Monday, March 29, 2010

The House of Arden: A Free Book Review

The House of Arden (free audiobook here) by Edith Nesbit is about a brother and sister who try to find an ancestral treasure so they can restore the ancestral home. All this naturally involves a magical white mole and a lot of time travel.

The setup is simple enough: Edred and Elfrida Arden live with their Aunt Edith (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), who seldom ridicules them for their names. Their dad has gone to South America with Uncle Jim (just Aunt Edith's fiancé thus far) to make a lot of money and be declared dead. Everyone needs a hobby.

Incidentally, Ardens are dropping like flies (everyone still needs a hobby), and Lord Arden's passing sends his title looking for an heir; with Papa Arden out of the way, it lands on Edred with the unerring accuracy of a cartoon piano. This means that Edred has a couple of days to find and utter a spell that will lead to the revelation of the long-lost family treasure. Plucky monkey that he is, he succeeds, but all he gets is a grumpy mole that tells him he needs some old-fashioned character development first. This can only mean a bunch of adventures.

And it's here that the story starts to wobble a bit. For one thing, we've already been told that each generation of Ardens conveniently features a boy and girl named Edred and Elfrida, respectively, whose place our pair manage to take in whatever time they appear. Then we encounter a nice old lady who is called a witch by superstitious rustics when she's really just really, really smart and does time travel and can summon the mole and--wait, she is a witch, though, isn't she? Hmm.

That's never clarified, unfortunately. The line between magic and really weird science is vague at best here, and perhaps what she does can be considered non-magical in terms of the story. But I doubt it--and that means the author has lied about the witch's nature, which is a no-no.

There is some good historical fiction in the adventures, which is a positive. But we also start generating lose ends. People turn up and are apparently important, but the arcs go nowhere. This becomes especially bad near the end, where several situations are set up only to evaporate, and in the end we get a Big Cosmic Lesson that is fine but contrary to the overall direction of the story.

In sum, I got the impression that Nesbit had a major change of personality while writing the story. In fact, there are a few places where the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next simply don't mesh. But the last chapter doesn't mesh with the rest of the book, and that's fatally bad. So while I'm generally a fan of Nesbit's work, I can't recommend this one.

Monday, March 22, 2010

32 Caliber: a Free Book review

32 Caliber (available here as a free audiobook) by Donald McGibney is difficult to describe adequately. I admit I didn't care for the opening, which shows us how low and icky the villains are. However, after the fatal "accident," there are a lot of twists and turns that somehow aren't annoying. (I generally dislike sequences such as "X did it!" "No, Y!" "No, Z!" "I still say it was X!") The solution is rather ingenious; I considered something of the sort but didn't think the author would do such a thing.

Some issues:

1. As noted, the first part, especially the second chapter, ticked me off. Not my kind of material. However, it's fairly brief.

2. The narrator is a successful lawyer, but he's remarkably impulsive and hot-tempered. A successful lawyer keeps his cool while his victim explodes.

3. Technical quibble: the putative murder weapon is variously referred to as a "revolver" and an "automatic." Flip a coin, McGibney! It's eventually described as having an ammo clip, so it's evidently an automatic. Some people use "revolver" when they mean "handgun."

4. There's an ongoing message that at least some women need to be abused a bit as a prelude to romance. No: women generally want a man who can take charge, but that's not at all the same as abuse. Even pretending to despise someone to get their interest is dishonest and manipulative. I would probably write off Mary as a potential love interest. Too obnoxious.

Conclusion. I recommend this regardless. It's milder than most mysteries you'll see today, and it gives you a good feel for an earlier time, when people were just beginning to come to grips with a major new technology.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wash Your Hands!

Since I've been virally active lately, I thought I'd explain how to avoid that fate. Lesson One is Wash Your Hands!

Not too long ago, I was looking over a kind of refresher course for health-care workers, and they had a section on washing your hands. It was very inspirational; I soon decided to wash my hands of the whole business. The advice was easily divisible into the obvious and the arcane. For example:

Use the bathroom - Wash your hands
Pet animal - Wash your hands
Pick your nose - Wash your hands

But also

Wipe your fingerprints off the blood-stained knife - Wash your hands
Accept bribe - Wash your hands
Say naughty word - Wash your hands and your mouth--with soap!

