Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Seventh Scroll

We made it back from our Spring Break trip. It was a lot of driving and we did have to delay a day to dodge a blizzard but all in all it was a good time. And since there are now 4 drivers in our family, I got quite a bit of time to read :)

All told I read about 1200 pages during the 6 days. The first book actually took most of the time due to its length. The Seventh Scroll, by Wilbur Smith is the follow-up to River God and as you may recall from my January blog entry, River God was one of the best historical novels I had read in a long time. The Seventh Scroll was meant to be read after River God but it is not exactly a sequel. It actually takes place in the present day with a couple of archeologist types who are out to discover the hidden tombs that were depicted in the first book. What an intriguing concept! What we got to live through before is now seen through the eyes of history, including all the distortions of history that are bound to happen. Afterall, what we assume to be true through archeological research isn't necessarily the way it really happened.

The author does another intriguing thing in this book. He inserts himself into his own fiction, having a main character refer to Wilbur Smith as having authored the fictional River God from information uncovered in the first 6 scrolls found in the tomb. Of course it is the 7th scroll that the characters are after in this second book. This leads to some funny moments as the two main protagonists argue about just how accurate Wilbur Smith was in the first book; one of them goes so far as to dismiss Mr Smith as a hack writer who changes the historical record in order to include more sex and violence. It's a twisted loop whereby an author actually negatively critques his own work...I guess you have to be pretty secure in your own writing career to do that. Regardless, it works wonderfully here.

The book itself was only slightly less enjoyable than the first. When you get right down to it, this is a pretty straight forward adventure/treasure hunting story along the likes of "Romancing the Stone". But Wilbur Smith is an outstanding writer who has a knack for making you read just a little more and then still more despite any deadlines you may have to deal with. You know the two main characters will hook up by the end but its not predictable how that happens. The dangerous scenes in the book are really dangerous and the suspense is spot on. As for historical accuracy...everything sure seemed to be accurate based on my limited knowledge of ancient Egypt and my trip to that country a few years ago. I hadn't planned on reading this series this year but now I am already looking forward to the third book, Warlock, where we get to return to the ancient times and see what happens next!

However, that would have to wait as I had other books with me on the trip. More about that in the next post.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More Twisted

I've broken one of my own rules today. Normally I read a short story after every full length book I read. Followers of this blog may remember that I used to never really like short stories. They always seemed...well... short. I like to get into my reading and not have it end 5-10 minutes after the story starts. But since I hadn't read too much short fiction I decided I wasn't being fair so I set up the 'one short story for every regular book' rule. And it's worked. I now have a deep appreciation for a well-tuned short story. I sometimes wonder if I should do the same thing for poetry because I really don't care for that either.

So what happened for me to break my own rule you ask? Well, next week is Spring Break week around here and so my family and I will be embarking on a rather long road trip to the NW where my son plans to visit potential college campuses. (If anybody has opinions, feel free to share them with me). Consequently, I didn't want to begin another book just a couple of days before the trip commences. And since I had only two short stories left in the More Twisted: Collected Stories, Vol. II by Jeffrey Deaver I decided to wrap up that volume. So there you have it, a one time only stretching of the rules.

The last two stories in the collection were good ones. "Ninety-eight Point Six" was a more typical twisted story. I knew right from the beginning who the twist would revolve around (the one that seemed the most innocent). However, the how of it was a nice surprise. The final entry in the collection, "A Nice Place to Visit" was a bit of a departure from the other stories. It was much darker and more brutal than the other stories. Perhaps that is why this was selected for the final piece of the book. The twists kept coming in this one, almost too many because it became a bit difficult to follow. I did enjoy it though and was very happy with the conclusion.

