Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Skinny Legs And All - Tom Robbins

   1990; 422 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Satire; Contemporary Fiction; Humorous American Literature.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Everybody’s either on the move or about to be.

    The newlyweds Boomer Petway and Ellen Cherry Charles, are traveling from Seattle to New York City, because the art scene is better in NYC, and Ellen is an aspiring painter.  The Airstream motor home they’re driving is a turkey.  Really.  Well, a mechanical one, welded together by Boomer, but nevertheless looking like something from a giant’s Thanksgiving dinner table.

    The mystically enchanted duo of Painted Stick and Conch Shell have lain dormant for centuries, but they’re about to be revived by the utterance of the magic word.  No, not abracadabra, but “Jezebel!” They’re stuck in a cave in the Pacific Northwest right now, but their ultimate goal will be Phoenicia, in what is present-day Lebanon.  Good luck, you two.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    Can o’ Beans, Spoon, and Dirty Sock are about to be awakened alongside Painted Stick and Conch Shell, and will use their newfound mobility to tag along with their benefactors.  The lack of innate enchantment may prove to be a handicap.

    Spike Cohen and Roland Abu Hadee (aka “Isaac and Ishmael”) are about to open a restaurant across the street from the United Nations. They intend to prove that a business partnership between a Jew and an Arab can not only survive, but even flourish.  Good luck, guys.  You’re gonna need it.

    The televangelist, Reverend Buddy Winkler, is tired of God fiddle-farting around when it comes to Armageddon and building the Third Temple in Jerusalem.  He intends to help the Almighty by kick-starting the End of Days.

    Their paths will all converge near St. Paul’s Cathedral, but it should be noted: none of them has “skinny legs and all”.

What’s To Like...
    Tom Robbins uses Skinny Legs and All to present his theory that our views of the world are shrouded by illusions stemming from various sources.  He focuses on seven areas – Race, Politics (the desire to have power over others), Marriage, Art (its inherent pretentiousness), Religion (dogma and tradition overwhelm brotherhood), Money (the false security of it), and Lust.  Since these are blinding our eyes to what is real, the author likens them to Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils”.  Straightforward expounding on this would probably be tedious to most readers, so Robbins wraps them up in a tale where our protagonist, Ellen Cherry, gradually starts seeing through these veils.

    As with any Tom Robbins novel, the writing is sublimely superb.  Every sentence, no matter how unimportant, seems to be a work of literary art.  There are similes aplenty, and Robbins has always been a wizard at using them.  One random example: “Looking at you in your kimono, it felt like some backyard chef was sprinkling meat tenderizer on my heart.”  Wowza.  The storyline is divided into seven sections, each addressing one of the seven veils.  The character development is also fantastic; any writer can build a personality for some person in his novel, but try doing that for a can of baked beans.

    Religion gets a extended analysis here, especially the three  major Western ones – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  The Old Testament is common to all three, and Tom Robbins gives a new take on their collective origins, suggesting that it “borrows” much from (earlier) pagan religions featuring Astarte/Ishtar and other deities.  The Crusades is seen from the Moslem point-of-view, and modern-day televangelism is viewed in all its hypocritical zeal.

    I very much enjoyed the "animate inanimate" objects.  In addition to the five already mentioned, you’ll also be privy to the thoughts from a glob of goo, a drawer of panties, and a vibrator that spouts off inane-sounding Zen aphorisms.

    Skinny Legs And All is awash in fascinating trivia references.  I had to look up David Hockney and Pouilly-Fumé.  Donald Trump gets cited twice, which is a bit eerie since the book was written in 1990.  Bonnie Raitt makes a cameo appearance, so do Monet’s water lilies.  And the recorded voice of the operator cutting in on Ellen Cherry’s pay phone conversation, to request that she deposit more coins to continue talking, brought back nostalgic memories for me.

    The ending is a mixed affair.  On one hand, the Boomer/Ellen relationship thread is resolved, at least for the moment.  OTOH, the fate of a lot of the other characters seemed to be left in limbo.  A street performer named Turn Around Norman just fades into oblivion, after having played a prominent role in the tale.  And the god/gods/goddesses “Pale” (Wiki he/she/them) must surely still have plans for Conch Shell and Painted Stick.  Yet I don't believe Tom Robbins ever penned a sequel to this.

