Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury


   1950; 181 pages.  New Author? : No, but the last time I read a Ray Bradbury book was before this blog existed.  Genre : Classic Science-Fiction; Anthology; “Fix-up”; First Contact.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    In another dimension, Mars is a planet capable of sustaining humanoid life.  Martians, although somewhat shorter than we Earthlings, marry, live in houses, on both farms and in cities, and are telepathic.

    Alas, the coming of space rockets from planet Earth spells the doom of Martian civilization, for the germs and diseases we bring with us wipe out the Martians, almost (but not quite) to the last being.  But hey, that’s progress for you.  Now we humans have a whole second planet to colonize and exploit.  Say hello to galactic hot dog stands and pianos.

    Sounds pretty far out, eh?  Such a scenario is quite the otherworldly universe.  Well actually, it lies in the brilliant and fertile mind of renowned sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, here on Earth, in the late 1940’s and early 50’s.

What’s To Like...
    The Martian Chronicles was Ray Bradbury’s breakthrough novel, paving the way for his incredibly popular follow-up novel, Fahrenheit 451, which was published three years later.  Wikipedia calls it a “fix-up” novel, meaning Bradbury took a bunch of his short stories (mostly, but not entirely, previously published), and kinda stitched them together via minor rewriting and some extremely short interludes (sometimes only a paragraph in length) to give the collected stories a certain amount of continuity.  You can read the Wiki article about fix-ups here.

    The book is short, a mere 181 pages, which was the norm for science fiction novels back then, and is divided into 26 stories, the longest of which is only 24 pages.  At first, I tried to read it like a regular novel, but gave up after about the third story.  The characters almost never carry over from one tale to the next, and there are time gaps between each episode.  OTOH, Bradbury does list the month and year for each tale in the Table of Contents and Chapter headings, and they are given in chronological order.

    I don’t think Bradbury intended The Martian Chronicles to be a realistic portrayal of what we’d find on Mars if and when we landed there.  The stories were penned years before we launched the first rockets into space, but IIRC, we already knew the “canals” of Mars were naturally-occurring features and the odds of finding life of any kind there would be slim.

     Instead, I think he used the tales to give his views on hot-button topics whose time had frankly not yet come: the genocide the Native Americans perpetrated by the European colonists and conquistadors; the people who wanted to ban any books that didn’t support the (imagined) Leave It To Beaver society of the time; and the ever-present 1950’s fear of a nuclear holocaust. 

    Perhaps the most powerful and foresighted story in the book is Way in the Middle of the Air, which is a scathing examination of racial bigotry years before the Civil Rights movement even began.  Indeed, this tale makes abundant use of the N-word, and was purged from later editions for that offensive reason.  I was fortunate to be reading the 13th printing, from 1967, pictured above, before the censorship took place.

    It was fun to see how different life and literature were in the 1950’s.  Cigarette and cigars are smoked without controversy, the only way to listen to music was via LP’s, and the atom bomb weighed heavily on everybody’s mind.  There’s a nod to Johnny Appleseed in one of the stories, a tip-of-the-hat to Edgar Allan Poe in another, and a way-kewl excerpt from a Sara Teasdale poem, which will probably cause me to go looking for a book of her poetry at my local used-book store soon.

    There are a few cusswords sprinkled throughout, which surprised me.  I didn’t think science fiction published in 1950 had such language.  But it fits in well.  Despite being an anthology, this is a standalone novel, with an ending that is suitable for the subject matter.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Spicules (n.; plural) : tiny, sharp-pointed objects that are typically present in large numbers, such as fine dust or ice particles.
Others : Plangent (adj.).

Excerpts...
    Chicken pox, God, chicken pox, think of it!  A race builds itself for a million years, refines itself, erects cities like those out there, does everything it can to give itself respect and beauty, and then it dies.  Part of it dies slowly, in its own time, before our age, with dignity.  But the rest!  Does the rest of Mars die of a disease with a fine name or a terrifying name or a majestic name?  No, in the name of all that’s holy, it has to be chicken pox, a child’s disease, a disease that doesn’t even kill children on Earth!  It’s not right and it’s not fair.  It’s like saying the Greeks died of mumps, or the proud Romans died on their beautiful hills of athlete’s foot!”  (pg. 51)

    So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 1975; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose  oh, what a wailing – and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lives happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More!  And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; the filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists’ Ball!”  (pg. 106)

 “I’m being ironic.  Don’t interrupt a man in the midst of being ironic, it’s not polite.”  (pg. 116)
    There are some drawbacks to The Martian Chronicles.  The patchwork interludes that try to tie the various short stories together into something coherent are generally meh.  Frankly, any chapter under 4 pages is skippable.

    Even the first couple “long” short stories (is that an oxymoron?), primarily dealing with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd contacts, didn’t do much for me.  And some of the major events in the timeline, such as the great Martian plague, don't exist in the book, they get skipped over between chapters.

    But if you’re patient enough to wait until around the 11th story, Night Meeting, you’ll find the rest of the chapters in the book have powerful messages to impart and entertaining stories to relate.  It’s easy to see why this became an instant success for Bradbury.

    7½ Stars.  It’s hard to rate a book that’s so ho-hum to begin with and so fantastic starting about halfway through.  Subtract 2 stars if you yearn for life to return to a Beaver Cleaver world.   It never actually existed, but it’s fun to pretend, I suppose.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Lives Of Tao - Wesley Chu


   2013; 464 pages.  Book #1 (out of 3, plus a couple of spinoffs) in the Tao series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Humorous; Action-Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Ah yes, those pesky voices in your head.  Roen’s got them.  Well, technically, there’s only a single voice in him, at least that’s what the voice tells him.

