Friday, April 26, 2019

Storykeeper - Daniel A. Smith


    2012; 339 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Native American Literature.  Laurels: Winner of a 2013 “Best Indie Book” Award (whatever that is).  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    It is 1541, and gods have come to visit the tribes of Native Americans living in the area of what is now eastern Arkansas.  They have wondrous weapons – beasts that can be ridden into battle, coatings of metal that render any arrows shot at them harmless, and strange tubes from which thunder erupts as pieces of death shoot out over incredible distances.

    The leader of these gods calls himself “the Son of the Sun”.  He claims to serve an even greater god, and one of the gifts he brings to the tribes he encounters is a giant wooden cross, through which the local people can tap into the power of this omnipotent deity.  He also grants them a second, less visible gift – the smallpox virus.

    The reaction to these visitors is mixed.  Some tribes resist, and they taste the destructive power of the weapons used by these gods.  Other tribes simply flee, especially as word gets around that these gods also come to conquer.  A few tribes greet them as visiting friends, giving them food, water, and shelter.  Unfortunately, what the Son of the Sun wants most, they can’t give him.

    Gold and silver.

What’s To Like...
    Storykeeper is a clever blend of three tales of storytellers, each set about a generation apart.  The “present day” one features the aged Manaha as her dwindling tribe copes with how to survive.  The next one centers on the young girl Manaha as she journeys with her aged step-grandfather Taninto, also a storyteller, to rejoin her original tribe.  The earliest storyline deals with a young Taninto as he witnesses the coming on Hernando de Soto, the “Son of the Sun”, and his army of conquistadors in 1541.  The book repeatedly cycles through these three storylines, which may sound confusing, but Daniel A. Smith's writing skills are sufficient to keep things flowing smoothly.

    The setting is eastern Arkansas, which I gather is the author’s stomping grounds.  There’s a lot of traveling, particularly in the earlier two plotlines, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the various ridges, valleys, and rivers are all geographically accurate, albeit with appropriately-historical names.  The “Mizzissibizzibbippi River” (yeah, trying saying that three times real fast) is obviously the present-day Mississippi River, and I’m pretty sure the “Akamsa River” is now called the Arkansas River.  The other geographical names didn’t ring any bells with me.

    I found Daniel A. Smith’s examining of this “first contact” situation through the eyes of the local tribespeople to be very intriguing.  I especially liked that the two sides weren’t depicted in “black/white” shades.  The Spaniards may be looking for gold and new subjects for their King back in Spain, but they’d prefer to persuade people rather than resorting to warfare.  The locals are not noble savages, just tribes of hunter-gatherers and farmers who are doomed due to their lack of immunity to smallpox.  Neither group is perfect, nor is either the epitome of evil.

    There are a bunch of tribes mentioned, but you don’t really have to keep track of who is who.  I liked the mysterious “orb stones”, which figure prominently in Daniel A. Smith’s non-fiction book.  I was aware of such things, but only in Central American locations.  There are 41 chapters, plus a prologue, to cover 338 pages, which averages out to about 8 pages per chapter.  I don’t recall any cussing or sex, but there is small amount of violence.

    All three storylines are brought to satisfactory conclusions at the end of the book.  I didn’t find any of these to be “twisty”, but they were powerful nevertheless.  ANAICT, this is Daniel A. Smith’s only full-length novel.  Storykeeper is a standalone novel, although I personally can see room for a sequel.

Excerpts...
    “We are all that remain.  Our ancestors were from different nations, but together we are the last people of Nine-Rivers Valley.”
    “We cannot hold the gifts of ancestors.  We have lost them.  We cannot visit their graves, there were none.  We cannot speak their names, because we have forgotten them.  Stories are all we have.”  (loc. 314)

    “I have seen you with their horses,” she said.  “You have walked among the gods.”
    “No,” I said.  The Spanish are not gods.”
    Saswanna dropped her head, then glared back with her jaw set.  “But look what they have done.  Look at what they have given us.”
    “They are men of great accomplishments,” I said, “and greater ambitions.  But would gods need to wear armour?” I asked.  (loc. 3033)

Kindle Details...
    Storykeeper is selling for $3.99 at Amazon right now.  Daniel A. Smith also offers a novella for $0.99, and a non-fiction book (about the real-life orb stones mentioned in this book) for $2.99.