The most surprising one for most people, however, was

Wash your hands - Wash your hands

Yes, the sink is a breeding ground for microscopic vermin. So are towels. You should always follow up washing your hands by washing them again. In fact, I'm working on a device that will spray clean water from a canister onto your hands, collect and re-purify the water, then cycle it back into the canister, making perpetually clean hands possible.

I've tried interesting the federal health bureaucracy in this project, but they have pointed out that since cleanliness is next to godliness, it would violate the separation of church and state, so they are no longer recommending washing of any kind.

Politics. It's a dirty game.

Now wash your hands!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dark World: Angels and Demons

(The story begins here.)

“He was lying, you know,” Lassiter said as the noise of the Better Angel Foundation fell away behind them.

“Of course he was,” Dr. Fleming muttered. “Which lie do you mean?”

“He had a symbol on his wall that looked like the one on that dagger at Dvorak’s—the one I saw in Germany. He also had a diploma from Leipzig.”

“I knew about Leipzig. Yes, he knows German—better than you do, in fact. And he should’ve known I knew it. Then there’s his remark about folie à un becoming folie à plusieurs; it doesn’t, at least not often. He should know better about that, too: he’s a licensed psychiatrist, and he has also studied psychology. He knows far more about such things than I do, though I do know enough to catch that lie of his. He’s changed more than I would have believed possible.”

Darren scowled. “I think he’s had help.”

“I’m sure he has. Not demons or anything, but biochemical enhancements. There are certain substances—hormones, for example—that can modify the body. They are safe in naturally occurring quantities, but when someone tries a larger amount or higher concentration, I begin to get nervous. It simply isn’t safe, and he must be well over that line.”

“What about the wind?” Lassiter asked. “What happened back there? You both felt the wind, didn’t you?”

Darren nodded. “The door opened again, but it was different this time. I’m not sure how or why. It seemed to be an answer to prayer, though, and I had a sensation of hope.”

“So did I.”

Dr. Fleming shook his head. Then he pulled off the road and parked behind some greenery. “I no longer have a plan. I thought Adam might be annoying yet helpful. Instead, I can’t help concluding that I’ve unleashed another danger on us all. I doubt it would be safe even to return home for a while. So I was serious: do either of you have a plan?”

“I’ll pass,” Lassiter said. “I don’t know anyone helpful—I doubt I could even get us a place to spend the night. But won’t we need more supplies before the next full moon?”

“I can probably get any we actually need. Darren?”

“It’s too late to get very far before nightfall. I’m not sure which troubles me more: spending the night outside or trying a driving marathon to reach…”

Dr. Fleming waited very briefly before asking, “You’ve thought of a destination?”

“Perhaps. A gentleman who almost adopted me—and a…” His voice broke off, and he began again, “We’ve been overlooking the linguistic angle, perhaps. He could be a great help. He lives just outside of Boston—if he’s not abroad somewhere.”

“Beans for breakfast it is,” Dr. Fleming muttered as he pulled back onto the road.

Next: Good Morning, Beantown

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dark World: The Specimen Speaks

(The story begins here.)

“I still don’t know what’s going on,” Lassiter said, “but I am beginning to figure out who I can trust. Fleming and Christopher, here, have had some success getting my problem under control, and they don’t treat me like part of a freak show. And Christopher says there’s a real world out there that calls to something inside me, which is certainly how it feels.

“But you—I’d really like to believe you, and I’m finally starting to realize that’s a bad sign. Besides, you sound like some people I ran across a while back. Kennen Sie den Herr Manfred Althaus?

Dr. Newman smiled. “I am afraid that German is not one of my accomplishments, sir. I am merely an American.”

Dr. Fleming touched Lassiter’s arm. “Perhaps this was ill-considered. I know you are very busy, Adam, and it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to work against whatever personality conflict has arisen here. We’ll keep in touch, and I’m sure we shall seek your advice in the near future.”

