Thursday, December 31, 2009

TopDragon Awards 2009!

This is always difficult for me.  I tend to like most books that I read and very few are not pleasurable reading experiences in one way or another.  Still, some are a cut above the rest and so I present these annual awards.  There are no qualifications to be entered into this award program other than I must have read the book during the calendar year.  Doesn't matter when it was published or even if it's still in print.  I don't judge by what a critic might say or by how much publicity it may have received or whether or not my friends liked it.  Simply, I judge by how much I enjoyed reading it.  FYI, the "Sleeper" award is for a book I didn't really expect to be all that good but it turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable.  Also, to be eligible for the Grand Prize, the book must have won in one of the lower levels.  So, without further are the 2009 TopDragon Awards:

Best Nonfiction: American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur
 byWilliam Manchester

Best Classic Fiction: The Fountainhead
 by Ayn Rand

Best Historical Fiction: River God
by Wilbur Smith

Best Mystery: The Cat Who Tailed a Thief
by Lilian Jackson Braun

Best Adventure: Conspiracies, (Repairman Jack #3)
by F. Paul Wilson

Best Western Fiction: The Cherokee Trail
by Louis L'Amour

Best General Fiction: The Carpetbaggers
by Harold Robbins

Best Young Adult Novel: Starlight (Warriors, The New Prophecy #4)
by Erin Hunter

Best Horror: Sandman Slim
by Richard Kadrey

Best Science Fiction: The Psi Corps Trilogy
by J. Gregory Keyes

Best Fantasy: The Name of the Wind
by Patrick Rothfuss

Best Short Story: Survivor Type
by Stephen King

Best Audio Book: Night Over Water
by Ken Follett

Sleeper Award: Top Producer
by Norb Vonnegut

Grand Award Winner: The Name of the Wind
by Patrick Rothfuss

Runner up: River God
by Wilbur Smith

A few notes on my reading year:  I read 98 books this year, 11 of which were audio books.  That equals almost 36,000 pages (not counting audio books of course).  I also read 49 short stories making that, by far, the most competitive category for an award.

Happy New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unicorn Point

Hey I made it!  I wasn't sure if I was going to complete this last book before the end of the year or not...but I did, and with a whole day to spare!  Unicorn Point is the 6th and final book of Piers Anthony's "Apprentice Adept" series.  Or so I thought.  In my rush to wrap up trilogies and other series this month, I hadn't realized that there is actually a 7th book in this series.  I don't own it but have seen it in the book store in years past.  Not so suprising that I hadn't realized it though when you consider that Piers Anthony is an extremely prolific author with 140 books published to date.  I've been reading him since I was a teenager, many moons ago and my database tells me this is the 63rd Piers Anthony book I've read.  Wowzer.

Mr Anthony is somewhat infamous for cramming 6-7 novels in each of his "trilogies".  Many people think the first three make a fine trilogy and then he proceeds to write more and thus ruin the series.  His Xanth series alone started as a trilogy and is still going strong after 34 books.  I tend to agree but am such a completest that I feel obligated to read the entire series.  This particular series, the "Apprentice Adept" series is among my favorite, expecially the first three.  The concept is very cool: a world that has a fantasy region called "Phaze" as well as a science region called "Proton."  Magic works in Phaze whereas Proton is very science fictiony.  Turns out the two regions were split from a single region sometime in the past and even the people have duplicates in the other region.  Thus a magical "adept" in Phaze has a corresponding citizen or serf in Proton.  But when one person accidentally enters the other zone...well you can imagine what sorts of chaos might develop.

This is definitely one of Mr Anthony's series that should have been limited to three books.  Those first three novels, beginning with Split Infinity formed a tightly woven and complete story with well developed characters and compelling plot.  They remain among my favorite fantasy novels.  However, his attempt at a follow-on trilogy largely fails in my opinion.  The new characters are mostly lifeless, and very similar to one another.  They even think the same way and have the same attitudes (something I've noticed for many of this author's characters). The plot is overly complicated and confusing making the entire reading experience an onerous one.  There are just enough intriguing parts to keep me on the hook and continuing to the next novel but overall I wished the author had pursued other stories.  That probably explains why it took me 2 1/2 years between reading book 5 and book 6.  This book, Unicorn Point is divided into 18 chapters, each with a different point of view character.  That basically turns the book into 18 seperate vignettes that are intended to bring the entire story together.  Instead it seperates the story and further complicates it.  Take my advice and stop after the first three books in this series.

Next up:  time to stop completing unfinished series and start fresh stories.  I'm not sure what I'll chose to start the new year with but it'll be exciting to browse my shelves (exactly 300 books still to be read) and come up with the next entry.  Tomorrow...the much anticipated (at least by me) TopDragon book awards!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Strong Shall Live

No need to rehash the stories in this marvelous collection of western short stories by the immortal Louis L'Amour.  I've blurbed on my blog (blog-blurbed?) each time I finished a story in The Strong Shall Live so my thoughts are already posted.  All except the last one, "Bluff Creek Station."  That story is the perfect story to finish off the book; whomever selected the order of the stories is to be commended.

"Bluff Creek Station" is one of the shortest of the stories in the entire collection and yet it is one of the most inspiring.  It begins with the main character knowing he is soon to die, shot through the spine by Indians raiding the stage coach station.  His only purpose in living at this point is to warn the stage that is due in to the station shortly, striving to live just long enough to fire off his shotgun as a warning that Indians still lay in ambush.  His thoughts while he waits and as numbness sets in throughout his limbs are poignant indeed.  This is excellent writing and definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat for the few minutes it takes to reach the end.

I've said before that Louis L'Amour has two reputations: one as a hack western formula writer who churned out short book after short book for years and so was obviously a "bad" writer.  I know personally of some people who dismiss him as a horrible writer simply because there are so many of his books on the book store shelves.  Obviously he can't be any good.  Of course, they have never tried a single one; they choose to let their elitism keep them from enjoying a good reading experience.  Others have said that his writing is "authentic" and allows the readers of today a glimpse into the real west of the later 1800s.  I probably fall somewhere in between but I've read enough to know that he isn't just a western writer, having written all sorts of adventure books from the WWII era all the way back to the stoneage.  He puts a lot of real history in his stories.  His biography makes it clear that even though he was a self-taught man he did an enormous amount of research for his stories; walking the hills and valleys where they take place.  A quick check of my database reveals that this book is the 61st of his that I've read.  That puts him at number 2 on my all time list and I can honestly say that I've enjoyed all but perhaps 3 of them.  That's a pretty good record.  While I don't pretend to say he is a "great" writer, he certainly fits the description of an enjoyable writer.  And when all is said and done, that's a pretty good epitaph.

Coming soon: my end-of-the year "TopDragon" annual award winners.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Here's hoping everybody is having a great end-of-the-year holiday season.  I know I'm enjoying some time off and spending time with my family.  My reading time is actually suffering some due to all of the other activities this time of year.  Nevertheless, I did manage to find time to complete my reading of the third book of the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke, Inkdeath.

I confess to stalling quite a bit before getting around to this one.  I quite enjoyed the first book in the series but felt the second one, Inkspell dragged somewhat.  It was probably a necessary evil because Ms Funke did not take the easy way out and simply rewrite another version of the first book.  She greatly expanded the "Inkheart" universe and the number of characters and subplots jumped tremendously.  Now, here in the third book, I was afraid the whole thing would fail to wrap up in a satisfactory manner.  I happily discovered that not to be the case and even though I didn't enjoy it as much as the first book, it was still a good one.

There are numerous characters in this book.  I read somewhere that there are 114 of them which makes things hard to keep track of.  Fortunately, an appendix is included which contains a short blurb about each one and even some reminders of their roles in the previous novels.  I referred to that quite often, looking up several characters more than once to get that "oh yeah" moment.  The plot moved along pretty well in this novel with lots of jumping around among the many points of view.  I was, however, disappointed in the vastly diminished roles of Meggie and Farid, both major characters in the first book.  Mo has a major role once again, taking on the persona of a Robin Hood sort of figure called the Bluejay. 

This trilogy has really evolved over the course of the three books, becoming darker as we move along.  The attraction for me, and what I believe makes this a good trilogy for youngsters, is the idea of being able to bring characters out of fictional stories by reading, as well as changing the very reality of the story you are living in by writing new scenes.  That's just cool and gets to the very heart of young people's imaginations.  On a deeper level, I suppose, it addresses the idea of predestination vs. changing your own future through your actions.  I tend to take it more at the first level and just let my imagination go.

