Friday, September 27, 2019

Russian Roulette - Mike Faricy

   2011; 321 pages.  Book 1 (out of 19, soon to be 20) in the “Dev Haskell – Private Invesyigator” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Pulp Thrillers; Crime Thrillers; Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It wasn’t the sort of business deal Private Investigator Dev Haskell would normally accept.  Some girl named Kelli wants him to go find her sister, Nikki.  She offers him a name, an address where the sister used to live, and a photograph.  That’s all, and it's not much to go on.  Dev’s not sure why he agreed to it.

    Maybe it was the fact that Kelli is a ravishing beauty with a sexy accent, probably French.  Maybe it was the fact that Nikki was a stunningly pretty redhead in the picture.  Maybe it was that Nikki was also stunningly naked in the photo.  Standing there in the altogether with three other similarly unclothed people.  Why would somebody’s sister have that sort of photograph of her sibling?

    No, it had to be some other reason.  Like the five one-hundred-dollar bills that Kelli calmly reeled out and handed over to Dev to take the case.  Which seems like some easy money to earn while looking for an easy-on-the-eyes runaway.  Yeah, that was probably it.

    Besides, what could possibly go wrong?

What’s To Like...
    Russian Roulette is the first book in a “Pulp Detective” series by Mike Faricy, an author I’ve been meaning to check out for quite some time.  The protagonist, Dev Haskell, is my kind of hero – snarky, self-deprecating, good at what he does (but not great), a hit with the women (until they get to know him) and always ready to do the right thing, as long as it pays well, involves food, or might lead to a roll in the hay.

    The story is set in St. Paul, Minnesota, which I’m guessing is Mike Faricy’s stomping grounds.  Needless to say, Dev soon discovers there’s much more to his assignment than meets the eye.  The “finding Nikki” task soon evolves into “let's keep tabs on Kelli as well”, then to “why are all these people getting killed” and finally “why is somebody trying to kill me?”  Dev is certainly going to earn that $500.

    There’s lots of action to keep your interest.  The mystery angle is not so much a “whodunit” as “how’s Dev going to bring the baddies down?”  The book is written in the first-person POV (Dev’s) and there’s a whopping 83 chapters covering 321 pages, which means you’re always within a couple of pages for a convenient place to stop reading for the night.  There are a couple rolls-in-the-hay, but nothing lurid.  Cusswords abound, but I felt that fit in well with the gritty subject matter.

    I chuckled at the Impound Lot scene.  I know someone who worked in that field, and the depiction here is spot on.  I had to look up who Ludwig Bemelmans was, but recognized his artwork once I did so.  I was surprised to see the band Insane Clown Posse get mentioned, although I gather Mike Faricy isn't their biggest fan.

     The ending is good, although not particularly twisty.  That’s okay, since it’s the culmination of the combined efforts of several law enforcement agencies, assisted of course by Dev.  The e-book version end at 70%, or 321 pages, with an additional 18-pages of a preview of the next book in the series, Mr. Swirlee.

    “He apparently blew his brains out with a colt .45, then put a second round in what was left of his skull just to be sure.  The .45 still in his hand, an unsigned, typewritten note stuffed in his pocket.”
    “That said?”
    “That said some bullshit about seeing the error of his ways, a life of sin, asking forgiveness.  If I recall it was about three sentences long.”  Aaron licked donut crumbs from the tips of his fingers.
    “And you’re not buying it?”
    “Well, for starters, all the words were spelled correctly and it wasn’t written with a color crayon.”  (loc. 504)

  “So, Dev, what is new, have you found out anything for me?” she asked, sort of shrugged her shoulders, and smiled innocently.  She was anything but.
    What’s new? I thought.  Aside from you not answering my phone calls?  How about I’ve been shot, chased, arrested, poisoned, I’ve still got whisker burn on my inner thighs, my beverage of choice is now Pedialyte and the last woman I spoke with for more than twenty minutes was run over by a Lexus LX11.    (…) Instead I said, “Oh, you know, not much, same old same old,” trying to act coy.  (loc. 1898)

Kindle Details...
    Russian Roulette currently sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  All the other e-books in the series go for $3.99, except for the soon-to-be-published Book 20, which is on pre-order sale for $2.99.  Mike Faricy has started a new series called Hotshot, and its three books are also $3.99 apiece.  He also offers “bundles” (Books 1-7 and Books 8-14) in the Dev Haskell series for $9.99 each, which is quite the good deal.  

