Saturday, July 22, 2017

Black Harvest - Alex Lukeman


   2012; 229 pages.  Book 4 (out of 14) of “The Project” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action Thriller.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Three experts on crop viruses, including one who worked for the CDC (Center for Disease Control) are murdered in a very short time.  Someone apparently thinks they knew too much about something, and it seems to concern what’s written on some cuneiform inscriptions on some ancient clay tablets.

    This all happened here in the US, and there's some evidence that the killers have ties to the CIA and the Pentagon.  So who ya gonna call?

    No, not Ghostbusters.  How about a secret group called “The Project”, a black ops intelligence unit that answers directly to the President?  Sounds like a plan.

    But this time, they may be in over their clandestine heads.  Whoever is behind these killings semms to know the Project’s every move, even before they take a step.

What’s To Like...
    Black Harvest is an action-thriller, kind of in the Jason Bourne style, but with the emphasis on the team, not the individual.  There’s also a history/mythology angle like you'd find in a Steve Berry novel, but that peters out rather quickly.  Still, it was neat to see Alexander the Great, and the Greek goddess Demeter worked into the storyline, to say nothing of the cuneiform tablets.  I had never heard of “Erinys”, the vengeful aspect of Demeter.  I also enjoyed learning the origin of the word “nightmare”.

    The action starts right away and the pacing is incredibly fast.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of, but I have a feeling that the Americans are all recurring ones.  The good guys are developed nicely, but all the Russians are portrayed as goons, even the women.

    Some of the setting are way kewl.  Greece is always a treat for me, and when’s the last time you’ve read any book that had part of the story set in Bulgaria?  The Texas panhandle setting will bore most readers, but my company had several chemical plants there, which I visited numerous times, so it was sort of nostalgic to “see” the area once again in this story.

    There’s a bunch of cussing, a bunch of sex, and one case of torture, so you probably don’t want little Suzy and Jimmy reading this.  The chapters are of “James Patterson” length, so you’ll always find a convenient place to stop reading for the night.  Indeed, the 229 pages are split into 69 chapters; so on the average, there’s a break every 3 pages or so.

    This is only a “semi-standalone” novel.  The ending was so-so, as it leaves a slew of loose major plot threads, involving things like containing the blight, Korov’s possible turning, and AEON.  Some of these, especially AEON, may be resolved in the next book in the series, but then I have to wonder why they weren’t combined into a single book.

Excerpts...
    Gelashvili had risen to power in the criminal underworld of Moscow by emulating his idol and fellow Georgian, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, otherwise known as Stalin.  If Zviad suspected treachery, someone died.  If someone failed to carry out their assigned tasks, they died.  If someone opposed him, they died.  Something could always be done to encourage motivation.  (loc. 377)

   “This sucks, Kemo Sabe.”
    “Kemo Sabe?  You going native on me?”
    “I always wanted to say that.  Tonto always said that to the Lone Ranger when the shit was about to hit the fan.  Kemo Sabe.  Has a nice ring to it.”
    “What does it mean?”
    “You don’t want to know.”  (loc. 1463)

Kindle Details...
    Black Harvest sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  Most of the other books in the series sell for $4.99, and Book 1, White Jade, and which I haven’t read, is free.  Alex Lukeman also has two non-fiction books available, about the meaning of dreams and nightmares, which both sell for $9.99.

 Not many people could recite Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon.  Not many would want to.  (loc. 158)
    There were quibbles besides the dangling plot threads.  Some of them were WTF’s, such as the Pentagon’s computers seeming to be incredibly easy to hack into.  Also, Ronnie is a Navajo, yet has no qualms about crawling around in a crypt.  Sorry, I know several Navajos.  There’s no way they’d be caught in a room full of dead people’s bones.

    More serious is the lack of focus in the storyline itself.  Our heroes start out trying to solve the mystery of the ancient tablets and fighting the evil Russkies.  But the latter gets resolved about a third of the way through, and the historical intrigue of the former just kind of evaporates into thin air.  The Russian baddies are replaced by American baddies, who are again quickly disposed of, and after that, the new evil peeps are the mysterious AEON folks.