I commented to Anita, who wrote a comment here a couple of blog entries ago, and whose blog I also follow, that I think these books are best when read aloud to the whole family, particularly if you can do many different voices.  I used to do that with my family (when my kids were young) with classics like Narnia, Harry Potter, etc.  That sort of setting really brings the story alive and lets you sink into the characters.  I really miss those evenings at our house.

I also completed the last short story in the L'Amour collection but I will do a seperate blog about that in a couple of days since it is the last story.  Next novel, and last of the year is finishing up yet another series which I began years ago: Unicorn Point by Piers Anthony.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Hot Kid

Elmore Leonard is a writer after my own heart.  He started with westerns and then turned to crime fiction, becoming one of the best selling crime fiction writers of all time.  When I saw the audio book, The Hot Kid on the library shelves this time, I just couldn't pass it up because I knew I'd be in for a treat.  I also needed a relatively short book this time so I could complete it before the end of the year.  It was so good though that I made excuses to go driving just so I could hear more of this story, lol.

The Hot Kid is Mr Leonard's 40th or 42nd book (I've seen references to both) and was published in 2005.  Boy, he sure hasn't slacked off.  I would guess he is probably best known for good guy characters that are right on the edge of being not-so-good.  Many people seem to like the movies that have been made from his books like "Get Shorty," and "Out of Sight" but I didn't care for them nearly as much as the novels themselves.  (Although I did like "3:10 to Yuma" in it's latest incarnation, adapted from his short story written in 1953). Here, he turns back the clock just a little and sets this novel in Oklahoma during the 1930's mobster era.  Right away that sounds like an unusual setting.  As always, his characters use dead-pan humor consistently, winning the reader over with their charm, whatever their ultimate intentions may be. 

The plot deals with two men at opposing ends of the law-abiding spectrum.  Jack Belmont is the son of a Tulsa oil wildcatter and pulls every dirty trick in the book to blackmail and extort money from his own father.  From there he goes on to organized crime and strives to rival Pretty Boy Floyd in evilness. Going up against him is a deputy US Marshall, Carl Webster, who has gained a reputation as a fearless lawman after killing several notorious mobsters.  Their confrontation is classic and truely a delight to read.  For a shorter novel, the characters are remarkably well developed and the plot was not predicatable in the least; just the ticket for a drive-time audio book.  I especially enjoyed the way Mr Leonard included the young adulthood of both characters and showed how they came to be the way they are.  If you haven't read Elmore Leonard in the past, it's never too late to start.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tyrant's Test

I really like this time of year...for the time off of work :)  I really get to play, and try to dodge the hunny-do list if at all possible.  Actually I don't even mind that too much because I have plenty of leisure time to get in my serious play time.

Tyrant's Test is the third book of a Star Wars trilogy written by Michael P. Kube-McDowell.  According to the "About the Author" page, this is actually the pen name of Michael Paul McDowell.  I understand why authors use different pen names to keep from being typecast with a certain genre but I'm not sure how they came up with the mouthfull for this one.  Oh well.  This trilogy take place about twelve years after the "Return of the Jedi" and was written in the still early days of the first group of Star Wars fiction.  Consequently, it suffers, I believe with having to rely on plot development, filling in the "what happened next" syndrome and just doesn't have to time to really expand on the characters.  Most of us know a lot about Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Lando, etc. but do we really?  The plot of this one is fairly straight forward.  Each of the main characters I just mentioned plus some bad guys have their own sub plots and that's really too many to fully develop in a 350 page paperback book, especially when all of the sub plots need to be wrapped up.  I thought Luke's plot was especially contrived because it turned out he was just being lied to the whole time and nothing came of it.  But somehow at the end, that experience had substantially changed him and his outlook.  Hmmm...  Han didn't play a big role throughout the trilogy, just uncharacteristically being captured and having to be rescued.  Didn't ring true.

All in all, this trilogy has some of the worst reviews I've seen for SW books.  It wasn't that bad in my opinion but still, I am glad to see it come to an end.

Louis L'Amour, on the other hand, once again provided a wonderful traditional western reading experience in his short story, "The Marshal of Sentinel".  This time we have a very serious protagonist, the marshal himself, who has to defend his town against an outlaw gang of bank robbers whose method is to use an inside man to assassinate the marshall up front and thereby leave the bank as easy pickins.  I'm sure liking this collection but unfortunately, only one more story to go in The Strong Shall Live.

Next up: finishing off yet another trilogy with Inkdeath, by Cornelia Funke.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nine Stories

J.D. Salinger's most famous work, undoubtedly is Catcher in the Rye.  I finally got around to reading that book, often considered among the very best of American literature, last year because, once again, my son had to read it for his high school AP literature course.  His class followed that up with a section on the short story form and used this book, Nine Stories, also by J.D Salinger, as one of their source texts. my usual fashion, I never like to have a book on my shelf that I haven't read so I decided to give these stories a try, reading them over the past couple of months.

I will say that I more or less "studied" The Catcher in the Rye as I read it, much like a student of literature would and my general feelings about it are not generally as good as most people's are.  It's not that it was a bad book and I can certainly appreciate Mr Salinger's writing skills.  It's just that I wasn't completely blown away.  Perhaps my expectations were too high going in.  So now when I approached this collection of nine short stories, I purposely set no expectations.  That wasn't difficult since I had never heard of this collection but nevertheless, I wanted to just read them as I would any other short story collection and try to enjoy each on it's own merit.

Overall, as in every other collection out there, I enjoyed some more than others.  Many are involved with the war, with soldiers who have recently returned and are trying to cope with what they saw.  Some have humerous aspects while some have downright horrific aspects.  Almost all of them had me scratching my head at some point and asking myself, "Where is he going with this?"  Ocassionally I was satisfied with the ending but more often than not the ending seemed to leave me hanging or send me scrambling back to the last page to see if I had inadvertantly skipped it.  Once again I appreciated his writing ability; he has a definite knack for letting you see a whole character with few words.  Somehow we understand a lot more about them than what is described for us.  I can see why a teacher would use this book as a tool for studying the short story form.  But having said that, I was reading for enjoyment, for entertainment, and while it was OK for that, I find myself preferring more plot-oriented stories.  The closest one of the bunch to that was the very last one, "Teddy" which was a very intriguing look at the nature of a young boy with an incredibly wise outlook on life and an eerily accurate ability to predict his own demise.

So if you like Salinger or classic short stories I would give this one a try but if you like a straight-forward beginning, middle, and end structural story you may want to skip these.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I've unintentionally encountered quite a few post-apocalyptic fiction experiences this year.  Perhaps it's due to all the buzz surrounding the 2012/Mayan calander thing but certainly not all of it.  I had read 1984, A Canticle for Liebowitz, I am Legend this year as well as watching the complete "Jeremiah" TV series.  I've always been drawn to such work and perhaps it isn't all that suprising that Veracity, by Laura Bynum caught my eye when I saw it on my Amazon Vine Program list.

The book has an intriguing premise: much of the population of the US has been wiped out by a pandemic virus in 2012 and now in 2045, the survivors of that experience live in an extreme government-controlled society, for the citizen's own protection.  The protagonist, Harper Adams has a gift in that she can see people's auras and know what they are feeling, including if they are telling the truth or not.  She is recruited by a resistance force, organized by people who remember the way things were prior to the pandemic and want to bring back freedoms, democracy, etc.  A central theme of the book involves the "Red List", a list of words that are not allowed to be used any more, thus supressing the population.

This book was OK, but just OK.  I liked the theme that language has power and I liked the way that was resolved through the use of "The Book of Noah".  The author uses first person present tense, and also skips around in her timeline quite a bit during the first half of the book.  That can work well in the hands of an experienced writer but here it seems to make the whole work a bit snobbish, as if the author was trying to make it be more literary.  The characters were not well developed, at least not enough so that the reader can grow to really care what happens to them.  I also found the later half of the book, the part about the resistance's efforts to take back the government to be hugely simplified.  The battle tactics just weren't believable, almost as if there were large parts of the narrative missing.  Unfortuantely, novels like this will inevitably be compared to 1984 and similar works...certainly a difficult standard to achieve.

