Tuesday, August 20, 2013

RIP: Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

Mr. Leonard had a stroke three weeks ago and has died of complications from that.


If he's not my favorite author he's near the top.

His IMDb page is here.

His Wikipedia entry is here.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Cornelius Murphy 01: The Book of Ultimate Truths (Robert Rankin)

Rating: 5
Year: 1993
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Comedy
Read Again? Yes!

Young Cornelius Murphy is the Stuff of Epics. Destined for Greatness. No one is more aware of this than he.

Actually, he seems to be the only one aware of this fact: the world doesn't care.

There's a Mr. Yarrow (the youth Employment Officer) at his school who is desperate to see the young Murphy gainfully employed before his final school year is done. He's tried and failed seven times to get the wretched boy into a job.

Mechanic? "Too delicate."
Merchant Seaman?
Minicab Driver? "Too well-spoken."
Monumental Mason? "Too tall."
Motorcycle Messenger?
Marriage Counselor? "Too sophisticated."
Male Model? "Too rugged."

He tries again. Mime Artiste.

Nope. "Too well-endowed."

Cornelius does finally get a job, but not via Mr. Yarrow. One Arthur Kobold hires him to travel into the wilds of Scotland to find and purchase the effects of the heroic and mystical Hugo Artemis Solon Saturnicus Reginald Arthur Rune, master of the unpaid bill, guru of gurus, reinventor of the ocarina, hater of Bud Abbott.

Among these effects is a manuscript for Rune's greatest work, The Book of Ultimate Truths. Kobold wants to reprint the magnificent opus.

Cornelius travels into the vast reaches of untamed Scotland, finding himself pursued by a Campbell, who is also after the manuscript.

The simple "go to the auction, win the bid for some old junk no one wants, and bring it back" isn't as simple and uneventful as Cornelius expected it to be. He faces an enormous riot, a shootout in a monastery, and a bunch of naked Wiccans ("It's a genuine religion, you know.").

As he travels, Cornelius reads a copy of The Book, learning of the perils of C11 H17 NO3 (mescaline) in soaps, tea, and cola (Rune ran a profitable soap, tea, and cola concession off this fearmongering); the secret lives of Biro ballpoint pens (and why they vanish when you need one); and the truth of why there's always two screws left over when you reassemble a toaster or radio, and how this delayed the scheduled beginning of World War Two by three years (Rune learned this secret in India, acting as Gandhi's spiritual advisor).

Rankin's writing is rich, engaging and wickedly funny. There's no drag, aside from a mincing Gandhi in disguise as Rune's wife. Hell of a ride.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Raylan 04: Raylan (Elmore Leonard)

Rating: 5
Year: 2011
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes.

Raylan's got a warrant for Angel Arenas, a marijuana dealer. He finds Angel in a hotel bathtub full of ice water, near death, and shy a pair of kidneys.

Once he gets Angel to talk, Raylan learns that the dealer was meeting with a couple of men. He figures the guys drugged their mark, cut him open, nipped the kidneys. But Angel refuses to ID them.

Doctors at the hospital say the job looks professional. The incisions were stapled up.

The kidney-nappers send their victim a fax: $100,000 to get his guts back. As a show of good faith they've taken the liberty of dropping the purloined  pieces at Angel's hospital, ready to reinstall.

But if he doesn't produce the cash, they'll repossess them. Angel has one week.

The plot breaks up into several threads from here: the hunt for the pair of small-timers who waylaid Angel; a young woman who's insanely good at poker and who might be part of a trio of drug addicts who rob banks; and the people running the kidney-theft ring. Harlan County is very busy.

A lot of this book has made its way into the TV series "Justified," but not quite as-written. The kidney-theft and bank robber arcs are part of the show's third season and get tweaked to fit the show's plotline. It's got me wondering whether the poker champ will show up for the 5th season.

Good book, more meaty and satisfying than "Fire in the Hole."

Raylan 03: Fire in the Hole (Elmore Leonard)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 2002
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes

Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens has been reassigned to Harlan County, Kentucky in the wake of a shoot-out with a mobster. To be fair, Raylan did give the guy 24 hours to get out of town or get shot. Guy didn't leave.

