Friday, September 22, 2017

The Seventh Plague - James Rollins

   2016; 425 pages.  Book #12 (out of 12, but #13 is due out in December) in the Sigma Force series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller; Save-the-World (several times over).  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    After two years of being missing and presumed dead, Professor Harold McCabe, an archaeologist with an obsession with Moses and the ten plagues, has suddenly wandered out of the Sudanese desert and back into civilization.

    Well, “civilization” was in this case a small village on the edge of the desert, and Professor McCabe was at death’s door when the villagers found him.  They cared for him as best they could, but he died soon afterward.  His body was then shipped to Cairo and that’s when things turn strange.

    For starters, the cadaver is showing signs of partial mummification.  Even weirder is that the process appears to have been initiated by Professor McCabe himself.  Why in the world would he do such a thing?

    Then comes the final surprise.  The opening of the body is suspected of triggering some sort of outbreak of a lethal and unknown disease.  Everyone on the Egyptian forensics team who's been exposed to Professor McCabe's body is falling victim to some sort of virus, and a majority of them are dying from it.

     You could almost call it a plague.

What’s To Like...
    The Seventh Plague is your typical James Rollins “Sigma Force” tale. The action starts right away and really never lets up.  All your favorite Sigma Force peeps are here, plus some cameo appearances in one of the prologues by Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla, and Stanley, he of the famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume": quote.  The settings are great, and run a climatic gamut: cold and wet England, cold and dry northern Canada (Ellesmere Island, and when's the last time you read a book with that setting?), hot and dry Sahara desert, and hot and wet Rwandan jungle.

    I liked the clever blend of religion with science, even if it did strain the limits of my believability at times.  And FWIW, the titular “Seventh Plague” is not of any particularly greater importance than the other nine; James Rollins attempts to explain all ten of them via naturally-occurring phenomena.  Michael Crichton would be proud.

    There are a bunch of neat drawings in the book; those were an unexpected treat and help the reader with the puzzle-solving.  The self-mummification is a nice twist, and I enjoyed the “elephant painters”.  Overall, The Seventh Plague felt more “sciency” than usual for a Sigma Force novel, and that’s a plus for me.

    The baddies aren’t exactly “gray”, but neither are any of them pitch black.  All of the main ones have a redeeming quality or two, and some of them live to fight another day.

    Everything builds to an exciting, if somewhat un-twisty, two-location ending,  I liked the accompanying double (or even triple) epilogue(s) as well.  And the “Truth or Fiction” afterword by James Rollins is way-kewl.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series

    “If nothing else,” she said, “I could use a tall pint.  Maybe two.  To help settle the nerves.”
    She offered him a small smile, which he matched.
    “Since it’s for medicinal purposes,” he said, “the first round’s on me.  I am a doctor after all.”
    She looked askance at him.  “Of archaeology.”
    “Of bio-archaeology,” he reminded her.  “That’s almost as good as a medical doctor.”  (pg. 46)

    “Which path do we take? Esophagus or trachea?”
    Derek shifted his beam to the damaged left tonsil.  “It looks like there was more traffic in and out of the airway.”  He pointed out the evident trampling in the trachea compared to the esophagus.  “So I say we ignore Robert Frost and take the road most traveled.”
    Gray nodded.  “Let’s move out.”
    Only Kowalski seemed disgruntled by this decision.  ”Yeah, let’s go deeper into the belly of a demon-wrestling god.  How could that possibly go wrong?”  (pg. 201)

 “Elephants didn’t build this. … I don’t care how good they are at tool use.”  (pg. 341)
    There are a couple quibbles.  Once again, the puzzles to be solved are incredible abstruse, but our Mensa-minded heroes seem to easily cut through them.  I kept rolling my eyes each time they sussed out another conundrum, but it has to be said, it’s entertaining as all get out.

    Ditto for the ending.  It’s very exciting, yet somewhat predictable.  I mean, really now, what do you expect will happen when you have a herd of wild elephants standing around, at your beck and call?

    But I pick at nits.  James Rollins writes action-thrillers, not police procedurals.  The Seventh Plague delivers exactly what one expects from Rollins, and there's no indication that he’s getting tired of researching and writing these Sigma Force novels.  That means I’ll be on the look-out for the next one in the series, The Demon Crown, due out on December 5th.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract ½ Star if you’re the type of reader who just has to solve the puzzles in books like this before the heroes do.  You won’t.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Periodic Tales - Hugh Aldersey-Williams

   2012; 429 pages.  Full Title : Periodic Tales – A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Science, Chemistry; Reference.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Did you ever wonder what the “bis” in Pepto-Bismol is?  Or how about the “Bromo” in Bromo-Seltzer?  Or maybe you want to make your own charcoal from that old tree in the backyard.  Even better, let’s make a diamond from that charcoal.  They’re both just carbon, aren’t they?

    For that matter, why should gold be so valuable?  Yes, it’s pretty scarce, but copper is less plentiful than silver, and yet somehow, the latter is our runner-up to the gold.