“Do not lose your life to the fury of war, nor your soul to its glory.  (loc. 3420)
    There are some quibbles.  A map of the areas traversed in our three storylines, with the Native American names for all the geographic locations, would have been very useful.  Also, the text is in bad need of an editor.  I normally don’t mention this for efforts by indie authors since professional editors are expensive, but here the grammar errors were frequent enough to be distracting.

    A more serious issue with Storykeeper, as several reviewers at Amazon also point out, is the slow pacing.  The young Manaha and old Taninto traipse up and down mountains until both she and I were bored stiff.  The old Manaha lives apart from her village, but the most exciting thing in her life is the nightly storytelling sessions.  The young Taninto is wonderstruck by the Spaniards, but his personal high point is when he gets to groom one of the horses.

    That all changes at about 75% Kindle, when things pick up nicely in two of the plotlines.  Blood is shed in one, and the threat of annihilation looms in another.  The pace runs nicely from there through the end, but how many readers will have given up before then?

    The author is of course constrained by the historical circumstances in which his book is set, but there are ample opportunities to infuse more action into this tale.  Historically, de Soto’s expedition was an abject failure.  He will be dead within a year, dying of a fever, and his body hidden to prevent its desecration by the natives who by then were fed up with him.  His starving and bedraggled followers, their numbers shrunk by attrition from constant fighting with the indigenous populations, will be forced to make a desperate retreat back to Mexico.  The Native Americans will be decimated by smallpox, but it might be more interesting to read about living (and dying) through the onslaught of this disease, rather than just see the “before” and “after” contrast, which is what occurs here.

    5 Stars.  For all I know, Daniel A. Smith intends to develop this into a series with the opportunities for action cited above fully utilized.  After all, the three plotlines used here are presumably but a fraction of the tales the titular storykeepers have to tell.  I can’t think of a more qualified author to relate them to us than him.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life - Eric Idle


   2018; 272 pages.  Full Title : Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – A Sortabiography.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Biography; Autobiography; Monty Python.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Full Disclosure: IMO Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the greatest film of all time, and I will brook no debate about it.  I’m open to any opinions as to the second-greatest film, especially if you nominate The Magnificent Seven, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Princess Bride.  But for me, The Holy Grail is, well, the cinematic Holy Grail.

    Beyond that movie, however, I am quite ignorant about Monty Python.  Their other movies didn’t wow me, and I’ve watched neither their Flying Circus television series, nor their musical, Spamalot.  I’d have trouble telling you the names of all the Pythons, although I think I’d recognize them if you showed me them on a list.

    So it was quite the treat when Santa Claus brought me Eric Idle’s book “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” last Christmas.  It’s not quite a memoir, since he tells you right up front he’s left out the shameful bits (on the advice of his lawyer) and the filthy bits (on the advice of his wife).  Nor is it quite an autobiography since there’s very little about his personal life in the book.  The main focus is his professional career.

    Eric Idle calls it a “Sortabiography”, and I think his suggestion is as good as any.  In the book’s Foreward, he says “if this isn’t exactly what went down, it’s certainly how it should have happened”, and that certainly sounds like a Sortabiography to me.

What’s To Like...
    At 32 chapters covering 272 pages, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life will tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the careers of Monty Python in general and Eric Idle in particular.  You’ll learn where the name came from, how all the members met each other, and how they approached writing absurd comedy as a group effort.  There are eight pages of glossy color photos in the middle, and a slew of Eric’s personal pictures (in black-&-white) scattered throughout the text.  In addition, there’s a 13-page index in the back, which I found to be quite useful.

    The book primarily focuses on the ups-and-downs of the Monty Python troupe, and I liked learning just how they broke into, and climbed up the ladder, of show biz.  Comedy may be zany on the surface, but it’s a serious enterprise underneath, with lots of outsiders trying to mooch a piece of the profits pie.  Fame also takes its toll on personal lives, and I liked that Eric Idle takes the bulk of the blame for the break-up of his first marriage.

    For the most part, ALotBSoL is written in the tone of a Monty Python routine, chock full of one-liners and irreverent absurdities.  This made it a delight to read.  Yet there are also some touching scenes.  Eric Idle’s closest friends seem to have been George Harrison, Robin Williams, Harry Nilsson, David Bowie, and Steve Martin, and when you look at that list, all but one has passed away.  George Harrison’s death seems to have had a particularly profound effect on the author.

