Thursday, December 31, 2009

Demon-Haunted World, The (Sagan, Carl)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1995
Genre: Nonfiction / Science
Read again? Yes.

It took 3-1/2 weeks to get through this one; it's not a quick read, but it's a damn good one. After four crappy B-grade sci-fi books masquerading as readable fiction, I needed something solid. I didn't roll my eyes once or wonder _why_ Sagan would write _this_ this way. His writing is friendly, approachable, every bit like his presentation in "Cosmos."

"World" is an indictment of the state of scientific literacy and critical thinking in the United States and (to a lesser extent) the rest of the world. It should be required reading for any teacher or administrator--but for that to happen we'd have to clear the anti-science kooks out of the system.

His prose is eminently quotable:
If we teach only the findings and products of science...without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience?

Given that a hefty percentage of people in this country believe we were magicked into being just a few thousand years ago; given that a hefty percentage of people in this country claim that the moon landings were faked; given that medical quackery such as accupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy are taken seriously...alien abduction...demonic possession...psychic phenomena...ghosts...crop circles...even when the science is THERE and showing these things to be wrong...even then, people buy into it whole-hog.


It has to start with education. Sagan voices concern that this country will become an information economy, with its industries moved offshore--the things we need if we are to prosper, let alone survive, as a scientific power, whilst the navel-gazers sit and watch Oprah, letting their critical faculties wither and die.

[I think we've long since been headed in that direction. Our politicians and their corporate pals have been selling off chunks of our industrial base for decades: home electronics in the 1970's and '80s, the clothing industry in the '90s. Did you know the VCR was developed by an American company? Did you know that they didn't see how to make a quick profit, so they sold it to Japanese interest? Did you notice that no American company ever manufactured a VCR? How much of the clothing you buy is even made in America?

For all their talk about buying American, conservatives never did anything to bring that industry back home, did they? No, they waved their flags and proclaimed their devotion to them--without checking to see whether those flags were Made in Taiwan.

He delves into the similarities between today's "alien abductions" and tales of demonic interference in human lives from centuries past:
...sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species."

He discusses education and how the simple act of reading led a slave named Frederick Bailey into freedom. He changed his name, then: Frederick Douglass became one of the greatest political leaders, writers and speakers in American history. He was an advisor to President Lincoln. How cool is that?

Sagan details the _need_ for critical thought--and then he takes us to a principal cause for the lack of it: the schools. He reprints letters, some barely literate, in which he is criticized for "bashing" America. There's no problem! We need gawd in the schools! The ACLU is the problem! Socialism!

Sagan wonders why excelling in science is "elitist"...yet varsity sports--the "best of the best"--is not.

And there's more, so much more to "The Demon-Haunted World." Hypnosis, religious whack-jobs, crop-circle kooks, psychics, ghosts, witch-hunts.

As I said before, this is not a fast read; there's a density to his narrative that makes me want to read "Contact" (also by Sagan) to see how his fiction works. Sagan doesn't swamp the reader with science and equations, nor does he hold your hand and condescend.

Monday, December 28, 2009

American Lighthouses (Krutein, Wernher)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2008
Genre: Photography / Lighthouses
Read again? Yes

Another bargain-bin beauty. Ten bucks.

This book's a lot thinner than it should be, at just over 140 pages. But it's got plenty of spectacular photos of lighthouses in natural poses.

Krutein's got a damn good eye; he shot all the pics, and there's not a bad one in the lot.

We begin in the Northeast and Great Lakes, then move down the East Coast to Key west, Florida; then along the Gulf Coast to Texas--but there's no pause at Mobile, Alabama, where the Sand Island light guards the entrance to Mobile Bay; there's no Middle Bay light, either. We skip right past the Biloxi, Mississippi light, still standing in the midst of traffic on Highway 90.

I would have loved to see my favorite: the St. George Reef light, too, but on our trip north along the West Coast, we pause at Crescent City's on-shore light without a glimpse of this granite beast 6 miles out in the Pacific.

Even with the "missing" items, this is a gorgeous book.

Lighthouses (Linford, Jenny)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2006
Genre: Photography
Read again? Yes

I'm STILL not done with Sagan's "Demon Haunted World." So in the meantime, lighthouses.

I found this one in the bargain bin for eight bucks.

I'm not a devoted lighthouse hunter, but they are beautiful buildings, usually in beautiful and/or spectacular settings, and if you can get a sunrise, sunset, clouds or fog somewhere in the shot you've got photographic gold.

This book is gold.

Linford offers nearly 200 pages from around the world (mostly Europe and the U.S.): sunsets, crashing waves, rocky cliffs, snow, mountains.

Come for the architecture, but stay for the view!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Top Ten Sucky Books of 2009

As long as we're looking at the top books, might as well look at the bottom.

10. Back to the Future (George Gipe)

9. Back to the Future II (Craig Shaw Gardner)

8. Aliens (Alan Dean Foster)

7. Splinter of the Mind's Eye (Alan Dean Foster)

6. Alien (Alan Dean Foster)

5. Han Solo and the Lost Legacy (Brian Daley)

4. Han Solo's Revenge (Brian Daley)

3. Han Solo at Star's End (Brian Daley)

2. Tregarde 03: Jinx High (Mercedes Lackey)

1. Valdemar 07: Brightly Burning (Mercedes Lackey)

0. Star Trek #65--Windows on a Lost World (V E Mitchell) It took a lot to out-suck Lackey's offering. Congratulations to Mitchell for writing the worst book of 2009!

Top Ten books of 2009

Everyone else seems to be making lists and I'm STILL reading Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World" after nearly 3 weeks.

10. Final Approach (John J. Nance)

9. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Richard Feynman)

8. Star Trek: Imzadi (Peter David)

7. 2010: Odyssey 2 (Arthur C. Clarke)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)

5. Valdemar 12: Exile's Valor (Mercedes Lackey)

4. Valdemar 11: Exile's Honor (Mercedes Lackey)

3. God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens; audiobook)

2. The Jungle (Upton Sinclair; audiobook)

...and even though I'm still working at it:

1. The Demon-Haunted World (Carl Sagan)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Apollo 11 Moon Landing: 40th Anniversary Photographic Retrospective (Jenkins, Dennis & Frank, Jorge)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2009
Genre: History / Space
Read again? Yes

I was disappointed by the lack of proper attention given to the 40th anniversary of a couple of guys walking on the FREAKING MOON.

There should have been a years' worth of build-up, partying and meet-ups galore, and carryings-on fit to drown out the moonie idiots who say it never happened. The Onion did a pretty good job of summarizing how excited everyone should have been. Seriously.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner President Obama should have at least held a press conference on July 21, 2009 to say, "My fellow Americans...40 years ago, man walked on the f*cking MOON!!!"

I wasn't even 2 years old when Armstrong and Aldrin (in that order) set foot on the airless regolith a quarter-million miles away from everything we know on Earth. These two men did what's still the coolest thing ever--at least until the later missions where some other guys drove a freaking dune buggy on the moon.

HERE'S your "ultimate driving machine," you BMW losers.

On to the book. It's not a coffee-table photo album, but it makes up for its small size in the quality of the pictures. Most of them are in glossy full color and show excellent detail--more than enough to serve as a detailing guide for a model builder, and plenty for a space geek to drool over.

The narrative takes us from the beginnings of the Apollo program to the days after the astronauts' return home, where they were quarantined in a modified Airstream camper.

As much as I love the space shuttles--they were "my" space ships, as the Apollo craft were for older kids who were lucky enough to see those missions--I gotta say, the Apollo ships and their missions are a damn sight higher up the "awesome" scale.

They went to the FREAKING MOON. 'Nuff said. Great book.

Ansel Adams: Landscapes of the American West (Morgan-Griffiths, Lauris)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2008
Genre: Art / Photography
Read Again? Yup

Since it's taking so long to get through the current read (Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World), I need to fill in some space.

This book will fill in a lot of space. It's big. An inch-thick hardcover that weighs a couple of pounds and at won't fit on any bookshelf you've got!

It needs to be big. It's overflowing with 120 of Adams' gorgeous black & white landscapes, clouds, structures, plants, and water photos. The Grand Canyon. Yellowstone Lake. Burned trees in Glacier National Park. Every picture is crisp, distilled to the essentials.

I got a good deal on it--$20 in a bargain bin, in the year it was published. As eye-popping as Adams' work is, that feels almost criminal.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Splinter of the Mind's Eye (Foster, Alan Dean)

Rating: 3
Year: 1978
Genre: Sci / Star Wars
Read again? Ask me in 10 years.

I took nearly 5 pages of notes for this one. Woof.

This was the first "Star Wars" spin-off book to pop up after the original movie. I ate it up, like many "Star Wars"-hungry kids of the time. I suppose Foster--and Brian Daley, with his "Han Solo" books--knew their audience. At least, I hope they were deliberately writing for 11-year-olds. It would explain a few things.

As with Daley's "Solo" books, you won't find "Star Wars" anywhere in or on the book, just the "from the Adventures of Luke Skywalker" note beneath the title. But you know it's SW because it's got SW words--Luke Skywalker! Princess Leia! R2-D2! C-3PO!

And Darth Vader!

That was all this 11-year-old needed.

Luke & Leia are sneaking from the outskirts of the Circarpous system to a meeting with possible Rebel sympathizers on the 4th planet. Instead of them driving something sensible like a shuttle or courier ship, Luke's in his trusty X-Wing (with Artoo) and Leia's flying a Y-Wing (with 3PO).

Leia's ship develops convenient engine trouble and they make a forced landing on Dagobah Circarpous V, aka Mimban, a swampy, slimy mudhole that Yoda would love. Both ships are wrecked (convenient lightning-like disruption in the upper atmosphere), and the four of them make their way to a landing beacon, hoping for passage off-planet.

They find an Imperial mining colony, complete with Stormtroopers and rowdy miners. Luke & Leia steal some clothes and try to fit in. They meet an old woman and strike a deal with her: help her find the fabled Kaiburr crystal, she'll help them steal a ship.

--Leia's engine trouble is in her upper-right engine...on a Y-Wing? They only HAVE two engines. I'm not gonna be out-geeked by this hack!

--The lightning-like disruption doesn't damage Artoo, even though the droid's exposed outside Luke's ship.