It was simpler to just shuffle Raylan out of sight than to try to build a case against him.

This being Raylan Givens, he's not even settled in before the trouble starts. His old schoolmate Boyd Crowder has started up a white supremacist church, mostly as a criminal enterprise: bomb goes off in a Black neighborhood, cops rush to the scene, and Boyd's boys rob a bank or two elsewhere while the cops are busy.

Meanwhile, the recently-widowed Ava Crowder shows an interest in Raylan now that her abusive husband is out of the picture.

This novella is the basis for the TV show "Justified"; I haven't seen much of the show's first season, so I don't know how well they fit together. The book's a very quick read, but there are no real surprises. By the halfway point the ending is obvious, but Raylan's got so many awesome one-liners in his dealings with the bad guys that it doesn't matter. I would have liked a longer story with more of a challenge for Raylan.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Raylan 02: Riding the Rap (Elmore Leonard)

Rating: 5
Year: 1995
Genre: Crime
Read Again? Yes

Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens drives up to Ocala to nab Dale Crowe on a warrant (Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution). He puts Crowe in the driver's seat and makes him drive them back to Palm Beach County.

He's alone with the man convicted of battery on a police officer. Being a Crowe, he tries something stupid and ends up handcuffed to the steering wheel, still driving.

On the way, they pick up a pair of carjackers (dumbasses tried to jack Raylan's car), so now the Marshall has three prisoners and feels pretty damn smug.

Meanwhile, Harry Arno, the bookie-in-trouble from the first book, hires a bounty hunter to ferret out a $16,500 gambling debt owed by Warren "Chip" Ganz up in Manalpan, Florida. Harry's retiring and wants to settle his accounts.

The bounty hunter, Bobby "the Gardener" Deogracias, finds Ganz at his mother's run-down 9,000 square foot home. Ganz' mother is in a different sort of home, dying alone of Alzheimer's. Ganz himself is hardly living large, since his mother controls the house and whatever money there is.
The Gardener offers to prune Ganz' ears, one at a time, if he doesn't pay up the $18,000 he owes (finder's fee). More anatomy to follow as needed for motivation.

Chip sees an angle and proposes a business opportunity: he and The Gardener could team up, take Harry Arno hostage, and squeeze him for the money he's had to be skimming in all his time as a bookie. They'll split the take three ways, since Chip's already got another partner, man named Louis Lewis.

Harry vanishes. Raylan reluctantly tries to find him, prodded by Harry's lady friend. He finds some interesting puzzle pieces: a young, attractive professional psychic; a robbery at a little Mom & Pop grocery (with strawberry Jell-O as part of the take); one of the robbers threatened one victim with pruning shears. Raylan suspects Bobby Deo, "The Gardener," but lacks all the pieces just yet.

The genius of Elmore Leonard's tale is that we're not dealing with criminal masterminds. You've got the financially embarrassed, desperate man-of-the-house (Chip Ganz) who once read a book about hostages and how they were treated. Chip wants the caper done By The Book, but the practicalities keep this from going to plan. Straw mattresses are hard to come by in Palm Beach County. Crappy food, chains, and squalid shacks are kind of hard on the jailors and the jailed, and Chip's partners refuse to go along. Harry makes do with being chained in a run-down 9,000 square foot mansion instead.

Then there's Louis, who almost immediately starts trying to undercut the other guys; and The Gardener, who's so obsessed with his gunslinger-badass self-image that he fails to think very far ahead.

Greed is the only thing keeping the trio of kidnappers together, and each of them is plotting against the other two.

Fast-paced, easy reading here. I really like that the bad guys are just regular, stupid human beings instead of evil geniuses. It really doesn't take much more than that and a little greed to drive a typical crook.

Dresden Files 14: Cold Days (Jim Butcher)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 2012
Genre: Fantasy
Read Again? Yeah.

Turns out Harry Dresden was only Mostly Dead after being taken down by a sniper in "Changes." He did a little time as a ghost in "Ghost Story." Now...he's baaaaaack!

