Thursday, April 30, 2020

Exultant - Stephen Baxter

   2004; 472 pages.  Book 2 (out of 4) in the “Destiny’s Children” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Speculative Sci-Fi; Time-Travel.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    They captured a Xeelee nightfighter!  No one ever accomplished that before, and these two pilots – Dans and Pirius – somehow came up with a brand-new strategy that netted them an enemy starship.

    What's more, the tactic used FTL (“faster than light”) technology, so it dumped them back in time two years, which means the human military forces have a bunch more time to study the nightfighter and figure out how to finally outmaneuver them in battle.  That’s never been done before either.

    Sadly, Dans gave her life in the fight, so it’s only Pirius and his flight crew (a navigator and an engineer) that returned home.  Still, I'm sure they will be properly rewarded for their amazing exploit.

    They were.  All three were tried in court, found guilty, stripped of their ranks, and banished to the vilest prison in the universe.  Their crime was unforgiveable – disobeying a direct order.  They’d been told to launch a suicide attack, instead, they turned, fled, and somehow ended up capturing their Xeelee pursuer.

    To boot, Pirius’s “two-year younger self” (going back in time will cause these sort of temporal paradoxes) is also put on trial, for complicity, and found guilty.  After all, it’s obvious that the seeds of disobedience were already there, and we can’t allow some "future order disobeyer" to remain free.

    Let the punishment fit the future crime.

What’s To Like...
    Exultant is set 20,000 years in the future, and opens on the fringe of the gigantic black hole at the center of the Milky Way.  Mankind has marched its way across the galaxy, conquering all in its path, but now faces its greatest threat, the Xeelee, who have three distinct advantages over us:  a.) their star ships are better than ours, b.) they’re smarter than us, and c.) they have the power of “foreknowledge”, meaning they know what we are going to do even before we think of it.

    The book is an ambitious attempt at “hard science fiction”.  Stephen Baxter builds a universe as realistic as possible, imagining technology that’s 20 millennia ahead of our time.  Huge advancements have been made in Quantum Mechanics, including FTL spaceflight and time-hopping, and I liked that, unlike most other sci-fi writers who eschew time paradoxes, Stephen Baxter revels in them.

    I was intrigued by the core philosophy he proposes.  Mankind’s existence is at stake, and therefore adopts a “hive colony mentality”.  Innovation is deemed a crime, everyone is assigned a role in the hive, and you are expected to willingly give your life to preserve it.  That’s why Pirius’s decision to flee, instead of complying with the order to sacrifice his starship, results in such a draconian punishment.  Concepts like love and family are taboo; the hive has no place for anything that might interfere with one’s total submission and loyalty to it.

    It’s fun to watch how both Piriuses (Baxter labels them “Blue” and “Red” for the sake of clarity) learn to coexist with their “other self”, including how to accommodate their bunkhouse “squeeze” Torec, who sleeps with "both of him".  There are critters aplenty, both on the microscopic and macroscopic scales.  Books are considered ancient artifacts, and described as “blocks of paper you hold in your hand”, and there’s even a small nod to synesthesia (a “green scent”).  And for those who like their sci-fi laced with quantum physics and cosmological stuff, there's lots of time-travel, time paradoxes, black holes, and dark matter in the story, plus an extended visit to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

    The ending is both twisty and exciting.  For the moment, the day is saved for the good guys, although some of them perish in the ultimate battle.  The bad guys are pushed away, but not defeated, and no one doubts for one minute that they will return with a vengeance.  Which, one presumes, will take place in the book’s sequel

Kewlest New Word ...
Sclerotic (adj.) : becoming rigid or unresponsive; losing the ability to adapt.
Others: tranche (n.); sessile (adj.).

    To the Xeelee, humans were vermin – and they had a right to think so, for they were superior to humans in every way that could be measured.  And so, only if each human were prepared to spend her life without question for the common good would humanity as a whole prevail.  This was the Doctrinal thinking taught in seminaries and cadre groups and academies across the Galaxy: if humans must be vermin, humans would fight like vermin, and die like vermin.  (loc. 319)

    “Perhaps I’m existing in somebody else’s memories, or dreams.  Perhaps Pirius Blue dreamed of Earth before he died, and everything I think is happening to me is happening inside his mind, in the last fraction of a second before the starbreaker hits –“
    “And maybe you’ve got your pointy head so far up your own ass it’s coming out the other end.”  She punched his kidney, hard enough to make him yelp.  “Is that real enough for you?”  (loc. 5867)

Kindle Details…
    Exultant sells for $8.99 at Amazon.  Books One and Three in the series go for $6.99 (Coalescent) and $7.99 (Transcendent).  ANAICT, Book 4, Resplendent, isn’t available at Amazon as an e-book, which is odd, and it looks to be a compilation of novellas set in the Xeelee universe.  Stephen Baxter has a slew of other sci-fi books, ranging from $2.99 to $10.99, including a number of collaborations with other prominent science-fiction authors.

In the quietest hours of the night, when the rats sang, you could still hear weeping.  (loc. 3756 )
    There's a fair amount of cussing in Exultant, although I wouldn’t call it excessive.  Most of them are familiar terms, but I also liked the made-up ones, such as “Lethe!” and “My eyes!”