Kewlest New Word ...
Odalisque (n.) : a female slave or concubine in a harem.
Others: Pouf (n., slang)

    What was a can of beans but a pawn in the game of consumption?  From field to factory, from market to household, from cook pot to lunch plate, the destiny of a can of beans was as sealed as it was simple.  Ultimate destination: rust heap and sewage pond.  Yet, he/she had managed to escape the norm, to taste a freedom unimagined by others of his/her “lowly” station.  Moreover, were the lives of most humans any better?  When humans were young, they were pushed around in strollers.  When they were old, they were pushed around in wheelchairs.  In between, they were just pushed around.  (pg. 110

    Spike Cohen alone seemed to remember how dangerous the I-&-I could be.  From his post behind the cash register, he kept one eye on the street, as if the street were a crocodile-skin shoe that might at any moment revert to its original state of being.  When, around the corner of First Avenue, a truck backfired, thin electrical noises came out of his windpipe.
    Spike’s jitters were for naught.  Except for the fact that they ran out of chick-peas, the evening produced scant catastrophe.  The next evening was positively humdrum.  And the one after that was as bereft of disorder as a Heidelburg symposium on anal retention.  In truth, the entire winter passed as peacefully and leisurely as a python digesting a Valium addict.  (pg. 261)

Back around Seattle (…) trees were so thick, so robust and tall, that they oozed green gas, sported mossy mustaches, and yelled “Timber, yourself!” at lumberjacks.  (pg. 11)
     There's a lot of cussing, a couple of rolls in the hay, and a slew of sexual references, but this is true of any Tom Robbins novel.   For me, the storyline started rather slowly, but things picked once the inanimate objects started speaking.  Still, there were times when the plot progression seemed to slow to a crawl.

    I think one’s enjoyment of Skinny Legs And All depends on whether you want the story to be plotline-driven or thought-provoking.  If you want the former, you may be disappointed; if you want the latter, you’ll be blown away.  I wanted both, naturally, and Tom Robbins’ writing mastery trumps any quibbles I may have had about the storytelling.

    8 StarsSkinny Legs And All was almost as good as my favorite Tom Robbins book, Still Life With Woodpecker (reviewed here).  It gave me a lot to think about concerning the illusions of our world, and …HEY!!  Did that can of beans sitting on the kitchen counter just say something?!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Dark Remains - Sean McMahon

   2013; 229 pages.  Book 1 (out of 2) in the Maggie Power series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Historical Fiction - England; Natural-or-Supernatural?, YA; Mystery; Intrigue.  Laurels: 2011 Amazon “Breakthrough Novel” (semi-finalist).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Wouldn’t it be great to live in London during the Victorian Era (1837-1901)?  Lots of books I’ve read are set in it.  We could go sleuthing with Sherlock Holmes or William Monk, ride around in horse-drawn carriages, and maybe even have tea with the Queen.

    This assumes we are of the upper class, of course.  The class system was firmly entrenched in England during that time.  If we were only of the working class, I imagine it wouldn’t be near as much fun.

    Things would be even worse if we were part of the lowest class.  Servants, chimney sweeps, and what have you.  If we were born into that such a family, we'd be really stuck there.  No one of the upper class would even think about marrying us.  Yet things could be even worse than that.

    Imagine if our father had been arrested and thrown into prison for anti-government activities.  Here “prison” means a place called Van Diemen’s Land, an old name for Tasmania, off the coast of New Zealand.  It could get even worse.  What if our mother, deathly ill and without any hope of seeing her husband again, takes her life, leaving two street-urchin children, ages 10 and 13, to fend for themselves in the slums of London.  That’s when you’ve hit rock bottom.

    Welcome to the world of Maggie and Tom Power.

What’s To Like...
    Dark Remains is set in the greater London area in May-August of 1842.  This is Victorian England, but Sean McMahon shows us the seedy side of that society.  13-year-old Maggie, for all extents and purposes an orphan, since her mother is dead and her father is half-a-world away on a prison island, tries desperately to keep her younger brother and herself from starving.  It is a day-to-day challenge.

    As a historical fiction novel, I thought the book was great.  A populist socio-political movement called the “Chartists” was on the rise throughout England, and was much feared by the upper class.  Those arrested could be subject to “transportation” to faraway Van Diemen’s Land, and their families forced to labor in “workhouses”.  Those who escaped this fate were often forced to resort to   “mudlarking” to survive.  All of this is historically accurate; Wikipedia has pages for each of them.

    The storyline starts out as an attempt by Maggie and Tom to reach a safe haven called “Sanctuary”, located somewhere to the north of London and staffed by Chartist sympathizers.  But that would take money that they don’t have, and there are more pressing matters to deal with, including not getting caught by the baddies.  Temporary local safe havens are needed, and that means shelving the Sanctuary odyssey for a while.

