Friday, December 30, 2011

Crappiest Books of 2011

Only a Bottom 5, given the few books I made it through this year.

It's not really fair to have #3-5 in this list, given that they're not sucky books--and especially not in the league of suck that #1-2 occupy. They're just not as good as those in the Top 5. If I'd managed to read more in 2011 these three would have been middle of the road.

5. Pronto.

4. Castle of Deception.

3. The Chaos Gate.

2. I, Jedi. Well-deserved second-suckiest. I still hate to do it, since Stackpole's a good guy, but I can't cut this book any slack.

1. Darksaber. I can't bag on this one enough. I still want to have it mounted in a block of acrylic, opened to the suckiest part, but that might mean having to read this hideous construction again.

Top Books of 2011

It's been a rough year again as far as reading goes. I've been too tired to read much of the time.

It took me close to two months to read "Buckaroo Banzai"--and only part of that is because the book drags somewhat.

I made it through 22 books this year; last year it was 36. Compare that to somewhere just under 100 in 2009.

Twenty-two books is a lot of down-time--a lot of sleeping, actually. Once I'm done here, I'm headed for bed again.

I don't really have enough for a Top 10, though, so here's the Top 5 for 2011:

5. Jaws. Actually, I'm still in the middle of this book, but it could be several more weeks before I'm done, at this rate.

4. Zahn's Thrawn Star Wars trilogy. They're still as good as the first time I read them in the early '90s. I wish the other SW books were as good. Too many of them suck.

3. Getting Great Guitar Sounds, because of a simple phrase near the end: "If you make a mistake, make it like you mean it." I took this to apply to all playing--Play it like you mean it. It helped me to stop worrying so much about sounding like the recording I'm playing along with and just have fun.

2. Maximum Bob. The title alone makes it worth reading.

1. Dresden #13: Ghost Story. Dammit, Jim, now I have to wait till mid-2012 for the next one!

Jaws (Benchley, Peter)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1974
Genre: Horror
Read again? Yes.

Summer is only days away; Amity's 1,000 permanent residents will soon be joined by 9,000 summer visitors.

When Christine Watkins' mangled remains wash up on the beach where tourists might see, Amity's politicians step up and bravely order police chief Martin Brody to keep his mouth shut. The beaches will stay open, the paper will stay silent.

There were no witnesses.

A few quiet days pass, and within hours of each other a 6-year-old boy and a 65-year-old man are killed.

This time, there are witnesses.

Brody gets the beaches closed, but now (as he expected) he looks like the bad guy. Those politicians wouldn't dirty their hands with responsibility.

A shark expert from Woods Hole--Matt Hooper--thinks the killer is a Great White shark.

Now July 4th--the big weekend that could make or break Amity--is less than two weeks away. People are canceling their leases or just walking away from them. The Mayor's freaking out (he's one of the major real estate owners in town) more over the financial losses than over the killings.

Brody's wife Ellen has a shagfest with Hooper; we're treated to all of her rationalizations for this (lonely, bored, unhappy, etc.), but I wasn't sympathetic to her plight. Perhaps it's mostly there to heighten tension between Chief Brody and the shark expert later in the book, but it really made me dislike her.

Otherwise, Benchley tells a good story and moves it along. Characterization is reasonably good and there's only the amount of exposition that the reader needs.

Buckaroo Banzai (Rauch, Earl Mac)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1984
Genre: Sci-Fi/Adventure
Read again? In another 10 years

Adventurer, neurosurgeon, rock star, physicist, engineer, and all-around genius Buckaroo Banzai races his Jet Car through a mile-wide mountain and into the 8th Dimension!

But first, Buckaroo had to attend to a bit of tricky neurosurgery.

Meanwhile, Emilio Lazardo, aka John Whorfin, a Red Lectroid from Planet Ten!--plans his escape from a mental institution and schemes to steal Buckaroo's Oscillation Overthruster, the amazing device that allowed Buckaroo to cross the Dimensional barrier--and which will let Whorfin return home to Planet 10!

John Whorfin has a sort-of team of people--all Red Lectroids in disguise: John Bigboote and John O'Connor are running Yoyodyne, an aerospace company front that's suposed to be building their way back to Planet 10. But Bigboote and O'Connor seem to enjoy the human life too much.

Buckaroo Banzai has a team of people--a small army, actually, but his inner circle and rock band are known as the Hong Kong Cavaliers. It's up to all of them to save the world.

But first, they'll celebrate breaking the Dimensional barrier by playing a gig.

Save the world? Yes. Those Red Lectroids are bad guys banished from Planet 10. The good guys, who call themselves Adders, have threatened to blow up the Earth if Buckaroo can't stop the Lectroids.

The book is narrated by Reno, one of the Honk Kong Cavaliers and Buckaroo's official chronicler. Reno's got an entertaining heroic/cowboyish style that could be distracting or annoying if it weren't so tongue-in-cheek. There's a real-world feel to the narrative, thanks to Reno's footnotes and references to a backlog of Buckaroo Banzai adventures. Maybe a little long-winded. The book does drag in places, just enough that I zapped a point.

Bard's Tale 2--The Chaos Gate (Sherman, Josepha)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1994
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Maybe

It's been four years since the end of Castle of Deception. The boy-hero of that book, Kevin, is a Count and a full Bard, now. Has his own castle and everything.

But he's bored. There's no adventure in the day-to-day affairs of running a castle and tending to the needs of his people and the Kingdom.

