Thursday, August 29, 2019

Veins - Drew

   2011; 147 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humor, Coming-of-Age Fiction.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    It’s the beginning of his freshman year in high school, and he just wants to be called by a cool nickname. 

    His first name is Michael and for some reason he doesn’t like the sound of both Michael and Mike.  His initials are M.R., but that’s not any better.  What he’d really like people to call him is Dude, which is very cool.  But fat chance of any other students, especially upperclassmen, calling a freshman that.

    But sometimes Fate can be a fickle thing.  When the school pictures are taken in that freshman year, there’s something in his portrait that really sticks out.  Everybody notices it.  His veins.

    So that’s the nickname that everyone now calls him by.  Veins.  Even his high school teachers start to call him that, so he’s stuck with it.  For a short time, it gets replaced by Tinkles, but that’s even worse, and there’s a story behind that.  Oh well.  What’s the worst that can happen?

    Well, somebody can write a book about you, and use “Veins” as the title.

What’s To Like...
    The author of Veins is the single-named “Drew”, who is perhaps better known as the guy who creates the two fabulous cartoon strips, Married To The Sea and Toothpaste For Dinner.  If you’ve never heard of these, google them and get a taste of Drew’s wacky sense of humor, which manifests itself in this book..

    The book is written in the first-person POV (Veins’), and recounts our protagonist’s high school travails, plus the years following his dropping out of school, where he is introduced to the world of mind-numbingly menial and low-paying jobs. 

    I liked the book’s structure. There are 93 "chapters", but they’re really vignettes, each covering some sad episode in Veins’ life.  The book is only 147 pages long, which means these incidents average out to being 1-2 pages in length.  This is an incredibly fast and easy read, so if you need to read something and do a book report on it by tomorrow, and you haven't even started, Veins is your saving grace.

    The story is mostly set in the 1980’s, and abounds in cultural references to that era, such as snap bracelets, Ponderosa cafeterias, and Renaissance festivals.  I could relate to taking the SAT tests and the “career placement” tests, and I’m sad that my high school had no chess club back then.  Both Veins and I stole forks from restaurants, sweated through employment drug tests, and thrilled to the mishaps of amateurs setting off fireworks inexpertly.

    There are some R-rated portions of the book, including Veins’ first and second sexual encounters, both of which freaked him out.  Veins also likes to smoke pot, and all I can say is, judging from his highs, the stuff he smoked must’ve been considerably more powerful than what we had in the early 70’s.

    The book closes with the high point (low point, actually) in Veins’ life at the time, which we shall simply call “the Wendy’s incident”.  You can read all about it in the book.

    We started moving the chess around and he kept telling me “You can’t do that” when it was my turn.  But that’s not how I look at life.  Everyone has their own chess, and they can move their own color how they want.
    The teacher came over after the other guy was complaining, and he touched my shoulder and said “Veins, each one can only move a certain way.”  I told him it sounded like Russia to me, because in communism they tell you what your job is, and that’s all you can do.  (loc. 65)

   I started to get tired after about 10 minutes, and I didn’t see anyone.  I took a rest on a log and started looking at the hiking magazine.  I didn’t realize until I tried to hike, but hiking is just walking, except they try to sell you expensive shoes, and a walking stick, and a hiking hat.  That’s like if you said swimming was called Watering, and you made people buy an inner tube that was $150, and you made them subscribe to Watering Monthly, and told them the best oceans to go in.  (loc. 945)

Kindle Details...
    Veins presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  It is not part of a series.  Drew offers two other e-books, one for each of his comic strips, Married to the Sea and Toothpaste for Dinner.  The former is priced at $14.99; the latter goes for $2.99.  Being a one-name author really mucks up the Amazon search engine.

 Sandpaper is like life.  If it wasn’t rough, it wouldn’t be worth anything.  (loc. 338)
    My main quibble with Veins is the protagonist himself.  He’s self-centered, obnoxious, and a master at rationalizing that nothing is ever his fault.  He reminds me a lot of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, reviewed here.  But Ignatius had a modicum of charm about him; Veins doesn’t.

    Also, while the storyline is entertaining throughout (which tells you a lot about Drew’s writing talents), there’s no character growth.  Veins is a clueless ne’er-do-well loser when the book starts, and he hasn’t changed one bit by the book’s end.

