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...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kushiel's Chosen

The third book that I read on my vacation journey was Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Chosen. That is, I read most of it during the trip but completed it this weekend. This is the second book in Ms Carey's first trilogy of the land of Terre D'Ange, following Kushiel's Dart. This is an adult fantasy novel, as is the series, and not really meant for those that blush at a hint of eroticism.

The main character, Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève, is a courtesan and spy and she uncovers a conspiracy of treason and murder that takes her on adventures to other contries accompanied by an intriguing cast of characters. Ultimately she faces her old foe, Melisande. I really enjoyed reading this novel, despite several factors that normally kill a story for me. First it has many many characters, all with names that are difficult to pronounce. Often when I read novels like that, I lose the thread of what is happening and to whom. Not this time. The world itself is a replica of our own Earth, at least the European and Mediterranean areas and I found that to be a solid anchor. Even though different names were used I could "typecast" a new character when they were introduced, associating them with our cultures and physical appearances. Ms Carey's writing is highly skilled and she writes in a style that seems to fit the type of story it is; i.e. sensual writing, almost poetic in some places as would befit a beautiful courtesan protagonist.

I also felt this was an unusually good story line and even though it is the middle book of a trilogy, it fits solidly into a greater whole and doesn't suffer from "'middle book" syndrome that befalls so many fantasy trilogies. I read the first book over a year ago and planned to read the third book sometime next year but now I'm thinking I'll be pushing that up to the next 3 months of this year. I just want to see what happens next and I want to surround myself with these characters once again.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Audrey's Door

Audrey's Door was the second book that I read on my 3-week trip to South Africa. I had just received it as part of Amazon.com's "Vine Voice" program and chose to read it next because it would be completely different than the Diana Gabaldon tome. This is a horror book written by Sarah Langan and is her third book.

I've been looking for a new horror author, having read most of King's work as well as lots of Bentley Little and Richard Laymon. Every time I sample a "new" horror author it seems the result is merely mediocre. But this time, I may have found what I'm looking for. Audrey's Door is the tale of Audrey, a young architect who breaks off her engagement and moves into a unique and suprisingly affordable apartment building in Manhattan's Upper West Side. Turns out bad things have happened there fairly recently which could explain the cheap rates but she moves in anyway. Sounds like a typical setup for a haunted house novel but this one takes a new path. As in any good novel, characterization is key and Ms Langan's characters are anything but predictable one dimensional characters. The other tenants of the building are fascinating and Audrey's interaction with them builds the tension and the horror.

Add to that the character of Audrey herself...she has flaws, and a complicated past that leads the reader to wonder if it might not be Audrey herself that is cracking up, rather than the building causing the craziness. She begins to build a door and it is in discovering what the door's purpose may be or where it leads (or what will come through it) that is the source of the novel's horror. The author does not settle for cliched horror but rather introduces logical sources for the terror and the suspense in the book. After reading the novel, I actually did my own research on some of the ideas found within it, including "chaotic naturalism" just to find out more about it. Not many books lead me to do that!

This is a very readable book and a definite page turner with a satisfying conclusion. I'll be looking for her previously published books as well as new stuff; no doubt Sarah Langan has a long career ahead of her.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Fiery Cross

This is the big 1400+ page book I was referring to in the last two posts. The Fiery Cross is the 5th book in Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series. The overall series is about Claire, from the 20th century traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland and meeting Jamie Fraser. That makes it sound like a sci-fi series but they are really historical fiction novels. Eventually they marry and, through various circumstances, come to live in early America just prior to the American Revolution. Claire's 20th century daughter, Briana and her fiance also make their way into the past and become major characters as well. This particular book, covers a period of about two years around 1770-1772.

The book was, indeed, a long one. I chose this one for my long airplane ride because I would be able to stay focused and stick with it no matter what. For the first 200 pages or so, I realized I made the right choice because I'm not sure I would have stuck it out otherwise. Up to that point it was largely a novel of everyday life at the Fraser's homestead with lots of detail about how they lived as well as how they numerous minor characters interacted. Briana's wedding is looming and the preparations for the big event take an awful long time.

But then the action picks up a bit as Jaime is directed by the Governor of the colony to form a militia to put down some troublemakers. Here lies the central theme of the series at this point. Jaime and Claire know the future...they know the revolution is coming and they know which side to be on. But they can't make the jump to the revoultionaries too soon or risk treason. That is a cool concept and I understand the next book in the series takes it even further.

I enjoy long books because I get a real feeling of accomplishment when I complete them. And I often enjoy, as I did this time, really getting into the characters, expecially these old favorites. It seems like I know them personally and I can count on them to act true to form. There are sections of this novel that are pretty slow though and I have to wonder if Ms Gabaldon's editor feels comfortable cutting anything at all.