So overall the second half of the book really saved this collection. At this point I would definitely read more of Mr Deaver's short stories. I'm not so sure about his longer works with his signature character Lincoln Rhymes. It's not because I don't think I would enjoy them but rather because I already have a lot of authors in the thriller genre with on-going series...I can't keep up as it is. But who knows? I've been known to impulse buy occasionally. Just yesterday, in fact, I was at the library to return my audio book and I purchased two more Louis L'Amour books from the library's fund-raising store. Can't ever have too many of those. The price was right but that means two more books on my to-be-read list. I am "down" to only 305 books now that I own but haven't read. Sigh...

I'm not yet sure which collection of short stories I will pick up next. I have a classic Stephen King that I'm considering or I may choose a collection of Aboriginal legends and myths that I picked up in Australia years ago. Also there is a similar collection of Native American legends I could choose...or...well, we'll see. And of course I get to pick what to take with me on the trip that starts Friday. The only one I know for sure will be Wilbur Smith's The Seventh Scroll, a sequel to River God that I raved about at the beginning of the year. Picking them out is half the fun!

See you when I return from the trip and start blogging about all I've read.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Black Powder War

During my lunch break today, I finished up Black Powder War, the third in Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" series. This is a solid entry in the series and, fortunately, a bit more balanced than the previous book. This novel takes the main characters from China to Turkey where they have orders to obtain 3 dragon eggs and transport them back to England. These aren't just any eggs, but a particular breed of fire breathing dragons which would ultimately give England a strategic leg up on Napolean's forces. Of course nothing is ever that easy and sure enough, multiple adventures ensue. They end up in German lands in time for the battle of Jena.

It is nice to see this series incorporating real historical events in an authentic way. Ms Novik continues to excel at building an extremely believable fantasy landscape. This is the real historical record, with the added addition of dragons. Normally, that would be pretty difficult to pull off but her dragons are so well thought out that they seemlessly interface with the "normal" society. More importantly, the story continues to excel with compelling, sympathetic characters. She shows the brutal reality of war with corresponding loss of life (and yes, some characters we know from the past do not survive this battle) and yet the novel is not at all a "war" novel. The characters, especially Lawrence and Temeraire continue to grow and mature in their thinking, and themes that began in the last book continue here. For example, the nature of how dragons are treated by different cultures, whether they should be servants or equals, is examined further.

These first three books of the series, according to Ms Novik's own blog, were held by the publisher until all were ready for publication as a way of launching the series. Consequently, many people believed them to be a trilogy. This third novel though, does little to wrap up anything but does spur interest in the next book. I am thankful for that as these books should be coming out at around one per year for quite a while to come. Already there are a total of 5 published volumes with more planned.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Play Dirty

I was introduced to the author Sandra Brown via an audio book that I borrowed from the library several years ago. She was and is a prolific author, with many novels to date, mostly of the sub genre romance thrillers. I tend to like thrillers of all kinds and since I'm not opposed to a little romance in the books I read I thought I would give her a try. That book was Envy and frankly, I really enjoyed it. Her style of writing seems well adapted to the audio book format and she has just enough twists and turns and suspense building to keep my interest through the 3-4 weeks that it takes me to listen to an audio book as I drive back and forth to work every day.

Five Sandra Brown books later I still enjoy them. I completed Play Dirty on the way into work this morning and it is no exception. It has an interesting premise that sets up the story: a star NFL quarterback has just recently been released from a 5 year prison sentence for gambling, throwing a key game, and other self-indulgent behavior. He is offered a deal to sire a baby for a wealthy corporate CEO and his wife who have picked him for his physical attributes. The CEO is in a wheel chair and can not sire a baby himself. The catch is, they aren't talking about invitro fertilization but rather...the old fashioned way. Of course that means, the CEO's wife and the ex con quarterback have to have sexual relations. This is just the setup and there are many more sub plots as well that lead us through the adventure.