On a different note, "Big Man" the next short story in Louis L'Amour's collection, The Strong Shall Live, was a fantastic story.  I had just been complaining about the sterotype western hero from the previous story and here I get just what I asked for.  The hero this time is a 6'7" 330 pound, over confidant young man who starts a ranch in the middle of hostile Indian country and plants groves of cherry trees there.  How he interacts with the nearby townsmen that just shake their heads at his foolishness and how he not only manages to survive but actually thrive is the stuff of great storytelling.  Best of the bunch so far.

Next up: December calls for me to wrap up all series that I've started during the year so now it's the Star Wars one, number 3 of the Black Fleet Crisis.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Black Rain

Another day in Colorado Springs means another 2-hour delay due to least that seems to be happening a lot lately. I'm not one to complain about a shorter work day, however and so this morning I took advantage of the extra time to complete the reading of my latest advanced reader's edition novel. Black Rain is the first published book by Graham Brown and is written as an adventure/thriller novel with elements of science fiction and horror.

Right off the bat I'll say this is one very good book. It reads like an Indiana Jones adventure but in the present day and with some good solid speculative science weaved into the plot. If you are familiar with novels by James Rollins or Mathew Reilly then you'll have a good idea of the style...sort of like reading a movie. In a nutshell, the novel is about a covert government agency that is launched on a quest to find an ancient Mayan temple in the heart of the Amazon. But what they find there is a huge mystery and more action/adventure than I've read in a long time.

The scenes and characters are presented clearly, so clearly that you can "see" the movie unfolding in your mind. And the plot is heavy on the action, especially the second half. The first half builds up the mystery of just what is going on here, establishes the main characters and allows us to see what is motivating the competing groups looking for the temple. Intrigue abounds and it really keeps you turning the pages. And the second half just explodes with action. Very well done.

I was so engrossed in this novel that I've added the name Graham Brown to my "Best Little-Known Authors" list. I daresay he won't be unknown for long as my copy of the book says he is working on a sequel to Black Rain. If his work is marketed well, he could be the next "big thing" in this genre. The only problem might be the title...a search of that name brings up a lot about the Michael Douglas movie of the same name as well as the album by Ozzie Osborne. Oh well.

I also completed the next short story in Louis L'Amour's The Strong Shall Live. I thought "Duffy's Man" was fun to read but also was an example of boilerplate western fiction. I thought at first this might be a very different sort of western story because Duffy is an old, fat man...wouldn't that be a great protagonist to break the cliched mold? But no, the story is about the nameless guy who works for him and is the templated wide shouldered, narrow hipped, steely-eyed hero who stands up to the bully and whips him in the end. Not much more to it than that. Hehe, still fun to read though :)

Next up: another advanced reader's edition from Amazon that I need to get to: Veracity by Laura Bynum.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Grapes of Wrath

I completed the lengthy audio book of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath over the weekend. I had selected this audio book for several reasons: 1) I always feel like I need to read more "classics" and this one was handy at the library, 2) I had read Of Mice and Men many years ago and enjoyed it pretty well, and 3) this is supposed to be one of the greatest American novels of all time. In fact, many people would put it number one on their list. And in case you didn't know, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel prize for Literature in 1962.

Many times I find the "classics" to be dull and even just plain boring. Not so this time although it is not an easy read and I would say it is usually depressing. This is truly an American story. We follow the Joad family for about nine months during the Dust Bowl/Great Depression days as they decide to uproot their family from Oklahoma where they have lived for generations as sharecroppers, and follow them to California as they search for a better life. Along the way they encounter numerous obstacles, many of them very dangerous, and we get an upfront and close personal view of their day-to-day lives. Once they finally reach California, they find it's not the paradise they have heard about and their daily struggle continues.

I believe this book can be read on several levels. The more scholarly types like to hold this book up as a classic example of the way one family has to exist in a system that favors the powerful land owner vs. the farmers and laborers. It's certainly true that Steinbeck's method of writing this book supports that view. He intersperses each lengthy chapter with a shorter "big picture" description of what is happening in the world at that time. The California scenes, especially, are poignant examples of the plight of migratory farm workers, a subject which Mr Steinbeck was almost obsessed. Some people criticise the book as too "socialistic" or even "communistic" but I see it as a reflection of the times in which it was written and in the timeframe it portrays.

While I can very much appreciate this novel on such a grandiose scale, I also appreciate they way the characters are written. I think most regular readers of this blog will know that characterization is the number one mark of a great novel for me and this one has it in spades. The entire Joad family, especially Tom, Ma, Uncle John, and the former preacher, Jim Casy are fantastic examples of greatly written characters. Tom Joad himself is as important a character in American fiction as Holden Caufield and Jay Gatsby and only a notch below Huckleberry Finn himself. I worry that many students were assigned this book to read in High School and came away with a complete distaste for Steinbeck. Actually I worry about that for all sorts of "classic" books. But now that I have achieved some level of maturity (I can't believe I just wrote that) it is possible that I can appreciate the true worth of a book like this.

My next audio book will be...dunno. Depends on what I find at the library but it will have to be a shorter book than this so I can finish it before the end of the year.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kushiel's Avatar

During my lunch break today I finished up the final book in Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel's Legacy" trilogy. Kushiel's Avatar follows the first book, Kushiel's Dart and the second, Kushiel's Chosen. This is a relatively long book, coming it at 750 paperback pages and does a fine job of concluding the trilogy. The heroine, Phedre, has grown from a young girl to a mature woman through this series and we get to experience her world and all of the complex intrigue included therein right along with her.

Ten years have passed since the end of the second book and Phedre has settled into a nice life with her consort Joscelin. She still takes on clients as an anguisette but now only three per year. Life is good. The only thing that still haunts her is the fate of her childhood friend, Hyacinth, who had sacrificed himself back in the first book to suffer the curse of being a perpetual apprentice to the Master of the Straits. Now when Phedre's nemesis, the beautiful Melisande contacts Phedre and begs her to go in search of her kidnapped son, Phedre makes a deal with her that will ultimately culminate in Hyacinth's release.

As in the previous novels in the trilogy, the tapestry of this world is vast and detailed. Essentially, it is an alternate Earth and we travel along with Phedra and her company of escorts, guardsmen, etc. from Europe to the Middle East and to northern and central Africa. Most of the place names are similar to ours so it is possible to decipher where they are going but I was very happy to have the map at the front of the book to refer to. Also, there are lots and lots of characters so the list of their names and relationships was welcome. This book is not for those easily offended by erotic scenes as there are several in here, one in particular which is extremely graphic but also very necessary to the plot. The protagonist, afterall, is bound by her gods to experience both pain and pleasure as a courtesan so that sort of thing does come up in the plot. Taken as a trilogy, this is a vast epic fantasy that is very enjoyable to read. I felt there were a few spots with too much description of scenery and a few too many stops along her journey that didn't seem to have much bearing on the plot. A little too long but enjoyable none-the-less. I plan to read the follow-on trilogy which focuses on the boy that had been kidnapped, and his life...but these books are so long that I will wait a while before beginning that series.

I was also able to complete another short story in the Louis L'Amour collection, The Strong Shall Live. "Hattan's Castle" was a bit different from what I'm used to but still quite enjoyable. It's told like a campfire story, lots of description about what happened but not much actual dialogue. It's the old story about a town in the Old West run by a bully that suddenly has to deal with a new man that challenges his leadership. There is an unexpected twist involved that makes this a cute tale but I won't spoil it for you. I continue to really like this collection.

Next up: Black Rain, a thriller novel by Graham Brown, part of the "Vine" program that allows me to read as-yet-unpublished bookss. This one will be published in January, 2010.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Confusion

I've been holding out on you.

As most of you know I read a book during the half hour or so before I go to work each workday morning. Since I only read about 30 minutes a day on it, I often take over a month to get one completed. Well...I also usually pick a "project" book to read...over a much longer period of time...even if takes a whole year. That means I will read a chapter or so here or there, perhaps a larger section, or whatever I feel like. I'll pick a book that is either very very long, or long and difficult. I just don't want to feel like I need to read it in a week so I rush through and can't absorb the whole thing.

So last year I selected the first volume of "The Baroque Cycle" Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. I had never read Stephenson before but he has quite a reputation for deep, thoughtful writing; some would even say complicated. "The Baroque Cycle" is a set of three volumes and actually covers 8 novels. Quicksilver contained the first three. And yes, I did take the entire year to finish the volume although I did read each of the three novels just like I would read any other novel; i.e. not spread out over time.

