Thursday, May 28, 2009


Last night I completed my latest WOE reading. Some of you will remember that I try never to waste a moment, and especially not 5-10 minutes at a time if I could be doing something productive. So for most of my adult life I have engaged in what I call WOE reading. WOE stands for "While Otherwise Engaged" and is a polite way to say that I like to read when I am using the ol' WC. That's "water closet" for you young Americans. I've never read a "Bathroom Reader" but that doesn't mean I don't read in the bathroom.

So I've been reading George Orwell's classic 1984 for several months now, usually for just a few minutes at a time. Now you might think this makes it hard to stay with a novel but most of the time, at least for me, it makes it a much more drawn out process that it's like I become a part of the novel itself. This one took even longer than most classics that I read in this manner because my parents gave me a subscription to the Reader's Digest magazine for some reason and that tends to make its way in to my sacred space. I just gotta page through that sucker every time it's there.

So what can I say about this book that hasn't been said before? Having read it I can see how it has become regarded as classic fiction. Of course the year 1984 has come and gone and many folks say had it been titled "2009" it would have been much more accurate. I chose this book because my son had to read it for school (I was never assigned this one myself) but I always felt I "should" read it. So I have now. For those of you who haven't read it, it is a complex novel but with a fairly basic plot. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a functioning member of a society in the future who meets a woman he is attracted to. Much of the book surrounds their attempt to form a relationship in this society that just won't allow that sort of thing. Of course the real point and value of the novel is to illustrate where our current society may be headed if we don't change course, a sort of anti-utopian (dystopian?) novel. This book has brought us common terms such as "Big Brother", "doublethink", and "thought police." There are long sections where Winston reads to his girl friend from the official government manual detailing how the society came to be as well as the evolution of the government-speak ("Newspeak")language. An appendix further clarifies the language constructs. I am glad that I've read this novel but at the same time I can't say that I would ever want to read it again. My political/societal views are already pretty much cemented in place and this book, while thought provoking, did not change my views. I do agree that it should be studied at the High School level though, not only for its value to the world of literature but also as a way to kick start young people's thinking on what a society should and shouldn't be.

Ultimately this can be viewed as a hopeful book in that we can all chose to insure we remain commited to a truthful society, free to pursue independent thought, and vigilant against too much governmental control.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Paragon Lost

I enjoyed a nice long Memorial Day weekend and even extended it an extra day because I was having so much fun. Well that's not the whole truth...I was, indeed, having lots of fun but my workplace actually was down for four whole days so I reaped the benefits. Besides catching up on my main World of Warcraft character and watching lots of episodes of my current TV series DvDs, I managed to do quite a bit of reading as well.

Yesterday I finished up Paragon Lost by Dave Duncan. This is the fourth published novel in his loosely connected King's Blades fantasy series. The first trilogy, "Tales of the King's Blades" all take place in the same time frame and the plots are fairly well interconnected. The second three, "The Chronicles of the King's Blades," appear to be much more stand-alone novels taking place in the same general era. Mr Duncan himself states these novels can be read in any order without losing comprehension. I would recommend, however, that you read that first set of three books prior to reading any of the last three. I think it would enrich the experience since he doesn't go into much historical detail and why things are the way they are. By the way, three young adult shorter novels called the King's Daggers also exist but I have not read them.

I really enjoy the concept of these books. The King's Blades are basically graduates of an academy of sorts where the students learn swordplay among many other aspects of life in this medieval setting. Eventually most are assigned a ward to whom they are "bound" for life. They dedicate their lives to that person's protection, sort of a medieval secret service bodyguard. There is an intriguing binding process which I will not spoil for you but one of its side effects is that the blade himself no longer requires sleep. This novel follows the life and times of Sir Beaumont, or "Beau" to his friends. Beau is one of the very best swordsmen to ever come out of the school but now his other skills will be put to the test. Beau needs to use wit and charm and guile, and even some downright dirty politics to succeed. The story is told largely in flashback. The reader first encounters him as a simple small village trainer of sword fighting techniques but we quickly get thrust back to his glorious school days followed by his difficult assignment. I tend to enjoy these sorts of plots, always intrigued to get answers to the question of how our protagonist got to a particular predicament or station in life.

Mr Duncan writes this engaging story in a most satisfactory manner. He mixes action with characterization fluidly, never allowing the plot to get bogged down nor his characters to act, well... uncharacteristically. I like the way he builds intrigue and how the characters must rely on other skills than fighting prowess to solve situations. There is quite a bit of political mechanizations involved here which makes the plot complicated and yet we never lose track or focus on what is occurring. The conclusion is satisfying and definitely wraps up the story although I, for one, am happy there are still two more to be read, even if they involve different characters.

I also completed the second short story in Stephen King's Skeleton Crew. "Here There be Tygers" is probably the shortest of all of the stories in the collection at only about 3-4 pages. A little boy in the third grade, scared of his teacher, must go to the bathroom, and encounters a tiger there. Huh? We never know what is real or what is in his imagination and the story just isn't long enough to build any suspense. But Mr King certainly does have a knack for characterization, even when give little time or space to work with. That little boy is scared! I just wish the ending was more satisfying.