    Still, I enjoyed reading Veins, if only because it reminded me that my high school days, which were filled with teenage angst.  I was heartened by the fact that, overall, my experiences were noticeably less traumatic than what Veins went through.

    5½ Stars.  One piece of trivia to close this review.  I suspect that the complete title/author combination here, Veins/Drew, has got to be the shortest entry in Amazon’s vast library of e-books.  Nine letters.  If there's a shorter one, I can't think of it.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland - Barbara Silkstone

   2010; 250 pages.  Full Title: The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland, Age 42 and Three-Quarters.  Book 3 (out of 4)  in the “Silkstone Standalone Comedic Mystery” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Florida Noir; Romance; Comedic Mystery; Epistolary; Not-So-Cozy Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Alice Harte has a bad case of AIWS.  That stands for Alice In Wonderland Syndrome”.  It's possible that the fact that Alice has the same name as the title character in Lewis Carroll’s novel reinforces her syndrome.

    Bouts of AIWS can hit her at any time.  There’s a cat with a toothy grin who keeps appearing out of nowhere, smiling at her, then disappearing just as suddenly.  There’s an attorney in her life who’s a dead ringer for the Walrus.  She meets Nigel, a charming English bloke on an internet dating site, whom she's sure looks like and acts like the White Rabbit.

    Those are all kind of pleasantly loopy experiences, but other AIWS instances are somewhat darker.  She’s been harassed by two big thugs, who she dubs Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum.  Then there's Elizabeth, a crazy lady who sometimes claims to be Nigel’s wife, and other times claims to be his ex-wife.  She’s must be an incarnation of the Mad Hatter.

    Alice is being blackmailed by not one, but two separate slimeballs.  One is her boss, Leslie Archer; the other is is guy who thinks Leslie killed his brother and wants Alice to provide the incriminating evidence.  The latter guy’s name is Marc Hare, so it’s obvious that he’s supposed to be the “March Hare”.

    But be extremely careful around your boss, Alice.  He’s already threatened to have you killed if you leave his company, and he fits the role of the Red Queen.  And we all know what her favorite line in the book is.

    “Off with her head!!”

What’s To Like...
    The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland is an ambitious mix of several genres, including comedy, romance, and first and foremost, a mystery.  It is overlaid with the characters and plotline from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is no small literary feat.  I gather the book's original title included the phrase “Age 42 and Three-Quarters”, but that has since been dropped, probably for good reason, since the protagonist’s age has nothing to do with the story.

    Amazon classifies this as a “cozy mystery”, but it that's one genre it isn't.  There’s a bunch of cussing, a mention of “the clap”, a fair amount of pill-popping, and one on-stage decapitation scene.  I’m okay with all that, but mystery lovers who limit themselves to cozies may be in for a shock.

   The book’s structure is a bit weird: We start off with two chapters (a mere 4% Kindle), then the rest of the book is Alice’s entries in her diary, plus some e-mails and text messages.  I’m not sure why those first two chapters weren’t also incorporated into the diary, but overall this qualifies as an epistolary novel, and I’ve always liked those.  Both chapters, and each new day in the diary start off with quotes from Lewis Carroll’s novel, which I thought was a nice touch, and served as teasers for what you were about to read.

    The book is written in the first-person POV (Alice’s), and recounts her adventures as she wades through the mystery of strange behaviors by psychotic crooks, a whirlwind love-affair, and a bunch of crazies as supporting characters.  Curiouser and curiouser.

    I liked the settings: London and Paris are places I’ve been to, so there were some nice tie-ins, including the Gatwick and Charles de Gaulle airports.  Miami, Prague, and the Cotswolds were new places for me, and I enjoyed "visiting" them.  I also admired some of the ways Barbara Silkstone contrived to mimic portions of Alice in Wonderland in the storyline.  The handling of the Lewis Carroll Alice growing larger and/or smaller by eating/drinking various substances is quite clever.

    The ending ties all the mysteries together nicely, and is highlighted by a farcical rendition of the Alice-in-Wonderland trial scene, over which the maniacal Red Queen presides.  Once again, given that this book isn't really presented as a fantasy (with the exception of a Cheshire cat cameos), the manner in which Barbara Silkstone works the Lewis Carroll courtroom antics into the plotline was impressive.