    The book is written in English, not American (except for the quotation marks, oddly enough), so in addition to the usual spellings of meagre, publicise, manoeuvred, and ageing, there are some colloquialisms to get acquainted with, such as doxies, peelers, cove, His nibs, take a butchers, churchyard cough, and mudlarking.  I enjoyed the vocabulary lesson.

    The character development was done well, all the major ones were unique and interesting.  There were a few times certain events seemed to be just a bit too conveniently coincidental, but with one exception (the old man at the police station), these turned out to be things that I, and Maggie, should have spent more time pondering.  There were a couple plot twists along the way to keep me on my toes, and a “natural or supernatural?” aspect, which I always enjoy.

    The ending is satisfying – it isn’t particularly exciting or twisty, but hey, that can be said about most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and we don’t gripe about those.  Most of the plot threads are tied up and everyone gets their just desserts.  The “natural/supernatural” angle was left open, but I count that as a plus, not a minus.  Dark Remains is a standalone novel, as well as part of a (currently) two-book series.

Kewlest New Word…
Mudlark (n. & v.) : To scavenge in river mud for objects of value, or the person who does so.
Others : Husting (n.); “Take a butcher” (v., phrase); “His nibs” (n., phrase); Scarper (v.)

    The first part of the plot revolved around spotting a man of means, a suitably drunken gentleman, who could be led by the nose to a quiet location in the nearby rookery – using the combined charms of both Maggie and Kitten as bait.  (…)
    “So what d’you think?  Interested?” asked Charlie.
    “It could be very dangerous for me – and the others,” she stammered.
    There was a slight snigger from one of the gang.
    “Also, it’s criminal.  It’s a crime you’re committing; it’s not right.”
    At this, a chorus of laughter.  (loc. 352)

    So it was to be that during the mornings and early afternoon, when the boys embarked upon endless adventures within the endless grounds of the Countess’ estate, Maggie was to be lodged inside the Countess’ study.  There she was schooled in English and French, History and Classical Literature and, of course, a spot of needlework.  No need for Mathematics or Natural Philosophy – the Countess argued – they were subjects fit only for young men and not required by a lady who may – one day, she dearly hoped – enter into society.  (loc. 1570)

Kindle Details...
    Dark Remains presently sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  Book 2 in the series, All That Glitters, goes for the same price.  These seem to be the only two e-books that Sean McMahon offers..

“He has great promise.  Can hold his tongue and has plenty of guile.  Dishonesty is his greatest feature.”  (loc. 2213)
    One reviewer gave Dark Remains low marks because it was “too dark” for him despite it being classified as a “Teen and Young Adult” book.   Because of this, I kept wondering if it would either degenerate into a sexual exploitation story, or close with a “drink the Kool-Aid” scene.

    It doesn’t.  Life on the streets could certainly be brutal for a pair of young kids in 1840s London, and hey, even the title has the word “Dark” in it.  Yet the resolution of the story is positive, there’s no sex or drugs involved, and I recall only one instance of mild cussing, that being the word “damned”.  Amazon's "YA-Teen" designation is valid, and adults will enjoy it as well.

    The main problem with it is that the book desperately needs another round of editing and proofreading.  The comma usage during dialogues is terrible, and there are enough of the usual spellchecker boo-boos to become a distraction.  Worse, there's the (mis)spelling of one of the character’s name – is it Rickets or Ricketts?.

    7½ Stars.  Overall, I enjoyed Dark Remains, both as a piece of historical fiction and as a tale of mystery and intrigue.  The Kindle version of the sequel, All That Glitters, is available at Amazon, and has zero ratings/reviews at Amazon-US, Amazon-UK, and Goodreads.  I think I'll pick it up and give it a read.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Cyberiad Stories - Stanislaw Lem

    1967 (original Polish); 1974 (English translation); 295 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humorous Sci-Fi; Anthology; Fantasy; Polish Literature.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Let’s hear it for that great constructor, Trurl!  Hip-hip-hoo-huh?  Wait, you’ve never heard of Trurl?!

    He’s only the most fantastic constructor in the galaxy, that’s all.  Wait, you don’t know what a constructor is?!  Jeez, okay, let’s start with that.

    A constructor, well, constructs things.  Mostly machines that are programmed to do seemingly magical stuff, but sometimes other things like robots, demons, and computers.  Trurl is the best in the universe at this, which puts him in high demand by nearby (measured in light-years) kings who can afford such things.

