Thursday, May 30, 2019

Look For Me - Lisa Gardner

    2017; 387 pages.  Book 9  (out of 10, and not counting a couple of short stories) in the D.D. Warren series.  New Author? : Yes.  Murder-Mystery; Police Procedural.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    They said it was a family murder, but it wasn’t.  It was a family execution.

    The dad died first.  Three shots as he sat on the couch.  He probably never even realized what was happening.  The mom was next, killed in the kitchen as she was putting away groceries.  Probably heard the dad getting shot and was still trying to figure out what was going on when she took three bullets of her own.

    But the kids upstairs understood.  Because nine-year old Manny was shot three times as his older sister, thirteen-year-old Lola, shielded him with her own body.  It didn’t work.  For either of them.

    Incredibly, one of the family survived.  The oldest sister, sixteen-year-old Roxy was out taking the two family dogs for a walk, so she wasn’t there when the killings went down.  She’s one very lucky girl.

    Unless, of course, she knew the killer was about to strike.

    Or unless she was the one that did the shooting.

What’s To Like...
    Look For Me is a murder-mystery set in Boston, and featuring a no-nonsense police detective, D.D. Warren, and co-starring Flora Dane, a self-described vigilante, whom I gather is a recent addition to the series.  This two-protagonist structure works well: D.D.’s chapters are in the third-person POV, Flora’s are in the first-person.

    I’m partial to police procedurals, and this book did not disappoint.  I liked the fact that D.D., although living a harried life in trying to balance her professional and family life (which includes a husband, a 5-year-old son, and now a hyperactive puppy), is not portrayed as the stereotypical burnt out hero/cop.  At least yet.

    We follow D.D. and Flora as each pursues their independent investigations of the case.  I was intrigued by their working relationship.  Flora is now “promoted” to the job of “CI” (Confidential Informant), but neither of them fully trusts the other.  They find lots of plausible suspects, but for each of these, at least one of the shootings would make no sense.  So either everyone (including the reader) is missing something, or else there’s another suspect whom they haven’t discovered yet.

    Like any police procedural, this is a gritty tale, with lots of blood and gore, violence, and cussing.  Lisa Gardner also takes a deep-probing look at life in the darker side of Boston, including Hispanic girl gangs and the horrors of Foster Care gone wrong.  Roxy’s school essay on “What Makes a Perfect Family” is particularly hard-hitting.  Both the tension between the two protagonists and these social side-themes keep the plotline from becoming stale.

    Everything builds to a tension-filled and exciting climax.  No, I didn’t guess correctly as to who the perpetrator was, but D.D. and Flora successfully solve the case, and its resolution was neither arbitrary nor obvious, yet surprisingly logical.

Kewlest New Word...
Acting out (v.; phrase) : misbehaving, especially when unhappy or stressed.
Others : Mudroom (n.; we have no need for mudrooms where I live).

    Do screams have a taste?  Fire?  Ash?  Red hot cinnamon candies, which as a little girl Sarah liked to let melt on the tip of her tongue?
    Or is it more that screams have a color?  Green and gold giggles, purple and blue cackles, or this?  Molten white.  Melt your eyeballs, singe-the-hair-on-your-arms, bright, white?  A color too brilliant for nature, searing straight to the core.
    That’s what Heidi screamed.  Molten white.  (pg. 2)

    “Girl with the reddish-gold hair, that Anya Seton by any chance?”
    He gave me a suspicious look.  “Why?”
    “I, um, saw her in a play once.  Thought that had to be her.”
    “Yeah.  She’s in most of the local productions.  Gonna be a big star one day.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Likes to tell us that as she signs a napkin and leaves it as a tip.”
    “Yep.  Cuz, you know, Brighton community theater is only one short step from Broadway.”  (pg. 217)

It was pretty hard to commit suicide by shooting yourself three times in the chest.  (pg. 17)
    I don’t really have any quibbles about Look For Me, but I’m new to the series.  Some Amazon reviewers are not keen about Flora Dane sharing the stage with D.D., but I liked the arrangement.

    Others are tired of Flora’s backstory being recounted in every book she appears in, but for newcomers like me, that’s indispensable.  I think it’s a plus when you don’t have to read a murder-mystery series in chronological order to know what's going on.

    That being said, I never did figure out why Flora’s left hand is always bandaged.  I suppose I’ll have to read some earlier books in the series to find out.  Somehow, that seems a pleasant task.

    8½ Stars.   It's always a delight to discover a fascinating new police-procedural author to read, and Lisa Gardner is just that/  I think it's time to hit the used-book stores in search of her other novels.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Gulp - Mary Roach

   2013; 341 pages.  Full Title : Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Science; Anatomy; Research.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Hey, let’s go on a cruise!  I've found a great one to take; they call it the Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  It doesn’t stop at the exotic Islets of Langerhans, but that’s the only place missing.  The spots it does stop are all fascinating locations.  Oh, and be sure to pack your own lunch for the trip.

    We start at the Mouth of the canal, and are treated to a number of “tastings”, including wine, olive oil (say what?), and cat food (say what doubled?).  A fun time will be had by all.