    He’s got a name, too – "Tao".  And he says he’s an extraterrestrial, and he’s sorry he jumped into Roen’s head, but now he’s stuck there, so there you go.  And Tao says he and Roen are a team now, and they’ve got to save the world from other people with aliens in their heads, or something like that.

    Roen’s pretty sure he’s just going crazy.  But don’t crazy people just blindly do whatever those voices in their heads tell them to?  Roen isn’t having any of that, so he must not be crazy, right?  On the other hand, if he’s not crazy, then that means there really is an alien camped out in his cranium.  It’s all so confusing.

    But when other people start calling him Tao, while in the process of trying to kill him, Roen has to admit – Tao’s story is beginning to sound a lot more plausible.


What’s To Like...
    The Lives of Tao is the start of a fresh new (for me at least)  Action series, with a touch of Fantasy thrown in for fun.  The story is equal parts character-driven and plotline-driven, and I liked this balance.  Our protagonist, Roen, starts out as overweight, out-of-shape nerd, and it’s fun to watch Tao, and some of the other spirit-ET’s, mold him into a secret agent that just might eventually survive encounters with the bad guys.  Heck, he might even get a date with an earth girl, something that never happens in real life to nerds.

    The best part of The Lives of Tao, as other reviewers have noted, is the witty dialogue  and alien/human interaction that goes on between Tao and Roen.  This could get awkward to read, especially when there’s a third entity taking part in the conversation, but Wesley Chu handles it quite deftly.  Tao’s thoughts are in italics, and the humans’ words are in quotation marks.

    For the most part, the book is set in Chicago; presumably the author hails from there.  There are 39 chapters covering the 464 pages, which makes them of moderate length.  Starting with Chapter 9, each chapter opens with a sort of ‘prologue’, giving details of Tao’s various previous lives.  He’s been inhabiting humans for several millennia, and has an impressive résumé.  There is some cussing in the dialogue, but it's few and far between and fits in nicely.

    It is obvious that Wesley Chu is a history buff, and I very much enjoyed that.  One of my history heroes, Vercingetorix, gets some ink here, as does playing chess with a chess clock. Both of those were nerdy treats for me.  One gets the feeling that perhaps the author is a bit of a nerd himself, and I mean that as a compliment.

    The overarching plotline concerns the ongoing war between the two extraterrestrial forces – the Prophus (the good guys, including Tao), and the Genjix (the baddies).  At the moment, the baddies are kicking butt, and presumably the trilogy is all about the Prophus making a comeback, with Tao/Roen leading the charge.  It’s fun to watch Roen get used to being a Prophus agent, especially trying to come to grips with the fact that his new line of work be necessity involves killing people.

    Everything builds to an action-packed, tension-filled ending.  There are, of course, a number of threads still to be resolved.  But hey, that’s why Books 2 and 3 exist.  The Lives of Tao is a standalone novel, and its sequel, The Deaths of Tao, resides on my TBR shelf.

Excerpts...
    “Oh, this makes perfect sense now.  Million year-old geriatric aliens.  How do you stay alive for so long?  What’s your secret?”
    “Technically we self-reproduce, similar to how amoebas on your planet reproduce.  Over the course of time, we continually regenerate, sustaining ourselves from the nutrients of our hosts.”
    “So you’re a parasite?”
    “We like to think of it as symbiotic, but we can discuss biology another time.”  (loc. 815)

    Roen leaned back onto the couch and picked up his cat.  The poor creature had been feeling neglected for months now and hissed, trying to escape.  Roen held on to the tabby as he squirmed and dug his claws into his arm.  “Now, now, pussycat,” he murmured.
    “Have you decided on giving him a real name yet?”
    “Nah … Meow Meow’s a fine name.”
    “No, it is not.  That is like calling a dog Bark Bark.”
    “Actually, it would be more like Woof Woof, but I think Meow Meow sounds cuter.”
    “Your naming habits will get your kids beat up in the schoolyard.”  (loc. 3000)

Kindle Details...
    The Lives of Tao sells for $6.99 at Amazon.  The other two e-books in the series, The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao, sell for the same price, as does the spinoff, The Rise of Io.  A related novella, The Days of Tao, goes for $2.99.

 What are you going to do next time a Genjix wants to kill you, beg him to death?”  (loc. 1356)
    It’s really tough to come up with any quibbles about The Lives of Tao.  The only thing I can think of is that you aren’t alerted about any scene shifts as you’re reading, and that got confusing at times.  But that’s really a very small nit to pick.

    I suppose one could carp about the storyline being somewhat less than “epic”.  We spend most of the book watching Roen go through spy training boot camp and then accompany him out on some rookie-easy surveillance jobs.  Yet somehow, Wesley Chu makes it all very interesting, and the reader is rewarded with more exciting capers as Roen gains experience.

    9 Stars.  It’s always a literary thrill to “discover” a great new author who thoroughly entertains you and who you’d never heard of before.  That was the case here.  I remember my local Half Price Books store promoting the heck out of this series a couple years ago.  Now I understand why.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown


   2009; 639 pages.  New Author? : No, but it’s been a while.  Since before the start of this blog, actually.  Book #3 (out of 5) in the Robert Langdon series.  Genre: Action-Thriller; Mystery; Puzzle-Solving.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    For Robert Langdon, it was great to be back in Washington DC.  Especially since it was an all-expenses-paid trip, courtesy of his lifelong mentor and friend, Peter Solomon, who's invited him to be a guest speaker for the night.  In the US Capitol building, no less.

    Of course, it was all on very short notice.  Something about the originally scheduled speaker suddenly being unable to make it.  So Langdon was kind of a back-up option.  Still, having a private jet pick him up and fly him  to DC was quite the experience.  As was a sleek Lincoln Town Car limousine waiting to whisk him from Dulles Airport to the Capitol.