    The second-most skilled constructor in the galaxy is Klapaucius, who just happens to be a neighbor of Trurl’s, and who might not agree about who’s the top constructor.  Sometimes the two of them collaborate on building a machine; sometimes they compete.  No matter.  The kings who send them requests for some coveted never-been-built-before machines are always impressed.

    Alas, those who wear the royal crowns are notoriously stingy.  Building a fabulous machine is one thing.  Collecting payment for it is quite another.

What’s To Like...
    The Cyberiad Stories (hereafter called “Cyberiad”) consists of 15 tales, of varying lengths, but mostly short stories that, with one exception, all feature either Trurl or a Trurl-plus-Klapaucius team  My personal favorites are:

05.) Trurl’s Electronic Bard
07.) The Dragons of Probability
11.) How Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg
15.) From the Cyphroeroticon or Tales of Deviations, Superfixations, and Aberrations of the Heart

    #5 stands apart from all the rest.  Stanislaw Lem shows off his masterful wordplay, which is even more impressive since this is a translation from the original Polish.  My hat’s off to Michael Kandel, credited in the forward as the translator.  To boot, there are all sorts of made-up words in the book; I am completely mystified as to how one goes about translating such things.  The first excerpt below is an example of Stanislaw Lem's linguistic levity.

    It’s fun to see what machines are created by our hero(es) in each tale, and the cosmic, comic consequences (usually unintended) that ensue.  Some of these constructions are: a.) one that grants your every wish; b.) one that can create anything that starts with the letter “n”; c.) the world’s stupidest computer; d.) one that generates poetry; e.) one that can make a person “fall out of love”.

     Stanislaw Lem often incorporates “fancy” words from some technical field into the tale.  One time it’s chemistry, another time it’s physics, still another time it’s statistics.  Being a chemist, I loved it; although readers with a non-technical bent may find this a bit tedious.  Also, since I’m a crossword puzzle fanatic, I delighted in the brief nods to acrostics and anagrams, as well as the oft-used crossword puzzle phrase "lèse majesté".

    Since this is a collection of short stories, there’s no real “ending” to the book as a whole.  The cover art comes from Story #2, “Trurl’s Machine”, and the title reference is brief, coming at 17% Kindle.  There’s only one or two instances of cusswords, and no sex, booze, or drugs that I recall.

Kewlest New Word...
Benighted (adj.) : in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance.
Others: Quoins (n., plural); Soughed (v.).

    “Have it compose a poem – a poem about a haircut!  But lofty, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom!  Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter ‘s’!!”
    Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
    She scissored short.  Sorely shorn,
    Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed.
    Silently scheming,
    Sightlessly seeking
    Some savage, spectacular suicide.  (loc. 594)

    “As this work too was totally ignored, I straightway wrote another; in it I presented all the possible hypotheses concerning the origin of the Universe – first, the opinion that it doesn’t exist at all, second, that it’s the result of all the mistakes made by a certain Demiurgon, who set out to create the world without the faintest idea of how to go about it, third, that the world is actually a hallucination of some Superbrain gone berserk in a manner infinite but bounded, four, that it is an asinine thought materialized as a joke, five, that it is matter that thinks, but with an abysmally low IQ.”  (loc. 3004)

Kindle Details...
     Amazon offers Cyberiad for $11.49 at present.  There are a slew of other e-books by Stanislaw Lem available, almost all of them science-fiction novels, in the $1.99-$11.99 price range.

Though it is easier not to believe in electrons than in dragons: electrons, at least, taken singly, won’t try to make a meal of you.  (loc. 1064)
    The wordplay is fantastic, but the storytelling is not.  All the stories seem to follow the same template, namely:
    a.) Trurl and/or Klapaucius visit some king on another planet.
    b.) The king poses a wish for some sort of machine.
    c.) Our wizards accept and magically build the machine in almost no time at all.
    d.) Lots of talk and/or trickery ensues.
    e.) the wizards prevail and live happily ever after, or at least until the next adventure.

    I got bored after a while.  So did other reviewers, who recommended reading Cyberiad in small amounts, presumably to minimize the “samey-ness” of the tales.

    It needs to be pointed out that these stories are technically not science fiction.  Our heroes could just as easily travel to a neighboring kingdom instead of a nearby planet, in which case this book would be shelved under “Fantasy”.

    Finally, the book is in sore need of another round of proofreading.  And some sort of unifying storyline. 