    The next port-of-call is the Stomach, where we’ll consume most of the food we brought, and try not to eat ourselves to death.  Then it’s on to a place called Colon, where we’ll finish up with our meal and hope that it gives us gas.

    Our final stop will be the Rectum, where all good things must end.  Please exit via the rear door.

What’s To Like...
    I liked the way Gulp is structured, which mimics the order given in the above teaser, save that the first “stop” is actually the Nose, where we learn just how much the aroma of something impacts what we perceive as its taste.  Although best described as a Science Non-Fiction tome, Gulp is not really a technical reference book.  Instead Mary Roach focuses on the research, both current and historical, being done on various parts of the digestive tract, and the scientific answers to some popular alimentary urban legends, such as:

    What really was the most likely cause of Elvis’s all-too-early death?
    Why do dogs stick their heads out the car window?
    If you swallow a live animal (say, a snake, slug, or toad), can it eat its way out of you again?  (Like in the movie “Alien”).

    The research projects, past and present, that Mary Roach uncovers are both fascinating and bizarre, and too numerous to mention here.  Let’s just say that being a “taste-tester” and volunteering to donate your own “specimens”, might not be worth the money they pay you.

    The book is divided into 17 chapters (plus a prologue), each with a catchy title and subtitle.  Some examples, and personal favorites, are:

Ch. 04.  The Longest Meal  (Can Thorough Chewing Lower the National Debt?)
Ch. 08.  The Big Gulp  (How to Survive Being Swallowed Alive.)
Ch. 11.  Up Theirs  (The Alimentary Canal as Criminal Accomplice)
Ch. 12.  Inflammable You (Fun with Hydrogen and Methane)
Ch. 16.  All Stopped Up  (Elvis Presley’s Megacolon and other Ruminations on Death by Constipation)

    There are relevant and interesting pictures at the start of each chapter.  The footnotes are witty and function well.  The text actually ends on page 318, with the remaining 23 pages being taken up by sections titled Acknowledgements, Bibliography, and Praise for Gulp.

    Overall, I thought Gulp was just as good as the other Mary Roach book I’ve read (reviewed here), even though here the subject matter wasn’t quite as alluring.  The “sciency” parts of Gulp were a delight for me since I’m a chemist by trade.  I was impressed by both the detail and the accuracy of the information about Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S), a compound integral to the product made by the company I work for.

    Bursting a stomach by overfilling is a nearly impossible feat, owing to a series of protective reflexes.  When the stomach stretches past a certain point – to accommodate a holiday dinner or chugged beer or the efforts of Swedish medical personnel – stretch receptors in the stomach wall cue the brain.  The brain, in turn, issues a statement that you are full and it is time to stop.  It will also, around the same time, undertake a transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxation, or TLESR, or burp.  (loc. 2092)

    You are what you eat, but more than that, you are how you eat.  Be thankful you’re not a sea anemone, disgorging lunch through the same hole that dinner goes in.  Be glad you’re not a grazer or a cud chewer, spending your life stoking the furnace.  Be thankful for digestive juices and enzymes, for villi, for fire and cooking, all the miracles that have made us what we are.  Khoruts gave us the example of the gorilla, a fellow ape held back by the energy demands of a less streamlined gut.  Like the cow, the gorilla lives by fermenting vast quantities of crude vegetation.  “He’s processing leaves all day.  Just sitting and chewing, and cooking inside.  There’s no room for great thoughts.”  (loc. 3875)

Kindle Details...
    Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal sells for $9.99, which, sadly, is pretty reasonable for any Science book.  Mary Roach has another half dozen e-books, ranging in price from $7.40 to $11.99.  It looks like her most-recent book was published in 2016, so I’m thinking it’s about time for her to bring out another one.  For the record, I got my copy of Gulp courtesy of my local digital library for free.  If you haven’t been to a library in years, you might be surprised at what they have to offer.

“We’re basically a highly evolved earthworm surrounding the intestinal tract.”  (loc. 3867)
    The quibbles are minor.  The descriptions of some of the people Mary Roach interviews (their hair styles, body builds, fashion tastes, etc.) didn’t really interest me.  And if you find that reading about things such as farts and poop is just "icky", you may find some of the latter chapters rather squeamish.  But any book about the comprehensive human digestive process will inherently have “less than savory” parts, thus it’s not surprising that some of the books and papers Mary Roach had to read as part of her research include:

    Studies of a Flatulent Patient
    Experimental Investigations to Determine Whether the Garden Slug Can Live in the Human Stomach
    A Lexicon of Pond-Raised Catfish Flavor Descriptors
    Fecal Odor of Sick Hedgehogs Mediates Olfactory Attraction of the Tick
    The Effect of Native Mexican Diet on Learning and Reasoning in White Rats
    Jackrabbit Should be Used to Ease Meat Shortage
    The Psychology of Animals Swallowed Alive
    Rectal Impaction Following Enema with Concrete Mix
    Cardio-vascular Events at Defecation: Are They Unavoidable?
    Straining Forces at Bowel Elimination

    Bon appetit, everyone!