    And who the heck came up with names for the elements like Yttrium Ytterbium, and the mind-boggling Gadolinium?  Who is the “Lawrence” that gave Lawrencium its name, and why didn’t he just go by “Larium”?

    If questions like these tickle your fancy, you might want to pick up Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams.  Prepare to be both enlightened and amused.

What’s To Like...
    Periodic Tales is divided into six parts.  Surprisingly, the author  goes neither in the order of Atomic Numbers, alphabetically, nor by columns in the Periodic Table.  The chapters are:

Part 1.  Power (5%).
    In which he focuses on elements associated with earthly power – gold, iron, etc.  I thought the subsection about Wollaston & Chevenix and their work with the Noble Metals was  fascinating.
Part 2.  Fire (23%).
    Elements that burn.  Elements that are corrosive.
Part 3.  Craft (43%).
    Elements that artisans can work with..  Tin, lead, silver, calcium, etc.
Part 4.  Beauty (60%).
   Elements used for their lustrous and inherent colors, either "as is" or in a compound.  Paints, etc.
Part 5.  Earth (73%).
    Elements that are mined.  Including the Rare Earth metals.
Part 6.  Epilogue (82%).
    Closing thoughts from the author.

    I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but it appears all of the elements get at least passing mention.  At times, Aldersey-Williams lumps a bunch of them together, such as the trans-uranium and rare-earth elements.  Even one of my pet elements, Lawrencium, gets a nod, albeit a brief one.

    Nevertheless, quite a few of the elements do get detailed attention.  Stylistically, the author uses any or all of the following to acquaint us with any given element:
    Production: how to synthesize a given element.  What you can make by reacting it with something.
    Historical: particularly if the element has been known for ages.
    Discovery:  who first isolated it, and/or correctly identified it as a new element, including mini-biographies of some of the foremost chemists and physicists of the day.
    Properties: density, color, reactivity, etc.
    Cultural: where do we find it is literature, paintings, books, etc.
    Political: the pros and cons of fluoridation, homeopathy, etc., and sparingly used by the author, which is a plus.

    As expected, the text abounds in trivia about each element, and I ate these bits of interest up.  Some examples of the tidbits discussed: the Willamette meteorite, how to make charcoal, how to extract Iodine from kelp, sulfur and its bad reputation, polysulfides (which I work abundantly with), phlogiston, Wilfred Owen, aqua regia, etc.  I could tell you amazing anecdotes about making my own aqua regia in high school chem lab, but perhaps it’s best to keep those misadventures to myself.

    I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the claimed-to-be elements, that were later disproved, such as occultum, coronium, and nebulium.  Just because you find something new, doesn't necessarily mean it's elemental.  I was also surprised by how many elements weren’t discovered until the 1800’s.

    There are a ton of pictures to go along with the commentary, and that was a plus, even if they were small in the e-book formatPeriodic Tales is written in English, not American, so you get words like grey, colour, aluminium, lustre, tonne, etc.  The book is a vocabularian’s delight; see the next section for just a few of the great unfamiliar words I encountered.  The footnotes were handled as smoothly as I’ve ever seen in an e-book.  And if you’re OCD like I am, keep in mind that the text ends at page 398 (84% Kindle).  The last 16% is the Index, Bibliography, etc.

Kewlest New Word ...
Synecdoche (n., and not pronounced even remotely like you'd expect.) : a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in “Cleveland won by six runs” (meaning ‘Cleveland’s baseball team’).
Others : ludic (adj.); palaver (n.);  caryatids (.n, pl.adj.); tetchy (adj.);orotundity (n.); BOGOF (acronym); Piranesian (adj.); quiddity (n.);  semiotics (n., pl.); menhir (n.); intaglio (n.); field-fares (n., pl.); hoicks (v.); auto-didact (n.);

    Working with tellurium is always unpleasant – the compound that it forms with hydrogen is like hydrogen sulphide, with its infamous rotten-eggs smell, but far more offensive.  Later, Seaborg managed to delegate the tellurium chemistry to his own student, who had great trouble ridding himself of the stink.  Days afterwards, it was even possible to tell which library books he had been consulting from the revolting odour they exuded.  (loc. 1085)

    The first primitive electric telegraph line was built in the 1790s by Francisco Salva and was capable of transmitting sparks from Madrid to Aranjuez fifty kilometres away.  Salva proposed a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet with the arriving spark briefly illuminating letters in turn to spell out messages.  (He apparently also considered connecting a person to each wire and having them shout out the letter when they received an electric shock.)  (loc. 3323)

 Civilization, it is immediately apparent, is simply organized resistance to oxidation.    (loc. 2242)
    I don’t really have any criticisms or even quibbles with Periodic Tales.  It is well-written, and with a lot more details than I had expected, which made for a pleasant read.  I suppose I could've asked for all 118 elements (there were only 103 when I was in school) to have detailed attention paid to them, but I think that would’ve made for some slow spots.

    Full disclosure: I’m a chemist, so this was happy reading ground for me.  Using silver nitrate as an analytical test for the presence of chlorine is a test method I'm familiar with, and it was fun to see it in cited in this book.  Surely any scientist is going to enjoy Periodic Tales.

