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?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek: TNG Imzadi (David, Peter)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1992
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? Yes.

Another "Giant Novel," and another book that depends upon the Guardian of Forever to drive the plot. Also, another book by Peter David. Used to be my favorite, but after his "Vendetta" (link to it) Giant Novel, I don't know, I-just-don't...know! [/Shatner] I wasn't looking forward to reading it. Turns out I was wrong.

It's an epic story of boy human meets girl alien. Admiral William Riker is 73, commanding the "dead-end" Starbase 86. He's graying, no longer caring about his looks or his life, too apathetic to eat a phaser, because of a few moments decades ago, aboard the USS Enterprise.

He's summoned to Betazed, the home of his former love Deanna Troi, long dead from unknown causes. Her mother is at the end of her own life. She has never forgiven Riker for her daughter's untimely death--and she doesn't care that he's never forgiven himself. She blames him with her last breath.

Riker explains Deanna's last days to Captain Wesley Crusher (bahahahaha!!): Enterprise was on a diplomatic mission, brokering peace between the warlike Sindareen and representatives of several worlds they victimized. Deanna goes into convulsions and dies before reaching Sickbay.

That was the end of Riker's life.

Then we're taken to see the beginning: Lieutenant Riker is assigned (briefly) as Starfleet Liaison to Betazed. He attends a wedding in this capacity and sees the most entrancing dark-eyed exotic beauty: Deanna Troi, the maid of honor. She's an Empath, so right away she knows what this womanizing human is after. She plays impossible to get.

The great pleasure of this novel is that Deanna Troi isn't a stereotypical weakling woman in need of rescuing. She's strong-willed, highly intelligent, and can take care of herself--traits that she rarely got to show in "The Next Generation."

That said, Admiral Riker uses the Guardian to change the course of time. Normally I really dislike stories driven by time-travel like this, but David's approach works. I'd forgotten how very good this book is, and it's an unexpected pleasure to read.

Valdemar 10: Oathblood (Lackey)

Rating: 3
Year: 1998
Genre: Fantasy
Read Again? Eh. Probably not.

The 10th book of Valdemar, the last of the "Vows and Honor" trilogy, with 16 to go. This is a short-story collection, and it answers my comment about the first of the "Vows and Honor" books feeling like a bunch of shorts strung together: it was. One "Oathblood" story ('Turnabout') was already published in "Oathbound."

A quick rundown of titles:

Sword-Sworn (1985): From the night Tarma's Clan was wiped out by bandits to the final fight in which Tarma and her new friend Kethry fight the last of the bandits to the death.

Turnabout (1986): A band of bandits has been terrorizing wagon traffic, stealing anything of value, raping and killing at will. When Tarma and Kethry nab their leader, Kethry puts an illusion spell on him, making him look like the sort of woman he and his men victimized. Then they send him back to his own camp. I skipped reading it this time around. I'm not really sure why Lackey felt the need to have it reprinted here when it's already part of the first book. Guess I'll take a half-point off just for principle.

The Making of a Legend (1990): The Bard who follows Tarma and Kethry around, writing songs about their heroic exploits, has tracked them to a little spot on the map where he hopes they'll be forced into a heroic battle with the local criminal element, who just happen to own the town. He does get his wish....

Keys (1988): Another repeat from "Oathbound." Kethry and Tarma must solve a murder mystery to save an innocent woman's life. Another half-point!

A Woman's Weapon (1992): A dig at industrial pollution and a shady businessman who is poisoning his rival.

The Talisman (1990): Kethry's magic sword leads them to a woman in trouble--but not in the way they've come to expect.

A Tale of Heroes (1987): The sword leads them to a farm near a town where women and children have been eaten by a vicious monster.

Friendly Fire (1993): After a brief stop for supply-shopping, our heroines are beset with the Murphy's Law curse: everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.

Wings of Fire (1991): The death of a shaman leads them deep into the Pelagir Forest, where they find themselves fighting a power-stealing mage.