    That was when things got just a little bit wonky.  Because when the limousine dropped him off, and Robert Langdon made his way to Statuary Hall, where the lecture was to be held, it was dark.  And empty.  And in checking with the Capitol officials, there was no lecture of any kind scheduled for tonight in the building.  Maybe this was somebody’s idea of a joke.

    But if so, the jokester had sunk a lot of money into pulling it off.

What’s To Like...
    The Lost Symbol is equal parts action, intrigue, and puzzle-solving, and delivers plenty of each from the get-go.  Dan Brown switches up the POV’s to keep things hopping at a crisp pace.  There aren’t a lot of characters to follow in this 600+ page book, so the ones that are here get developed nicely.  I was particularly intrigued by Inoue Sato; you could never be 100% sure exactly whose side she was on.

    There’s only one setting for the book : Washington DC.  Indeed, towards the end of the book (page 622), Robert Langdon remarks that it’s only been ten hours since he landed in DC.  So the book's entire time frame is amazingly short.

    If you’re fascinated by the Masonic Order, with their 33 hierarchy levels and their rumored metaphysical secrets, this is the book for you.  Ditto if you’re curious as to how Particle Physics might dovetail with ancient Mysticism.  And of course, there are a slew of puzzles that need solving to save the world.

    With 134 chapters to span the 639 pages, there’s always a convenient place to stop reading for the night.  I was happy to see my Gnostics get worked into the story, as well as a brief plug for blogging.  Even Aleister Crowley gets a brief mention (who?), and it was kewl to see Melancolia 1 here too.  The acronym “TLV” was new to me (it means something quite different if you work in Regulatory Affairs), and it was fun to learn the origin of the word “sincerely”.

    There’s a little bit of cussing, and of course a requisite amount of violence and killing.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of the Robert Langdon series.

Kewlest New Word...
Suffumigation (n.) : the burning of substances (such as incense) to produce fumes as part of some magical rituals.
Others: Putti (n., plural).

Excerpts...
    One mortal man had seen Mal’akh naked, eighteen house earlier.  The man had shouted in fear.  “Good God, you’re a demon!”
    “If you perceive me as such,” Mal’akh had replied, understanding as had the ancients that angels and demons were identical – interchangeable archetypes – all a matter of polarity: the guardian angel who conquered your enemy in battle was perceived by your enemy as a demon destroyer.  (pg. 14)

    As a young girl, Katherine Solomon had often wondered if there was life after death.  Does heaven exist?  What happens when we die?  As she grew older, her studies in science quickly erased any fanciful notions of heaven, hell, or the afterlife.  The concept of “life after death,” she came to accept, was a human construct … a fairy tale designed to soften the horrifying truth that was our mortality.
    Or so I believed  (pg. 487)

 “Death is usually an all-or-nothing thing!”  (pg. 47)
    For all the thrills and spills in The Lost Symbol, there were some weaknesses.  First of all, there are a slew of info dumps: about the Masons, New Age metaphysics, the layout of Washington DC, the mystical “eye” on the back of the $1 bill, etc., and for the most part, they’re awkwardly dropped into the storyline.

    No one seems to prceive that Dr. Abaddon’s  name is obviously phony – it’s an old synonym for Hell or the Devil.  And you just know that when one of the characters is introduced as being “plump”, she’s going to get killed off somewhere along the line.  Why not just dress her in a Star Trek red shirt?

    Also, there is a kewl bit of situational ethics introduced at the end, when the showdown between Peter Solomon and Mal’akh takes place.  Alas, the author chickens out in resolving it, allowing an act of God to make the decision instead of the humans.

    But the main problem with The Lost Symbol is the big secret itself.  The bad guy wants it.  The Masons are willing to die to keep it a secret.  And the mighty CIA lives in mortal fear that us commoners will learn about it.  Yet when it finally is disclosed to the reader, it’s really no big deal and it’s really not that big of a secret.  Anyone who’s ever dabbled in Metaphysics 101 will already be familiar with it.

    What a royal letdown.

    7 Stars.  I remember The Lost Symbol being panned as a literary flop when it came out.  True, it had to follow Dan Brown’s mega-hit, The Da Vinci Code, an almost impossible task.  The haters are justified; it is a poorly-written book with an ending that is mediocre at best.  But the Dan Brown loyalists are justified as well.  The writing may be mediocre, but the nonstop-action storytelling itself is top-notch.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Bonk - Mary Roach


   2008; 320 pages.  Full Title : Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Science; Human Sexuality; Research.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Hey, I’ve got a great idea!  Let’s do a sex research project.
    Um, okay.  Have you thought of anything specific?
    Yeah.  Does eating kiwi fruit enhance your desire to, you know, “do it”?
    Well, that’ll certainly be an original study.  Where will you get the money to pay for the test subjects?
    Pay them?!  I’ll just get volunteers.  Anybody who likes to eat kiwi fruit will jump at the chance for free food.
    How do you know they’ll give you honest answers?
    Hmm. I don’t know, man.  I guess we’ll have to hook them up to some sort of lie-detector machine.
    That costs money.  And you’ll have to pay someone to figure out exactly how to test your human guinea pigs to get verifiable, reproducible results.
    You're right.  I suppose we’ll have to apply for some government grant money.
    They don’t like giving out money unless your project will make tangible improvements for some sort of illness or problem.  ED, frigidity, impotence; things like that.  I don’t think eating kiwis be better the lot of people with sexual issues.
    Jeez.  This is going to be more difficult than I thought.  Maybe I better read a book on Scientific Research and Sex.  Do you know of any?
    How about Mary Roach’s “Bonk”?  And hey, don’t give up.  You know what they say.  “If you never eat a kiwi, you never want a kiwi.”  (an actual quote from Bonk)
     
What’s To Like...
    Let’s get the important question out of the way first.  If you’re wondering if Bonk might be the non-fiction equivalent to 50 Shades of Grey, the answer is ‘no’.  This book is more about scientific research into sex, a less about sex itself.  As such, it focuses on the challenges of recruiting the best test subjects, and getting objective and meaningful results.  For instance, simply asking the participants what “felt best” is not reliable, your test subjects may be wanting to please and therefore give you overly optimistic feedback.