“Three years of med school and I’m wiping your ass.  Have a nice day.”  (loc. 2553)
    There were only a couple nits to pick, but they're minor.

    The characters seemed all either black or white, although in fairness, I have to say that some of the black-hats were on the good side, and some of the white-hats were with the baddies.

    The storytelling seemed to me to be a bit “loose”.  I never did fathom the reason why someone was trying to kill our protagonist, since the obvious suspects are counting on him to find the missing girl.  But hey, it gave added excitement to the storyline, and that can’t be bad.  Similarly, the food poisoning scene didn’t seem to contribute to the plot, but it was funny as all get-out.

    Finally, some Amazon reviewers gave the book low ratings because they really didn’t like the main character.  Dev Haskell reminds me of the Bruce Willis character on that 1980’s TV series, Moonlighting.  He gets beat up, shot up, blown up, and stood up, yet somehow ends up saving the day.  Every reader is entitled to his or her own opinion, but personally, I like that kind of hero
    8 Stars.  All in all, I found Russian Roulette to be a captivating book that kept me turning the pages to see what was going to happen next.  I’m eager to see what Mr. Swirlee is all about, and it’s sitting on my Kindle, part of a seven-book bundle, waiting for my attention.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Magnus Chase - The Sword of Summer - Rick Riordan

   2015; 512 pages.  New Author? : No.  Full Title: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: Book 1: The Sword of Summer.  Book #1 (out of 3) in The Gods of Asgard series.  Genre : Fantasy; YA; Norse Mythology.  Laurels : Winner of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Middle Grade and Children’s Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It's been a rough life for Magnus Chase so far.  He never knew his father, and his mother died two years ago when two giant wolves with blue eyes attacked them from out of nowhere.  Magnus barely escaped alive, and he's been living on the streets of Boston ever since, keeping a low profile and learning to live the life of a homeless person.

    His mom’s two brothers live the Boston area, Uncle Frederick and Uncle Randolph, but Magnus doesn’t like either one of them.  His cousin Annabeth, Uncle Frederick’s daughter, is about the same age as Magnus, but there’s something positively scary about her, and Magnus hasn’t seen her in ten years or so.  His two closest friends are a pair of fellow bums called Blitz and Hearth, but they’re more in the “misery loves company” category.

    Just now Blitz is rousing Magnus from his not-very-comfortable sleep on a cold Boston street beneath the shelter of a bridge.  Blitz has a short, chilling message: “They’re after you.”  Who?  Why?  Hoe'd they find him?  What’s the deal?

    Well, today’s your 16th birthday, Magnus.  You’ve just “come of age”.  And there are some who would like to make this your last day alive.

What’s To Like...
    Magnus Chase - The Sword of Summer is the first book in a trilogy by Rick Riordan featuring Norse mythology.  I’m not sure if this is a completed series or not.  Magnus is a 16-year-old demigod, so the target audience is presumably high school boys, but I found it entertaining and I think most other fantasy-loving adults will as well.

    The pacing is brisk, which is a necessity for any YA novel.  There are a slew of characters to meet and greet, most of them from Norse mythology.  This could get confusing for any reader whose knowledge of Norse gods begins and ends with Thor, but Rick Riordan introduces most or all of these (plus mythological places and runes) with a brief explanation, and even then, if you forget who’s who, there’s a handy glossary in the back.

    The book is written in the first-person POV (Magnus’s).  The only settings are Boston and the Nordic afterworld, including its most famous attraction, Valhalla.  I liked the snarky chapter titles, and the music references, which included the Dropkick Murphys, the Wiggles, Taylor Swift, and ZZ Top’s hit “Sharp Dressed Dwarf”.

    The Intrigue starts right away, and the Action commences shortly thereafter.  There are no slow spots, as Magnus keeps getting assigned various quests: find the magic sword, get an “apple of Idun”, recover Thor’s hammer (not that he officially admits losing it), buy some earrings for his aunt, and of course, save the world from Ragnarok/Doomsday.  Heady stuff for a teenager.