    There is an antidote for the virus, but I don’t recall it ever being clear that the good guys acquired it.  Indeed the whole raid on the Utah facility is little more than a small side story.  And funnily enough, of the three onstage Ultimate Evils (one Russian, two American), none of them are dispatched by our intrepid heroes.

    But maybe I’m overthinking all of this.  The bottom line is: Black Harvest was an entertaining book from the first page to the last, ideal for a day at the beach or for an airplane trip.  Just remember to put the analytical lobe of your brain on hold when you go to start reading it.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 Star if you like Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series.  I overthink those stories too.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold and Larry Niven



    1971; 320 pages.  New Author? : Yes (David Gerrold), and No (Larry Niven).  Genre : Classic Science Fiction; First Contact; Humorous Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    The new magician literally fell from the skies.  Well, technically he was in his nest, and the nest fell from the skies.  He wields powerful but strange magic.  And he seems more interested in testing the rocks and collecting samples of plants and animals than calling upon the gods to do marvelous things.

    Needless to say, the present magician, Shoogar, is none too pleased with the appearance of this interloper.  The magicians’ code demands a duel.  But the new guy seems totally ignorant of such protocol, and laughs off Shoogar’s threats of spellcasting.  Perhaps it’s more appropriate to place of curse upon him.

    And you know what they say.  “A land with two magicians will soon have only one.”

What’s To Like...
    The Flying Sorcerers is a standalone novel (without chapters), set on an alien planet with two suns and eleven moons, and inhabited by sentient humans in a more-or-less “Bronze Age plus bicycles” stage of development.  The basic theme is how they deal with a visit from a Space Age astronaut/explorer, aka “Purple”, the new Wizard on the block.

    The story in told from a first-person POV, a guy named Lant, who is kind of a mediator between the Shoogar and Purple.  It is written in “classic sci-fi” style, with a dash adult situations and cussing added in.  My favorite cussword was a made-up one, yngvied”.  You can also get high by drinking Quaff, or eating Raba-Root.  But beware the Dust of Yearning, it is a potent potion indeed.

    I liked the world-building details.  Things like a cultivation ceremony, homes that hang from trees (“nests”), and the “finger gesture of fertility’.  The inherent language issue is solved via one of Purple’s magical devices, a “Speakerspell”, and I liked that it had its own learning curve which led to some hilarious translating difficulties at first.

    The secondary themes are ambitious: Magic vs. Science, Purple introducing the natives to "civilized" things such as Assembly-Line Manufacturing, Money, and Possessions; and the Role of Women. There’s also some chemistry (the splitting of water to make Hydrogen and Oxygen) and Mechanical Engineering (flying machines) in the story, and since I’m a chemist, that's a delight.

    Finally, it seems like David Gerrold and Larry Niven were seeing how much wit they could weave into the story.  You’ll meet Lant’s sons, Wilville and Orbur; and be sure to note the names of the gods, they are actually a tribute to various Science fiction writers: “Caff” (Anne McCaffrey); “Virn” (Jules Verne), “Peers” (Piers Anthony), and even ‘N’Veen” (Larry Niven).

Kewlest New Word…
Antipathy (adj.) : a deep-seated feeling of dislike; aversion.

Excerpts...
    “You, Lant.  You Speak for us.  You have been an Advisor as long as anyone.”
    “I can’t,” I whispered back.  “I have never been a Speaker.  I do not even have a Speaking Token.  We buried it with Thran.”
    “We’ll make a new one.  Shoogar will consecrate it.  But we need a Speaker now.”
    One or two others nodded assent.
    “But there’s the chance they might kill me if they find me too audacious a Speaker,” I hissed.
    The rest nodded eagerly.  (loc. 1004)

