Monday, July 29, 2019

Cherry Bomb - J.A. Konrath

    2009; 278 pages.  Book 6 (out of 11) in the Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels series.  New Author? : No.  Genre: Thriller; Crime Fiction; Women Sleuths.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s showdown time.  Both parties agree on that, and both agree that it is going to be a fight to the death.  On one side, there’s Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels of the Chicago Police Department.  On the other there’s Alexandra “Alex” Kork, psychotic killer nonpareil.

    Alex has good cause to hate Jack; half her face is permanently disfigured by Lt. Daniels.  But Jack has an equally just cause to hate Alex, since the latter just murdered Jack’s fiancé.

    You might think Jack has the advantage because she has friends, family, and fellow cops to help her, while Alex is strictly a lone wolf.  But those associates and loved ones can be targeted by Alex, which means Jack needs to protect them as best she can from someone who's out to destroy anyone and everyone important to Jack.  And Alex is very innovative when it comes to devising ways to execute anyone who has the misfortune to cross her path.

    Including the clever use of various explosives.

What’s To Like...
    Cherry Bomb is book six in the “Jack Daniels” series, and the third part (I think) of a trilogy featuring the ultimate badass, Alexandra Kork.  I don’t think it is a spoiler to reveal that the Alex/Jack blood feud will be finally resolved here.

    As with any J.A. Konrath book, there’s lots of cussing, lots of violence, lots of sex, and lots violence combined with sex.  There are thrills and spills on every page, and plenty of wit and oodles of snarky dialogue.  If any of this is not your cup of tea, you really shouldn’t be reading books by Konrath.

    The writing is half first-person POV (Jack’s) and half third-person (Alex’s).  More on this in a bit.  There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of.  Jack has her circle of recurring friends and coworkers; and anyone that Alex meets up with has a very limited life expectancy, whether they know Jack or not.  Phineas Troutt gets fleshed out, and there's a noteworthy new character, Slappy, who I hope will show up in again.

    I learned a new Police slang term, “pigstick”, which Wikipedia and Google totally fail to cover, although Google Images has lots of pics of it.  The lyrics to “Stairway To Heaven” were also explained; I found that to be quite enlightening.  And I chuckled at the new interpretation to the corrupted musical phrase “He ain’t heavy, he's your brother”.

    Everything leads up to a suitably tense and exciting climactic showdown.  It wasn’t particularly twisty, but it was a stutter-step ending, which is always fun.  At 60 chapters covering 278 pages, you’re never far from a convenient place to stop reading for the night. 

    “What did he do?” I finally asked.
    “Bank robbery.  He tied three road flares together, walked into the drive-through lane, and placed the flares in the vacuum tube container.”
    “Live flares?”
    “No.  Unlit flares.  Along with a note saying it was dynamite, and he would set it off unless they gave him two thousand dollars.”
    Coursey handed me a photo taken by the bank surveillance camera.  The man stood outside the bank window, holding a small black box with an antenna sticking out of the top.  He was smiling and waving.
    “That’s a remote control car radio,” I said.
    “The tellers didn’t know that.”  (loc. 8158.  Note: location numbers are relative to the bundled version of this trilogy, which is the format in which I read this book.)

    “Why else would I have toilet paper in my purse?”
    Phin shrugged.  “Emergencies?  Afraid of being caught without it?  How should I know?  I’m not a chick, I don’t own a purse.  I don’t know why you women keep half that stuff in there.”
    “I only keep essentials in my purse.”
    “You’ve got a wind-up plastic nun in there.”
    “That’s Nunzilla.  She shoots sparks out of her mouth.”
    “That’s essential?”
    “It was … a gift.”  (loc. 10152)

Kindle Details...
    Cherry Bomb presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  The other eleven e-books in the series vary in price between $3.99 and $4.99.  J.A. Konrath offers a number of other novels in the same thriller genre, and they seem to be in a similar price range, with a couple as low as $0.99.  I read Cherry Bomb as part of a bundle of Books 4, 5, and 6, and right now it's selling for $9.99.  J.A. Konrath generously and frequently discounts his books and bundles, and it is not unusual to see them temporarily offered for free.

Monkey bondage was our cue to leave.  (loc. 10253)
    As with any other J.A. Konrath book, novel, believability is not a high priority.  Alex goes on a killing mega-spree, and the police never seem to connect the dots.  Amazon even lists this as a “police procedural”, which is a complete laugh.  Action and excitement trump any sense of realistic situations here.  If you’re not in the mood for senseless violence, the piling up of the bodies might get a bit tedious.

    OTOH, the thought that Alex puts into making each execution unique and innovative would make Tim Dorsey’s Serge Storms smile with envy.  And I confess, I’m a big Serge Storms fan.

    So throw believability out the window, and settle in to enjoy murder for the sake of murder, and snarkiness for the sake of snarkiness.  If you approach Cherry Bomb with that perspective, you’ll find it to be a thoroughly entertaining page-turner.