    9 Stars.  One last curious trivia tidbit from the book.  Do you remember the “eat more bran and fiber” advertising campaigns from the 1980’s?  When’s the last time recently that you read or watched one?  Where did the bran/fiber craze go?  Mary Roach provides the answer.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Hero In a Halfling - William Tyler Davis

   2017; 324 pages.  Book One (out of 3) in the “Epik Fantasy” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humorous Fantasy; Parody; Sword & Sorcery; Children’s Folk Tales & Myth Collections (huh?).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Epik is off to see the wizard.  He’s also off to see the big city of Dune-All-En.  He’s lived all his life in some hole-in-the-wall place called The Bog, and he’s all grown up now.   ”Grown up” is a relative term, though, since Epik is a Halfling.  To look him in the eye, you'd have to get down on your knees.  Even a dwarf would have to stoop a bit.

    Epik’s dream is to become a wizard.  He’s been fascinated by magic ever since one of them popped out of nowhere years ago, sized up Epik, and declared him unqualified to be a wizard’s apprentice.  But the thought had been planted and halflings are not easily discouraged.

    Sadly, the timing for Epik’s move to the big city couldn’t be worse.  King Simmons lives in a castle there, and is scheduled to die any day now.  It’s some sort of curse, exactly every ten years, whoever is on the throne dies, and King Simmons’s date with destiny is at hand.

    Naturally, he'd would like to break that curse, and is understandably leery of any stranger who appears at the city gates.  All the neighboring kings are also suspect, and he's just outlawed all magic within the city limits, cuz you can't trust anyone who can cast a spell.  Most of Dune-All-En's wizards have already fled the city.

    So Epik’s going to have a hard time even finding a wizard, let alone that will take him in and teach him the tricks of the trade.

What’s To Like...
    Hero In a Halfling is set in a Tolkien-esque world, with lots of halflings, trolls, wizards, dwarves, elves, orcs, humans, and goblins mingling in among the sword-&-sorcery humans.  Tone-wise, this is more along the lines of The Hobbit than Lord Of The Rings.

    But the literary nods go far beyond just Tolkien.  I caught references to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (most notably the Night Watch), to the movies The Princess Bride and Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, and to Walt Disney’s Snow White.  Even the setting, Dune-All-En, is a take-off of New York City, with locations like Jersy, Madhatten, Brook Glen, and Kings.

    The pacing is rather slow at the start, although to be fair, William Tyler Davis has a world to build and a slew of characters and plot threads to introduce.  But about a quarter of the way through, Epik meets his wizard, and things hum along nicely thereafter.

    The settings are pretty much limited to The Bog and greater Dune-All-En area.  The chapter titles are clever references to other fantasy titles, and with 310 pages covered by 36 chapters, it’s pretty easy to find a convenient place to stop reading for the night.  I liked the drinking song at 39%, and chuckled at puns such as “back-terra”, a new and potent poison.  There’s only a couple instances of cussing.  The Romance is no more than what you’d expect to see in a Discworld novel.

    The ending is good.  It’s not the most exciting one I've ever read, but there are a number of twists to make up for that.  I was particularly amused by the way the love triangle (Epik – Gertrude – Myra) was resolved.

Kindle Details...
    Hero In a Halfling is currently selling for $4.99, the same price the other two books in the trilogy go for.  Alternatively, you can pick up the whole trilogy as a bundle for only $7.99.

    Gertrude, Jed and Snow’s daughter, served as hostess and part-time bouncer.  She’d inherited her mother’s height, but her other features were of the dwarfish persuasion, giving her the look of a donkey without the hooves.  She was hairy, most of it damaged and frizzy, though the stray hairs on her face appeared feathery and light.  Her eyes had the golden brown sparkle of a cockroach in the sunlight.  They were watery and large like chestnuts.  (loc. 507)

    The wizard brushed the tip of his nose and scratched his beard.  “You know,” he said, “I believe it’s time I teach you a spell.  Give you something to do with that thing.”
    “You will?” Epik said incredulously.  He was still nonchalantly bobbing the wand between his hands.  “Now that we’ve already done all of this?  After we’ve beat trolls and orcs, saved the girl?  Now you’ll teach me something?”
    “The timing seems right.  It never did before.”  (loc. 3033)

Two men, a giant, and a wheelbarrow, versus thirty men guarding a castle.  If only we had a wheelbarrow, he thought.  (loc. 2883, and a nod to The Princess Bride)
    The quibbles are minor.  The footnotes didn’t work in my Kindle version, which was irritating.  But they’re all in their own section in the back of the book, so it was easy to work around this issue via the Index or with bookmarks.

    I never did figure out the reason for the Collus/Coe mash-up.  Maybe it’s a reference to some fantasy book I haven’t read.  Sergeant Todder, a take-off of one of my favorite Discworld heroes, Sgt. Sam Vimes, has trouble with names of all of his underlings, but the Collus/Coe confusion was different.  Also, there was a reference to Christmas, at 46%, which felt awkward for an “otherworldly” fantasy setting.  I’m hard-pressed to think of any other fantasy novel I've read where Christmas is explicitly mentioned.