--Landing beacon, colony--but no one picked up all the radio chatter between Luke & Leia before and during the crisis. After he crashes, Luke refrains from yelling while he looks for Leia--might attract attention.

--The Big Battle near the end features a primitive tribe of critters that demolish a company of Stormtroopers without using energy weapons. The Coway aren't ewoks, but the parallels between this and "Jedi" are amusing. Obviously (if we take this book as canon) the Empire didn't learn a thing from the encounter.

--The Kaiburr crystal: a honking big glowing ruby that magnifies the Force. And we never see it again once the book's done.

This is another B-grade sci-fi book like Daley's "Han Solo" trio and the horrible epic series "New Jedi Order." The plot doesn't twist much at all, and we plod half-awake from situation to situation--oh, look, they're gonna crash. Oh, she fell into quicksand. Look, Stormtroopers. Oh, now she fell through a hole in the ground. That guy's gonna kill Luke. Oh no, Stormtroopers are coming. Hey, that's that Darth Vader guy, he's not very nice. What? The book's done? Yay.

Where Daley relies on the longer words in his thesaurus to remind us that he's being sophisticated, Foster tends to go for word-count.

Characterization isn't great; Leia is just the girl-in-distress, screaming and crying hysterically at times. She gets mad at Luke after the crash-landing for not pulling a miracle out of his ass and saving the mission...WHOSE ship had engine trouble? Then she gets mad at him for being right about not trying to land on Mimban. She gets mad a lot. She does the Space Bitch thing a lot. Meh.

Foster DOES play lightly with the sexual tension between pre-sibling Luke and Leia (remember, it's not until "Return of the Jedi" that we learn about that), but they still never do more than exhange significant stares. There was some attempt at character development, but none of them are interesting people for the reader to identify with.

Dialog is laughable at best; none of the Big Names sounds like him- or herself. They all sound like Foster's writing.

If you want GOOD "Star Wars," find Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn" books--a trilogy and a pair--and skip this one.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Solo 02--Han Solo's Revenge (Daley, Brian)

Rating: 3
Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read Again? In a decade, perhaps

Second in the Han Solo set.

No dusty encrustations decorate his thesaurus: Daley the syllable-smith forges onward!

This is the most complex of the three books; Solo and Chewie each get their own plotlines! Beyond that, it's a straight line "B" book like the other two.

They start off on Kamar, showing travel movies to the natives...when the natives become restless, Solo decides to put in a "blind" offer--pilot and ship need work, no questions asked.

They get a contact, show up, and soon find that they're expected to give some slavers and their "cargo" a ride. Firefight, k'pew, k'pew, bad guys die, Han decides to go to the slavers' contact on Bonadan: someone owes him and Chewie 10,000 credits!

The slavers are waiting. Another fight, slash slash, Chewie and Solo split up--the Wookiee in the Millennium Falcon, Han with his new gal-pal on a slow boat--all headed to Ammuud, the next planet in line. Solo still doesn't have the money, and the slavers are still after him!

On top of all this, a skip-tracer from a collections agency has tracked the Falcon to Bonadan and intends to take the ship as payment for money Han owes someone else. This character's pretty lame as Space Critters go. Remember--it's Sci-Fi, so we have to have anthropomorphized animals-as-people; Lucas gave us Space Mice, Space Trees, Space Wolves, Space Twin Sisters, Space Walruses (Walri?), Space Yaks, Space Squids, Space Goats, and Space Teddy Bears....

Daley gives us...the Space Otter. Or maybe it's a Space Seal. Space Otter sounds better. Spray (get it? Aquatic critter, watery name? ha, ha) is buck-toothed, near-sighted, talks with a lifp around thofe bfig teef. This is supposed to be the comic relief, since Spray stays with Chewie and the Falcon--you've got that whole big, hairy wookie/small Space Otter "Odd Couple" thing...meh.

That's the thing, here. Daley doesn't use ANY of these elements to advantage. Han and the women in all three books don't really have a lot of developed sexual tension to push the characters along. They're set-dressing, all equally anonymous and generic, all pale reflections of Princess Leia.

The various Space Critters--a pair of humanoid Space Cats in "Star's End," the Space Otter here, and the Space Caterpillar in "Lost Legacy"--are underdeveloped, not particularly interesting or funny. They're just boring 2-dimensional people like the other characters, only they're funny-looking.

This is also the book that introduces what has become my least-favorite "Star Wars" critter name: howlrunner. No matter what planet we're on (or what planet someone's from), "howlrunner" is the standard "Star Wars" name for a wolf. Given that most of the language is "translated" for us in the narrative...why not just call it a wolf, or "the wolf-like [alien-sounding name]"?

There are some notable howlers--other than Space Wolves--in the story. Chewie is forced to make a high-altitude mountain landing; while he's setting up a sensor on a nearby ridge, there's a stampede of Space Cattle--and they're getting dangerously close to him! So our Wookiee McGyver builds himself a hang glider!

Yes. A hang glider.

From the corpse of a pterosaur, the sensor tripod, some clamps, and some cable!

He glides too far...face-plants into the nearby lake...and Space Otter is there! Chewie is saved!!

You can safely skip all three of these books. But it's good news for Alan Dean Foster: He's not the worst "Star Wars" writer anymore. This is subject to change, because I'm considering reading his ghost-written "Star Wars" novelization. I haven't cracked it open in more than 20 years, and I remember really disliking it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Quickie: A History of Florida Forts (de Quesada, Alejandro)

Rating: 4
Year: 2006
Genre: History/Forts
Read again? (still reading)

I'm all about forts, especially those built along the Coastal U.S. in the aftermath of the War of 1812. But any fort is cool with me.

I got this book in May 2007 during a visit to the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. I started in on it, but didn't get very deep in, so this'll be a "quickie" review.

There's a wealth of information in its 200 pages, and plenty of half-tone black & white photos and illustrations. The book's divided into four large chapters:

1. The Colonial Era
2. The Territorial Era and Seminole Wars
3. The Civil War
4. The Modern Era

I seem to remember that the reading was dry, but in fairness it's been nearly 2 years, so I need to start over.

Solo 03--Han Solo and the Lost Legacy (Daley, Brian)

Rating: 3
Year: 1980
Genre: Sci-Fi/Star Wars
Read again? In another decade

Ooops. I read 'em out of order. This is the third in the set that isn't so much a trilogy as three stand-alone stories.

Daley's back at the thesaurus for this third Solo book, filling in the syllables to let us know that we're reading Science Fiction, not your common dimestore paperback.

Han and Chewie are in the Tion Hegemony, a galactic backwater, having skipped out of the Corporate Sector. Times are bad, business is slow, and they end up working as pit crew for an arrogant air-show flyer. Then they get an offer: ship some educational materials to a university on another world.

It turns out they were recommended by an old pal, Badure, who has a line on something big--a treasure vault containing the last hoard of tributes to Xim the Despot (I wonder if he called himself that?). This is Science Fiction, so we have to have a history expert who just happens to be a Space Caterpillar. He's seeking his fortune and glory before he becomes a Space Butterfly (but Daley calls that a "chromawing").

Badure also warns Solo that he's being stalked by the notorious assassin Gallandro, fastest gun in the galaxy, who has a score to settle.

Then there's the army of Xim's war robots, talking dinosaurs, and Daley's thesaurus, which should be named as a character itself.

Marginally better than "Star's End," but still firmly on the "B" list; Daley's plots flow right downstream with few twists or turns. His characters are simply there, barely fleshed out, not particularly compelling--and they all sound alike.

But it's Daley's narrative style that suffers the most; those extra syllables don't make the prose seem sophisticated, just clumsy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Solo 01--Han Solo at Star's End (Daley, Brian)

Rating: 3
Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-Fi/Star Wars
Read Again? In another 10 years

First of the original Han Solo trilogy.

I devoured this book and the other "Star Wars" tie-ins over that long, dark time between the original "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back." That 12-year-old me couldn't get enough--Lucas' brainchild was in my blood, no matter that I was maybe 18 months later than every other kid on the planet in seeing the original.

This is pre-franchise "Star Wars." You won't find those two words anywhere on the book. There's just a little tag under the title letting you know that it's from the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.

But it has Han Solo! It's got Chewbacca the Wookiee! It's got the Millennium Falcon! It's got other "Star Wars" words! But there's no Empire, no Luke Skywalker, no Jabba the Hutt. Han and Chewie are in the United States Corporate Sector, where the government places profit above everything else.

After the Falcon takes some damage on a smuggling run, Han & Chewie seek out an old friend: Doc, the leader of a...consortium of enterprise-minded ship techs, who can and will do most anything, no questions asked, for the right price. "Outlaw-techs," as Daley calls them. But Doc's not there--he disappeared months ago, leaving his daughter Jessa to run the family business.

Jessa is happy to make the repairs; all Han has to do is go to a meet-spot, pick up some people, and take them where they need to go. The meet-spot is a Corporate Sector data center; the people are looking for information about missing relatives, "disappeared" as undesirables. Their first passenger is a droid, Bollux, and its little super-computer pal Blue Max. We have to have comic relief, right?

The mission goes well enough at first. Han & Chewie meet their contact, they get into the data center, Max finds the information they need, the rest of the team shows up, and it's time for a firefight and daring escape!

Yeah, almost. Before they can escape, Chewie is nabbed by the security guys--and now he's "disappeared" too.

As with Alan Dean Foster's "Alien" books, Daley's got a style peppered with expensive syllables, since apparently that's what makes something science-fictiony. Why say "work and play" when you can have "toil and enjoyment"? Why use a simple lock when "impoundment fastener" has 5 more syllables? When you tell time in Daley's "Star Wars" (and others', since many of his ideas are aped by later writers), you don't use hours. You use "Standard Time-Parts," with the capitals intact. Even the wordy Mercedes Lackey tells time in candlemarks. One less syllable, yes--but less clunky.

Yeah, yeah, I know Daley--and others who write like this--are trying to tech it up, use more "sophisticated" language, but it feels fake and clunky and doesn't really add anything of substance to the narrative. Solo comes off at times sounding like some upper-class professor rather than the fast-talkin' wise-ass.