    There’s a ton of name-dropping throughout the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Musicians are in abundance, and among those whom I haven't mentioned yet are the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (who?), Alvin Lee (of Ten Years After), Deep Purple, Randy Newman, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Paul Simon, One Direction, Mick Jagger, and Joni Mitchell.  Among the non-musicians cited are Spike Milligan (I can never find any of his books at the used-book stores), Firesign Theatre (yes, it’s properly spelled the British way), Brian Cox, and Stephen Hawking.  The latter two, both top-tier physicists, were huge Monty Python fans, and they both are featured in a YouTube video, wherein Hawking sings a verse of The Galaxy Song.  You can see it here.

    There’s nothing lurid in the book, but unsurprisingly, there is plenty of sex and drugs and rock-&-roll.  There's also some cussing, as I'd expect from a Monty Python effort, yet I found the book to be well-written, funny, and informative.  I learned about the devastating “Lewy body dementia”, had to look up the “Curry’s brain” reference, got an bit of art appreciation with the picture of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”, and learned a new Latin phrase “Ars est celare artem” (“The art lies in concealing the art”).  Given that Eric Idle was 75-years-old when he wrote this, I was quite impressed.

Kewlest New Word ...
Doss (adj.; British, informal) : To sleep in rough or inexpensive accommodations.
Others : Vinous (adj.); Demotic (adj.); Doddle (n.; British, informal).

Excerpts...
    I had flown to Barbados to spend Christmas at the Coral Reef Club with Lorne Michaels and Susan Forristal, Paul Simon and Shelley Duvall.  Unfortunately, Shelley was trying to give up smoking and cried a lot.  She was so miserable we begged her to smoke again.  Christmas Day was illuminated by an extraordinary performance from a waiter who, slightly inebriated, managed to pour flaming brandy all over himself instead of Christmas pudding.  Luckily only the brandy burned, but it was a startling effect to be served by a burning waiter.  It felt like a Pink Floyd cover.  (pg. 86)

    Laughter is still the best revenge.  One day the sun will die, one day the galaxy will die, one day the entire Universe will die.  I’m not feeling too good myself.  So, what have I learned over my long and weird life?  Well, firstly, that there are two kinds of people, and I don’t much care for either of them.  Secondly, when faced with a difficult choice, either way is often best.  Thirdly, always leave a party when people begin to play the bongos.  (pg. 269)

 At fourteen I wanted to play guitar very badly.  By fifteen I did.  (pg. 10)
    I can’t think of anything to nitpick about in Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, so instead, here are some bits of Monty Python trivia to whet your reading appetite.

    Three things you didn’t know about Eric Idle:
01) His father was an RAF pilot, and died in a highway accident while coming back home after WW2 ended.  Eric grew up in a military orphanage.
02) His wife’s butt cheeks graced a cover of Playboy magazine in the 1970’s.  It's one of the color photos in the book.
03)  He once shook hands with Prince Charles while he was in full-drag (Eric.  Not the Prince.).  There's a photo of it included in the book, albeit in black-&-white.

    Three things you probably didn’t know about Monty Python:
01) They formed in 1969, but their work wasn’t released in the USA until 1974.
02) They couldn’t find any film companies that would finance the making of The Holy Grail.  It was finally bankrolled by various members of the bands Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, et. al.
03) From 1969 to 1983, they put out 5 movies, 45 TV shows, 5 stage shows, 5 books, and countless records including a hit single.  They were busy.

    9½ Stars.  I’m not big on reading biographies/autobiographies, averaging about one per year.  Always Look on the Bright Side of Life was an unexpected treat for me, both for its trivia and its humor.  Who knows, this may inspire me to read a second (auto)-biography in 2019.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Crimson Shore - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child


   2015; 352 pages.  New Author? : No, and no.  Book 15 (out of 17) in the Agent Pendergast Series.  Genre : Thriller; Murder-Mystery; Natural or Supernatural?  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Someone has robbed dear old Percival Lake.  Stole it right out of his quaint little cottage beside the Exmouth lighthouse, of which  he’s the keeper.  Those dastardly do-badders purloined his most cherished possession: his wine collection.

     He’s come to Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast to ask his assistance in solving the theft.  Alas, despite being a wine connoisseur himself, Pendergast is an FBI agent, and such a crime is not something they investigate.  Indeed, no amount of money offered by Percival will change his mind.