   I took another sniff – was it possible that this gas made people light-headed?  I wondered about that.  The other gas made things light – this gas made people light.  No, I’d have to think about that.  I took another sniff.  This new gas made people’s view of things rise above other things.
    Another sniff – how strange!  I knew what I meant.  Why weren’t there words for it?  I lowered my head again.
    Abruptly I was pulled away by Shoogar. (…) “What are you doing?”
    “Um, I was investigating the bubbles.”  (loc. 2750)

Kindle Details...
    The Flying Sorcerers sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  David Gerrold’s other e-book offerings are in the price range of $6.15-$12.76.  Larry Niven’s e-books sell for $5.99-$9.99.  For the record, I borrowed The Flying Sorcerers for free via my local library.  I really can’t say enough good things about this resource.

 “We don’t need your guilty-of-incestuous-rape sails!”  (loc. 2813)
    The were some minuses.  The storyline was not compelling and seemed a bit forced to accommodate the punny title.  The pacing was slow.  It took forever for Shoogar to invoke his curse, even longer to build the flying machine and make a trip in it.

    The Role of Women issue was unconvincing.  While it’s true that Purple inadvertently raises their status a bit, it seems like it’s only to get them from brainless animals to being capable of menial tasks.  The gods forbid that women should ever have any leadership qualities, or come up with any problem-solving ideas.  But hey, The Flying Sorcerers was written in 1971, so maybe this was a sign of the times.

    I also was amazed that Lant and his fellow Bronze Agers could quickly grasp the chemistry aspects of splitting water so easily to make two gases, but maybe that’s just the scientist in me coming out.

    Finally, there was an abundance of typos.  It looked like someone ran the hardback version through a scanning program, but never checked to see if everything came out okay.  That’s both sloppy and lazy.

    5½ Stars.  Add 1 Star if you hate books that make you keep track of dozens of characters.  Here, Shoogar, Purple, and Lant are all you need to keep straight, plus maybe Wilville and Orbur.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids - Michael McClung


   2012; 231 pages.  Book 1 (out of 4) of the “Amra Thetys” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Crime Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    There’s honor among thieves.  Camaraderie too.  So when Amra’s fellow thief Corbin asks a small favor of her, it is not unreasonable to accept.

    It’s such an easy thing, too.  Just hang on to a piece of stolen loot, a small statue of an ugly-looking  toad for a couple hours, while Corbin finalizes his getting paid for his service.  It seems he doesn’t entirely trust his client, and wants to hold back this key item as “life insurance”.

    Amra obliges, but unfortunately Corbin’s ploy doesn’t work.  He’s brutally murdered that very night.  Still, since nobody knows what Corbin did with the statue, Amra’s safe, right?

    Hmm.  Then why did a dreaded shape-changer try to break into her room soon afterward, and who sent the beast?

What’s To Like...
    The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids is a fantasy novel set in a city called Lucernis.  The protagonist is Amra Theys, is a young female thief, well respected for her burglary skills.  The sub-genre falls under musket-&-magic.  You’ll run across  bloodwitches, daemonists, shape changers, grohls, and mages, but no elves, dwarves, or unicorns.  There are also a slew of gods, each with their own temple and followers.  I liked the theological setup in the world-building here.

    There’s no Thieves’ Guild per se, such as is found in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, but there are similarities.  Thieves can be hired via a “fixer”, a go-between who determines the price of a job and what percent of that sum the thief is entitled to.

    This is a dark book, with lots of violence and bloodshed; balanced by lots of magic, and I mean that as a plus.  The cussing is a mixture of familiar epithets and citing various body parts of the myriad gods, such as “Kerf’s balls!” and “Isin’s creamy tits!”  I thought these inventive invectives were great.

    The story is told from a first-person POV (Amra’s), and Michael McClung develops some fascinating supporting characters.  I particularly liked the mage Holgren, the detective Kluge, Lord Osskil, and of course, the dog Bone.  The baddies are capable foes.

    Everything builds to a suitably-exciting ending, which also sets up the next book in the series.  This is a standalone, self-contained story, and that’s important for me.  The book’s title comes from a brief description of Amra at 69%; and I like all the other titles in this series.