While I enjoyed listening to this audio book, there were problems with it. The characters, to put it bluntly, just weren't likeable. That in itself can be OK, depending on the nature of the story but here, the author clearly hopes that we become sympathetic to the protagonist (the quarterback), hoping we come to believe he was just misunderstood. By the end of the novel we do get to see him in a better light but he is definitely a flawed chraracter. The other major characters I found to be very two dimensional though. Characters are supposed to grow in some fashion during a novel...better, worse, older, wiser...something. The CEO's wife for example, does grow but at such a breakneck pace that she is unbelievable. The coach, who is so bitter by the quarterback's betrayal 5 years ago that he can't see straight, makes a 180 degree turn at the end of the novel in the space of one paragraph. It seems to all be a bit too contrived.

Perhaps I am being too picky here. Afterall, I borrowed this audio book from the library to be entertained...and I was. I will borrow other Sandra Brown books occassionally as well because they never cease to entertain.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In the Company of Liars

Last night I finished David Ellis' novel In the Company of Liars. This book is very hard to describe, much less evaluate. In essence, it is a legal thriller involving murder, terrorists, government intrigue, FBI operations, and courtroom drama. But Mr Ellis decided to tell the tale in a unique manner: backwards. He begins the book at the end of the story and every scene in the entire novel takes place one or two days before what you just read. Now, I am normally not a person who goes in for gimmics. Too often authors like to prove how smart they are by fooling the reader with a gimmic of some kind. However, I had high hopes for this one (I knew about the backwards thing before I ever began to read) because of the author's first published novel, Line of Vision, which is one of the finest legal thrillers I've ever read.

I really struggled through the first third of this book. Most stories build up the plot and develop the characters in a logical progression, allowing the reader to absorb each new element one at a time. But here, since we are starting at the end, we have to see how all of the characters end up. We read about a suicide by a character but have no idea at the time who she is and why we should care. It's confusing to say the least. And to add to the confusion, the author frequently uses flashbacks of what the character is thinking...thoughts from their past...which we will read about in upcoming chapters...wow.

But then, suprisingly, it started to jell. But the time I was half way through the book, I knew who the main players were and what their motivations were. Now I wanted to know how events got to be the way they were. I'm sure that's how the author was approaching the whole book. The ending (beginning?) was quite good and went a long way in overcoming my initial objections to the "gimmic." I will admit to going back and re-reading the first 20-30 pages to see those events from the different perspective of knowing the whole story. That provided good closure for me. I would definitely classify this work as "smart" fiction, as the writing itself is well done, and obviously every aspect of the plot is well engineered. Overall, I am both happy to have read it and glad that it is behind me.

I also completed another short story from the More Twisted collection by Jeffrey Deaver. This one was called "The Poker Lesson" and was a good one, if not quite living up to the rare air of the previous two entrys. I knew there would be a twist, of course, and correctly assumed it would revolve around just who was teaching a lesson to whom. Only two more to go in this collection...

Next up: a return to fantasy with number 3 of Naomi Novick's Temeraire series: Black Powder War.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Final Reckoning, The Fate of Bester

I have enjoyed reading everything I've read so far by J. Gregory Keyes but he has remained one of my "B" list authors. His stuff has been enjoyable but not so fantastic that I just can't wait to read his next work. However, after completing Final Reckoning, The Fate of Bester, the third and concluding volume of his Babylon 5 spin-off series, that status might very well change...for the better. Whereas the second book ended with Alfred Bester just about to step foot on the Babylon 5 space station for the first time, this one begins after the television series is complete. It helps to have seen all 5 seasons of the TV show, but is not necessary to enjoy this book (or this trilogy for that matter). The references to the events and characters of the show are suprisingly minimal and I believe uninitiated readers will not feel like they are missing something.

Having said that, readers who are familiar with the TV series will be delighted, as I was, to finally find out what happened to Bester. I knew going in that Garibaldi (the former security chief of Babylon 5) would have to play a major role in whatever was to happen, and indeed he does. But despite that interaction, the novel is really about Bester himself. Bester is a villain, no doubt about it. But as with the best villains of fiction, the reader becomes sympathetic to how he became the way he became. The trilogy as a whole is somewhat like a Shakepearean tragedy in that good people can be caught up in circumstances that lead them down the wrong path. Such is the case with Alfred Bester. This is a book (and trilogy) that examines the truism that "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter."