    In the last/third section of the book, the chapters flip-flop between our macro-sized universe and a microscopic one, where a host of strange creatures – monads, quagmites, etc. – reside.  This felt clunky to me, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it impacts the events in the next book.

    Finally, while there’s no doubt that the quantum physics concepts that the author proposes are deeply-researched and logically intriguing, the frequency with which everything grinds to a halt while they are explained slows down the pacing noticeably.  Thankfully, this habit is discarded for the ultimate battle, which makes for a great ending.

    But fear not, Stephen Baxter’s writing skills more than make up for these quibbles.  The character-development is superb, and I found his technological predictions for a time 20,000 years to be absolutely fascinating.  And hey, it’s great to see a sci-fi writer who has no fear of temporal paradoxes.

    7½ Stars.  The Destiny’s Children series is a subset of Stephen Baxter’s “Xeelee Sequence” series, which, per Wikipedia, totals 9 novels and 53 short pieces.  The only other book in this series that I’ve read is Book One, Coalescent, and I don’t think it's necessary to read it before this one.  Ditto for any of the other Xeelee novels; I was unfamiliar with them, but quickly grasped their role via-a-vis us humans.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Sixth Extinction - Elizabeth Kolbert

   2014; 271 pages.  Full Title: The Sixth Extinction  - An Unnatural History.  New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Ecology; Natural History; Environmental Science; Non-Fiction.  Laurels: 2015 Pulitzer Prize – General Non-Fiction (winner); 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award – General Non-Fiction (winner); 2014 Library Book Award – Top Ten Book; 2015 Massachusetts Book Award – Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Over the course of history of life on Earth there have been five major extinction events.  Paleontologists have given them era-associating names – End-Ordovician, Late Devonian, End-Permian, Late Triassic, and the most recent one, the End-Cretaceous Extinction.

    The kill-offs were caused by different things.  One was believed to be due to glaciation (caused by mosses, no less!), another due to global warming.  The evidence is pretty persuasive now that Extinction Number Five, the one that zapped all the dinosaurs, occurred when a large object, most likely an asteroid, slammed into the Yucatan peninsula.  But it wiped out a lot of other species too; almost anything that couldn’t fly or burrow into the ground perished.

    It’s been a while, about 66 million years or so, since that happened, which begs the logical question – when will the next one hit?  Elizabeth Kolbert has a good-news/bad-news answer for this.

    The good news is that you don’t really have to worry about figuring out when the next Extinction will hit.

    The bad news is that’s because it has already begun.

What’s To Like...
    The thirteen chapters of The Sixth Extinction are divided into two sections.  Chapters 1-4 give a quick history of the field of Paleontology and I was surprised to learn that it didn’t get started until the late 1700's, by a guy named Georges Cuvier, who concluded that some giant bones unearthed in Siberia belonged to animals (mastodons, as it turns out) that no longer existed.  The thought of plants and animals becoming extinct was revolutionary at that time.  Even Charles Darwin, who was comfortable with species adapting/changing/evolving to cope with new climatic conditions, didn’t accept that they might also sometimes completely die out.

    Elizabeth Kolbert then uses Chapters 5-13 to present her central hypothesis: that the Sixth Extinction has already begun and its primary cause is the proliferation of Homo sapiens, with our incredible resourcefulness in crossing geographic obstacles (oceans, mountain ranges, etc.), inventing tools that enable us to be a threat to all other forms of life, and expanding to all corners of the globe (yes, that's an oxymoron), thereby becoming a convenient transport, sometimes unintentionally, for other plants and animals to invade new areas, which often resulted in them supplanting whatever fauna/flora was already there.

    The chapters usually spotlight one particular plant or animal family to demonstrate a point.  The molar of a mastodon introduces the idea of “extinction”.  The great auk highlights the way humans have purposely killed off a number of animal species.  Coral reefs are threatened by both global warming and ocean acidification.  And the mass destruction of the Amazon rainforest may eventually kill off its main predator, humans.

    I enjoyed watching how science self-checks, corrects, and evolves.  Plate tectonics and killer meteorites were mostly pooh-poohed when I was in school; today they are the prevailing theories.  I also learned about Darwin’s Paradox (why do coral reefs flourish in nutrient-poor tropical waters?), what causes Ice Ages (blame Jupiter and Saturn), and the likelihood of the Jurassic Park scenario occurring (very, very slim).  Along the way, you can join the author in relaxing by chewing coca leaves (heh!) and attending a once-a-year “coral orgy”.

    There’s a bit of French in the book, something I always enjoy, and here thanks mostly to Cuvier.  A 1980's scientific experiment here in Arizona called Biosphere 2 gets a brief mention (sadly, it was a  failure).  Even the Belgian cartoon “Tintin” and the mysterious “Maastrict animal” (which the Netherlands has been waiting 200 years for the French to give back) are mentioned.  The book is shorter than it looks – thanks to 46 pages of “Extras” (Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography, Photo Credits, and Index) after only 271 pages of text, with .

Kewlest New Word ...
Lede (n.) : the opening sentence or paragraph of a news article, summarizing the most important aspects of the story.

