Thursday, August 27, 2009

Day of the Dead

I finished my latest audio book this morning on the way into work. It was my first book ever by J.A. Jance and is called, Day of the Dead. I didn't know this when I picked it off the library shelves but it is the third book in a mystery series involving an Indian reservation in Arizona. That happens quite a bit for me when I pick up an audio book from the library...I don't have the ability to research to see if it is part of a series. But usually, with mysteries it doesn't matter too much.

JA Jance, on her own website, defines the difference between a "mystery" novel and a "thriller" novel. She says in a mystery, you don't know the identity of the bad guy(s) or whodunnit until the end and the joy is in solving the mystery. In a thriller, however, the reader knows who the bad guy(s) is/are up front, even if the main characters doesn't. This particular novel is billed as a thriller and, indeed, we readers get to see whodunnit near the beginning so I guess it fulfills her definition. In my mind though, a "thriller" also provides "thrills" and this novel just didn't do it for me.

Apparently I am not alone in that opinion as most reviewers tend to classify this one as one of the lesser liked novels by JA Jance. She seems to have a devoted following of fans who really love her tremendous output but they say everybody has a bad book now and then and this one is one of hers. The story itself is OK and I really like the overall premise of having the TLC (The Last Chance) as a privately funded organization that looks into unsolved crimes...cold cases...that the police force just doesn't have time or resources to look into. And I liked the protagonist, a retired sheriff named Brandon Walker as he takes on the case for the TLC. But the balance between the mystery solving, the thriller aspects of the bad guys, and the subplots about the various members and relatives of the cold case murder victim was way to heavily weighted towards the subplots. The bad guys, a husband and wife team of sexual predators/perverts, seemed to me to be cardboard cutouts of a 1970s era TV show crime drama...i.e. very one dimensional and not at all the monsters they should have been. There were a couple of scenes that were fairly graphic sexually and that seems to have turned off many of Ms Jance's devoted followers..apparently she doesn't do much of that in most of her books.

I probably owe it myself to try one of her other books, in one of her other series but at this point I am not anxious to do so. So many books out there and I'm not getting any younger...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Way of the Wolf

I finally managed to find time to finish the last few pages of E.E. Knight's Way of the Wolf novel today. Boy, this book is a pretty normal length but it sure seemed like I kept getting interrupted when I was trying to read it. It ended up taking a few days longer than normal for me.

But that's no reflection on the book. I chose this book due to the recommendation of a fellow book blogger who never steers me wrong, and I'm really glad I followed his advice. This is the first of a series called "The Vampire Earth" series. It is labeled as science fiction and, indeed, it does take place in the relatively near future (2065) but this one really mixes up the genres. Lots of horror elements in here as well as mystical fantasy, militaristic adventure, and some good 'ol wild west heroics as well.

The story concerns David Valentine, a young man who has grown up entirely in a post-apocolyptic society, after a virus has wiped out 75% of humanity and after the"Kurians," an alien species, has become the dominant masters of the planet. Many humans try to coexist with the aliens but there are still pockets of disenters who refuse to be subjected to this greater power. David finds his way into the resistance forces as a "wolf", and due to his abilities is quickly promoted to Lieutenant. There is some back story that explains how this earth came about as well as how David evolves from a relatively normal teenager (in such a society) into a hero-to-be. Yet this is not a "military sci-fi" novel nor is it a "vampire" book like the myriads of "Twilight" clones out there right now. The vampire parts of this novel refer to the nature of how the aliens feed on the auras of humans. The mythos behind the story events, the world building if you will, is cleverly thought out and delightfully original. I'll definitely be pursuing the other books in this series as it reportedly gets better and better.

Next up: Once Upon a Winter's Night, a fantasy novel by Dennis McKiernan.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Skeleton Crew

Over the weekend I jumped the gun and decided to read the last short story of Stephen King's collection, Skeleton Crew. Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually read one short story between each of my other books but this time I made an exception.

