Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Last Kingdom - Bernard Cornwell

    2005; 384 pages.  Book # 1 (out of 12) in the “Saxon Tales” series. New Author? : No, but a new series.  Genre : Historical Fiction; English History.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    England in the 9th century was a turbulent place.  The Saxons held the greater part of it, divided into four separate kingdoms – Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex.  The Bretons (aka “the Britons”) had been bumped over to the west, clear into the wilds of Wales.  To the north were the fierce Picts and Scots, but nobody tried to invade their turf because their land was rocky and and the booty was sparse.

    Then there were the Danes, who terrorized the whole west coast of England in their long ships, pillaging anyplace that looked like it might have silver and other valuables hidden away somewhere.  Monasteries and nunneries were particularly lucrative targets.  And after plundering and swiving (look it up),  the Danes would pile back into their ships and sail away scot free, because the Saxon kingdoms had no ships of their own.

    But in 866 A.D., change was in the air.  Instead of just a couple boatloads of Danish marauders showing up now and then, fleets with hundreds of ships began to arrive.  And instead of looting-&-leaving, these Danes came to fight.  And conquer the Saxons, one kingdom at a time.  And stay.

What’s To Like...
    The Last Kingdom is the first book in Bernard Cornwell’s epic historical fiction series called the “Saxon Tales” and focuses on the protracted 9th-century struggle between the Danes and the Saxons for control of England.  The title refers to the low point in the war for the Saxons – all their kingdoms had fallen to the Danish invaders, save one: Wessex.  Its demise seems imminent, after which the Danes will be in complete control.

    I assumed that the protagonist would be Alfred the Great, and he certainly plays a major role in the book.  But the protagonist is a fictional character named Uhtred, a minor Northumbrian noble, and the narrator of the book.

    The Last Kingdom is divided into four sections:
Prologue (prior to 866 AD)
Part 1: A Pagan Childhood (chapters 1-6, and roughly 866-871 AD)
Part 2: The Last Kingdom (chapters 7-9, and roughly 874-876 AD)
Part 3: The Shield Wall (chapter 10-11, and roughly 877 AD and beyond)

    Part 1 deals with Uhtred’s capture by the Danish raiders and his not-at-all-unpleasant life growing up in their culture.  In Parts 2 and 3, he’s back in Saxon hands, so the reader gets to view the war from both sides.  But there is a strong religious aspect as well; Alfred and the Saxons are devout Christians, the Danes follow Odin, Thor, and the rest of the Norse pagan gods.  If either side conquered the land you where you dwelt, religious conversion was mandatory.  Since Uhtred lived for years in the camps of both sides, he gives us some great pragmatic insight as to how deal with these spiritual upheavals.

    I loved the attention Bernard Cornwell gives to the historical aspects of the story.  The degree of detail is amazing, yet it never came across as info-dumping.  I got well-acquainted with the “three spinners”, gasped at Uhtred as he tried“ice gliding”, chuckled when he was given the “evil sign with the left hand”, and hoped he wouldn't die when he went into battle as part of a “shield wall”.  The only detail that gave me pause was a chess game he observed; I’m not sure that chess had yet made its way to England by the middle of the 9th century.

    The “Historical Note” at the back of the book is worth your time, as Bernard Cornwell lists which characters were real and which were fictitious.  He also takes the opportunity to debunk the myth that the Danish helmets had horns on them (why give your foe something to grab onto and twist your neck around?) as well as explain why he steadfastly refuses to use the word “Viking” to describe the Danes.

    The cussing is deftly handled.  At times Old English versions are used, such as “earsling” and “endwerc”, with Uhtred helpfully listing what the modern translations are.  Other times, present-day vernacular is used, with some imaginatively coined phrases, such as “the devil’s turds”, “son of a goat”, and “a turd of men”.

    The book closes with an exciting battle, which is a key turning point in the war for England, replete with subtle strategies and not-so-subtle battle tactics.  It is a logical place to end the book, yet in no way is it the end to the war.  I think mostly it sets up the next book in the series, The Pale Horseman, which resides on my Kindle.

Kewlest New Word...
Withies (n., plural of ‘withy’) : a tough, flexible branch of an osier or other willow, used for tying, binding, or basketry.
Others :  swiving (v., and quite the eye-opener).

    “The signs are best read by a clever man,” he went on, “and Storri is clever.  I dare say I am no fool.”
    I did not really understand what he was saying.  “But Storri is always right?”
    “Storri is cautious.  He won’t take risks, and Ubba, though he doesn’t know it, likes that.”
    “But the sticks are messages from the gods?”
    “The wind is a message from the gods,” Ravn said, “as is the flight of a bird, the fall of a feather, the rise of a fish, the shape of a cloud, the cry of a vixen, all are messages, but in the end, Uhtred, the gods speak in only one place.”  He tapped my head.  “There.”  (loc. 1299)

    These days I employ poets to sing my praises, but only because that is what a lord is supposed to do, though I often wonder why a man should get paid for mere words.  These word-stringers make nothing, grow nothing, kill no enemies, catch no fish, and raise no cattle.  They just take silver in exchange for words, which are free anyway.  It is a clever trick, but in truth they are about as much use as priests.  (loc. 3182)

Kindle Details...
    The Last Kingdom sells for $6.99 at Amazon.  The other books in the series range from $9.99 to $14.99 apiece.  Bernard Cornwell has a slew of other books and series to offer for the Kindle, including his original and very popular Sharpe series.  Those books are mostly in the prince range of $4.99 to $14.99.