    The bolide arrived from the southeast, traveling at a low angle relative to the earth, so that it came in not so much from above as from the side, like a plane losing altitude.  When it slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, it was moving at something like forty-five thousand miles per hour, and, due to its trajectory, North America was particularly hard-hit.  A vast cloud of searing vapor and debris raced over the continent, expanding as it moved and incinerating anything in its path.  “Basically, if you were a triceratops in Alberta, you had about two minutes before you got vaporized” is how one geologist put it to me.  (pg. 86)

    Archaic humans like Homo erectus “spread like many other mammals in the Old World,” Paabo told me.  “They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia.  Neither did Neanderthals.  It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out in the ocean where you don’t see land.  Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it.  But there is also, I like to think, or say, some madness there.  You know?  How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island?  I mean, it’s ridiculous.  And why do you do that?  Is it for the glory?  For immortality?  For curiosity?  And now we go to Mars.  We never stop.”  (pg. 251)

If 'Dicerorhinus sumatrensis" has a future, it’s owing to Roth and the handful of others like her who know how to perform an ultrasound with one arm up a rhino’s rectum.  (pg. 221 )
    The Sixth Extinction won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015, so it’s not surprising that there's not much to quibble about.  You do run into the word “shit” a half-dozen times, mostly in the author quoting somebody.  Personally, I found the book to be a slow-but-easy read, mostly due to the technical nature of what Elizabeth Kolbert was presenting.  That’s fine by me since I’m a chemist by profession, and I like to read “sciency” stuff.  But if technical books turn you off, you might find this one a bit of a slog.

    Overall, I think Elizabeth Kolbert presented a convincing case for her assertion that a massive die-off has already begun.  Yes, the book has a lot of technical details, it has to.  But the author includes enough non-technical anecdotes and insights so that even the average reader will  be both entertained and enlightened.  If nothing else, you’ll have a new appreciation for anyone having to run an ultrasound on a rhinoceros.

    9 Stars.  Curiously, this was one of two books on my TBR shelf with identical titles, The Sixth Extinction.  The other one is a fiction thriller by James Rollins.  I suppose I ought to now read that one as well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Altdorf - The Forest Knights - J.K. Swift

   2011; 302 pages.  Book 1 (out of 2) in the “Forest Knights” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Action-Adventure; Switzerland, Romance.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    After decades of fighting against the Saracens in the Holy Lands, Thomas and his bedraggled band of crusaders have returned from the Holy Lands to their home in Switzerland.  Their losses over the years have been grievous, which is not surprising, since they were conscripted into active military service when they were just boys.

    Everyone in Thomas’s little group has his own specialty.  Ruedi’s a marksman with the crossbow, Gissler is the best all-around fighter, Urs is a blacksmith, Max a herbalist, and Anton serves as the group’s medic.  Finally there’s Pirmin, Thomas’s best friend, who has the build of a giant and who’s the guy you want at your back when fighting in close quarters.

     They are going to split up now, with each of them trying to find a new way to make a living.  Thomas is resigned to becoming a farmer in his home town of Schwyz, although he’ll keep an eye out for other career opportunities.  One thing he doesn’t want to do is fight for or against anybody anymore.  He’s seen too much killing and bloodshed.

    But the Habsburg Austrians currently control Switzerland with an iron fist, and some of the locals yearn for freedom.  A few of them are even in active rebellion against the Habsburg rule.  They’d love to add Thomas to their ranks.  Thomas wishes they’d go away and leave him alone.

    Perhaps Fate will deem otherwise.

What’s To Like...
    Altdorf – The Forest Knights is a reworking of the classic William Tell story, which, as the author points out in the “Historical Notes” section, is probably more legend than fact.  We all probably are familiar with the jaw-dropping display of archery at the end of the tale, but here it was a treat to learn the historical circumstances behind it.

    The story takes place in 1314, and is set mostly in and around the town of Schwyz, the capital of the Swiss canton with the same name.  Thomas is the protagonist, but a lot of the secondary characters are well-developed and interesting, including the hot-headed rebel, Noll, and the village healer, Seraina.

    I liked Thomas’s pragmatism.  He reasons that any acts of defiance by Noll and his pals against the overwhelmingly powerful Austrian troops will surely bring strong and lethal reprisals down upon the heads of the local populace.  So although Noll may be an idealist, he’s also a threat to everyone in Schwyz.

    Three different religions – Christianity, Islam, and the pagan “Old Religion” – get attention here, and it was gratifying to see the way J.K. Swift treats them all with an equal degree of respect.  Seraina learned her healing lore from the Druids and Thomas learned his from Saracen doctors during the Crusades.  Combined, their medicinal knowledge is formidable.  OTOH, organized religion is portrayed as being both superstitious and corrupt, which is historically accurate.  Its measures, such as how to determine if a woman is a witch, are much grimmer than the Monty Python Holy Grail skit.

    The story has a romantic subplot in it, but it doesn’t get in the way of the action-adventure main plotline.  The pacing is quick, even to the point of skipping over potential slow spots, and I thought the writing style, a storytelling-mode with just the right amount of wit and humor blended in, was well done.  Also, the plotline occasionally teases us with an element of “is all of this natural or is there some magic involved?”, and I quite liked that.