    The most serious issue is the editing.  The mistakes were plentiful enough to be distracting.  A good proofreader/editor is always a worthwhile investment, even for an Indie author.  For example, although it’s short of being absolutely wrong, resume  looks downright funky when you’re trying to write résumé.  Here's a tip: Making those accented e’s is easy: just hold down the button while entering 0233 using the numbers pad.  You’re welcome.  J

    7½ Stars.  Overall, Hero In A Halfling was an enjoyable read for me.  The wit and humor are clever, without being done to silliness.  The plotline was done well, and for what I presume is a debut novel, the writing was quite good.  If, like me, you’re always on the lookout for a book or author to satisfy your Discworld thirst, this one is worth your reading time.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

To Your Scattered Bodies Go - Philip José Farmer

   1971; 211 pages.  Book 1 (out of 5) of the Riverworld series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction; Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Ah yes, the Afterlife.  Nobody on Earth has been there and back, yet everybody seems to have their own idea about what it’s like.  The atheists say there is no such thing.  You just cease to be.  The agnostics are pretty sure they aren’t sure about anything concerning it.

    The Christian's view is that everyone walks around on clouds, in long white robes, playing a harp, and shining their halo.  In Hell it's the opposite, everyone is naked and in everlasting torment.  It’s not clear what this implies about people down here who live in nudist colonies, but it doesn’t seem promising.

    The Jewish view is that their people will all sleep in the ground until Yahweh reestablishes His Kingdom on Earth.  At least they’ll be well-rested when that blessed day arrives.

    Then there are the New Agers, who go along with some of the Eastern religions and believe that we’ll all be reincarnated time and time again, at least until we become one with the Universe.  I don’t know if we’d get to choose what form of life we can come back to Earth as, but if so, I’ve always wanted to live the life of a dung beetle, at least once, just to see what it’s like.

    The fact is nobody knows for sure.  Therefore, the odds are that the Afterlife, assuming it exists, will most likely be different from any of the above-mentioned theories.

    That’s what To Your Scattered Bodies Go is all about.

What’s To Like...
    To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the first book Philip José Farmer’s “Riverworld” series, wherein every human that has ever lived on Earth is resurrected to a new world simultaneously.  This includes “subhumans” (Neanderthals), and a couple of extraterrestrials who came here, wreaked havoc, and died here at some point in the near future.   Everyone is deposited along a giant river that snakes back and forth across the entire planet, girded by steep, tall mountain cliffs that cannot be climbed.

    I liked the world-building.  Those resurrected are all magically about 25 years old again, and in perfect health.  They are completely hairless, the males are all circumcised, and the females are all virgins, at least to begin with.  Those who died between the ages of 5 and 25 come back at the age they perished, and for now, the fate of anyone who died before they turned five is unknown.  There are no animals in this strange new world, and the food is supplied by strange canisters, nicknamed “grails”, which magically fill up with food and drink twice a day at mushroom-shaped structures called “grailstations”.

    There are a plethora of historical references in the storyline.  The main protagonist, Richard Francis Burton, is real (Wiki him), and is just as controversial here as he was in real life.  I recognized some of the other characters that really lived, most notably the Nazi Hermann Göring and Alice Liddell, from whom Lewis Carroll modeled the title character in Alice in Wonderland.  Our heroes  also meet a bunch of obscure “peoples” such as the Frisians and the Sarmatians.  Yeah, Wiki those, too.  I’m proud to say I already knew about the “lost state of Franklin.”

    This is a book for adults.  There are only a few cusswords; but rape, murder, and child molestation all occur, albeit off-screen.  Since no one gets pregnant, the sex is plentiful and mostly off-stage, but going to the bathroom isn’t, particularly if you were once a caveman.  Besides sustenance, the grails also supply things like bourbon, pipe tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, marijuana, and some way-kewl “psychedelic chewing gum”.  That last one leads to some curious situations.  And Richard Francis Burton is apparently bisexual, which also happens to be historically accurate.

    The book's main storyline is Burton’s quest to understand why everyone suddenly popped up here on Riverworld and who is responsible for it.  It’s rather obvious this isn’t heaven, purgatory, or hell.  It is quickly established that those resurrected can die again, only to be reborn somewhere else on the planet.  Someone’s magically filling the grails to feed the entire population, so there’s some sort of Superior Intelligence manipulating things.  For what reason would they create Riverworld?  Perhaps the answer lies at the origin of the great river itself, wherever that is.

Kewlest New Word...
Riparian (adj.) : related to or situated on the banks of a river.
Others : Profligately (adv.) Close-Haul (adj., nautical); “Deep in one’s cups” (phrase).