   However, if you are not a science-lover, or if you have recurring nightmares about being forced to take chem lab in high school or college, I can see where reading this book might get tedious. So perhaps the target audience for Periodic Tales is rather narrow.

    9½ Stars.  Science, History, Vocabulary, Culture, and Make-Your-Own Chemicals.  What more could a geeky nerd like me ask for?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl - Robert Rankin

   2010; 373 pages.  Full Title : The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions.  Book #1 (out of 4) in “The Japanese Devil Fish Girl” series; Book #32 in Robert Rankin’s bibliography.  New Author? : No.  Genre : British Humor; Quest; Save The World.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The traveling show called the “Most Meritorious Unnatural Attraction” needs a new attraction.  Their current one, a pickled Martian, is becoming flaky.  Literally.  Apparently keeping a Martian cadaver for long periods of time in a vat of formaldehyde causes it to start dropping off chunks of corpse.

    For George Fox, a roadie employed by Professor Coffin’s one-wagon itinerant freak show, and whose main charge is to keep the cauldron of stewed alien from spilling over as the Professor’s cart seems to find every pothole in the muddy road, life could be better.  But hey , no one ever said the carny’s life was a bed of roses.

    Still, the show must go on, and a replacement attraction must be found.  And wouldn’t it be great if George and the Professor could find the holy grail of traveling freak shows – The Japanese Devil Fish Girl?  But by definition, she’s probably in, well, Japan, and that’s a fair distance from our heroes in their plodding steam-powered show-wagon.

     Perhaps there is a faster means of transportation to be found in late-Victorian Era steampunk England.

What’s To Like...
    The setting for The Japanese Devil Fish Girl is 1895 London in an alternate, steampunk universe where H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds really did take place, with the Martians getting whupped, and the subsequent counterattack on Mars leading to our meeting the Venusians and Jupiterians.  Robert Rankin gives a nice synopsis of this alt-history on the flyleaf of the hardcover version, which is what I read.  But if you’re dealing the book in a different medium, he also works the backstory into the text itself.

    The chapters are short – 46 of them covering 373 pages.  The book is written in the author’s usual, somewhat rococo (for lack of a better term) writing style, which I happen to like, although admittedly it’s an acquired taste.  The sentence structures are contrived, and the descriptions often flowery.  But that’s a plus to me.

    Several historical figures make cameo appearances – Charles Babbage, Nikola Tesla, etc., and Adolph Hitler and Winston Churchill have somewhat larger roles.  But really, it’s all about George and the Professor, Darwin the monkey butler, and George’s love interest, Ada Lovelace, also a historical figure.

    Several of the Rankin iconic running gags are here – the Lady in a Straw Hat, Hugo Rune, and Dimac, although I was disappointed that Fangio was missing.  But there’s new stuff too – Lemuria, and the secret arts of Evil Breath and the Scent of Unknowing.  There’s even a smattering of French – a petit déjeuner and the belle epoque – and I always like that.

    As with any Robert Rankin novel, the emphasis is on wit and satire, not the storyline.  Absurdities abound, but this is why I'm a devoted reader of this author.

    “I missed you at dinner.  Shared a table with a Russian research chemist named Orflekoff, and his grandson, Ivan.”
    George did not rise to that one.
    “Also an American false-limb manufacturer by the name of Fischel and his little son, Artie.”
    Nor that one.
    “And an upper-class Shakespearean actor called Ornott-Tobee and his brother, Toby.”
    “Indeed?” said George.  “And did you by any chance meet with the highly hyphenated Mr. Good-mind-to-give-you-a-punch-on-the-chin-if-you-do-not-stop-making-all-these-terrible-name-jokes, and his son, Ivor?”. ( pg. 111)

    “Quite a pretty thing,” said the professor.  “Assuming of course that it is not an instrument of torture.”
    “I like the champhered grommet mountings,” said George.
    “And I the flanged seals on drazy hoops,” said the professor, in an admiring tone.
    Both agreed that the burnished housings of the knurdling gears had much to recommend them, aesthetically speaking, yet mourned the lack of a rectifying valve that would have topped the whole off to perfection.  (pg. 241)

Kewlest New Word…
Sola Topi (n.) : An Indian sun hat made from the pith of the stems of sola plants.  (Google-Image it)
Others : Saveloy (n.); Verger (n.)

“Do the hokey-cokey and poke my ailing aunty with a mushroom on a stick.”  (pg. 347)
    I enjoyed The Japanese Devil Fish Girl, but have to agree with other reviewers, this is not going to be anyone's favorite Robert Rankin book.  For me, the book started out slow, and it was quite some time before I could fathom what the main plotline was.  But once our heroes get passage on the airship (doesn’t every steampunk novel have an airship?), the pace picks up nicely and stays that way for the rest of the story.

    The ending is kind of a stutter-step affair, and yet it works rather nicely.  The reader gets Robert Rankin’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation, and it’s a lot more interesting than most of the ones your local fundamentalist fanatics dream up.  There’s a deus ex machina involved, but I liked the way Robert Rankin handled this – he just flat-out admits it in the text.