    Critters abound: gods, demigods, elves, dwarfs, Valkyries, trolls and half-trolls, dead and undead warriors, giants, goats, squirrels, wolves, and an eight-legged horse.  I liked the clever way of inserting cuss words in the YA novel – phrases such as "what the Helheim”, “Heimdall’s Horn", "Odin’s Eye", and "Balder’s Bling”, just to name a few.  And it was neat that my favorite Norse mythological “place”, Ginnungagap, gets some ink, although, unsurprisingly, our heroes never venture there.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Bail (n., jewelry) : The top loop on a pendant that the chain slides through.  (Google-image it)
Others: Kibbeh (n.).

    YAAAARRRRK!  The sound was much louder this time.  A dozen branches above us, a large shadow passed across the leaves.
    I hefted my sword.  “We’ll fight the squirrel.  We can do that, right?”
    Sam looked at me like I was mad.  “Ratatosk is invulnerable.  There is no fighting him.  Our options are running, hiding, or dying.”
    “We can’t run,” I said.  “And I’ve already died twice this week.”  (loc. 3186)

    Frey shrugged.  “I made my choice long ago.  I surrendered the blade for the sake of love.”
    “But on Ragnarok, you’ll die because you don’t have it.”
    He held up the deer antler.  “I will fight with this.”
    “An animal horn?”
    “Knowing your fate is one thing.  Accepting it is another.  I will do my duty.  With this antler I will slay many giants, even Beli, one of their great generals.  But you’re right.  It won’t be enough to bring down Surt.  In the end, I will die.”  (loc. 5613)

Kindle Details...
    Magnus Chase - The Sword of Summer currently sells for $7.99, which is also the price of the other two books in the series: The Hammer of Thor and The Ship of the Dead.  Most of Rick Riordan’s other YA-Mythology books are in the $5.99-$7.99 price range, but if it’s a new release, it can be as high as $12.99.

She looked like the maid of honor at someone’s Mortal Kombat wedding.  (loc. 898)
    There’s not much to quibble about in Magnus Chase – The Sword of Summer.  Qusts are fulfilled, and everything builds nicely to a logical ending.  It’s not particularly twisty, but I think any YA reader will be satisfied.  The epilogue is a teaser that sets up the next book in the series, which is not to say it’s a cliffhanger.  MC-TSoS is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series, and will entertain everyone from young’uns to geezers who like “questing” tales.

    8½ Stars.  There’s a unique facet about Norse mythology that I’ve always found fascinating:  coming to grips with the knowledge that your unalterable fate is one of utter doom.  Odin, Thor, and the rest of the Aesir *know* they will lose the Doomsday battle, yet they soldier on.  Rick Riordan gives this concept major focus in Magnus Chase – The Sword of Summer, and I for one think that was a noteworthy literary decision.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

From Dawn to Decadence - Jacques Barzun

   2000; 802 pages (plus appendices and notes).  New Author? : Yes.  Full Title: From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  Genres : Non-Fiction; European History; History of Civilization and Culture.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Hey, let’s read a history book!  And not something short and easy-to-read; let’s find a book that’s more than 800 pages long and written in a “scholarly” style.

    With that many pages, let’s have it cover the last 5 centuries.  It can show how different things were way back in 1500, and what changes occurred to bring us to where we are now.  And for a twist, instead of concentrating on events such as who won what battle, and which king led what army, let’s focus on the cultural aspects of history: Art, Science, Religion, Philosophy, and Social Thought.

    Finally, let’s find a curmudgeonly author, preferably some old French dude.

    Like Jacques Barzun and his fantastic book, From Dawn To Decadence.

What’s To Like...
    From Dawn to Decadence is divided into four chronological revolutions, namely:
        Part 1: The 16th Century religious revolution
        Part 2: the 17th Century monarchical revolution
        Part 3: the 18th/19th Century French liberal and individualist revolutions, and
        Part 4: the 20th Century Russian social and collective revolution.

    As indicated above, the book focuses on the cultural aspects of civilization.  Some attention is of course also given to “history” when it’s needed, generally via sections labeled “A View From…”.  Barzun keeps these as short as possible though.  The (American) Civil War gets scant attention, Columbus’s discovery of America is barely noted.  The two World Wars get a bit more ink, probably because Jacques Barzun experienced both of them firsthand.

    The attention to the Arts (Music, Poetry, Plays, Sculpture, Literature, etc.) is incredibly detailed.  Major artists are duly covered, but so are a slew of minor luminaries, many of whom Barzun feels have been unjustly forgotten.  He also demythologizes “revered icons” such as Thoreau, Calvin, Erasmus, and Martin  Luther, pointing out their character warts and blemishes.  I enjoyed reading a French author’s take on American history.  At a time when “my country right or wrong” mentality is again rearing its ugly head, it’s refreshing to read something objective and accurate.