“For something that dribbled out of a goat’s backside, (…) you’re not completely useless.”  (loc. 3488)
    For me, there were no nits to pick.  Others may disagree.  There are a slew of characters to follow, which may give some readers a memorization challenge and leave them wishing a "Cast of Characters" had been added at the front of the book.  But I take notes anyway, including who’s who, so this didn’t hinder me.

    There's a “Place-Names” section at the start of the book, and in it Bernard Cornwell explains why he opted to use some of the “Old English” spellings for names of the various cities in England at the time.  For instance, he calls London “Lundene”, and mentions that it was also called Lundonia, Lundenberg, Lundenne, Lundenwic, Lundenceaster, and Lundres back then.  Some readers might have preferred the modern names, but I thought the author's decision helped set the tone.

    Using Old English names means using Old English letters, such as Ӕ, which I liked, but which the MSWord-to-Kindle conversion program apparently went nutso over.  It looked like Cornwell was forced to insert these as images in order for them to appear in the e-book text.

    10 Stars.   All-in-all, I found The Last Kingdom to be a fantastic work of historical fiction, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the series.  Of course, I say that about the author's Sharpe” series as well.  I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that he may be the best writer around right now in this genre.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Epic Road Quest - A. Lee Martinez

   2013; 340 pages.  Full Title: Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest. New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor, Quests.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Pity Helen and Troy, they've have been cursed by the gods.  Well, just one god, actually, and it’s a fallen god who’s been kicked out of whatever the place is up in the sky that all the immortals hang out.  He’ doesn't even have a name anymore; now he’s merely referred to as the “Lost God”.

    Still, an exiled god is not to be trifled with, and he’ll only rescind the curse if Helen and Troy go on a quest on his behalf.  It’s a pathetically run-of-the-mill task: “Gather the relics and bring them to the of place of power at the appointed time.”  It should be easy.  Alas, the Lost God is a bit hazy about the details.

    “What kind of relics?”
    “I’m not sure.”
    “How many?”
    “Somewhere between two and six, I think.  Possibly seven.  No more than eight, I feel comfortable in saying.”
    “Where is the place of power?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “What’s the appointed time?”

    Best of luck on your quest, Helen and Troy.  Methinks you’re going to need it.

What’s To Like...
    Epic Road Quest is my second A. Lee Martinez book (the other one is reviewed here), and I found it just as humorous and entertaining as the first one.  The plotline is straightforward: we follow our two protagonists as they go about their quest, aided (within the rules of course) by the National Questing Bureau and proprietors of tourist traps specializing in such matters.  Questing apparently is a popular pastime.

    I liked the dashing group of questers.  Troy is handsome and perfect in every way, Helen is, well, to be blunt, a seven-foot tall minotaur, and Achilles is a three-legged dog, who we all know is really a deity in disguise.  You can’t go wrong with that kind of team.  Along the way, they encounter a nice variety of fantasy creatures, my favorites being the dragons (who are on the endangered list, so don’t even think about slaying one), and the orcs, who constitute the bad guys chasing our heroes on their Harley-Dragonson Twin Cam bikes.  They reminded me of the biker dudes in those old Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies ("Release the pigeons!").  I also liked the three fates (these are the small “F” ones) and I do hope A. Lee Martinez uses them again in some of his other books.

    I found Epic Road Quest to be a fast, easy, entertaining read.  The action starts right away (at a burger joint, no less), and thrills and spills and intrigue abound, albeit replete with humor, which is the main reason to read this book.  Yet in amongst the craziness, A. Lee Martinez manages to offer some subtle insight about bigotry, speciesism, and, in a slightly lighter vein, orcish stereotyping.  The latter reminded me of Mary Gentle’s masterpiece, Grunts (reviewed here).  The secondary characters are varied and fun to meet.  I especially liked Nigel, Franklin, and of course Achilles.

    I enjoyed the plethora of details A. Lee Martinez adds to enhance the story.  One of my favorite poets, e.e. cummings, gets mentioned (although the author capitalizes his initials!  Zut alors!).  The Gilgamesh Pez dispenser was cute, and I definitely want Santa to bring me the snow globe with the Library of Alexandria in it.  I was intrigued by the gargoyle’s riddle (given in the excerpts below), and laughed at the stoned orcs scene.  And I admit it: MacGuffins are one of my favorite literary devices.

    The ending manages to be both exciting and warmly humorous, and comes with a couple of twists to keep you make you think.  Everybody gets their just desserts, and three states in the western US avoid obliteration.  The 340 pages are covered by 35 chapters, so you don't have to wait long for a good place to stop reading.  Epic Road Quest is a standalone novel.    One last thing: the “Acknowledgements” section in any book is usually boringly skippable, but here I found it worth reading.

Kewlest New Word ...
Revenant (n.) : a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.