    Curiously, the thieves left one small bit of the collection behind – a case of Chateau Haut-Braquilanges ’04, and that stands for 1904, mind you, not 2004.  Not only is it the crown jewel of Percival’s collection, but it’s the Holy Grail among wine collectors everywhere.  So while Agent Pendergast can’t be persuaded to help Percival for any amount of money, there is another fee that will make him change his mind.

    A single bottle from that case of ’04 Haut-Braquilanges.

What’s To Like...
    Crimson Shore showcases my two favorite characters in the series, Agent Pendergast and his ward, Constance Greene.  They travel to (the fictional town of) Exmouth, on the northern coast of Massachusetts.  Other recurring characters, such as Proctor, Lt. Vinnie D’Agosta, Margo Green, and Laura Hayward make cameo appearances,, as well as one unnamed nemesis of Pendergast’s.

    Needless to say, the case quickly expands from a mere matter of pilfered wine.  The problem for our heroes is not a lack of clues, it’s one of too many clues and how to make them all fit.  As always, the pacing is quick, with lots of action and intrigue.  I found Crimson Shore to be an incredibly fast read.

    The storyline harkens back to a motif employed in early books in the series: “Is it natural or supernatural?”  Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child had gotten away from that for a while, and I for one have missed it.  Here, all sorts of suspects and possibilities arise: Did Percival Lake fake the whole thing?  Did witches do it for revenge?  Was it ghosts from a nearby colonial shipwreck?  Did Satanists do it and leave their demonic runes as a warning?  Did local kids do it and leave the demonic runes as a red herring?  Was it a hellhound?  Was it the Gray Reaper?  There’s evidence for each one of those theories.  Best of luck sorting through it all, Agent Pendergast.

    It's always a pleasure when a couple French phrases show up in a story, and here I was delighted to also run across a Latin one that I'd never heard before: “cum hoc, ergo propter hoc”.  The editor in me liked seeing the proper plural “culs-de-sac” and the correctly-spelled phrase with bated breath”.  I had to chuckle when Pendergast attempts to teach Constance the prim-&-proper protocol of wine-tasting.

    For those allergic to R-rated stuff, be aware there’s some cussing, and of course the requisite amount of violence and gore.  60 chapters cover the 352 pages, which averages out to just under 6 pages/chapter.   That means you can always find a good place to stop for the night.

    The story has a stutter-step ending.  With a hundred pages to go (or about 70% Kindle), everything seems to have been cleared up, and I was wondering if we were about to encounter an epilogue of epic length.  But it turns out the second phase of the fun was just beginning.  Preston & Child still have the ability to surprise me.

Kewlest New Word ...
Ouroboros (n.) : a circular symbol depicting a snake swallowing its tail.
Others : Bespoke (adj.) Spindrift (n.) Ratiocination (n.).

Excerpts...
    “All right.  You know what?  I’m going to be watching everything you do.  One step, one toe, over the line and I’ll run you out of this town so fast your head will spin.  Is that clear?”
    “Certainly.  And while I investigate grand larceny, you may continue to protect the town from the scourge of straddled parking.”
    “You’re quite the comedian.”
    “That was an observation, not a pleasantry.”  (loc. 330)

    “My apologies for scattering your flowers.  Atropa belladonna, I see.  Deadly nightshade.  Are you intending, like the wife of Claudius, to poison someone with it?”
    “I’ve no idea who Claudius is, or his damn wife for that matter.  I supply an herbal pharmacologist with it – for tinctures, decoctions, powders.  It’s still compounded for gastrointestinal disorders, in case you didn’t know.  These woods are full of it.”
    “You are a botanist, then?”
    “I’m a guy trying to make a living.  Can I get up now?”  (loc. 1556)

Kindle Details...
    Crimson Shore sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  The other books in the series are all in the $6.99 to $9.99 price range.  Ditto for the various non-Pendergast novels on which Preston & Child have collaborated.

“Isn’t wormwood supposed to cause brain damage?”  “The act of living causes brain damage.”  (loc. 460)
    After reading some of the Amazon reviews, it seems like a fair number of people didn’t like the ending, which they labeled a cliffhanger.  Well, I hate cliffhangers too, but technically this was more of a teaser, since the main threads in the storyline are all tied up.

    Yes, Pendergast ends up missing and presumed dead.  That’s happened before, but it’s not really a spoiler since two more books in the series have been published since then.  Yes, an unidentified baddie drops in out of nowhere at the end, but that’s merely a plug for the next book, and Preston & Child have pulled this sort of stunt before.  Yes, it’s cheap and tawdry.  But it’s not a cliffhanger.