Then his friend the Dark Elf Naitachal--now a full Bard himself--comes to visit. When an envoy from a neighboring Count brings a portrait of his daughter and a marriage offer, Kevin makes a snap decision to sneak out to see her for himself, disguised as a lowly minstrel. Naitachal tags along in hopes of amusement.

Of course things don't go well; Kevin's would-be lady-love is sharp-tongued and argumentative and clearly uninterested in marriage. When he reveals his true identity, all hell breaks loose!

Naitachal is very amused.

Meanwhile, at the enclave of evil Dark Elves, the Boss Elf is stewing and scheming, evilly wanting revenge against Naitachal for turning away from the Dark Side. His evil consort hatches a spell designed to ensnare Naitachal....

A bit too melodramatic and long-winded. Pacing could have been tightened up quite a bit. Characterization could have been better; the Dark Elves are oh-so evil and two-dimensionally bland.

Raylan 01: Pronto (Leonard, Elmore)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1993
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes

This is the first of several stories about Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens; they cover the events that led to Givens being "exiled" to Kentucky in the TV series "Justified."

Raylan is assigned to protect Harry Arno, a Miami bookie and witness against small-time Mobster Jimmy Cap. Harry finds out he's been screwed by the Feds: they faked a call from an angry bettor who hasn't been paid off, making it look as though Harry skimmed several thousand bucks.

As it turns out, Harry's been skimming, all right--a few million bucks over four decades. The Feds' screwing blows things up just as he's about to "retire" and run off to Italy.

He gives Raylan the slip, but the Marshall has dealt with Harry before and easily finds the Bookie in a little town.

The Mob doesn't have much trouble tracking Harry, either....

Leonard doesn't waste the reader's time in extra syllables or meandering prose, but "Pronto" doesn't move as quickly as "Maximum Bob," the only other Elmore I've read. It still has the "ordinary people" feel of "Bob" and of "Justified," but I still felt the need to take a point for the pacing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Maximum Bob (Leonard, Elmore)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1991
Genre: Crime
Read again? Yes

Kathy Baker is a parole officer. One of her "projects" is a kid named Dale Crowe, 2 days out of prison for hitting a cop. He broke parole in a drunken bar fight.

Maximum Bob Gibbs is the Palm Beach County judge presiding over Dale Crowe's fighting case. Bob ignores the underage drinking and the fight altogether, focusing on the kid's prior cop-hitting instead.

He's not called "Maximum" Bob for nothing. He likes making examples of people--and since the Crowe family are a bunch of habitual offenders, he decides to send the kid back to prison on a longer sentence.

Bob's also a lecherous 57-year-old. He quickly notices Kathy Baker and starts trying to put some moves on her. Of course he's married, but his wife's a crystal-gazing, aura-reading New Ager who's gained a little extra weight. She's also slightly crazy: she believes she can channel the spirit of a long-dead 12-year-old black girl.

Bob's tired of married life and really wants the house clear so he can lure that attractive young parole officer. He pays a man to drop a dead gator in the back yard, hoping to scare her away.

Gator's not quite dead. Eats her dog. The cops get involved, and they're thinking someone's trying to kill old Bob.

Meanwhile, Dale Crowe's uncle has been offered $10,000 to kill Maximum Bob.

Leonard's writing is tight! He metes out bits of exposition as needed, but keeps it on the fly. He doesn't pause to hold your hand or tell in-depth back stories.

Each character carries a piece of the puzzle. They all stand out and they're all interesting and believable. It's clear that we're not following heroic, important people here, just regulars--some on the take, some on the make, some just wanting the work day to end, thinking of that cold beer at home. We know their motivations: lust in the old judge, revenge in the ex-con, the parole officer who's afraid to say "no" to the judge who could easily wreck her career, the cops who know something hinky is going on.

Leonard's style is clean, free of wasted words or wasted time. He takes you from A to B, gives hints about C along the way, builds things a little more, and you're expected to keep up. He won't hold your hand.

This is how writing ought to be! Make every word count. After reading a couple of really bad Star Wars books and one Lackey book, this was an unexpected pleasure.

Dresden Files 13: Ghost Story (Butcher, Jim)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

I haven't eagerly anticipated a new book this way since the early '90s, when Roger Zelazny was writing new "Amber" books. It's been about 15 months since I finished the 12th Dresden book (note: that'd be in May of 2010, then late September 2011 for "Ghost Story"--posting the reviews hasn't been on my radar for a few months, unfortunately).

Harry Dresden is dead.

He was taken out by a sniper at the end of "Changes." How the hell do you follow that?

Dresden finds himself in a ghostly shadow of Chicago. He's escorted to the police station, where the ghost of Karrin Murphy's father outlines a mission: Dresden has to figure out who killed him or three of his closest friends will be next.

At first, he can't use magic or interact with the real world, but he quickly learns that his friends have been busy in the 6 months since his death. Things have worsened in the city: just his presence and the threat he represented to the Bad Guys was enough to keep most of them in check. With the effective destruction of the Red Court vampires at the end of "Changes," other ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and gangs have moved in to take over. The White Council of wizards is swamped, so they can't spare a Warden for Chicago.

Murphy, Butters, Bob the Skull, and other friends of Harry's have strengthened the ParaNet, and that's doing some good.

There's one threat on the streets that has all of Dresden's friends terrified, though. His apprentice went insane when he died. She's gone off on her own to fight evil things alone.

There has to be a point where Dresden meets his friends; they've dealt with his death to varying degrees, but Murphy isn't convinced he's dead. The scene where she's faced with his ghost is powerful.

Harry figures out pretty quickly who the shooter was, but the more important question is why it happened.