    “Men seek me out, yet fear what I have to say.  I am unavoidable yet always surprising.  All travelers meet me, regardless of which road they travel, and even if they choose not to travel at all.  I am a burden to many, a joy to a very few, and something only a fool thinks he can know.  What am I?”  (pg. 54, answer given in the comments to this review)

    “Ever since the first cursed orc stepped onto a world that hated him-“
    “Or her,” said Peggy.
    “A world that hated him or her,” he said, “we have been deemed nothing but an inconvenience, minions and savages.  Even when times changed, even when the world became civilized, we were still monsters.  When the hordes of the steppes crushed the armies of warlord Napoleon, no one thanked us.  When my ancestors devastated Alexander of Macedonia’s forces, did the Arabians even give us an ounce of credit?  When my grandfather won the day on the beaches of Normandy, they didn’t even give him a medal.  Just told him to shove off and not make trouble.
    “We’ve always been the whipping boys of destiny’”
    “And girls,” added Peggy.  (pg. 309)

 “Alakazam!  Presto!  For the honor of Grayskull!  It’s clobberin’ time!”  (pg. 65)
    I don’t really have anything to quibble about in Epic Road Quest.  I was looking for a “light” read to balance out the 800-page piece of epic fantasy I was reading (see previous review), and this filled the bill nicely.

   There is some cussing in the book, mostly in the dialogues, so if that offends you, you should probably skip this one.  But personally, I felt it fit in nicely with the book’s tone.

    Some Amazon reviewers felt that this wasn’t one of A Lee Martinez’s best offerings.  I can’t say, since this was only my second book of his, and I thought it was great.  I’ve got a couple more of the author’s books on my Kindle, so I should be better acquainted with his output in the near future.

    9 Stars.  If you're looking for a lighthearted adventure, well-written, with lots of fun plus a few moments of tenderness thrown in, I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Wizard's First Rule - Terry Goodkind

   1994; 821 pages.  Book 1 (out of 17) in the Sword of Truth series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Epic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 4½*/10.

    Richard Cypher is happy with his life.  He’s a woods guide by trade, which means he spends most of his time traipsing around in the forests of Westland, escorting people and getting paid to do so.  His main job is to keep unwary folks from accidentally stumbling into the sealed border with Midland, the dangerous neighboring country, full of magic.  There is no magic allowed in Westland.

    But Richard is equally happy when he’s walking alone in the woods.  There are wild animals out there of course, and Richard has learned the art of moving silently and stealthily.  Meeting other people in the forest is a rare event, other than an occasional encounter with the Westland border guards, such as his friend Chase Brandstone.

    One day Richard spots a lone woman walking through the woods.   This is somewhat unusual since, unless you’re a guide or a guard, it’s just safer to have one or more companions when out there.  There's less chance of getting lost, running into the border, or meeting up with some wild animal.

    Or being an unescorted woman who is being stalked by four huge, mean-looking men, which is what Richard notices next.  He knows he needs to do something, but there’s no sense being a suicidal hero.  One civilian forest guide versus four armed thugs is not a good venture.  Discretion is the better part of valor, and all that.

    But Richard knows these woods like the back f his hand, and if he hurries through the brush, there’s a good chance he can get to her before the ruffians do.  It'll be close, but it’s worth a try.

    Of course, what he and the woman can do after that is another matter.  The stalkers are closing in on her from both sides of the pathway.  But let’s not spoil things by thinking about that right now.

What’s To Like...
    Wizard’s First Rule is the first book in Terry Goodkind’s incredibly popular and long-running epic fantasy series “The Sword of Truth”.  We join our protagonist, Richard Cypher, as he tries to come to grips with his destiny as a reluctant “chosen one”, who, with his ally, protector, friend, and possible love interest, Kahlan Amnell, are called to try and save the world.  In addition to that hopeless, unasked-for burden, Richard tries to find answers for more personal questions, namely:

    Who murdered his father?
    Why is some evil being named Darken Rahl trying to kill him, and how can he be stopped?
    Where is the missing wizard?
    Where is the last box of Orden hidden?
    How can those booby-trapped boxes be opened in the proper order?
    Fans of other Epic Fantasy series will note many cross-references here.  From LOTR, there’s a Gollum-wannabee (“Samuel”), a Gandalf-lookalike (after he magically grows a beard), and a forest very similar to Mirkwood, here called Agaden Reach.  The evil appellation “Sith” is borrowed from Star Wars.  And from WoT, the role of warder is taken (but here called a “mate), as well as the slave collar that Rand al’Thor was forced to wear.  You can either view these as “tips of the hat” by Terry Goodkind, or plagiarism.

    There are critters aplenty for Richard and company to deal with, most of them trying to eat or kill them.  They range from vines that bite, to flying dragons, and lots of beasties in between.  There are about 3 dozen people to keep track of, which felt “about right” for an 800+-page epic fantasy tale,

    I liked the magic system: very dualistic (here labeled “additive” and “subtractive”), and conjuring up any spell comes at some cost to its caster.  The spells themselves seemed innovative;, such as the “drawing spell” and the “keeper spell”.  For me, the most fascinating character was the Ultimate Evil himself, Darken Rahl.  Rotten to the core, yet very intelligent, conniving and powerful, yet persuasive with words.  And I always like when local cusswords are dreamed up by the author.  Here, the most commonly used expressions were “Bags!” and “True as toasted toads”.

    The book’s title is explained at 68%, and invoked several times thereafter.  I gather from the Wikipedia article that there will be a Wizard’s "second rule", third, fourth, etc. in subsequent books.  Wizard's First Rule is a standalone novel, as well as the first book in a series.

Kewlest New Word...
Baldric (n.) : a belt for a sword, worn over one shoulder and down to the opposite hip.
Others:  Boldas (n., pl., and possibly made-up).