    “Nuts.”  Maris banged into the door and leaned over my desk, her skinny frame bent in two like a croquet hoop.
    “What are you doing here?” I asked.
    “I wanted to show you this photograph.”
    I was about to bite her head off, but thought better of it.  I had more to gain by humoring her.  I was the ever-available audience for Maris Archer’s search for validation.  Left alone, Leslie’s wife would probably disappear in an overdose of laxatives, folding in on herself like a black hole.  (loc. 203)

   “We all know you are a premature articulator,” I said.
    “How?” he stammered, growing redder by the moment.
    I had no idea what that meant, but it had a strong effect on the little guy.
    “This court is going to find you guilty of fraud,” he said.
    “Objection.”  I banged my hand on the rail and looked at the judge.
    “Ms. Harte, you are on the witness stand.  You can’t object.”
    “This man is falsely accusing me.”
    “That’s his job.”  (loc. 3185)

Kindle Details...
    The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland currently sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  Barbara Silkstone has about 50 e-books available at Amazon, ranging in price from $0.99 to $7.99, most of which appear to be structured similar to this one: mysteries with a one of the classics  (usually a romance) woven into it.

 “When you start drinking, things have a way of falling out of your mouth.”  (loc. 2353)
    There are some quibbles, but nothing major. Some of the events are a bit over the top, especially a couple of the romance escapades Nigel contrives.  But then again, I think the action in any Clive Cussler novel is over the top, and you could say that about Lewis Carroll’s stories as well.  The book could’ve used one more round of editing, and for some unknown reason my e-book highlights/notes from about 25% to 75% got wiped out.

    Finally, for whatever reason I was expecting some sort of mystery set in the world of Alice in Wonderland.  Something like the Knave of Hearts getting murdered, and Alice and the Cheshire cat investigating.  Instead, The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland is set in our world, with a bunch of literary nods to Lewis Carroll added for fun.  But to be fair, there’s nothing misleading about the book’s title or cover art, and Barbara Silkstone isn't responsible for any presumptions I jump to.

    Overall, I enjoyed TSDoAiW, even though I’m not in the target audience.  If you’re looking for lighthearted mystery story, coupled with a charming and humorous romance, plus an occasional severed head or grinning cat crossing your path, this book is for you.

    7 Stars.  In the “About the Author” section at the end of the book, Barbara Silkstone mentions someone describing her writing as “shades of Janet Evanovich and Carl Hiaasen”.  I think that’s both concise and accurate.  If you like those two authors, you’ll enjoy this book.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Blood and Steam - Jamie Sedgwick

   2012; 291 pages.  Book 3 (out of three) of the Tinkerer’s Daughter series.   New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The war is over.  The Vangars have won.  They’ve defeated all the other kingdoms, including Astatia, one of the human realms.  To resist the Vangars and their cyborg-like warriors (the Sentinels), is to die.  To not resist means doing forced labor for the conquerors, and in the case of the city of Avenston, that means working in the nearby mines until you perish from exhaustion.

    Yet a fledgling resistance movement exists in Avenston.  They call themselves the “sleepwalkers”, because they only dare to meet at late at night night, under the cover of darkness.  Breck the butcher is a member; so is Tasha the tailor, plus the husband/wife team of Hatch and Shel Woodcarver.

    The most noteworthy member of the sleepwalkers is a girl named River.  She's the daughter of Breeze, the half-breed, who was a formidable rebel leader in her own time.  She's friends with Kale, another veteran rebel.  Hey, maybe this sleepwalker movement has a chance to succeed.

    Nope, not a chance.  When their secret meeting place is busted by the sentinels, everyone flees for their life.  Worse, sentinels move faster than humans, and killing a heavily-armored machine is next to impossible.  So there are really only two equally undesirable choices at that point.

    Stand and fight the sentinels, and die quickly.  Or flee into the frozen wastelands beyond the city walls and succumb to starvation and the elements.

What’s To Like...
    Blood and Steam is the final book in the Tinkerer’s Daughter trilogy, although, to be pedantic, in this one the protagonist switches from Breeze to her daughter, River.  So I guess we could call it The Tinkerer’s Granddaughter.