    Everything leads up to a suitably exciting ending.  It’s a bit over the top (the “black-crested gull” part), but that’s not a criticism; it’s standard fare for most action-packed adventure novels.  The book ends at a logical spot, and sets up the sequel, but this is also a standalone novel.

    “If I had your youth, my lord, I would gladly be on that field winning my share of honors.”
    “Honor is a myth.  The tourney was created to keep our warriors occupied in times of peace.  To prevent the dogs from turning on their masters, if you will.  A soldier is a tool of the nobility.  One that must be stored with care, mind you, and sharpened regularly, but nothing more.”  (loc. 622)

    The old woman halted in front of Thomas and pushed back the hood of her cloak, letting much-needed light into eyes whitened with age.  She kinked her neck up at an awkward angle to look at Thomas and stared at him, her eyes scrutinizing his face and coming to rest on the pale jagged line running down the left side.  For all her physical ailments, her voice was surprisingly strong and clear.
    “You would be the one they call the ferryman.  They said I could tell by the scar.”
    “Or the ferry,” Thomas said, nodding at the barge he stood on.  “You looking to go to the other side, old woman?”
    “Not yet,” she said, offended.  “I have a few more years in me.”  (loc. 934)

Kindle Details…
    Altdorf – The Forest Knights is presently free at Amazon.  The other book in the series, Morgarten – The Forest Knights, sells for $5.99, and I think this is a completed series.  J.K. Swift has three books in a second, related series, Hospitaller Saga, and they’re in the $2.99-$5.99 range, plus several novellas in his Keepers of Kwellevonne series, which are in the $0.99-$1.49 range.

“Beware old ladies and children trying to kill you in your sleep.  (loc. 432 )
    There are some quibbles, none of which are show-stoppers.  First and foremost, the book could really use another round of editing.  The persistent lack of commas when directly addressing someone (the “Let’s eat grandpa!” syndrome) was mildly irksome, and things like the two spellings of a character’s name (Mathias/Matthias) are just carelessness.

    Most of the characters are either black or white.  The Austrians as a whole are without any redeeming qualities; the Swiss are mostly white-hats, with one or two baddies mixed in.

    There’s a slew of cussing, a proxy deflowering, and a rape.  This is probably not a book for juvenile readers.  And while the “Historical Notes” section at the back was delightfully informative, it mostly just covers the "William Tell" angle.  I would’ve liked to have learned more about which of the historical events and places were factual and which were fictitious.  Oh well, that’s why the gods gave us Wikipedia.

    But this is all nitpicking.  For me, Altdorf – The Forest Knights was an unexpected treat, covering a part of Swiss history that I, an avowed history buff, knew next-to-nothing about.  The e-book’s been sitting on my Kindle for quite some time, and I’m happy to have finally gotten around to reading it.

    8 Stars.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling

2000; 734 pages.  Book 4 (out of 7) in the “Harry Potter” series.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Fantasy; YA; Adventure.  Laurels: 2001 Hugo Award for Best Novel (winner).  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    It’s going to be a great year at Hogwarts this year; Harry just knows it.  Even the summer break at the Dursleys hasn't been as bad as in previous years, now that they’re scared of what Sirius, Harry’s wizard godfather, might do to them if they torment Harry.

    First up will be to attend the Quidditch World Cup, and that’s something that Harry’s done before.  This year it’s Ireland versus Bulgaria in the final, and that’s a great match-up.  Overall, Ireland’s the better team, but Bulgaria has the best player around – a young superstar named Krum.  It’s hard to predict which team is the favorite.

    Then later in the school year, there’s some sort of top-secret competition that hasn’t happened for several hundred years.  Whatever it is, it involves Hogwarts and two other European schools of magic.  How awesome is that?!  Maybe Harry can swap spells with "foreign" students.

    But beyond all this excitement, there's still one thing that troubles Harry.

    Why is the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead burning like someone is pressing a hot wire into his skin?

What’s To Like...
    With Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the series hits new levels of intensity   There’s a cold-blooded murder at the beginning, another one near the end, and the overall tone is markedly darker than the previous three books.  The forces of evil are focused and gaining power, and the forces of good seem to be doing the exact opposite.

    But that just means the storyline is packed with action, with mysteries galore for Harry and his friends to try to solve, two tournaments to provide lots of excitement, and no slow spots to bog down the pacing.  There are a slew of characters to keep track of, more-or-less evenly split between new and recurring ones.  I liked the introduction of other schools of magic.  It stands to reason that Hogwarts can’t be the only academy for wizards in the world, and it was interesting to see both the cooperation and the rivalry between the different institutions.

    There are some neat new gadgets, such as portkeys and omnioculars to try out; and some dangerous new spells, such as the trio of unforgiveable ones: Imperius, Cruciatus, and Avada Kedavra.  That last one should be used with extreme caution, but the Apparating/Disapparating spell is worth learning.  Critters abound: gnomes, witches, house elves, veela (huh?), leprechauns, goblins, blast-ended skrewts (what?), dragons (four different types), unicorns, grindylows, nifflers, and even a sphinx with her very own riddle for Harry to solve.