Then there's the bigger issue of saving the world from an enemy he's already faced once before.

Very good story; I devoured it. I liked the "It's a Wonderful Life" aspect of it, seeing how the world changed for the worse without Dresden in it. The plot moves nicely, the main characters continue to develop, and now I have to wait several more months for the next book.

Mad Hatter has a different take (might be spoilers). Since I've only read this book once, I've yet to develop as deep a reaction to the story and characters as Hatter got.

Bard's Tale 1--Castle of Deception (Lackey, Mercedes & Sherman, Josepha)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1992
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Maybe.

It says something about Anderson's "Darksaber" that I willingly picked up a Mercedes Lackey book back in July--for the first time in nearly 2 years. I haven't read a "Valdemar" book since October of 2009. Never did finish the series. Stopped at number 20. Staying right there.

"The Bard's Tale" series is much shorter (I've got 4) and thinner (smaller books are good) and not "Star Wars." The stories are based around 1985's Electronic Arts computer role playing game.

Kevin is apprenticed to an elderly Bard. The boy wants adventure! Nothing happens in their tiny village.

His Master sends him off on a mission. It's not much--just copying an rare old musical manuscript at Count Volmar's castle.

He quickly finds himself out of his element, a nobody among boys his age. He applies himself to his work to fill the time.

Then he meets the Count's niece, a vision with big blue eyes and golden curls, the first girl to ever pay attention to him.

Not so much. She's actually an evil fairy trying to foil Kevin's mission. When her ever-stronger advances and enchantments can't get the answers she's after, she and the Count stage a "kidnapping" of his "niece" and send Kevin off to look for her. With the boy out of the way, they can go through the library book by book until they find the one he was copying.

Too bad for them that only a Bard can see it!

Kevin's joined by a streetwise woman warrior, a wise-ass fairy, a White Elf...and a Dark Elf with the power of Death and a thirst for music.

Can they find the truth about the missing girl...and save the kingdom?

This is a safe and straightforward "quest" story once it gets rolling. A bit more melodramatic than I'd like, but still solidly done.

The characters could use some fleshing out, but they're serviceable.

There might be a few draggy points, but the story moves at a purposeful pace. I'd like to have gotten into the action a bit more quickly.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Star Wars: Darksaber (Anderson, Kevin J)

Rating: 1/5
Year: 1995
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read again? No.

One Word To Describe It All: Clumsy.

It's been 8 years since the Battle of Endor. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo infiltrate a group of Tusken Raiders so they can sneak out to the palace of Jabba the Hutt, hoping to find some answers.

The Hutts are up to something.

Han & Luke learn that they're trying to build a superweapon.

Luke's also on a personal mission; his girlfriend lost her Force powers.

See, Forceless Callista's soul used to be trapped in the computer core of an evil space ship, but one of Luke's students sacrificed her own life to save the galaxy (another book to buy...for someone else) and the soul took over this body and they fell in love and now Luke makes a pit-stop at Ben Kenobi's old home to see if his ghost will give some love advice and maybe help him fix his girlfriend's broken Force powers.

Her Force powers don't work anymore, see. We are reminded of this in pretty much every scene with Luke and/or Callista (she's the one who lost her Force powers).

And only by getting her her powers (she lost them, remember) can they complete each other. I mean, they can probably shag or whatever, but that's not the plot. This is a True Love Story!

Meanwhile, across the galaxy, the evil Admiral Daala is working to rebuild the Imperial fleet. She's itching to destroy the New Republic and apparently didn't learn from the last time she tried it. She whips out the Total Galactic Domination plan book and sets her sights on blowing up the Jedi School on Yavin 4.

Did I mention that Luke's girlfriend lost her Jedi powers? Gone. Poof. Well, gone except for the Dark Side.

Meanwhile meanwhile, Jedi Knight and Mass Murderer Kyp Durron thinks the Imperials are up to something and goes to check it out. Happily, he gets into a big pep rally in which the Empire's entire plan is laid out in convenient detail via loudspeaker.

Meanwhile a third time, Durga the Hutt has hired the original Death Star designer and has stolen a set of plans for it. All he wants is the superlaser, not a big moon-shaped thing. He's going to use it to extort money from everyone in the galaxy.

The designer puts together a plan: the weapon's going to be a long cylinder and the freakin' laser beam comes out of one end, just like a lightsaber--hence the name "Darksaber." Get it?

Woof: Luke and his Forceless girlfriend go on a tour of places he's been--Dagobah, Hoth--in hopes of jogging her Force ability (why not go to places she'd find significant?). While they're on Hoth, they're attacked by an army of Wampa ice creatures...and their "leader" is the same one Luke disarmed in "Empire Strikes Back." It remembers him and wants to settle the score.

Woof: there's a street scene with a vegetarian meat-alien and a meat-cooking plant-alien selling their wares side-by-side and trading dirty looks. There's your comic relief.

Woof: Admiral Ackbar was Grand Moff Tarkin's personal pilot-slave; Tarkin used to amuse himself by describing his tactics and plans for crushing the Rebellion. Ackbar was rescued and used those tactics and plans in battle. This is particularly sucky, since it takes him from being a master strategist and admiral of the Rebel fleet to being a really good listener.

Woof: a prison planet named "Despayre." Sounds like a pretentious Mercedes Lackey villain.

Woof: Luke, to Callista the Forceless, just before The Big Battle At The End Of The Book:
He smiled gently at her. "All right. I'll protect you with my Jedi powers."
Nice. Way to condescend to your girlfriend,  man. Is it because she lost her Force powers? Dick.