    This is a typical Jamie Sedgwick novel.  The action is fast and furious, starts right away, and doesn’t let up until the final page.  The genre is overwhelmingly Steampunk, with steam engines powering ground vehicles and dirigibles ruling the skies.  River’s "adopted" father, Tinker, devised a steam-powered motorcycle-ish vehicle that he calls a “boneshaker”, but it’s still an only-one-of-its-kind invention.  There is a wondrous new source of energy, starfall, which comes from the remains of a giants meteorite that hit the world sometime in the past, but everyone’s still learning how to make use of it.  

    The story is told in the first-person POV, River’s.  The book’s structure is a little weird.  There are 14 chapters plus a prologue, and the book averages about 15 pages per chapter.  But at the end of chapter 12, a “brief interlude” is inserted, which catches you up on what Breeze was doing while River was having her adventure.  Jamie Sedgwick has an odd definition of "brief", it is 60 pages long, which equals 20% of the book.  For continuity, it’s a necessary addition, but still, it felt weird.

    I liked the brief reference to the “winter solstice tree”; it really is more historically accurate than its this-world counterpart.  The critters are pretty much the same as in the first two books in the series, but I smiled when Socrates made his appearance; he’s the main protagonist in Jamie Sedgwick's next series and he's far and away my favorite Jamie Sedgwick character..

    The ending can best be described as “functional”.  It smoothly segues into the follow-up series, “The Iron Horse”, which I'm guessing was probably the main raison d’etre for Blood and Steam.  I’ve already read the first three book in that series, so some of the plot-thread resolutions were easy to predict here.  But if you haven’t read any of the books from the Iron Horse, you will probably find this ending to be quite good.

    “It’s not your battle anymore,” Analyn said.  “The others have gone into the mountains.  We can only hope they make it to Sanctuary, according to our plan.  The sentinels might catch them or they might not.  There’s nothing you can do about it, either way.”
    “Yes there is,” I said.  I walked up to the fireplace and snatched her rifle off the mantle.  I blew the layer of dust away and examined it.  “Where’s your ammo kit?”
    “Sometimes you’re just like your mother,” Analyn said without looking up.
    “Then you know you can’t stop me.”
    She snorted, shaking her head.  “Check the drawer by the table.”  (loc. 1993)

    The creatures – whatever they were – seemed to be moving in my direction.  I subconsciously reached out to the tree with my mind, preparing to leap up into the branches.  It had been my experience that trees help the Tal’mar.  They bend their branches down to catch us, and move them around before us to create a path as we run.  I didn’t get such a response from this tree.  Instead, I got the cold irritated sense that the tree wanted me to get off its roots.  (loc. 2390)

Kindle Details...
    Blood and Steam is priced at $3.99 at Amazon right now.  The initial book in the series, The Tinkerer’s Daughter, is free, and the second book, Tinker’s War, goes for $2.99.  Jamie Sedgwick offers another 17 e-books for your reading pleasure. They are all in the free-to-$3.99 price range, mostly in the lower half of that.

“You think too much like a human.”  (loc. 2703)
    There’s not much to quibble about in Blood and Steam.  If you’re looking for things like depth of character or romance, you might be disappointed; this is pure action-packed storytelling.  Some of the thrills, such as River and Crow’s escape from Juntavar are a bit over the top, but hey, I can say that about any Indiana Jones movie as well. 

    I wouldn’t call this a standalone novel.  You are well advised to read the other two first.  But since the first book in the series, The Tinkerer’s Daughter, is a freebie, hey, there’s really no excuse for not starting with that one.

    Bottom line: Blood and Steam fully was a delightful read for me – nonstop thrills and spills, and a satisfying storyline.  You can call it a “beach read” or an “airplane read”; I call it “literary entertainment”

    8 Stars.  I’ve adjusted my expectations for Jamie Sedgwick novels.  I’ve griped in the past about the individual plotlines not contributing to an overall series-spanning storyline.  I now think that it’s better to consider each book an “episode”, kinda like a weekly Star Trek show.  It might not contribute to an overarching storyline (Star Trek’s "five-year mission" never figures into the series at all), but it probably was never intended to.  And if each episode here keeps you turning the pages, I suspect Jamie Sedgwick will feel he’s accomplished his goal.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Thunderhead - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

    1999; 533 pages.  New Authors? : No and no.  Genre : Suspense; Thriller; Native American Literature; Archaeology.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Nora Kelly has archaeology in her genes.  Seriously.  Her father, Padraig “Pat” Kelly, was an archaeologist, and he passed on his passion for the science to his daughter.