    Overall, the plotline is more coherent than usual for a Robert Rankin tale.  Whether that’s a plus or a minus is a matter of each individual's literary taste.

    8 StarsThe Japanese Devil Fish Girl is the Book One in a four-volume series, of which I’ve previously read the final installment, which is reviewed here.  You don’t have to read these in order, and I’m sure I’ll read the other two whenever they cross my path in a used-book store.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Origins - Andy Wallace

   2012; 521 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction; First Contact.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Something is killing the crocodiles in Australia.  It might be some sort of virus, or perhaps some sort of bacteria.  Professor Ethan Harris and Jake Robinson, Down Under, have asked their old buddy at Charnwood Genetics, Dr. Mark Holland, located at Loughborough University in the UK, to take a look at the crocs’ DNA, to see if he can determine the cause of their demise.

    Meanwhile, a couple miles away from Mark, at Elvaston Castle, estate manager Kate Watson discovers that at certain times there are weird tremors outside the old Moorish temple on the castle grounds.   This is odd, since the temple is boarded up and sealed off to anyone trying to get into it.  She checks with her colleague “Jas”, and he feels the mini-quakes too, so Kate knows it’s not a matter of her imagining things.

    And just another couple miles away from her, Jacob Ellis, a 35-year-old insomniac, is suffering from a recurring nightmare where he is abducted by aliens who perform some sort of ghoulish surgical procedure on him.  Jacob’s not sure what they exactly do to him because he always wakes up before that.  Still, the nightmare occurs every night, and it’s wearing him out.  Maybe he should see a psychiatrist.

    These three scenarios seem unrelated, but they aren’t.  And when they merge, everyone involved is going to find that their lives are in jeopardy.

What’s To Like...
    Origins is an ambitious effort at what I can best describe as a “first contact” story.  It quickly becomes apparent that “the others” are a vastly superior race, technology-wise, and I always like it when we humans are the underdogs.  There are 44 chapters and a prologue, encompassing 521 pages, but the chapters vary greatly in length, including an extremely long chapter 30, which basically covers the history of the last 65 million years of plant Earth.

    There’s a strong female lead (Kate), and a way-kewl transporter system that would be really neat to try out.  There is also a bit of Time-Travel, although that seems to be confined to the “others”.  The book is written in English, so you have words like metres, faeces, vapour, and aeons; but I’ve always enjoyed reading novels in Brit-speak.

    There’s a bunch of cussing, and while this doesn’t offend me, I keep wondering if it is really necessary in a story like this.  Yes, it adds realism to the dialogue, but in this case, I think it could’ve easily been waived.  I liked the settings – England and Australia, especially Ayers Rock., although there was a certain “Google Earth” feel to the descriptions.  There aren’t a lot of characters to follow (and really, the only ones you need to keep track of are Kate and Mark), but don’t get too attached to any of the others as I think Andy Wallace had a case of “George R.R. Martin envy” when it comes to killing characters off.

    I was scared that this was going to be another “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” tale – all building-up and no actual contact.  So I was pleased when our heroes journey to an Alternate Earth, and meet up with the aliens at 92%.  The final 8% of the book is action-packed and with a surprise ending that I didn’t see coming.  Not everyone is going to be happy with the way things turn out, but I for one thought it was well done, and with a great twist.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Folly (n.) : a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose, especially a tower or mock-gothic ruin built in a large garden or park.
Others : Lay-by (n.; Britishism).

    “I can make us some coffee,” he said, “or there’s juice in the fridge … or, if you prefer something alcoholic, I’ve got some wine…”
    “I had a couple of glasses at the barbeque,” she said.  “If I drink any more, I won’t be able to drive home – and I’ll end up having to sleep over ‘’ she smiled.
    “Well in that case,” Mark said, smiling back, “I’ll crack open a bottle.  Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon?”
    “Shiraz please,” she replied.  (loc. 3107)

   “Well, if you genuinely believe that they’re just a bunch of inexperienced, wannabe scientists,” Kate mocked, “we definitely need to stop them – and quickly.  It’s bad enough having your life controlled by a group of highly evolved, super intelligent beings … but Beaker from The Muppet Show?  God help us!”  (loc. 5802

Kindle Details...
    Origins sells for $0.99 at Amazon, and is in fact only available as an e-book there.  It is Andy Wallace’s sole offering, at least so far.

“So … all we are is a race of lab rats?”  (loc. 6795)
    There are some weaknesses.  First of all, there are a slew of typos, to the point of where they got distracting.  Yes, the author at least used spell-checker, but that doesn’t catch everything, and I found myself screaming for a proofreader to come clean things up.  Also, the detailed descriptions of everything can get tedious, and after a while they take their toll on the book’s pacing.

    The more serious issue with Origins is the storytelling itself.  I felt like the author was making the plotline up as he went along, with no pre-planned idea of where he wanted things to do and how to get there.