    8 Stars.  Preston & Child also get accused of just “cranking out” these stories, and that’s probably true.  They’re still putting them out at a rate of about one per year, and I’m still two books behind in the series, plus two others from way back to somehow find time to read.  Their efforts may be formulaic, but it’s a good formula and I for one always enjoy the tales they spin.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Imperium - Robert Harris


    2006; 305 pages.  New Author? : No. Full Title: “Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome”   Genre : Historical Fiction; Intrigue; Roman History.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    The year is 79 BC, and the Roman Republic faces a crisis.

    It's not an external danger, although there is a pesky uprising over in Spain, and down south, Spartacus is still barely hanging on in revolt with a few other slaves.  Oh, and some guy named Mithradates VI is giving the Roman army fits, but that’s way the heck over by the Black Sea, so who cares?  Essentially, Rome holds sway over the entire civilized Western world.

    Instead, the threat is internal, in the realm of politics.  The Republican form of government that has been the foundation of Rome for centuries is in turmoil.  The Aristocracy controls the Senate, and they've effectively neutered the Tribunes, who are supposed to be the voice of the common people.  “One man, one vote” no longer exists, thanks to voter suppression and blatant bribery.  Then there's the military commanders, whose power the rich and poor alike have always been leery of, who now muse about taking the reins of the government into their own hands.

    What can be done about any of this?  Does anyone really want to take on these power-hungry forces?  Maybe it’s time to find a “man of the people” to make some stirring speeches, prosecute those who covet power, and, with a little luck, not get himself assassinated by any of these those whose toes he steps on.  But where can such a sucker …erm… candidate be found?

    Hmm.  How about that young, na├»ve, never-been-in-the-army, stuttering Cicero?

What’s To Like...
    Imperium is the first book in Robert Harris's trilogy that features Cicero as the main protagonist during a most critical time for the Roman Empire.  The tale is told in the first-person POV, that of Tiro, a slave (for now) and Cicero's chief secretary.  Tiro is not a fictional character; he even has his own Wikipedia page, which you can read here.

    The book is divided into two roughly-equal parts.  Part One is called “Senator”, and covers Cicero’s first efforts to be a public servant of Rome by becoming an orator, a prosecuting attorney, and doing whatever is necessary to climb the political ladder.  Part Two is called “Praetorian” wherein he enters into the higher, and more risky, political levels.  There are 18 chapters (or “rolls” since Tiro is recording them on papyrus) for the 305 pages,.  The title refers to a position of absolute authority where a Roman citizen could sway over the entire empire.  Traditionally the Roman populace was loath to entrust any one person with such enormous power.

    As a history-buff, I was delighted to be immersed the ancient Roman setting.  I learned the three principles of Stoicism (they were big on philosophy back in those days), and was happy to see Cincinnatus, Archimedes, and Greek fire mentioned.  I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of ink devoted to Carthage, who came oh-so-close to toppling Rome a century and a half earlier, and I was humbled when Hamilcar Barca, the namesake used at this blog, got cited.  Tiro is a scribe, so his writing materials feature prominently in the story, including paper, shorthand (an invention of Tiro’s), Hieratica, wax tablets, notebooks, textbooks, papyrus, children’s drawings, and books.  All of these are historically accurate, according to a book I read earlier this year, and reviewed here.

    I liked Robert Harris’s portrayal of the mindset ofRome in the 1st-century B.C.  There is a definite schism between the upper and lower classes, with the poor-but-numerically superior class getting constantly shafted, both in the courtrooms and at the polls.  You can feel the tension in the air.  I also liked the situational ethics that Cicero faces several times as a lawyer: how do you provide a legal defense for someone who is plainly and loathsomely guilty?

    The ending is sufficiently suspenseful while also setting up the next book, Conspirata.  Cicero attains his personal dream job, but it comes at the cost of making a lot of political enemies.  It is obvious that Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus will be major players in the next phase of Rome’s government, and it will be interesting to see how they, along with other historical notables, such as Marc Antony and Cato, will fit into Tiro's tale.  Not surprisingly, most of the historically significant story threads remain unresolved, but Imperium closes at a significant point in Cicero’s life, and I’d still call this a standalone novel.

Kewlest New Word…
Cynosure (n.) : a person or thing that is the center of attention or admiration.
Others : Peroration (n.); Hieratica (n.); Quiff (n.); philology (n.).