Dialog's melodramatic, comic-bookish, and clumsy. It sounds like something Ed Wood would have put together for a cheesy sci-fi movie.

Characterization is bland, where it isn't just awful.

The book doesn't so much drag as stagger while leading you carefully around like a toddler (remember that Luke's girlfriend lost her Force powers? Well, she lost them). Any "dragging" sensation is from being unable to take the bad dialog, silly plotting, and convenient plot points that duct-tape this book together.

There are some really weird word choices, too--"gunwale" (the upper edge of a boat's hull) in place of "gun emplacement"; "rear engines" where a ship only has engines in the rear (the fighter flew on, its rear engines blazing!!), and a scene where Luke looks into his (Forceless) girlfriend's "open eyes."

This thing reads like the sort of stories I wrote in high school creative writing class. About the only positive thing I can say (aside from being done with it) is that this is the new Worst Book I've Ever Read. I really ought to have it enclosed in a block of acrylic or something.

This is not a "Star Wars" book. This is just crappy sci-fi with "Star Wars" words.

Star Wars: I, Jedi (Stackpole, Michael A)

Rating: 2/5
Year: 1998
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read again? Nope.

This is the only first-person "Star Wars" book I've seen. It's told by Corran Horn, a fighter pilot with the legendary Rogue Squadron.

Horn's wife vanishes during a mission involving a notorious pirate organization--Horn feels feels her "vanishing" via the Force.

His chain of command won't tell him what they know about her mission, so he tries to go over their heads and straight to President Princess Leia by talking to the First Scoundrel, Han Solo. Solo promises to talk to her.

Horn goes to Luke Skywalker, who invites him to come along to be in the first class of his new Jedi School on Yavin 4 and learn the ways of the Force, because that might help him to find his wife.

Horn goes on a 10-week Jedi training course. His wife's gone missing, but he's apparently really cool about it now, so 10 weeks is nothing.

The ghost of an evil Dark Jedi inhabits one of the nearby temples. It possesses one student after another, killing one, putting Luke Skywalker into a coma, and sending another student off on a mission to blow up a star system or two.

Horn and the students cook up a trap...and the bad guy's suddenly gone--but we never see the trap or have a description of that part of things. We're basically told "It's done."

Apparently this is covered in one of the other books and we have to buy 'em all to find out.

That last student returns from blowing stuff up and killing billions of people and is welcomed back into the fold!

What? He's a mass-murderer? Oh, that's okay, he's gonna be a Jedi!!

Oh yeah--when President Princess Leia is notified that her twin brother has been knocked on his ass by an evil ghost and is lying in a coma, she is TOO BUSY to drop her job and come running.

Apparently there's no Family Leave Act in the New Republic.

She finally shows up after, oh, a week.

So the Jedi ghost is kacked, Luke is going to be okay, and it's been 10 freaking weeks since Horn started his training.

He gets a sudden sense of urgency, now that half the goddamn book has gone by without any real plot movement. Seriously--by this point, it felt like I'd been reading for 10 weeks.

So now Horn leaves, hitching a ride with his smuggler pop-in-law, then goes off to Corellia to see his grandfather, then goes undercover for several MORE MONTHS to infiltrate the bad guys....

This book and its protagonist aren't in a hurry; there's never much of a sense of danger, no suspense (he remembers that his wife's missing, but she'll still be missing a few months from now, so it's no big rush), and Stackpole's portrayal of Corran Horn is damn near Mary Sue material.

Wordy. Not in Mercedes Lackey's chatterbox/prissy manner or Brian Daley's raid-the-thesaurus-for-obscure-words or Alan Dean Foster's paid-by-the-syllables styles. Stackpole could easily lose a good bit of padding and tighten the book up a good bit, both in narrative and dialog. Better word choice would make a big difference.

Draggy. The story doesn't go very far very quickly. There aren't any big surprises or twists and when the plot's moving it's in a straight line.

Characterization is weak; none of the Big Name characters--Han Solo, Luke Skywalker--sound anything like themselves. Han comes across like a professor, a bit too formal even when claiming that formality's never been his strong suit. The supporting characters are cardboard cutouts, flat and uninteresting.

Dialog is very comic-bookish...and there's the Industry Standard "spacified" lexicon: Timothy Zahn's "slicer" (instead of "hacker"), "slipped your circuits" instead of "slipped your mind"; and "Nerf and Gumes" for "Pork and Beans," among others.

Stackpole's a good guy and it bugs me to bag on this book so heavily, but I've got to be honest. Give this one a miss.

Star Wars: Hand of Thrawn 02--Vision of the Future (Zahn, Timothy)

Rating: 4
Year: 1998
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read again? Yes

The Caamas situation boils over; the New Republic's weak central government can't keep old feuds from erupting among its members--and can't interfere if there's fighting unless asked to intercede.

Star systems begin petitioning the Empire for readmission, looking to its strength and security to protect them from their neighbors.

The principals split up into teams, each looking for the original Caamas document that would reveal the names of the Bothans who (unwittingly? wittingly?) participated in the slaughter of the planet 20 years ago.

Han Solo and Lando Calrissian go to Bastion, the tightly-defended capitol of the Empire.

Talon Karrde--smuggler, scoundrel, information broker--follows rumors to his old boss, who might have a copy of the Caamas document.