    The child did not seem to be disturbed by the dead man.  She had been curious about the first corpse, instead of horrified by its burned appearance.
    “If she really is an ancient Gaul,” Frigate said, “she may be used to seeing charred bodies.  If I remember correctly, the Gauls burned sacrifices alive in big wicker baskets at religious ceremonies.  I don’t remember what god or goddess the ceremonies were in honor of.  I wish I had a library to refer to.  Do you think we’ll ever have one here?  I think I would go nuts if I didn’t have a book to read.”
    “That remains to be seen,” Burton said.  “If we’re not provided with a library, we’ll make our own.”  (pg. 44)

    Burton had never heard of two dying in the same place and at the same time being resurrected together.  The process of selection of area for the new life was random – or so he had always thought.
    One such occurrence could conceivably take place, although the probabilities were one in twenty million.  But two such, one immediately after the other, was a miracle.
    Burton did not believe in miracles.  Nothing happened that could not be explained by physical principles – if you knew all the facts.  (pg. 169)

“There are no secrets among the dead.  ... or among the ex-dead, either.”  (pg. 56)
    The quibbles were minor.  For starters, several new characters (such as Galeazzi, Rocco, and Brontich) pop into Burton’s little clique with little or no introduction.  They stay for a short time, then disappear again, making me wonder why they were ever needed.  Perhaps they have more significant parts to play in the sequels.

    The ending doesn’t really tie up any plot threads, although it does stop at a logical spot in the action, so that’s okay.  I actually picked up To Your Scattered Bodies Go as part of a two-book “bundle” at the used-book store, so I’ll probably be reading the sequel in the not-too-distant future.  Peeking ahead, I note that Sam Clemens (“Mark Twain”) appears to be the main protagonist in the next book, and that’s something to look forward to.

    Overall, I found To Your Scattered Bodies Go to be a satisfying read.  It seemed like a mash-up of classical 1950’s Sci-Fi and modern-day Space Opera.  That made for some clunky spots, but it kept me entertained.  And hey, any story where Hermann Göring undergoes some significant character-development is worth examining.

    7 Stars.  FYI, the titular To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes from a sonnet written by the highbrow poet John Donne:
     At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
    Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
    From death, you numberless infinities
    Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Swann's Way - Marcel Proust

   1913; 456 pages.  Volume 1 (out of 7) of Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past, aka Search of Lost Time (French title: Á la recherché du temps perdu).  New Author? : Yes.  Translator: C.K. Scott-Moncrieff.  Genre : Highbrow Lit; French Literature; Romance; Fictional Memoirs.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    A question: What’s your earliest recollection from your childhood?  How old were you at the time?  More importantly, what made the event stick forever in your mind?

    Another question: Does a certain song, or painting, or maybe an aroma, or even some particular landmark; ever repeatedly trigger a emotional response in your memory about something in your past?  Perhaps making you recall something like your first love or a long-departed pet, but maybe just something pleasurable, like your first taste of ice cream or pizza?

    If neither of those questions evokes a reaction in your mind, you probably should skip Swann’s Way.  Ditto if you can’t be happy with any book where you have to go searching for the storyline.

    But if these questions make eerie sense to you, and bring back long-buried memories (or short-buried ones, for that matter), then this book just might leave a major mark on your subconscious.

What’s To Like...
    Swann’s Way is a fictional memoir (is that an oxymoron?) and just the first of seven volumes in Marcel Proust’s opus Remembrance of Things Past.  It took him 14 years (1913-1927) to complete it, although to be fair, the devastating effect of World War One (1914-1918) on Proust’s native France was a delaying factor.

    Swann’s Way is divided into four sections, namely:
    Part 1: Overture (1%).  The narrator describes some of his childhood memories, including how he loved to have his mom kiss him goodnight and/or read to him.
    Part 2: Combray (11%).  Memories when he is slightly older, including going to church, visiting his Aunt Octave, taking walks in the countryside around Combray, and espying his first love, Gilberte.
    Part 3: Swann In Love (44%).  Mostly about Swann’s affair with Odette, including his doting on her, his jealousy, and his fears that she’s unfaithful.  The longest section, and a “novel within a novel”, it ties in with the narrator’s memoir by the fact that Gilberte is the Swanns' daughter.
    Part 4: Place-Names: The Name (90%).  The way the names of places (Balbec, Florence, Venice, et. al.) evoke images in the mind, even if one has never been there.  The narrator laments about how things have changed in the world since he was a child.

    Marcel Proust explores a slew of themes in Swann’s Way.  You can read about them in Wikipedia, but for me, the main ones were:
    A. The rigid social castes of 1910’s French society.  One simply did not associate with anyone from a lower social level.
    B. The aforementioned triggering of memories and emotions by music, a room’s décor, art, or even a cup of tea.
    C. The self-delusion that inevitably plagues anyone that’s hopelessly in love with another who’s far less committed to the relationship.

    I enjoyed visiting a time-&-place much different from ours.  There are gas heaters to warm your bedroom at night, a dessert of coffee-&-pistachio-ice, stereoscopes for viewing, alpaca coats to wear, an omnibus to get around town, fishing for minnows with a glass jar, and paying a penny to rent a chair in the park.

    Marcel Proust keeps you challenged with numerous references to art, music, literature, and even French history.  I had to look a bunch of things up, including the Merovingian kingdom, some guy called “Golo”, an lesser-known composer named Clapisson, and a malady called aphasia.  I was perplexed at first, but then chuckled at Swann’s/Odette’s little euphemism, “doing a cattleya”.