    The book is a trivia lover’s treasure trove.  Some examples: the “real” Jethro Tull, tulip mania, “Ubu”, Balzac’s “Waiting for Gadeau” (by Balzac; now you know from where Samuel Beckett got his title), Manutius, bundling, the origin of the word ‘scientist’, Henry Purcell, John Cage’s magnificent musical composition called 4’3" (YouTube it), how the development of the railroad necessitated the creation of Time Zones, and Erasmus’s disdain for (what was for him) modern music.  Barzun even gives separate indexes for Persons (23 pages) and Subjects (24 pages) for ease of reference.

    The ending is kind of a downer. Barzun revels in the glorious past (as any historian should), but he’s pretty jaded about the present state of things like Sports, Computers, Art, Science, Religion, Acronyms, Language, and Education.  His pet word for all of these is “demotic”, which means (I had to look it up): common, casual, colloquial, used by the masses.  But since Barzun was in his nineties when From Dawn to Decadence was published, I can’t help to wonder if he was dismayed by the speed at which the modern world was whizzing by him.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Valetudinarians (n., plural) : people who are unduly anxious about their health.
Others : Primogeniture (n.); Perdurable (adj.); Rutilant (adj.); Demotic (adj.).

    We have got into the habit of calling too many things revolutions.  Given a new device or practice that changes our homely habits, we exclaim: “revolutionary!”  But revolutions change more than personal habits or a widespread practice.  They give culture a new face.  Between the great upheaval of the 1500s and the present, only three later ones are of the same order.  True, the history books give the name to a dozen or more such violent events, but in these uprisings it was only the violence that was great.  (pg. 3)

    Judge of my surprise to see poor dear Mrs. Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a huge hussar-like gentleman I never set eyes on before and his more than half round her waist, turning round and round to a d----d see-saw, upside down sort of tune.  I asked what all this means: “Can’t you see they are valtzing – or waltzing?”  (I forget which).  Now that I know what it is, I like it – Horace Hornem, Country gentleman.
    -Byron, “To The Publisher” or “The Waltz” (1812).  (pg. 500)

Monarchy and monotheism go together; in heaven there are no struggles such as one sees among the pagan gods and goddesses.  (pg. 249 )
    From Dawn to Decadence is considered to be Jacques Barzun’s magnum opus, and deservedly so.  For me the book was a slow-but-easy read.  (Is that an oxymoron?)  The abundance of trivia was great when it was interesting, but grew tedious if it was something I had limited interest in, such as Philosophy.

    Or when he gets wordy and pedantic.  Barzun spends 28 pages (!!) discussing the word Eutopian (his preferred spelling) and 26 pages to the word Baroque.  He devotes separate sections (4-8 pages apiece) for discussing the meaning of man, esprit, romantic, and pragmatic.  His discourse about “man” centers on whether it is specifically a male person, or whether it can denote either gender.  As in the term “Renaissance man”.  To his credit, Barzun is an avowed feminist, so such distinctions are important to him.

    At times, his curmudgeon persona also wore thin.  Barzun doesn’t seem to have much trust in Science and Technology, which is a bummer since I’m a chemist.  He also resents anyone calling the Middle Ages barbaric.  Serfs had it pretty good, in his opinion.  OTOH, University students don’t appreciate how good they have it, and Puritans were actually good guys.  Towards the end of the book, when discussing Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and modern Medicine, it seems like he’s struggling to grasp the concepts.

    But let’s be clear; this is a spectacular book, even if it often numbed my brain after 20 or 30 pages.  When that occurred, I just shut it and did some light reading to resuscitate my gray matter.  I’ve read other books that were great, but brain-numbing, such as ones by Brian Greene (reviewed here), David Foster Wallace (reviewed here), and  Fyodor Dostoevsky (reviewed here).  "Mind-numbing" means the book is challenging, and that's generally a good sign.  It just means you'd better be ready to devote some serious reading time to the tome.  It took me six weeks to read make it through From Dawn to Decadence, but I’m glad I tackled it.