    “Rachel,” he said, squatting down close to her, “listen carefully, this is very important, this is no game.  We must get out of the castle, or we will both get our heads chopped off, just like Sara told you.  But we must be smart about it, or we will get caught.  If we run away too quickly, without doing the right things first, we will be found out.  And if we are too slow, well, we just better not be too slow.”
    She started to get tears in her eyes.  “Giller, I’m afraid to get my head chopped off, people say it hurts terrible bad.”  (loc. 7919)

    Kahlan turned to the two of them.  “Zeddicus Zorander, cloud reader, trusted advisor to the Mother Confessor.”  Zedd bowed dramatically.  “And Richard Cypher, the Seeker, protector to the Mother Confessor.”  Richard imitated Zedd’s bow.
    The Queen looked at him, lifting an eyebrow with a sour look.  “Pretty pathetic protection for a Mother Confessor.”
    Richard made no change in his expression.  Kahlan remained unruffled.  “It is the sword that cuts; the man is unimportant.  His brain may be small, but his arms are not.  He tends to use the sword too often, though.”  (loc. 10360)

Kindle Details...
    Right now, Wizard’s First Rule sells for $8.79 at Amazon.  The other books in the series range from $4.10 to $9.99.  Terry Goodkind has also penned a pair of spin-off series set in the Sword of Truth world (The Nicci Chronicles and Children of D’Hara).  Those books are in the $3.63-$9.99 price range.  Finally, the author also offers a half dozen other e-books, completely unrelated to this epic fantasy universe.

“I have seen spirits before. (…)  They do not carry swords.”  (loc. 5382)
    Sadly, I had a host of issues with Wizard’s First Rule.  As briefly as possible:

    The writing is mediocre.  The telling/showing proportion is terrible (although it gets better once our heroes met the Mud People), the descriptions (clothes, landscape, etc.) were often tediously detailed, and the story's pacing was slow.  All the characters were either black or white; I like my characters gray.  To be fair though, some black-hats were on Richard’s side, and some white-hats served Darken Rahl.

    Most of the story “twists” were telegraphed and predictable.  Think I’m kidding?  Here’s a challenge: Richard is told along the way that one of his friends is a traitor.  See if you can figure out who it is before Richard does.  I found it to be blatantly obvious.

    The storytelling itself was so-so, with some gaping plot holes.  At one point, Zedd and Chase get separated from Richard and Kahlan for an extended time and distance.  But when they’re needed again, they both just pop up out of nowhere.  At the right time, in the right place.  In enemy territory.  Without explanation.  And wonder of wonders, Chase just happens to be carrying a small child, who plays a pivotal role in the story.  OTOH there's Samuel, who serves no purpose at all except to make you think of Gollum.  I presume he'll make a dramatic reentry at some later pint in the series, just like Gollum did in LOTR.

    Lastly there’s the question of who the target audience is.  The flying dragon ride will appeal to even juvenile readers, but the prolonged “soft BDSM” torture scene seems like it should be restricted to adults.  The dearth of cusswords (at least until near the very end) targets YA readers, yet then the “erect sex”, child molestations and graphic castration would then be utterly inappropriate.

    4½ Stars.  I'm mulling over whether to continue reading this series.  One certainly hopes the writing and storytelling improve with each book.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Bridge at Andau - James Michener

   1957; 224 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Non-Fiction; Historical Fiction; Hungarian History.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    On October 23, 1956, something completely unexpected occurred in Budapest, Hungary.  What started out as a student demonstration for greater freedoms under the Russian occupation quickly turned violent.

    Oh, such things had happened before in post-WW2 Eastern Europe, once in Poland, once in East Germany.  But this time, something unprecedented happened.  The Russian troops took their tanks and retreated from the city.  For five days, Hungarians celebrated a new country, a new freedom, and a surge of national pride.  Then the Russian army returned.  In force.  With a vengeance.  And for many citizens of Hungary, it was time to leave the country.

    The best place to flee to was neighboring Austria, and one popular border crossing was near an inconsequential footbridge known as the Bridge at Andau.

    The already well-known American author (The Bridges at Toko-Ri), James Michener, was living in Austria at the time, and took part in the volunteer effort to find, meet, and aid Hungarian refugees as they crossed the border.  Firsthand news about the Hungarian revolution was impossible due to international politics, so Michener interviewed dozens of refugees and wrote down their stories.

    And from those interviews came the book The Bridge at Andau.

What’s To Like...
    The Bridge at Andau can be divided into four parts:
        Chapters 1-5 : The Revolution,
        Chapter 6 : the Ultimate Bad Guy,
        Chapters 7-9 : Fleeing to Freedom, and
        Chapters 10-11 : the author vents.

    I was somewhat familiar with the 1956 Hungarian uprising, but the wealth of details in the first section were quite enlightening.  I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the mass exodus thereafter, so the third section was eye-opening as well.  Chapter 6, titled “The AVO Man” is a study in depravity, and the final two chapters, although merely political diatribe, offer insight into the mindset of 1950’s America, which is slightly before my time.

    James Michener takes time to also give a synopsis of the ancient history of the Hungarian people (“the Magyars”), as well as how the cities of Buda and Pest, situated on opposite sides of the Danube River, evolved into the single metropolis of Budapest.  As a history buff, I ate these sections up.  I was familiar with Imre Nagy, but Sandor Petofi was new to me.  And although I’m not a fan of opera, I enjoyed accompanying Michener and a guest to a “new version” of Carmen one night.