    5 Stars.  Collections of short stories are never my favorite genre, particularly those that are all written by the same author.  ANAICT, the rest of Stanislaw Lem’s  books are standard science-fiction novels.  I have one of them on my Kindle, Peace On Earth, and will probably read it in the near future in order to give Mr. Lem a fair shake.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Last Oracle - James Rollins

    2008; 577 pages.  Book 5 (out of 14) in the “Sigma Force” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Suspense; Thriller; Action-Adventure; Save-the-World.  Overall Rating : 10 */10.

    Someone just tried to kill Gray Pierce, the commander of the black ops unit “Sigma Force”.  In broad daylight.  In the middle of Washington D.C.  Right outside the Sigma Force headquarters, no less.

    It was only by an extraordinary stroke of luck that Gray survived.  Some homeless guy had just wandered up to him, looking for a handout, no doubt.  The sniper’s bullet wiped him out instead of Gray.  I suppose it’s theoretically possible the vagrant was the intended target, but why would a professional hitman have any reason to take out a homeless person?

    Nah, that's not very likely.  Somehow Gray’s cover has been blown and that needs to be fixed, and fast.  Just as soon as he attends to one small detail.

    Why was the panhandler carrying around a 2,000-year-old coin?

What’s To Like...
    The action starts immediately as The Last Oracle opens with a prologue set in 398 A.D. Greece during the final days of the famed Oracle at Delphi.  It never lets up after that as various members of Sigma Force combat the bad guys on a variety of fronts: Washington D.C., India, the Ural Mountains in Russia, and Pripyat, Ukraine, the latter being the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster better known as “Chernobyl”.

    As with any Sigma Force novel, there are multiple plotlines to follow.  Here, at least at the beginning, they are:  1.) Who shot the panhandler?  2.) Why was the panhandler trying to reach Gray?  3.) What’s with the skull?  4.) What’s so special about Sasha?  5.) Where’s Monk?  6.) What are the nefarious plans (dubbed “Operation Saturn” and “Operation Uranus”) that Savina and Nicolas have concocted?

    There's lots of intrigue, plenty of shooting, chases galore, and enough wit to keep things from getting too somber.  Monk, a Sigma Force member and apparently MIA at the end of the previous novel (I’m not reading this series in order), is initially way out in the boonies, and it was fun to watch how James Rollins works him back towards reuniting with his wife and old SF buddies.  I liked also that not all the Russian characters are “pure black”, nor are all of the Americans “pure white”.  Other writers of Thrillers should take heed of this.

    The book is well-researched.  I learned about Russia’s struggles with maintaining the safety of its nuclear power program.  I’d never heard of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk (just pronounce it “jellybeans”), despite it being Russia’s 9th-largest city, and the sad fate of the nearby Lake Karachay.  There was an autism angle as well, including something called  “Autistic Savant Syndrome” which figured prominently in the tale.

    You’ll learn one or two Russian cuss phrases, plus a few snippets of the Romani (Gypsy) tongue.  There's only a few cases of cussing in English, and there are some neat drawings that are critical to the storyline.  James Rollins keeps meticulous track of the timing of each scene (down to the exact minute) , which really helped since the action is worldwide and the plot threads are often occurring simultaneously.  The 22 chapters, plus a Prologue and an Epilogue, average out to about 24 pages each, but those chapters have lots of scene shifts, so you’re never far from a good place to stop for the night.

    Elizabeth fled with Kowalski down a crooked alley.  A sewage trench lined one side, reeking and foul.
    “Do you have another gun?” she asked.
    “You shoot?”
    “Skeet.  In college.”
    “Not much difference.  Targets just scream a bit more.”  (pg. 299)

    “She might survive, but in what state?  The augment, besides heightening her savant talent, also minimizes the symptoms of her autism.  Take the augment away, and you’ll be left with a child disconnected from the world.”
    “That’s better than being in the grave,” Kat said.
    “Is it?” McBride challenged her.  “Who are you to judge?  With the augment, she has a full life, as short as that might be.  Many children are born doomed from the start, given life sentences by medical conditions.  Leukemia, AIDS, birth defects.  Shouldn’t we seek to give them the best quality of life, rather than quantity?”
    Kat scowled.  “You only want to use her.”
    “Since when is mutual benefit such a bad thing?”  (pg. 376)

“Kowalski, help her.”  “But she shot me!”  (pg. 449)
        The ending is fantastic, climactic, twisty, and bittersweet.  The good guys may prevail, but it comes at a cost.  Chapter 22 is a general epilogue for the survivors of the adventure, and it’s followed by a shorter, more-focused “Epilogue” section that’ll leave a lump in your throat.  You don't see that often in an Action-Adventure story.