    There's lots of witty dialogue to lighten things up, and a couple of J.K. Rowling’s hilarious puns, such as the "Pensieve" in chapter 30.  The mangled French made me chuckle (“bong-sewer!), and I could relate to Harry’s dread of having to learn to dance.  J.K. Rowling subtly sprinkles some serious themes throughout all the fun and mayhem, such as equal rights (for elves), bigotry (against giants and “half-breeds”), and trust.  I liked the fact that throughout all the mayhem, Dumbledore still has complete trust in Snape.

    The ending is fantastic, including several twists plus the obligatory Harry-vs.-Voldemort showdown, which will keep even adult readers on the edge of their seats.  Evil emerges more powerful than ever before, and good will need to overcome their differences and prejudices and draw upon all their resources to even have a chance of thwarting Voldemort.

Kewlest New Word ...
Having him on (v., phrase) : persuading someone that something is true when it is not, usually as a joke.

    A thousand years or more ago,
    When I was newly sewn,
    There lived four wizards of renown,
    Whose names are still well known:
    Bold Gryffindor, from wild moor,
    Fair Ravenclaw, from glen,
    Sweet Hufflepuff, from valley broad,
    Shrewd Slytherin, from fen.  (pg. 176)

    “Excuse me?”
    “Well – you know,” said Ron shrugging.  “I’d rather go alone than with – with Eloise Midgen, say.”
    “Her acne’s loads better lately – and she’s really nice!”
    “Her nose is off-center,” said Ron.
    “Oh I see,” Hermione said, bristling.  “So basically, you’re going to take the best-looking girl who’ll have you, even if she’s completely horrible?”
    “Er – yeah, that sounds about right,” said Ron.  (pg. 394)

“A troll, a hag, and a leprechaun … all go into a bar.”  (pg. 186 )
    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire won a Hugo Award, so it isn't surprising that there's not much to quibble about.  Cussing-wise, I counted two “damns” and one “hell”, which seems acceptably tame for a YA novel.

    The book is written in what I’ll call “Americanized British”.  The spelling and punctuation have been tweaked for us Yanks, but we still have to figure out words like swotty, manky, nutter, and kip, which I always enjoy.

    Finally, one might call the storyline formulaic.  We start with the usual drudgery at the Dursleys, tag along with Harry as he commutes to Hogwarts, attend his new classes, sit through a quidditch game, and cringe as he locks horns with Voldemort.  Is this how things went in the previous book? Yes.  Does it work just as well here?  Yes!

    I’m impressed with any YA series that can keep the interest of both teens and adults, and all the Harry Potter books thus far have done just that.  This one is fully deserving of winning the Hugo Award.  The only caveat is that you really should read these books in order.

    9 Stars.  I did have one question after finishing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and I’ll try to make this spoiler-free.  In Chapter 33, a number of characters are revealed to be Death Eaters, including several Hogwarts residents.  Their names are later revealed to Dumbledore, yet no measures are taken to remove these minions of Voldemort.  Some of them even show up later to hassle Harry.  Is this a plot hole, or did I miss something?

Monday, April 13, 2020

Crome Yellow - Aldous Huxley

   1921; 183 pages.  New Author? : No, but it’s been a while.  Genre : Highbrow Lit; Social Satire; English Literature.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It was two hours cut completely out of Denis Stone’s life.  And that was just the ride on the train, from London to Camlet-on-the-Water.  After that there was still a bicycle ride to Crome itself.

    He could have done a lot of other, more productive things with his time, but the social obligation beckoned and one does not lightly turn down an invitation to spend a couple weeks with the Wimbush’s at their manor in Crome.  Besides, there will be other guests there as well, and as an up-and-coming poet – with one collection of his poems already in print – Denis can't afford to miss any opportunity to hobnob with the Upper Crust.

    And admittedly he does find it gratifying to impress them with witty conversation sprinkled with his prodigious vocabulary, including a chance to give his opinions on the finer subjects of the Arts – Poetry, Music, the latest books, and what have you.

    There’s only one drawback.  While he’s expounding on all these highbrow topics, he also has to listen to everybody else give their views on these things.  And to be honest, Denis finds any opinions other his own to be just plain boring.

What’s To Like...
    Crome Yellow was first published in 1921 and is the debut novel of Aldous Huxley.  It chronicles the conversations and interactions of a group of high-class guests at Crome manor.  For the most part we follow Denis, the protagonist, but occasionally cut away to some of the others.

    The story is a scathing satire of the lives and conversations of the glitterati during the early 1920s.  The characters are said to be based on real people, and the Wikipedia article (the link is here) mentions a few, the only one of which I recognize being Bertrand Russell.  In addition to our poet Denis, the cast includes the well-to-do hosts, an artist, a writer, a handsome womanizer, and several women looking for beaus with suitable quantities of breeding and money.

    The writing is superb, which is surprising given that this was Huxley’s first novel.  The insight into the snobbery of each character is amazing, since the author was still in his 20s.  Each character strives to be the pithiest and hog the conversations, and their efforts, while pompous and attention-seeking, do contain pearls of wisdom.  Huxley explores their pretentious spiels in all sorts of areas: Art, Architecture, Eccentricity, Writing, Socializing, Privies (huh?), Books, Poetry, Music Appreciation, Love, Religion, Nature, and even Vocabulary.