    I chuckled at the comparison of Hungarian versus American wages on page 31, where a typical American worker, getting time-and-a-half for overtime, earns $700 in a month when he works 331 hours.  That’s a heckuva lot of hours for a heckuva small amount of money, and the point of this paragraph was to show how much worse the Hungarian worker was.

   The titular “Bridge at Andau” is first mentioned on page 148.  There’s a map on page 166 which helps greatly in understanding why a small footbridge, in the middle of swampland and which doesn’t even connect to Austria, was so important to Hungarian refugees.

    Not surprisingly, Michener developed a huge sympathy for the plight of the Hungarians caught in this crisis.  In chapter 10, he deplores the lack of proper action by all sorts of parties.  He blames the Russians for the atrocities, of course.  He castigates the US for not coming to the aid of Hungary, particularly since Radio Free Europe was constantly broadcasting encouragement for everyone behind the Iron Curtain to rise up.  He also decries America for its xenophobic immigration policy, something that hasn’t changed much in the 60+ years since.  He scolds England and France for invading Egypt and occupying the Suez Canal at about the same time, thus distracting from the events in Budapest.  And he even chides the refugees themselves for  fleeing Hungary, implying that they wouldn’t be welcomed back whenever Hungary was freed from the Russian yoke, because they hadn’t “toughed it out”.

    The Bridge at Andau was first published in 1957, which means Michener wrote this in an incredibly short amount of time.  My version (and it was a challenge to find an image of it) was published in 1983.  I mention this only because it seems Michener received some flak about the first edition, some of which he addresses in the book’s foreword and the final chapter.

 Kewlest New Word. . .
Redounded (v.) : contributed greatly (to someone’s credit or honor).
Others : Declaim (v.).

    I cannot guess by what twists of history Hungary will regain her freedom.  I cannot see clearly by what means the Russian yoke will be lifted from the necks of the Hungarian people, but I am convinced that in that happy day Hungarians from their new homes all over the world will send their money – their francs, their dollars, their pounds Australian, and their pesos – to erect at Andau a memorial bridge.
    It need not be much, as bridges go: not wide enough for a car nor sturdy enough to bear a motorcycle.  It need only be firm enough to recall the love with which Austrians helped so many Hungarians across the old bridge to freedom, only wide enough to permit the soul of a free nation to pass.  (pg. 198)

    When our ridiculous policies had caused much bitterness in Austria, an official of our government held a press conference in which he pointed out, “We may have been tardy in accepting refugees, but we have given every Hungarian who crossed the border a warm blanket.”  This so outraged one listener that he asked, “How many refugees have there been so far?”
    “Ninety-six thousand.”
    “How many has America taken?”
    “Five hundred.”
    “How many has Switzerland taken?”
    “Four thousand.”
    There were no more questions.  (pg. 210)

“I should like to ask one question.  Under what right are Russian troops stationed in our country?”  (pg. 134 )
    The Bridge at Andau is certainly a fascinating look into 1956 Hungary, but there are some weaknesses.  First and most importantly: some of the characters (in particular the AVO man, Tibor Donath), aren’t real; they’re “composites” of several people mentioned by various refugees Michener interviewed.  Others have their names changed, ostensibly to protect their families that were still back in Hungary from government reprisals.  Chops to Michener for acknowledging this in the foreword, but that means the AVO man is a work of fiction, and the veracity of the refugees’ stories can’t be cross-checked.

    Second, Michener’s writing is hardly objective.  Russian atrocities are given in length and in lurid detail, and the perpetrators described with adjectives such as “monstrous”.  OTOH, atrocities committed by the revolutionary Hungarians are acknowledged cursorily and described with adjectives such as “unfortunate”.

    But it is important to remember that in 1956, America was in the middle of a major Red scare (“McCarthyism”), living in mortal fear of Communists invading any and every nation, including the US itself.  You proved your loyalty by uttering phrases like “Better dead than Red” and “My country right or wrong”.  Michener can be excused for writing with a slant that could not be seen as "left-leaning".

    The biases in the book means it hasn't aged well over time, but let’s be clear: the actions by the Russians/AVO in Hungary before the uprising were brutal and repressive, and the actions by the Russian army in quashing the rebellion were equally so.  The Bridge at Andau serves as a timely memorial of those events, and the risks and costs any rebellion entails.  My problem is with labeling the book as “Non-Fiction”.

    6½ Stars.  Michener makes some daring predictions in chapter 10, a bit of which is given in the first excerpt above.  His timeline may be off a bit (no biggie), but he lived long enough (he died in 1997) to see the demise of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, both of which essentially validated his predictions.  Also, although the original bridge at Andau was destroyed by the Russians in late 1956, it was rebuilt in 1996 as a symbol of tolerance and helpfulness.   I have no doubt he those events warmed the cockles of his heart.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

High Five - Janet Evanovich

   1999; 317 pages.  Book 5 (out of 25) of the Stephanie Plum series.   New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime-Humor; Beach Novel.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Dear old Uncle Fred, the family tightwad, is missing.  He’s been gone a couple of days now.  This isn’t overly surprising, since he is 72 years old, and folks are prone to have some “senior moments” at that age.