Luke Skywalker finds his way to the world where Mara Jade tracked one of the mystery ships that have been sighted around the galaxy. He finds her and an outpost somehow linked to Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Good second half to the story, but there's that euphemizing of common terms yet again--more skyarches, more avians, and "push comes to shove" becomes "nudge comes to punch." Yet other common words such as ship remain untouched. Since 99% of the whatever language is "translated" for us, why do we need "avians" instead of birds? There are no computer hackers, either--they're called "slicers," which loses some of the flavor of the original word.

At least he doesn't use Brian Daley's "howlrunner"--but there weren't any Space Wolves in the book.

Star Wars: Hand of Thrawn 01--Spectre of the Past (Zahn, Timothy)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1997
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read again? Yes

It's been 10 years since the events of the Thrawn trilogy, about 15 since "Return of the Jedi."

The New Republic is still mopping up from the various crises that pop up every time someone writes another "Star Wars" book. The Imperial Remnant is still causing trouble, even at vastly reduced strength and reach.

Princess Leia is President, but taking a leave of absence to spend time with the family. Acting President Space Horse has everything firmly in hoof.

Admiral Pellaeon is in charge of the Imperial Remnant's military; it's grown obvious to him that the Empire's boundaries are shrinking, its power fading, and he's making the rounds to various government leaders to discuss declaring a truce with the New Republic.

One of the men he meets with--Moff Disra--has his own agenda; he's working with a former Imperial Guardsman and a con man who impersonates the long-dead Grand Admiral Thrawn. The three of them devise a scheme intended to lure worlds back into the Empire. Before long, there are rumors--some hopeful, some fearful--spreading across the galaxy that Thrawn is very much alive and is embarking on a new mission to destroy the New Republic.

Disra is also in under-the-table business with a pirate band working as privateers, hitting Republic shipping on behalf of the Empire. There's a lot of money to be made--and business is good.

The story's Big Controversy centers on the Empire's crushing of Caamas; a document has surfaced linking a small number of Bothans to the genocide. Before long, the New Republic is brought to a near-standstill as its people break into factions, with some demanding justice for the genocide and looking to punish all Bothans for it, others taking up the Bothans' defense and insisting that the actual criminals be brought to trial. President Space Horse is hock-deep in trying to hold things together. It's up to Leia, Han Solo and Lando Calrissian to find the truth about the Caamas document.

Meanwhile, mysterious small ships have been seen in various places around the galaxy. Luke Skywalker's old ex-enemy/sometimes Jedi student Mara Jade goes off after one of them and disappears. Luke--guided by a vision from the Force--goes to find her....

Only two books in this story arc; Zahn turns in another tightly-written, well-paced book with good characterization and several plotlines to keep us wondering what'll happen next.

The only annoyance is the same one I've had with Brian Daley's "Star Wars" books, where common words aren't spacey enough. In place of bridges, we have sky-arches; birds are "avians," spies indulge in "cloak-and-blade" behavior. Bleah. Gonna take a point off for it this time, since Zahn does it more in this pair of books than in the previous trilogy.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Star Wars: Thrawn 03: The Last Command (Zahn, Timothy)

Rating: 4
Year: 1993
Genre: Sci-Fi/Star Wars
Read again? Yes

Thrawn's been busy. After sneaking most of the Dark Force fleet and crewing the ships with newly-minted clones, he sets his troops to start taking star systems back from the New Republic. He makes a swift strike against the capital itself, launching cloaked asteroids into orbit around the planet.

A mission is put together to steal a piece of equipment that could locate those asteroids--but it's safely protected at the Empire's Bilbringi shipyard.

The only way to stop the flow of clones is to find their source and destroy the facility; it's up to Luke, Han, Lando, Chewbacca, and Mara Jade to find the mysterious planet Wayland....

Meanwhile, the insane Jedi clone C'Baoth suddenly decides to go to Wayland himself, where he's devised a special clone to deal with Skywalker.

The only real problem I have with this book is the identity of that special clone (spoiler!) and how he came to be. Otherwise, it's a good read.

Star Wars: Thrawn 02--Dark Force Rising (Zahn, Timothy)

Rating: 4
Year: 1992
Genre: Sci-Fi/Star Wars
Read again? Yes

I pretty much had to have this one once I finished the first book in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire). I just wish there were more good writers behind the stacks of "Star Wars" novels that followed.

"Dark Force" follows directly on the heels of the first book.

Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO travel to Honoghr, the homeworld of Thrawn's pet assassins. Leia is hoping to make peace with the Noghri.

Luke Skywalker flies out to Jomark, following rumors of a powerful Jedi master living there, not realizing that Thrawn is behind the rumors or that the Jedi is an insane clone. Luke's hoping for guidance in teaching a new generation of Jedi Knights. C'Baoth is only interested in turning him into a puppet.

Han Solo and Lando Calrissian follow leads on the mythical Dark Force, a lost fleet of Dreadnoughts. The New Republic needs ships--and Thrawn's Imperial Remnant wants them, too. Han and Lando find former Senator Garm Bel Iblis, instead; they also find some clues that he knows more about the Dark Fleet than he lets on....

Where Thrawn is a seemingly omniscient Moriarty character in the first book, in "Dark Force" he comes off as a bumbling idiot, now, managing to draw exactly the correct wrong conclusions needed to move the plot along in favor of the Good Guys. It's a disappointing turn.

As with the first book I liked the characterization, plotting, and pacing.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pocket Ref (Glover, Thomas J)

Rating: 5
Year: 1989/20006 (3rd Ed.)
Genre: Technical
Read again? all the time.

Maybe it's a little too big for a pocket, but this hefty little book is incredibly useful.

Do you need to know the hand signals for guiding a crane or hoist operator? Page 105.