    The book was, of course, originally written in French, and this particular version was then translated into 1920’s English, not present-day American, so buildings have storeys, things are shewed, meagre, or savoury, people are skilful, and something may take for ever, or get done to-day.  At one point one of the characters becomes fascinated by figures-of-speech, with examples such as “whole hog” and “burning one’s boats”.  I am curious as to what those were in the original French.

    There is an instance of gay romance, which impressed me for any novel written in the 1910’s.  But according to Wikipedia, Proust himself was gay, which makes this less surprising, albeit only slightly so.  I did appreciate the importance that the narrator attaches to the pastime of reading books, especially highbrow ones.

    Oh yeah, one last thing.  The author’s last name is properly pronounced “Proost”, not “Prowst”.  I’ve been saying it wrong all these years.

Kewlest New Word ...
Jackanapes (n., slang) : an impertinent person (close to being archaic)
Others: Bioscope (n.); Viaticum (n.); Chevying (v.); Counterpane (n.) Crapulous (adj.); Trefoil (n.).

Kindle Details...
    The “public domain” version of Swann’s Way is always free at Amazon, and naturally, that’s the one I read.  You can buy an “illustrated” version for $7.99, or even the “graphic novel” version for $9.45.  Alternatively, you can buy the “complete” book (all seven volumes of it), which is 3000+ pages long.  Good luck with getting through that.   

    “To think that, only yesterday, when she said she would like to go to Bayreuth for the season, I was such an ass as to offer to take one of those jolly little places the King of Bavaria has there, for the two of us.  However, she didn’t seem particularly keen; she hasn’t said yes or no yet.  Let’s hope that she’ll refuse.  Good God!  Think of listening to Wagner for a fortnight on end with her, who takes about as much interest in music as a fish does in little apples; it will be fun!”  (loc. 5150)

    But while, an hour after his awakening, he was giving instructions to the barber, so that his stiffly brushed hair should not become disarranged on the journey, he thought once again of his dream; he saw once again, as he had felt them close beside him, Odette’s pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features, her tired eyes, all the things which – in the course of those successive bursts of affection which had made of his enduring love for Odette a long oblivion of the first impression that he had formed of her – he had ceased to observe after the first few days of their intimacy, days to which, doubtless, while he slept, his memory had returned to seek the exact sensation of those things.  (loc. 6545.  One sentence, eleven commas, two dashes, one semicolon, one apostrophe, and one period.)

Snaps and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails, and dirty sluts in plenty,
Smell sweeter than roses in young men’s noses, when the heart is one-and-twenty.  (loc. 2064)
    Frankly, Swann’s Way was a difficult read for me, filled with flowery words, incredibly long and complex sentences that are saturated with punctuation (especially commas) and a plethora of clauses.  The second excerpt, above, is a typical example of this.  Quite often, by the time I got to the end of a sentence, I had no idea how it started.

    Everything is stream-of-consciousness, written in the 1st-person POV by an unidentified narrator.  There are no chapters, just the four long sections; so it’s up to the reader to find a convenient place to stop.  It was difficult to keep from skimming, and reading it when sleepy was impossible.

    To boot, this Public Domain version was generated by scanning the pages of a “real” book, and nobody bothered to proofread the result.  So there are numerous scanner "oopsies".  “Mlle. Swann” becomes “Mile Swan”“Françoise” becomes “Franchise”“Ile de France” becomes “He de France”, etc,  And any smudge of fleck of dust becomes whatever letter the scanner thinks it most closely resembles.

    Nevertheless, I enjoyed the challenge of reading Swann’s Way.  Proust’s writing may be difficult, but it’s done extremely well, and this book is in no way a waste of one’s time.  Last but not least, hats off to the translator, C.K. Scott-Moncrieff because, as complicated as the sentences in English are, and as highfalutin as the vocabulary is, I gotta believe it was even worse in the original French.

    8 Stars.  I read Swann’s Way out of curiosity when it was referenced in two comics within a relatively short period of time.  I expected it to be a slog, and it did not disappoint.  I’m unlikely to read any of the subsequent six volumes, but I'm proud I persevered in reading the book the whole way through.

    There’s a Kindle feature that shows you what other readers highlighted, and over the first 10% of the book, there are several dozen entries so marked, and often listed as having been highlighted by more than 100 readers.  After that however, the e-book is devoid of any “highlights by others”.  I suspect that bespeaks of how many readers gave up before finishing the book.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Monk's Hood - Ellis Peters

   1980; 222 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 3 (out of 21) in the “Brother Cadfael” series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Cozy; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s December in 1138 AD, and somebody at the Shrewsbury Abbey is definitely not in the Christmas spirit.

    Certainly not Gervase Bonel who, along with his wife and servants, has recently moved into one of the guesthouses on the abbey grounds.  He now lies at Brother Cadfael’s feet, dead of poisoning after eating his evening supper.  Who would do such a foul deed this close to Christmas?

    The foremost suspect is his wife’s son, Edwin, who was present at Gervase’s final meal, and had a heated argument with him.  Edwin had access to the poison, identified as the titular Monk’s Hood, and knew of its deadly qualities.  He fled during the meal, and is now being hunted by the local authorities.

    Actually, there’s a second suspect, and an embarrassing one at that.  The Monk’s Hood was taken from Brother Cadfael’s workshop, which means he had access to it and of course knew of its lethal properties.

