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.

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