Wiring diagrams for common trailer wiring harnesses? Page 41.

Perpetual calendar? Page 737.

Airport 3-letter codes? 290.

...for Frankfurt, Germany? 301.

If you look on page 384, you'll note that rabbit skin glue can be used for bonding wood but is mainly used in gilding, artwork and furniture repair.

Page 537 starts a section on knots.

This little book seemingly has it all--mathematical formulae, physics and chemistry, masonry, military ranks, automotive, carpentry & construction, first aid, surveying and mapping, tools, weather, welding, and conversion tables packed into nearly 800 pages.

Getting Great Guitar Sounds (Ross, Michael)

Rating: 5
Year: 1988/1998
Genre: Music/Technical
Read again? Yup.

One thing a serious musician will spend endless hours and wallet-loads of cash on is getting good tone, whether it's from a guitar or a trumpet. It starts with an instrument that will play in tune--and stay that way. It needs to be comfortable, too--if you're fighting the thing, you're not going to play it well.

Michael Ross starts us out with the instrument itself. The sound you get from an electric guitar depends on more than just plugging it into an amp. The big factor is wood. What's it made from (alder? Ash? Maple?) ? How is the neck attached (bolted on? Glued on? Neck-through-body?)? What's the neck material (maple is typical)? Is it a hollow-body? Solid? Semi-hollow?

From there, you get into string size, scale length, and hardware, all of which contribute to how the guitar itself sounds both before it's plugged in and to the overall sound. Then you've got pickups and controls, on-board electronics...

Lots of choices, there; to the non-musician they might all sound the same. But to a tone junkie, there's a huge difference between the sounds of classic Van Halen, Angus Young, Alex Lifeson, Joe Satriani, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards, and James Hetfield. Each has a distinctive sound that begins with his guitar.

Ross doesn't overdo it; he keeps his descriptions clear and non-technical, discussing how each component will affect the overall sound of a guitar.

That's just Chapter One.

With the second, Ross guides us through pickup choices (single-coil, humbucker, active) and location (bridge, neck, middle), wiring, controls (active, passive), and then finally to amplifiers. The amp itself will affect your sound--it doesn't just make the guitar louder, it colors the tone depending on how you play through it.

In Part Two, Ross discusses effects pedals, the tools a guitarist can use to further affect his tone: compression, distortion, preamps, delay, reverb, chorus, flange, and pitch shifters, all available as stand-alone "stomp boxes" or in all-in-one multieffects units.

Part Three sees us putting all this stuff to work; many of the effects sound better when they're arranged in a certain order, but there will be songs when you want a clean sound, your guitar's natural voice, without all the extra trimmings. From here, he looks at "live" vs. "studio" sound and the give and take of using vintage instruments, amps and effects.

His final note is about musicianship: none of these things matters if you don't have the chops. Alex Lifeson will sound like Alex Lifeson no matter what guitar/amp/effects he's using--the instrument's tone is important, but not nearly as important as what Lifeson does with it. The single most important part of your sound

Ross' advice:
--Play with authority. Play each note like you mean it--even if you screw up. Screw up like you mean it.
--Make your sound and playing fit the song! If you're going to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you have to lay into it with both hands. Stevie played hard, till his fingers were bleeding--and he meant it. But you can't play like that if you're supposed to be subtle and romantic.
--Listen. Pay attention to your favorites and try to figure out how they got that sound.

The closer is a rundown of some guitar greats and how they got their sounds: Jeff Beck, Clapton, Van Halen, Hendrix, David Gilmour, Andy Summers, The Edge, and Kurt Cobain, to name a few.

The book is a little more than 70 pages and sized to match standard music books. Pics are in black and white. Ross discusses various brands without pushing any of them in a sales pitch, making it clear that the thing that matters in any of this is that you pick what you like to get the sound you want.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Star Wars: Thrawn 01--Heir to the Empire (Zahn, Timothy)

Rating: 5
Year: 1991
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read again? Yes

I started on this book in late April; it's hard to concentrate on a novel when you're exhausted from kidney surgery, so it's no fault of Zahn's.

This was the first Star Wars novel I found in the years after "Return of the Jedi." I devoured it in a matter of hours, all 400-plus pages, and immediately wanted the next book in the trilogy. That one was only out in hardcover, but I gladly snapped it up and devoured it as well.

It's been 5 years since the Rebel victory against the Galactic Empire at the Battle of Endor. The second Death Star is gone, the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead. The remnants of the Empire still hold onto parts of the galaxy, but until recently they've been without a leader.

Grand Admiral Thrawn was a rarity in the Empire: he's not human. This blue-skinned man with glowing red eyes was one of the Emperor's master strategists. Now he's providing the leadership--and victories--the Imperial Remnant badly needs. Thrawn intends to bring down the New Republic and bring the Empire back to its former glory.

Meanwhile, the New Republic has established Coruscant as its capital planet, as it was for the Old Republic...and for the Empire. Luke Skywalker hasn't been able to sense any disturbances in the Force that would point to this being a bad decision, but he's uneasy.

Han Solo and Leia Organa are married; she's pregnant with twins. While her husband is out in the galaxy trying to scare up some of his old smuggling contacts with the offer of honest shipping jobs, Leia is up to her shoulders keeping the New Republic's government going.

Thrawn leads several lightning raids against minor Republic assets, forcing their overtaxed fleet to spread itself thinner and thinner and leading us to wonder why he needs stolen mining equipment and a deranged Dark Jedi. I won't spoil it, because it's pretty damn creative.