    This made for a lot of superfluous actions.  There was a barbecue get-together, which didn’t really move the story along one bit.  Mark grieves for his parents, killed in a tragic car accident many years ago, but if you’re waiting for that to impact the storyline, you will meet with disappointment.  And why-oh-why was a second Australian operative introduced, when she doesn’t have anything to do with anything?

    7 Stars.  I found the overall concept of Origins to be refreshingly creative.  But it really needs some polishing and editing to make it shine.  And some beta-readers who aren’t afraid to be brutally honest wouldn’t have hurt either.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Cat Who Brought Down The House - Lilian Jackson Braun

   2003; 246 pages.  Book #25 (out of 30) in The Cat Who” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Cozy Mystery; Cat Fiction.  Overall Rating : 3½*/10.

    Thelma Thackeray is coming back to Pickax, way up there in Moose County, close to the Canadian border.  After a 55-year career in Hollywood, the 82-year-old spinster says she’s “returning home to die.”  But she adds, “but not right away.  First I want to have some fun.”

    Well, the backwoods folks of Moose County are sure glad a celebrity’s coming to live with them, even if nobody can quite recall what movies she starred in.  It’s already hinted that she’ll bring an upgrade in culture to Pickax.  Art shows, a cat pageant, private film showings (of the classics), and what have you.

    But she’s also bringing a lot of money and a lot of jewels with her.  Let’s just hope that doesn’t encourage someone to commit a crime involving the newest Pickax resident.

What’s To Like...
    There are several plot threads in The Cat Who Brought Down The House.  The old opera house is being sold, and no one knows to whom or for what purpose.  Cultural events are the new norm now.  And of course, everyone wants to meet and kiss up to the new celebrity, Thelma.

    There are also several “crime mystery” threads, but those are less clearly defined.  There’s a report of a birds-napping, although the alleged victim denies it.  Someone got murdered in Bixby, but that’s 90 miles away.  And now there are even some whispers about Thelma’s twin brother, Thurston, who died while hiking many years ago, and whether that was an accident as was concluded at the time.

    The 246 pages are divided into 22 chapters, so there’s always a convenient place to stop for the night.  I found TCWBDTH to be a fast and easy read, although since this was my second book from the series, I was expecting that.

    There’s a modicum of French (“a bientot”), and foreign language snippets are always a plus for me.  Koko has developed a death howl since I read the other “The Cat Who” book from this series, which was a much earlier installment.  It is an interesting plot device, although I found it somewhat unbelievable.  The title is explained on page 218, but frankly, it isn’t a minor detail.

    There are a number of “sidebars” (for lack of a better term) sprinkled throughout the book.  Some of them are Qwilleran’s weekly newspaper column.  Others seemed just to be anecdotal topics made up by the author.  Milo the Potato Farmer, How Pleasant Street Got Its Name, The Incredible Moose Country Blueberries, etc.  In short, this book oozed “cutesy wutesy-ness”, and if that’s what you read Lilian Jackson Braun’s stories for, you will not be disappointed.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Cairngorm (n.) : another term for smoky quartz.
Others : Etagere (n.).

    “We compared notes and personal feelings and came to the conclusion that libraries aren’t as much fun as they used to be, twenty years ago.  Libraries, we said, used to be all about books!  And people who read!  Now it’s all about audios and videos and computers and people in a hurry.  What used to be serenely open floor space is now cluttered with everything except books.  Even the volunteers find it less attractive work, and stop reporting on schedule.”  (pg. 161)

    ”This is a funny title,” she said when Qwilleran came down the ramp.  She was looking at How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.  “If you can read a book on how-to-read-a-book,” she said, “why do you need to read this book?”
    “Some day I’ll lend it to you, and you’ll find out.”  (pg. 196)

 “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”  (pg. 106)
    Alas, there are some serious problems with The Cat Who Brought Down The House.  You get introduced to a slew of Pickaxians, but most of them are of no importance to the story.  I'm guessing they are recurring characters in the series, but to be frank, I didn’t care about them.

    The ending is just downright terrible, insanely contrived, and with nary a plot twist in sight.  The author seemed more interested in giving you her cute asides than in developing a storyline.

    And last and worst, the crime-mystery aspect is virtually stillborn.  Qwilleran never really does any investigating (neither do his cats), yet magically he unravels all three of the aforementioned cases, including the cold case of Thelma's brother’s death, merely by thinking about them in his spare time.

    Bottom line: Unless you’re hopelessly addicted to this series, this book is really a waste of time.

    3½ Stars.  Add 2 stars if you read this series for the small-town folksiness, and don’t give a hoot about whatever crimes are committed.  At least you’ll get something positive out of the book.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Skeleton Man - Tony Hillerman

   2004; 336 pages.  Book #17 (out of 18) in the “Leaphorn and Chee” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Native American Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Billy Tuve has come unstuck in time.  No, he doesn’t pop in up and down his life line, like Billy Pilgrim did.  But time itself has very little meaning to Billy.  “A while ago” can mean two hours or ten years to him.

    Billy might consider sharpening those chronology skills though, since he’s just become the prime suspect in a cold case from a couple years ago, where a trading post owner was reportedly killed and the owner’s wife claimed a valuable white diamond was stolen from the premises.  It was estimated to be worth $20,000 dollars or more.

