Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Carpetbaggers

This morning I decided to take a break from my normal morning reading project and instead chose to complete The Carpetbaggers, by Harold Robbins. I did that for two reasons: I wanted to get it wrapped up because I knew I would have time to blog about it today but I also really wanted to see how it ended. Yes, I liked it quite a lot. This is one that I picked up at a used book store years ago, not knowing anything about it. But I do like the time period...an awful lot of things changed in the world between the early 1900s and 1945 when the book ends, and so I made the purchase.

According to my research, at least one source lists this book as the 4th most read novel of all time. I don't know if that is really true but certainly it has been a widely read story for more than 40 years so obviously a lot of people have read it. The book apparently is somewhat notorious, largely for pushing the sexual boundaries of the time, right up to the edge. By today's standards it is relatively tame and, in fact, most of the sexual scenes occur offstage although there is a lot of innuendo. The book is fairly long; my paperback is almost 700 pages long with pretty small print.

The main story takes place over a 20 year period between the World Wars. The main character is a Howard Hughes type tycoon named Jonas Cord with all sorts of business interests but most especially aircraft development and Hollywood pictures. His is mostly a tragic story up until the very end when he finally realizes what makes him happy. It is interesting to note that Harold Robbins knew Howard Hughes fairly well but despite so many similarities to Hughes, Robbins claims the model for the Jonas Cord character was actually Bill Lear (developer of the Lear jet and the 8-track tape player). The backdrop for the novel is absorbing as well; we get to see the roaring 20s, the depression era 30's, the lead up to World War II as well as the war itself; all major impacts on the plot.

The intriguing thing about this book though is not so much the story but rather, how the story is told. It is divided into eight sections: four sections are Jonas Cord's life told in his own first person point of view and the other four sections are devoted to the backstories of four key people who Jonas interacts with during his life. One is a former gunfighter turned stuntman turned star of the silent movie era. One is a Hollywood actress (allegedly based on Jean Harlow). A third is a movie company executive and a fourth is a high-priced courtesan turned movie starlet. We get absorbed in their individual stories; they are very captivating all on their own. And it is really through them that we come to know Jonas himself. When you put the whole thing together you really get a great sense of the characters as well as the era itself. I have to say I really enjoyed the novel a lot more than I expected I would.

I've also completed the next entry in Stephen King's collection, Skeleton Crew. This one was just a short poem though, "For Owen" but unlike most of the other stories in this colllection, this poem was previously unpublished. It is only 34 lines long and concerns Mr King walking his young son to school. His son tells him how the students in the school are like fruit. That's about all I can tell you because as I have mentioned before, I really don't get poetry. I'm sure there are meanings here within deeper meanings but I am simply too obtuse to understand them. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to the poem because as a young student, one of my nicknames was "Banana-Head." Life goes on.

Next up: Undiscovered Gyrl as part of my obligations to the Amazon Vine program.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Last week, I had a problem, a problem that I love to have. You see I had $15 in Border's Bucks that I had to spend during the month or else they would disappear. I had earned them by doing on-line surveys (not too many actually but I feel well-rewarded). So there I was at Borders Bookstore trying to decide what to buy. Now $15 equals about two paperbacks and it's very difficult to pare down my choices to just two. Do I go with what I "should" buy like another book in a series that I haven't yet completed, or do I go with a whole new author? That can be risky but only rarely do I end up with something I don't like. So I compromised with one of each. For my new book I chose Atlantis by David Gibbons. I had never heard of him nor recall seeing his books (which was difficult for me to believe considering how often I browse bookstores). I was totally sold on the cover, not only the art work but also the words on the back where it described it as an adventure that tops them all. It would be like Indiana Jones meets The DaVinci Code.

I really loved the premise of this book. The main character is a marine archeologist and gathers a team of experts in response to a find that seems to lead toward the discovery of the lost Atlantis. And I knew if I liked the book there were at least three more by the same author and with the same protagonist. The author himself is a professor of archeology at Cambridge for crying out loud and has led numerous underwater excavations and written extensively on the topic. To top that off, my daughter is an archeology major with a keen interest in underwater archeology so I figured she could enjoy it after me. What could go wrong?