"Star's End" isn't Great Literature, doesn't explore the histories of its main characters, and doesn't make them grow into better beings. It has the benefit of being better than anything George Lucas has done in the past 20 years, so that's worth something.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Confederacy of Dunces, A (Toole, J K)

Rating: 4
Year: 1980
Genre: Satire/Farce/Comedy
Read Again? In a few years

This one's hard to write; it took nearly 2 weeks to read--and it's not that long a book. It doesn't drag, there's plenty of humor along the way, and Toole's writing is easy to get along with. He has a good feel for character, an ear for dialect in early 1960's New Orleans, and a solid grasp of what it takes to spin out various threads in a story, then tie them all up at the end without holding the reader's hand and explaining every single thing.

But I'm having trouble, here. Most of it is that I had my head full of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" audiobook. The rest is that the main character, Ignatius Reilly, is about as unlikable as one human being can be. He's a seriously odd duck. He's fat, with blue and yellow eyes (liver problems?), passes gas freely from both ends, and has a funk about him from various personal habits. He fills notebook after notebook with stuff like this:

  • "With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy." Ignatius was writing in one of his Big Chief tablets. "After a period in which the western world had enjoyed order, tranquility, unity, and oneness with its True God and Trinity, there appeared winds of change which spelled evil days ahead. An ill wind blows no one good. The luminous years of Abelard, Thomas a Becket, and Everyman dimmed into dross; Fortuna's wheel had turned on humanity, crushing its collarbone, smashing its skull, twisting its torso, puncturing its pelvis, sorrowing its soul. Having once been so high, humanity fell so low. What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale."
But he actually TALKS like that, too:

  • "My nerves!" Ignatius said. He was slumped down in the seat so that just the top of his green hunting cap appeared in the window, looking like the tip of a promising watermelon. From the rear, where he always sat, having read somewhere that the seat next to the driver was the most dangerous, he watched his mother's wild and inexpert shifting with disapproval. "I suspect that you have effectively demolished the small car that someone innocently parked behind this bus. You had better succeed in getting out of this spot before its owner happens along."
It reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, for some reason, but never was there a Holmesian story that felt so much like an extended episode of "M*A*S*H"; as with the show, there are a couple of reasonably sane characters surrounded by insanity. The sanest of them all is a young black man (Burma Jones) who sits in the background and watches all the craziness: Ignatius organizing co-workers in a revolt against a "tyrannical" employer; a low-end bar owner who produces pornographic postcards; an elderly man who fancies Ignatius' mother; Ignatius selling hot dogs on Bourbon Street, dressed as a pirate.

The other sane one is Gus Levy, owner of the Levy Pants factory. He hates the company his overbearing father left him; his wife hates him for this, and is little more than a constantly-scheming ridicule machine bent on undermining Gus and alienating his daughters from him. It's his company Ignatius tries to free the workers from--so of course Mrs. Levy decides Ignatius must be some sort of heroic idealist.

Ignatius' mother grows the most in the story; in the beginning, Irene is Ignatius' doormat, hiding in a cheap-wine stupor. But she makes a friend who convinces her to stand up for herself.

It's a fun read, but not a challenging one. You're not going to get deep thoughts and learn arcane things, here.

Jungle, The (Sinclair, Upton)

Rating: 5
Year: 1906 (audiobook, 1994)
Genre: Fiction
Read Again? Yes

A masterfully-told story of a Lithuanian immigrant and his in-laws who are lured to Chicago's Packingtown.

Jurgis Rudkus starts out an optimistic man, full of the hope of the American Dream. He soon realizes that the entire system in Packingtown is arrayed against him and all the other workers. Wages are kept low, the hours are brutally long, and once you're in the system, there's no way out unless you know how to get in with the higher-ups. It's every man for himself.

Jurgis can't understand why every man he meets hates the job, hates the company, hates most of their co-workers, the bosses, the town. All he wants to do is have an honest job, and provide for his family. They pool their meager resources together and put a down-payment of $300 on a house. Their agent only tells them that they'll be paying $12 per month--and once the total of $1500 is paid off, it's theirs. They soon find that it's a trap. The agent didn't mention interest, taxes, or property improvement fees. He didn't tell them that being late on a full monthly payment plus interest will get them kicked out to the street.

We see the family ground down, near-starving in winter when the work is slack, scrabbling for pennies to put onto the next house payment, and working in horrible conditions where a small injury can put a worker on the street, his place taken up by someone fit and healthy. It's an awful, squalid world Jurgis and his family live in; Sinclair compares people to trees fighting for the tiniest amount of sunlight, only to fall like dead branches when winter comes.

It took nearly two weeks to get through this 15-hour Audiobook version; the story moved well, tightly-written by Sinclair and adequately narrated by Robert Morris. The only boring part is the last few chapters, when Jurgis stumbles into a Socialist Party meeting while just trying to keep warm. From there we're treated to Utopian preachings from various speakers. It was interesting to see it from the inside, but that's when the book really stopped being about Jurgis and started being about Sinclair's Socialism, with Jurgis as an observer.

Still, I can't take a point for that, since the story was utterly riveting. I look forward to actually reading it the next time, rather than listening to the somewhat odd narration. Robert Morris' reading reminded me of filmstrips and movies in elementary or middle school; he speaks clearly, but there's an odd rhythm in his speech.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Keep (Wilson, F. Paul)

Rating: 4
Year: 1981
Genre: Horror
Read again? In a few years.

April 28, 1941. Major Erich Kaempffer of the SS is diverted from his assignment in Ploiesti, Romania: a German army detachment has met with resistance and need reinforcements. Six men are dead. Kaempffer is sent with einsatzkommandos--SS extermination squad troops--to mop up the resistance. He will go from there to establish a death camp in Ploiesti--but he is to pacify the troublemakers first.

Kaempffer is bothered by the message sent from the army commander:

Request immediate relocation.
Something is murdering my men.

April 22, 1941. Captain Klaus Woermann and his men arrive at a small castle in Dinu Pass, in the Transylvanian Alps north of Ploiesti. It's always been known as the Keep, and it's been well-maintained. In contrast to the brooding, dark stone, there are thousands of brass-and-nickel crosses inlaid in the walls. Woermann warns his men against stealing any of them.

A private on guard duty finds a gold-and-silver cross and decides to take it.

Others come to investigate his screams and those of his accomplice. The private is dead, his head torn clean off. His partner in crime is catatonic.

There's a large hole in the wall, stones pushed out: something found its way out.

April 23. The catatonic thief dies, his throat torn out.
April 24. A man on guard duty dies.
April 25. A man on guard duty dies. The guard is doubled.
April 26. A man asleep in his bedroll dies. Everyone on guard duty, all night!
April 27. A man on guard duty dies in plain sight.
April 28. Kaempffer and his kommandos arrive. Two kommandos die. This time, a message is written in blood on the wall where the men were killed.

...and the Nazis' only hope of learning what is killing their men lies in a Jewish scholar.

As the first man dies, a red-haired man realizes that what he's dreaded has come to pass. He makes his way to the Keep....

The story plays out as a version of the vampire legend--Viscount Molasar hung out with Vlad the Impaler; he built the Keep to protect himself from his enemies; he casts no reflection, but silver and garlic aren't a problem; he cowers away from a crucifix, and the name "Jesus" causes him agony.

I remembered liking this book from the last time I read it, maybe 4 years ago. I'd forgotten just about everything, so I can't say whether I was as disappointed by the ending as I am now. Wilson has the red-haired man holding back on all of his important information until shortly before the Big Fight between him and Molasar. Everything we'd been led to think about the evil creature turns out to be wrong--and it feels cheap, or maybe just clumsily-executed. Still, it's much better than the movie Michael Mann made of it in 1983.

God Is Not Great (Hitchens, Christopher)

Rating: 5
Year: 2007
Genre: Religion; Atheism
Read Again? Yes (audiobook)

The only thing better than reading this book is having the author read it to you. Hitchens' calm, measured voice delivers a series of stinging indictments of each of the Big Three monotheist religions, but seems most intent on Catholicism.

He leads us far and wide: Muslims wigging out over some cartoons in 2006; Orthodox Jews wigging out over people doing things on Sabbath day; a Pope's complicity in the torture and murder of millions, then aiding and abetting the escape of known torturers and murderers after WW2; and the making of a star in 1969, soon known to the world as Mother Teresa.

Hitchens further discusses the chief claims of religious apologists "against" atheism--claims I see nearly daily in the alt.atheism newsgroup--such as the "atheistic" regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and other totalitarian regimes. He points out that totalitarianism is fundamentalism, with the state--and, by definition, the leader of that state--taking the position of the object of worship.

Not that anything in this book will de-convert the hard-headed, determined believer who is already possessed of The Truth. This isn't Hitchens' goal; only thinking readers need approach.

I'm looking forward to getting the actual book soon; the audiobook format lends itself to filling in those long, boring stretches of time known as "work," but I couldn't stop to take notes when Hitchens made a point I would have liked to scribble about.

On a Beam of Light (Brewer, Gene)

Rating: 4
Year: 2001
Genre: Comdey/Sci-Fi
Read again? In a few years

prot returns almost to the minute 5 years after his departure for his homeworld of K-PAX. It's August 17, 1995.

Dr. Brewer had concluded that prot was no alien, but rather an alternate personality created by Robert Porter to defend himself against traumatic situations--first, when his father died, then when he was molested by his "uncle," and most recently--in August of 1985--when his wife and daughter were murdered. When prot left at the end of "K-PAX," Robert became catatonic, curled up on a bed, unresponsive to any stimulus.

Now, prot/Robert has awakened, and prot announces that this time he's leaving for good--and he's willing to take 100 people with him! Brewer only has a few weeks to bring Robert closer to a cure. As he investigates Robert's background and gets more and more of his story from the man himself, Brewer finds that there are more than just Robert and prot living in there:

Robert--the innocent.
prot--the alien pal, calm, rational, highly intelligent.
Harry--the protector; he killed the man who killed Robert's family.
Paul--the lover; because of the molestation by his uncle, Robert is seriously messed-up where sex is concerned.

In the meantime, everyone wants to talk to prot--the CIA, biologists, astronomers, and people who want to go to K-PAX. Is he really just an alternate persona? If he is, what happened to the woman who left with him at the end of the last book? Why is there a slight difference in DNA in the blood samples taken from prot and Robert?

As with the first, a light and fun read.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

K-PAX (Brewer, Gene)

Rating: 4
Year: 1995
Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Read Again? In another few years

Time for that Lackey-free zone again.