    Billy's been caught trying to pawn off just such a diamond for a paltry $20.  Coincidence?  Former Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn has his doubts.

    Billy’s alibi is even more dubious.  He claims a strange old Indian man, a shaman, appeared on a path he was walking one night, and offered Billy the diamond in exchange for his shovel.  Billy may be unstuck in time, but he’s no fool.  It was obvious even to him that the proffered “diamond” had to be a fake.  Still, even a zircon is worth more than a shovel.

    But maybe that old Indian was really Skeleton Man is disguise.  Testing Billy in some sort of way.  Nah, that’s impossible.

    Or is it?

What’s To Like...
    Despite the titular reference to a Native American deity, the backdrop of Skeleton Man actually stems from a real event – the 1956 mid-air crash of two commercial airplanes over the Grand Canyon, with all 128 lives lost.  Tony Hillerman discusses this in a kewl Author’s Note at the front of the book, so this isn’t a spoiler.

    This isn’t really a Murder-Mystery, which is a bit odd for a Leaphorn-Chee tale, and the cold-case robbery mentioned above never gets solved, which I also found unusual.  The book starts out weird; Chapter One is more or less an epilogue, which introduces the reader to a whole slew of new characters in slam-bang fashion.  To boot, the plotline isn’t always chronological; occasionally it doubles back upon itself.  But that’s okay, it keeps the reader on his/her toes.

    There were enough plot twists to keep my attention.  Just because a character is a “white-hat” doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of unprovoked assault.  And while we know we can safely assume that Skeleton Man isn’t a divine visitation, the reader, along with Chee and Leaphorn, still has to come up with an explanation of his alleged appearance.

    Skeleton Man was an incredibly fast read for me, so if you have a book report due tomorrow, this book’s your saving grace.  I liked the “Waiting For Godot” reference (see excerpt, below); it brought back memories of debating with my college English Lit professor whether reading it was a complete waste of my time.  I have since changed my viewpoint on this.  I also learned what a “skip tracer” is, a term that I’d never heard of before, but which has a straightforward meaning.

    The real joy of any Tony Hillerman story is the insight that one gains into Native American culture.  The biggest piece of enlightenment I gained here was that it’s not just us white folks that are excluded from a given tribe’s sacred rituals and lore.  If you’re a Hopi in among Navajos, you’ll be similarly excluded.  And even if you’re all Navajos, but you come from a different clan, you will be shut out of certain ceremonies.  This is the stuff I read Ton Hillerman for.

    “Bernie, you wait here.  If Tuve shows up, keep him here until Cowboy and I get back.”
    “Sergeant Chee,” Bernie said, loud enough to be heard over the roar of the river and the clamor of the mating-season frogs, and maybe even a little louder than that.  “I want to remind you that I am no longer Officer B. Manuelito of your Navajo Tribal Police squad.  I am a private regular citizen.”
    “Sorry,” Chee said, sounding suitably repentant.  “I just thought-“
    “Okay.  I’ll stay here,” Bernie said.  Dashee was grinning at her.  (pg. 222)

    The big blond man had his back turned toward her now, looking the other way, apparently studying the higher reaches of the Salt Trail.  Waiting for Tuve, she guessed.  And that thought reminded her of Waiting for Godot and the time they had wasted in her Literature 411 class discussing whether Godot would ever arrive, and what difference it would make if he did.  And now wasn’t she sort of a perfect match for Beckett’s ridiculous characters?  (pg. 236)

“Billy’s always been very vague about chronology.  Ever since that horse fell on him.”  (pg. 138 )
    Skeleton Man has some flaws.  The first 2/3 of the book drags in places, and it takes Leaphorn and Chee a mind-numbingly long time to check out the Skeleton Man angle to Billy’s story.  The excitement picks up strikingly in the last third of the book, though, which is a nice reward for those readers who stuck things out.

    Still, the ending felt contrived, with not just one, but two deus ex machinas showing up.  (Note: yeah, I know that plural is not grammatically correct; if you saw my junior high school Latin grades, you’ll know why I don’t care.)  One is a providential character named Mary, the other is more Mother Nature-begotten.  While they both move the plotline along, they really telegraph the ending.

    Also, the final resolution of the Skeleton Man character was anticlimactic.  I think I could’ve come up with a more satisfying way to tie that thread up, and I don’t call myself as writer.

    7 StarsSkeleton Man is still a worthwhile read, especially for the Native American cultural details, and that's the main reason I read Tony Hillerman's books.  But I’d be amazed if anyone ever said it was the best offering in the series.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Summer Knight - Jim Butcher

   2002; 379 pages.  Book 4 (out of 15) of the “Dresden Files” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Urban Fantasy; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Someone has slain the Summer Knight, the reigning champion of the Summer Faeries.  They stole his mantle as well, which is a source of great power.  Suspicion naturally falls upon Mab, the Winter Queen of the Sidhe (Faeries), and she’d like someone to find proof that she didn’t do the dirty deed.