    That happened a long time ago.  Her father's been missing ever since he went on an expedition sixteen years ago, searching for the semi-mythical “Lost City of Quivira”.   Everyone has long given up on finding him alive.

    Nora has a comfortable, albeit humdrum, job as a teacher at the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute.  She’s just an assistant archaeologist, so heading up an expedition of any import is only a distant dream.

    So she was both surprised and alarmed when she was recently attacked as she routinely checked on her father’s long-abandoned ranch.  The assailants were hideous creatures, with penetrating red eyes, cloaked in animal skins, and demanding Nora give them some sort of letter from her father.  Nora was lucky to escape with her life, and was left without a clue as to what letter they were talking about.

    Naturally, said letter did turn up shortly thereafter, although it appears to have been written a long time ago.  In it, Pat Kelly relates his excitement, convinced that he had found Quivira.

    But that was many years ago, and nothing came of it.  Why would anyone be upset about such a letter?  And more importantly, why would anyone mail it after a wait of sixteen years?

What’s To Like...
    Thunderhead is a fairly early collaboration between Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and is not part of their popular Agent Pendergast series, although a journalist here, Bill Smithback, is also in the first two Pendergast books, Relic and Reliquary.  The challenge for the two authors was to imbue an archaeological expedition, which is an inherently tedious undertaking, with thrills and spills every step of the way.  They succeed admirably.

     I counted six mysteries for Nora to deal with:  a.) solving the mystery of her dad’s disappearance; b.) searching for Quivira; c.) figuring out why someone stole both her hairbrush and her dog; d.) are Nora’s attackers natural or supernatural?; e.) why do it smell of flowers whenever they're near?; and f.) finding out who mailed dad’s letter after a 16-year delay.  Happily, all of these plot threads are resolved, although a couple of them aren’t tied up until the epilogue.

    My boyhood dream was to become an archaeologist, so this kind of story always resonates with me.  I’m also a history buff, so the heavy tie-in to the Anasazi culture was also a big plus.  The excavation portion of the story seemed realistic, despite the storytelling need to add lots of action and intrigue into it.

    Preston & Child use a number of settings besides the expedition itself into the story, and this helps keep things from bogging down.  Nora’s brother, Skip, has his hands full back in their hometown Santa Fe; a solitary Native American who likes to go camping by himself in the Utah desert also figures into the tale; the marina from whence the expedition embarked has a couple scenes as well, and of course, the baddies have their own secret places to lurk and spring from.

    I liked the character development.  All the players come in various shades of gray, which made guessing who would live and who would die quite the challenge.  Nora herself has some character flaws that surface as she leads the expedition into the outback.  I smiled at the nods to Waiting for Godot and the artist Magritte, and the titular thunderhead that shows up late in the story.  As with any Preston & Child offering, there’s a fair amount of cussing, one or two rolls-in-the-hay, and lots of violence.

    The ending is up to the authors’ usual standards.  It’s tense, exciting, and full of action.  I wouldn’t call it very twisty, but I thought the bittersweet epilogue was done quite well.  This is a standalone story, and except for the presence of Smithback, not associated with any other P&C stories.

Kewlest New Word...
Zoomorphic (adj.) : having or representing animal forms or gods of animal forms.
Others : Frowsy (adj.); Clonus (n.); Talus (n.; the rock formation, not the bone)

    “Coprolite expert, too,” said Aragon, nodding toward Black.
    “Coprolite?”  Smithback thought for a moment.  “Isn’t that fossilized shit, or something?”
    “Yes, yes,” Black said with irritation.  “But we work with anything to do with dating.  Human hair, pollen, charcoal, bone, seeds, you name it.  Feces just happens to be especially informative.  It shows what people were eating, what kind of parasites they had-“
    “Feces,” said Smithback.  “I’m getting the picture.”
    “Dr. Black is the country’s leading geochronologist,” Nora said quickly.
    But Smithback was shaking his head.  “And what a business to be in,” he chortled.  “Coprolites.  Oh, God.  There must be a lot of openings in your field.”  (pg. 127)