Gene Brewer--as Dr. Gene Brewer, a head mechanic--narrates his story of a pleasant-seeming man in his thirties who becomes a patient at the Manhattan Psychiatric Institute. He's known only as "prot" (rhymes with "goat") and claims to be from one of the stars in the Lyra constellation. His WORLD is K-PAX (prot has such disdain for humanity, he does not capitalize names--but his respect for stellar objects is such that he renders them all-caps).

prot was picked up by the New York Police Department after he was found standing over a mugging victim. Brewer schedules one session a week, on Wednesdays, and the book's chapters are numbered accordingly.

Brewer learns that prot and his fellow X-PAXians live in Utopian conditions: the weather is always pleasant; there is no crime; everyone provides for everyone else; a typical life is 1,000 years; there is no pollution, no one eats animals, and sex doesn't drive anyone to misbehave or harm others. When asked how his people travel the vast distances of interstellar space, prot smiles condescendingly and tells him it's done with mirrors.

By the 5th Session, Brewer learns that prot is leaving for K-PAX on August 17th, 1990 (less than 3 months away), at 3:31 a.m. precisely. This gives us a clock to watch: Will Brewer figure out what's happening in prot's head and find out who he really is?

"K-PAX" isn't a sci-fi story in the typical vein; we don't see any flashy technology or travel to other worlds--we just have prot's word that it's real, and all done with mirrors.

I like Brewer's style--spare, straightforward, conversational, like a friend over coffee instead of the author-as-performer. His humor isn't screamingly funny, but it's not forced like Lackey's sometimes feels. The story's engaging. It's not Great Literature--but it doesn't try to pretend that it is anything more.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Valdemar 20: Winds of Fury (Lackey)

Rating: 5
Year: 1993
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

The 20th book. Third in the "Mage Winds" trilogy. Six. Six! SIX more books left, but after this one I'm taking a break, considering that I've done 10 Lackey books in a row.

We begin with King Ancar of Hardorn. He's been at war with Valdemar for a decade and is fed up with his lack of progress. He's been learning magic, but his teacher has been holding out on him, and he's fed up with her, as well. When the evil, cat-like Mornelithe Falconsbane falls at his feet after a dangerous experiment, Ancar can't believe his good fortune. He wastes no time getting controlling spells into place--and now Ancar has an Adept--and through Falconsbane, the power he's always wanted.

Next, we return to Elspeth as she and her merry band prepare to leave the Vale, finally headed back to Valdemar to start protecting her country from Ancar's depradations. They get hijacked by an old friend of ours: Herald-Mage Vanyel, whose body died centuries ago (in a battle with Leareth, a previous incarnation of Falconsbane), but whose ghost protects the northern border of Valdemar. After some important plot points are laid in, they finally get back to the capital and get to work training new mages.

And now, our third major character, An'desha. It seems that this young Shin'a'in lad owns the body that Falconsbane has been living in for several decades. And now things are happening that might get him that body back. All An'desha has to do is feed information about Falconsbane to representatives of his Goddess, who will get that info to the folks in Valdemar who need it.

This book went by a lot more quickly than the previous two did. The only real nitpick I have is with a pretty important plot point. Just before the big confrontation at the end, we're told that Nyara--Falconsbane's daughter--is able to bear children. It's used as a reason for the good guys to destroy his spirit before he can be reborn. Okay, okay, fine--but Nyara was established as unable to have children in the previous book.

I won't kill any points over that, though; not because I'm being nice, but because I know how hard it is to keep plot points and details straight over several years of writing, even between just two books in a series, or even between chapters. All things considered, Lackey has done a good job keeping the story going.

All the same, I'm glad to be nearly done with the series. It's one thing to read-and-forget, but blogging about it makes me have to think about what I'm reading.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Valdemar 19: Winds of Change (Lackey)

Rating: 4
Year: 1993
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes.

Number 19, with 7 left. Second in the "Mage Winds" Elspeth trilogy.

We begin with Elspeth and Skif being adopted into the Tayledras Clan they've been helping. Everyone's happy--they all think (wishfully) that the evil mage who's been harrassing the Clan for a decade and more is dead. We learn that the Tayledras--the "Brothers of the Hawk"--were set by their Goddess to cleanse the lands of twisted magic and creatures, to make it safe for regular people to move in and live their lives.

We follow Nyara, the cat-like woman, daughter of the evil Mornelithe Falconsbane (Mornelithe: hatred-that-returns). She has found a hiding place where the talking magic sword Need can train her without disturbance.

Skif goes off with Darkwind's brother Wintermoon (yeah, all of the Tayledras have names like that) to find Nyara, for he's in moon-eyed love with her.

Elspeth and Darkwind begin training in magic.

Falconsbane isn't dead. He's resting, and brooding upon revenge. We learn that he's the latest incarnation of the evil Ma'ar, the Mage of Black Fire, supposedly destroyed in the Cataclysm. Ma'ar had an escape plan: he hid his spirit away, waiting for a suitable descendant to try simple magic that would trigger Ma'ar's return. He would possess the body, destroy its owner's spirit, and continue with his evil plans (Total World Domination, and all that). One of his incarnations was Leareth--whom Herald Vanyel fought to the death in the "Last Herald Mage" trilogy.

A better book than the one before; the pacing is a bit tighter and there aren't as many continuity problems in the story as there were in the first one. Plenty of fussy little Lackeyisms, but I should be used to those by now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Valdemar 18: Winds of Fate (Lackey, M)

Rating: 3.5
Year: 1991
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Book 18 of Valdemar, with 8 left. *whew*

This is the first in the trilogy about Herald Elspeth (the Brat from the Talia books). She's in her late 20's, now. There are two primary characters in this one.

Elspeth comes to realize that Valdemar needs mages if the country is to fight off Ancar of Hardorn (since the third book of Talia, more than a decade has passed--they've been fighting a holding action ever since). After weeks of trying to get her mother--Queen Selenay--to allow her to go mage-hunting, Elspeth finally wins (with some manipulative help from the Companions). Before she leaves, Kerowyn brings her the magic sword Need, which has chosen Elspeth as its new bearer. Elspeth and Skif go south into Rethwellan. They continue south and finally wind up at Kata'shin'a'in, the trade-city of the Shin'a'in nomads--

At this point, Need awakens and tells her story--she was a mage-smith thousands of years ago who forged her spirit into the sword. She's been "asleep" for quite some time, but something about Kerowyn and Elspeth woke her up, and now she's a regular character.

--only to be sent across a stretch of the Plains to a place where the mysterious, mythic Hawk-brothers--the Tayledras--might help them...

We also follow (in parallel) Darkwind, an emo-ish Tayledras scout who was once a powerful mage. He blames himself for the destruction of his Clan's Heartstone, the thing that gives the Tayledras their power. He foreswore all magic and lives outside the Clan's Vale. The Clan's territory is threatened from outside by a crafty evil mage, and it takes all Darkwind and his Scouts can muster to keep him or her at bay (See "Shin'a'in & Tayledras" Quickie for some background).

Then a cat-girl, Elspeth, Skif, the talking sword, and their spirit-horses fall in his lap--and things get complicated.

I took off a half-point almost as soon as I started to read, after running headlong into some glaring continuity problems:
  • Skif's background: she claims Skif learned thieving from his uncle. But in "Take a Thief," his uncle is a tavern owner, not a professional thief; Skif learns his craft from an elderly man who runs a small ring with boys Skif's age.
  • Elspeth's training--she doesn't know how to repair armor? This is something she'd have picked up as a Trainee, and before that, when Talia was a Trainee and Elspeth hung out with her ("Arrows of the Queen").
  • Elspeth's mother's attitudes toward her learning street-fighting like Skif. Elspeth learned to fight before she was Chosen--she trained in the same styles Talia did--and both of them learned Skif's style because Alberich wanted them to ("Arrows of the Queen"). She even has Elspeth being forbidden to learn such things. Heh.
There are more, but after a point even I get tired of nitpicking.

The book opens with Elspeth being taught to use whatever is handy as a weapon--and she's played as unusually dense, not understanding that self-defense would include using anything at one's disposal--as if Alberich wouldn't have included such lessons in the dirty fighting she supposedly didn't receive. Herald Kerowyn is concerned that Elspeth--the Heir to the throne--could face assassination attempts. Apparently this was never a concern before, if no one taught Elspeth this kind of stuff before--or maybe it's just a set-up?

Damned if someone doesn't happen to try an assassination attempt within just a few pages, and I'm killing another point for such a clumsy, obvious set-up. It would have been better for Lackey to remember Elspeth's training back in the first Talia book and just refer to it as Elspeth is facing down the would-be killer. As it is, this "training" is never used again in the rest of the series, any more than the "archery training that every Herald learns" is seen again outside of the Talia books.

Overall, the book feels like it's longer than its 460 pages. It doesn't drag, but there's a lot going on--and there are two more just as heavy after this one.

And THREE more after those that are just as heavy and busy.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Valdemar 17: By the Sword (Lackey, M)

Rating: 5
Year: 1991
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Number 17, with 9 left. This is the stand-alone story of Herald Kerowyn.

Kerowyn is 17 (I think--maybe 14, but it's muddled) and dissatisfied with her lot in life. Her mother died when she was young, leaving Kero to manage the household. Her father's a retired mercenary, heartbroken years after losing his wife; he barely notices his daughter, other than to criticize her.

When we join the story, Kero is managing an enormous feast, directing servants and making sure each course is delivered on time--much like an officer in war. Very appropriate.

Her brother is to be married; their father insisted on the feast to impress the new in-laws and the other guests.

The party's interrupted by raiders, who hack and slash their way into the Hall, killing indiscriminately, until they reach the bride-to-be. They snatch her and any valuables they can carry. Kero's father lies dead, her brother badly wounded. There's not a fighter on the property left alive or in fighting condition. Kero realizes that it's up to her to go for help; her grandmother, the famous Kethry (of the "Oath" trilogy) lives a few leagues away, long since retired from teaching magic--maybe she can help!

Kero suits up and rides out--and gets help she doesn't expect: her grandmother's magic sword, Need, speaks for her. Before she realizes what's happened, Kero is back on the road, and on the trail of the raiders. The rescue goes well, the girl in distress is saved...and Kero's life is changed. She learns how to fight from Kethry's partner Tarma (also of the "Oath" trilogy), then goes to work as a mercenary.