    Ordinarily, Brother Cadfael is above suspicion, but it turns out he knows Gervase’s widow from an earlier time.  They were sweethearts long ago, before he went off to the Crusades and she became betrothed to another.  But surely now that he’s taken his vows of the brotherhood, he’s no longer tempted by the ways of the flesh, right?

    Then why was he caught sneaking over to see the widow at the guesthouse, “after hours”, and in secret?

What’s To Like...
    I’ve been an avid reader of the Brother Cadfael series for quite some time, since I like both historical fiction and a good murder-mystery.  It’s always fun to watch how Brother Cadfael, limited by 12th-century crime-solving technology, conducts his investigation, since things like fingerprints, lie-detector tests, and DNA-analysis are obviously not options.  Cadfael is blessed with a strong working knowledge of herbs and potions, which here allows him here to quickly deduce the “how” of the crime.  But the “why” and the “who” are well-hidden.

    The book is written in English, not American.  So we are honoured to be here, can baulk in revulsion at the ageing process, and wilfully keep up a stout defenceSpellchecker hates it when I write sentences like that.

    Monk’s Hood is unusual in that it’s the first book in the series that I’ve read where there is no Romance angle as a possible motive.  Brother Cadfael’s past relationship with Richildis (Gervase’s widow) doesn’t make him a suspect to the reader (he is, after all, the protagonist in this series), but his getting seen in her cottage at night gets him grounded, which naturally impedes his sleuthing.  Not all of Cadfael’s other plans go smoothly: the sheriff’s sergeant doesn’t like him meddling and one of his handpicked hiding places for a suspect gets discovered by chance.  Ellis Peters also throws some dead ends and red herrings into the mix, and all this adds up to there being no slow spots in the tale.

    From a historical fiction angle, I was intrigued by the medieval “retirement plan”.  Gervase owns an estate, but he’s getting up in years.  So in exchange for a small guest cottage on the abbey grounds, plus room and board for life, he agrees to deed his land and home to the abbey.  I always wondered how the medieval churches accrued such vast holdings of real estate over the centuries.  This “arrangement” is certainly a factor.

    Monk’s Hood is 222 pages long, divided into 11 chapters; so they average 20 pages each.  The murder occurs on page 44, so you don’t have to wait too long for the intrigue and excitement to begin.  In addition to all the goings-on in Shrewsbury, we get to accompany Brother Cadfael to nearby Wales.  Cadfael has his roots there, and as a history buff, I always find his trips there to be a delight.

Kewlest New Word ...
Stravaiging (v.) : wandering about aimlessly; strolling; sauntering (Scottish/Irish).
Others : Moiety (n.); Messuage (n.).

    “You’re young,” said Brother Cadfael, “and need your sleep.”
    “I forbear,” said Brother Mark cautiously, “from making the obvious rejoinder.”
    “I think you’d better.  Very well, then, you have signs of a cold, and should go to your bed.”
    “I have not,” Brother Mark disagreed firmly.  “But if you mean that you have some work on hand that you’d rather I did not know about, very well, I’ll go to the warming-room like a sensible fellow, and then to bed.”
    “What you know nothing about can’t be charged against you,” said Brother Cadfael, conciliatory.  (pg. 75)

    “I feel ashamed now.  It was wicked of me to feel such pleasure in someone else’s downfall.”
    “Oh, come, now!” said Cadfael absently, busy unpacking his scrip and replacing the jars and bottles he had brought back with him.  “Don’t reach for the halo too soon.  You have plenty of time to enjoy yourself, even a little maliciously sometimes, before you settle down to being a saint.  It was beautiful, and almost every soul there rejoiced in it.  Let’s have no hypocrisy.”  (pg. 215)

“He!  (…)  The he whose something that was not a vial, we did not find?”  (pg. 119 )
     The ending is good, although not particularly complex or twisty.  I had the murderer pegged from almost the beginning, but whether this was due to improving my sleuthing skills or just getting lucky, I can’t say.  I especially liked the way Brother Cadfael handled the sentencing of the perpetrator.

    The case is solved at page 192, and the remaining 30 pages deal with tying up several side plots, including :
    Abbot Heribert being called to London and expecting to be fired,
    The villein Aelfric becoming a freeman,
    An ambitious member of the abbey getting his comeuppance, and
    Cadfael and Richildis catching up on old news.

    Because these plotlines don't get tied up all at the same time meant that the ending doesn't feel rushed, which I appreciated.

    8 StarsMonk’s Hood was an enjoyable read for me from start to finish.  Perhaps this is because there was no “disapproved romance” in it, which is normally an Ellis Peters staple.  Or perhaps it’s because it’s been about a year-and-a-half  I last read a Brother Cadfael book, and everything in Monk's Hood, from both the historical and mystery angles, seemed fresh and vibrant.  I've read about half the books in the series now, and my Kindle and my TBR shelf both contain a couple more of the tales.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Dead To The World - Charlaine Harris

   2004; 291 pages.  Book 4 (out of 13) of the “Sookie Stackhouse” series.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Vampires; Paranormal Mystery; Gothic Romance.  Laurels : None noted, but  per Wikipedia it was “adapted as the fourth season of the HBO series, “True Blood”.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The vampire Eric has lost his mind.  Somebody apparently swiped it when he wasn’t looking.