    The key to any research project is gaining grant money to fund it via grants.  To aid in that, sex researchers come up with a lot of “clinical terms” for their endeavors.  The main one is substituting “psychophysiology” for “sex”, but there are lots of others.  For instance: eroscillation, somatosensory stimulus, flowback losses, mounting readiness, visual erotic stimulation, intravaginal stimulation, anterior-lateral attitude, flaturia, 50% orgasmic return, normal voluptuous reaction, and bulbocavernosis reflex, the latter being my favorite piece of “newspeak”.

    The book is divided into 15 chapters, plus a prologue, each with a title and a subtitle, all of which are catchy phrases.  Some of the "tamer" examples are:

Ch. 1.  The Sausage, The Porcupine, and the Agreeable Mrs. G.
Ch. 3.  The Princess and Her Pea.
Ch. 7.  If Two Are Good, Would Three Be Better? (subtitle, and not about what you think)
Ch.  8. Re-Member Me.
Ch. 11.  The Immaculate Orgasm. (subtitle, and about what you think it is)
Ch. 14. Monkey Do. (The Secret Sway of Hormones).

    There are a multitude of footnotes, and they are on a par with Terry Pratchett footnotes in wittiness and interest.  If you skip them, you will be missing some great humor and obscure trivia.  I found it easiest to bookmark the page I was on, then go read the footnote, then access the bookmark.  In short, do not skip the footnotes!

    Although the book is about researching human sexuality, there is much to be learned from the animal kingdom.  Mary Roach observes and reports about monkeys and their courtship rituals, pigs in foreplay, and – perhaps the most educational of all – how porcupines manage to do it without getting pricked to death by the quills of their mate.

    Mary Roach is a diligent researcher, willing to travel anywhere, even to Egypt to learn firsthand about sex research there and how it can be done while living in a conservative Muslim nation.  She also personally takes part in a couple of the research projects, and in one case, talks her husband into participating as a team.  That particular study involved being in an MRI tube, which made for crowded quarters.

    The author makes extensive use of the Internet, including Google and Wikipedia, to find research papers on obscure topics.  Several of the chapters grew out of this technique, where Internet search “hits” were followed up by direct communication.  There is such a thing as TMI, however, such as when she interviewed ER personnel and asked for a list of items that they'd had to remove from rectums.  We’ll leave that list in the comments of this review.  You’ve been warned.

Excerpts...
    If you try this yourself, I recommend doing so when no one is home.  Otherwise, you will run the risk of someone walking in on you and having to witness a scene that includes a mirror, the husband’s Stanley Powerlock tape measure, and the half-undressed self, squatting.  No one should have to see that.  It’s bad enough you just had to read it.  (loc. 684)

    Dr. Ahmed Shafik wears three-piece suits with gold watch fobs and a diamond stick pin in the lapel.  His glasses are the thick, black rectangular style of the Nasser era.  He owns a Cairo hospital and lives in a mansion with marble walls.  He was nominated for a Nobel Prize.  I don’t care about any of this.  Shafik won my heart by publishing a paper in European Urology in which he investigated the effects of polyester on sexual activity.  Ahmed Shafik dressed lab rats in polyester pants.  (loc. 2628)

Kindle Details...
    Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex sells for $9.99, which is a pretty good price for a top-flight science book.  Mary Roach offers another half dozen e-books, ranging in price from $8.61 to $11.99.  I borrowed my copy via my local library’s digital library, and it seems like not many people have discovered this source of Mary Roach books.

 The Lord  … hath made me a polished shaft (Isaiah 49:2)  (loc. 2191)
    I really don’t have any quibbles with Bonk.   If you’re not of a scientific mindset, I suppose the abundance of details concerning the research can get tedious.  And it has to be admitted, after a while, one research project starts sounding pretty much like another.  But I am a chemist by profession, so reading about the “hows and whys” of these studies was fascinating for me.

    Bonk is part of what is at present a 4-volume single-word-titled series by Mary Roach.  The other three books in the series are Grunt (science meets humans at war), Gulp (the science of the alimentary canal), and Spook (science tackles the afterlife).  My local digital library carries all of these.  I suspect I'll be reading more books by this author in the near future.

    9 Stars.  Subtract 1 star  if scientific research bores you.  And that would be a shame, since you’d miss curious bits of study such as this: Placing cheese crumbs close to a pair of laboratory rats while they’re copulating will distract the female, but not the male.  And maybe that’s all you need to know about how the two genders regard the act of sex.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Club Dead - Charlaine Harris


   2003; 275 pages.  Book 3 (out of 13) of the “Sookie Stackhouse series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Vampires; Paranormal Thriller; Gothic Romance.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    The vampire Bill Compton has gone missing in action!  He’s Sookie Stackhouse’s sometimes boyfriend, sometimes lover and full-time source of anxiety and frustration, and it goes without saying that Sookie’s upset.

    Of course, the reason why she’s upset is a little complicated.  The last time he was with her, Bill told Sookie he had to do a top-secret project for the (Vampire) Queen of Louisiana.  Hush-hush, very dangerous, and if anything happens to me, please hide my computer and its hard drive.

    But it turns out that Bill isn’t in Louisiana, he disappeared while in Mississippi.  And the word on the street (okay, in the vampire bars) is that he’s being held captive by the local bloodsuckers.  Oh yeah, and those local vamps include his ex-lover, Lorena, with whom he had a long and passionate relationship.  Could it be that Bill was in the process of dumping Sookie to rekindle a relationship with Lorena?