Then her Company is hired to help Valdemar fend off the massive army of King Ancar of Hardorn--and her life changes again!

Very good story, not so heavy on the fuss and such. For being nearly 500 pages, the story doesn't drag. We get to see and say goodbye to Kethry and Tarma, we're reminded of a pledge made to Valdemar by the King of Rethwellan decades before. For romance lovers, there's the obligatory meeting of the "other half of my soul" not for one or two but for 6 characters:

Kero gets Chosen
Kero gets her man, Herald Eldan
Prince Daren gets Chosen
Prince Daren gets his woman, Queen Selenay

It's not all peace, love and happiness, though: the war with Hardorn is not won. Ancar will attack again and again until he gets what he wants!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Valdemar 16: Arrow's Fall (Lackey, M)

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

Final Talia book, and 10 left.

Talia is nearly 20; we join her and Kris shortly before they make it to Haven, her 18-month Internship completed.

She's quickly embroiled in the latest issue before Queen Selenay and the Council: King Alessandar of Hardorn has petitioned for Princess Elspeth's hand in marriage to his son, Ancar.

She also has to deal with Herald Dirk. He's the guy she has her eye on, and it's clear that he wants her, but he thinks she wants to be with Kris. There's a big argument--and the three close friends won't have anything to do with each other.

Then Talia gets into another argument with Elspeth after catching her with a dirtbag.

Queen Selenay sees a chance to work a reconciliation: she sends Talia and Kris to Hardorn as envoys to find out what Ancar is like.

Things steadily get worse from there.

In all, the least satisfying of the three. The sitcom-esque misunderstanding between Talia, Kris and Dirk is just ham-handed. The dialogue from the bad guys is horrendous and oh so prissy.

This is the story in which all those conveniences come home to roost (spoilers!):
--Talia's got a tight bond with her Companion that can't be blocked, even by powerful shields.
--Dirk remembers that he can "Fetch" a living person (Fetching is telekenesis, moving things with your mind) just in time for the third act.
--Dirk and Talia are "Lifebonded," which gives him the link to bring her back.

There are some others, but it's not like these are deal-breakers. They're only as clumsy-seeming to me as they are because I've been reading this trilogy since 1995. My reading tastes and attitudes have changed--probably because of George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" books, which make Lackey's Heralds look like happiness-and-sunshine flower children and her bad guys look like bumbling pikers.

Valdemar 15: Arrow's Flight (Lackey, M)

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

Second in the Talia trilogy, and 11 left.

It's been 5 years since Talia left the Holding. We catch up with her on the day she "graduates" from training--she's earned the right to wear the white uniform of a Herald. But she still faces a period of Internship, wherein she learns to use her training. Only then will she be a Herald and Queen's Own.

An emergency near Valdemar's northern border leads to Talia and her instructor leaving on a moment's notice. But she soon learns that rumors about her are spreading: she abuses her powers, influencing people's moods to get her way. This leads her to obsess over the matter--is she really projecting her feelings on others? Is she influencing her instructor, the angelically-handsome Herald Kris?

Then the worst happens: a killer snowstorm traps them together with no hope of a quick rescue--and her steadily-weakening control over her powers fails!

Like the first book, a good read, aside from those conveniences that get dropped in somewhat clumsily by Lackey for later use in the third book. More satisfying than the first book.

Valdemar 14: Arrows of the Queen (Lackey, M)

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

First in the Herald Talia trilogy, and 14th in the long, long, long long saga of Valdemar that spans 2,000 years and seems to take as long to read. Twelve more to go...but 7 of these are the thickest of the set. Fortunately, these are the better books. They begin shortly after 1376, the year King Sendar died in battle and his daughter Selenay took the throne--a few years after the events in "Take a Thief," since Skif is still a Trainee.

"Arrows" introduces us to Talia, a 13-year old girl who doesn't quite fit into the culture of the Holding, a farming community where the men own everything. Women have only two choices: marry or pray. Talia doesn't want either choice; she wants to be a Herald. She runs away--and is shortly met by one of those spirit-horse Companions.

She doesn't even realize that she's been Chosen, because the Holderkin don't hold with the ways of Heralds. And no one she meets along the way can tell her what's going on. Convenient, in that it keeps her frightened and confused for the entire chapters-long ride to Haven (the capital of Valdemar).

Once she arrives, she learns that she's to become the new Queen's Own Herald--a sort of "BFF" for the Monarch, advisor, tie-breaker in votes, bodyguard, confidante, and representative. The idea of a Monarch's Own Herald is that there needs to be one person upon whom the person wearing the Crown may depend in all ways, someone who will always be honest and solid.

Her first job--in addition to training to be a Herald--will be to tame the Brat, Queen Selenay's daughter Elspeth.

Her next job is to survive; the people who engineered the murder of the previous Queen's Own quickly get to work on killing her, as well.

As with the first "Oathbound" book, Lackey puts on an affected "fantasy" voice that puts me in mind of the bloody 'orrible Olde Englishe crap they use at a Renfaire, mixed with some fairy-tale. Fortunately she loses it pretty quickly as the story develops. I can see where a new reader might take this "voice" as meaning that this is a kid's book. But by the end of this trilogy, as with the end of the Vanyel trilogy, our main character gets tortured and raped. Not kid stuff.

An issue that I've got with this trilogy is that Lackey seems to take every opportunity to insert a convenience that will conveniently pop up again later; the first two books are riddled with set-ups for rescuing Talia from her captors in the third.

Aside from this (and Lackey's fussy style), a good read.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Valdemar 13: Take a Thief (Lackey, M)

Rating: 4
Year: 2001
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

The 13th Valdemar book is lucky! Only 13 to go, unless I've mis-counted again. This stand-alone book tells the story of Herald Skif.

Skif is a little kid who lives in his uncle's lowest-of-the-low-end tavern in Haven. In this book and the two Alberich books that come before it, we get to see that Valdemar isn't really Utopia. There is a dark underbelly in Haven--the capital city--where lives of quiet desperation are the norm and life is cheap. At 10 years old, Skif is an accompished sneak-thief, disguising himself as a page to get food from the rich. Then he gets a chance to turn "pro" as part of a modest ring of three older boys and and old man, first stealing silk and other expensive fabrics, then picking pockets and cutting purses, and then walking the roofs at night.

His friends are murdered by an arsonist. Skif puts his skills to work to learn who the killer is and who hired him.

Then he finds a white horse and sets out to steal it....

Three in a row for Lackey. Like the two Alberich books, she's not writing in her "C-3PO" voice, with the attendant fussiness that goes with it. There's a disconnect, though, in the narrative "voice" that's telling the story as Skif sees it and his own internal voice--the narrative voice is Lackey's, and even though we're seeing things as Skif sees them, we're getting her descriptives and vocabulary, words that the minimally-educated child wouldn't use. Maybe it's just a nitpick.

There are also times when the kid speaks with a much less hick-like, more educated manner, but his thinking is still in broken Valdemaran. It's not clear whether Lackey's trying to show that he's smarter than he lets on--and if that's her intent, it seems like she could have tried it the other way around: better diction when he's thinking to himself, and deliberately-dumbed-down when he's speaking to others. One point off for the nitpicky stuff.

Another bonus: this book didn't drag. We get to the Big Crisis around page 150, but Skif isn't Chosen for more than 100 pages after. Why, oh freakin' WHY, couldn't Lackey have written this well in "Brightly Burning," just a year before?

Valdemar 12: Exile's Valor (Lackey, M)

Rating: 5
Year: 2003
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

This is the second of two in the story of Herald Alberich, number 12 with 14 left.

Amazing! Lackey's followup to "Exile's Honor" is good, too!

Less than a year has passed since the death in battle of King Sendar, and the beginning of his daughter's reign. The Council is pushing for Queen Selenay to marry and start breeding heirs, but mostly for her to marry: the Council wants a King, not a Queen who seems just a child to that bunch of creaky old men. But they all seem to forget: No man may be King in Valdemar unless he is also a Herald, and no one becomes a Herald unless they are Chosen by one of those spirit-horses.

Selenay's dear friend, Lord Orthallen, arranges for a Prince from the neighboring country of Rethwellan, to bring his nation's less-formal condolences on the death of King Sendar. Selenay is instantly smitten with this charming, good-looking man.

But Alberich soon finds threads of intrigue in Valdemar, a plot to kill Selenay and take the Throne!

Very good story, and much the better for lacking much of Lackey's "protocol droid" fussiness. Surprisingly, there's only one nickname in the two books together, and it's only seen in this one. The Prince from Rethwellan is named Karathanelan, but everyone just calls him Karath. It's a running joke in the Valdemar books that Rethwellan names are a mouthful, and in this case, the nickname "feels" right, unlike many of the diminutives Lackey hands out for some of the other books.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Valdemar 11: Exile's Honor (Lackey, M)

Rating: 5
Year: 2002
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

She's baaaaack.

The 11th novel, 15 to go, first of two telling the story of Herald Alberich.

We're introduced to Alberich in his home country of Karse, on the southern border of Valdemar. The two nations have been in a state of undeclared war for at least 6 centuries. It's about 1,355 years since the Founding of Valdemar; Herald Vanyel's time was around 750 A.F.; Lavan "Brightly sucking" Firestorm burned around 1077 A.F.--and both of those Heralds fought the Karsites.

Karse is controlled by a theocracy built on the worship of Vkandis, the Sun God. Alberich is a newly-promoted captain in their army. We quickly find that he's uneasy in his rank, for that rank will bring closer scrutiny, and he's got a secret that would get him killed should it become known: he can see the future.

Actually, he's got a second secret: it's obvious to readers who've been following the series that the lovely white horse Alberich got with his promotion is one of Valdemar's spirit-horse Companions.

He gets a sudden flash of that ForeSight, a nearly crippling vision of a village about to be captured by the same bandits Alberich and his men have been after for months. He finds himself in the saddle, leading a charge to take the bandits by surprise.

They wipe them out.

The village priest has Alberich arrested--it's plain that he had fore-knowledge of the bandit raid, and such abilities are evil! He's beaten and thrown into a shed, which is set afire. Not much for judicial formalities, those Karsite priests. He thinks you're guilty, you're guilty.

The Companion-in-disguise batters down one wall, gets Alberich on its back, and high-tails it into the north, to Valdemar.