Well, there's a hitch. He's not a freelance wizard anymore. He made a deal in "Changes" that bound him to Queen Mab, agreeing to become her Winter Knight, which makes him her enforcer, assassin, or whatever she wants.

The previous Knight was an evil, sadistic bastard. Now Harry wear the mantle. There's a constant struggle between keeping his own identity and allowing the cruel, hungry passions of Winter to take over.

Oh, and as in every previous book, he has to save the world from Armageddon. Again. This time he has a day to pull it off...and Mab wants him to kill her daughter Maeve, the Winter Lady.

Dresden has been speculating over several books about a sort of "Black Council," an evil counterpart to the White Council of wizards, shadowy hands manipulating events and people (and creatures) to trigger a new Armageddon focused on Chicago on Halloween. Turns out he's right, in a way: parasites. This angle is used to explain why nearly every previous book has a super-monster flocking to the Windy City to further their plans for Total World Domination (or at least the Utter Destruction of Everything): the baddies have been influenced by parasites. I don't like or dislike this angle just yet, since it's only now being introduced. If Butcher handles it well, it could be cooler than a "Black Council."

This book brings back Butters the Medical Examiner, Molly the former Apprentice, Murphy the ex-cop (and love interest?), Bob the talking skull, Thomas the White Vampire (and Harry's half-brother), and Mouse, Harry's humongous dog.

No one's particularly surprised Harry isn't actually dead, but now that he's the Winter Knight everyone's convinced he's a raging murderous bastard, or at least under the Winter Queen's sway.

The story moves well. No rambling. Good plot development, some revelations about the role of the Faerie Folk in keeping the evil Others at bay.

Airframe (Michael Crichton)

Rating: 4
Year: 1996
Genre: Techno-thriller
Read again? Yes

Everything's quiet aboard TransPacific flight 545 out of Hong Kong. Most of the passengers are asleep.

The plane starts to pitch violently, diving several thousand feet, then climbing sharply, then diving and climbing again.

By the time 545 makes its emergency landing at Los Angeles International, it's carrying 56 injured and 3 dead.

The captain claimed "severe turbulence" but radar shows clear weather for thousands of miles around the plane.

The flight crew leaves the country before they can be questioned. Everything seems to point to a failure in the aircraft itself.

The plane, a Norton N-22 Widebody--is shuttled to the factory for a complete inspection, but there's a catch: the team has one week. The boss wants immediate answers because Beijing is considering an $8 billion dollar purchase of 50 N-22's with an option for 30 more.

If the fault lies with the aircraft, Beijing will buy from Airbus instead.

Casey Singleton, Quality Assurance Liason and Press Spokesperson for Norton, is put in charge of the Incident Response Team. She'll be working with engineers and mechanics to either prove the N-22's soundness or condemn the company to a massive loss of business.

She's been saddled with Bob Richman, an assistant, some nephew of the Norton family who's being shuffled around the company to see where he'll fit in.

The boss is John Marder, the Chief Operating Officer, who was the program manager on the N-22.

Casey's team are a bunch of 2-dimensional off-the-shelf characters from Central Casting:
Marder is the Dark, Intense Company Man.
Doherty is the Mopy, Overweight Guy with a bad complexion.
Trung is the Industrious, Hard-Working Asian Genius.
Burne is the Angry, Truculent Red-Haired engine expert.
Smith is the Jittery, Fidgety Electrical Genius.
Wallerstein is the Efficient German Flight Simulation Operator.
Rawley is the Dashing Cowboy Test Pilot.

As soon as the investigation starts, everything hits the fan: one flight recorder is scrambled and will take some time to sort out. The strongly-unionized mechanics are angry because of a rumor that part of the big China sale includes moving wing fabrication to China, which would effectively kill U.S. production of the N-22 and thousands of jobs at the U.S. factory. Marder denies the rumors.

Bob Richman seems squirrelly. Casey starts giving him busy work and does some behind-the-scenes investigating into him. She finds that he did a lot of off-the-table flying when he was in Marketing. What's his deal?