    Now you know why Sookie’s as mad as ...well... a jilted lover.

What’s To Like...
    Club Dead is the third installment  in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and broadens the setting a bit more.  The first two books were set in Louisiana and Texas, respectively; here Sookie is off to adventure and mayhem in Mississippi.  We get to visit a new vampire nightclub, ‘Jospehine’s’, also known as the titular ‘Club Dead’, and learn that vampire royalty: kings and queens, rule the undead territories we mortals know as our 50 states.

    The storyline has the usual structure:  Sookie goes on a quest on behalf of the vampires; she gets beat up a lot and has relationship issues with Bill; the action speeds up and the good guys, girls, and ghouls eventually kick undead ass.

    A character from Book One is back, “Bubba”, and he’s one of my favorites.  There are a bunch of Mississippi undead to meet as well.  Vampires are still the most prevalent beasties we run across, but we learn a lot more about the various shapeshifters, generically called “Weres”, of which the Werewolves are the dominant type.  We also cross paths with a goblin, and I think that's a new beast for the series.  It’s also hinted that witches will make an appearance soon.

    The vampire Eric plays a larger-than-usual role here, but most of the other Louisiana characters – the patrons and workers at Merlotte’s Bar, Sookie’s brother, and the Bon Temps locals – are limited to cameo appearances.  I enjoyed the brief nod to Samhain, and I’d still like to take at least one flight on Anubis Airlines.

    Sookie gets her first mani-pedi, as well as her first killing.  There’s some sex and lots of cussing, but that’s the norm for this series.  The ending is adequate, but not spectacular.  Instead of a tension-built climax, it felt to me like it was rushed, and then coasted along another 50 pages or so afterward.  A major thread remained unresolved (Bill’s mission for the vampire queen of Louisiana) although this could also be him BS-ing Sookie.  Either way, the main plotline, Bill’s abduction, is tied up completely, and Club Dead is both a standalone tale, as well as part of a series.

Kewlest New Word…
Virago (n.) : a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman.

Excerpts...
    “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” I told myself.  That had been Gran’s favorite Bible quotation.  When I was about nine, I’d asked her to explain that to me, and she’d said, “Don’t go looking for trouble; it’s already looking for you.”  (loc. 2655)

   “Did this Alcide kill him?”  Bill looked down at me, reconsidered.  “Or Sookie?”
    “He says no.  They found the corpse in the closet of Alcide’s apartment, and they hatched a plan to hide his remains.”  Eric sounded like that had been kind of cute of us.
    “My Sookie hid a corpse?”
    “I don’t think you can be too sure about that possessive pronoun.”
     “Where did you learn that term, Northman?”
    “I took ‘English as a Second Language’ at a community college in the seventies.”   (loc. 3332)

Kindle Details...
    Club Dead sells for $7.99 at Amazon.  The rest of the books in the 13-volume series also go for $7.99, except for Book 1, Dead Until Dark, which is only $2.99.  Charlaine Harris has several other series started, and their books range in price from $2.99 to $13.99.

 “This Blood’s For You.”  (loc. 440)
    I had some quibbles.  For me, the book started out slow, although in fairness, that may have been a necessary evil as Charlaine Harris introduces a slew of the recurring characters to any reader that might be making Club Dead their first book in the series.  However, since most of these meet-&-greets play no part in the story, this was just lag time for me.  Even the Book Two baddies, the Brotherhood of the Sun, appear briefly later on, presumably for the same reason.   Still, once the introductions are over, around a quarter of the way through the book, the pace picks up nicely, and its lots of thrills and kills thereafter.

   A more significant problem was the storyline as a whole, which felt disjointed to me.  It was never really made clear (at least to me) why Bill was kidnapped.  Nor, as already mentioned, was it clear whether he was actually on a secret mission for the queen.  Busting Bill out of captivity seemed way too easy, and the subsequent “chase” seemed contrived and way too speedily put into action by the baddies.  All in all, the whole storyline felt formulaic.

    True, Bill has a computer program that would be useful to all sorts of factions.  But is it worth engaging in kidnapping and torturing, and risking a war with various other undead for?  It didn’t seem so to me.

    Maybe the author had a deadline to meet, or maybe my brain was just too tired or dense to see the answers to my quibbles.  I've read the first three books in this series, all in the past six months.  Maybe I'm a tad bit burnt out on it.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 star if this is your first Sookie Stackhouse book.  You'll find it a fascinating series.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Shakespeare: The World As Stage


   2007; 197 pages (plus ‘Extras’).  Full Title : Shakespeare: The World As Stage.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Biography; History; Non-Fiction; Authors.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    “Hey, how much do you know about the life of William Shakespeare?”

    “Oh, lots!  He wrote a bunch of plays that we were forced to read, one per year, in high school English.  He lived in Stratford-on-Avon.  Or maybe London.  Hmm.  Or maybe both places.  I can picture his face – a high forehead with, bald on top, and dark hair on the sides.”

    “Not bad.  Anything else?”
  
    “Yeah, his wife’s name was Anne Hathaway.  They were deeply in love, just read his sonnets.  And, hey, I can even spell his name correctly: S – H – A – K – E – S – P – E – A – R – E.”  That’s about it.  Pretty good, huh?”

    "It is!  But what if I told you there are only three “originals” of Shakespeare's face, all done years after his death, and all very questionable in accuracy?  Or that Shakespeare only bequeathed his wife the “second-best bed” from their home?  Or that Shakespeare spelled his name all sorts of ways, but never the way we spell it today?  Or that lots of self-titled scholars down through the centuries have claimed he never existed, and that those plays you list were actually written by someone else?”