Why couldn't she get "Brightly Burning" to be as good as this? Where that book was boring, "Honor" plays on the fish-out-of-water scenario in a much more interesting manner. Alberich is taught the rudiments of the Valdemaran language, is made Assistant Weaponsmaster (having a Companion makes you trustworthy), then goes to work at night spying on the criminal element. When war finally comes to Valdemar, he joins the King at the front line.

When King Sendar dies, Alberich is there to protect Selenay, the king's daughter, now Queen of Valdemar. This part of the book is powerfully written.

She's not as fussy. This was an entertaining book!

What the hell happened between "Burning" in 2000 and this one in 2002? Was she THAT upset by the impending End of the World on December 31, 1999?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Trouble Is My Business (collection; Chandler, Raymond)

Overall rating: 4
Year: 1950?
Genre: Crime
Read again? In a few years, maybe.

I'm glad I read it, but I'm not happy that it took a solid month to do so.

The book itself didn't drag; the killer is in the formula. The detective is asked onto a case, he goes to interview an important witness, who turns up dead. It's a time-honored formula, and obviously successful, but it made for some disorientation. Good thing I took notes.

The big surprise, as mentioned in several of the early story reviews, was that Chandler went on to build novels from several stories. The upshot of this is that a reader who's already seen the novels will already know where a component short story is going.

Here's the breakdown:

The Big Sleep (1939) uses "Killer in the Rain" and "The Curtain."

Farewell, My Lovely (1940) uses "The Man who Liked Dogs," "Try the Girl," and "Mandarin's Jade."

The Lady in the Lake (1943) uses "Bay City Blues," "The Lady in the Lake," and "No Crime in the Mountains."

I do like Chandler's style, but it doesn't seem as developed in the shorts as in his novels.

Red Wind (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 5
Year: 1938
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes

Number 12 of 12 in "Trouble is my Business." This is a good ending, since I'm sort of dealing with detective fatigue.

Marlowe's sitting in a little club, minding his own business, chatting with the bartender. There's a fat guy at the other end of the bar buying and devouring his booze a shot at a time. Other than these three gents, the bar's empty.

Another man enters and asks some very specific questions about a woman, right down to describing her clothing. No one's seen her. He turns to leave.

Fat Guy shouts at him, then pulls out a gun and wastes him, walks out, and steals the man's car.

Marlowe finds the woman without even trying (she turns up in the hall near his apartment), but then things start getting complicated.

Goldfish (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 5
Year: 1936
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes

One of the better shorts! Number 11 of 12 in "Trouble is my Business."

Marlowe's brought in on a chance to make a cut of $20,000 in reward money being offered by an insurance company. All he has to do is find some pearls that went missing in a train robbery years before.

Chief suspect Wally Sype admitted to killing a mail clerk on the train and stealing the other stuff that went missing in the operation. This admission (and the recovery of everything but the pearls) got him a pardon.

But one Peeler Mardo claims that his cellmate (Sype) admitted to grabbing the pearls and hiding them in Idaho.

Marlowe goes to interview Mardo. Mardo's dead, tortured--but did he spill before he died?

It's a race to find the pearls, and Marlowe's up against a tough broad and her ambulance-chaser partner in crime.

Much more entertaining than most of the previous stories--the angel-faced tough broad is a lot of fun and is probably the best fleshed-out character, even with the relatively small amount of screen time she gets.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Finger Man (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 5
Year: 1934
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes.

Number ten of 12!
Marlowe has just finished testifying in a Grand Jury on a murder. He's offered a job as a bodyguard by one Lou Harger, who has an angle on a roulette wheel he used to own. The wheel's at Canale's casino. Harger wants Marlowe along in case he starts winning and Canale gets pissy.

Marlowe takes the job and goes to the club as though he's just a customer, sitting at the bar and people-watching. Harger's girlfriend racks up more than $20,000 in winnings. But Canale has noticed Marlowe and asks him to leave.

He gets sapped before he even reaches his car. His gun is taken away...then the girl shows up at the office with the money and Harger turns up dead...and fingers are pointing at Marlowe as the killer.

Trouble is my Business (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 4
Year: 1939
Genre: Crime
Read Again? maybe

Nine out of 12, and I'm ready for it to end. Time for something different.

Anna Halsey hires Marlowe to dig up dirt on Harriet Huntress, an unsavory woman who works a scary gamblin' kingpin. Harriet's on the prowl for a rich man's son; the rich man wants her gone.

Mr. Jeeter's the prissy rich man, a complete snob who carries his air of superiority the way a man wears a hat. Marlowe doesn't like him--and he doesn't take crap from the man, rich or not.

Jeeter Junior owes the gamblin' kingpin $50,000 in debts. Pops refuses to pay, even after he hires an investigator to see whether the debts are legitimate. Marlowe goes to meet the investigator, John Arbogast.

Arbogast is, of course, dead. Shortly afterward, some heavies try to scare Marlowe off the case.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

No Crime in the Mountains (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 5
Year: 1943
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes

Number 8 of 12 in "Trouble is my Business" and another piece of the "The Lady in the Lake" novel.

John Evans gets an urgent note and an advance payment: his services are needed by one Fred Lacey out at Puma Point. Evans heads out, finds a hotel, and calls Lacey's number. Mrs. Lacey says he's not in, so Evans relaxes a bit.

I liked this description of the band: "In the deep, black corner of the room a hillbilly symphony of five defeatists in white coats and purple shirts was trying to make itself heard above the brawl at the bar." This is the kind of descriptive I've been hoping to see more of, but it's been rare in these shorts so far.

Evans decides to go looking for Lacey himself. He finds the cabin number and location and heads that way. He stops near the lake short to admire the view and look at Lacey's body. As he's walking back to his car, he's confronted by a little man with a big enough gun...and gets himself knocked unconscious.

When he wakes up, he goes to visit the widow, who tells him that Lacey had found some counterfeit money....

A good story, good characters, though the bad guys are almost comically clichee'd true-believing Nazi Germans and an inscrutible Japanese man.

The sheriff isn't the same character as the one in "The Lady in the Lake," but the descriptions and manner are identical.

Still...not gonna knock points.

The Lady in the Lake (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 5
Year: 1939
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes

Number 7 of 12 shorts in "Trouble is my Business," and also a chunk of the novel of the same name.

John Dalmas is hired to look for a missing wife; she's told her husband she's leaving him and getting remarried in Mexico. But Mr. Melton saw loverboy just a few days earlier.

Dalmas goes to loverboy's house and pokes around the outside of it, knocking on doors, before finally tripping a spring-lock in back and letting himself in. Loverboy is dead in the living room.

Mr. Melton supposes that wifey could be up at the lake house, so Dalmas hoofs it up there and meets Mr. Haines, the caretaker of a few cottages, including Melton's. Haines is unhappy. Dalmas shares out a pint of whiskey to loosen him up, get him to talk. It seems his wife left him a few days before, about the same time Melton's wife went missing.

They go for a walk so Haines can talk some more...and they find a woman's body submerged in the lake.

Bay City Blues (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 4
Year: 1938
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes.

Number 6 of 12. Halfway there numerically, but it seems like so much more. As I'm writing this one, I'm reading #9 ("Trouble is my Business").

John Dalmas is set up with a case: A woman is dead, supposedly of carbon monoxide poisoning. There was no coroner's inquest, no police investigation. She was given a once-over, proclaimed a suicide, cremated, and that was that. Now Dalmas is asked to help Henry Matson, a P.I. from Bay City who didn't think the woman was a suicide, and that there are dirty cops and medical types who rigged the whole thing. They pulled Matson's P.I. license and ran him out of town.

Dalmas shortly receives a parcel with clues that point him to an apartment. Shortly after he gets there, Matson shows up and dies.

This story forms part of Chandler's novel, "The Lady in the Lake." I haven't read that one yet, but I'm going to give it a few months (or years) at least so I won't know what's about to happen, given that the shorts so far are lifted scene-for-scene into the later novels.

Mandarin's Jade (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 4
Year: 1937
Genre: Crime
Read Again? maybe.

Fifth of 12 shorts in "Trouble is My Business," and another chunk of "Farewell, My Lovely."

John Dalmas is hired by a rich guy to act as protection while he pays off some jewel thieves. They drive to a secluded place. Dalmas gets sapped (as always--the guy's got to have some headache issues by now!). The client gets his head caved in.

We also see the Big Indian, the psychic, and the girl reporter in scenes that later became part of "Farewell."

At first, the novelty of these shorts kept me reading...but by the time I got done with this one (or it got done with me) I was getting tired of the formula and of having read it all already. Still, I'll give it a 4 like the ones before. It's not a bad story. I just want to see something different now.

Try the Girl (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 4
Year: 1937
Genre: Crime
Read Again? Yes.

Fourth of 12 shorts in "Trouble is My Business." This is another of the stories Chandler combined with some others and made into a novel--in this case, the opening scene and parts of "Farewell, My Lovely."

John Carmady is hijacked by a big man at the entrance to a Blacks-only bar. The man is fresh out of the Joint, looking for his old girfriend. He kills a couple of guys during his interrogation.

Carmady goes on the case, looking for the woman, hoping to reach her before the Big Man does.

So far, this story's got the most "dirty" words--but because of the censorious mentality of the time, they're all rendered as dashes: "-- you!"

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Curtain (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 4
Year: 1936
Genre: Crime
Read Again? Maybe

The third short story in the "Trouble Is My Business" collection.

Carmady wakes up to find a man with a gun in his bedroom; it's an acquaintance on the run from some bad guys.

The man gets aced by some thugs with a chopper, so now Carmady's looking for the killers and their bosses...

...and this brings us to a matching scene from "The Big Sleep," where Marlowe went to visit a sick old man who wanted his son-in-law found, had a followup discussion with the old man's daughter, and then a run-in with the house sociopath (Carmen in "Big Sleep," a little boy in this one).

Both "Curtain" and "Killer in the Rain" (1935) were the basis for 1939's "The Big Sleep;" two of his other novels--"Farewell, My Lovely" and "The Lady in the Lake" are also built from earlier short stories. While it was confusing at first (while reading "Killer in the Rain"), and disappointing because now I knew what was about to happen, it's still fascinating to see how Chandler plugged slightly different characters and situations into these pieces.

