), there was a Liandra and the Dream Reader, Part Two in the offing, presumably featuring Liandra as the main protagonist.  I don’t see it offered at Amazon, and Belart Wright has lately been concentrating on a pair of LitRPG series, so I’m guessing that means the Liandra series has been either tabled or scrapped.  Here's hoping it gets started again.