    Okay, they didn’t take his physical brain, but they did erase his memory.  He has no recollection of anything from his past.  Heck, he doesn’t even remember his name.  Who would do such a thing?  And why?  Vampires are not to be trifled with.

    It’s lucky for Eric that Sookie Stackhouse recognizes him as he’s wandering along in a daze on a roadside, out on a cold December night in Bon Temps, Louisiana, wearing only a pair of jeans.  She takes him home, but quickly realizes that this is not the normal, hunky, demanding, arrogant Eric.  He’s confused, meek, and polite almost to a fault.  He’s kind of pathetic, actually.  But physically, he’s still quite the hunk.

    Which means he’s still kind of sexy.

What’s To Like...
    Dead to the World is the fourth book in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, which thus far I’ve been reading in order.  We readers are introduced to a new "magical" group here: witches.  They come in two flavors, white witches (aka: “Wiccans”), who practice “good” magic; and black witches, who naturally practice bad, “black” magic.  The human versions have power aplenty, but when you cross a witch with vampires, shape-shifters, and/or were-creatures, the enhanced result is something you don’t want to run afoul of.  One other new critter species is introduced, but listing that one would be a spoiler.

    Eric’s amnesia is just one of 4 or 5 storylines for the reader to follow.  Some characters go missing, others go rolling in the hay (so to speak), one goes to Peru for a while, and Sookie makes a New Year's resolution to not get beat up for a change.  We  pay a visit to Fangtasia again, the vampire bar in Shreveport, and that’s always a treat.  And we pass through Hotshot, a small whistle stop close to Bon Temps, where the townspeople are all decidedly strange.

    Dead to the World was published in 2005, and I chuckled at a couple “signs of the times”.  Sookie occasionally uses a pay phone while out on the road, and when figuring out how to go somewhere new, she gets out a map.  There’s even a mention of a Toys-R-Us store.  Things were certainly  different back then, and that's not too long ago.

    I liked the way the Wiccans were portrayed.  No warts or pointy black hats here; just average humans who happen to cast spells and make potions.  The story is again told from a first-person POV (Sookie’s), and there are 15 chapters (plus a prologue) covering 291 pages, which averages out to about 18 pages per chapter.  There’s some cussing and a fair amount of sex, but that’s been true since Book One.

    Everything builds to a suitably climactic and drawn-out battle which ties up several of the story threads.  Most of the others get resolved shortly thereafter, and some of those seemed rushed.  The Romance angle is left hanging, but that’s deliberate, and I suspect will continue through the next several books in the series.  I’m okay with that.

Kewlest New Word…
Inimical (adj.) : tending to obstruct or harm; unfriendly; hostile.

    Alcide still didn’t look satisfied.  Of course, this was the man who had believed Debbie Pelt when she said that I was definitely back with Bill.
    I wondered if I could get some witch to cast a truth spell on Debbie Pelt, whom I despised because she had been cruel to Alcide, insulted me grievously, burned a hole in my favorite wrap and – oh – tried to kill me by proxy.  Also, she had stupid hair.
    Alcide wouldn’t know an honest Debbie if she came up and hit him on the ass, though backbiting was a specialty of the real Debbie.  (pg. 107)

   “Should have sent someone to the hospital with her,” Claudine said, shaking her waterfall of black hair.
    “I offered to go with her,” Eric said indignantly.  “She said it would be too suspicious if she went to the hospital with a vampire.”
    “Well, hel-lo, tall, blond, and dead,” Claudine said.  She looked Eric up and down, admiring what she saw.  “You in the habit of doing what human women ask of you?”  (pg. 175)

 If there were an international butt competition, Eric would win, hands down – or cheeks up.  (pg. 119)
    For maximum entertainment when reading Dead to the World, it’s best read to switch off your “thinking brain”.  Otherwise, the following questions might keep you awake at night.

    How does the excursion to Peru have any impact the main storyline?
    How does the main MIA thread have any impact on the main storyline, and why, for that matter, should it happen at the same time as everything else?
    Why teleport Shreveport-based Eric all the way to Bon Temps after zapping him with amnesia?  Why not just kill him instead?
    If you’re going to muscle in on some enterprise somewhere, shouldn’t your aspiration be a little higher than Shreveport?  Somehow, being the underworld kingpin of Shreveport doesn’t sound very impressive.

    I came to the conclusion that the main reason for writing Dead to the World was to introduce a new Romance angle into Sookie’s life.  Everything else – the turf war, the amnesia, the kidnappings, and the slew of killings of both the dead and undead – is just trimming, and didn't even have any plot twists to keep you on the edge of your seat.

    But hey, it makes for a great beach or airplane read.

    7½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you are reading this series for the Romantic Intrigue.  You will not be disappointed.  I read it for the paranormal mystery and suspense, and still found it sufficiently entertaining, mostly due to Charlaine Harris's writing skills.