So this year I continued with Volume 2: The Confusion. This volume can be...well...confusing in that the two novels contained therein take place simultaneously and are therefore presented at the same time as well. We read one chapter of "The Juncto" and then one of "Bonanza" and then back again. Really, it's not so confusing because the whole Volume 2 reads like one big novel. I started reading back in January and have taken my time getting through it.

Getting through it is a good way to put it actually. Had I tried to read this one start to finish I never would have made it. The story itself is engaging and the plots and subplots are intriguing. The characters are over-the-top and that makes them fun. There is some really good humor trickled throughout, mostly involving the situations the main characters get themselves in to. I would have preferred to see an index of all of the characters though. There are literally hundreds of them, many with obscure names, and I just couldn't keep track of who was who. The first volume did include such an index and I referred to it often.

The story itself revolves around two major characters (one for each novel) in and around the year 1689. Half Cocked Jack is the "King of the Vagabonds", truly a criminal mastermind in a happy-go-lucky sort of way. The other is Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, a sometime fianceer, sometime secret agent. They have adventures galore throughout 17th century Europe and all across the globe. But in the end I have to wonder if I am smart enough for this book. Mr Stephenson uses lots of words and phrases from other languages and even though the reader can usually get the gist from the context, it makes for some real effort on the part of the reader. That's OK and I don't shy away from smart reads but this book, as I found in the first volume, suffers from "too much." Too much plot, too many characters, and too much description. I felt like the author was spending as much time, and print, trying to impress me with his superior intellect as he did trying to entertain me. I love it when a novel teaches me something, be it facts or a new way of looking at things, but I have great difficulty when it becomes a chore to read a novel. I almost always finish a book that I start (even if it takes me a whole year) and I still plan to read the final volume next year.

So on the whole I would only recommend this series to those who like a more extreme reading challenge and have the time and energy to put into it. Not for the casual reader.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Red River

The second book I completed on my trip to Las Vegas was P.G. Nagle's Red River. This is the fourth and final (it appears) book in her "Civil War in the Far West" series. The series started with Gloritta Pass, and continued with The Guns of Valverde, and then Galveston.

I think this book really demonstrates how Ms Nagle has grown into her writing abilities. The first book was well researched and there were several strong characters but the plot seemed to be pretty basic and even predictable. She even included what I would consider to be an amateurish plot device that interrupted the climax of the story. But as she progressed through this series she just got better and better. The research was still outstanding, exhaustive even, but her characters were better written. The plots take place against historical realities so that, of course, can't be changed. But how her fictional characters act and interact with others has become delightful. This last book in the series illustrates that very well, with her long-time character, confederate officer Jamie Russell, becoming truly multi-dimensional. His interaction with Mrs Hawkland, forms the basis for the novel.

Ms Nagle's wartime action scenes are very well done as well. I felt like I was there, not in any kind of heroic battle sense but definitely feeling the fear, the exhaustion, and the filth of battle. Jamie leads his gun battery and is in the thick of can just hear the explosions and see the men around him struggle to do their duty. The Red River itself, a tributary to the Mississippi River, takes on a life of its own, especially as the Union boats try to free their ships from shallow waters in order to secure the entire Mississippi, a crutial strategy for the war.

All in all, this wraps up a very good historical fiction series. I was happy to see it progress but I wish there were one more novel to finish out the war. This one does take us up to where the end is in sight though, so perhaps another would be anti-climactic. I'm not sure if Ms Nagle planned for another but it seems she has turned her hand to romantic fantasy for the moment.

Next up: I've already begun the third book in the first "Kushiel" trilogy: Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey. As we get closer to the end of the year I always try to finish up any series that I have open. That is, excepting those series that I actually plan to read over many years, like "Repairman Jack" for instance.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Quest

Well the trip went fine. Las Vegas seems to be much the same as always; the crowds a little thinner than I've seen before though, probably due to the economy. I had quite a bit of time to read though and completed both books I brought along. The first was The Quest, by Wilbur Smith. As I mentioned before, this is the fourth and perhaps final volume of his ancient Egyptian series, which began with the excellent The River God followed by The Seventh Scroll and Warlock. Many folks have commented on the declining quality of this series and I see that, as well, to some extent. The first book was just so outstanding (it's in my top 10 list of all time great reads) that some deterioration was inevitable. This book seems to have received some brutal reviews though.

The book continues the story of Taita, a "long-liver" sage who sets off to solve and set right a series of plagues that are hitting the Nile Valley. Turns out the source is the evil "God" Eos. The cat and mouse confrontation between these two form the basis of the novel. Another major plot thread is the reincarnation of Taita's true love from the first book in the series. Since Taita is an enoch from way back, the author finds a way to have his manhood regrown through a process akin to using stem cells. I'll admit to this whole sub plot being extremely convenient for the main characters, a bit too contrived for my taste.

I think many people have problems with this book because it is not what they are expecting. This entire series is billed as "historical fiction" and the first book certainly seemed to be so but that moniker has long since worn off. The series has transposed into fantasy, pure and simple. The title itself is indicative of the genre and there are numerous examples of true magic throughout the book: pillars turning into faces that give directions, Taita turning invisible at will or mind travelling over great distances to give messages to others. Whatever historical accuracy might exist here is beside the point. Also, this is a fairly erotic novel with numerous sexual innuendos and some downright graphic sex scenes in it. This is my 6th Wilbur Smith book and although he does put in quite a few erotic encounters I think this is his rawest novel so far of the ones I've read.

I've pointed out some of the negative aspects of this novel, but there are positive points also, particularly if you don't mind the fantasy aspects. The story itself flows well and urges the reader to keep turning pages to see what happens next. The author has a way of allowing the reader in to his characters' minds making it realistic despite the very nature of the fantasy involved. And it's a downright fun book to read. A grand adventure full of danger, excitement, pitfalls, triumphs, and a good, satisfying ending. There is a definite end but should the author wish to continue the series, there is room for it to keep going. If he does, I will continue along with him.

More tomorrow on the second book from my trip.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Cat Who Tailed a Thief

This morning I finished up Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Tailed a Thief. This is the 20th book in the series, originally published in 1997; I’ve been working my way through them at the rate of about two to three a year. I was a bit surprised when I looked up this series to find out that this is the 20th book I’ve read so far…tells me my many years of reading are really starting to pile up :)

I’ve really endeavored to understand why I like reading these novels so much. They are mystery novels, of which I read my fair share, but the mystery involved with each book is usually pretty straight forward, often clever but not overly complicated. Very often I figure out “who dunnit” before the protagonist does but I still enjoy the unfolding story. These books are considered to be “cozy” mysteries, a sub-genre that usually appeals to female readers, and older females at that. Not exactly the kind of novel that a middle-aged man like myself brags about to the other guys at work. Of course there are exceptions but these books also involve cats. Now I like my own cat but I usually don’t like others people’s cats too much. Add to that the fact that the cats in the Cat Who series are Siamese cats and I really shouldn’t be enjoying them the way I do.

I suppose I like them because of the lifestyle led by the characters. There is just something about living in a small town like Pickaxe filled with its peculiar personalities that appeals to me. And I like the protagonist’s (Jim Qwilleran, or Qwill to his friends) circumstances: a journalist by profession who now has the luxury to lead whatever life he desires due to the inheritance of billions of dollars. There is no pressure for him to do anything he doesn’t want to do, so he writes a twice a week column for the local newspaper on the subject of his choice and spends a lot of time enjoying literature, etc…and of course, solving crimes.

This particular book lasts for an entire winter in the small town of Pickaxe. There is a petty thief on the loose and Qwill has decided to publish a book of “Short and Tall Tales” reproducing the local legends and stories in one collected compendium. The town is buzzing over the proposed re-development of a downtown Victorian housing area. Most of the story revolves around the interactions of the citizens of the town but Qwill’s suspicions are aroused when the out-of-town slick, well-dressed developer moves in on the action. A prominent citizen dies mysteriously and Qwill is off to the investigation. I great new character is introduced in the form of the local weatherman, Joe “Wetherby Goode” Bunker. I certainly hope to hear more from him in future books.