    Spiritualism was popular at that time, and Huxley has some incisive things t say about that.  Ditto for the Fundamentalists, embodied in the character of Mr. Bodiham, who spouts out “Last Days” sermons.  Our characters often lapse into French (such as “le galbe evase de ses hanches”, which I had to look up and means “the curve flares from her hips”), the language of culture, in order to impress their audience, and Huxley’s examples of flowery-but-inane poetry are sheer genius.

    The vocabulary in English is a wordsmith’s delight as well, with Huxley using words like ratiocination, pullulation, vailed, argal, floaters, tractates, empyrean, and the ones listed below.  I had no idea what the Malthusian League, coconut shies were, and who Tschuplitski was.  The first two are real (and in Wikipedia), the last one is fictitious.  And if you ever wondered where the proper place for a privy is in a mansion, you’ll find your answer here.

    The grammar is an odd combination of English spelling coupled with American punctuation.  That might sound strange, but it worked perfectly for me.  The book is short – 183 pages – and divided into 30 chapters.  It’s a quick and relatively easy read, with not a lot characters to keep track of.  The reason for the “Yellow” in the book’s title is never explained, but there is a pigment called “Chrome Yellow”, so maybe Huxley was just playing around with words.  This e-book I read (with the book cover shown above) is the Public Domain version, which means it is always a free download at Amazon.

Kewlest New Word ...
Carminative (adj.) : relieving flatulence.
Others: Cantatrice (n.); Dipsomaniac (n.); Hamadryad (n.); Lich-gate (n.);  Divagate (v.); Supererogatory (adj.).  There were a bunch more.

    They waited, with an uncomfortably beating heart, for the oracle to speak.  After a long and silent inspection, Mr. Scogan would suddenly look up and ask, in a hoarse whisper, some horrifying question, such as, “Have you ever been hit on the head with a hammer by a young man with red hair?”  When the answer was in the negative, which it could hardly fail to be, Mr. Scogan would nod several times, saying, “I was afraid so.  Everything is still to come, still to come, though it can’t be very far off now.”  (loc. 2071)

    “The world, you must remember, is only just becoming literate.  As reading becomes more and more habitual and widespread, an ever-increasing number of people will discover that books will give them all the pleasures of social life and none of its intolerable tedium.  At present people in search of pleasure naturally tend to congregate in large herds and to make a noise; in the future their natural tendency will be to seek solitude and quiet.  The proper study of mankind is books.”  (loc. 2236)

Kindle Details…
    As mentioned above, this particular e-book of Crome Yellow is always free at Amazon.  There are other versions, which range in price from $0.99 to $5.99.  But why pay for something when you can get it at no cost?

“Well, here I am.  I’ve come with incredulous speed.”  Ivor’s vocabulary was rich, but a little erratic.  (loc. 1168 )
    There are a couple nits to pick.  There seemed to be a fair amount of “scanning typos”, which is probably inevitable in a Public Domain effort.  Another round of proofreading would take care of that.  The “N-word” appears a couple times.  Yes, I recognize that was the word Huxley originally used and nobody found it offensive back in 1921.  I’m not saying it should be deleted, but it still grates my nerves every time I come across it while reading.

    More seriously, the story suffers from the PWP syndrome (“Plot? What plot?”).  People talk, Denis muses a lot, but nothing ever really happens.  I thought maybe it was just me who was bothered by this, but the Wikipedia article mentions other critics who felt the same way.  When there’s no plot, that means there’s nothing to resolve in the ending.  Denis ends his stay at Crome and goes home, a little older but not a bit wiser, and without anything having changed.

    Yet the writing skills of Aldous Huxley outweigh all this, and the book somehow kept me entertained from beginning to end.  So, nine stars for the writing, seven stars for the lack of plot; and take the average of the two.  Your rating could be a bit lower, as I’m known to be an Aldous Huxley fan.

    8 Stars.  I had my “Aldous Huxley phase” way back in my 20s.  As expected, Brave New World blew me away, then Ape and Essence, surprisingly, turned out to be even better.  After that I read Island, which was so-so at best, followed lastly by After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, which I found to be awful and ended my fascination with Huxley novels.  But all that was more than 40 years ago, and I’m thinking it may be time to reread some of those.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Inspector Hobbes and the Curse - Wilkie Martin

   2013; 355 pages.  Book 2 (out of 4) in the “Unhuman” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dark Humor; Werewolves; Humorous British Detective Cozy Mystery Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Someone – or something – has just killed a sheep.  It sounds like a pretty small, dull crime to investigate, but Andy Caplet tags along with Inspector Hobbes anyway.

    Someone – or something – has been killing pheasants.  Maybe the sheep-killer likes to vary its source of nourishment.  Or maybe the two cases are completely unrelated.  That seems like something that Hobbes should be able to figure out without too much difficulty.

    Skeleton Bob says he saw a huge cat prowling around the countryside last night.  Maybe that’s what’s been killing the critters.  Or maybe Skeleton Bob is trying to throw Hobbes off the track, since he's known to occasionally partake in poaching.  That makes him a prime suspect in all of this.

    There is one very strange facet to the investigation though.  Inspector Hobbes has a nose that’s as good as a bloodhound’s..  No one is quite sure why, and no one wants to ask him about it.  Yet in sniffing around while looking for clues in these killings, Hobbes keeps finding, then losing, the scents.