    Who better to turn to than Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only wizard that has a listing in the Yellow Pages, and extensive experience with the Windy City’s “other world”?  It also helps that Mab has just purchased Harry’s “debt” from his fairy godmother, a debt she’s willing to rescind if Harry does her three favors.

    It is hard for Harry to turn down a prospective client; he can certainly use the business.  But Queen Mab, or any faerie for that matter, is not the sort of customer anyone would want.  When you strike a deal with a member of the Sidhe, you just know you’re going to regret it.  Better to walk away from this one, Harry.

    And Mab is famed for her resourcefulness, with lots of friends on the Wizards Council.  So watch your step, Mr. Dresden.

    Oh, and one other thing, Harry.  Please note that Mab didn’t exactly ask you to find out who the killer was.  She just asked you to come up with proof it wasn’t her.  Those aren’t the same things.

What’s To Like...
    Summer Knight is the fourth book in Jim Butcher’s incredibly popular series “The Dresden Files”, and focuses primarily on the goings-on of the Sidhe (“Faerie”) Kingdom.  This is a nice variation; earlier books in the series focused on Vampires, Werewolves, and Wizards, so it’s fun to see the author develop yet another aspect of the magic world.

    Besides investigating who killed the Summer Knight, Harry also takes on a second case (and a paying one!) of finding a Changeling named Lily.  Not surprisingly, the two threads eventually merge.  There are critters aplenty to meet and defeat: ghouls, werewolves, faeries, ogres, pixies, changelings (half mortal, half faerie), a chlorofiend (say what?), trolls, sylphs, and a unicorn and a centaur that you do not want to mess with.

    As always, the action starts right away and doesn’t let up.  The story is told from a first-person POV (Harry’s), and there’s a fair amount of cussing.  I liked the concept of the Undertown; it reminded me of Preston & Child’s Reliquary.  I also was delighted to come across the fable “The Fox and the Scorpion”; it’s been a lifelong guiding principle for me.

    There was only one bout of Bob and Harry engaging in witty repartee. These conversations are probably my favorite parts of this series, but at least it was a fairly long session.  We and Harry spend a fair amount of time in the Nevernever (the Spirits’ home dimension), and that was a treat, at least for the us readers.  Everything builds to a suitably exciting ending.  This is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

    A couple threads remain unresolved.  Harry still owes a debt to Mab (two more favors), and he still hasn’t found a vampire cure for his girlfriend, Susan.  I don’t really have any quibbles with Summer Knight.  The worst I can say is the book’s overall structure is formulaic, but since I happen to like the formula, I’m okay with that.

    “Mab?  The Mab, Harry?”
    “Queen of Air and Darkness?  That Mab?”
     “Yeah,” I said, impatient.
    “And she’s your client?”
    “Yes, Bob.”
    “Here’s where I ask why don’t you spend your time doing something safer and more boring.  Like maybe administering suppositories to rabid gorillas.”
    “I live for challenge,” I said.  (loc. 1871)

   “A guardian?”
    “Obviously,” Elaine said.  “How do we get past it?”
    “Blow it up?”
    “Tempting,” Elaine said.  “But I don’t think it will make much of an impression on the Mothers if we kill their watchdog.  A veil?”
    I shook my head.  “I don’t think unicorns rely on the normal senses.  If I remember right, they sense thoughts.”
    “In that case it shouldn’t notice you.”  (loc. 4299)

Kindle Details...
    Summer Knight sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  The pricing structure of the rest of the series is this: Book One @ $2.99; Book Two @ $5.99; the rest of the books @ $9.99.  Jim Butcher is the author of another series, The Codex Alera, which has an identical price structure.  I think it’s a fine marketing strategy for a top-tier writer.

 She was also mad.  Loopy as a crochet convention.  (loc. 5174)
    “The Dresden Files” is one of the most enduringly popular urban fantasy series out there.  The books/e-books are almost always borrowed at my local libraries, and I was lucky to snag this one for free when it became providentially available.

   Jim Butcher is a gifted writer, and that’s certainly a factor.  But so is his attention to details in the world-building.  Anyone can write in a werewolf, a faerie, or a wizard to a fantasy story.  But Butcher develops complex hierarchies for each genus of magical beings.

    Here, the Faeire Hierarchy is comprised of three sets of dual (Summer and Winter) rulers: Those Who Were (the Mothers), Those Who Are (The Queens), and Those Are To Come (The Ladies).  You also have Lord Marshals for each side, as well as their champion Knights.  I remember when I was reading Fool Moon (reviewed here) that the Werewolf society was equally complex.

   It’s got to be an art to create these intricate orders while avoiding getting bogged down in the minutiae.  The fantasy authors who can pull that off are few, but Jim Butcher is one of them.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you aren’t reading the books in this series in order.  I made the mistake of reading Book Six (reviewed here) immediately after Book One, and I was at times rather confused.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flapjack - Daniel Ganninger

   2014; 296 pages.  Book 1 (out of 6) of the Case Files of Icarus Investigation” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime-Mystery; Action-Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Doctor Edward Sloan has been busy lately, working on an interesting scientific project – a kind of “super battery” that would significantly impact energy consumption in everything from driving cars to supplying electricity in your home, even to powering up your e-reader.  That would be fantastic, and everybody wins, right?