Since I've already blurbed about each of the stories as I read them, and tucked those blurbs in at the end of the other blog entries, I won't go into much detail about the stories themselves. I will mention that the last story in the collection, The Reach, was absolutely fantastic and an excellent choice to round out the collection. It is about an old woman who has lived on a small island off the coast of Maine. She has never crossed over the reach to set foot on the mainland because she never saw a need to do so. She is plagued by what she is sure is stomach cancer though that hasn't been diagnosed and so she knows her time has come. The story becomes almost poetic as she takes a walk and meets aspiritions of several of her relatives and friends, including her husband, that have already passed on. Life is good after death, she learns, so what could have been a very horrifying story becomes a comforting tale. The prose is beautifully written as she accepts what is happening to her and she crosses a different "reach" and dies. I understand Stephen King himself once said during a Today show interview that The Reach would be the story he would like most to be remembered for because it is "The Maine he grew up in and the people he knows." Truly a different sort of story that has elements of horror but nonetheless leaves the reader with a warm feeling at the end.

The overall collection is simply superb. This is the 40th Stephen King book I've read and I still want more. In this collection we get to see King at his eerie best with such stories as The Monkey, Word Processor of the Gods, Gramma, and The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. Hard core horror shines through in Survivor Type, Cain Rose Up, and of course we get the masterpiece novella, The Mist included in this overall collection as well. These stories demonstrate King's vast talent for story telling, not just delivering bloody, evil horror but also showing us real characters. I love the way that King can get into the characters so well that I recognize people from my own life who are exactly like that.

Almost all of these stories first appeared elsewhere, having been published in one magazine or another and many of them at a time in King's early career when he really needed a paycheck. Perhaps desperation produces truly quality output because there are lots of gems in this collection. Some of King's later works, after his rise to literary stardom, are not nearly so cutting edge and frequently are in need of more editing. But even in those cases, I enjoy reading it because it just hits home so well.

I think my next short story collection will be another section in Harlan Ellison's Essential Ellison. I've read a few sections already but I like to spread it out so I should be able to get in this next one during this year.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Over the weekend I completed Sunset, the 6th and final book from the "Warriors: The New Prophecy" series by Erin Hunter. This is a young adult series and follows up the original "Warriors" series, also six books long. There is yet a third series of six books still to come as well as a couple of longer single volumes that tie the whole thing together.

The story picks up where book 5, Twilight, leaves off. The badger attack on the cats of Thunderclan was devestating and now the clan has to put the pieces back together. That combined with the old nemesis of Tigerclaw (now in "ghost" form) trying to lead his two sons, Brambleclaw and Hawkfrost in a strategy to take over leadership of all the clans makes for a good story. There are quite a few sub-plots as well that need to be wrapped up, not the least of which is the overarching prophecy that has been largely in the background through these six books. There is a lot to be wrapped up here but I never felt like the plot was rushed in order to get it all done. I was a little let down by the resolution of the prophecy though, quite anticlimactic when you compare it to all of the other huge events that take place in this universe.

This will be my final reading of books in the series. While I admire the way the authors developed their universe and I really enjoyed the first series, this second series has had too much of a soap opera feel to it. As in the soaps, as certain story lines are completed, the characters can't just sit there and have a happy life or else there would be no more story to tell. So therefore, either more conflict has to occur, relationships have to change, or there has to be something that happens to drive the plot forward. After a while the reader (or soap opera viewer) can grow tired of the constant change. That is where I'm at. I choose to stop reading now and let the characters rest rather than read yet another 6-volume set. I have a whole shelf-full of young adult books to read (actually three shelves) including lots of Newbery award winners. Having said all of that, I will always look back fondly on this series and highly recommend them to parents looking for good books to read with their children. Just don't start them too young because there is a fair amount of violence and death among the clans.

I also completed the second-to-last short story ion Stephen King's collection, Skeleton Crew: "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet." This story is more of a novella, coming in at about 50 pages. The term "flexible bullet" refers to the narrator's belief that insanity is like a flexible may take a while but it will eventually kill you. Ths narrator, a magazine editor, tells the story of a brilliant young writer (and insane) who sent him a story that was so good he fights to get it included in the magazine even though the magazine is closing it's fiction section down. The writer believes (and the editor comes to believe because of his alcoholism) in the existence of "Fornits", tiny elf-like creatures that live in their typewriters that bring inspiration and good luck. The story had an interesting premise but could have been shortened in my opinion. It is likely he wrote it to specifications since it was first published in"The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" in 1984. Only one more story to go...I'll blog about it under a seperate heading when I discuss the entire collection.

Next up: Way of the Wolf by E.E. Knight.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blood Safari

At lunchtime today I finished up the latest of my Amazon's "Vine" program books. I had selected Blood Safari by Deon Meyer because it is billed as a thriller taking place in modern day South Africa. Next month I will be taking a three-week long trip to South Africa so I thought it would be good to get a feel for the place, as I often like to do, through fiction.