        8 Stars.  Book introductions are usually skippable, but I found the author’s comments at the start of this book to be quite interesting.  Here's part of it:

    “I tried my best to make the Jack Daniels series different.  Not only from other mysteries and thrillers, but I also wanted each book to have an individual flavor.  In Whiskey Sour, I mixed funny with scary.  In Bloody Mary, I had a big twist in the middle.  In Rusty Nail, I had multiple bad guys.  In Dirty Martini, I didn’t have any blood.  In Fuzzy Navel, I wrote in real time.
    With Cherry Bomb, I did something no other writer has ever done.  The villain gets half the book.  (…)  Fifty percent of the novel is in the bad guy’s point of view.”

    AFAIK, J.A. Konrath is still writing stories in the Jack Daniels series.  Here's hoping he never stops

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Death Masks - Jim Butcher

   2003; 379 pages.  Book 5 (out of 15) of the “Dresden Files” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Urban Fantasy; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The Shroud of Turin has been stolen!  It’s thought that a group who call themselves the “Churchmice” did it, since they are known to be thieves who specialize in robbing sanctuaries and cathedrals.

    Since the Shroud was being kept in Italy, you might ask what that has to do with Chicago’s one and only resident wizard, Harry Dresden.  Well, word has it that the thieves are coming to the Windy City to unload the merchandise.  The Roman Catholic Church is worried about nefarious supernatural creatures getting their hands on it, since many believe the Shroud has magical powers.  Hence they’ve hired Harry to do his best to find it, procure it, and return it to them.

    But there appear to be other prospective buyers, including, strangely enough, some Chicago gangsters.  Lord only knows what they want it for, but they have no qualms about sending their thugs to get rid of the competition.

    Harry’s happy for the work; he can certainly use the money and the Church is willing to pay him generously.  Unfortunately, he has other obligations that take priority, most notably an official challenge to a duel by one of the deadliest vampires of the infamous Red Court.  His opponent has hundreds of kills in duels over the centuries.

    And an official challenge is not the sort of thing one can refuse.  Best of luck, Harry.  You’re gonna need it.

What’s To Like...
    The action is fast and nonstop in Death Masks as Jim Butcher smoothly jumps around among no less than five storylines.  They are:

1.) Harry’s magical duel with the Red Court vampire champion.
2.) Trying to keep the gangsters’ hitmen from killing him with very non-magical bullets.
3.) Recovering the Shroud of Turin.
4.) Helping the Chicago PD ID a handless, headless corpse that looks like a ritual slaying.
5.) Helping Harry’s ex-GF Susan cope with, or counteract, her vampiric nature.

    These are not spoilers; they’re listed on the back cover of the book.

    There’s a plethora of critters to meet and flee from.  The vampires, wizards, and knights are recurring characters in the series, but we (and Harry) are now introduced to a formidably evil bunch of demons called “The Fallen”, aka “The Denarians”.  “Bob the Skull” is back, although he doesn’t have much to do this time around.  “The Archive” is an interesting newcomer, who I hope will show up in future stories.  And finally, I had never heard of “homing ducks”, although now that I think about it, ducks do have that innate ability.

    We get some hints about Harry’s parents, and I suspect this will be developed more as the series progresses.  There were some similarities to Harry Potter’s folks, and I’ve come to the conclusion that if you find your toddler happens to display some magical talents, whatever you do, don’t name him Harry!  

    Harry is asked why he chose to be a wizard (pgs 109-110), and the answer is rather interesting.  So is the conversation he has with Molly, Michael’s daughter (pages 179-181).  It’s fun to watch how Jim Butcher continues to develop Susan’s character, and I liked the concept of “magic germs”.

    As is true of any book in this series, there’s a fair amount of cussing, lots of violence, and at least one roll in the hay.  The story is told in the first-person POV (Harry’s), and the chapters average out to about 13 pages in length.  The characters come in three shades: black, white, and gray.  I’m always most fascinated by the gray ones, particularly when they are “dark gray”.  It was great to see one of the baddies have a sense of honor, and another one showing a “tender” side.

    The ending is suitably exciting and climactic.  Most of story threads are tied up.  Susan’s vampire issues remain unsolved, and one of the main baddies lives to slay another day.  I suspect both of these threads are continued in subsequent books in the series.  Death Masks is a standalone tale, as well as part of a series.

Kewlest New Word...
Tenebrous (adj.) : dark, shadowy, or obscure.
Others : Chivied (v.)

    I’d lost my .357 during a battle between the Faerie Courts hosted on clouds over Lake Michigan the previous midsummer, so I’d moved my .44 from the office to home.  It hung on a gun belt on a peg beside the door, just over a wire basket I’d attached to the wall.  Holy water, a couple cloves of garlic, vials of salt, and iron filings filled the basket, intended to be door prizes for anything that showed up in an attempt to suck my blood, carry me off to faerieland, or sell me stale cookies.  (pg. 123)

   “You’ll have to forgive them,” said Nicodemus.  He came through the door and into the torchlight, freshly dressed, shaved, and showered.  He wore pajama pants, slippers, and a smoking jacket of Hugh Hefner vintage.  The grey noose still circled his throat.  “I like to encourage discretion in my employees.  Sometimes it makes them seem standoffish.”
    “You don’t let your goons talk?” I asked.
    He removed a pipe from his pocket, along with a small tin of Prince Albert tobacco.  “I remove their tongues.”
    “I guess your human resources department isn’t exactly under siege, is it,” I said.
    He tamped tobacco into his pipe and smiled.  “You’d be surprised.  I offer an excellent dental plan.”  (pg. 266)

“You’ve no idea how difficult it is to waylay an angelic messenger.”  (pg. 269)
    It’s difficult to think of anything negative to say about Death Masks, hence the stellar rating.  I never did suss out the reason for the title.  There were some masks mentioned late in the story, but they weren’t of major importance.  Maybe I missed something.