If you’re in the mood for a light mystery, you could certainly do worse than a “Cat Who” book but I do recommend starting at the beginning just so you can get a good feel for all of the characters involved. I still have 13 books to go plus one more reportedly being published soon. Coolness.

I also completed the next short story in the Louis L’Amour collection, The Strong Shall Survive. “The Romance of Piute Bill” is a humorous entry about a horse rancher who has to raid a neighboring ranch in order to get his stolen horses back. In the process a bad guy gets killed and his wife is suddenly available for marriage. The rancher’s workman, Piute Bill gets the widow in an arrangement that includes engagement and actual marriage in the space of about 4 hours. How that happens is funny stuff, not normally what one expects from L’Amour, but again shows his versatility.

I leave tomorrow for a business trip so will bring the lengthy 4th volume of Wilbur Smith’s Ancient Egyptian series with me. The Quest wraps up the series, I believe (at least no more are published as of yet). I’ll take along another novel as well in case I have more reading time than expected. I’ll report early next week when I return.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Thanks to a holiday off work yesterday, I was able to finish up Louis L'Amour's Callaghen. This is another one of the books I picked up during my last visit to the local library. I like to peruse the store they have there and hunt for my "collections." My Louis L'Amour collection is one of those; I don't think I've purchased a L'Amour book at full retail price since the first one back in the 1970's sometime, when I was a kid. Now I'm up to over 50 of his books, mostly read, but since he was such a prolific author, it's still pretty easy to find some of his books that I don't have yet.

Callaghen is one of those books that came along at just the right time for me. I was due to read a western anyhow, but I had a bit of a bad day on Tuesday (don't worry, nothing all that serious). Nevertheless, it was one of those instances where somebody close to me got the raw end of the deal through no fault of their own...and was punished for it. The world ain't black and white but your typical Louis L'Amour western novel usually is. I really liked being able to escape into this world where you know who the good guys and the bad guys are. And you can be pretty comfortably assured that the bad guys will get what's coming to them in the end. This one was no exception. The main character, Callaghen, is an army sergeant with years of experience in both US, just after the Civil War, as well as in foreign services. He has an intriguing past, having held the rank of Major before being busted down several times. Now he is eligible for discharge but doesn't really know what to do with his life. Soldiering is all he knows.

Fortunately, Callaghen has one last bit of work to do for the US Army, namely serving with a unit to protect the Government road to Vegas Springs and Las Vegas. Right through Indian country. Callaghen's vast experience with desert survival serves him and his companions well as they run into all sorts of Indian trouble, stage coach protection, and of course the political snakes within their own camp. We spend a lot of time seeing the countryside through Callaghen's eyes, an especially vivid portrait of the desert landscapes. L'Amour does a better job than anybody I've read on describing the thirst his characters encounter when they run short of water. Coupling that with the action of the gun battles as well as the intrigue that develops among the members of the Army unit makes for a fine story. I'd rate it a top 20% of all of L'Amour's works.

From there it was an easy transition into another L'Amour short story from his The Strong Shall Live collection, "Merrano of the Dry Country." This is the longest story in this collection and seems to me could have easily been fleshed out into a full novel. As it was it was very enjoyable but in essence it seemed to me to be too much plot for the short story format. It is about a half white, half Mexican rancher who has to fight for his land when the drought has the other ranchers in a bind. The protagonist has thought ahead and worked hard to be prepared for such times but he has to fight against the prejudice of the others to keep what he has earned. This story had a great opening and middle...sort of a "stand up for what's yours" plot. But something happened over the last third of the story and it changed into a "who shot who" story. As I say, if this was a full length novel, the author could have explored all sub plots completely and expanded the characterization.

Next up: I need another relatively short book so I can finish before I take a business trip next week. I've selected another in the "Cat Who" series with The Cat Who Tailed a Thief."

Monday, November 9, 2009

All the Rage

This weekend was a busy one for me in terms of living in my alternate reality life. (I prefer that to the real world, by the way). I spent my usual two-hour long gaming sessions with World of Warcraft on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and watched quite a few of my TV series via Netflix DVDs. But the big time sink was my acquisition of the new "Dragon Age: Origins" PC game. I absolutely love it and consequently spent way too many hours playing it. I've always loved these "D&D" style computer games, ever since the first "Balder's Gate" came out years ago.

Despite all of this I managed to finish up my latest "Repairman Jack" novel, All the Rage, by F. Paul Wilson. This is the fourth novel I have read by this author and, by most lists, is the fourth in the Repairman Jack series. When I say, "by most lists", I mean exactly that. Cataloging Mr Wilson's books is difficult at best; he seems to keep on revising them, publishing new versions so that his whole "Secret Universe" milieu fits together. It seems to me like he has two series that intertwine: The Repairman Jack books and "The Adversary Cycle", although many of the books exist in both series. Confusing, but nevertheless every time I read one of his books, I come away fulfilled, feeling like I've just experienced a great read. And each book drops just a few more clues on what is really going on in the bigger picture.

This book takes Jack into the world of illegal drugs...but not just any illegal drugs. "Beserk" is the primary street name for a substance that comes from the "Loki" molecule, derived from the blood of a Rokoshi. The very same Rakoshi that has haunted Jack's plot lines before. This drug has incredible effects including an amazing increase in violence on the part of the user. There is a great scene where Jack, himself is accidentally exposed to the drug and the resulting rampage by this normally organized, thoughtful, prepared person is priceless. Most of the story is a fairly straight forward thriller/mystery plot, with Jack involved with solving the mystery of the origin of this drug. But once again we get some clues into the background of "The Otherness" or, whatever it is that is "out there" stiring the pot of human existence. The Rokoshi is one aspect of that "Otherness" but we also meet Ozymandias and his traveling circus. This is a cool character and from the way things were left at the end of this book I can well imagine him reappearing in future books. I most definitely will be continuing to read this fascinating series.

I was also able to complete another Louis L'Amour short story, this one called, "Trail to Squaw Springs". Yet another example of how his stories are always fun to read. This one involves a regular ol' cowhand that manages to overthrow the tyranny of a town's local law enforcement in the space of 24 hours, thereby liberating the town and getting the girl. Yes, it's rather difficult to swallow all of the particluars of the plot and yes, the characters are pretty stock characters, but more importantly yes, it was great fun to read.

Next up: time for a western novel and so I'll be reading a L'Amour novel this time: Callaghen.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Parched Sea

Yesterday, I enjoyed an unexpectedly long lunch period so was able to complete Troy Denning's The Parched Sea a full day ahead of schedule. This is the first book in "The Harper's" series, part of the Forgotten Realms milieu in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. A note about novels that are game tie-ins: I never expect them to be outstanding literature but I do expect them to be nice diverting entertainment, whisking me off to fantastical worlds and allowing me to excape my own reality. They usually fullfill that task although there are, of course, some exceptions. The Forgotten Realms setting has been better than most for me, especially the works of RA Salvatore although he occassionally misfires as well. The "Harpers" for those that don't know, are a semi-secret group of people devoted to good; i.e. helping people and causes that are in the best interest of others. The Harpers series is an open-ended subset of the greater Forgotten Realms setting, with each book of the 16 in the series being a stand alone novel and written by various authors.

The Parched Sea is among the better Forgotten realms novels I've read. I was in a mood to read some relatively straight-forward fantasy, looking for old fashioned adventure and intrigue with powerful magic inserted here and there. This one fit the bill splendidly. The setting is the unforgiving desert of Anauroch on the planet of Faerun (well known to Forgotten Realms fans) The main protagonist is Ruha, a Bedine "witch" outcast that has been married off to another tribe as a way to build an alliance. Lander is the Harper of this novel and has been sent to the desert to thwart the Zhentarim plans to enslave the indigenous peoples of the region. Together they face numerous challenges and attempt to overcome the difficulties of the situation.
I always enjoy novels where ordinary people do extraordinary things even though that sometimes leads to formula writing. Here both main characters have to dig deep and Ruha, especially, is able to call on some awesome magic. But here's what makes this book better than most basic fantasy, especially game tie-ins: the magic can be awesome but it has to be used in unusual and unexpected ways. Tactics and strategy win the battle, not just superior firepower. Mr Denning is an experienced author, and knows the Realms well, as evidenced by his ability to deftly describe the overall setting for the uninitiated reader. I'm often skeptical of authors who began their careers as game designers, knowing they have plenty of creativity but worried that they are only hack writers, churning out plots without regard to characterization, etc. But Mr Denning transcends that typecasting and really succeeds with this story. The characters were multi-dimensional, the story was intriguing, the plot was paced well, and overall it was a very enjoyable read. I'm looking forward to reading more of The Harper's series soon, even though different authors/characters may lead to hits and misses.