    “My village,” he said, gesturing northward, “is that way.  Nankoweap.  It means ‘Flowers beside the Water Pools’ in our language.  I come out here every summer to camp for a week or two.  The grass is good, plenty of firewood, and there’s a good spring down below.”
    “You don’t get lonely?” Smithback asked.
    “No,” he said simply.
    Beiyoodzin seemed a little taken aback by his directness.  He gave Smithback a curiously penetrating look.  “I come here,” he said slowly, “to become a human being again.”
    “What about the rest of the year?” Smithback asked.  (pg. 323)

“Dead reckoning,” Smithback murmured.  “Never did like the sound of that.”  (pg. 142)
    There’s never much to quibble about in a Preston-&-Child novel.  The action starts quickly: by page 6 a death struggle is already underway, but after that things slow down a bit, as Nora works to gets funding for the expedition, and outfits it.

    Quadrupeds generally do not fare very well in the story; PETA enthusiasts will probably get in a tizzy over some of the scenes.  And a few of the plot threads were resolved just a tad bit too conveniently, especially those addressed in the epilogue.

    But I pick at nits.  Thunderhead is a fine offering from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and I enjoyed almost as much as any of the Agent Pendergast books.  Devotees to that series will be entertained with this one as well.

    8 Stars.  The search for Quivira is a historical fact.  Various Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries searched in vain for it, most notably Coronado.  The Wikipedia article about it can be found here.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Sleeping Dragon - Jonny Nexus

   2018; 321 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humorous Fantasy; Hero Noir.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    What do a priest, a wizard, a thief , and rock star, and a jock have in common?

    They’d like to know the answer to that as well.  Apparently, someone’s thrown them all together, via one very potent magic spell and for who-knows-what purpose.

    All of them come with “baggage”.  The jock uses “performance enhancing potions”, the rock star’s about to be fired by his bandmates due to “herbal abuse”, the priest and wizard have both been ostracized by their respective societies, the thief has people issues. 

    Hey, maybe they’re meant to save the world.  From what menace is anyone’s guess, since whoever conjured up the come-together spell didn’t include any explanation for casting it on this motley crew.  But one thing’s for certain.

    If the fate of the world depends on these five misfits, everyone's in deep doo-doo.

What’s To Like...
    Amazon touts The Sleeping Dragon as a humorous fantasy, and it is, but for me it felt a lot more like the start of a adventure series featuring a bunch of flawed heroes.  The first part of the book seems to focus mostly on our five protagonists meeting each other, discovering what asset each one brings to the team, and learning to function and get along with each other.  Despite the mention of a number of fantasy creatures – dwarves, halflings, orcs, elves, and the titular dragons, most of these are relegated to minor roles, or MIA altogether.

    It was nice to watch the characters come together as a team.  The interaction between the priest and the wizard was particularly intriguing because in this make-believe world, the two spiritual realms apparently coexist quite comfortably.  The team also picks up a couple more members as the story goes along – both bipeds and quadrupeds.  And I definitely want to go for a ride in one of those plush flying carpets.

    There’s a fair amount of wit, and the pacing steps lively, even if it does take its sweet time getting around to solving the thematic prophecy: “The sleeping dragon will awake beneath Craagon’s Reach.”  The Amazon blurb describes the book as “Tolkien-inspired” and “Pratchett-esque”, but you’ll enjoy the book more if you key on the quote given on the front cover: “In a world so changed that heroism itself appears obsolete, will there still be heroes?”

    The overall tone of the book is somewhat dark, and I liked that.  All of the protagonists have inner weaknesses.  They set these aside at times, for the sake of team spirit, but the "baggage" each one carries is still there at the end of the book.

    Jonny Nexus hails from Manchester, England, so unsurprisingly, the book is written in English, not American.  You might come across ageing artefacts and sodding gits, or need a torch to see inside your vehicle’s bonnet.  There’s a couple maps and a handy glossary at the front of the book, but the author's storytelling is clear enough to where I had no trouble remembering what things like a "whisper" were.  The Table of Contents needs work – it doesn't divide up the chapters, so you can't access a particular one via it.  But the page numbers work quite well, and that's a plus.

    Everything builds to an action-packed ending, with a couple of twists included that I didn’t see coming.  This is a standalone story, and all the plot threads get tied up.  It has a “feel” of being the first book in a series, although I don’t see anything in the Amazon blurb to confirm that.