    I suppose I would’ve liked to see Bob-the-Skull get more ink, mostly due to the witty dialogues he and Harry engage in, but that’s a personal taste only.  Also, we don’t get to visit the Faerie dimension called Nevernever at all, a place I like but which Harry would be content to never, never see again.

    One last note: I recommend that you read the series in order.  I read the next book in the series, Blood Rites, way back in 2013, and while I enjoyed it, there was a bit of a disconnect because I’d “jumped ahead” 5 books.  That’s my fault, not Jim Butcher’s.

    9 Stars.  After now having read the first six books, this series still sparkles for me.  Lots of action, lots of wit, lots of otherworldly thrills and spills, and no feel of Jim Butcher “just cranking another book out”.  It's highly recommended and highly entertaining.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Future, Imperfect - Ruth Nestvold

    2012; 189 pages.  New Author? : Yes. Full Title: The Future, Imperfect: Six Dystopian Short Stories.   Genre : Short Stories; Anthology; Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    I have seen the future, and the future is bleak.  Epidemics and pandemics have decimated the world populations.  Governments, both local and national, have collapsed, allowing plagues and pollution to spread unchecked, further diminishing the number of humans, plants, and animals, around the globe.

    Yet all is not lost.  Money talks, and private corporations have assumed the role of government.  For those who are rich enough, havens are available in “corporate zones”: walled communities with powerful mercenary security forces to keep the riffraff out.  For the poor, the only option is the “burbs”, where disease, radiation, crime, and the lack of clean food and water significantly combine to shorten one’s lifespan.

     The only good news is that there are a number of corporations out there, each vying with the others for more power and profits.  The more corporate zones a company has, the more power, people, and money it commands.  That means they are willing to buy up some of the burbs, make improvements by cleaning up contaminants and providing security, as long as they can recoup their investment.

    There is one additional asset that every corporation covets: Technology.  Particularly in virtual and electronic forms, and particularly technology that other corporations have developed.  Any means of acquiring it is okay.   Including industrial espionage, stealing, and kidnapping.

    Even murder.

What’s To Like...
    The Future, Imperfect is comprised of six short stories, five of which were published previously in various Sci-Fi/Fantasy magazines.  All but one of them is set along the US west coast, where, according to Wikipedia, the author was born and raised, although she now lives in Germany.  The six stories are:

01.  A Handful of Dust  (@ 01%)
    Published in “Forgotten Worlds” in 2006.
02.  Latency Time  (@ 19%)
    Published in “Asimov’s Science Fiction” in 2001.
03.  Shadow Memory  (@ 32%)
    Published in “Marsdust” in 2004.
04.  Exit Without Saving  (@ 50%)
    Published in “Futurismic” in 2006.
05.  Killfile  (@ 60%)
    ANAICT, not previously published.
06.  The Other Side of Silence  (@ 78%)
    Published in “Futurismic” in 2006.

    All of them appear to be set in the post-apocalyptic world described above, with some minor tweaks.  My favorites were 02 and 06; yours will most likely be different.

    I was impressed with the world-building despite the fact that Ruth Nestvold is constrained by the shortness of each story.  Corporations replacing governments is an innovative-yet-plausible twist to a post-apocalyptic world.  I chuckled at newspapers and used-book stores being viewed as old-fashioned, then sadly realized that’s already come true.

    The technological advances that really drew me in.  You can “become” someone else via morphing into a sim (aka “morph units”) and genetic modifications have been taken to a whole new level (aka “genmods”).  These leaps in technology can be used both for entertainment (for example: find out how you’d like being the opposite gender), or for espionage, where descriptions of suspects is pretty much irrelevant, since they can morph their appearance at will.

    The Future, Imperfect is an incredibly short read.  Amazon says it’s 189 pages long, but that seems to be a stretch (pun intended).  If you have a book report due tomorrow, and you haven’t even started reading anything, this may be the answer to your procrastination.

    I enjoyed the literary nod to Fahrenheit 451 and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Story 5).  The “Purists” (Story 1) can easily arise in the future, but so can the “holo-porn” (Story 6).  I can’t think of any other story set in Montenegro (where?), as in Story 2.   There’s a bit of cussing, some references to adult situations, and the hint of sexual molestation.  Little Timmy and Susie should probably not read this book.  Stories by Ruth Nestvold have been short-listed for the Tiptree Award (best sci-fi or fantasy novel, 2004), and nominated for the Nebula Award (2008), but neither of these are included in this anthology.  Both are available at Amazon, though.

Kindle Details...
    The Future, Imperfect presently sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  Ruth Nestvold has another dozen-plus e-books available for the Kindle, ranging in price from Free to $6.99, and in length from short stories, to novellas, to full-length novels.