Well, this is the hazard of buying a book by its cover. If I had looked at the Amazon ratings for all four books by David Gibbons I would certainly have looked elsewhere as I have rarely seen so many negative reviews for one author. It's easy to see why. The book had such promise and fell soooo short. To begin with, Mr Gibbons may be a great professor but he hasn't a clue about what makes a quality novel. My most important criteria for a good read is characterization. Characters have to be multi-dimensional and go through changes (either positively or negatively) somehow within the course of the novel. The main three characters in this book started out perfect and ended up perfect. The first half of the book is devoted to the three of them showing off their knowledge to each other, sounding like professors in a classroom. I realize that there is a lot of information that the reader will have to know in order to make any sense of the events that come later, but Mr Gibbons goes way overboard here. Way too many facts that, while interesting on their own, were just not necessary for good story telling.

And the plot was simply not believable. In the space of about two days, the characters solved numerous archeological puzzles that have been around for eons, one discovery leading to another and among the three of them they always managed to have the expertise required to answer the puzzle before them. And then half way through the book we get the thriller part thrust upon us in the form of a sunken Russian nuclear submarine and assorted bad guys to interfere with the archeological parts of the novel. The main character gets shot and is in dire peril of losing his life but three pages later it's as if that never happened. We get to see him shooting down a helicopter with a gun (of course he happens to know the weak spots of that particular helicopter and can adjust to the 200 mile per hour winds so he knows just where to aim). Truly Mr Gibbons seems less comfortable with the action parts of the plot and it shows in it's choppy presentation. The "edge of your seat" thriller aspect of this novel was more like "why do I care what happens to these people?" As soon as he can he wraps up that portion of the story and the characters go back to their professorial discussions and one-upsmanship.

It's too bad. I think Mr Gibbons has potential as a writer but this one seems like yet another attempt to capitalize on the success of The DaVinci Code style of novel. Hopefully he can learn how to build suspense, hold his audience, and most importantly, create characters to which the reader can relate and come to care about. Unfortunately, given the ratings he has received on his other books, it seems he has not learned these lessons and thus will be limited to impulse buyers who are attracted to the cool covers of the books.

Fortunately, I got to follow this one up with another short story from Stephen King's Skeleton Crew collection: "Nona". This is among the best of the collection so far and involves a man in prison who relates the story of meeting the exquisitely attractive Nona and her powerful pull on him...so powerful that he commits several violent murders on her behalf. There is a very subtle horror here in addition to the violent outbursts; it really grabs you and shakes you and doesn't let you go. And I enjoyed seeing some of the characters that show up in other King works, especially Ace Merrill from Needful Things. A very impressive tale and absolutely classic King.

Next up is The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Reconstructing America

I've completed another in my WOE (While Otherwise Engaged) reading. This is my bathroom reading material for those that remain uninitiated to this blog. Joy Hakim's Reconstructing America, 1865-1890 is the 7th volume in her encylopedic set of "A History of US" and examines the period of reconstruction after the Civil War in the US.

I enjoy reading these volumes a lot. Together they form a complete history of the US. Meant for children and young adults they, however, do not at all simplify the issues of the time but rather highlight the people who lived through them. For example, in this volume, we read about famous people like Booker T. Washington, Thomas Edison, and Susan B. Anthony but we also get to hear of the experiences of lesser known people who had large impacts on history. But probably most interesting to readers is the chapters where the author delves into what day-to-day life would be like for somebody living in the times...like a Chinese immigrant working on the railroad or a child of a formerly enslaved family now forced to fend for themselves during reconstruction. That truly brings history alive for students (and for middle-aged codgers like me).

Ms Hakim does a wonderful job of distilling all of that history down into coherant pieces of information. She takes major themes of history and makes them relevant to individual people, telling their stories and thus illustrating the theme. There are lots of pictures and sidebar descriptions that serve well to keep up interest and keep readers turning the pages. You just want to keep on reading that next little bit.