    “Hmm.  Then I guess I better go read a good biography of Shakespeare, to find out what the truth is.  Do you happen to know of any?”

    "Funny you should ask..."

What’s To Like...
    Shakespeare: The World as Stage is part of a biography series called “Eminent Lives”; more on this later.  Bill Bryson is of course a writer who could make a 250-page book on watching paint dry seem interesting.  That serves him well here, because the truth is, very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, which makes writing his life story quite the challenge.  Bryson solves this by writing a book focused as much on describing life in England in the late 1500’s/early 1600’s as on Shakespeare’s personal life.  He succeeds eminently.

    The book is divided into 9 chapters:

1.  In Search of William Shakespeare.
        How little we know about him, including what he looked like.
2.  The Early Years 1564-1585
        Shakespeare’s marriage and his three kids.  Plus how easily you could die.
3.  The Lost Years 1585-1592.
        Shakespeare goes to London.  Was he a closet Catholic?
4.  In London.
        The Golden Age of Theaters in England.  Talk about good timing!
5. The Plays.
        Which ones came first.  His writing strengths and weaknesses.
        New Words, New phrases, New literary devices.
        What lines and words he stole.
6. Years of Fame  1596-1603.
        Shakespeare gets rich and famous.  His son dies.
        He writes his best plays – Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.
7. The Reign of King James  1603-1616.
        His sonnets and later plays.
        His brother and mother die.
8. Death.
        Died in April, 1616.
        His family line dies out within a couple generations.
        Theaters die out too, thanks to the Puritans.
        Shakespeare’s reputation down through the centuries.
9. Claimants.
        Was there really a William Shakespeare?
        Identities of the proposed “pretenders”.

    Bill Bryson is best known for his travelogue tales, but I’m also impressed with his ability to vividly describe historical times (see here *** for an example).  The way he paints England in Shakespeare’s time is breathtaking.  Plague and religious strife were rampant.  Tobacco, a recent import from the New World, was prescribed for all sorts of health ailments.  Guy Fawkes and others plotted to blow up Parliament.  Uneasy lay the head that wore the crown.

    It sucked to be poor, and most people were.  Yet somehow, they had time and money for the theater, which had only recently sprung into existence.  And what a joy it was to go to, or even work in the theater!  James Burbage was the leading actor of the day, and Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were other noted London playwrights of the day.   There wasn’t a better time for Shakespeare to show up with pen in hand and plays to write.

    The literary parts of the book are as fantastic as the history portions.  Bill Bryson is neither jealous nor in awe of Shakespeare, both the man and the playwright, and does does his best with the very limited amount of direct knowledge we have about Shakespeare.  When he’s forced to rely on conjecture, he lets the reader know.  He’s not afraid to tackle subjects such as: Was Shakespeare Catholic?  Was Shakespeare gay?  Did he plagiarize lines from other people’s works?  Was Shakespeare even real?

    The quibbles are minor.  There are a bunch of “extras” at the back of the book: a bibliography, acknowledgements, About the Author, etc.  But all of it seemed "skippable".  There is no such thing as a boring Bill Bryson book, but I did hit one slow spot when he went into length about the reliability of other biographers’ versions of  William Shakespeare’s life.  And at 197 pages, the book was over way too quickly.   

    We’ll close this section by offering three trivia teasers about the Bard of Avon.  Answers are in the Comments section.
    a. How many new words did Shakespeare add to the English language?
    b. How many different ways did Shakespeare use to spell his name?
    c. How many different ways has his name been spelled (in English only) by others?

Kewlest New Word…
Anatopism (n.) : something that is out of place.  (e.g.: an outrigger canoe in Madrid)
Others : Prolix (adj.); Lexeme (n.); Insuperable (adj.); Ambit (n.); Amanuensis (n.).


Excerpts...
    This disdain for female actors was a Northern European tradition.  In Spain, France, and Italy, women were played by women – a fact that astonished British travelers, who seem often to have been genuinely surprised to find that women could play women as competently onstage as in life.  Shakespeare got maximum effect from the gender confusion by constantly having his female characters – Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night – disguise themselves as boys, creating the satisfyingly dizzying situation of a boy playing a woman playing a boy.  (loc. 943)

    Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, critical, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including countless).  Where would we be without them?  (…)
    (M)any of them failed to take hold.  Undeaf, untent, and unhappy (as a verb), exsufflicate, bepray, and insultment were among those that were scarcely heard again.  (loc. 1393)

Kindle Details...
    Shakespeare: The World as Stage sells for $8.24 at Amazon, which is not bad for a well-known author like Bill Bryson.  There are a slew of Bryson's books available for your Kindle, ranging in price from $7.99 to $13.99.

 O paradox! black is the badge of hell, the hue of dungeons and the school of night.  (loc. 1279, from “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, and considered one of the most unfathomable lines from a Shakespeare play)
    As mentioned earlier, Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage is part of something called the Eminent Lives series.  There apparently are 12 books in the series, at least at the time Bryson's contribution was published as an e-book.

    All the books are deliberately short – 200-250 pages or so.  Each biography is written by an author you don’t ordinarily associate with this genre.  I gather the intent of the series is to write biographies for people who don’t normally read biographies.  I fall into that category.

    The 12 books in the series are listed in the back of Shakespeare: The World As Stage.  Some are about people you’d expect: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Beethoven, etc.  Some are about people I've never, or barely even heard of: George Balanchine, Frances Crick, Alexis de Tocqueville.  Some are about people that pique my interest: Muhammad, Machiavelli, Caravaggio.  Each is written by a different author.

    Most of these books are about 250 pages long, and the price range seems to be $9-$15.  That’s a bit rich for my reading tastes, so here’s hoping they show up at one of the discounted e-books sites at some point in the future.  Shakespeare did.