    He led her into the town center of Pljevlja, halting in front of an astonishingly beautiful house, deserted now.  Despite the destruction of the roof and the corner of one wall, it was an impressive sight, the front wall covered in calligraphic inscriptions, still discernable.
    “Turkish,” Mihailo said.
    “What a shame that it hasn’t been repaired,” Alis murmured.  The wonders Mihailo found for her no longer surprised her.  He was selling his country, after all – trying to persuade the representative of a big corporation that it was worth saving.  While she understood his motives, she wondered how he would like it once Montenegro was turned into a Disneyland attraction.  (loc. 547)

    Mercedes stepped behind the counter, slipping out of the fitted wool jacket she’d bought at a local thrift shop.  Bonnie turned a page of the newspaper.  A color photo in the top left-hand corner caught Mercedes’s eye.  (…)
    “You want a section?” Bonnie asked.
    She wished she could snatch the paper out of her boss’s hands, but she played nonchalant.  “I prefer a screen and some action rather than just words,” Mercedes said, bringing up the monitor on the right end of the tabletop.  “Not as boring.”  (loc. 1721)

Suddenly, a fluorescent rabbit didn’t seem quite as horrible as it had minutes before.  (loc. 2149)
    Some of the stories have unfinished endings, and others have unfinished romances.  There are also repeating themes of having second thoughts about the ethics of the corporations and some “Big Brother is watching” angst, but such repetition is probably inherent to a bundle of short stories written by a single author and within a single genre.

    Overall, The Future, Imperfect has a feel of being the author’s collection of short stories thrown together for an e-book offering.  Which, of course, is exactly what this is.

    My least favorite story was the first one, and I almost stopped reading after finishing it.  Fortunately, I changed my mind, and enjoyed all of the other stories, to the point of where I became fascinated by Ruth Nestvold’s futuristic world.  Maybe I was just slow in getting acclimated.

    But I pick at nits.  I’d love to see these six tales woven into, or used as a basis for, a full-length novel.  Better yet, develop it into a series.  I don’t think any of the author’s other e-books use this setting; instead she seems to have switched over to writing fantasy novels with strong female protagonists.  I can’t argue with that choice, but being proficient in two genres might reach an even wider audience.

    6 Stars.  I’m not a big fan of anthologies and short stories; so add 1 star if you are.  OTOH, I am a big fan of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, so subtract 1 star if you’re not.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Enigmatologist - Ben Adams

    2016; 390 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Intrigue, Humorous Science Fiction, Elvis, Romance.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    There’s been another Elvis sighting!  A sweet little old lady down on Las Vegas, New Mexico spotted him.  She even snapped a picture of him, although just like all the photos of flying saucers and the Loch Ness monster, it’s somewhat blurry.

    The National Enquirer has asked John Abernathy, presently living and working in Denver, Colorado, to go down there and check it out.  Everyone knows it’s probably a hoax, but hey, that’s never stopped the National Enquirer before from running an Elvis-sighting story.

    John doesn’t work for them; he earns a subsistence wage as a Private Investigator, meaning he mostly hides in bushes, snapping pictures of cheating husbands doing kinky things with women who aren’t their wives.  On the side he works on becoming an enigmatologist, which is a fancy word for someone who creates crossword puzzles.

    Naturally, John realizes The National Enquirer has their own stable of investigative reporters who could handle the story.  So it’s rather odd that a national publication is asking him to go there instead.

    I wonder if they should tell him that the body of their reporter who they assigned to this story has been found in the New Mexico desert.

What’s To Like...
    The two main story threads are as given above, and our protagonist, John Abernathy spends most of his time evaluating the Elvis photo, while not ignoring the issue of a fellow reporter losing his life in the line of duty.  Several more storylines spring from these two threads, but we’ll refrain from listing them due to spoiler concerns.

    The settings are limited: John journeys from his home in Denver to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and later on travels to a trailer park in who-knows-where.  That’s about it.  There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of, but I found that each had his/her own personality, and they were fun to meet.  It was refreshing to see a small-town sheriff portrayed as something other than a bigot and/or an idiot.

    The story moves along at a pleasantly brisk pace; I don’t recall any slow spots.  The humor is of the "just right" quantity, and it doesn’t overshadow the quite unique storyline that Ben Adams creates.  I liked the music references: Elvis (of course), Bing Crosby, .38 Special, Foreigner, Judas Priest, etc.  Ben Adams is obviously a classic rock enthusiast.  There’s a bit of romance in the tale, but it isn’t enough to scare away male readers.

    I liked the ending; it seemed plausible, fit well, and didn't have a "rushed" feel.  Both storylines are fully resolved, and come with a couple of plot twists that kept things interesting.  A couple of the subsidiary plot threads remain open, including the romance angle and the fate of John’s father.  But I presume these are addressed in the next book in the series.

    The chapters are short-to-moderate, 32 of them covering 390 pages.  The Enigmatologist is a standalone story, as well as (apparently) the start of a series.