    Well, not everybody seems to be pleased about it.  A team of commandos just hit his laboratory in the Engineering & Physics building at Dartmouth University, stole two of the battery prototypes, and blew up the place.  Talk about making a statement.

    Maybe they were greedy, and want to cash in on the breakthrough discovery.  Maybe they work for the electric company or a car battery manufacturer.  Nobody, including the FBI, knows for sure.

    Funny thing though.  Doctor Edward Sloan is blissfully unaware of all the ruckus.  He left Dartmouth just before everything went kablooey, and is currently MIA.  Someone ought to go find him and make him aware of his precarious situation.

    Oh, and he took the latest working model of the super battery with him.  So, about those two prototypes that were stolen from the now-demolished laboratory?  Yeah, they’re practically worthless.

    Somebody evil is going to be very, very angry.

What’s To Like...
    Flapjack follows two guys as they endeavor to get their own Private Eye enterprise up and running.  Dan Galveston brings his sleuthing experience to the venture, while Roger Murphy brings the business savvy.  The story is mostly, but not completely, told from the first-person POV, Roger’s.  It is an ambitious mix of several genres: about equal parts of Action, Romance, Intrigue, and Humor.

    There’s a nice variety of settings, both overseas and domestic.  The local spots are San Diego, Memphis, Washington DC, and Chicago.  The exotic spots are Mexico, London, and Brazil.  There’s a kewl “Behind the Scenes Look on Making Flapjack” section appended after the end of the story, which I found really enlightening.  Think of it as an “Author’s Afterword”.

    There are 74 chapters covering the 296 pages of the story (James Patterson would be proud), so  there’s always a good place to stop for the night.  The enigmatic book cover and title are explained in Chapter 69 (87% Kindle).  I liked the MO used to kill off one of the baddies.  Gotta watch out for those statues.

    Everything builds to a suitable climax.  Daniel Ganninger’s infuses an abundance of wit throughout the tale, and that's always a plus for me.  He only stoops to giving us his personal opinion once; apparently he is not keen on “eco-friendly” politicians.  Flapjack is a standalone story, without cliffhanger or teaser for the next book in the series, which is greatly appreciated.

    He stopped and smiled.  “Also, I need someone who doesn’t have anything else going on.”
    “Oh, thanks.  Does my life have that little meaning?”
    “Right now it does.  I mean, come on, I’m offering you low wages, unpredictable prospects, terrible hours, days of uncertainty, and a wish you had never come into contact with me.  Who would pass that up?”
    “Well, when you put it like that.”
    “Yes, and don’t forget the travel.  Piss poor hotel rooms, little sleep – that just sweetens the pot.”
    “How can I possibly say no?”  (loc. 350)

   “Do you see that man over there?” Galveston asked, awaiting a response.
    “Yes,” Placer answered slowly.
    “He practices the ancient art of Kilim.  If you don’t talk, he’ll get you to talk.  He can break a man’s legs with just his hands.  I would prefer not to resort to using him.  Do you understand?” Galveston threatened, and then looked at me.
   “Yes, okay.  Please don’t hurt me, I’ll answer whatever you want,” he pleaded.
   The ancient art of Kilim?  I had no clue what he was talking about, but I went along with it.  Unbeknownst to me, a Kilim was a Persian or Turkish woven carpet.  (loc. 4564)

Kindle Details...
    Flapjack presently sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Its sequel, Peeking Duck, goes for $0.99.  The other four books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  Daniel Ganninger has a second series, non-fiction, with four books in it, called Knowledge Stew, focusing on trivia, and its books sell for $3.99 each as well.

 “Who pissed in her Wheaties?”  (loc. 3612)
    Unfortunately, Flapjack felt like a “diamond in the rough” to me, in dire need of some rigorous editing and polishing.

    Editing issues.  There were far too many typos, to the point where they got distracting.  The entire “pre-Icarus” section was irrelevant and could’ve easily been omitted.  I kept waiting for it to tie back in to the main story, and it never did.  There’s lots a repetition of various thoughts and dialogue, particularly in regard to Roger sussing out the “who” and “why”.  And both the plotline and the ending, while reasonably exciting, are devoid of twists.  I like it when things don't go as planned for the good guys.

    Polishing issues.  The characters come in three colors: black, white, and gullible green.  I prefer it when the characters are gray.  There’s way too much luck involved in investigating and foiling the baddies.  Even the protagonists notice that and comment about it.  Finally, the first-person POV gets clunky at spots.  It's a plus when it allows the reader to “hear” Roger’s thoughts on matters, but a first-person POV also is inherently limiting when it comes to telling the story.

    5½ Stars.  Despite the quibbles, Flapjack was still an enjoyable read for me.  The talent that Daniel Ganninger has, and and effort that he put into creating this story and series are evident, and some slack has to be cut for anyone’s debut novel.  Books 2 and 3 (Peeking Duck and Snow Cone), are on my Kindle, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the author hones his technique each time.