Man Who Liked Dogs, The (short story; Chandler, R)

Rating: 4
Year: 1936
Genre: Crime
Read again? Maybe

Second of 12 shorts in Chandler's "Trouble is my Business" collection.

Carmady's the shamus on the case, looking for a missing woman and her police dog; he goes to a kennel in search of the dog and finds it there. Then he pretends to leave, tails the kennel man--Sharp--who's trying to play it sneaky, get rid of the dog. Carmady watches the man and the dog enter a house; there's barking, shouting, more barking, and a man's scream. He rushes to the door and inside: Sharp's lying and dying on the floor, the dog standing over him, growling, and there's a woman with a gun, then a man with a bigger gun. Carmady disarms them both and asks some questions. They've only been there a week. They say they don't know Sharp or the dog; he was trying to knock the critter out with chloroform and stuff it in a closet.

Then the cops show up--and they sap Carmady without asking any questions.

...and this brings us to a scene right out of "Farewell, My Lovely"--Carmady wakes up in what amounted to a rehab back in the day, a private hospital. From there he faces down corrupt cops and the thugs keeping them as pets.

This is the first of the shorts to use the wise-ass dialogue I liked in "The Big Sleep," stuff like this:

Dirty cop, to nosy nurse: "Go climb up your thumb."

Bad guy, with a Tommy gun, ordering the dirty cop to rais his hands: "Grab a cloud."

After a brief firefight: 'In the room were five statues, two fallen."

The dirty police chief glares at him: 'He measured me for a coffin.'

It's looking like most of the shorts in the collection went on to become major parts of Chandler's novels. That's disappointing, but interesting, so I'm not going to beat him up over it.

Killer in the Rain (short story; Chandler, Raymond)

Rating: 4
Year: 1935
Genre: Crime
Read again? Maybe

"Killer" is the first of 12 shorts in Chandler's "Trouble is my Business" collection.

The story opens with Philip Marlowe (never named in the story--I'm naming him) in his apartment, interviewing a big man who has a problem. Tony Dravec wants Marlowe to warn off one H. H. Steiner, who's showing too much interest in Dravec's girl, Carmen. Marlowe takes the case and goes to Steiner's book shop, knowing the man's running a porn-for-rent gig in back.

He follows Steiner home and settles down in his car to watch for a while...and a girl shows up. Marlowe sneaks over to her car to scope out the license. Carmen Dravec. He sneaks back to his car.

There's a bright flash and a scream! He runs to the house just in time to hear three gunshots and running footsteps out the back of Steiner's house. He breaks the lock on the front door and runs in. Carmen's sitting in a chair, naked and stoned. Steiner's lying on the floor with a fatal dose of lead poisoning.

It was at this point that I realized that "Killer" is a shorty version of Chandler's "The Big Sleep," right down to the stoned girl named "Carmen." Dravec's cheauffer turns up dead, someone tries to blackmail Dravec with naked pictures of Carmen. It reads like an alternate-universe version, given that I've read "Sleep" a couple of times and seen both the Bogart version and the pitiful 1978 Robert Mitchum remake. There's a gangster heavy with a business interest in Steiner's porn library, but he's not as friendly or smart as the gangster in "Big Sleep."

Not as snappy as "Big Sleep"--you can see Chandler's style, yes, but where are the amusing descriptions of people and situations? Call it a sort of proto-Marlowe story.

After I did this writeup, I did a little Google hunt and found my answers at Wikipedia. This short and "The Curtain" (the 3rd story in the collection) were used as the foundation for Chandler's novel "The Big Sleep."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

3001: Final Odyssey (Clarke, Arthur C)

Rating: 3
Year: 1997
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? Eh.

Frank Poole died in 2001, when HAL-9000 ran him over with a space pod.

Eh, not so much.

In 3001, Frank Poole's body is found by ice-wranglers in the outskirts of the solar system. He's brought out of his deep-frozen state and revived.

Frank's a mega-celebrity, a national treasure, a curiosity from a long-past age. He sees new wonders: a nearly-completed ring around the Earth; settlements on Mercury, the Moon, and Ganymede. A new sun named Lucifer where Jupiter once roamed. Genetically-engineered gorilla archaeology assistants. Velociraptor gardeners. Surgically-altered criminals become personal assistants for the duration of their sentence.

All the world's religions have been discredited!

But Frank soon becomes bored, even after learning to fly, so he hitches a ride to Ganymede to see to some unfinished business. The last time he was in the neighborhood, HAL tried to kill him. Frank gets involved with a philosophy professor who is convinced that Europa holds many secrets--and that Frank's the key to sorting them out.

This final book in the set is the least satisfying of them all, and marks the end of a trend toward more and more silliness in "light-hearted fun" drag. The original book was clean and serious, and more entertaining because of it. Gorilla archaeologists?! Dinosaur gardeners?!


I'm glad it's done, but I'm disappointed that Clarke took the story in such a direction.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

2061: Odyssey Three (Clarke, Arthur C)

Rating: 4
Year: 1987
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? Yes

It's looking like I'm done with Mercedes Lackey; I've been thinking about re-reading Fleming's "James Bond" series or Butcher's "Dresden Files." But right now, I'm 3 down and 1 to go on Clarke's "2001" odyssey, with no good reason to scrub the mission.

Dr. Heywood Floyd is 103, one of only two people still alive who flew the Leonov's mission to Jupiter in 2010. Floyd's leaving aboard the space liner Universe with a small group of scientists and famous people to visit Halley's Comet.

Lucifer, the tiny sun that was once Jupiter, still burns brightly in the sky. Three of its former moons--now worlds in a miniature solar system--are freely accessible to human exploration. Ganymede sports a modest colony. But Europa is still off-limits.

Whatever powers that exist to enforce that prohibition don't seem to care about orbital probes or peeking via radar from Ganymede's radio telescope. A great mountain has appeared without warning, as large as Everest, but seemingly out of nowhere.

The exploration of Halley's Comet is cut short: a ship has gone down on Europa. Floyd's grandson Chris was aboard.

Can the Universe get there in time to rescue the survivors? Or will the ban on Europa be enforced?

Somewhat less satisfying than "2001," but shorter than "2010." The pacing could have been tightened up a little in places (a few draggy spots), but the story's entertaining and kept me wondering what was coming next.

Monday, June 15, 2009

2010: Odyssey 2 (Clarke, AC)

Rating: 4
Year: 1982
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? Yes

Go back to Lackey? Nope. I've got the remaining three "2001" books ready for launch.

This sequel to "2001: A Space Odyssey" begins with a disclaimer; the first book and Stanley Kubrick's very long screenplay were written concurrently in the mid-1960's. Where the movie's events took us to Jupiter and its little system of moons, the novel took us to Saturn. The disclaimer for "2010" notes this difference, and that this novel will instead follow the lead of the movies and take us back to Jupiter. It makes for some annoying continuity problems, but then again the original book was begun in 1964.

That said, "2010" is a satisfying follow-up. Dr. Heywood Floyd is given a chance to ride to Jupiter to try to recover the Discovery. Dr. Chandra--the man who designed HAL 9000--will be coming, to assess the computer's mental state. They're going up aboard a Soviet spaceship, the Leonov, the only ship that can get them there in time: Discovery's orbit around Europa is decaying.

As they're making their approach, Dr. Floyd is brought out of Space Sleep ahead of his two compatriates: there's a problem. The Chinese have launched a ship of their own. It reaches Europa days ahead of the Leonov; everyone's concerned that they might be trying to do their own salvage operation on Discovery...yet the Chinese ship lands on Europa.

The ship is destroyed, its crew killed by something plant-like that snaked up from the depths below Europa's icy crust.

Leonov makes orbit in its own good time. The crew doesn't have time to investigate the Chinese ship's destruction. Discovery is brought back to life, then HAL is restored. The computer doesn't remember killing off his crew, let alone being shut down by Dave Bowman.

Meanwhile, the being formerly known as Dave Bowman comes back, with a warning: Leonov is in great danger and must leave soon.

Hard review to write--the book both drags and doesn't seem to drag, if that makes any sense. Clarke copies--well, quotes, actually--several pages' worth of stuff at length from "2001" to move us along, but I ended up just skipping ahead. Maybe a summary would have worked, but I won't second-guess him.

I'm still liking Clarke's style; he's straightforward, practical, like an old Chevy truck. There's no glitz or glamour, and maybe it's a little slow at times, but it'll get you where you need to go, and he never--NEVER--forgets that telling the story and keeping the reader in it is what it's all about.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey (Clark, Arthur C.)

Rating: 5
Year: 1968
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? Yes

Mercedes Lackey? I'm sorry, Dave; I can't let you do that.

After listening to a recent "Skeptics' Guide to the Universe" podcast, in which they discussed a few plot points from both the movie and book versions of "2001," I decided to make that my next book and escape into outer space to avoid the next Lackey book.

This was my first time, and I was very pleased. The book's very different from the movie in one very important way--namely, I stayed awake reading it. I've never made it through the entire movie without falling asleep.

Three million years ago, when humanity was ape-ity, these big slabs of crystal popped into existence and set to work changing the smarter ape-men's minds. Where before they'd been simple-minded (more primitive even than a right-wing yapper, but still smarter than the moon-landing deniers), they soon learned the use of simple tools. They learned to kill for food.

They learned to kill each other.

Cut to three million years later; Dr. Heywood Floyd leaves Earth on an urgent super-secret mission to the moon. A large slab of some dark, unknown material has been unearthed (unmooned?). It's taller than a man, and a perfectly-shaped rectangular solid. As soon as sunlight hits it, the monolith sends out a single pulse of energy that seems focused upon one of Saturn's moons.

Cut to a few months later, about 1/3 of the way into the book; David "Dave" Bowman and Frank Poole are riding aboard the Discovery, headed for Saturn via Jupiter. There are three men in Space-Sleep--but only those three men and the computer--HAL 9000--really know what the mission's about.

The well-known deactivation of HAL comes at about the 2/3 point. Bowman is left alone aboard Discovery, finally being let in on the Big Secret of the lunar monolith and the question of why a signal was sent towards Saturn's moon Japetus.

Clarke's style is clear and direct, something I really wish more writers would work on in their own styles. It's utterly refreshing to read a style that takes us from Point A to Point B without trying to hit the rest of the alphabet along the way.