    “They got this girl there, man,” Leadbelly said, eyes empty with daydreams, “you know how strippers are all named after cities?”
    “The kid follows you,” John continued, “asks you some questions, like the kid from the bar.”
    “Her name’s Old Detroit.  She’s gotta be like seventy, man.”
    “It gets a little heated.  He makes some accusations.”
    “She brings you lunch butt naked and you pay her to put her clothes on.  It’s outta sight.”  (loc. 1532)

    “So, does this mean we’re boyfriend girlfriend?” he asked, looking into her deep brown eyes.
    “That depends,” Rosa said, “how do you feel about dating an older woman?”
    “How much older are we talking?  Not four hundred?”
    “How old do you think I look?”
    “Not a day over perfect.”
    “You’re so cheesy,” she said.  “I’m one hundred and sixty three, if you must know.”
    “So you’re a cougar?”  (loc. 5684)

Kindle Details...
    The Enigmatologist sells for $0.99 at Amazon, which IMO, is a heckuva deal.  Its sequel, The Resurrectionist, is also $0.99, so it won't break your budget to check into this series  ANAICT, these are the only two e-books Ben Adams offers right now.
“I think the world might be better off with one less painting of naked Elvis.”  (loc. 5460)
    The quibbles are minor.  In ascending order of importance:

    I spent the first half of the book wondering where the story was heading, but that’s a compliment, not a complaint.  Somewhere around the middle there was a significant genre-shift genre which some Amazon reviewers apparently didn’t like, but I thought it worked rather well. 

    OTOH, I could’ve done without the cussing that runs throughout the book.  Cusswords don’t offend me, and in a lot of cases, they help set the tone of, say, a gritty detective story, or an action-thriller.  But for me, the overall tone of The Enigmatologist is warmhearted, and the frequent cussing runs contrary to that.  I worry that some readers who would otherwise enjoy this book will be turned off by the plethora of four-letter words.

    My final and foremost quibble with the book is the editing.  There were just a few too many of these (for example: “soldier”, not “solider”) to ignore.  I recognize indie authors have to manage their literary budgets carefully, but hey, catching errors is one of the things that (unpaid) beta-readers should be doing.

    But enough of the negatives.  For me, The Enigmatologist was a delight to read, with an imaginative storyline, a lively pace, and a charmingly nerdy protagonist.  Best of all, there’s already a sequel, The Resurrectionist, and it’s sitting on my Kindle, waiting patiently to be read.  Here’s hoping that Ben Adams has plans for writing even more tales in the series.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract ½ star (each) if you’re not an fan of Elvis, or if you think that solving crossword puzzles are a complete waste of time.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Fabulous Riverboat - Philip José Farmer

   1971; 232 pages.  Book 2 (out of 5) of the Riverworld series.   New Author? : No.  Genres : Science Fiction; Space Opera, Historical Name-Dropping.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Like every other human being who’s lived and died on Earth, Sam Clemens (aka “Mark Twain”) has been brought back to life on a mysterious planet, in a youthful body (about 25 years old), with food, drink, and other sustenance (including booze, cigars, cigarettes, and the hallucinogenic “dream gum”) all magically supplied on a regular basis by whoever created this brave new world.

    Like about half of the population, Sam doesn’t consider this miraculous rebirth to be a blessing.  There are no houses to live in, no clothing to wear, and no furry animals to kill for their skins.  Food and drink may abound, but there are lots of fellow humans out there, from various times in the past, who are willing to bully others and practice extortion, or worse, in exchange for their daily ration.  This isn’t Paradise by a long shot.

    And like just a select few of those resurrected, Sam is convinced that the creators, whoever they are, are just cosmic puppeteers, manipulating the Earthlings for some unfathomable reason.  Sam wants answers, and he's convinced they can be found at the source of the great, millions-of-miles-long River, where something called “the Misty Tower” is reported to stand.  And since everyone is immortal – they can be killed, but they just pop up the next day in some other random place on this planet – he’s got the time to make the journey there. 

    But how?  Walking along the riverbanks is too dangerous, the new inhabitants are all very territorial.  Get yourself killed, and there’s no telling where you’ll reappear.  It’s safer on the river itself, but of course, you’d need a boat.  Not just any boat, either, but one’s that bigger, faster, and better-armed than anybody else’s boat.

    How about a fabulous riverboat?  With two giant paddlewheels, a big furnace to propel them, and guns mounted on top for protection.

    Except there’s almost zero metal on this crazy planet.  And no iron means no steamboat.  Whatcha gonna do about that, Sam?

What’s To Like...
    The Fabulous Riverboat is the second book in Philip José’s 5-book “Riverboat” series.  I read Book One a couple months ago; it is reviewed here.  Despite this being a sequel, the cast of characters is almost 100% new; the only recurring one being Hermann Goring.  Sam Clemens replaces Sir Richard Burton as the main protagonist.  Presumably there will be a merging of the two casts at some point down the line.

    Most of the world-building was done in the previous book, so there is more emphasis here on figuring out the Ethicals’ (those who created the world and resurrected the humans) plan and Sam Clemens’ obsession with foiling it.  A couple more of the “Chosen Twelve” (those humans selected by a renegade Ethical to accompany Sam on his odyssey of destruction) are revealed, meaning about half of them have now been tagged.

    Two of the storylines from Book One – getting to the source of the great River and figuring out who the “Mysterious Stranger” is – are continued here, and a third one is added – the building of the titular Fabulous Steamboat.   The bulk of the story deals with this third plotline.  To accomplish this, Sam and company have to carve out their own little kingdom, in order to develop several industrial processes.  They name their powerbase “Parolando”.