Because of that long lunch break yesterday I was also able to begin the next collection of short stories. Louis L'Amour is famous for his western novels but he also wrote a fair number of short stories, bundled together in several different collections. The Strong Shall Live is the second of his western short story collections to be published and I was actually able to finish the first two entries yesterday. "The Strong Shall Live" is also the name of the first story in the collection and is a fairly typical L'Amour story about survival. The main character is forced to survive a trek across the empty West in search of water. The second entry, "One Night Stand" is quite a bit different. It concerns an actor who takes on the role of Wild Bill Hickock in order to stand down a punk gunfighter. This is a humerous story, not something Louis L'Amour is known for but nevertheless does well.

Next up: All the Rage a Repairman Jack novel by F. Paul Wilson.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Raiders

We had an early snow/wind storm this morning so I was allowed a two hour delay in coming in to work. That allowed me to finish up The Raiders by Harold Robbins. This is the sequel to the The Carpetbaggers, one of the most successful bestsellers of all time. However, this one was written 34 years after the first one and I can tell you it is not nearly as good.
It is now 1951 and the main character, Jonas Cord ( a Howard Hughes type of tycoon) is under subpoena to appear before a Senate committee about his business practices. So he flees to Mexico where he discovers that he has an illegitimate son by an old girlfriend. The novel becomes as much about the son as it does about the father, especially how the son is becoming just like his father. Along the way, the Cords move into the Las Vegas scene, building hotels and casinos, nudging in on mafia territory. At the same time their Hollywood production studios turns to television production. I wish the story focused on that as well as the father-son relationship but unfortunately, it gets bogged down with numerous lesser characters including their extensive back stories. I did enjoy the cameo appearances by prominant people of the times such as Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Hoffa, Che Guevera, Jack Benny, as well as several mobsters that I'm not sure are historical or fictional. But the story really suffers from cardboard Hollywood starlets, cliche'd mobster types, and the never ending sexual escapades of both father and son. Harold Robbins is known for that kind of thing but since The Carpetbaggers contained several well-developed characters, and a good plot, I had hoped for the same thing here.

The only satisfaction I got from the novel is to see what happened to the various characters from the first novel. There was some closure on that and there was a fairly happy ending. All the same, I'm glad this one is behind me.
I was also able to read the last of Harlan Ellison's short stories in the current section of The Essential Ellison. "Strange Wine" was a quick read and concerned a space alien that had been living on Earth as a human. He's had many bad experiences here on Earth, including the death of his daughter, estranged wife, bad that he commits suicide. But then he wakes up back on his native planet and is reminded of the horrible lives they all lived there. The moral of the story seems to be that if we really think about it, life is good. It was an odd story to me and seemed to be missing something. This isn't the first time that Mr Ellison has made me feel I am not intelligent enough to fully appreciate his writing :) Since this section of this large volume of stories is now complete, I'll turn to a different collection of short stories next.

Next up for novels: I've been feeling the need for some old fashioned fantasy fiction, not necessarily high brow stuff, so I think I will turn to the first of "The Harpers" series, The Parched Sea, by Troy Denning.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Castles on the Rhine

Today, I completed the latest book in my morning reading program. For new readers of this blog, these are the books I read in the 30-40 minutes before driving to work each day. Since I had recently completed the gigantic biography of Douglas MacArthur, I chose a relatively then book this time, Castles on the Rhine. This is a thin volume that I bought years ago when I lived in Germany the first time. I often pick up books that will later remind me of the times I spent in certain parts of the world. I'll often save them to read until years later when they really serve their purpose in bringing back the fond memories. This one was no exception.

The book is actually volume 2 of the "Rheinisches Land" Collection. I do not have the first volume and am not aware of it's subject matter. This volume was prepared by Dr. Walther Ottendorff-Simrock and does a good job of detailing most (if not all) of the numerous castles along the Rhein River in Germany, between the cities of Mainz and Cologne (Koln). There are a lot of castles through this stretch and I have seen many of them from boat as well as car as we drove along this fantastically scenic part of the world. I've been in about 6 of them but there is so much history surrounding this area that I was happy to dive back into it via this book. I will say that it did serve the purpose but I was a little disappointed in the format of the book. There are lots of great photographs of the castles but generally only of the exteriors. This works for the castles that are mostly ruins but the others often have fantastic interiors which would be of interest. The author presented the history of each castle, what its primary purpose was (defense, river toll collecting, etc.) and added in some info for tourists such as if the castle is open to the public or a private residence, operating hours, etc. The second problem I encountered was that most of the castle descriptions were many pages away from their photos. That required lots of paging back and forth in order to see what I was reading about. I didn't see a need for that; it's not as if all the pictures were collected together in plates. Pretty much each page had a photo on it as well as description...just not matching. I had to count on the "picture on page xx" instructions and when we're talking about 45-50 castles, that's a lot of paging back and forth.

But still, it really brought me back to that time and place, both the times when the castles were active as well as back to the time I lived nearby. Fond memories indeed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


It was very cold out today but I persevered and spent my lunch break in my car anyway amidst swirling snow flakes and a bitterly cold wind. That's so I could complete Galveston, by P.G. Nagle. My fingers were cold and my hands were shaking and I even had to start the car's motor just to keep the heat up to a reasonable level. But I had to do it because I really wanted to finish this book.

This is the third book of a four book series about the Civil War in the Far West. I enjoyed the first book, Glorieta Pass quite a bit but I did see flaws in it. The second book, The Guns of Valverde was much less enjoyable although still not a bad book. I've been delaying reading this third book because of that, worried that the series was deteriorating. However, I was way off base. This novel was thoroughly enjoyable and I'm now really looking forward to the last book of the series, Red River, which has just been published in paperback.

This is not a civil war book that is filled with battle scenes. Quite the contrary. We follow three main characters through the story. Jaime is a confederate soldier, formerly of the Quartermaster corps but he now commands an artillery battery. He's been with us since the first book. We also follow his sister, Emma, as well as a Union naval ship master, Quincy. Galveston, Texas is the scene as union ships set up a naval blockade and invade the town while Confederate forces fight back. There is really only one major battle scene in the book, at the climax near the end, but the mounting tension throughout the novel makes for a great story. The story builds for the first half of the book as the players move into place and we get to see elements of the society of the times. That's what I like about historical fiction, a chance to "live" in the times represented. There is lots of good characterization here as we experience day-to-day living with these characters, see their ups and downs, fret over relationships and hope for better times. Ms Nagle seems to have grown as a story teller with this entry and I plan to move the last book of the series up on my reading list. Interestingly, I recently wrote the author to see if she would be writing any more in this series or any historical fiction for that matter. She replied very graciously to say that she has recently published a "romantic fantasy" novel under the name "Pati Nagle" and that she had no further plans for this series...but you never know.

I also completed one more essay/story from Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison. This one was called "Gopher in the Gilly" and concerns a time when the author was 13 years old and ran away to the circus. He lives and works with them for three months before being arrested and spending 3 days in jail with a "geek," a psycho drunkard that found employment with the circuses in those days because they were willing to do anything, and I mean anything, for the job. The circus experience was not at all what the author, the "gopher" was expecting, and was a truly horrible time. The piece is a short and somewhat bitter commentary on the society of the day, and how a child's dreams can be dashed with hard core reality.

Next up, The Raiders, by Harold Robbins, the sequel to The Carpetbaggers.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The House of Thunder

I've completed my latest audio book. This time it was The House of Thunder, by Dean Koontz. It seems like I am reading a bunch of horror novels lately (not to mention haunted house stories) but that's just the way its worked out. I chose this particular book almost be default. I've been trying a new library that is closer to my work place, making it easier to pick up and drop off but turns out there are very few audio books there that aren't abridged. This was just about the only one I found that was unabridged, and since I've read quite a few Koontz novels before I felt pretty safe in my pick.