    9 Stars.  In case you’re curious about some of the not-so-famous people given major ink in From Dawn to Decadence, here are some examples: Christine de Pisan, John Lilburne (*), FĂ©nelon (*), Giambattista Vico, Pierre Bayle, Beaumarchais, Georg Lichtenberg, Sydney Smith (*), Walter Bagehot (*), and James Agate.  Those marked with an asterisk were particularly noteworthy.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Friday The Rabbi Slept Late - Harry Kemelman

   1964; 198 pages.  Book 1 (out of 12) in the “Rabbi Small Mystery” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Religious Mystery; Jewish Literature; Amateur Sleuth Mystery.  Laurels: 1965 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It was a shocking crime in a quiet, upstanding neighborhood.  The victim, a nice 20-something girl, was strangled with her own necklace, and the body dumped in a church parking lot.

    Well, technically, it was a temple parking lot, since it was a Jewish house of worship.  The crime was committed late at night – the police say it was after midnight – and the body not discovered until the next morning because it was hidden behind an outside wall.

    There was only one car in the parking lot that evening, and it belongs to the rabbi in charge of the temple.  But he’s known to often leave his vehicle there overnight and besides, a rabbi – like a Catholic priest or a Protestant minister – is pretty much above suspicion for a crime like this, right?

    So why was the young woman’s purse found in the rabbi’s car, tucked underneath the front seat?

What’s To Like...
    Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (and the whole series for that matter) is a mix of two genres: Jewish Literature and Murder-Mystery.  That may seem like an odd combination, so Harry Kemelman inserts a brief section called “The Creation of Rabbi Small” the the start of the novel, and I found it quite informative.  The book is an incredibly fast and easy read, with 28 chapters covering 198 pages.  The whole story takes place in the greater Boston area, more accurately a small fictitious seaside town called Barnard’s Crossing.

    The murder-mystery is structured so that the reader can accompany our amateur sleuth, Rabbi David Small, as he tries to figure out whodunit.  The clues are there, along with lots of red herrings, for anyone to piece together.  I happen to like mysteries where I can vie with the protagonist to see who can solve the crime first.  Here, I’m happy to say that I correctly deduced the key clue, but failed to fit it together with other info to identify the perpetrator.

    The book was published in 1964 and I really enjoyed going back to those times (I was 14 then) and seeing how much has changed.  Wives were generally homemakers, many couldn’t drive, and most of them, even the “white hat” ones, smoked cigarettes.  Males used hair gel for that “greasy kid” look, and some of those in management weren’t above patting female underlings on the rear, especially if they were attractive, a practice that was frowned upon by some, but not openly condemned by anyone.  A typical house in Barnard’s Crossing cost about $20,000, and Rabbi Small’s annual salary was $9,500.  Racial epithets were in common usage, and rock-n-roll was considered by adults to be crazy music.  Every car had two keys: one for the ignition and doors, and one for the trunk.

    There are only a few cusswords, and although the murder occurs “onscreen”, there is no blood.  This doesn’t quite qualify it as a “cozy mystery”, but it comes close.  It also should be mentioned that anti-Semitic bigotry rears its ugly head when Rabbi Small becomes a suspect.  Not very nice, but very realistic, even in today's world.

    The book was very insightful about Jewish practices.  One example:  their prayers are mostly about giving thanks, whereas the usual Christian prayer is more of a petition for something.  Even within the Jewish temple differences existed.  Rabbi Small is a Conservative (Orthodox) Jew and wants to emphasize what sets his religion apart from his Christian neighbors.  His congregation is more “modern” (Reformed), and would prefer to “blend in” with the surrounding gentiles by stressing what they have in common.

Kewlest New Word  ...
Obtrude (v.) : to become noticeable in an unwelcome or intrusive way.
Others : Upstumped (v., for which, surprisingly, Google doesn’t supply a usable definition).

    “They say he’s careless about his appointments, careless in his appearance, even careless in his manner in the pulpit.  His clothes, they’re apt to be wrinkled.  When he gets up to speak in front of the congregation, or at a meeting, it doesn’t look right.”
    She nodded. “I know.  And maybe some of these critics blame me.  A wife should see to her husband.  But what can I do?  I see that his clothes are neat when he leaves in the morning, but can I follow him around all day?  He’s a scholar.  When he gets interested in a book, nothing else matters.  If he feels like lying down to read he doesn’t bother to take off his jacket.  (loc. 937)

  “If you will tell me what happened, perhaps I can tell you what you wish to know, or at least be able to help you more intelligently.”
    “You’re right, rabbi.  You understand that we’re bound be regulations.  My common sense tells me that you as a man of the cloth are in no way implicated, but as a policeman-“
    “As a policeman you are not supposed to use your common sense?  Is that what you were going to say?”  (loc. 1125)

Kindle Details...
    Friday The Rabbi Slept Late currently sells for $6.99 at Amazon.  All the other e-books in the series go for either $6.99 or $8.99, and if there’s a determining factor for choosing either of those prices, I don’t see it.