Next up for WOE reading (after a quick read of the latest Reader's Digest) is The Crucible the classic play by Arthur Miller.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Before the Storm

I am a Star Wars fan. When the first movie came out I was just out of the 9th grade and was absolutely captivated. It is one of the few movies I have seen more than once in the theater and I actually saw it 5 times there, even taking my 85 year-old grandfather to see it. I've seen every one of the movies as soon as it came out and while I agree with most people that the second trilogy (prequel) was not as good as the first trilogy I still enjoyed them. I read the first few novels that came out as well (remember I am a completest) but thought them merely OK. I didn't read them for the great writing/characterization, etc. but rather to gain factual knowledge of that universe I loved.

But then more and more novel tie-ins started to come out and the quality was just not high enough for me to continue with them. I knew there would be an inexhaustable supply, too many to read unless I read little else and so I made the decision to stop reading any of them. I broke that decision once when RA Salvatore came to town and I bought a copy of Vector Prime so he could sign it and I could give it to my dad who also had been reading quite a few Star Wars books. Now cut to this year. For Father's Day my son gave me a computer game "Gold pack" of 5 older PC Star Wars games. I've been enjoying it quite a bit and it got me "in the mood" all over again. And I had one more Star Wars trilogy still on my shelf that my dad had given me and that I still had not read. So now was the time.

Before the Storm is the first book in the "Black Fleet Crisis" trilogy, written by Michael P. Kube-McDowell. I found this book to be a lot like all of those other SW novels I had read...that is it was OK but certainly did not set new standards for quality science fiction. This takes place about 12 years after the events of "Return of the Jedi". The New Republic has entered a time of relative peace and so, of course, a new threat needs to be invented. I found the writing to be pretty good throughout this novel; I could easily follow the plot and the author captured the voices of the major characters pretty well: Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, 3-PO, Admiral Ackbar, etc. The plot however was slow. There seems to be several main plot lines developing independantly of each other and I'll just have to wait to see if the other two books bring them together. The best plot line was Leia's where she acts as the head of state and allows her trusting nature to lead the New Republic into catastrophe with the bad guy race. Han's role was disappointing as he has settled down into his role as father to the kids although it looks like he might get some action in the next book. Luke's role was the most disappointing as he abandons everybody and goes off on his own (doesn't that always happen?). This trilogy was written before the second set of movies was filmed and so there are some major conflicts, most especially, Luke's mother.

So I guess I'm still where I was before...I'll finish out this series but am doubtful of reading more SW books, at least about this era. I have heard good things about some of the "origins" stories, about the beginnings of the Sith, etc. which I may look into one day.

Of course I also finished the next short story in Stephen King's collection, Skeleton Crew, "The Reaper's Image" about a mirror which shows the reaper standing next to the viewer. It's mostly the history of the mirror as told to an antiquities collector by a museum curator. The collector is skeptical until he sees it himself. This story is one of the shorter works in the collection and is more of a classic horror tale than the others, continuing to demonstrate King's versatility as an author.

Next up: a new author for me as I try David Gibbon's Atlantis which I just got free from Border's by doing on-line surveys. Hey, the first step is to acknowledge you have a problem and I fully acknowledge my addiction to acquiring books to read :)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Daughter of Kura

On Saturday, I finished up Daughter of Kura by Debra Austin. This is the third book now that I've reviewed as part of Amazon's "Vine" program where I get to pick from a list and they send me the book in return for a review. This one was cover blurbed as "in the tradition of The Clan of the Cave Bear", a book I read years ago (as well as all of the subsequent books in the series that are published so far). I have an interest in historical fiction and was intrigued with the potential of this book after I read of the expertise that the author has in physics and paleontology.