The media gets involved: a tabloid TV show producer who fancies herself a Hard-Hitting Investigative Journalist. Shortly after the N-22 story breaks, an unrelated incident with a different airline makes her think she smells blood. She packs her hatchet and heads out to LA to get "the real story" about the N-22 DEATHTRAP!! She's already framed out the entire story, not caring about the facts, just the sensationalism and ratings, ratings, RATINGS!

Crichton frequently adds paragraphs or pages worth of technical or industrial information to explain things his principal characters should already know, such as the problem of counterfeit aircraft parts or how the government and industry actually interact versus how we would prefer it to be. Bob Richman is our surrogate. A lawyer, not an engineer or industry insider, he's someone for Casey to explain the technical stuff to.

Thick but not too hefty, and a page-turner. Crichton stays out of his own way, feeding you technical stuff as needed without straying from the trail. There's a lot going on--corporate intrigue, media hype, Casey's ex-husband who is convinced she's just breaking his balls, juggling all the engineers and mechanics without pissing them all off, trying to quell rumors about the wing sale to China. There's a Crowning Moment of Awesome when Casey puts the stupid, arrogant media woman solidly in her place during the Big Test Flight at the book's end.

The only real disappointment is the low-budget supporting cast, but that's only a momentary distraction near the beginning of things.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"TV Tropes" on Valdemar

Not a review, just a quick link to the TV Tropes page on the "Valdemar" books. There's an alphabetical trope breakdown at the bottom of the page, and a navigation bar across the top leading to other topics on the series: YMMV, Main, Headscratchers, Synopsis, Characters, and Analysis.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wuntvor 03: A Disagreement With Death (Craig Shaw Gardner)

Rating: 4
Year: 1989
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy
Read again? Yes

Fresh from fleeing Mother Duck and her fairy tales, Wuntvor and his companions learn that Death has taken Wunt's master, the great (sneezing) wizard Ebenezum. Death's holding him hostage and wants the Eternal Apprentice to hand himself over.

Snarks the horribly honest demon reminds them that he used to be a monk in the service of Plaugg the Somewhat Magnificent, and that Wunt might ask the third-rate god for help. Wunt and Snarks fly dragonback to the heavens--with a short stop to ask the Two Fates for directions (the third sister is on vacation).

The Fates' advice sends them to the Home of the Dragons. Hubert (the theatrical dragon) hasn't been home in quite some time. He's wildly famous, the local-boy-done-good, but his friends and relatives want to know why he's hoarding those tasty morsels (Wunt and Snarks). A little song, a little dance...and it turns out that the part of heaven where they'll find Plaugg is up, and a little to the left.

Of the six Ebenezum/Wuntvor books, this is the most disappointing. Once we've gotten through the Big Fight with Death, the book just winds down and seems to stop. A perfunctory resolution to the series.

Stylistically, through all six books Gardner's writing gets you there, but kind of plods along the way. Serviceable. The first time I read the series (1991 or so), it was cryingly funny. After maybe the 6th time, I'd say to just ignore the bumps and these short books will go by quickly.

Wuntvor 02: An Excess of Enchantments (Craig Shaw Gardner)

Rating: 4
Year: 1988
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy
Read again? Yes

Team Wuntvor have finally reached the Eastern Kingdoms. Wunt hopes to convince Mother Duck to help cure the allergy curse on the sniffling, sneezing, stuffy-headed-so-they-can't-use-magic wizards of Vushta.

Mother Duck isn't interested in helping Wunt. She's got an agreement with the Netherhells!

But her plans are far, far worse than handing Wunt and his friends over to the demon horde.

They will star in her fairy tales (even the Brownie, who really hates being called a fairy).

Once upon a time....

This phrase is part of the spell. Wuntvor finds himself as the Young Adventurer seeking the home of the Sun. He makes camp after a day's travel and is joined by a fairy--

--who suddenly breaks character, insisting that Brownies are NOT fairies. They're very sensitive about that. Brownies are an industrious tiny people who make shoes! Fairies are tiny people who hang out in the woods and frolic with satyrs! They couldn't be more different!