Excerpts...
    Lucius became the conduit between Cicero and his clients, meeting them in secret at different locations across the city.  He was in many respects very similar to Cicero.  He was almost the same age, clever and amusing, a gifted philosopher.  The two had grown up together in the East.  But there was one huge difference: Lucius entirely lacked worldly ambition.  He lived alone, in a small house full of books, and did nothing all day except read and think – a most dangerous occupation for a man, which in my experience leads invariably to dyspepsia and melancholy.  (pg. 68)

    “You realize this is of no consequence to me, but only to yourself?  It does not matter who is my advocate; nothing changes for me.  I shall be acquitted.  But for you now – instead of my friendship, you will have my enmity.”
    Cicero shrugged.  “I prefer not to have the enmity of any man, but when it is unavoidable, I shall endure it.”
    “You will never have endured an enmity such as mine, I promise you that.  Ask the Africans.”  He grinned.  “Ask Gratidianus.”
    “You removed his tongue, Catilina.  Conversation would be difficult.”  (pg. 244)

“I must advise you, Catilina, as your defense attorney, that it would be a grievous mistake to murder your prosecutor.”  (pg. 240)
    The quibbles are mostly a matter of personal taste.  The storyline is heavy on the intrigue and light on the action.  This is in no way the fault of Robert Harris.  History is history, and not a lot of the historical characters were getting killed just yet.  As a legal thriller, I think the book is just fine, so if you enjoy John Grisham novels, you’ll probably eat this up.

    There are a slew of characters to keep track of, and after a while all those Roman names started sounding the same.  It would’ve been nice to have a Dramatis Personae at the start of the book.  But I since I keep notes, this wasn’t that big of a deal for me.

    Finally, be aware that there is a fair amount of cussing throughout the book, and it’s in un-euphemistic English, not Latin.  This didn’t bother me (although I always wonder what the ancient cuss phrases really were), but linguistic prudes may be offended.  Besides, there’s something about an ancient Roman official saying “he can kiss my backside” that naturally appeals to me.

    7 Stars.  I enjoyed the historical aspects of Imperium immensely, but kept hoping someone would stab a senator or slit his own wrists.  But patience is a virtue; I have a feeling those things will show up the other two books in the series.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

What If? - Randall Munroe


   2014; 321 pages.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Science; XKCD; Reference; Science Humor.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    Even when I was a kid, I had a scientific mind.  I remember one question in particular that I read or heard somewhere:  What would happen if every person in China jumped up and down simultaneously?

   It sat in the backwaters of my mind for weeks.  I finally concluded that the answer is “nothing”, which is more or less correct, but for which my reasoning was quite wrong.  My conclusion was that it was simply impossible to synchronize every last Chinese citizen to leap into the air and come down at the same time, so the question is meaningless.  Hey, I was just a kid, but I still admire my logic. 

    Well, that question is addressed in Randall Munroe’s book, What If?, but he’s an adult with a degree in physics from Christopher Newport University, so you can expect that he investigates it much more thoroughly than I did.  Indeed, he ramps the whole concept up a notch or two, by rewording it as “What if you could gather everyone on Earth into one location and somehow have them simultaneously jump up and down at the same time?”

    That’s just one of 50+ absurd questions that is addressed here, in this case it's found in Everybody Jump (chapter 9).  Randall Munroe’s answer doesn’t exactly agree with mine, but his investigation runs a lot deeper.  So if you find yourself losing sleep over scientific conundrums like this (as a child, the author mused on: “which are there more of in the word – soft things or hard things?”) then you owe it to yourself to read this book.

What’s To Like...
    There are 69 chapters in What If?, which is an average of about 4½ pages per chapter.  57 of those chapters deal with individual, bizarre, tech-oriented questions submitted on Randall Munroe’s blog with his active encouragement.  The other 12 chapters interspersed throughout the book are titled “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Box”, and contain questions that were too outrageous for even Munroe to respond to.