The book was actually published in Britain in 2007 and is just now being published in the US. The author is an Afrikaner himself and this is the translated version from the original Afrikaaner version. Hats off to the translators I must say because you'd never know this book is not in the original language. There are a number of local terms used, but always italicized and never used such that you can't determine their meaning from the context of the sentence. I particularly enjoyed the plot elements surrounding the vulture sanctuary project and various anti-poaching efforts taking place.

The story revolves around Lemmer, a bodyguard assigned to protect a young woman, Emma, who is in danger. Lemmer is a complicated character, with a convoluted past that is slowly revealed throughout the course of the novel. The first part of the book is a fairly straight-forward mystery as Lemmer follows Emma in her attempts to locate her brother, a man most people thought was dead for these past 20 years. Mr Meyer uses an interesting writing tool in the book: most of it is written in 1st person POV (Lemmer) but parts of it are written in 3rd person. That has potential to be intrusive in the narrative thread but here it works great.

The second part of the story turns everything on its head. It's absolutely delightful to read a thriller/mystery that is unpredictable and also includes multi-dimensional characters that you come to care about. Add to that a smart dialogue, humerous yet real, and you've got a real page-turner on your hands. My only negative comment is that there are a lot of minor characters sprinkled throughout and I feel like I lost the handle on a few of them along the way. But that didn't seem to hinder the story telling much so I'm happy to have discovered this author.

Once again, I followed up this novel with another interesting short story from Stephen King's short story collection, Skeleton Crew. "Gramma" demonstrates a lot of what King does best, bringing us back to our childhood and tap dancing all over our memories, especially those that are not so comforting. The plot is fiendishly cleaver but not at all "in-your-face." Subtle horror is the best kind. "Gramma" was later turned into a Twilight Zone episode, penned by Harlan Ellison.

Next up: the last of the second "Warrior's" series, Sunset.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Cat Who Went Into the Closet

I finished up Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Went Into the Closet this weekend. When I looked it up I see that it is the 16th book in the series, a fact that surprised me because it just doesn't seem like I've read quite that many...maybe 10 or 11...but when I checked my database, sure enough, this is my 16th, with quite a few still left on the shelves. I often find these at the library bookstore and pick them up for just $1.00 so I always seem to have more of them to read.

The plot of this one was pretty straight forward, involving our protagonist Jim Qwilleran (Qwill) and his two siamese cats getting wrapped up with the suspicious death of his temporary landlord. He actually sets up a sting operation with another lady in a neighboring town to catch the bad guys and it is fun to see it all unfold. But it is not really the plot or the mystery itself that make these books fun for me. It is the nature of the protagonist's situation. In about book number 4, Qwill learns he has inherited the enormous Klingenschoen fortune as long as he agrees to live in the small town of Pickaxe in Moose County (up north somewhere, probably northern Michigan). He quickly decides being a billionaire is a nuisance so he sets up the Klingenschoen foundation which aids worthy causes in and around Moose county.

What a great life! Having no financial worries, and at age 50 or so, he can live the way he wants and do the things he wants, which for him is being a columnist for the county paper (he used to be a reporter for several newspapers down south). He spends a lot of his time meeting and interacting with the locals (population ~ 3000) and I just love the interplay he has with the small town people. And to be able to help people out of tough binds would be great too. Whether he spends an evening reading aloud to his cats or drives into town to eat at one of the local diners with a friend, it just seems like a cool life to lead. I guess that is why I look forward to reading a "cozy mystery" like this occasionally, and especially to counteract all of the real world stresses that we all encounter from time to time.

I also completed two interconnected short stories in Stephen King's Skeleton Crew collection. "Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)" concerns a milkman who leaves suprises in the milk when he makes his deliveries, such as poisonous spiders, poison, etc. In "Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2)" the plot centers around two laundry workers who are driving around after their shift looking for an auto inspection station. It becomes apparant that one of the two men was involved in an unsolved murder and it actually ties in with the milkman guy from the first story. This seemed to me like an unfinished story and, indeed, when I reserached it I discovered they were both part of an unfinished novel.