Having said that, Dean Koontz can be hit or miss for me. Happily, this one was one of the better Koontz novels I've experienced. I've read enough Koontz to realize that I tend to like his earlier stuff better so perhaps that is why I liked this one. Apparently this was first published in the early 1980's under one of Koontz' pseudonyms. And it's not a haunted house novel in the usual sense at all...more of a haunted hosipital. It has a cool premise and setup for a horror situation. The protagonist, Susan Thornton, wakes up from a coma (from an auto accident) with amnesia. At first her recovery experiences are pretty normal but soon she starts to hallucinate about hospital staff members being bad guys from a murder she witnessed 13 years ago, a murder that resulted in the death of her fiance. That progresses into even more strange happenings, some of a truly horrifying nature and Susan begins to question her own sanity. It's a cool setup for a horror novel because we, the readers, aren't any more sure of what's going on than Susan herself. We can really get into her position and suffer along with her as she tries to sort out fiction from reality. Is she really hallucinating? Is she crazy? Or is something more sinister going on. And because it's a Koontz novel, we can never discount the possibility that supernatural forces are at work here.

The narration was well done on the audio book which always leads to a better experience. They used two people, a male and a female to do the different parts so that helped suspend the disbelief. The resolution was a slight let-down for me as the novel itself changed from a horror novel to more of a spy/thriller story and Koontz does the former better than the later. But the plot was still smooth and the ending was comfortable. All in all an enjoyable "read".

F my next audio book: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. No, I've never read it so I figured an audio format might be the only way I ever get this one done. And no, it's not abridged (went back to my old library) so I should get the full impact of one of the great classics.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

House of Reckoning

Today I completed the latest Amazon "Vine" program book, House of Reckoning, by John Saul. This is the first John Saul book I have ever read although I had listened to one in audio book format. That one had a great premise but seemed somewhat clumsy in its execution and even boring. The boring nature of it could have been a by-product of the audio book production as that does sometimes happen. So in my never ending search for good horror writing, I thought I'd give him another chance.

House of Reckoning has a fairly standard premise for a horror tale. A 14-year old girl named Sarah is hit by a drunk driver (who happens to be her father) and since her mother has already passed away, she is put into a foster home while her father has to go to jail. Sarah now has a disability and walks with a limp. We learn of her amazing artistic ability and we meet a fellow student of hers, named Nick who hears voices. Then there is Sarah's art teacher who lives alone in an old house that used to be an insane asylum. Of course all of this intertwines and we experience a pretty typical haunted house sort of story. These three characters must come together because everybody else in the town is a one dimensional, sterotypical character who delights in teasing a 14 year old girl with a limp and proclaiming the art teacher who lives in the old house, a "witch".

The story reads easily and the plot is easy to follow. Definitely a quick read. Unfortunately, the novel abounds with problems. Chief among them is the way the characters behave, especially the "bad" characters. Sarah's foster family makes Cinderella's step family look like angels. They treat Sarah like a slave, demanding total obedience in all things while they kick back with their feet up. They proclaim their Christianity and blame Sarah and the devil inside her for everything that goes wrong. How stereotypical can you get? The rest of the town includes the power hungry sheriff, his son who happens to be the school bully, etc. all of which make fun of Sarah the gimp. The concept of the haunted house itself, had potential as a great character in its own right and it does take matters into its own hands, so to speak. I won't provide spoilers but suffice it to say that the great concept that the author begins with never really pans out. When it comes time for the horror to shine through, it's rather dull. Events are wrapped up in a tidy manner, just so conveniently that one wonders if the word count was approaching the limit.

Despite having pointed out all of these negative things, I actually enjoyed reading the novel. I did want to see what happens next, so obviously it wasn't all bad. This is John Saul's 36th novel to date. He sells a lot of books and obviously, prolific authors have hits and misses. My search for good horror writing goes on but I haven't entirely given up on John Saul.

In contrast to this novel, I completed the marvelous short story in Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison, "Tired Old Man". This, reportedly, is one of Ellison's favorite among the numerous stories he has written. It's a first person account of a successful writer of mysteries who reluctantly spends time at a boring writer's forum but happily encounters an old man with whom he has a delightful conversation. The old man sees through the front that the protagonist puts up and gets him to see himself in a new light. The plot is simple but the essence of the story and how it conveys that essence to the reader is truly fantastic. It is based on an encounter that Ellison, himself, once had with an old man who he did not know at the time but later discovered was his favorite writer, Cornell Woolrich. I see why Ellison likes this story so much and, no doubt, this story will stay with me as well for a long time to come.

Next up: Galveston, by P.G. Nagle, the third book in the "Civil War in the West" series.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shield of Lies

Last night I finished the second book in the Star Wars "Black Fleet Crisis" trilogy, Shield of Lies, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell. I had read the first one back in mid-July and it just wasn't good enough to make me want to rush out and read the next one. But since I am a completest and I want to finish the trilogy by the end of the year I decided it was time to get moving on the second one.

Despite all of the negative reviews on Amazon, I actually like this one a lot more than the first. It suffers from the age old problem of being the middle book of a trilogy and Mr Kube-McDowell apparently chose to tackle that in a slightly different way. Part of the problem I had with the first book was its tendancy to quickly jump around from one group of people to another, with a different point-of-view character all the time. It tried to be about too many things. This time, the author chose to boil it all down to three main threads each of which gets its own section. Thus there is a section, about 100 pages long, about what Lando is doing and then we move to another 100 page section on what Luke is doing and finally we end up with the rest of the book about what Leia is doing (and how Han is trying to support her). So in a way it reads like three novellas; each section has very little to do with the others except that they are occurring at the same time.

For me that was easier to read. I could keep track of what was happening much better and I had a chance to get to know the lesser characters before jumping off to another part of the galaxy. The book still has some areas that were difficult for me to follow because they dealt with minor characters I had never heard of before, usually aliens of some kind and I wasn't sure how they related to the greater plot. Perhaps the very knowledgeable Star Wars fan would be better off than I, but it can be tough to read about a character named Fr'zu'lk who happens to be of the Mazzanik race and have the scene start off as if you already know who they are and what they look like. I'm making up that name and race because I don't have the book in front of me now but they might as well be the real names used in the book because I never did learn anything about Fr'zu'lk during his two paragraphs and we never return to him. I wonder if the author was just trying to add "realism" to the Star Wars universe or perhaps please the super fans but he failed on that score with readers like me.

Having said that, there are some intriguing plot points developing in this trilogy and the author does succeed at building a good setup for the final book. Luke, Leia, Han, and Lando are all deeply involved with their individual story arcs and I really expect they will all come together in the final novel. I won't wait as long to read that one either because I do want to know what happens next.

I also read the next essay entry in The Essential Ellison, a huge collection of Harlan Ellison's works. Following the essay on his father and how little he really knew him, Ellison presents "My Mother," originally a newspaper column entry. He reveals more about his childhood and how he was sort of the black sheep of the family. He includes the eulogy he gave at her funeral and the reaction he got from family members. There is no doubt about his writing ability; his essays are intresting indeed but I look forward to a return to his short stories.

Next up is a Vine program entry: House of Reckoning by John Saul

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

American Caesar

This morning I completed the latest book in my morning reading program, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964 by William Manchester. Wow, what a read! This is a long biography, coming in at over 700 pages (not counting the lengthy bibliography and source material references). I bought this book back at the beginning of the year when I was on a trip to San Diego for work. I always pick up a book of some kind, usually nonfiction to help build my library and usually, I take years to get around to reading it. But this one seemed to fit my needs when I was ready and so I was very happy to tackle it.

This is, I believe, the best historical biography I have ever read...and I've read some great ones. Part of that may be due to the subject at hand, Douglas MacArthur, one of the more complicated personalities of history out there. A brilliant man, but flawed in several respects, he was such a major figure of American history and, indeed, world history. He was at once, a genius, a great leader of men, a supreme strategist, as well as an incredible egoist capable of monumental mistakes in judgement. I have heard numerous anecdotes throughout my life about this man but had never developed a complete picture of him or his life. William Manchester certainly satisfied that for me.

The book itself is delightful to read, packed not only with the facts of MacArthur's life and times, but also making a compelling case for MacArthur being one of history's greatest generals. We get a close-up look at his development of brilliant warfare strategies and how they came about. We see his tactics in war and we see how he reacts to his superiors and subordinates. We see his entire life, starting, actually before his birth with a good look at his father, a great general in his own right and we progress through his childhood and then his amazing career at West Point. We see his success in WWI and then spend a lot of time with him in the Pacific during WWII, and his ultimate shining moments as the near-emporer of Japan after the surrender. MacArthur seems to be mostly remembered for his time in the Korean War and his ultimate firing by Truman and that is truly unfortunate given his numerous remarkable accomplishments for so many decades prior.