Unlike Alan Dean Foster and Brian Daley, Zahn's not giving us a crappy science fiction novel that uses Star Wars words. He's got a feel for the people that was sorely lacking in any of the movie novelizations or the early spinoffs by Daley and Foster. One nice touch is that the main characters--Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian--all have history with each other. Zahn uses this for inside jokes and tag-lines, as in one scene with Han, Leia and Luke:
"Yeah, as it happens, I do," Han said, his voice hardening. "I also have a pretty good idea what could happen if our late pals with the stokhli sticks brought friends with them."

For a long minute Leia stared at him, and Luke sensed the momentary anger fading from her mind. "You still shouldn't have left without consulting me first," she said.

"You're right," Han conceded. "But I didn't want to take the time. If they did have friends, those friends probably had a ship." He tried a tentative smile. "There wasn't time to discuss it in committee."

Leia smiled lopsidedly in return. "I am not a committee," she said wryly.

And with that, the brief storm passed and the tension was gone. Someday, Luke promised himself, he would get around to asking one of them just what that particular private joke of theirs referred to.

I really liked that callback to the argument between Han and Leia from "The Empire Strikes Back." Little moments like this add a lot to the "feel" of the characters.

About the only thing I didn't like is some of the euphemized slang terms that everyone in sci-fi seems to indulge in. Zahn uses "cloak-and-blade" in place of cloak-and-dagger, which isn't as bad as Daley's "howlrunner" in place of "Space Wolf." But given that a ship is a ship, and so many other common items have the same names (or are "translated" for us into English), why not call a dagger a dagger?

Maybe I should drop a point for it, but Zahn has done such a good job that I can cringe but let it pass.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rush Complete (2 volumes) and Deluxe Anthology

Rating: 3
Date: 1986
Genre: Music
Read Again? Yes

Gotta say first off, by "Complete" all the author(s) meant was "We did arrangements of all their albums through Power Windows," not "Every song in its completion."

Keep in mind that Rush is a "power trio"--drums, bass, and guitar.

Now consider that the books are arranged for vocal and piano, with chord symbols for guitar. Heh.

There's no TAB, so I was at a big disadvantage when I started learning songs from these books. I can read music notation...very slowly. I suck at it. Fortunately, those chord symbols are there and they helped a lot.

The arrangements themselves are best treated as sketches of the actual songs; they're heavily simplified and edited, with no solos or any of the badassery a Rush fan would be looking for. I knew this when I bought them, though--they're Rush memorabilia--and they were all there was in 1990, as far as I knew. While I learned by ear most of what I can play, I had the books just in case there was a phrase or chord I couldn't quite figure out (assuming it was in one of the books).

Another fun thing to do would be to program each song as written into Cakewalk or a similar music-writing program, just for something to do, and for something to laugh at. I wish I could rate these books higher, but they just don't make the cut, especially when compared to the arrangements in Guitar Magazine or some of the newer music books on today's shelves.

Volume 1:
Fly By Night
Caress of Steel
A Farewell to Kings

Volume 2:
Permanent Waves
Moving Pictures
Exit...Stage Left
Grace Under Pressure
Power Windows

The Deluxe Anthology is just 27 songs culled from the two-volume set. Same arrangements, so the same comments. My copy's pretty heavily annotated, which tells me that I depended more on this book than on the other two.

Rush (Guitar Superstar Series) (Donato, Ray)

Rating: 4
Year: 1986
Genre: Music
Read again? Yes

I re-named this "Rush for Sissies" on the inside front cover. Donato's arrangements aren't as bad as those in the "Rush Complete" or "Deluxe Anthology" books, but there was a lot of correcting to be done, once I knew enough to know the difference.

The book's arranged specifically for vocal and guitar, with both standard staff and TAB notation. The main thing missing in every song is chord notation. Donato simply notes the generic chord name--"Bb sus 2." It's not a terrible omission, given that you can look at the TAB notation to see which fingering of a B-flat suspended-second chord Alex Lifeson was using for that song.

The actual mistakes aren't glaring, but they irritated me 20 years ago, when I was trying to learn to play like my guitar idol. Things like having the guitar silent when it's not, entire sections of a song omitted (done deliberately, without a good reason) or shortened, solos omitted (but included in other songs?). Knowing how hot-headed I was in 1989 or so, I'd have been pretty pissed off at shelling out $20 I could barely afford only to find that the arrangement for "Tom Sawyer" was as sucky as this one. One thing he does do well is keeping up with the insane meter-changing of certain songs.

Still, figuring it out by myself and going back to fix Donato's omissions and errors made me learn the songs and made me more confident in my own ability to listen and understand Lifeson's note choices. I wouldn't have gotten that if Donato had been note-for-note accurate, so I'll only take one point off.

The songs:
New World Man
The Spirit of Radio (w/solo)
Jacob's Ladder (solos omitted)
Between the Wheels (solo omitted; has guitar echoing synth; choruses wrong; ending wrong)
Tom Sawyer (solo omitted; main intro riff wrong;)
Free Will (solo omitted)
La Villa Strangiato (solos omitted)
Red Barchetta (intro wrong; solo omitted)
Distant Early Warning (sketchy solo?)

Where the hell have I been?

I got really tired of Robert Asprin's "Myth" books after the tenth one, but I never bothered to write any of them up after the third one, back in December.

I haven't really read much of anything since then--too tired, too bored. I've been falling asleep at random times of day, sitting up all night, always tired enough that reading just never mattered.