Kewlest New Word…
Ensorcelled (adj.) : enchanted, fascinated, bewitched.
Others : Moil (n.).

Excerpts...
    “I think I know you well enough to say that you’re wrong.  It’s become fairly plain that you, Amra Thetys, given the choice between fighting and capitulating, will pick a fight every damned time.”
    “So you’re saying I’m stubborn.”
    “Oh, yes, very much so.  Contrary as well.”
    “No I’m not.”
    “Don’t look now, but you’re being stubborn.  And contrary.”
    “I know you are, but what am I?”  (loc. 2881)

   “I don’t doubt you have the Sight.  But I’d make a distinction between seeing the future, however cloudily, and knowing what fate has in store for someone.  If fate even exists.”
    “Oh, it does, though I won’t bother trying to convince you of the fact.  But you are right in believing seeing the future isn’t the same as knowing what fate has in store.”
    “I wouldn’t have expected you to agree.”
    She shrugged her thin shoulders.  “To see the future is to see the likeliest route of a journey.  To know fate, my dear, is to know the destination.”  (loc. 3196)

Kindle Details...
    The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other three books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  You can also buy the whole series in a bundle for $12.96 which, if my math is correct, saves you absolutely nothing.  Michael McClung has two other e-books available, a short story collection (horror tales) for $3.99, and the first book in a new series (“Tarot Quest”) for $2.99.

 One of the privileges of being a mage, I suppose, is that you can be as strange as you like, and nobody dares comment.  (loc. 739)
    The quibbles are minor.  The action aspect of The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids is excellent, but the murder-mystery part is so-so and not very twisty.  The fantasy elements are great, but the setting is pretty much limited to the city of Lucernis.  However, I imagine the geography expands as the series progresses.

    The last 7% of the e-book is details the history, magic system, and god-&-critters list of Amra’s world.  This avoids a lot of tedious backstory telling, but I was content to just skim through it.  I didn’t feel hamstrung by not knowing all these details as I read the book, but I can see where other readers/reviewers would want this section if it weren't there.

    But I pick at nits.  TTWPoTB had a brisk pace, which kept me turning the pages.  Book 2, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye is on my Kindle, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    8 Stars.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Little Bee - Chris Cleave


    2008; 271 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Middlebrow Lit; Book Club Book; Contemporary Literature.  Laurels : #1 NY Times Best Seller; shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Book Awards, nominated for a 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Editors’ Choice - NY Times Book Review, Indie Next pick for February 2009, and a few more.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It really was an odd occurrence.  A 12-year-old African girl, Little Bee, crosses paths with a career-oriented Englishwoman, Sarah O’Rourke, on a beach outside a Nigerian resort.  It's a moment of deep crisis for both parties, and a time of great loss as well.

    But life moves on, and that was two years ago and far away.  Today, in her house in Kingston-Upon-Thames on the outskirts of London, Sarah is trying to come to grips with a new loss, while struggling to keep the tragic details from traumatizing her 4-year-old son, Charlie.

    So imagine her surprise when Little Bee shows up on her doorstep, asking for help.  What are the odds of their paths crossing this second time, on a different continent, with both of their lives once again undergoing desperate upheavals?

    Well, the odds aren’t quite as long as it would seem.  Somehow, Little Bee has Sarah’s husband’s driver’s license with her, which lists their home address. 

What’s To Like...
    Little Bee (aka “The Other Hand” in the UK) is first and foremost a study in the contrasts between the two main characters.  In a broad view, this includes “rich vs poor”, “white vs black”, “resident vs illegal”, and “African vs European”.  These differences are intensified by the narrator alternating between Sarah and Little Bee with each new chapter, and it is interesting to see how each of them tries, with varying success, to understand the other.

    The underlying theme is the horrors faced by refugees seeking asylum in the UK, in particular those fleeing the “oil wars” that brutalized Nigeria beginning in the 1990’s.  But getting to England is hardly the end of their woe, as Chris Cleave gives insight into their lives in Immigration Removal Centers where, after much suffering, things usually end with deportation to their home countries and certain death.