Next up: Blood Safari by Deon Meyer.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Fountainhead

It's been quite a while since my last post about an audio book I've read (er...listened to). I had to look back to see that it was on June 17th. Well, that's because it has taken this long to finish my latest audio book, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. As I've mentioned before, I will often chose an audio book that is a "classic" because I don't read those all that often. This time, when I was at the library to make my choice, I found mostly abridged versions of books and I just won't read/listen to those if at all possible. If it's not presented the way the author wanted it, (and the editors and publishers and marketers and other assorted staff members that help to manufacture a book these days) then I don't want to read it. So even though this book was 26 disks long, I decided to give it a try.

26 discs! That's a lot of hours of listening to one story. It is truly a testament to the quality of a novel, as well as the reader and the production quality of an audio book, that it can keep your attention for so long. This novel did just that for me. I can honestly say this has been a wonderful experience.

I had always heard of Ayn Rand and I had seen her large major works at the book store, and I had even done a little research on her to see what all the hooplah was about her philosophy of objectivism. So I really didn't know what to think when I began this book. Would it read like a super-long essay with a thin plot spread over the top? Would it be a "preachy" novel? Could I even last through the first disk? I was prepared for almost anything except what I got which was a nicely developed story with wonderfully complex characters.

On the surface, this is a story about architecture and the men and women of that industry in early 20th century New York. But really it's about a handful of characters who represent certain archetypes that Ms Rand uses to codify her objectivism philosophy. Howard Roark is the perfect man in her philosphy, unwilling to compromise one iota for his art even if it means near starvation as an architect. He is indifferent to the opinions of others and therefore "the one who is as man should be." Peter Keating is "the man who couldn't be successful but doesn't know it." Unlike Roark, he patterns his art after others, rationalizing that if he does the same thing then he will also be successful. Ultimately he is passed by because he just doesn't understand the neccessity of originality. Ellsworth Toohey knows he will never be successful in the same vein and so becomes successful at destroying others. He is the "man who couldn't be and knows it." And then Gail Wynand is the "one that could have been." Rising from poverty to be a powerful media mogul, he chooses to try to control others rather than create for himself. I'll leave it to others to debate the relative merits of Ms Rand's philosophy but for me, the characters and how they interact are prime; a great novel is a great novel because of the writing, the setting, the characters, the style, the plot, etc. And this is a great novel.

Is it perfect? No, I don't think so, even if one ignores the underlying phiosophy and only looks at it from a novel writing perspective. There are long passages where one character spews forth their point of view, detailing their particular philosophy on the nature of what makes for a good society, or a good relationship, or even on the very nature of good and evil, etc. Some people say this is "stilted" dialogue and I concur. It just wasn't realistic.

The novel is broken down into four parts, one for each of the main characters. That section tends to have more of the story presented from that person's point of view but the overall plot is consistent and chronological. The plot itself is masterful and includes elements of revenge, intrigue, power plays, romance, and courtroom drama. The pacing is spot on, driving the plot towards its powerful conclusion. I highly recommend this novel, whether reading for sheer pleasure or for a launching platform for philosophical discussions.

I have a long 3-week vacation coming in September so I will need to ensure my next audio book selection is much less lengthy. (But no abridgements!)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Jaguar Knights

If you will recall from my last blog entry, I had read a couple of very serious novels as well as one very horrifying short story all in a row and I had felt the need for some lighter-themed fantasy reading. I selected Dave Duncan's Jaguar Knights to fulfill that need, but unfortunately I need to keep looking. This is the final book in his King's Blades series. I actually wrote him an e-mail about a month ago to see if he planned to write any more in the series and he replied with "unfortunately no." They were produced by a publisher that he no longer deals with; the contract is complete and he has moved on to other things.

Have you ever started reading a novel while in a distracted state? And then it never really pulls you in because you've really only been reading on the surface and by the time you are ready to focus you are already half way through it. This happened to me this time. I had a tough week and weekend and so my attention seemed to be elsewhere when I read this novel. Someday I may well go back and read it again because I believe it is probably a much better book than I actually experienced.

The plot is a bit different than others in the Blades series. This time the protagonist isn't nearly as likeable as the other times so perhaps that contributed to my ho-hum feelings about the entire book. The plot seemed a little disjointed as well with several distinctly different subplots trying to interact. The result seemed more like several short stories being told at the same time. To compound that problem, a large chunk of the story is told from the secondary character's point of view, the hapless younger brother of the main protagonist. It is he that encounters the Aztec-like civilization of the Jaguars, actually morphing into a cat-creature after a magical pendant is hung around his neck. To top it all off, the ending was sad. I got the distinct feeling while reading this book that Mr Duncan was merely fulfilling the last requirements of the contract rather than offering a polished work of fantasy.