 “Misfortune can happen to anyone.  Only the dead are safe from it.”  (loc. 2368)
    Friday The Rabbi Slept Late garnered an Edgar Award in 1965 for “Best First Novel”, but I had some quibbles with it.

    For starters, although I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of a plethora of Hebrew words in the storyline (Examples: minyan, Kaddish, Din Torah, kochlefed, Gaon, cheder, rebbitzin, S’michah, pilpul, and kipoh), less than half of them come with definitions.  Yes, I can certainly google them, but that’s still a minor PITA.  OTOH, the “7-WD stores” reference was both enlightening and hilarious.

    The pacing is so-so.  The murder doesn’t take place until 30%-Kindle, so until then you pretty much have to content yourself with temple infighting and 1960’s daily life in Barnard’s Crossing.

    Finally, the ending is anti-climactic.  Rabbi Small figures out whodunit, and conveys his reasoning and resulting conclusions to the local chief-of-police.  But the actual apprehension of the perpetrator is skipped over entirely.  One minute the rabbi is presenting his case, the next we’re in the epilogue, with everything already tied up.  Presumably the perp was taken in without incident and without protest. 

    7 Stars.  Friday The Rabbi Slept Late has to be rated in accordance with the state of murder-mystery novels in the 50’/60’s.  In that respect it does quite well, but like Science-Fiction, the genre has evolved significantly since then.  Amazon discounts select Rabbi Small e-books at times, and ISTR seeing the paperback versions in the bargain bins at Half Price Books.  If I come across another one in the series at a discount outlet I will certainly pick it up.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

End of Empires - Toby Frost

    2014; 352 pages.  Book 5  (out of 6) in the Space Captain Smith series  New Author? : No.  Genre : Sci-Fi Spoof; Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The battle lines are drawn.  On one side is the indomitable British Space Empire.  On the other, the invincible Great Galactic Happiness and Friendship Collective, otherwise known as the Yulls.  The battleground is set: Ravanar, a territory that’s not native to either side.  It is populated by the meek and lowly Beetle People, and who cares about them?

    The Yulls are more commonly known as the Lemming Men.  They’re fearsome, ruthless, and countless in number.  They function as of One Mind.  As long as that Mind doesn’t tell them to go jump off a cliff, their numerical superiority and fighting prowess can win any battle.

    But the British are not without their own resources, most notably access to that superlatively restorative potion: tea.  And of course, they also have Space Captain Isambard Smith and his trusty crew of his ship, the John Pym.

    So let the fighting begin!  And let’s try to have it finished before 4 o'clock in the afternoon  Because there’s no excuse for missing tea time due to some empire-ending cosmic duel to the death.

What’s To Like...
    If you wish that the Monty Python troupe would have tried their hand at writing Star Trek episodes, then you’re going to love End of Empires.  Every page is filled with madcap antics, smoothly blended with an epic kill-or-be-killed scenario.

    Readers of the series will be happy to know all the ship-crew regulars are back, including the psychic hippie chick Rhianna Mitchell, the I’ll-try-anything robot Polly Carveth, and my personal favorite, Suruk the Slayer.  Most of the secondary characters are also present, including the master-spy “W”, Major “The Ghost Who Walks in Shorts” Wainscott, Susan (whose main task is to make sure Wainscott at least has shorts on), and Polly’s Android love-interest, Rick Dreckitt.

    There’s a bevy of beasties to deal with beyond Beetles and Lemmings.  The Ghasts have only a peripheral presence and the Edenites are missing entirely, but there are wallahbots, shadars, ravnaphants, maneaters, and cute little ponies to take their place.  I especially liked meeting some of Suruk’s M’Lak family and fellow-warriors, and was happy that even Gerald the Hamster gets to play a brief-but-key role.