The spell is broken. Mother Duck, struggling artist, shows up and makes a few changes, amps up her spell, annnnd--ACTION!

Once upon a time...

Wuntvor is a traveler crossing a valley. A sign warns of danger ahead. The next bids him "BEWARE!" His trail leads to a bridge and the dangers that wait beneath...

Then one of the "trolls" drops out of character and breaks the spell.

Mother Duck is furious, but quickly regroups. A new story begins.

Once upon a time...

Wunt now walks in the woods and meets a tiny man--a tiny man who is NOT a fairy, but a Brownie--and who offers him seven wishes. One wish for a weapon, squandered on the magic sword he already carries.

Second wish, true love. The Brownie leads him to a tower. After a brief conversation with the resident Damsel, Wunt finds himself buried in an enormous fall of golden hair. He climbs, they talk, and he learns that he must defeat the Dragon beneath the tower to rescue the Damsel...

With each interruption, a new story begins. Each time he seems to be alone, Death shows up, trying to take the prized Eternal Apprentice only to be thwarted. There seems to be no escape from Mother Duck's stories.

Will Wuntvor ever reach happily ever after?

Wuntvor 01: A Difficulty with Dwarves (Craig Shaw Gardner)

Rating: 4
Year: 1987
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy
Read again? Yes

Vushta is saved!

Too bad about the wizards, though.

In trying to cure the sniffling, sneezing, handkerchief-filling wizard Ebenezum's allergy to magic, almost all the other wizards in Vushta have been stricken with the same curse!

Three tough-guy apprentices are after Wuntvor, demanding that he cure their masters or pay 200 gold pieces by moonrise the next day. Failure to pay the 400 in gold will result in unpleasantness (the ever-increasing fee is a running joke).

Meanwhile, there is discord amongst Wuntvor's companions. Snarks the honest demon is suddenly terrified of Brownies (instead of being merely disgusted by them). The Damsel and Dragon are sniping at each other (creative differences). Love interest Norei thinks Wuntvor's eye wanders too much and he doesn't take her seriously. The Dealer of Death has a quarterly review coming up and it likely won't be favorable because we're in the fourth book already and he still hasn't killed Wuntvor, Ebenezum, or Hendrek (a contract is a contract, friends or not). Hendrek is thoughtful.

Wuntvor must go to the Eastern Kingdoms to find help for the allergy-stricken wizards. Since his usual companions are acting weird, he decides to go it alone.


He's accosted by Death, who seeks to claim the lone traveler. Death believes Wuntvor is the mythical Eternal Apprentice--and Death can only take him when he's truly alone.

Then a ferret shows up. And Tap the Brownie...and Guxx Unfufadoo and Brax the salesdemon...Hubert the theatrical dragon and his Damsel...the unicorn...Hendrek and Snarks. Death is furious...but rules are rules. He can't take Wuntvor, so he leaves.

Guxx Unfufadoo is no longer a rhyming demon. Because of the spell involving his nose hair at the end of the previous book, any attempt at rhyming sends him into sneezing fits! Now he can only speak in verse. Brax carries a small drum for beating rhythm.

Wunt and the gang keep heading east, eventually reaching the Eastern Kingdoms and meeting the Seven Other Dwarves (Nasty, Touchy, Snooty, Spacey, Dumpy, Noisy, Sickly, and Smarmy...yes, there are actually eight) and their frightening mistress, Mother Duck.

Will Mother Duck help Wuntvor...or will she bake him into bread?

Ebenezum 03: A Night in the Netherhells (Craig Shaw Gardner)

Rating: 4
Year: 1987
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy
Read again? Yes

Vushta, City of Forbidden Delights, has gone right to hell!

The Netherhells, that is.

Apprentice Wuntvor and his sneezy master Ebenezum finally reach the city after two books, Death, a Brownie, a gold-pooping chicken, an angry union representing bog womblers and other downtrodden imaginary and mythical beasts, a lap-lusting unicorn, a dragon and damsel stage act, a brutally honest demon, an assassin who loves to strangle wild boars, several attacks by Guxx Unfufadoo and his horde of Netherhells demons, a love-interest witch, a giant, and a long trip across the sea (powered by sneezing)!