Kewlest New Word  ...
    Sporran (n.) : a small pouch worn around the waist so as to hang in front of the kilt as part of men’s Scottish Highland dress.  (Whooda guessed there was a word for this?)
Others : Serried (adj.); Cafetière (n.); Conurbation (n.).

    “Pardon me for asking, but why exactly has an AdventureSport player got a fully equipped magical laboratory?”
    Blade gave her an embarrassed smile.  “I had this girlfriend a few years ago who fancied herself as some kind of progressive witch.  Got all this installed for her.”
    “And did this erstwhile girlfriend of yours ever use it?” asked Presto, who’d apparently been listening in despite appearing to be fully engaged in checking out the oracle’s main control program.
    “No.  Said the equipment interfered with her creativity.”  (loc. 553)

   “But wild mana…” Presto shook his head.  “It’s constantly active, reactive, transforming.”
    Laliana shivered.  “It’s just horrible to think that it’s out there.  You can’t smell it.  You can’t taste it.  You can’t sense it.  But it’s out there.”
    Presto tapped the small device attached to his belt.  “Just keep an eye on your dosemeters.  As long as they still show green you’re okay.”
    “And what do we do if they turn amber?” asked Darick.
    Presto shrugged.  “Don’t know.  Re-calibrate your personal definition of okay, I guess.”  (loc. 4414)

Kindle Details...
    The Sleeping Dragon presently sells for $0.99 at Amazon, which is quite a bargain.  Jonny Nexus has one other recent release, When Pigs Fly, which is on my Kindle, waiting to be read, plus three earlier e-books.  All of these appear to be in the Fantasy genre, and all are priced at $0.99.

 “So three thousand golds later we’ve got a dog with a speech impediment?”  (loc. 4032)
    There are a few nits to pick, some minor, one more significant.  As usual in any adventure story, chemical plants are cast in a bad light.  I spent my career working for a chemical manufacturing company, so this is just a personal pet peeve.

    I chuckled when one of the characters used the term “luddite”.  I don’t think anyone in a fantasy realm would ever utter that word.  The writing style is up to the task, but for some reason I didn’t find it compelling.  Maybe I just need to read a couple more books by Jonny Nexus.

    The biggest issue concerns the prolific use of cussing.  If The Sleeping Dragon was meant to be Tolkien-inspired and Pratchett-esque, why is there so much foul language?  If you were to edit the story by deleting all the cussing, would any of the tone and content would be lost?  OTOH, by keeping it in, a sizable portion of the potential target audience is forfeited.  Parents aren’t going to allow Little Suzie and Timmy to read a book that contains repeated penis references.

    6½ Stars.  I enjoyed The Sleeping Dragon, but would’ve been happier if there were more fantasy creatures and less cussing.  Overall, the book's strengths outshine its weaknesses, so here's hoping Jonny Nexus develops this into a series.  He's put together a fascinating and diverse cast of characters, and it would be a shame if they didn't have any further adventures while saving the universe.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Future of Humanity - Michio Kaku

   2018; 307 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Full Title: The Future of Humanity: Our Destiny In The Universe.  Genres : Non-Fiction; Science; Cosmology.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    There comes a time when you just have to pack things up and move.  We’re not talking about selling your house, we’re talking about leaving planet Earth at some point in the future.  It might be because of a nuclear holocaust, a plague, rising ocean levels, or an impending head-on collision with a killer asteroid.  Any of these scenarios could happen in the not-too-distant future.

    Relocating on the moon is a quick but futile answer, but Mars is a logical choice.  We’ll just get out the shovels, build space colonies, and terraform the climate there.  Alas, even that may not be the final solution.  Someday our sun will go supernova and scorch all the inner planets, including both Earth and Mars.

    We’ll then have to relocate to another solar system around some nearby star.  That’s a bigger undertaking, since the closest one is four light-years away and might not have any habitable planets for us.  Even worse, our Milky Way galaxy is on a course to crash into the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, so there may come a day when we might have to relocate to a different galaxy.

    Whew, we’re a long way from being able to do that, but even then we might not be done relocating. Someday our entire universe use up all its energy and just go dark and cold.  Then what?

    Let’s hope that by then we’ve figured out how to go hopping around to those parallel dimensions those quantum physicists having been telling us about.