    The book is written in English, not American, so you have tiffins and piffles, storeys and pyjamas, todgers and selotape, etc.  Classical rock nods abound, including Pink Zeppelin, The Doors, and some clever take-offs of Jimi Hendrix (called “Jimmy Horlicks” here) lyrics and titles.  I was especially impressed that Gustav Holst’s magnum opus, ”The Planets” was also cited.

    The ending is suitably exciting and action-packed. Some of its events are over-the-top, but that’s okay when you’re emulating Monty Python.  There are just a couple of cusswords and a few allusions to adult situations, but that’s okay when you’re writing Space Opera.

Kewlest New Word...
Parp (v.) : to make a honking sound like a horn.
Others : Clottish (adj.).

    “You there!  Stop this nonsense or there’ll be trouble!”
    Half a dozen bullets answered him.  Ducking back, Smith reflected that this might be more difficult than he’d thought.
    “It’s the Sweeney!” a voice cried from inside.  “If you want to barney, filth, I’ve got a heater waiting for you!”
    “Sorry,” Smith called back.  “I didn’t understand a word of that.”
    “Naff off!” came the reply.  “I’m bleedin’ do you, you slag!” shouted the thug.  (loc. 740)

    “My unit has been infiltrated by an individual known only as the egg-man.  This whole mission was a white elephant from the start … or a white rabbit … or a pink elephant, on parade.  My god … they set the controls for the heart of the sun, they sent us two thousand light years from home, dropped out of orbit eight miles high … like a squid, fast and bulbous!  They’re coming to take me away!”  (loc. 2178)

Kindle Details...
    End of Empires sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  The other books in the series are all in the $3.99-$7.99 price range.  Toby Frost offers several other e-books at Amazon, ranging in price from $3.99 to $9.99.

“I was hallucinating,” he gasped.  “Thank God you’re here, Emily Bronte.”  (loc. 3831)
    The only thing I can quibble about is the book’s structure.  The Table of Contents divides it into three parts (11 chapters total), but really, it felt like three separate novellas, all strung together to make a suitably full-length book. 

    Briefly, the three parts are:
Part One: Investigate a subversive plot and play some Warro.
Part Two: Retrieve Major Wainscott and get him to put some pants on.
Part Three: Find the Relics of Grimdall and fight the Lemming Men.

    This sort of literary patchwork usually fails, and it is perhaps an indication of Toby Frost’s writing skills that here, for me, it somehow worked nicely.

    8 StarsEnd of Empires is the fifth, and penultimate, book in this series.  The final tale, Pincers of Death, resides on my Kindle, awaiting my attention.  It was released almost two years ago, in November 2017.  If indeed this is a completed series, I for one will miss Isambard Smith and his wacky cohorts.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Grand Portage - Scott Seeger

   2019; 259 pages.  Full Title: Grand Portage: One Man’s Journey to Bring Nuclear Power to the World.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Intrigue, Technology Fiction  Overall Rating : 3*/10.

    Portage.  The dictionary defines it as “the carrying of a boat or its cargo between two navigable waterways”.

    Generally we envision it as involving a canoe, with a pair of outdoors enthusiasts toting one through a forest on their shoulders.  I think I vaguely remember a Three Stooges comedy routine utilizing portaging.  Lots of running into trees and Moe whupping up on Curly.

    But it can apply to transporting larger vessels as well.  Wikipedia has an excellent article on it, with some neat pictures including one where a warship is portaged.  You can read about it here.

    But let’s stop thinking small here.  How would one go about portaging a full-sized aircraft carrier?  A person would have to be nuts to attempt that stunt.

    Well, meet Tyler Chambers.  He must be nuts.

What’s To Like...
    The titular challenge in Grand Portage tickled my fancy: how do you go about moving a huge aircraft carrier across land?  The book’s cover shows you Scott Seeger’s proposed answer, which is an intricate system comprised of bulldozers, tow lines, other mechanical devices, and last-but-not-least, a bunch of giant inflatable “logs” on which to roll the ship across land.  It's a take-off on how historians think the huge stones of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids were moved, and seems plausible to me.

    The protagonist, Tyler Chambers, is the inventor of the “pool noodle” (who knew those things had a name?!), and apparently is noteworthy enough to where a bunch of our present-day leading innovators – Richard Branson, David Sacks, and Elon Musk, to drop a few names – invite him to join their confabs.  Highly unlikely, but hey, this is a work of fiction.  But Chambers has some character flaws as well, most notably some serious relationship issues with his wife.  Overall, he’s a “gray” (albeit, more light than dark) character, and I like it when a book’s characters aren’t just boringly straight black or white.