And now the city is gone, dragged to the Netherhells by evil rhyming demon Guxx Unfufadoo. Not even one Forbidden Delight for Wuntvor to sample.

All that remains is the less-fashionable West Vushta. two wizards, some apprentices, and a costumer.

Plans are made. Wuntvor will venture into the Netherhells, armed with what few weapons could be found:

Wonk, the Horn of Persuasion.
Cuthbert, the cowardly talking sword.
A "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
A magic hat that produces scarves, flowers, or ferrets when one says "yes", "no", or "perhaps".

He will be joined by Hendrek and his cursed battleclub Headbasher (which no man can truly own, etc.) and Snarks the horribly honest demon.

And three ferrets.

All they have to do is find Guxx Unfufadoo and snip a single nose hair from him.

They meet up with the Dealer of Death, who once relished the the challenge of killing demons, but now wanders the Netherhells wishing for a good, solid wild boar to strangle.

Can our heroes defeat Guxx once and for all and rescue the Fabled City of Vushta?

Ebenezum 02: A Multitude of Monsters (Craig Shaw Gardner)

Rating: 4
Year: 1986
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy
Read again? Yes

Sneezing wizard Ebenezum and his trusty--if clumsy--apprentice Wuntvor are still on the road to Vushta,  City of Forbidden Delights. They travel with Hendrek the warrior and his cursed warclub Headbasher (which no man can truly own, but can only rent) and Snarks, formerly a monk in the service of third-rate god Plaugg the Reasonably Magnificent.

Snarks is a demon so unpleasantly honest he has to wear a hood to muffle the truth.

Then the Brownie shows up.

Then a unicorn seeking a virgin lap upon which to rest his weary head.

Then a giant bird--a Rok--nabs the wizard and his apprentice, flying them miles away to confront the nefarious (and unheard-of) Association for the Advancement of Mythical and Imaginary Creatures (AFTAOMAIBAC). They demand better treatment, what with unicorns and dragons and fairies getting all the good jobs in stories and tapestries. What about bog womblers? Satyrs? Griffons?

Ebenezum 01: A Malady of Magics (Craig Shaw Gardner)

Rating: 4
Year: 1986
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy
Read again? Yes

When wizard Ebenezum tries to awe his new apprentice by summoning a fearsome demon, a broken line on his protective pentagram means the demon's not in the wizard's control!

Even worse, this is Guxx Unfufadoo, a horrid rhyming demon whose dread powers grow with every rhyme!

After a brief battle--part of which with Ebenezum's beard stuffed in the demon's mouth to keep it from speaking--the wizard banishes his foe back to its home in the Netherhells.

Then...the sneezing begins.

Ebenezum finds himself cursed with a horrible allergy to magic. Even minor spells send him into convulsions of sneezing.

Now the stricken wizard and Wuntvor the apprentice must take to the road for Vushta, the famed City of Forbidden Delights, to seek a cure. But first, they raise some traveling funds by rescuing a damsel from a dreadful dragon...well, kind of. The dragon's really into theatre and takes on the damsel as his partner.

Soon our heroes encounter their next foe, Hendrek of Melifox, armed with the enchanted warclub Headbasher, which no man can truly own, but can only rent!

Then they meet Death; a woman with a chicken that poops gold; an assassin named the Dealer of Death (and who loves to strangle wild pigs); and an enclave of monks who worship Plaugg, the Moderately Great.

Very much in the vein of Robert Asprin's "Myth" series, which started as a send-up of heroic fantasy and swords-and-sorcery tales. As with Asprin's Skeeve the apprentice, Gardner's Wuntvor must handle the magical burden for his master (in Skeeve's case, his original teacher was assassinated; his second lost his powers as a prank by the previous guy). Wuntvor is incredibly clumsy, but he means well, and his successes are more from screwing things up than from being competent in magic.