    He disappeared while running his daily errands – picking up his dry cleaning, going down to the garbage company to gripe about their poor service, and a couple other stops.  His car’s been found, with the dry cleaning stacked neatly on the back seat.  There were no signs of a struggle.   So he’s probably just wandering around in a daze somewhere on the streets of Trenton.

    Luckily, his niece happens to be Stephanie Plum, and she’s a bounty hunter by trade and therefore good at finding people, amiright?  So as a favor to her Aunt Mabel, Uncle Fred’s not-very-grieving wife, she takes on the job, even though it’s a non-paying one.  Besides, how hard can it be to find one lost geezer out on the streets?

    But with every day that goes by without Stephanie finding him, the odds that he’s still alive fall just a little bit more.

What’s To Like...
    High Five is Book 5 (obviously, thanks to the title format) in Janet Evanovich’s humorous, quirky, snarky “Stephanie Plum – Bounty Hunter” series.  At present, there are 25 books in it, with #26 due out in November.  The book’s length is typical for the series (just over 300 pages), as is the number of chapters (15), the setting (Trenton), and the  1st-person POV narration (Stephanie’s).  I’m reading the series in chronological order, but honestly, I don’t think that’s necessary. 

    As usual, Janet Evanovich blends in a bunch of plotlines to keep the action humming along nicely.  Here, in spoiler-free format, the challenges for Stephanie are:

a.) Find Uncle Fred and figure out why he disappeared,
b.) Bring in three FTA’s (“Failures To Appear”),
c.) Get enough money to pay next month’s rent,
d.) Find a second job to accomplish that'
e.) Solve the body parts pictures mystery' and
f.)  Try not to get killed by several people with several motives.

    I always enjoy the characters in these books, boththe  recurring ones, like Grandma Mazur, and new ones, such as “Bunchy”, who’s a bookie (at least that’s what he claims) and Randy Briggs, a “little person” (his choice of words), who manages to be both an FTA and Stephanie’s roommate.  Lula still uses her favorite phrase, "damn“skippy”, as often as possible; and Stephanie is still torn between Ranger and Joe Morelli as love interests.

     Everything culminates in a satisfying ending.  It’s a bit over-the-top, but that’s okay for a beach read type of story.  The perpetrator gets identified and caught, and the reasons for his/her actions make sense, despite both Stephanie and I being slow to figure them out.  ISTR the Epilogue being used before in this series, but that’s okay too, because it's a teaser for the next book.  I don’t expect much out of epilogues.  High Five is both a standalone novel and part of a series.

    “I need to know about Tank.  No one will tell me anything.  Is he, um, you know-?”
    “Dead?  No.  Unfortunately.  He was wearing a flak vest.  The impact of the bullet knocked him back and stunned him.  He hit his head when he fell and was out for a while, but he’s fine.  And by the way, where were you when he was shot?”
    “I was stretched out on the floor.  It was past my bedtime.”
    Morelli grinned.  “Let me get this straight.  You didn’t get shot because you fell asleep on the job?”
    “Something like that.  It sounded better the way I phrased it.”  (pg. 61 )

    Barrroooom!  Liftoff.  The garbage truck jumped the pavement.  Tires and doors flew off like Frisbees, the truck bounced down with a jolt, listed to one side, and rolled over onto the furiously burning Porsche, turning it into a Porsche pancake.
    We flattened ourselves against the building while pieces of scrap metal and shreds of rubber rained down around us.
    “Uh-oh,” Lula said.  “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men aren’t gonna put that Porsche back together again.”
    “I don’t get it,” the driver said.  “It was only a scratch.  I hardly scraped against your car.  Why would it explode like that?”
    “That’s what her cars do,” Lula said.  “They explode.”  (pg. 235)

“You turned out pretty good considering your gene pool.”  (pg. 174)
    There are a couple caveats.  First, like any book in this series, there’s a bunch of cussing.  If such language offends you, pass this book by.  And if you’re hoping for a resolution of the sexual tension in the Ranger/Joe/Stephanie romantic triangle, well, it doesn’t happen here.  I have a feeling that story thread in going to continue for quite a few more books.

    For you young’uns, once upon a long time ago, and apparently as late as 1999 when this book was written, you took pictures with something called a “film camera” and when the roll was full, you rushed over to a 1-Hour Film Development store (usually a company  named “Fotomat”) to get the film magically converted into photographs or slides in a mere 60 minutes.  Stephanie utilizes a Fotomat in High Five.  Ages ago, I actually assisted my dad in developing reels of film.  It is a lost art.

    Finally, is it too much to ask that just once a waste management company be portrayed as a decent enterprise?  Yes, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.  To be fair, at least there was no illegal dumping of hazardous waste going on here, another all-too-common Holly wood trope.

    8½ Stars.  One last bit of statistical trivia, that the Wikipedia article about this series keeps track of.  In High Five there are three FTA’s to be nabbed, and three cars for Stephanie to destroy.  Those are typical numbers for the books in this series, at least so far.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Embassytown - China Miéville

   2011; 369 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk; Hard Science Fiction.  Laurels: 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Embassytown lies at the edge of our universe.  Literally.  It straddles the hazy line between the Immer (the “Always”) and the Manchmal (the “Sometimes”).  You and I would call the Immer the Universe.  No one is sure exactly what the Manchmal is like.  Those who have bravely journeyed there have never returned.