    9½ Stars.  Highly recommended, especially if you're bananas about Bryson, and/or don't normally read biographies.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Doughnut - Tom Holt


   2011; 344 pages.  Book 1 (out of 4) in Tom Holt’s (completed) Doughnut series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; British Humor, Multiverses.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Decimal points are such small things.  A mere dot on the spreadsheet.  A period.  A ‘full stop', if you happen to be British.  So easily overlooked.

    Theo Bernstein was supposed to move the decimal point one place to the right.  Instead, he moved it one place to the left.  If he was an accountant, that would probably cost somebody a few dollars.  Or give somebody a few bucks extra.

    But Theo operates the VVLHC.  That stands for “Very Very Large Hadron Collider”.  He was hoping to generate and detect some new subatomic particle.  Instead he generated an explosion.  Which wiped out an entire mountain in Switzerland.  Along with the VVLHC.  His mistake was detected by all sorts of people.

   No VVLHC means Theo Bernstein no longer has a job.  And you know what they say:

    “The world is an unfair place.  Blow up just one multi-billion-dollar research facility, and suddenly nobody wants to be your friend.”

What’s To Like...
    Doughnut is chronologically the first book in Tom Holt’s 4-volume “YouSpace” series, aka the “Doughnut” series.  I’ve read the other three books and this one follows the standard format.  Theo, our hapless protagonist, finds himself at a new job, with a bunch of bizarre coworkers and strange, nonsensical rules to follow.  The first half of the book is utter mayhem, and the second half of it works slowly but diligently to straighten things out.

    Doughnut is divided into five sections, with some imaginative titles such as “Doughnut Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “One Empty San Miguel Bottle To Bring Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them”.   There are no chapters, but you can always find a good place to stop: they’re signaled with a cute little doughnut icon.

    The main motif of both this book and this series is Tom Holt having fun with Quantum Physics, with particular emphasis on Multiverses.  The titular doughnut is explained on page 78, although I was already familiar with it, since I read the series out-of-order.   I chuckled at the VVLHC, as well as the “Rope Theory”, a playful poke at Stephen Hawking’s “String Theory”, which seems hauntingly timely, since Hawking just passed away last week.  If you’re a lover of calculus, you’ll enjoy the Ultimate Doomsday Equation, which poor Theo has to solve on page 35.

    Most of the critters to meet are cartoon characters.  Yes, a goblin makes a cameo appearance early on, and a talking bird shows up a short time later.  But the real fun starts when one of the multiverses is inhabited by Disney characters with decidedly unfriendly attitudes.  Ditto for the beasties from A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh stories.  Still, Theoretical Quantum Physics dictates that when there are an infinite number of parallel universes, at least one of them will feature Minnie Mouse looking for a fight and packing an automatic rifle.

    As always, there is an abundance of dry humor and British wit.  Indeed, this is the main reason to read any Tom Holt book.  The ending has a couple of twists and adequately addresses all the bizarre things that happen to Theo.  Doughnut is a standalone novel, as well as being part of a mini-series.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Secateurs (n.) : a pair of pruning clippers for use with one hand.  (a Britishism)
Others : Whinneting (v., a made-up word).

Excerpts...
    In the beginning was the Word.
    Hardly likely, is it?  In order for it to be a word, it would’ve had to belong to a language; otherwise it’d just have been a random, meaningless noise – zwwgmf, prblwbl, bweeeg.   You can’t have a one-word language; words need context.  Therefore, of all the things that could possibly exist in isolation at the Beginning, a word is the least plausible.  All right, back-burnerise the Word for now, let’s try something else.  (pg. 199)

    He’d never really thought about death before, except in a vague, objective kind of way.  He was aware that it existed, but so did Omsk; both of them were distant, irrelevant and not particularly attractive, and he had no intention of visiting either of them.  The thought that he might die alone, pointlessly, unnoticed, unaided and quite possibly at the paws of a viciously predatory cartoon character would never have occurred to him, and he was entirely unprepared to deal with it.  (pg. 207)
  
 Sucrofens, ergo est; it’s sticky; therefore it exists.  (pg. 84)
    I enjoyed Doughnut, although I admit that reading Tom Holt books is an acquired taste.  You have to be ready for a convoluted plotline, which meanders hither, thither, and yon, often seemingly without any literary control by the author.  You can rest assured that Tom Holt will eventually pull it all together, but the fun in each story is in seeing how long it takes him to do so.

        Holt's books also invariably contain some cusswords, which may seem an awkward fit with all the tomfoolery and satire going on.  But somehow, it always works.  Doughnut is no exception, and bear in mind that the cussing in sot excessive.

    Finally, it should be noted that Tom Holt writes in English, not American.  So you will meet words and spellings like colour, realise, Selloptape, maths, whisky, sceptic, and storeys.  This may be off-putting to some (Spellcheck certainly doesn’t like it), but I find novels written in 'English' to be fascinating.

    8 Stars.  There is no such thing as a poor Tom Holt book, although my favorite ones are from his earlier years, when he uses themes from myths and legends, such as the ones reviewed here and here .  All his works are highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin


   1974; 387 pages.  Full Title (in the original version) : The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.  New Author? : Yes.  Laurels : Locus Award – Best Novel (1975, won); Nebula Award – Best Novel (1974, won); Hugo Award (1975, won); John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1975, nominated).  Genre : Utopian Fiction; Science Fiction; Political Science; Quantum Physics Fiction; Middlebrow.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    There’s little love between the planets Urras and Anarres, despite the fact that they serve as each other’s moon.  It’s been that way for more than a century, after a group of dissenters left Urras to resettle on Anarres and set up a Anarcho-Utopian society.  Since then, the two worlds have been almost completely isolated from each other.