Spring Plowing at Forst Reach (1998): This short pivots upon one of Lackey's conveniences. The Lord of Forst Reach (Herald Vanyel's ancestral home) has a problem with highly aggressive geldings. He asks for help--and Tarma just happens to have a pair of friends who she trained as "horse whisperers," and they just happen to be looking for jobs.

Oathblood (1998): This novella begins with a day-in-the-life at the Kethry & Tarma School of Magical & Physical Kicking of Ass. No idea if that's its real name, but we should call it something, right? This was what the two were working so hard for in the first two books. It's been something more than ten and something less than twenty years since they started their school; nobles from all over send their precious snowflakes to get a serious education. Two of their students get an early real-life test.

Overall, not nearly as satisfying as the second book. Every one of the shorts feels rushed, and everything works out so convenient, pat & easy that I've just got to give back those half-points for repeating "Turnabout" and "Keys" and take off two solid points for an overlong, boring book with no suspense. Call it the "Superfriends Effect": you know in every episode that the heroes will triumph and that they're never going to be in any trouble they can't simply pop free from and make a crappy joke about it before the end credits.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Feynman, Richard & Leighton, Ralph)

Rating: 5
Year: 1985
Genre: Nonfiction / Autobiography
Read again? Eventually

Time for a Lackey-free break again--and a break from science fiction and fantasy. What better than a biography of one of the great minds of physics in the mid-to-late 20th Century? The title comes from a "social error," as he puts it. It was his first tea-time at Princeton and he was asked whether he wanted cream or lemon in his tea. When he asked for both, the hostess corrected him: "Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh. Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman."

The book's done as a series of short stories from Feynman's past, as told to Leighton. It's clear from the first that Feynman had an insatiable curiosity about everything around him, and anything that caught his attention was studied with a rigor, intensity, and span of attention that makes me feel like I'm wasting time just sitting and reading, let alone writing a freaking blog! Fenyman was repairing radios at an age when I was just tearing them apart to see what was inside:

One day I got a telephone call: "Mister, are you Richard Feynman ?"
"This is a hotel. We have a radio that doesn't work, and would like it repaired. We understand you might be able to do something about it."
"But I'm only a little boy," I said. "I don't know how--"
"Yes, we know that, but we'd like you to come over anyway."
It was a hotel that my aunt was running, but I didn't know that. I went over there with--they still tell the story--a big screwdriver in my back pocket. Well, I was small, so any screwdriver looked big in my back pocket.
How cool is that? A little kid fixing radios, treating each one as a puzzle to solve, thinking his way to a conclusion (I think at his age I learned about electricity by sticking a house key in an electrical outlet), and this was his approach to everything. Learning for the joy of learning, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. And nearly everything was a puzzle for this man! Physics, the behavior of ants, biology, chemistry, locks (both key and combination).

He met or worked with the giants--Einstein. Fermi, the list is a roll call of physics.

One sobering topic he discusses is the state of school text books and how they're chosen. This was in the early 1960's in California. He was asked to sit in on the State Curriculum Commission, who would supposedly read the textbook offerings and render opinions on them. Feynman was chosen because he worked with math, and math books were the Commission's current project. He quickly found that the publishers were guiding the Commission members; apparently Fenyman was the only person who actually read any of them. He read all of them. Three hundred pounds of books. Seventeen feet of books, and they were almost all crap from a mathematics standpoint. One book got rave reviews from all the other Commission members, who had obviously never even opened the damn thing: because of printing problems, placeholder copies were sent out with blank pages.

The sad thing is, to this day, the publishers have the run of the organizations that pick out school books, and they're still crap. Back in April of '09 there was a good rant about this subject at Pharyngula (most of the ranting is in the Comments, and there are plenty of good links therein as well).

Overall, this is an entertaining read, but I doubt I'll go back to it anytime soon, if only because there's so much more to read in my pile of stuff, and the Lackey Train is leaving the station.