    Avice Brenner Cho was born and raised in Embassytown.  She is an “Immerser”, meaning she’s traveled the Immer,  That's somewhat unusual for somebody from her hometown.  Now she's returned to her roots, which is even more uncommon.  Hardly nobody who leaves Embassytown ever wants to return home.

    The city hosts all sorts of ambassadors from all sorts of other parts of the cosmos.  Kedis, Shur’asi, Pannegetch, and of course, humans from Terre.  The proper term for the sentient natives of this land is “the Ariekei”, but they're more commonly referred to as “the Hosts”.

    Communicating with the Hosts is a daunting task, and is mostly relegated to ambassadors.  The Hosts rarely deign to communicate with anyone less than an envoy, but recently they’ve taken interest in Avice.  For reasons unknown, they want her to perform something called a “simile” ritual, with the promise that she will not be harmed and will be amply compensated for her participation.

    Avice complies, and apparently lived up to Ariekei expectations.  They have declared Avice to now be a simile.  And a very specific one at that.

    Henceforth, Avice is the simile known as “a girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her.”

What’s To Like...
    The storyline in Embassytown is anything but typical.  We aren’t saving the galaxy from annihilation or rescuing a princess; indeed, we’re doing little more than defending a city and trying to understand what makes the Ariekei tick.

    The world-building is phenomenal.  You’re on a planet far away from Earth, and several centuries in the future.  Things are different, and the English language has evolved.  It's now called Anglo-Ubiq, and China Miéville invents all sorts of new words to tell his story, such as miabs, automs, shiftfather, floaking, trids, corvids, “into the out”, sublux, and exoterres.  Sometimes he gives a brief explanation of what these mean; other times you can figure them out from context.  For example, you can pretty much guess that “sublux” means “less than light speed”.

    Also, the book is written in “English”, not American”, so you have jewellery and licences, colours and rancour, metres and artefacts, etc.  All China Miéville novels are a vocabularian’s delight.  I was delighted to run across ogees (a crossword puzzle word) and politesse (a word I first heard Mick Jagger sing), and the elegant phrase “homo dispora”.

    The story is told in the first-person POV (Avice’s), and the settings are limited to Embassytown and the surrounding countryside.  The Ariekei have a whole different way of looking at language, and are fascinated by the bizarre human habit called “lying”, something totally foreign to them.  They go as far as to hold “Festivals of Lies” to see if any of them are even capable of telling lies.  And just as they start to come to grips with falsehoods, something unprecedented happens.  New ambassadors show up, and the Hosts go berserk.  Literally.
    The ensuing chaos builds to a good, logical, not-particularly-twisty ending, which surprisingly has a hopeful tone to it.  There’s certainly literary room for sequels (surely further adventures wait for Avice and the Manchmal begs to be explored), but if Miéville has penned any, I’m not aware of them.

Kewlest New Word...
Polysemy (n.) : the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase.
Others: Semitic (adj.); Politesse (n.); Unbowdlerized (adj.); Louche (adj.); Risible (adj.); Scupper (as a verb); Misprisioned (v.); Necrophage (n.).

Kindle Details...
    Embassytown sells for $12.99 right now, which is fitting for a work by a top-tier steampunk sci-fi author.  China Miéville’s other novels go for anywhere from $4.99 to $13.99.  If you have enough patience, China Miéville occasionally offers generous discounts on his books, sometimes as low as $1.99.

    “What’s out there?” I said.  Wyatt shook his head.
    “I don’t know.  You’d know better than me, immerser, and you don’t know at all.  But something.  There’s always something.”  There was always something in the immer.  “Why’s there a pharos here?” he said.  “You don’t put a lighthouse where no one’s going to go.  You put it somewhere dangerous where they have to go.”  (loc. 3358)

    It had seen us – us similes made of Terre, not merely us similes – as key to some more fundamental and enabling not-truth, spoken with dandy élan though only a word-trick, hinted at that shift born of contact.  Before the humans came we didn’t speak so much of certain things.  Before the humans came we didn’t speak so much.  Before the humans came, we didn’t speak.
    Through a dissembling made of omitted clauses it laid out its manifesto.  Before the humans came we didn’t speak: so we will, can, must speak through them.  It made a falsity a true aspiration.  (loc. 4165, and how the Ariekei taught themselves to lie – by dropping clauses from the end of a truth.)

 “This is what I excelled at: the life-technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah that we call floaking.”  (loc. 253)
    Overall, I’d call Embassytown a difficult, but not slow, read.  You have to stay alert; it can get confusing at times keeping track of what all those new words mean.  But if you find yourself wondering if you are fully grasping what some of the made-up words mean, head on over to Wikipedia and read their article on the book.  I did, and was pleasantly surprised at my degree of comprehension.

    My main problem while reading Embassytown was figuring out the plotline.  Both the world-building and Avice’s backstory are wonderfully detailed, but it takes a lot of words to present them.  Somewhere around 25%, it dawned on me that I had no idea what the storyline was, mostly because it hadn't been introduced yet.

    Fortunately, China Miéville is a fantastic writer, so much so that even his long and drawn-out planetary descriptions and Avice’s biography held my interest.  I would  however caution other writers not to emulate Miéville in this regard.  Don't wait until the tale is more than one-quarter finished before introducing the main plotline.