    Each chapter is a treat for anyone who’s an XKCD fan or has even a drop of geek blood in his veins.  My favorites, besides the aforementioned Chinese jumping poser, were:

01.  Global Windstorm.  What if the world suddenly stopped turning?
02.  Relativistic Baseball.  What if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?
05.  New York-style Time Machine.  What if we could time-travel, forward and back, from a spot in New York City?
09.  A Mole of Moles.  Because celebrating Mole Day (October 23) is something geeks like me do.
26.  Glass Half Empty.  What if “empty” meant “a perfect vacuum”?
28.  Alien Astronomers.  Are alien astronomers watching their skies for ET's too?
48.  Drain the Oceans.  What if we siphoned off the water in the oceans and shipped it off-planet?
53.  Random Sneeze Call.  What are the odds that answering the phone with, “God Bless You” is eerily timely?
59.  Facebook of the Dead.  What happens when most of the Facebook users are dead people?

    All of the answers are written with Randall Munroe’s XKCD wit and technical expertise, and each one also contains several of his stick-figure cartoons to amuse you and make the book a really quick read.  There’s an abundance of Discworld-esque footnotes; these are hilarious and function smoothly.  The Disclaimer and Intro are also worth reading.  And if you want a still deeper (and more serious) answer to any of the questions, there are Acknowledgements and References sections in the back.

    The book is a trivia buff’s delight.  I never knew that Helsinki has a natural underground level, but it’s an ideal place to be if you want to survive the world stopping spinning.  Other eye-openers:
    a. a Supersonic Omnidimensional Jet.
    b. Wookiepedia.
    c. SAT tests now have a writing section.  (who knew?!)
    d. how to make an underground shooting star.
    e. The Richter scale does not have limits of 0-10.
    f. The nine good things that would happen if the sun suddenly “went out”.
    g. Pangea had a predecessor; it was called Rodinia.
    h.  The Wow Signal.

Excerpts...
    There are a lot of problems with the concept of a single random soul mate.  As Tim Minchin put it in his song “If I Didn’t Have You”:
    Your love is one in a million;
    You couldn’t buy it at any price.
    But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves,
    Statistically, some of them would be equally nice.  (loc. 395)

    A magnitude 9 earthquake already measurably alters the rotation of the Earth; the two magnitude 9+ earthquakes this century both altered the length of the day by a tiny fraction of a second.
    A magnitude 15 earthquake would involve the release of almost 1033 joules of energy, which is roughly the gravitational binding energy of the Earth.  To put it another way, the Death Star caused a magnitude 15 earthquake on Alderan.  (loc. 3712)

Kindle Details...
    What If? sells for $11.99, which is an average price for a science reference e-book.  This is presently Randall Munroe’s only science-oriented offering.   Its sequel, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, is due to be published in September if this year.  Several other of his books, including one focusing on his comic strip, XKCD, are available, but only in printed versions.

If I had to bet on which one of us would still be around in a million years – primates, computers, or ants – I know who I’d pick.  (loc. 1356)
    If you still aren’t thoroughly sold on the merits of What If?, here’s a couple of trivia question that are posed in the book.  Answers are in the “Comments”.

    a. What is the rainiest place in the US?  (Useless hint: I’ve been there)
    b. Of the 28 people killed by lightning in 2012, how many were standing under a tree at the time?
    c. Which state has the most planes fly over it, meaning those planes don’t take off or land there?  (And consider how you’d even research this question.)
    d. Which state has the most planes fly under it, meaning those planes are flying in airspace directly on the opposite side of the globe.

    10 Stars.  I thoroughly enjoyed every page of What If?, and can’t wait for the sequel to come out.  Subtract ½ star  if you have no interest in sciency matters, but you’ll still enjoy this book for its laugh-out-loud XKCD humor.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Trumpet of Triton & Mesmerized - Marlin Williams


    2019; 175 pages.  New Author? : No.  Full Title: “Ravenwood Stepson of Mystery in Trumpet of Triton.  Also featuring The Moon Man in Mesmerized.”   Genre : Psychic Suspense; Occult Horror; Pulp Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Do you remember reading pulp fiction magazines when you were a child?  The five-and-dime stores used to sell them, and they featured some old-time heroes such as Doc Savage, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, Zorro, and The Shadow.

    Yeah, me neither.  Mostly because their heyday was way back in the 1920’s-30’s, and that’s a bit before my time.  I do remember spending my 25-cents-a-week allowance on Tarzan and Zorro comic books as a kid though, in the late 50’s, but by then the pulp magazines, and most of their heroes, had pretty much faded into oblivion.  Which is kinda sad, given how popular they once were.

    Fortunately, Marlin Williams is both a longtime fan of pulp fiction and a veteran author of bizarre tales.  He’s taken a pair of long-forgotten pulp heroes, Ravenwood Stepson of Mystery and the Moon Man, and given them new life in the two stories in this book.