But this book is far more than historical facts. The author gets behind the public personna and shows us the man himself. While reading the book, I felt like I knew MacArthur personally and was able to understand how and why he reacted to the great and tragic events of the 20th century. The book's title says it all...MacArthur was, indeed, the American Caesar. The author does a superb job of showing us all aspects of his character, making the reading of this book a truly great experience.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Crucible

I've completed another of my infamous "WOE" readings ("While Otherwise Engaged"...i.e. bathroom reading). This time it was The Crucible, the classic play by Arthur Miller. I chose this one because my high school son had performed the role of Thomas Putnam in the school play last year and the story was intriguing enough for me to pursue reading the actual source material. He also had to read it for school and since I like to read the great classics for WOE reading, it seemed the perfect option.

This, I believe, is the first play I've read since my own high school years. I think I prefer normal prose. I don't especially care for reading the character name in front of who is saying what all the messes up the illusion of what the characters are saying. Plays also tend to be almost entirely dialogue (duh) with only some minimal stage direction so anything that is not said aloud is left to the imagination. I don't "see" where the characters are standing or moving in relationship with each other, etc. and my mind tends to picture a stage instead of a room, or village, or gallows, etc. It therefore introduces an artificiality that wouldn't be present in a normal story. And finally, I had just seen the play itself so I was picturing those actors (all high school students) in the major roles. Once again this makes it more difficult to suspend disbelief.

So, I have determined that when reading a play one should not compare it to the experience of reading a novel or short story. One should appreciate it for the medium that it is. The story itself, for those who don't know, concerns the era of the Salem Witch Trials, and it exposes the hipocracy and downright absurdity of such a thing. Mr. Miller wrote this play in the early 1950's as a response to McCarthyism, and the parallels are intriguing. In fact, Mr Miller, himself, was to be questioned by the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities and was actually found in contempt of Congress for failing to identify others at meetings he attended. Such is the central theme of this play as well. It isn't enough that the character of John Proctor bows to the pressure and confesses to his own involvement with "witches" but stops short of confessing for others.

I found the play a fairly quick read but absorbing none-the-less. (No Charmin jokes here please). It has taken me quite some time to complete, however, due to my 3-week trip to Africa as well as a slew of Reader's Digests and my new subscription to "The Smithsonian" Magazine. Alas, my WOE reading productivity may will suffer in future months.
What's next for WOE? If history is a guide then it will be Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing because my son has the lead role in that this fall. However, since I've already read the complete works of William Shakespeare (yes, WOE), it will have to be something else.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Stout-Hearted Seven

Today I completed a young-adult story, Stout-Hearted Seven, by Neta Lohnes Frazier. This is the true-story of the Sager Children who were orphaned during their trek along the Oregon Trail in 1844. It is written for 5th-6th graders I would suspect but older students (and even adults like me) will enjoy it as well.

The story is truly a tragic one. It begins as the family is preparing for their westward journey along the Oregon Trail and we come to know both parents as well as their six children, (a seventh would be born along the route). The story is told in third person, but mostly from the point of view of Catherine, the oldest girl at 13, and the third oldest child. This is primarily because in later years Catherine is the one who wrote of their ordeal in great detail, an account that today is considered one of the best historical references of the time period. As the family proceeds along their journey we get to enjoy the fun times, but more often, experience the truly difficult moments and day-to-day struggles to maintain their time goals and stay somewhat healthy. However, both parents die along the route, and the children are taken in by other members of the wagon teams. Eventually, the children are taken to and adopted by the Whitmans, missionaries that are trying to work with Indians. After only about three years there, the Indians massacre the Whitmans as well as several of the children. As I said, truly a tragic story. Eventually the surviving children make it to Oregon, and fulfill their father's dream.

The story is written for children and I congratulate the author for be historically accurate. The tragic parts are not glossed over but neither are they dwelled upon. All in all, this is an accurate account and is a great method for teaching children about life on the Oregon Trail.

I also completed the next entry in Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison. It was an essay this time, simply titled "My Father" and is a poignant look at the author's relationship with his father, who had died decades before. It was good to read, and timely, as this morning I had read Piers Anthony's newsletter/blog about the death of his daughter on September 3. That was truly heartbreaking and so Ellison's piece was a good balance.

Next up is the second Star Wars book in the "Black Fleet Crisis" trilogy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Talbot Odyssey

The Talbot Odyssey by Nelson DeMille was the final book I had selected for my trip to South Africa. I know I can always count on a DeMille novel in case any of the others weren't keeping me going. This is also the one I read in two parts, the first 3/4ths on the 18 hour plane ride back home (plus connection times and airport waiting times), and the last 1/4th after completing the prior novel. If that isn't clear as mud then you haven't been paying attention.

Nelson DeMille novels, as I mentioned, are always at least good, if not great. I can count on them to be a good read and they can hold my attention despite distractions such as nearby conversations, people constantly walking by in airport waiting areas, and the horrible current trend of bluetooth cell phone overuse, especially by people who don't realize, or don't care that there are 50 people listening to their private conversations. But I digress.

This novel is a fairly early DeMille, about the 4th of his bigger publications. He had several novels published before he hit it big, some of them under pseudonyms. This one was first published in 1984 and is essentially a Cold War era spy novel. "Talbot" is the code name of a deep cover Soviet mole in the US. There are a handful of point-of-view characters who attempt to flush him out (or activate him, depending on what side they are on). This was written and takes place way before 9/11 obviously so the nature of the terrorism involved is quite different than we might think of today. This time, unless stopped, a satelite will set off a nuclear blast above Omaha, Nebraska, transmitting an electronic pulse (EMP) which would destroy the US' electronic infrastructure (phones, radios, etc.) and also preventing a nuclear response.

The book was, frankly, not one of DeMille's best. I would still call it "good" and I enjoyed reading it but it was not without flaws. Lots of main characters compete for the reader's attention making it hard to identify the main protagonist. Once I did, I wanted to hear more from his point of view but kept getting shuffled off to other characters. DeMille does spend time in most of his books on character development but there just seemed to be too many characters to really identify who was important. During the climactic scenes at the end, several of the good guys get killed but I really didn't care because I hadn't come to know them well.

Still, this is worth the time to read and enjoy, especially for fans of Cold War politics and themes. I believe this is the 7th DeMille novel I've read so far and I plan to read them all. I include him as one of "my" authors on the left column of this blog and I probably tend to be more critical of "my" authors than others. I'm not sure why, other than I feel like I know them personally and I expect a lot from them. I must also add that Nelson DeMille's newsletter is among the funniest I've ever read; his sense of humor is fantastic. His more recent novels tend to incorporate that humor more than his earlier works, usually in the form of a wise-cracking protagonist. I saw evidence of that in this book as well, with the protagonist cop, Tony Abrams having quite a few witty remarks to his associates. With DeMille's trend of writing sequels to many of his novels, and hinting that they are all related in the same "DeMille Universe" I can't help wondering if there might be a sequel to this book as well, featuring Mr Abrams. We'll see.

Now it's back to new, non-trip material. I plan to read a young adult novel next but haven't yet selected the title. Stay tuned...

Top 10 Books in no particular order (Well Known Authors)

  • "The Stand" by Stephen King
  • "Kane and Able" by Jeffrey Archer
  • "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara
  • "The Dark Elf Trilogy" by RA Salvatore
  • "Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss
  • "River God" by Wilbur Smith
  • "Mortalis" by RA Salvatore
  • "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card
  • "Centennial" by James A Michener
  • "The Repairman Jack" series by F. Paul Wilson

Top Books/ Series in no particular order (Lesser Known Authors)

  • "The Sculpter" by Gregory Funaro
  • "Power Down" by Ben Coes
  • "Revolution at Sea Saga" by James L. Nelson
  • "Black Rain" by Graham Brown
  • "Top Producer" by Norb Vonnegut
  • "Prairie" by Anna Lee Waldo
  • "The Wild Blue" by W. Boyne & S Thompson
  • "Unsolicited" series by Julie Kaewert
  • "Freedom" by William Safire