    Curiouser and curiouser.

What’s To Like...
    Inspector Hobbes and the Curse is the second novel in a (completed?) four-book “paranormal sleuthing” series with Andy playing Dr. Watson to Inspector Hobbes’s Sherlock Holmes.  It is written in the first-person point-of-view, Andy’s, which is entertaining since he’s subject to more pratfalls than a Chevy Chase routine.

    Wilkie Martin neatly weaves a slew of plotlines together, namely:
a.) Who’s killing the sheep and pheasants?
b.) Did Skeleton Bob really see a big cat?
c.) What’s behind the hidden door in Inspector Hobbes’s basement?
d.) Who, or what, are Violet and Felix?
e.) Why would someone want an elephant transported to Brighton?
f.) Who killed the hot-headed neighbor, and why?
g.) Who killed the thug, and why?
h.) Who, or what, is Hobbes?
    I’m happy to say that you'll find all these questions answered in this book, save one.

    The story is set in the present-day greater London area.  There’s a nice variety of critters to meet and flee from, including (but not limited to) werewolves, vampires, troglodytes (huh?) and even a muppet (double-huh?).  Wilkie Martin is British, and it was fun to be “immersed” in English daily life, such as ginger beer, pork rolls with apple sauce, Sugar Puffs, and calling “999” for an emergency instead of “9-1-1”.

    I enjoyed attending the First Annual Grand Sorenchester Music Festival, even if things did get out of hand.  Hobbes and Mrs. Goodfellow say they attended the 1967 Monterrey Festival and hung out with the hippies, so I wonder how the two festivals compare to each other.  And I’m almost tempted to get the audiobook version of this book just  to hear Hobbes do his rendition of Puff, The Magic Dragon.  Amid all the craziness, Wilkie Martin subtly examines some more-serious themes, namely spousal abuse and the manliness of hunting.

    Inspector Hobbes and the Curse is written in English, not American, and there are a slew of new terms for common items to suss out, including: doddle, moggy, jacket potato, pong, fly sheet, footwell, settles, bin liner, skint, bleeper, scarper, AGM, spotty herbert, dust-dancers, cutlery draw, shufti, picnic hamper, stodge, going to the Casualty, skip, ‘having me on’, pebble-dashed, top up, nutters, lay-by, slowcoach, selvedge, tosser, punters, dozy, bacon-butties, and ‘trying it on’

    The ending is decent, with an fair amount of excitement mixed with a twist or two to keep everyone on their toes.  A good bottle of wine gets wasted, and some of the baddies get away, but that’s the way the biscuit crumbles, and perhaps those evildoers might appear in the subsequent books.

Kewlest New Word ...
Spotty herbert (n., phrase.) : a foolish person.  (a Britishism)
Others: Moggy (n., British); Doddle (n., British).

    “He damn near blew my head off once, when I was picking nuts in the woods by his hedge.”
    “Why?” asked Hobbes.
    “Because I like nuts.”
    Hobbes chuckled.  “No, why did he shoot you?”
    “He said he mistook me for a stray dog.”
    “But dogs don’t pick nuts.”
    “That’s what I told him.”  (loc. 5566)

    A tongue of hot red flame hurled him and the door across the cellar and, though it all happened so fast, I’m sure he whooped just before he slammed into the back wall.  There was a deafening roar, a flash of heat and a rumble.
    I picked myself up, coughing in the dust haze.
    “Well,” said Hobbes, standing up, rubbing his elbow, “that would have been more fun if the wall hadn’t got in the way.”  (loc. 10318)

Kindle Details…
    Inspector Hobbes and the Curse presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Books 3 and 4 in this series also go for $4.99, while Book 1 is only $2.99.  Alternatively, you can get Books 1-3 in a bundle (which is how I’m reading these) for $8.09.

“Hanging round crematoriums always gives me an appetite.”  (loc. 7648 )
    There’s nothing major to quibble about in Inspector Hobbes and the Curse.  Wilkie Martin calls this a “Humorous British Detective Cozy Mystery Fantasy” and who am I to argue with him?  Still, if you’re a “cozy” enthusiast, you may find the cussing, which albeit is minimal in quantity, to be out-of-place.

    Also, if you’re reading this book for its mystery element, you may be disappointed.  I figured out the “who did what and how and why” early on.  Andy Caplet is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I found it hard to believe that Inspector Hobbes took so long to figure things out.

    However, all this is nitpicking.  I think it’s better to read Inspector Hobbes and the Curse for its zany “Jeeves-like” humor, not its whodunit.  When you take that approach, you’ll likely find this to be an excellent read.

    7½ Stars.  Subtract ½ Star if you don’t like books written in “English”.  I happen to think it’s a delightful way to learn a "foreign" language.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Old Bones - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

   2019; 369 pages.  New Authors? : No.  Genre : Archaeology; Action-Intrigue; Historical Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The ill-fated Donner expedition achieved dubious but lasting fame when they became stranded in the high Sierra Nevada mountains during the brutal winter of 1846-47 and had to resort to cannibalism to keep from starving.