    There are some exceptions.  One spaceport on Anarres, Abbenay, allows Urrasti freighters to dock several times a year, and goods are exchanged.  Anarres is a barren world and needs manufactured goods; Urras is a lush, but heavily resource-exploited world and needs minerals and other raw materials.  In addition, there is limited communication by radio.

      So it is a truly historic and unprecedented event when Urras agrees to allow Shevek, an Anarresti “rebel”, to come visit their world.  Of course, the fact that he’s also a renowned physicist who can work with their scientists to develop the next leap in Quantum Physics figures into their decision.

  But beware, Shevek.  You think that while you’re there, you’ll be able to extol the virtues of Anarchism to all sorts of people.  Perhaps the government officials on Urras are planning to do the same sort of thing through you.

What’s To Like...
    The Dispossessed is a clever blend of three genres: Science Fiction, Political Science, and Quantum Physics.  The Poli-Sci angle was truly groundbreaking.  Ursula K. Le Guin contrasts the political ideal of Anarchy to that of Capitalism and Communism; the latter was still a dominant force back in 1974.  Utopian Fiction (not to be confused with its Dystopian cousin) had already been infused into Science Fiction, but it always was presented as an ideal.  Here, Ursula K. Le Guin presents a Utopia with its own set of warts and blemishes, a never-before-considered concept.

    The Dispossessed is the story of our protagonist, Shevek, but it is not told in a linear fashion.  More on this in a bit.  Shevek is an interesting character study – brilliant in some ways, incredibly naïve in others.  There are a bunch of his friends, family, and professional associates to meet and greet, and Kindle has a new feature called “Shelfari” which was a handy resource in determining which of these characters were important enough keep make notes about.

    The world-building is fantastic.  I loved the attention to the two languages, Iotic on Urras, and Pravic on Anarres.  Ursula Le Guin invents some words for these languages, but the important ones are footnoted.  I liked the epithets, such as “Propertarian”, “Profiteer”, “Egoizing”, and “Archist”, the latter being the opposite of “Anarchist”.  And I chuckled at the mention of Dr. Ainsetain, a physicist from long ago on Terra, whose Relativity theories are regarded now as quaint but outdated.

    The book is a primer on Anarchism.  I had only a rudimentary understanding of what that was about (Down with Government!), so it was enlightening to have it presented in a practical manner.  There’s a recurring motif of “walls”, which basically embody anything – physical or otherwise – that separates people from each other.  If you’re a fan of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, you’ll have no trouble with this idea.

    The boys “playing prison” early in the book is a particularly riveting event.  But there are also some lighter moments, such as Shevek “exploring a bathroom” when he first gets to Urras.  The Pravic language doesn’t recognize bodily functions as being dirty, nor does it view any words as “cussing”, so be prepared to be shocked a bit by some of the language here.

    I found The Dispossessed to be a slow read, but not a difficult one.  The chapters are fairly long – thirteen of them for 387 pages of text.  The ending is okay, but not spectacular.  This is a standalone novel, despite being set in the author’s “Hainish Cycle” world.

Kewlest New Word ...
Apocopations (n., plural) : words formed by removing the end of a longer word.  (Examples:  “street cred”; "bro"; "sis")

Kindle Details...
    The Dispossessed sells for $6.99 at Amazon.  Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific science fiction/fantasy writer, and her full-length novels are in the $5.99-$14.99 range for the Kindle versions.  She also wrote several short books for children, which are even cheaper.   

Excerpts...
    “The singular forms of the possessive pronoun in Pravic were used mostly for emphasis; idiom avoided them.  Little children might say “my mother,” but very soon they learned to say “the mother”.  Instead of “my hand hurts,” it was “the hand hurts me,” and so on; to say “this one is mine and that’s yours” in Pravic, one said, “I use this one and you use that.”  (loc. 870)

    “I used to want so badly to be different.  I wonder why?”
    “There’s a point, around age twenty,” Bedap said, “when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
    “Or at least accept them with resignation,” said Shevek.
    “Shev is on a resignation binge,” Takver said.  “It’s old age coming on.  It must be terrible to be thirty.”  (loc. 3661)

 “You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them.  You can only crush them by ignoring them.”  (loc. 2399)
    Despite all its awards and plaudits, I did not find The Dispossessed to be a compelling read.  I think this was because I was expecting a science fiction tale, filled with excitement and ET’s, and exotic worlds.  It isn’t.

    Shevek visits.  Shevek contemplates.  Shevek expounds upon the merits and challenges of Anarchism.  Shevek points out the shortcomings of both Capitalism and Communism.  At one point Shevek gives a speech at a demonstration.  Ho hum.

    I also found the Quantum Physics parts to be an awkward fit, although it has to be said that QP was in its infancy at the time Le Guin was writing this, and it has evolved significantly since then.

    The book’s structure was also a challenge.  It opens smack dab in the middle of the storyline.  The chapters then alternate between Shevek’s present situation on Urras and his past history on Anarres.  But the reader has to suss this out for himself.

    To be fair, there’s a handy Study Guide at the end of the book, which will help you make sure you don’t miss anything important.  Also, I consulted Wikipedia after finishing the first chapter in a confused state of mind, and it helped straighten things out considerably.

    So here's my advice.  Read The Dispossessed as a Political Science treatise, not as a tale of galactic adventure.  Skim over the Wikipedia entry beforehand; then make use of the Study Guide after each chapter.  You’ll enjoy the book a lot more if you do.

    7 Stars.  I am a fan of the main genres that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in: Science Fiction and Fantasy.  She was also an ardent Anarchist, which fascinates me.  I am at a loss to say why I haven’t read any of her books before this, particularly the Hainish Cycle and the Earthsea series.  She passed away recently (01/22/18) at the ripe old age of 88, so reading this book is kind of a small tribute on my part to her.  Two more of her books reside on my Kindle, including the first Earthsea novel, so I intend to read more of her stuff.