This novel depicts a tribe of ancient man (Homo Erectus) in Africa, in a village called Kura. It is a matriarchal society where the protagonist, a daughter in line to become leader someday, must chose a mate. The author's knowledge of ancient man/societies really seems to come into play here as we see the culture that she describes. Mates are chosen annually and may not necessarily be consistently chosen from year to year. The characters do not use a spoken language but rather sign their thoughts to each other. As the novel progresses, the plot picks up and we get to experience the inevitable conflicts of interactions from other tribes/groups and their potentially conflicting approaches to the best way to do things.

The novel is not just about survival though. It looks at some less concrete concepts as well, including conflicting outlooks based on how one is raised, and also man's first thoughts of the concept of religion. Even in those days, the author suggests, differing viewpoints on religion could be the source of banishment, strife, and even war-like behavior.

Unfortunately, this is no Clan of the Cave Bear. I found the beginning of the book to be a bit slow to get started. The setting was fine, the writing style was fine, and the plot seemed to be shaping up fine. But the charcterization was lacking and that, for me, is a hard problem to get past. I read in the author's afterward that Ms Austin choose to describe very little of the physical nature of her characters for fear that future scientists might discover something that contradicts what she wrote. What? Perhaps Ms Austin has never read any science fiction but there is a whole genre of successful storytelling that may well one day be disproven. That doesn't make the story itself bad in any way.

Another example: the author chose to have her characters sign to each other rather than speak since we may someday discover that their voice boxes were not fully developed yet. And yet we readers still "see" what they sign because the words are in quotation marks. Their "speech" is not simple and even includes complex concepts. Their sign language would have to be as robust as today's signing but how do we know they had the mental acuity to sign such concept thoughts? I'm being a bit facetious here but it seems difficult to reconcile when that particular excuse is used.

The character's names are sounds that they could make while signing, such as "Snap", "Whistle," "Hum", etc. Talk about a way to severely hamper your story-telling ability! There are quite a few characters in this book and it was impossible to keep them all straight. They are not described in any way other than their name and gender and I often forgot which gender they were; i.e. what gender would you say "Rattle" is? We never find out how they dressed, how tall they are, or what they look like. All of this led to me really not caring what happened to them and thus a promising story became merely mediocre.

I also completed the next short story in Stephen King's Skeleton Crew collection: "Beachworld." This one takes place in the far future where a Federation spacecraft has crashed on to a planet that is made up entirely of living sand. It's basically a quick study in going crazy due to knowledge of your own impending death. Interesting but probably won't be among my favorites from this collection.

Next up: a Star Wars entry, the first in the "Black Fleet Crisis" trilogy.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Know-It-All

This morning I completed the latest of my "morning reading" books. Regular readers of this blog will know I read every morning before work...about 30-45 minutes depending on if I have to drop off my son at school or not. Here in summer time I seem to be getting almost an hour each morning so I tend to finish up the books a bit faster. And no, I can't seem to adjust my sleep cycle so that I get an extra 15-30 minutes of sleep each day. I'm funny that way.

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs is subtitled, "One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World." This is actually his first majorly successful book to be published but a few months ago I read his second big book, The Year of Living Biblically. I liked it so much I just had to go buy this one as well. Mr Jacobs is a humorist and excels at describing what it's like when a "normal man" is put in abnormal circumstances. In this book, he decides to read the entire Encyclopedia Britanica, all 22 volumes of the 2002 edition. He points out the obvious: reading tons of unrelated facts does not lead to wisdom per se but it does lead to numerous interesting anecdotes. And it's amazing how often seemingly unrelated people and events really are connected...like a huge spider web.

However, this is not a book that simply crams trivia into a collection nor is it a summary of the Britanica. Rather this is a memoir. We get to experience what the author experiences during the course of his reading: over a year's worth of time spent reading millions of words on facts both common and obscure. He takes time to describe his visits to various people and institutions commonly associated with "intelligence" including Mensa meetings, an interview with Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy", a visit and day of work at the actual Britanica offices, as well as his successful attempt to become a contestant on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" and the amusing result.