The other problem with a 1400 page paperback book is I think I would have sprained my wrist just holding the thing up if it hadn't been for the tray table from the seat in front of me :)

I'm Back

Wow...I made it! What a trip that was. I heartily recommend a trip to South Africa, especially if you like game drives to see wild animals. What a great experience! I added a pic I took during one of the game drives. This little kitty looks so peaceful that you just wanted to go up to her and give her a hug :)

I did have some free time, even though I spent a lot of time absorbing the various aspects of the trip and talking with my co-adventurers. Quite a bit of airplane time (as well as airport time) allowed me to get through over 2500 pages of reading. I also got to sit next to a lady that owned a Kindle and ask questions about it. It looks good as long as the battery doesn't run out and I suppose if the story was all that matters to you, then an electronic reading device might be OK. But I also like the book itself and love looking at my library so I'll stick with the real books. It's great to browse your own shelves and see a binding on an old favorite and relive the memories.

I completely finished two books (including the 1400+ page one) and almost all of two more books. It's very unusual for me, during a trip like this, to start a book when I'm still working on another. But I knew the first one would be completed in the middle of the airplane ride and unless I carried two books in my carry-on luggage, I'd be out of reading material. So I chose to start the second book instead. Upon the trip's completion, I ended up with two books, mostly done.

I'll describe each book in a seperate blog entry over the next few days.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Out of Pocket

I'll be leaving on a three week tour of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana. Check back here around 24-25 September as I'll start to blog about the books I read on the trip. I'm taking 4 of my fattest paperback books, including one that is over 1400 pages...hopefully I'll have enough to last the whole time. Wish me luck on the 18 hour flight tomorrow!

Once Upon a Winter's Night

This morning I completed Once Upon A Winter's Night by Dennis McKiernan. This was not the book that I had really planned to read next...here's how it happened. I normally leave my current book on the dresser and grab it on the way out to work every day. I had been reading Way of the Wolf and was really looking forward to being able to read more on it during my lunch break that day. But I get up rather early and since it was still dark in the bedroom when I left, I grabbed the wrong book, one that my wife had left out in order to take on a trip the following week. So lo and behold when I got to my lunch break and took out my book, there it was.

At first I was a bit taken aback because this was a fantasy book that looked like a "chick-lit" style fantasy. It would appeal to my wife and my daughter but it wasn't one that I would have rushed to pick off the shelf. But what was I to do? It was either plunge in or listen to talk radio all through lunch. I opted to give it a shot.

I liked it a lot during that first hour or so. I didn't want to go back to work (never do) but often I get sleepy at lunch time with my reading and that was not the case this time. I was enthralled. Nevertheless, I am a loyal reader so I completed Way of the Wolf before returning to this one. The book itself is a retelling of the classic Norse fairly tale, "East O' the Sun, West O' the Moon". Mr McKiernan greatly expands the original tale, turns it into a novel basically, and adds some more intrigue, mild sex, and adventure. Once I returned to reading the book I was happily engrossed in that world once more. It has all the classic fairly tale themes: princes, damsels, goblins, dwarves, curses, quests, and above all, true love conquering all obstacles. Reading the book gave me a good feeling inside, made me happy in fact. That sounds silly but it's true.

This is the first book I've read by Dennis McKiernan. My research turned up some interesting facts though. Apparently he had a full career with Bell Labs before he ever began writing fiction and only came to that after a bad accident that left him in a full body cast. Rather than go insane, he made up stories and actually wrote (dictated?) a sequel to Lord of the Rings (LOTR). He found a publisher and at their suggestion, rewrote the story so that it wouldn't be a Tolkien story at all. That became the "Iron Tower Trilogy" and McKiernan himself confesses it to be a LOTR ripoff. Unfortunately, discerning fantasy readers tend to write him off as a result, never giving him a second look. That seems to be the cardinal sin for fantasy authors...never write a story that is remotely similar to LOTR. Its too bad. I for one will be looking to read more of his work, especially the sequels to this one.

I followed that up with the first short story in Harlan Ellison's "Heart's Blood" section of The Essential Ellison. This section is partly biographical and the first entry is called "From Alabamy, With Hate." It is an essay more than a story and describes his one-day march to Montgomery during the race riots of the 1960's. He condemns the hatred and insane prejudice of the time in language that is absorbing to read. Looking back through the eyes of history his conclusions seem obvious to me but at the time it was written and published, I'm not so sure.

Next up: I'm not exactly sure. I will be selecting several books to take on a long three week trip.

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