    Once again, Philip José Farmer injects all sorts of historical persons and peoples into the story.  Sam is forced to join forces with the treacherous King John of England, and the titanthrop (what?) Joe Miller.  Herman Goring is now a zealous evangelist, which is a literary mind-blower for me, and Sam encounters his earthly wife, Livy, only to find out she’s now hooked up with Cyrano de Bergerac.  It's complicated.

    Being a scientist, I liked the role that chemistry plays in the story.  Gunpowder is made by combining sulfur, charcoal, and human excrement; and factories for manufacturing sulfuric and nitric acids are built.  I was disappointed that the actual construction of these processes is passed over, but I recognize that detailing such engineering feats would be boring to most readers.  I also enjoyed the made-up cuss phrases, such as: “teach your grandmother to suck eggs”; as well a real-life French one that we won’t list here.  And if you’re ancient enough to remember when Esperanto was being touted as the linguistic panacea, you’ll enjoy it being used here.

Kewlest New Word...
Texas (n.; nautical) : a structure on a riverboat containing the pilothouse and the officers’ quarters.

    "It’s a sad world, just as sad, in most ways, as the old Earth.  Yet we have our youthful bodies again, we don’t have to work for food or worry about paying bills, making our women pregnant, catching diseases.  And if we’re killed, we rise up the following day, whole and hearty, although thousands of miles from where we died.
    “But it is nothing like what the preachers said it would be.  Which isn’t, of course, surprising.  And maybe it’s just as well.  Who’d want to fly around on aerodynamically unstable wings or stand around all day playing harps badly and screeching out hosannas?”  (pg. 238.  Note: All page numbers refer to the paperback “bundle” version which combines Books One and Two.)

    Lothar von Richthofen and Gwenafra were not getting along at all.  Lothar had always been a “lady killer”, and he could not seem to help flirting.  More often than not, he followed up the flirtation.  Gwenafra had some definite ideas about fidelity with which Lothar agreed, in principle.  It was the practice that tripped him up.  (pg. 396)

 “Steer me, stymate!  Do I read you unfrosted?”  (pg. 394)
    I had a number of issues with The Fabulous Riverboat, some nitpicky, others serious.

    Joe Miller, a major character, thpeakth vith a lithp like thith and that got really tiresome, really fast.  And although Philip José Farmer creates a fascinating brave new world, with all sorts of historical characters that any history buff will love, quite often they don’t play any significant role in the story.  It’s almost as if he’s just trying to see how many of them he can drop into one book.

    More seriously, there isn’t a lot of action until about three-quarters of the way through the book.  Instead, the reader gets a bunch of mini-discourses about racism, segregation, religion, the downside to industrialization, etc.  Admittedly, those are all worthy subjects, but they’re not why people read science fiction novels.

        Lastly, and not leastly, there’s the ending.  It doesn’t  really “end” anything, although that’s not uncommon for a middle book in a sci-fi or fantasy series.  I can’t quite accuse it of being a cliffhanger (one of my reading pet peeves), and I suppose you could say it stops at a logical place.  Nevertheless, I found it to be inadequate.

    5½ Stars.  There were some bright spots in The Fabulous Riverboat, especially the last quarter of it, but overall it left me disappointed.  Book Four, The Magic Labyrinth, is on my TBR shelf and is the first concluding book, since Philip José Farmer later wrote a second closing book, Gods of Riverworld.  The latter gets blasted by Amazon reviewers, so I’m leaning towards skipping Book Three and going straight to Book 4, the ending-that-eventually-wasn’t-the-end.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Patricians and Emperors - Ian Hughes

   2015; 240 pages (but it felt much longer).  Full Title: Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : History; Non-Fiction; Rome.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Why should I read Ian Hughes’s book, Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire?  I know all about that subject, since I’m a history lover.  For instance, I know that the Empire ended in 476 AD, after a horde of barbarians crossed the Alps, swarmed down the Italian peninsula, and sacked Rome.  Right now, I can’t recall who their leader was, but it was the second time that Rome was torched.

    There was almost a third time, when Attila and his Huns invaded Italy, but some Pope, one of the Leos, I believe, went out and chatted with Attila, convincing him that God would smite him dead if he stepped foot into Rome.

    Some guy named Edward Gibbon wrote a 4,000-page tome called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which discussed the causes of its demise.  I think he concluded that there were too many illegal immigrants camped out in Roman territory, and they ganged up together into that army that sacked Rome in 476.  After that, there were no more emperors.  I don’t know the names of any of the Emperors after Constantine, but they were obviously all a bunch of losers.  So there’s no need for me to read this book; I already know all about the subject.

    Except that almost all the ‘facts’ listed above are false, and reading about those who occupied the throne in the last half of the 5th Century AD, and the challenges they faced, may give us insight into how the mightiest kingdom ever can be swept away.

What’s To Like...
    As the full title: Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire implies, this book has two overarching themes: a.) the various factors that led to the downfall of the western half of the Roman Empire, and, b.) the chronicling of those men with the ill-fortune to become the emperors thereof.  The book is well-researched; Ian Hughes gives the available details, which are sometimes very scant, for each of the last nine rulers.  I’d never heard of any of these guys, so this was an enlightening read for me.