    8 Stars.  Here's an excerpt from the Wikipdia article: In attempting to portray an authentically "alien" alien race, Miéville commented that he finds it almost impossible, stating "if you are a writer who happens to be a human, I think it's definitionally beyond your ken to describe something truly inhuman, psychologically, something alien."

    I think that's what China Miéville was trying to accomplish in Embassytown, and FWIW I think he succeeded admirably.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Slabs of the Sunburnt West - Carl Sandburg

   1922; 75 pages.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : American Poetry; ; 20th Century Poetry; Highbrow Literature.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    2019 is drawing to a close, and it’s time to read my once-a-year poetry book.  This year, I've decided to go with something from a 20th-century American poet.  Somebody serious, highbrow, and whom I’ve never read/reviewed before.

    That eliminates Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, which I read decades ago.  And Dr. Seuss.  Neither of those qualify as “serious.  Ditto for Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski, the latter known as “The Poet of the Proletariat”.  They’re both fantastic, but calling them “highbrow” is a bit of a stretch.  and I’ve used them for my poetry goals in previous years.

    Off the top of my head, I can only think of two poets for this undertaking – Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg.  We were forced to read some of Robert Frost’s stuff in high school – “two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both…” - and all that.  Sheesh, that stuff stays etched in my brain.

    That leaves Mr. Sandburg, and I can’t quote any of his poetry by heart.  So let’s find something short and sweet, and see if I can broaden my poetic horizons.  Like his 75-page-long book, Slabs of the Sunburnt West.

What’s To Like...
    Slabs of the Sunburnt West consists of 32 poems covering a scant 75 pages, and published in 1922, a couple of years after Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) won his first (of three) Pulitzer Prizes for his book of poems “Cornhuskers”.  Sandburg is noted for his stark portrayals of America in his day, particularly the Midwest which was his stomping ground for most of his life.

    I didn’t see any overarching theme in Slabs of the Sunburnt West.  The poems vary in both length and tone, and literary devices such as rhyming and meter are not used.  The longest entry was 15 pages,  quite a few of them were a half-page in length.  The book can be an incredibly fast read, so if you have a book report due tomorrow and you haven’t even started to read one, you can impress your English teacher by choosing this one.

    My favorite poems in the bunch, in order of appearance, are:
And So Today (pg. 20)
Moon Riders (pg. 34)
At The Gates of Tombs (pg. 37)
Gypsy Mother (pg. 41)
Improved Farm Land (pg. 63)
Slabs of the Sunburnt West (pg. 67)

    “And So Today” chronicles Carl Sandburg’s thoughts on the dedication of the (first) Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and I found it particularly powerful.  “Improved Farm Land” laments the deforestation of the Midwest to make room for acres upon acres of cornfields.  And I learned to origin of the city name “Chicago” by reading the first poem, "The Windy City".

    In general, I preferred the longer poems, and the few that had a whimsical air to them.  The poem that resonated the most with me was the titular “Slabs of the Sunburnt West”, reading as if Sandburg was observing the far west for the first time, from the window of a train.  It would’ve been a lot more brown and less green than his native Illinois, similar to how I felt when my family moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona when I finished high school.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Teameoes (n., plural) : Who knows?  Googling didn’t give any definition for this word.  Methinks Mr. Sandburg made it up.

And so today – they lay him away
The boy nobody knows the name of-
The buck private – the unknown soldier –
The doughboy who dug under and died
When they told him to – that’s him.

If he picked himself and said, “I am ready to die,”
If he gave his name and said, “My country, take me,”
Then the baskets of roses to-day are for the Boy,
The flowers, the songs, the steamboat whistles,
The proclamations of the honorable orators,
They are all for the Boy – that’s him.
(pg. 21, from “And So Today”)

Brancusi, you will not put a want ad in the papers telling
God it will be to his advantage to come around and see
You; you will not grow gabby and spill God earfuls of
Prayer; you will not get fresh and familiar as if God
Is a next-door neighbor and you have counted His shirts
On a clothes line; you will go stammering, stuttering, and
Mumbling or you will be silent as a mouse in a church
Garret when the pipe organ is pouring ocean waves on
The sunlit rocks of ocean shores; if God is saving a corner
For any battling bag of bones, there will be one for you,
There will be one for you, Brancusi.
(pg. 53; from “Brancusi”)

Civilizations are set up and knocked down
The same as pins in a bowling alley.
(pg. 37, from “At The Gates of Tombs”)
    Poetry is not my favorite reading genre and when I do tackle it, I greatly prefer for the lines to rhyme and have meter.  Therefore Slabs of the Sunburnt West was a bit of a slog for me.  A couple of the entries, such as “Hell on the Wabash” (pg. 64) didn’t even seem like they qualified to be called poetic.  I employed my usual strategy for books of poems: reading only a couple of them at any given sitting.

    Overall, for me there were a half-dozen fantastic poems interspersed among a lot of ones that didn’t do much for me.  Still, if I have to read high-falutin’ poetry by an upstanding 20th-century American poet, I’d choose Sandburg over Frost any day.

    6 Stars.  Carl Sandburg lived till the ripe old age of 89, garnering three Pulitzers (two for Poetry, one for History), before passing away in 1967, when I was 17.  If you look up this book at Amazon, you’ll find zero reviews for it.  At Goodreads, it has 14 ratings and one review.  It seems as if America has pretty much forgotten one of its foremost writers.  And I find that kind of sad.