What’s To Like...
    I read Origins, by Neil deGrasse Tyson a few months ago (reviewed here), which dealt with the chronological order of “births” in the Cosmos, in descending order of magnitude:  the Universe, the Milky Way Galaxy, our Sun, the Planets, and lastly life here on Earth.  In Michio Kaku’s The Future of Humanity that order is reversed, dealing with the “deaths” of each of those entities.  One hopes it is also in chronological order, since escaping each demise is an increasingly difficult technological challenge.

    The Future of Humanity is divided into three sections, namely:
        Part 1: Fleeing to other Planets (chapters 1-6)
        Part 2: Fleeing to Nearby Stars (chapters 7-9)
        Part 3: Fleeing to Faraway Stars and other Galaxies (chapters 10-14)

    The central premise of the book is that sooner or later humanity is going to be faced with every one of these emergencies.  To stay means to perish, and the author is too much of an optimist to resign us to that fate.  Each chapter starts with one or two relevant and witty quotes.  There are a couple diagrams and graphs scattered throughout the book, and a handy index in the back.

    Michio Kaku writes in an easy-to-understand style.  Even if you’re not an astrophysicist, you’ll be able to grasp what he’s talking about.  Numerous references to science fiction books, movies, and TV series help you visualize future technology.  But these are only cited if they are grounded in real-world physics.  If you’re hoping to be “beamed up” via a Star Trek transporter, you’ll be disappointed.

    The book is a treasure trove for all sorts of scientific trivia.  I learned the secret to living longer (caloric restriction), the mechanics of schizophrenia, and the multiple methods used to discover and examine planets revolving around distant stars.  String Theory is simplified to where it actually makes some sense, and the wonders of wormholes, anti-matter (we’ve already made some!), and graphene are detailed.  You’ll even learn what extraterrestrials are most likely to look like.  Take that, Fermi’s Paradox!

    We are obviously a long way from having the technology to do anything more than walk on the moon, but Michio Kaku gives you the most promising ways to accomplish the various astral journeys.  To achieve energy-efficient space flight, we can build “space elevators”.  To get to the nearest star, we can go “comet-hopping”.  To get to distant stars and other galaxies, we’ll probably use “nano-ships” and “transhumanism”.  The book details these and other options, giving the pros and cons of each.

    Astronomers suspect that the Oort Cloud could extend as far as three light years from our solar system.  That is more than halfway to the nearest stars, the Centauri triple star system, which is slightly more than four light-years from Earth.  If we assume that the Centauri star system is also surrounded by a sphere of comets, then there might be a continuous trail of comets connecting it to Earth.  It may be possible to establish a series of refueling stations, outposts, and relay locations on a grand interstellar highway.  Instead of leaping to the next star in one jump, we might cultivate the more modest goal of “comet hopping” to the Centauri system.  This thoroughfare could become a cosmic Route 66(pg. 107)

    Unlike our sun the Milky Way galaxy will die in fire.  About four billion years from now, it will collide with Andromeda, the nearest spiral galaxy.  Andromeda is roughly twice the size of the Milky Way, so it will be a hostile takeover.  Computer simulations of the collision show that the two galaxies will enter a death dance as they orbit around each other.  Andromeda will rip off many of the arms of the Milky Way, dismembering it.  The black holes at the center of both galaxies will orbit around each other and finally collide, merging into a bigger black hole, and a new galaxy will emerge from the collision, a giant elliptical galaxy.  (pg. 295)

Killer asteroids are nature’s way of asking, “How’s that space program coming along?” (pg. 54 )
    It’s tough to come up with anything to quibble about in The Future of Humanity.  I still have trouble comprehending Quantum Mechanics, despite a section devoted to it near the end of this book.  Unfortunately, any solution to intergalactic travel is going to require using it.

    Similarly, Michio Kaku waxes philosophical when discussing hopping to a parallel dimension.  But let’s face it, trying to discuss the technology needed for that is kinda fruitless since we’re not even sure the multiverse exists.

    9½ Stars.  Overall, The Future of Humanity was a delightful read, detailing the “cosmic relocations” we might someday be forced to make, the technology needed to successfully make those moves, and the best-guess timetable to overcoming the astrophysical challenges.  Colleagues have been recommending Michio Kaku’s books to me for quite some time, and I'm bummed I didn't follow up on their recommendations sooner.  I was captivated by the author's effervescent optimism as well as his keen scientific insight.  I'll be reading more of his books in the near future..