    This means you can now journey back in time and discover what your father (or grandfather, or great-grandfather) used to read for entertainment when he was just a young ‘un.  And that's kind of magical.

What’s To Like...
    The characters Ravenwood Stepson of Mystery and the Moon Man are both creations of Frederick C. Davis (1902-1977), who doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia page, even though Moon Man does.  I like that their “super powers” aren’t very super.  Ravenwood gets some occasional psychic advice from his guru, “The Nameless One”, while the only “special” thing the Moon Man has going for him is a spiffy costume with a bulletproof helmet that conceals his identity.

    Trumpet of Triton/Mesmerized is a duology (shouldn’t we call it a "bilogy"?) with the heroes getting separate storylines set in different US locations (New York City and ‘The Great City’) in the 1930’s.  Despite both being Pulp Fiction, the subgenres are different.  The Trumpet of Triton has fantasy and mythological tones (and I’m very partial to anything with Mythology in it), while Mesmerized can be best described as a “Caped Crusader Robin Hood” tale, and I also enjoy those immensely.

    Each story is about 80-90 pages in length, so I’d call them novellas.  The action in both starts immediately, the pacing is brisk, and Marlin Williams gets the characters introduced to you in short order.  At their core, both tales have a mystery to solve, and there's lots of suspense and intrigue to keep our heroes on their toes.

    I liked the literary nod to the old TV show, Kolchak, in Trumpet of Triton.  I was intrigued by The Nameless One, and I fell for the red herring in the plotline, but so will most readers.  Mesmerized surprised me with its clever plot twist and introduced me to the way-kewl word “catawampus” (see below).  I also liked the interactions among the Moon Man and his teammates.

    Both tales are standalone stories.  There are no chapters in either, but they are short enough not to need them.  If you want to read more stories with Ravenwood Stepson of Mystery, there are at least two recent publications featuring him available for your Kindle.  If you’d like to read Frederick C. Wilson’s original tales about these two superheroes on your Kindle, ANAICT, you’re out of luck.

    Oh yeah, there's a neat epilogue in the Trumpet of Triton.  I'll leave it to you to figure out its significance. 

Kewlest New Word…
Catawampus (adv.) : askew; awry; positioned diagonally; obliquely; cater-cornered.
Others : Apotropaic (adj.); Sheers (n., plural)

Excerpts...
    “Oh, and one more thing,” she said softly.
    He watched as she reached down and unfastened the top button of her blouse.
    “This is the only way I can pay you for your services.”
    Now, Ravenwood was more than intrigued, he was mesmerized as she unfastened the second button.
    She dipped her hand into her shirt and dredged up an amulet suspended by a gold chain.  “Do you know what this is?”  (pg. 12)

    “The Moon Man may be a thief, but he’s not a killer.”
    “Capone didn’t start out killing people either and look where his career took him.”  Gil took a drag off his cigar.  The tip fired red.  “Come to think of it, Capone’s a Girl Scout compared to the Moon Man!”  His words streamed out from his mouth encapsulated in puffs of smoke.
    “He steals from the rich and gives it to the poor.  What’s wrong with that?”
    "Ha!  You’re an officer of the law.  You should know that answer to that!”  (pg. 104)

“They are Atlanteans.” (…)   “Like from Georgia?”  (pg. 60)
    One of my hobbies over the years has been converting old vinyl LP’s into digital format.  I mainly select old and obscure artists and boxed sets; the kind often found at your local Goodwill store.  There’s really no reason to do this with, say, an old Beatles or Elvis album, since Amazon already has those available as digital downloads.  But I find it supremely rewarding to “resurrect” the music of someone not-so-famous that hasn’t been played in decades.

    That’s the way I feel about Marlin Williams reviving Ravenwood Stepson of Mystery and the Moon Man.  I’d never heard of either of these characters before, now I’m familiar with both of them.  And somewhere in the anthropomorphic reaches of our universe, two pulp heroes are smiling.

    I just don’t know whether to hope that Marlin Williams finds other long-forgotten pulp heroes to revitalize, or that he develops extended series for these two.  Maybe I should hope for both?!

    9 Stars.  Wikipedia has a fascinating article on Pulp Magazine which gives the history of this literary genre.  The link is here, but it also redirects from a Wiki search for “Pulp Science Fiction”, which is how I stumbled across it.