    The book is divided into four sections:
Part 1 : Prelude (395-454 AD)
Part 2 : Ricimer  (455-472 AD)
Part 3 : Dissolution  (472-476 AD)
Part 4 : The End  (476 AD and afterward)

    I liked the book’s structure.  The chapters are in chronological order, but you don’t just get a biography of the Emperor.  At each year along the way, Ian Hughes tells you what was happening elsewhere – in Gaul, in Spain, in Africa, in Illyricum (where?), in the Eastern Roman Empire, and elsewhere.  The situation everywhere was complex and dynamic.  It sucked to be the Emperor in those days.  Want proof?  Consider these statistics:

    RicimerRoman military leader for 11 years.  Died of natural causes.
    Euric: Ruler of the Goths for 18 years.  Died of old age.
    GaisericRuler of the Vandals for 49 years.  Died of old age.
    Petronius MaximusRoman Emperor.  Ruled 2 months.  Killed, dismembered, and his body pieces tossed into the Tiber river.
    MarjorianRoman Emperor.  Ruled 4+ years, then beheaded.
    AnthemiusRoman Emperor.  Ruled 5+ years, then beheaded.
    Julius NeposRoman Emperor.  Ruled 14 months, then murdered.

    There are a bunch of maps throughout the book, which show how the borders of both the Empire and the various barbarian territories changed from one Emperor’s reign to the next.  Ian Hughes's point is salient – the Western Empire was steadily shrinking.  And as their territories broke away, Rome lost three vital commodities: conscripts for its legions, tax revenues to pay for its armies, and food to feed its citizens.

    Those three alone were enough to doom the Empire, but there were additional factors, such as a Roman Senate that cared only about its own personal wealth and safety, an unhelpful Eastern Roman Empire, and two barbarian leaders (Gaiseric of the Vandals and Euric of the Goths) who could outwit any Roman leader at both diplomacy and warfare.

    I was particularly intrigued by the Vandals conquering Africa, and its capital, Carthage, the home of this blog’s nom de plume, Hamilcar Barca.  Perhaps more than any other factor, this loss doomed Rome; she depended on the grain shipments from there to feed the entire Italian peninsula.  600 years earlier, Hannibal Barca was defeated by Rome, and Carthage utterly destroyed.  Now Carthage (albeit via the Vandals occupying it) is the catalyst for Rome’s ultimate destruction.  Karma is a b*tch. 

Kewlest New Word…
Bacaudic  (adj.)  :  relating to groups of peasant insurgents in the latter days of the Roman Empire.
Others : Concomitant (adj.; with its kewl pronunciation); Apotheosis (n.)

    In 481 Strabo launched an attack on Constantinople, and when this failed he attempted to cross the sea to Bithynia, a plan which also failed.  He fell back and regrouped his forces before attacking Greece, during the course of which he was killed in a bizarre accident, falling off his horse onto a spear.  (loc. 5307; yeah, like I really believe this was an accident.)

    The application of ethnic labels such as ‘Goth’, ‘Vandal’, or even ‘Frank’ hides the fact that settled barbarian tribes were actually composed of many different people from a wide variety of origins, including men from other tribes, runaway slaves, Roman peasants, and even more affluent Romans who believed they stood a far better chance of improving their status serving newly-landed barbarians rather than an imperial court that was remote and seemingly not interested in affairs outside Italy.  In these circumstances, with the growth of ‘barbarian identities’ incorporating even previously Roman citizens, it is obvious that the Empire was doomed.  (loc. 5743)

Kindle Details...
    Patricians and Emperors sells for $12.99 at Amazon, although I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted.  Ian Hughes offers five other e-books, all biographies, and all about Roman notables that you’ve probably never heard of.  These are in the $6.29-$14.38 range.

The Emperor Zeno died, probably of either dysentery or epilepsy – although the legend survived that he was instead buried alive and his wife refused to allow anyone to open the sarcophagus.  (loc. 5371)
    The quibbles are negligible.  The footnotes work well, but are used mostly to list the sources Ian Hughes is citing, so I skipped them.  The text is written in “English”, not “American”, so you have connexions with neighbours, meagre programmes, and might annexe a harbour.

    Ian Hughes writes in a “professorial” style, not “folksy” like, say, Sarah Vowell.  I was okay with that because I love reading about history, and the more ancient, the better.  But if you’re not already fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire, this book's style won't pique your interest.

    Finally, for me this was a slow read, despite being listed as only 240 pages long.  There are a slew of historical figures to meet and greet, but except for the ones cited already, I didn’t try to keep track of who’s who, just what was occurring, where, and why.

    But I pick at nits.  I found Patricians and Emperors to be a fascinating book about a memorable time in history, and I didn’t mind the slowness because I was thoroughly enjoying myself learning about people and events that were mostly new to me.  So if you’re a fellow history-buff, by all means, pick this book up.