I suppose having a bad kidney and having surgery to remove it might be a good excuse :)

I won't promise much for the time being; I'm reading a novel, but slowly, in between naps and sleeping and whatever I can fit into those waking moments.

Projects for Guitarists (Anderton, Craig)

Rating: 5
Year: 1995
Genre: Music, Electronics
Read again? Yes

Of my three project books, this is the one I never really cracked open. By the time I got this one, my interest in building my own guitar effects--and my interest in electronics--went on a back shelf in favor of other things.

This isn't a re-packaging of Anderton's "Electronic Projects for Musicians"; he does give some basics in the first couple of chapters, but the 35 projects in this book are all new, many gathered from Anderton's columns in Guitar Player Magazine):

Wall-wart tamer (mini extension cord with switch)
AC adapter hum-buster
Making crossfade & pan-pot pedals
Effects-order switcher
Power/Status indicator monitor
Stereo/Mono breakout box
Buffer Board
"Clarifier" On-board preamp/EQ
Beat the DI blues with IGGY (direct-injection box)
Frequency Booster
Phase switcher
AC power supply/battery eliminator
AC-powered practice amp
Signal switcher
Volume pedal de-scratcher
Cheap & Cheerful (Guitar) tone mods
Humbucking Pickup Tricks
Pots & Pans (pan-pot add-on to guitars)
Telecaster Rewiring
Balanced/Unbalanced Adapter
Direct Injector
Tape Recorder to Echo-unit conversion
Building a Better Bypass
Restoring Vintage Effects
Vintage Effects de-hisser
Adding Presets to Vintage Effects
Go/No-Go Cord Tester
Testing Impedance
LED Level Meter
"Tri-Test" Cord Checker
Designing an on-board (in-guitar) pre-amp
Octave-doubling fuzz
Rocktave Divider
"Stack in a Box" tube preamp

One very helpful section helps you translate between American and International capacitor values (this information would have been useful in Penfold's book).

Well-written, with plenty of drawings and parts lists. There's no "sound page" as with Anderton's other book, but I won't quibble over something like that.

Electronic Projects for Guitar (Penfold, RA)

Rating: 4
Year: 1992
Genre: Music, Electronics
Read again? Yes

Of the three musical electronics project books, this one was the most difficult to understand, since the author uses British (or European? Metric?) notation on some components. Once I got used to that, though, everything fell into place.

Not that I ever built any of the projects. I got some ideas from Penfold's book, all of them added to a big folder with all my other electronics/music stuff, but nothing ever seemed to get built. I was always working on something else--fixing a car, learning a song, playing along with Rush tapes (NEVER the LP's!), stripping electronic components from broken TV's, radios, or whatever. I've got a sizable collection of resistors, capacitors, and all storage.

Penfold gives us 16 projects after a cursory course in soldering, assembly, and testing:

Guitar preamp
Headphone amp
Soft distortion
Auto-Wah (he spells it "Waa")
Wah-wah pedal
Dual Tracking effects unit
Treble booster
Dynamic treble booster
Dynamic tremolo
Direct-injection box
Improved distortion box
Thin distortion unit
Guitar tuner

The schematics, assembly drawings, and parts lists are well-done; the projects are built up on simple breadboard with point-to-point wiring, but since there doesn't seem to be anything critical you could probably get away with the "dead bug" assembly method to make things take up even less space.

Some of the schematic symbols and part numbers didn't match anything I'd seen before, but that was before the Internet and Google, so sourcing most of the active components (transistors, integrated circuits) or equivalents shouldn't be too hard.

Electronic Projects for Musicians (Anderton, Craig)

Rating: 5
Year: 1975, 1980
Genre: Music, Electronics
Read again? Yes

Around the same time I was learning to play guitar--late '80s, early '90s--I was also into electronics.

I figured it'd be fun to build my own guitar effects and such...but I never built anything. I studied, planned, tinkered with stomp boxes I already had, but to this day I've yet to start or finish any of Anderton's example projects.

It's not him. It's me. Always wanted to say that.

The book's a reasonably comprehensive mini electronics course. In the first four chapters, Anderton introduces various electronic components and where to source them, what sort of tools you'll need, and assembly techniques, enclosures, soldering, testing, and the all-important "smoke test" when the project either catches fire or works like it's supposed to.

Chapter 5 introduces the books' 27 projects, including a simple pre-amp, headphone amp, tone controls, distortion, an 8-input mixer, phaser, talk box (think Joe Walsh or Peter Frampton), and a noise gate...hell, here's the list:

Passive tone control
Headphone amp
Bass fuzz
Ring Modulator
Dual-filter voicing unit
Adding bypass switches to effects
Guitar rewiring
Bipolar AC adaptor
Treble booster
Electronic footswitch
Tuning standard
Super Tone Control
8-in, 1-out mixer
Using a volt-ohm-millammeter
Practice play-along
Phase shifter
Making patch cords
Talk box
Tube-sound fuzz
Envelope Follower
Noise gate

Chapter 6 discusses different ways of patching the effects together, since your overall sound will be affected by the order in which effects are connected.

As a bonus, my copy of the book came with a flimsy record page with examples of many of the effects in action.

Looking over the list, I can't see me building a Tuning Standard because in the past 20 years small tuners have become cheap and small enough to fit in your guitar case. Most of the rest might bear revisiting, though--I'll need to dig out my big folder full of scribbled notes and schematics. It's always more fun to just look at the stuff, try to figure out how it works.

Overall, the book's well-written and illustrated, with parts lists for each project and plenty of assembly photos. Of the three books like this in my collection, this is the best.