    Be sure to read the “Author’s Note To Readers: Truth or Fiction” (pgs. 573-577) at the end to learn what parts of the story are true and what parts were dreamed up by James Rollins.   You will be astounded.

    There’s not really anything to quibble about in The Last Oracle.  My expectations for any James Rollins book are high, and this one fully met them.

    10 Stars.  You can double-check some of the startling claims in the Truth-or-Fiction section  by going out to Wikipedia and reading about Chelyabinsk, Lake Karachay, and Chernobyl.  Wiki’s section about the latter was particularly eye-opening for me.  Yes, Chernobyl is today a ghost town  due to the radiation levels.  But a few people still live there, and, besides two general stores for those diehards, there's even (get this!) a hotel catering to tourists.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Dead Red Alibi - R.P. Dahlke

   2014; 268 pages.  Book 4 (out of 6, plus a novella) of the “Dead Red Mystery” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Women Sleuths; Cozy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    It hasn’t been the best day of Lalla Bain’s life.  Her fiancé Caleb Stone has just left her standing at the altar on their wedding day.  She didn’t even get a phone call from him, nor is he answering her calls to him.  She’d call the cops, but Caleb is the local sheriff.

    Still, all is not lost.  Despite the cancellation, Aunt Mae still gave her a wedding present, one of a unique nature.  It’s the title to a plot of land down in some hole-in-the-wall town called Wishbone, Arizona.  Supposedly it has an adobe house on it, plus a barn and a shed.  So kind of a mini-ranch.

    Lalla currently resides in the Modesto, California area, but maybe a field trip to wherever-it-is Wishbone is just what she needs to forget about that scalawag Caleb.  Her dad says he’d be happy to go along with her to check the place out, because there’s one other part of the property that’s piqued his interest.  It’s said to have a mine on it.  And who knows, it might be a gold mine!

    Or maybe it's just a small mine pit.  That’s a fancy name for a hole in the ground.

What’s To Like...
    A Dead Red Alibi is the fourth book in R.P. Dahlke’s Dead Red Mystery series.  The first three books were all set in the Modesto area, so it was neat to see the author take us to a new location - the desert in the extreme southeastern area of Arizona.  To boot, it appears this will be a permanent relocation, and since I live in Arizona, this means Lalla’s moving to my stomping grounds!

     The plotline is straightforward.  Lalla and Pops arrive just as two bodies are discovered, one on her newly-acquired property, the other at an art compound next door.  Lalla’s cousin Pearlie flies in and the two of them pretend to be private investigators while Dad, much more of a skilled carpenter than either of them, begins to fix up the ranch.  While doing this, he discovers a vintage racing car in the barn, an old Italian Bugatti.  You can see its silhouette on the book’s cover.

    AFAIK, the town of Wishbone is fictional, but the nearby city, Sierra Vista, is quite real.  My company used to sell various chemicals to a copper mine located there.   The two murder-mysteries are well-constructed, and I repeatedly changed my mind about who the most likely suspect(s) might be.  The dialogue felt a bit less snarky compared to the earlier books in the series, but that’s okay; there’s still wit aplenty.

    As usual, everything builds to a suitably exciting ending, with a few twists added in to keep you on your toes.  This is one of those books where you can walk alongside Lalla and Pearlie and try to figure out whodunit before they do.

    A Dead Red Alibi is a fast and easy read, told from a first-person point-of-view (Lalla’s).  There’s a bit of blood, but not much; and a cussword here and there, but those too are few and far between.  I’d call this an “almost cozy”, and an excellent choice for a “airport/beach read”.

    “Let’s drive into Wishbone,” I said, grabbing my purse.  “We’ll get a couple of rooms and come back when the electricity is on.”
    “If the load is getting easy, you’re going downhill,” he quipped.
    “Not from where I’m standing.  There are wild animals out there.  If you’ll give me the Jeep keys, I’ll drive.”
    He had his hands on his hips.  “Now Lalla, just remember, People don’t fail, they give up.  You knew we were going to have to rough it for a day or two.  Where’s your pioneering spirit?”
    I snapped my fingers, signaling for the keys.  “Pioneers yearned for hot baths and clean sheets, too.  Now gimme those keys!”  (loc. 316)

   “What’s this about Pearlie being here in Arizona?” Caleb asked.
    “She flew Aunt Mae home, turned around, and flew back to Sierra Vista.  She’s got some whacked idea we’re going to start our own P.I. business.”
    “You have to have a license for that,” said Caleb.
    “She has a way of ignoring those pesky little issues.”  (loc. 1376)

Kindle Details...
    A Dead Red Alibi currently sells for $3.99 at Amazon, as do the rest of the books in the series, with the exception of Book 1, A Dead Red Cadillac, which sells for $2.99.  The novella, A Dead Red Horse Thief, goes for $0.99.  The first three books in the series are also available in a bundle for $5.99.