Along the way we see the author's evolving relationship with his father, his wife, his brother-in-law and a host of quirky relatives and aquaintances. We feel his agony as he and his wife strive to conceive a child and rejoice when it finally happens. We laugh with him when he inserts trivia in casual conversations only to be the victim of rolling eyebrows. Haven't we all been there? And when he finally completes his quest and reads the last entry in the last volume we feel the same sense of accomplishment juxtaposed with the disappointment of it all being over and the overwhelming feeling of "What now?" This book has mass appeal and deserves the positive reviews it has received. And it's also the type of book that you can read just a little bit at a time if you are so inclined.

Now...to peruse my shelves for the next book in my morning reading program. Since I usually spend more days/weeks with these books I like to think it over instead of just pulling something off the shelf to read next. So you'll just have to be surprised when I blog about it in a couple of months :)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Today, I completed the reading of Warlock, the third book in Wilbur Smith's ancient Egyptian tetrology. It is a relatively lengthy book coming in at 735 paperback pages and so it took me a while to finish it. But I used some of my precious morning reading time for the past two days to supplement my normal reading hours in order to get it done. That sounds bad...like I was hoping for it to be over with. That's not at all the case because I really like these characters as well as Wilbur Smith's writing.

This book, chronologically, is a direct follow-up to the first book in the series, River God which ranks among my all time favorite historical novels. The second book of the series, The Seventh Scroll actually takes place in the present day and concerns some archeologists/anthroplogists that become embroiled in a mysterious adventure dealing with the events of the first novel. So now, here in the third novel, the author returns to the era of Taita, his protagonist of River God, attempting to recreate the magic (and the hugely popular reviews) of that book. So the question is...did he achieve that? Was he able to garner the forces of whatever muse inspired him that other time?

Pretty close. This isn't the super shining star that was River God but it is a shining star none the less. I think there are two main differences between the two novels that led this novel to be inferior to the first. One is that it isn't the first. Had this one been the first of a series or a stand-alone novel it might well have been held to the same high esteem. But since we have River God to which to compare it, it loses a little bit in the originality department. But not much I have to say. The prose is equally well done and the pace of the novel is spot on. It reads easily like a quick novel despite it's length. There were only a couple of spots where I wished events would speed up. The plot itself is not unique, basically a story of bad guys usurping power from the rightful good guys and how the good guys make things right and come back into power. But since the good guy's army is always outnumbered, he and his allies must use intelligence to find ways to win battles. It sort of reminded me of "Braveheart" in the numbers of ways outnumbered armies can find cool ways to win.

The other main difference that makes this novel slightly inferior to River God is that it is told in third person point of view. This is probably necessary because this time Taita is not always where the action is occurring. We have multiple major characters all over Egypt making it impossible for 1st person POV. But the author loses the intimacy that comes with 1st person POV. In River God we really know the character of Taita and come to understand his foibles as well as his matter-of-fact superiority to those around him. We know his thoughts when he acts as puppet master whereas in this book, he seems more aloof and somehow, less interesting. There are times, especially during the climactic scenes near the end where he is hardly involved.

All in all I enjoyed this book as a darn good read despite the inevitable comparisons I had to make to an actual masterpiece. The next, and I think last book in this series is The Quest which has not received good reviews although I will be reading it for sure. Perhaps the author went to the well one too many times? I'll let you know.

I also finished the next short story in Stephen King's Skeleton Crew collection, "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands." First published in 1982 in the horror anthology "Shadows 4", it is a story told by an elderly man about a poker game he once played that included a man that would not shake hands with anybody else. After that man wins a big hand, the loser enthusiastically shakes his hand in congratulations, causing the horror that ensues. Turns out there was a curse placed on him by an Indian shaman which results in his touch causing death to any living thing. This was an interesting story, more for the way Mr King crafted it rather than for the plot itself. It seemed almost Lovecraftian in style, the words painting the suspense and the mystery for what turned out to be a relatively straight forward story.

Next up: Daughter of Kura by Debra Austin, another Amazon Vine pre-publication offering.

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