    The writing style is unique.  The story opens with Bee going to meet Sarah, and with the reader thinking “WTF is going on?”  Chris Cleave then fills in the backstory, seemingly one incident per chapter.  That may sound clunky but it works to perfection here.  There are only a few characters to keep track of, which also seemed unusual.  You’ll love meeting 4-year-old Charlie, who has a Batman complex and tries to reduce every problem to a “baddies vs goodies” situation that can be effortlessly remedied by a superhero.

    The book is written in “English Lite”, meaning there weren’t many instances of spellings like programme/program and gray/grey.  But I had to think twice about what a “glasshouse” and "windscreen wipers” were.  I also enjoyed the “Notes” and “Discussion Guide” sections at the back of the book.  It was enlightening to read about a true incident that inspired Cleave to write Little Bee.

     In subject matter, the book reminded me of Dave Eggers’ What Is The What (reviewed here), and even the schmaltzy movie Driving Miss Daisy.  But the tone here is markedly darker and cussing, adult situations, including rape and torture abound.  Nevertheless, the ending is superb and sobering and for me, a bit of a surprise.

Excerpts...
    “You don’t ask for advice, Sarah.”
    “No?”
    “No.  Not ever.  Not about things that matter, anyway.  You ask whether your tights look right with your shoes.  You ask which bracelet suits your wrist.  You’re not asking for input.  You’re asking your admirers to prove they’re paying attention.”
    “Am I really that bad?”
    “Actually you’re worse.  Because if I do ever tell you gold looks nice with your skin, you make a special point of wearing silver.”  (pg. 118)

    “A dog must be a dog and a wolf must be a wolf, that is the proverb in my country.”
    “That’s beautiful,” said Sarah.
    “Actually, that is not the proverb in my country.”
    “No?”
    “No!  Why would we have a proverb with wolves in it?  We have two hundred proverbs about monkeys, three hundred about cassava.  We talk about what we know.  But I have noticed, in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country.  Then people will nod their heads and look very serious.”  (pg. 180)

Kewlest New Word…
Vespertine (adj.) : relating to, occurring, or active in the evening.
Others : Y-Fronts (n.).

“Charlie has extraordinary eyes, doesn’t he?  (…)  They’re like ecosystems in aspic.”.  (pg. 136)
    I don’t really have any quibbles about Little Bee.  Some reviewers think the characters are too contrived.  I find that absurd.  Of course they’re contrived.  That’s why they call it “fiction”.

    I’ve been wanting to read a Chris Cleave book for quite some time, but all the copies of his books/e-books seem to be always checked out at my library.  I assumed that was because they’re a popular “Book Club book”, akin to The Kite Runner or Water For Elephants or even, oog, Marley And Me.  I’m not a big fan of that genre.  They tend to be heavy on the drama, and light on thrills and spills.

    But Little Bee breaks the mold.  Yes, there’s still a lot of emphasis on personal relationships.  But there’s also blood and violence, and a fair amount of human suffering.  Heck, if this is the norm for Book Club fare, I might even consider joining one.

    8½ Stars.  A powerful-yet-short book that'll challenge your preconceptions about illegal immigrants, whether you're living in the USA or the UK.  And if you happen to be in a book club, shake up things by suggesting Little Bee to the group.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Dead Red Cadillac - R.P. Dahlke



   2011; 291 pages.  Book 1 (out of 5) of the “Dead Red Mystery” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Women Sleuths.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Someone has trashed Lalla Bains’s spiffy, cherry-red Cadillac.  Stole it right out of her garage, and plowed it headfirst into Turlock Lake, with the shiny fins left sticking up into the sky.  Who could’ve done such a dastardly deed?

   Hey, I bet it was that mean old Patience McBride.  She just won a blue ribbon for her homemade jam, beating out Lalla’s entry, after the latter had publicly challenged her to a jam-making duel in front of everybody at Roxanne’s Diner.  What a sore winner!