Karma had once again spun around and kicked me in the head.  (loc. 948)
    There were a couple drawbacks, but they're the technical variety, not literary.

    First and foremost, A Dead Red Alibi is in dire need of good editing.  One Amazon reviewer complained that almost every page had a typo; I don't think he's exaggerating.  I can overlook the ones of the lose/loose and waved/waived ilk, but when a character’s name changes from Mac Coker to Mac Cocker, that’s just plain sloppy.  Ditto for the lack of commas when addressing someone (“Come on Caleb”). And we desert rats refer to ourselves as Arizonans, not Arizonians, although I have to say, Google seems to be okay with both.

    The formatting is also weak, most noticeably when Kindle splits a word at the end of a line in the middle of a sentence.  Properly, the division should be between two syllables, but here at times just the final (and non-syllabic) letter was split off.  Admittedly, this sort of thing is hard to spot during the proofreading; it all depends on what font size you’ve selected.

    Finally, and least important yet most bizarre, one of the victims, a dead-&-dumped police chief, is never cited by name despite being spoken of numerous times along the way.  I’ve never encountered this before.  R.P. Dahlke uses the real names of a pair of her acquaintances for two of the characters, and points out that she received their permission to do so.  Perhaps there was a third person who, at some late point, refused her permission to use his name.  I can’t think of any other explanation.

    7½ Stars.  If you can ignore the editing/formatting weaknesses, and you like sleuths such as Stephanie Plum and Sookie Stackhouse, then you’ll enjoy A Dead Red Alibi, and this series as a whole.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Boom!: A Baby Memoir 1947-2022 - Ted Polhemus

   2012; 402 pages.  Full Title : Boom! – A Baby Boomer Memoir 1947-2022.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Memoir; Pop Culture.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    "OK Boomer."

    What in the world did we Boomer Babies do to make that catchphrase become so popular?

    I mean, I know we brag about our music, but hey, it really is the best ever.  The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Bob Dylan.  None of today’s bands can touch those groups.  Yeah, if you want to get technical about it, none of those acts featured musicians who actually were baby-boomers, but we claim them as our own anyway.

    Our drugs were better, too.  Getting high on weed and tripping on acid.  Grooving to cosmic vibes and psychedelic colors, while the lyrics to Donovan's "Mellow Yellow".  Can today’s opioids and other meds give you anything like that?  Nah, I didn’t think so.

    Even the sex was better back then.  Free love and all that.  Birth control pills were just becoming readily available and AIDS had yet to appear in the world.  Talk about perfect timing.

    And last but not least, we had the best protests.  We’d turn out by the thousands to shut down colleges, chant slogans, and get our heads bashed in.  Man, I love the smell of tear-gas in the morning.  So what d’ya say about all that, young‘uns?

    “OK Boomer.”

What’s To Like...
    Boom! is a memoir, a genre I rarely read.  The author is Ted Polhemus, a genuine baby-boomer, since he was born in 1947.  Ted started out life in Neptune City, a small town in New Jersey, close to the more-famous rock-&-roll mecca of Asbury Park.  He studied anthropology at Temple University, and has lived in the UK for the past 30+ years.  So he’s gotten to observe the Boomer culture firsthand from both the American and English perspectives.

    The book is divided into 11 chapters, namely:
Ch. 1: 1947 - Introduction
Ch. 2: Coming Home – First four years
Ch. 3: Suburban Life – Moving to the suburbs
Ch. 4: Modern Times – The teens
Ch. 5: Sex
Ch. 6: Drugs
Ch. 7: Rock ‘n’ Roll
Ch. 8: Protest
Ch. 9: Swinging in London – Moving across the pond
Ch. 10: No Future – The birth of Punk
Ch. 11: 2022 – Where we’re heading

    Being a memoir, the author recounts a bunch of his personal experiences, but only as they relate to the Baby Boomer culture.  I’m three years younger than Ted Polhemus, so a lot of what he went through resonated with me.  He remembers exactly where he was when JFK was shot; so do I.  He revels in the childhood memory of family trips to the local Carvel Soft Ice Cream store; so do I.  His first plane trip was in 1969; mine was in 1968.   He laughs at the silliness that arises in a couple of his acid trips (including dimension-hopping and a cat exorcism); so can I.