    9 Stars.  “Professorial” does not necessarily mean “dry”.  I laughed at one point, near the end, where Ian Hughes lists no less than 210 different reasons cited by other historians as to why the Roman Empire fell.  Among them are: asceticism, backwardness in science, bastardization, communism, excessive freedom, female emancipation, gout, prostitution, and, last but not least, useless eaters.  Incredible.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye - David Lagercrantz

    2017; 446 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 5 (out of 5) in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, aka the Lisbeth Salander series.  Translator: George Goulding (Swedish to English).  Genre : Thriller; Police Procedural; Swedish Crime Noir.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Lisbeth Salander is trouble.  Everybody knows that, including her closest acquaintances (it’s doubtful that Lisbeth would call anyone a “friend”), the reporter Mikael Blomkvist, her former guardian Holger Palmgren, and Stockholm Police Chief Inspector Jan Bublanski.

    But for now, Lisbeth is serving a 2-month sentence at the notorious maximum security prison in Flodberga.  Blomkvist and Palmgren occasionally visit her, but she’s not much of a talker.  She is not allowed access to computers, cell phones, or any other communications media, so she’s cut off from her hacker colleagues.  Simply put, there’s not much trouble she can get into, is there?

    Well, if you believe that, you don’t know Lisbeth Salander very well.  But perhaps you’ve heard of her nickname: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

What’s To Like...
    The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is the fifth, and latest book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, and the second one penned by David Lagercrantz due to Larsson’s passing away.  I’ve read the whole series; Lagercrantz’s other contribution, The Girl In the Spider’s Web, did the series justice, and is reviewed here.

    There are two main storylines: a.) the plight of Lisbeth’s fellow-inmate, Faria Kazi, and b.) a clandestine psychiatric study run years ago on identical twins, which some people seem to be taking great pains to keep hidden.  Lisbeth looks into the first one; Blomkvist and Bublanski deal with the second.  I liked the way Lagercrantz handles the classic “twin” literary trope.  The book jumps back and forth between the two plotlines, and I thought that worked rather well.  The story is set entirely in Sweden, and takes place over a mere 2½ weeks.

    There is a “List of Continuing Characters” at the front of the book, which I found to be both a handy reference and a useful refresher of the backstory.  There’s also a slew of new characters to meet and greet.  The book is a translation from the original Swedish, and was well done.  Just keep in mind, it’s been translated into English, not American.  Like all the books in the series, there is some sex and lots of cussing and violence.

    I liked the abundance of trivia, including the mini-biography of Django Reinhardt, which motivated me to read more about him on Wikipedia and listen to his masterful guitar-playing on YouTube.  There were also nods to the jazz musicians Pat Metheny and Stephane Grappelli, both of which I’m familiar with, and to the Scottish crime writer Peter May, who I’d never heard of.

    The ending was so-so.  As usual, it tied up both main storylines nicely; and it also was a relatively happy finish, which was unusual for this series, but a pleasant surprise.  OTOH, it felt a bit rushed and didn’t seem to be particularly twisty.  Still, it got the job done.

    “Did that psychologist write anything about exceptionally sensitive hearing?”
    “I haven’t gotten hold of his thesis yet,” Blomkvist said.  But he did write somewhere that an evolutionary asset during one particular era can become a liability during another.  In a forest in the age of hunting and gathering, someone with good hearing would be the most alert and therefore the most likely to find food.  In a major city full of noise, that same person would risk confusion and overload.  More recipient than participant.”
    “Is that what he wrote: more recipient than participant?”
    “As far as I remember.”
    “How sad.”  (pg. 137)

    He learned about some extraordinary cases of identical twins who had grown up in different families and only met as adults, but were strikingly similar, not just in appearance but also in behaviour.  In the U.S., there were the so-called Jim Twins of Ohio: unaware of each other’s existence, yet both became chain-smokers of Salem cigarettes, bit their fingernails, suffered from bad headaches, had carpentry work-benches in their garage, named their dogs Toy, got married twice to women with the same name, had sons they christened James Allan and James Alan, and God knows what else.  (pg. 246)

Life always looks its best from a distance.  pg. 290)
    A number of reviewers, both professionals (see Wikipedia) and at Amazon, were a tad bit disappointed in The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, and so was I.  The plotlines were predictable and frankly, not very exciting.  That also held true for the evildoers.  On one side, you have a formidable team of Lisbeth and Blomkvist.  Opposing them are a small-time hoodlum and several geezer shrinks.  I almost wanted Lisbeth and Mikael to have to wear blindfolds to even things out.

    I’m also tired of the running into the literary tropes of Arab extremists and Islamophobia.  Is it too much to ask for something a bit less overused?  How about Baha’i extremists and kittens-phobia.  To be fair though, the Imam here was non-stereotypical, which was refreshing to see.

    In the end though, what hurts TGWTaEfaE most is the time-sharing of the two protagonists.  To be blunt, there’s too much Mikael Blomkvist and not enough Lisbeth Salander.  The latter is why everyone reads this series; the more she's involved in the storyline, the better the reception of the book.

    Still, these issues are mostly personal tastes on my part, and your literary peeves may be different from mine.  I suppose it’s inevitable that sooner or later a book in this series will disappoint some of us diehard readers.  OTOH, if you'r new to this series and are contemplating making this one your first read, by all means proceed.  You’re likely to find this to be an exciting tale, and when you pick up the other books in the series, you'll be even more thrilled when reading them.

    7 Stars.  Book 6 in this series, The Girl Who Lived Twice, is due to be published on August 17, 2019.  David Lagercrantz is once again the author.  I have no doubt that I will end up reading it.