So here I am still looking for an uplifting novel to read. I am happy to report that my mood is back to its optimistic, happy self though so all is well.

Of course I read another Stephen King short story from Skeleton Crew. "Uncle Otto's Truck" is classic King once again. The story concerns an old truck owned by two business men in the post depression era. Otto had used the truck to kill the other owner and is subsequently going a bit insane. He notices the truck starts to move a little on its own and so on. The story is told by Otto's nephew who tells of how Otto eventually is found dead, drowned with engine oil and with a spark plug rammed down his throat. Pretty cool stuff!

Next up is another "Cat Who" book by Lilian Jackson Braun. Can't go wrong with an old fashioned cozy mystery that takes place in Pickaxe County...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Undiscovered Gyrl

Undiscovered Gyrl is my latest venture into Amazon's "Vine" Program whereby I get to pick selections from a list of advanced reader's copies. I actually finished reading it last Thursday night but haven't had the time to write about it until now.

I am an eclectic reader for the most part, trying novels from just about all genres but I do tend to spend my time with the more traditional genres such as mystery, science fiction, westerns, fantasy, thrillers, etc. I've often felt my straight "fiction" reading was a bit lacking; i.e. contemporary fiction with normal everyday people as the main characters. So I decided to take a chance with this "Vine" opportunity. I can comfortably say that Undiscovered Gyrl by Allison Burnett fits that description very well.

This is the story about a 17 year old girl (she turns 18 during the course of the novel) who blogs about her life. In fact the entire book consists of her blog entries. Due to the anonymity of the internet, bloggers can be extremely truthful when writing about their innermost thoughts and emotions. Such is the case here. The protagonist, Katie Kampenfelt (she is quick to point out that this is not her real name) has chosen to defer college for a year until she can get her head straight. Her blogs cover almost a year of real time and provide fascinating insights to her life. And, indeed, her life is not pretty. She is sexually promiscuous with numerous partners, an abuser of drugs and alcohol, and emotionally scarred. Just how she came to be that way is masterfully revealed over the course of the book. The author seems able to really, truly get inside the protagonist's head. I was very surprised to learn that the author is actually male, so keen are his insight's into this girl's life. And since I have a daughter that is only about a year older than Katie, and I see her friends all the time, I can attest to just how real the language and expressions are in this novel.

Despite the darkness of Katie's life and the stresses she endures, this is a remarkably funny book as well. Her day-to-day descriptions of the people she interacts with are often hillarious. It's a careful balance for the horror of her reality. In some ways, this book is like a reality TV show. It's very realistic and yet at the same time, it seems a little bit too contrived. While it was an easy book to get into, and I definitely wanted to keep reading to see what was going to happen next, it was sort of like watching a train wreck. I grew frustrated with the way Katie was offered help time and again only for her to give up or ignore the advice all together. For those looking for a nicely tied-up happy ending, keep looking. I actually felt a bit cheated at the end because of the way the author chose to wrap it up. It's almost as if he wrote himself into a corner and couldn't find a way out. Perhaps that was his intent...just as in real life, there are not necessarily happy endings or at least not the ending you want. But then again, I am not a fan of the "Lady or the Tiger" style of ending.

It's funny that I followed up the reading of this book with reading another in Stephen King's Skeleton Crew short story collection...also told in the same manner. "Survivor Type" is about a disgraced surgeon who has been shipwrecked while transporting heroin. The story is actually his diary of his experiences as he tries to survive his ordeal. While hunting a bird, he breaks his ankle and is forced to amputate it several days later, using the heroin as anesthesia. Due to starvation he is forced to amputate more and more body parts and eat them just to survive. By the end he is so strung out on heroin that it is hard to follow his thoughts but we come to understand he has nothing left below the waist and has no ears. The journal stops as he cuts off his left hand and begins to nibble the fingers. OK, this is undoubtedly the most horrific entry in the collection thus far. Just the thought of this is enough to creep me out but since I read it so soon after the Undiscovered Gyrl book, it was doubly troubling. Masterfully done...but troubling.

Next up...I really need something less "real" or "horrific" so I have begun The Jaguar Knights, a hopefully lighter-themed fantasy novel.

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