Dr. Newman’s smile changed almost imperceptibly. “Your friend is sick, Victor, sick and dangerous. Mental conditions can prove contagious as well as any other disease: folie à un so swiftly becomes folie à plusieurs. I would regret to have to quarantine you all.”

His tone was so calm and reasonable it seemed wicked madness to resist. Training told Darren it would be wicked madness to give in. He prayed not only for himself but for his friends, and again the answer was not what he expected.

A breeze stirred the air, a breeze Darren himself could feel. Nor was he alone: Dr. Newman ceased to notice his visitors and glanced back, trying to find the source of the current. He murmured softly, almost musically,

En la mondon venas nova sento,
Tra la mondo iras forta voko,
Per flugiloj de facila vento…

His voice trailed off, and his guests filed out at high speed. Darren just caught a hesitant call: “Ho pordoporda vento, venta pordo, venu por mi, malfermu por mi…

“I don’t know what the language is,” Darren muttered to himself, “but he scarcely knows it himself. That’s the hesitation of someone trying to remember a forgotten tongue.”

The receptionist met them just outside the door. She was startled, and the gun in her hand wasn’t properly aimed when she called for them to stop.

“You first!” Dr. Fleming retorted, making some kind of motion with his hand. Darren barely saw a fine mist fly out and apparently strike the woman down. The doctor slowed her descent and waved the others on. “I think I’m getting used to this. At least I’m prepared anymore, though I somehow doubt it would’ve taken Newman down.”

They rushed outside and piled into the car. “Quick!” Dr. Fleming said. “This place does have gates, and I don’t have an unlimited supply of that spray.”

They started for the exit at high speed, slowing to something less suspicious only when the gates came in sight. The doctor waved cheerfully at the guards; then he gunned the engine as a bell sounded and one of them reached for a switch.

“I shall be a man and admit that all my friends are psychopaths,” the doctor said. “Can either of you do any better?”

Next: Angels and Demons

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Sheridan Road Mystery: a Free Book review

The Sheridan Road Mystery (free audiobook here) by Paul and Mabel Thorne is a fairly brief mystery novel that moves in several unexpected directions. There were points I found predictable--I correctly figured out where the criminal mastermind got off to, for example--but it's fast-paced and enjoyable with quite a few surprises.

A patrolman is walking his beat in the wee hours when he hears a shot. He heads for it as best he can--it's hard to locate a single gunshot by sound alone--and encounters a helpful citizen who guides him to the proper building and room. But the room is locked, and when the cops get in, they at first find no evidence of a crime. Then the aforementioned citizen a little too helpfully locates some evidence for them. They are not amused. Who is this guy anyway?

This isn't exactly a cozy mystery: not counting the initial crime, there are assorted boppings, bashings, and thrashings. The heroine is bonked once and drugged twice, which puts her in the lead for receiving abuse, but it's all off camera, so to speak. The bad guys get pounded even more thoroughly. Still, the level of violence is fairly mild. The grossest moment is when they finally find the body, and even that is not particularly intense. The story will keep your interest without giving you nightmares. The profanity level is also tepid by modern standards, though stronger than I would personally write.

Actually, if I were going to complain, it would be about something else: the story twice shifts apparent heroes. We start with Policeman Murphy--a likable chap. Don't get attached to him, though: he will nearly disappear after a chapter or so. Then we get Detective Sergeant Dave Morgan, an even more obvious hero figure.

Guess what...

Morgan doesn't outright disappear from the story, but after a few chapters it becomes clear that he isn't the hero of the story either. I wouldn't pull such a trick as a writer, but it doesn't cause any problems for the reader.

In sum, a good read and probably better than a lot of modern stories you'd actually pay for.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Dueling Machine: a Free Book review

The Dueling Machine (free audiobook here), written by Ben Bova with Myron R. Lewis, is a classic, early virtual-reality mystery/adventure.

I encountered Bova's sci-fi in the mid seventies; as usual, the later work isn't as good—I have a general rule not to trust written sci-fi after 1960 or certainly 1970—but his was reasonably good anyway. And the dust jackets always alluded to The Dueling Machine as if it was some kind of classic.