    Alas, Patience has been removed as a suspect for the vandalism.  The police say her body was found seat-belted in the driver seat of the Caddy, dead as a drowned doornail.  Now who would do such a thing?

    It looks like Lalla has some sleuthing to do.

What’s To Like...
    A Dead Red Cadillac is a cozy murder-mystery set in the greater Modesto, California area.  I presume this is the author’s stomping grounds and she’s adhering to the Creative Writing maxim of “write about what you know best”, and I like the choice.  My company sells quite a lot of Ag chemicals in that area, including some that are foliarly applied, so Lalla’s job as a crop-duster hit home, and is quite accurately portrayed here.

   There is a definite “Stephanie Plum” influence on the Lalla Bains character, and I view that as a plus.  Both are sassy females and amateurs in the sleuthing field.  They both have two romantic interests, one being a cop, the other being kind of a rogue, and both series are told from the first-person POV.  This is certainly is a popular niche genre, and  I read another book of its kind recently, which is reviewed here.

    There are lots of characters to meet and be suspicious of.  I really liked Eddie McBride; I hope he is a recurring character in this series.  R.P. Dahlke throws in a couple of plot twists to keep you on your toes, and everything builds to an exciting and satisfying ending.  The writing is straightforward, and in a “storytelling” style, which keeps the plotline moving at a brisk pace.

    A Dead Red Cadillac is a standalone novel, as well as part of a 5-book series.  I gather this is the author’s debut book, and if so, it is a fine first effort.

Kewlest New Word…
Kludge (v.) : to use poorly-matched parts to make something.

Excerpts...
    I opened the front door and was greeted by sharp high-pitched barking.  Tiny nails skittered across the wood floor of the foyer, and with a toothy snarl, a small brown dog launched itself at my leg.  I kicked out, trying to dislodge its hold on my pant leg, then realized that this slathering miniature Cujo was really a tiny Chihuahua and I knew him – not that we were ever on speaking terms.
    “Spike?  Spike.  Let go now, that’s a nice doggy.”  He growled, working his teeth deeper into the material.  (loc. 859)

   I had time for that early lunch after all and, remembering to put on my turn signal, looked over my shoulder before changing lanes and took the exit to Roxanne’s.  My exit was uneventful: no horns honked, no tires squealed as irate drivers were forced to brake at my passing.  Not one middle finger salute accompanied my exiting the freeway.  Gee, maybe I should drive like this more often.  (loc. 2991)

Kindle Details...
    A Dead Red Cadillac sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  The other four books in the series all sell for $3.99 apiece.  The first three books in the series are also available in a bundle, which is actually how I acquired this one.  The bundle sells for $5.99, which’ll save you four Washingtons.  R.P. Dahlke also has two books to offer from another trilogy, titled “Pilgrim’s Progress”.  They go for $2.99 each, or you can get them bundled with the first three books in the Dead Red series for only $7.99.

 “Sometimes I just open my mouth to change feet.”  (loc. 1041)
    The quibbles are negligible.  There is some mild cussing in the book (“hurt like hell”, “jackass”, “shit”), which cozy purists might object to.  But I am not a cozy purist, so for me, it just helped make the setting seem real.  There was at least one deus ex machina (the newspaper),  and some obvious clues that the police, but not Lalla, seemed a bit slow to pick up on.

    My main challenge was getting used to the Kindle percentage-read, location, and “time left in book” when reading a story in a book bundle.  Everything was based on the sum total of all three books, so it was difficult to gauge just how much further I had to go in Book One.  I know this will bug me even more when reading the middle book in the bundle.

    But this issue is solely the product of my OCD, and I’m sure I’ll get used to it as I start reading stories from more bundles.  Talk about a “First World Problem”.

    8 Stars.  This trilogy has been sitting on my Kindle for quite some time, as I’ve been avoiding it and several other bundles.  All in all, A Dead Red Cadillac was an unexpected treat, and I doubt it will be too long before I read its sequel, A Dead Red Heart.