    The writing style is good; the storyline was presented clearly and I don’t recall any telling/showing issues.  There’s a nice variety of settings, including New York City, Lake Superior and the Upper Midwest, Nevada, and a whirlwind trip to mainland China.  The internet satire sensation “The Onion” gets mentioned, as does the outdated “Peter Principle”, which had a brief-but-hyper heyday way back in my salad days.  Even the quality guru, Malcolm Baldrige, gets a nod, which was ironic, since both his first and last names are misspelled as “Malcom Baldridge”.

    There’s a fair amount of cussing and at least one roll-in-the-hay.  Amazon labels the book’s genre  as “Acton-Adventure”, but that’s inaccurate.  The only action spots are one minor barroom brawl, and one egg being thrown later on.  Finally, there’s a nice tip-of-the-hat by the author to the “Aubrey/Maturin” book series, which I’d never heard of, but which apparently lots of other have.  I'll have to go looking for some books from it whence next I hit the bookstores; the Amazon blurbs on them are quite interesting.

Kindle Details...
    Grand Portage currently sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Scott Seeger has two other e-books available at Amazon; they go for the same price.  All three have a right-wing bent to them, so if you’re of that political persuasion, you might want to check them out.   

    Quietude.  He was sealed in his library.  He ran his fingers along the spines of the books.  He inhaled and relished the smell of the books, an affirmation of these few precious moments before the party.  He reflected on how a time and place once existed when he found little value in reading beyond academia. Why read fiction which contributes nothing to your knowledge when a universe of fact existed to further yourself?  Tyler wondered how he could have ever thought that way.  (loc. 1583)

    “Hey, you go see carrier?  Tolkov?”  The man had a Slavic face and drank a clear liquid on the rocks.  He spoke with a thick Eastern European accent.
    “That right (sic), seeing the Tolkov.”
    “Ahh, amazing boat.  I serve in Russia Navy, never Tolkov, but Varyag.  That’s cruise missile and intel.”
    “Ah, what brought you to Northern Minnesota?”
    “Ahh friends, you know, the weather too.  Like Siberia only more tropical.”  (loc. 3438)

“I’m the guy shooting crap into space.  I roll over the unknown and leave the flat-earthers in my wake.”  (loc. 678)
     Alas, the writing in Grand Portage is good, but the storytelling is another matter.  In relative brevity:

    Pacing.  If the picture on the book cover is what attracts you, you’d better have patience.  That part of the story doesn’t start until 27%, and its time on center stage is disappointingly spotty.  Scott Seeger is unashamedly pro-nuclear power, and spends a lot of time telling you why he feels that way.  Since most readers will be expecting an Action/Adventure tale, these nukes-are-good sermons get tedious.

    WTF’s.  There were a bunch.  Firstly, although you can get from Lake Superior to the ocean in a boat, the system of locks has size limits, and I’m pretty sure an aircraft carrier won’t fit.  Secondly, you mean to tell me a Russian aircraft carrier can make it on a waterway half the width of the United States and along an international border without our defense and intelligence systems being aware of that?!  Unbelievable.  Thirdly, the whole “diplomatic immunity” issue is baloney.  If that were true, I think Russia (or us, or any other nation) could infiltrate any territory they bloody well please.  Finally, if you think that, on the spur-of-the-moment, you can fly a bunch of people in your private jet to mainland China just to badmouth their coal-energy system, without prior notice and visas, you’re crazy.

    Editing.  I’m a grammar-cop, and this was a painful read.  Errors like boarders/borders, discrete/discreet, Ms. Farnsworth’s first name morphing from Lana to Lara, Premier/Premiere, and an atrocious misuse (or lack of use, to be pedantic) of commas.

    There were other issues, but these were the major ones.   If beta-readers, editors, and/or proofreaders weren’t used in the writing of this book, those resources should be seriously considered.  If they were used, better ones should be found.

    3 Stars.  One last thing.  I found out about Grand Portage via a paid advertisement of Facebook,  The ad is gone now, but the text was succinct and something along the lines of “Download it.  Enjoy it.  Write a review of it.  Tell your friends about it.”  The main challenge for every indie author is to get noticed by prospective readers.  I don’t know how much a Facebook ad like that costs, but it seems to me a worthwhile investment, even if 99% of those who download it never write a review.