It is. It showed up on Gutenberg recently, and the audio version arrived soon after, so I finally got a look at the story. (I'm sure the actual book differs a bit from the Analog novella, but probably not much.)

As our story opens, mankind's interest in exploration and colonization has been overcome by the expense of colonizing and the realization that it's a whole lot more comfy on the couch at home, even if the rising population results in the government's micromanaging your life. This leads to general grumpiness.

It doesn't help when Dr. Albert Robertus Leoh invents a 3D communication system that somehow reaches across hundreds of light years instantaneously, severely irking the likes of Albert Einstein. So he invents the dueling machine: a virtual reality system that lets you and a mutual enemy kill each other thoroughly without actual harm to anyone.

Except that suddenly the hatchet man for an imperialistic dictator starts challenging people to duels they don't survive, with results that destabilize several worlds. Dr. Leoh is brought in to investigate, along with a Star Watchman, math geek, and klutz named Hector. Can they solve the mystery and thwart the bad guys before getting killed? (Because posthumous revenge isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds.)

I admit that I wondered at the lack of a panic button for duelists than would bail them out before they needed a change of clothes. That would have solved the whole thing. But that point aside, this is a good story. I should also mention that one of the deaths is recorded in considerable detail, which could be a bit intense for some readers.

The Dueling Machine:
Gutenberg e-text

LibriVox audiobook),

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Dark World: Peccatum Adae

(The story begins here.)

The giant smiled beneficently, and Darren only just noticed something in the recesses of the eyes that did not fit the smile. “Ah, Victor! You have brought me some new friends—interesting specimens.”

Darren merely nodded acknowledgement; Dr. Fleming’s voice wavered almost imperceptibly in reply. “Mr. Henry Lassiter, the man on my left, has picked up the disquieting habit of changing form. He also seems to be connected to some other world in a way I can’t readily define. Since you research similar ideas, I wondered what advice you could give us.”

Dr. Newman turned his attention to Lassiter, swiftly absorbing him in his gaze. “There are other worlds within us all, worlds of darkness and light, of past, present, and future. This man has encountered a dark, primal world within, and it has changed him.”

“He has encountered a dark world without that has aggravated the dark, primal world within,” Darren retorted. “We’ve encountered it too, just not as invasively.”

“Of course you have: as I said, we all have such worlds inside us, and when one is activated strongly enough, a gestalt harmonization occurs with the others, and the inner world is then perceived as external reality. But it’s important to realize that the only reality is inside.”


“Because it is futile to strive against a non-existent outer world.”

“Do we exist, then, or are we just extensions of your reality? That could make the question academic as well.”

“There is only one reality, and we are all alike reflections of it. There is only one evil, and it is to turn away from that reality—from the continuous evolution to higher consciousness.”

“But Lassiter can transform?” Dr. Fleming interrupted.

“Of course. Inward change governs outward appearance. You must have noticed, Victor, that I have changed form over our brief acquaintance: evolution used to proceed slowly over generations, but once consciousness asserts itself, a given organism can progress infinitely toward original light.”

“That’s not quite the translation we’ve encountered.”

“That’s because the darkness runs contrary to normal progress, producing a violent contradiction.”

“Then what should we do with him?”

“Just leave him with me. I’ve dealt with such cases before, though this supposed outside world is an intriguing detail I’d like to investigate further. Otherwise it’s simply an instance of powerful, misdirected PA—my specialty.”

“What’s PA?” Darren asked.

“Psychic Acceleration—change of appearance and even environment by directed mental force. It’s the evolutionary power I just mentioned that lets men become gods.”

“Sounds more like Peccatum Adae to me.”

“Your misgivings about the ‘Sin of Adam’ are merely subconscious fears and even awe before the sublime greatness of our destiny.” Dr. Newman paused. “Leave him to me. I know how to deal with his problem.”

Darren prayed furiously and silently, yet he could not believe that what happened next was God’s answer.

“I think the specimen should have a say in that,” Lassiter said, and his hair stirred in a breeze Darren could not feel.

Next: The Specimen Speaks
Powered by WebRing.