     There’s a heavy emphasis on the music of the times, and the author's tastes in that area are excellent.  Asbury Park gave us Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny, two of  Ted's and my favorite rockers.  The author seems to not think much of Prog Rock, and we’ll have to agree-to-disagree on that one.  But his tastes in literature and movies/TV are also top-notch.

    Era-specific trivia abounds, and I loved it.  Hugh Hefner, the patriarch of Playboy magazine, was raised a strict Methodist.  There is no apostrophe in the biker-gang name “Hells Angels”, I never noticed that before.  And “Levittown” was a nationwide phenomenon that greatly catalyzed the 1950s mass exodus from cities to suburbs; I remember billboards touting one of those Levittowns close to where I grew up.

    The e-book version is 375 pages long, but the text actually ends at page 315.  The next 40 pages are titled “Sources and Inspirations”, and are simply pop-culture lists divided into headings of Music, Films, TV shows, Fiction Books, and Non-Fiction Books, all of which show you what tickles the author's fancy.  This is followed by a Timeline and some Polhemus family photographs which aid in getting a feel for life as a baby boomer.

    The final chapter, enigmatically titled “2022”, is Ted Polhemus’s predictions on how what’s in store for the aging Baby Boomers.  Written in 2012, it is well thought-out, but pessimistically bleak.  Today, eight years later and a mere two years before 2022, I am happy to say the most of the forecast doom-and-gloom has not panned out. 

 Kewlest New Word ...
Twee (adj.) : excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.
Others: Semiological (adj.)..

    Despite everything which happened in fashion, style and music, 1947’s most significant historical influence was ultimately one of simple demographics.
    There were 3.9 million of us born in America in 1947.  It had been 3.47 million in 1946.  Compared to only 2.8 million in 1945.  A similar “baby boom” occurred throughout much of the world following in the wake of the end of WWII, and had a remarkable impact on world history – a reverberating impact which is still being felt in the 21st century; this simple demographic blip and its underlining of a generational model of history (“my generation”) becoming the key storyline which shaped the narrative of the post-war world.  (loc. 228)

    In a nutshell, the problem with Rock minus Roll was you couldn’t dance to it.
    OK, you could wave your hands around or jump about a bit, but in truth very few of us even did this.  Watch the DVD of Woodstock where, a handful of happy Hippies cavorting about at the beginning and end excepted, what you have is half a million white people sat on their butts looking up at a stage.  When, finally, Soul Funksters Sly and the Family Stone come on, we realize what’s been missing: syncopation – the “ugh”, that slight but all important warping of the space-time continuum which, once Rock had arrived, would have to seek sanctuary in Soul and Funk.  (loc. 2002)

Kindle Details…
    The Kindle version of Boom! sells for $6.00 at Amazon right now.  ANAICT, the only other e-book available at Amazon by this author is StreetStyle, which sells for $14.99.   Ted Polhemus has more than 20 other books to offer in “real book” format; you can see the complete list at Wikipedia.

 “The teenager may first have been pandered to in America, but Britain handed them the keys and, blowing raspberries at the Old Guard, just told them to get on with it.”  (loc. 2584 )
    There are a couple of nits to pick, none of which involve the book's content.  From least important to most:

    The photos are cool, and can be expanded, but not in the usual “finger-stretching” way.  Instead of tapping on a pic, press on it.  A menu will pop up which includes the option to zoom.  This then activates the finger-stretching technique.

     Like any memoir/autobiography, there is probably a bit of “skewing” of events in the past to the author’s favor.   Most of the personal things here seem reasonable, with the possible exception of the airplane sexploit at the end of Chapter 5.

    Finally, for an author with 20+ books to his credit, the editing here is atrocious.  Typos abound, and some passages get repetitious.  The most egregious typo was “Jimmy Hendrix.  It’s “Jimi”.  Dude, that’s unforgiveable.  😎

    But I pick at nits.  Overall, I found Boom! to be an fascinating and nostalgic read.  Ted Polhemus presents the history of the Baby Boomer era in an objective fashion – noting both its plusses and minuses, and that's a big plus.

    7 Stars.  In looking at Ted Polhemus’s bibliography at Wikipedia, Boom! seems like a one-off effort, unrelated to his other works.  I sorta get the feeling this was a “bucket list” item, written by a 65-year-old Baby Boomer looking back over his life.  If so, the project was a success.