He's descriptive without being overly wordy--and he's not fussy. He doesn't add weak little qualifiers. He simply tells the damn story. I'm both impressed and pleased.

Excellent story and story-telling.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Terminal Event (Thayer, James)

Rating: 3.5
Year: 1999
Genre: Techno-Mystery
Read again? In a few years

Yup. Another disaster to stave off reading more Lackey!

Joe Durant is a former NTSB air-crash investigator; he left because he couldn't handle the guts and gore from people being torn apart at 200 miles per hour.

Joe's wife dies in the crash of Emerald Air Flight 37, a mid-size turboprop commuter plane. All 63 people aboard are killed, and Thayer is remorseless in taking us with Joe as he hikes through deep snow to reach the wreck site. His path is littered with bodies and parts of bodies.

He's hired on by the NTSB as a liaison to the FBI. In return, the FBI send their own liaison, Special Agent Linda Dillon.

The investigation begins. The black boxes are quickly found and taken back to D.C. for processing. The wreckage is plotted, tagged, and identified, then reassembled in a local hangar. The bodies and bits are tagged and bagged and identified.

It quickly becomes obvious that there was an explosion, based on structural damage to the airframe and on leg and ankle fractures on the passengers.

A bear poacher claims he saw a missile launched at Flight 37. The FBI guys start looking at crazy right-wing nutjobs.

NTSB investigators find cracked insulation on wiring. There were issues with electrical systems near one fuel tank. Joe thinks this is what brought the plane down: a spark in the center fuel tank.

Then one of the dead is identified as a Saudi prince; he and his two bodyguards were traveling incognito. Was it an assassination?

A box with $100,000 in drug money was found by some dim bulb in a trailer park; she goes on an $80,000 shopping spree. Then the Feds come sniffing around. Was it a drug hit that brought down Flight 37?

The CEO of the airline is attacked and savagely beaten.

Thayer's style is easy enough to read, though the book did drag somewhat. Thayer goes a bit overboard in explaining and detailing things (at least three people sported noses that had been broken and badly-set sometime in their past, including Joe himself). His characters don't seem to use colloquialisms very well--who, in casual conversation, refers to a "Harley" motorcycle only by the full name "Harley-Davidson"?

For that matter, who calls eye sockets "eyeball sockets"? I don't know whether Thayer was trying to be funny or not.

The story's not as convoluted as Nance's "Final Approach" and the ending is much less satisfying. The final act of nailing the bad guy went several pages too long, especially with the "cavalry saving the day" bit with the FBI agent.

Final Approach (Nance, John J)

Rating: 4.5
Year: 1990
Genre: Techno mystery
Read again? In another few years.

This book's got more twists than a TSA agent's knickers. It's been maybe 4 years since I last read it. I don't think I can manage another Lackey book; the flesh and the spirit are unwilling and weak. So what's more fun than trudging through the next million-page "Valdemar" novel?

A plane crash, naturally.

Dr. Mike Weiss loses his wife and two kids in a terrible crash at Kansas City International--an Airbus 320 (Flight 255) coming in on final approach collides with a Boeing 737 (Flight 170) waiting for clearance to take off. A few dozen passengers and flight attendants survive, along with Flight 255's pilot and Flight 170's pilot and copilot.

Senator Kell Martinson (R-Kansas) is in his car at the airport (parked illegally in a restricted area), waiting for Flight 255 to pick up his mistress. He bails out of there when everything goes up in flames.

An Air Force C-5A carrying a highly secret "Star Wars" device (with a highly-powerful radar) is at the same airport. No one's supposed to know it's there, but there's a witness.

NTSB investigator Joe Wallingford is detailed to the scene. He and his "Go Team" do their bit and come up with some serious questions:
Was Flight 255 brought down by wind shear from the thunderstorm? If so, why didn't Air Traffic Control warn of such weather conditions?
Was it pilot error?
Was it interference from a highly powerful radar?
Who was driving the illegally-parked mystery car that suddenly bailed out of the restricted area?

As if this wasn't enough, a bunch of right-wing loonies from Louisiana are screaming that their congressman, Larry Wilkins (R-Louisiana) was assassinated by government operatives: Wilkins was on flight 255 and he knew about the super-secret "Star Wars" thingie and its highly-powerful radar.

Oh, there's more. There's the NTSB Board chief who's got it in for Wallingford, with political connections and ambitions that lead him to pressure Wallingford to lay off on some parts of the investigation.

There's the FAA chief with pals in the airline industry who is trying to protect those pals.

There are irregularities in the medical history of Flight 255's pilot, and questions about his professionalism.

There's Wallingsford's "beautiful and brilliant" superior [it's right there on the back cover], who wants to inspect him personally. Yes, there's a romance angle to the story. But it doesn't get icky.

There's the guy who was driving that super-secret piece of "Star Wars" technology (with its highly-powerful radar) into the Air Force plane.

Can our guy bring all these threads together in 409 pages? Yes! Not only that, he gets the "beautiful and brilliant" girl, cures cancer, and defends Earth from a Martian Zombie attac--er wait. *goes back and re-reads the ending* Actually, the girl gets him. She was his boss, after all.

Nance keeps the story moving nicely. Maybe a few minor issues with dialog (feels a bit formal even in casual scenes), but I'm not going to quibble over that because things keep moving. It's hard at times to remember who all these people are--and then there's the FBI friend, the pilot's wife and son, the corporate guys at the airline, the corporate guys at Airbus, the press, and the Air Force guys. No one wants the finger pointed at them, no one will take responsibility for the crash. All the finger-pointing is just like in real life.

I think the book could have been shorter, but I'm only going to crash half a point.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trek: TOS 081 Mudd in your Eye (Oltion, Jerry)

Rating: 3
Year: 1997
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? Nope.

The main thing I remember about this book is that I bought it and read most of it on the first day in my own apartment, December 20, 1996. This will be the second reading--and based on one line on page 9, I doubt I'll go for a third.

Several books back, I ranted briefly about Trek writers who don't "get it" with important stuff about key characters; too many writers make the mistake of claiming Vulcans have no emotions. This isn't so! They HAVE feelings--but they've developed a system of logical thought and self control so that their feelings aren't in control!

Oltion stepped in it. I remember mentioning in a previous Trek book review about a book where "Spock came dangerously close to feeling emotion." This is that book. Two points off the top, one for each pointy ear! Even worse, in later parts of the book, Spock shows emotional reactions--suspicion, humor, sarcasm, irritation. It's clear that Oltion intended to say something other than "dangerously close..."--and if that's the case, he should have said the something other. Someone who makes a living putting words together should be better at putting words together.

The story opens with Kirk presiding over a wedding. There's a brief argument between bride and groom over the word, "obey" in the vows (he's surprised it's in there and refuses to obey--good man--but after a brief argument, they agree to a different word). Then Scotty (the best man) substitutes a joke ring. Then the newlyweds push cake in each others' faces.

See? This is going to be a comedy. Ha. Ha. Ha. *rolled eyes* I can hardly wait.

Fortunately, Enterprise gets diverted to investigate the sudden breakout of peace between a pair of worlds in the Nevis system that have been at war for 12,000 years. Spock's thinking about this when he gets "dangerously close" know, I'm tempted to take off another two points just because I came dangerously close to quoting the whole stupid phrase again. This could well come dangerously close to negative numbers in the rating.

It turns out that Harcourt Fenton Mudd--Harry, in casual circumstances--is the broker of the peace. Apparently all he's doing is selling fruit, and that's enough to bring peace to Prastor and's the fruit they've been at war over. See, there's this conveniently-striped fruit that's conveniently made of alternating purple and white sections. Eating one or the other is harmless, but eating one of each will conveniently kill one before one hits the ground. The war started because neither side wanted to eat the white ones. Now that Mudd's selling those white bits, there's no reason to fight. Wait, what? They go back to fighting again? That's pretty good, since we're only a third of the way into the book. Might get boring, otherwise.

Of course, Harry's got an angle; he's a con man, right? Kirk and his merry crew know this--but the Nevisians have some secrets and angles of their own. Seems that when they blow each other away with their fancy zap-guns, they get transported, processed, and sent back out into the world to live a new life. Turns out it works on humans, too: first the red-shirt-wearing bride from the wedding scene gets wasted. Then, in short order, Mudd, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty and Kirk all buy it.

No idea how canonical it is, but Mudd mentions that a distant grandfather of his was Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who was convicted of conspiracy in Lincoln's assassination and sentenced to prison at Fort Jefferson, off the Florida Keys. Neat little tie-in with reality.

Overall, it's not an awful story, if predictable. Oltion's style flows well, so it's a quick read. I'd like to see better characterization, and a better grasp of those cold-blooded, pointy-eared Vulcans.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Forbidden Fighting Techniques of the Ninja (Kim, Ashida)

Rating: 3
Year: 1984
Genre: Martial Arts, Nonfiction
Read Again? Heh.

Okay, unless you want guys in black pajamas attacking you, don't read this review.

No, not really. They'll get me first.

This is an assemblage of badly-lit black & white photos with poor contrast and sketchy text descriptions of those "forbidden" fighting techniques. Took a point off for the pics. They're not uniformly bad, mind you, but I'd like to see a reissue with some attempt at better lighting and background choice.

I picked it up at a used book store for maybe five bucks. Much of the "forbidden" stuff is the same karate I studied for two years back in the early '90s--the same blocks, punches and kicks in the same forms as those of the Shotokan style. I got a good laugh from that! I guess the "forbidden" part is that they wear black pajamas and ski masks?

There's also some stuff about throwing and falling and warmups, but this isn't really a "reading" book. I think I've tried a half-dozen times to read the introductory chapter and some of the rest of the book and failed from boredom. I'll have to yawn another point off there.

There are short descriptions of various weapons--swords, kama, nunckaku, bo or jo staff, shuriken, throwing knives, crowbars, chains, ropes, sai daggers, and all those other things you'd see in a standard mid-'80s ninja movie, any samurai flick from Japan, or any kung-fu flick out of China. It seems like there's just enough in this book to whet a serious student's appetite, but there's also just enough to get an idiot in trouble.

If you REALLY want to learn a martial art, you need a teacher. Maybe I'm being too harsh, but after looking at some of the sword work, I cringe at how amateurish the attacks look. I wonder what the serious-student-to-idiot ratio was for book sales?