    Based on information supplied by a direct descendant of one of those pioneers, archaeologist Dr. Nora Kelly has applied for a grant to search for the campsite of a small group of the Donner party that splintered off.  Grants are generally hard to get, but Nora is optimistic since there are  rumors that one of the settlers was carrying a chest of gold coins on the trip, with a present-day worth of twenty million dollars.  Greed creates grant money.

    Meanwhile, newly-graduated FBI Agent Corrie Swanson grows weary of her agency apprenticeship, and has finally been given an investigation of her own to pursue.  Someone has dug up an old historical grave and made off with the upper half of the corpse.  The graveyard is on Federal land, and that means the FBI has jurisdiction.

    Nora and Corrie don’t know it, but they’ve both worked in the past with another FBI guy – Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.  That might be an ice-breaker when the two of them cross paths in the Sierra Nevada wilderness and are forced to team up.

    But both have headstrong personalities and they might find each other to be uncooperative and arrogant. I wonder how Aloysius would handle this.

What’s To Like...
    Both Nora Kelly and Corrie Swanson have previously been protagonists in Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child novels, Nora in Thunderhead (reviewed here), and Corrie in White Fire (reviewed here).  In Old Bones they now seem to be “promoted” to a series of their own, one that will presumably have a heavy emphasis on archaeology, which I count as a plus.  It will be interesting to see how Preston and Child come up with enough old ruins and baddies to keep our two protagonists busy.

    There's a bunch of mysteries and intrigue here to keep your interest.  Will the “Lost Camp” of the Donner party be found?  Was there really a chest of gold, and if so, will it be found?  What does a murder in Paris in the prologue have to do with anything?  Who’s stealing the corpses, and why?  And finally, why are people in Nora’s archaeological expedition turning up dead?

    I like the initial interplay between Nora and Corrie when they meet.  You’d expect them to be palsy-walsy right away, and that isn’t the case.  Neither one of them “plays well with others”, especially with their underlings and overlings.  Yet I felt that Old Bones portrays both characters at their best (so far), and I’m guessing they both will be learning tact and finesse as the series progresses.  

    The mention of New Hampshire’s “The Old Man of the Mountain” brought back pleasant childhood memories.  It’s a shame that it has since fallen down.  You'll l;earn a little bit of French from the story, including a cuss phrase.  There’s even a small amount of the patented Preston-&-Child motif “is it natural or supernatural?”  No one does that better than those guys.

    The ending is somewhat predictable yet suitably exciting.  There were a couple of plot twists to keep me on my toes, and I was only half-right about who the perp was.  Aloysius Pendergast only has a small cameo appearance, and it isn’t until the epilogue.  His main purpose seems to be toquickly and cerebrally solve the remaining unresolved puzzles.

    “How is it possible,” he asked, “that a man as experienced in the wilderness as Peel would fall off a cliff like this?”
    “Late at night,” Wiggett replied.  “The moon had set.  He’s collecting rocks for his grave.  He’s agitated, upset, not thinking clearly.”
    “Maybe even had a drink or two,” Clive added.
    “Peel didn’t drink.”  (pg. 226)

    He raised his head and cleared his throat.  “Samantha Carvilleae ossua heic.  Fortuna spondet multa multis, preastat nemini, vive in dies et horas, nam proprium est nihil.”
    Corrie looked at Pendergast.  “What exactly does that mean?”
    “Here lie the bones of Samantha Carville.  Fortune makes promises to many, keeps them to none.  Live for each day, live for the hours, since nothing is forever yours.”
    “That’s rather dark,” said Corrie.
    “It’s a favorite quote of my ward, Constance.  Besides, the graveside is no place for pleasantries.”  (pg. 362)

“You grow up thinking everything’s fine and bad things happen to other people, and then, out of the blue, life drops a piano on you.”  (pg. 147 )
    There are a couple of things to nitpick about.  There’s some cussing in any Preston & Child novel, but here it felt excessive, especially in the early chapters.  I didn’t feel like it added much to the book’s “feel”, and I'm wondering if the authors are trying to establish a "tone" for the series.

    Also, it seemed like it took a while for the storyline to get going.  The archaeology doesn’t start until page 143, and the first small bit of gold isn’t found until several pages after that.  But perhaps this is inevitable when starting a new series.  Characters need to introduced, their backstories need to be recounted, and settings need to be described.  But in any event, after the first gold coin is found, everything picks up nicely.

    I also would’ve appreciated a “what’s real and what’s fiction” section at the end of the book.  There is a short “Note To The Reader” section included, but in a nutshell, it says some of this is true, some of this is made-up, go look it up yourself.  Which I did.

    Overall, I think Old Bones is a solid start to new series by these two writers.  It won't outshine their Agent Pendergast series, but it's better than their Gideon Crew tales.  If you can make it through the first 150 pages of requisite world-building, you'll find the rest of the story to be of vintage Preston & Child quality.

    7½ Stars.  If you’re not familiar with it, the “Donner history” is given in chapter 4.  I was surprised to learn that there were quite a few survivors.  The Wikipedia article (the link is here) says 48 out of 87 lived through it.  So while some cannibalism certainly occurred, it never got down to a “just the two of us left, and one of us needs to eat the other” dilemma.  Too bad.  That might have made for a fascinating story.