I'm very glad I took a chance on this TV tie-in trilogy (usually they are pretty horrible). Mr Keyes has moved up to a strong B+ author for me and I'll now seek out his newer works to see if he can bump up to the "A" list.

And I'm also pleased to report that Jeffrey Deaver's short story "Voyeur" is the second outstanding short story in his collection, More Twisted. A good, engaging story, interesting characters, and great plot unfolding. Two great stories in a row...hopefully the string will continue...

Next up: I've already begun The Company of Liers by David Ellis

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Glorieta Pass

The second book I had selected for my trip to San Diego was Glorieta Pass, by PG Nagle as the first part of her "Civil War in the West" series. I have to say, books like this one are the main reason I read historical fiction. Most of us know quite a bit about the major battles of the Civil War, fought in the East but few know of just how far west the action stretched. I grew up in New Mexico but never knew much about the state's role in the Civil War. I have driven near Glorieta often but never knew the history of that place. So it was with great anticipation that I began reading this novel.

The novel itself seems to have been well researched. We learn of the basics of the situation: elements of the army in Texas pushing northward through New Mexico along the Rio Grande, leading to a great battle against Colorado volunteers at Glorieta Pass. The goal of the Texans was Pikes Peak gold but they were held off because of this bloody battle.

While the writing was well done, I found the characters to be pretty standard stock issue types. The male characters were mostly governed by their brutish behavior while the females were honorable, intelligent, and courageous to the point of being foolhardy. I don't know if that is because the author is female or that's just the way she wanted certain characters to behave...I make no judgements. Having said that, I did still enjoy seeing the history evolve through their eyes and I am interested to see what happens in the next book. This is what draws me to historical fiction...living the experiences through characters. I like reading text books to get the facts but historical fiction makes it come alive.

I also have to mention a twist at the end of the novel concerning one of the main characters (no spoilers here). I feel like I should have seen it coming but in retrospect it was such a ridiculous twist that I wouldn't have noticed the clues anyway. Readers of this novel will know what I mean. This is Ms Nagle's debut novel so hopefully she won't stoop to such tricks in the future. Her prose is worthy of greater things.

Yesterday, I finished the next short story in the Deaver collection, More Twisted. "Copycat" was the best yet; this one really hit the mark. Finally this collection deals a winner, a story that builds the suspense and has several twists that really keeps you guessing on who did what to whom. The end was very satisfying and not predictable. Hopefully, there are more gems like this one in the remainder of the collection.

Next up: finishing off the Psi Corps series with The Fate of Bester.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Retreat, Hell!

Well, I've made it through my 4 day business trip to San Diego and am proud to say it was very productive. Actually the conference I attended was mostly a waste of time and money but it was productive in that I got a lot of reading done while I waited for airplanes, or rode aboard them. Since it was in San Diego, I managed to eat out at great restaurants each evening (put on about 2 pounds though!).

During the trip I completed Retreat, Hell by W.E.B. Griffin. This was the 10th book in his fiction series involving the US Marine Corps. I almost always enjoy Griffin's work, especially the historical tidbits that make it all interesting. He takes ordinary people and thrusts them into extraordinary historical circumstances, a technique which alows us to go along for the ride and see perspectives on historical events that you wouldn't normally experience in history textbooks.

This particular entry in the series was one of the best of the entire series. It follows the series regulars as they interact in Korea in 1950. We get to experience events surrounding the Inchon landing all the way up to the final confrontation between MacArthur and Truman. An interesting subplot involves the issue of medals for valor being awarded like candy, often to those who don't deserve them. I was happy to see the protagonists of the story fight against this practice and attempt to turn them down. I believe this is the last book in his "Corps" series as most of the loose ends were tied up and it ends on a happy note. It's been a good run.

More on the next novel I read during the trip (most of it anyway) in the next post.

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