I'm also making a lot of progress on my morning reading biography of Lord Nelson as well as a few other reading projects.

Next up for my main book is Walter M. Miller Jr's A Canticle for Liebowitz.

Friday, May 22, 2009


I've completed another audio book, Bittersweet, by Nevada Barr. Followers of this blog will know that I have a fairly long commute to work each day and I like to listen to audio books (at least as long as my son isn't in the car...he prefers his iPod music). I pick out my audio books from the library, usually on a whim. Often I pick based on the quality of the case. That's not to say I am judging the "book" by its cover but rather I have borrowed several older recordings only to suffer through lots of scratches and skipping on the CDs so I would rather take my chances on the newer aquisitions.

I selected this novel because of the author, Nevada Barr. I have never read any of her work but have heard great things about her mystery series involving a park ranger. Supposedly, they are a "different" sort of mystery. Since this was a stand-alone book I thought I'd give it a try. Overall I can say Ms Barr impresses me as a writer. This is basically a western novel but definitely a "different" sort of western.

Ms Barr's word choice is superb. Her descriptions of the locale, the scenery, the very sounds and smells of each scene put the reader right there. Her characters are well rounded and react to their situations as real people would. They change and grow and evolve throughout the book and the reader grows with them. The emotions they go through are so real that we feel it too. Almost too real. The novel itself is bleak as can be and the overall experience was one emotional catastrophe after another. It centers around Imogene, a lady school teacher in rural 1800's Pennsylvania and Sarah, one of her female students. Through a series of circumstances they are forced to move to Reno Nevada and then once again to the middle of nowhere in Nevada where they manage a stagecoach stop. Sarah grows from a weak-kneed wishy-washy girl to a strong willed matron of the West. Along the way is one personal tragedy after another leading to what could be a rather depressing reading experience. If you don't like to read depressing novels then this may not be for you. However, Ms Barr's story-telling ability makes this more of a poignant work than just a novel of tragedy. The main characters overcome (or succomb to, depending on your point of view) rape, spousal abuse, being outcast from their homes, the death of an adopted child, the stigma of lesbian love, and of course the trials and tribulations of being women in the West during that era. But through it all is the experience of being there. It is a story of true love and the willingness to live outside accepted practices...and all of the consequences that are thereby inherent.

I'll be happy to try out her mystery series now and will expect a "different" sort of mystery than the formula series we see so often.'s off to the library once again!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Mist

As promised, I am making a seperate blog entry for The Mist by Stephen King. This is the first "short story" in his Skeleton Crew collection. It runs about 150 pages or so, making it a novella by definition. And of course there has been a movie adaptation recently released thus sparking a seperate publication of this story in a stand-alone book. I haven't seen the movie but may rent it now that I've read the story.

This story was among the best I've read by Stephen King (and I've read a lot of his work). Many people have said that Mr King occasionally runs long in his descriptions and can sometimes use a good editor. I don't always agree because I just love the way he writes so much that it's hard to get too much of it. Nevertheless, this story is quite the opposite. Some might think that it is simply an extended version of a short story, that he has done it again by padding the actual story to make it longer. I think just the opposite is the is a very tightly woven story, if anything, a novel condensed down to the bare essentials. The characterization is superb; we get to know and understand the main characters in a remarkably short time. The actual time line of the story takes place over just a few days and we live every moment with them. The structure is a rather basic "bunch of people trapped in a single location with the horror element just waiting for them to come out." But the way in which he builds the horror is pure vintage King. Never too many details to bring the horror into focus and thus diminish the impact but rather crafting the unknown in such a way that the character's imaginations fill in the details and increase the horror that much further. I've never been one to love blatent splatter horror at the expense of true suspenseful horror and King does not disappoint. In fact there is no big discovery of just what the horror in the mist really is nor where it came from. Although we do get just enough of the "tentacle", "leathery wings", "horrid smell" stuff to put us in the proper mood.

My only disappointment comes with the brief sex scene in the middle. At the beginning of the story the protagonist is deeply in love with his wife and yet only 36 hours later, not knowing if she is still alive or not, he and another trapped victim have sexual intercourse. I think the point was that they both "needed something" at that point and the future looked bleak but I found it a bit of a stretch.

All in all a great start to this short story collection and I can't wait to get to more between my other novel reading. And speaking of that I've begun Dave Duncan's fantasy novel Paragon Lost, another in his "King's Blades" series.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Split Second

Well, isn't that a fine kettle of fish! There I was at my lunch break today hoping I would have enough time to finish the last 70 pages or so of David Baldacci's Split Second. I rarely have enough time to read more than 50 pages of a standard novel at lunch so I was expecting that I might have to "forget" to get back from lunch on time, thereby allowing me to wrap it up. However, the pages in this book fly by and I actually finished it with a good 15 minutes to go! There I was stuck with no book to read and 15 minutes before I needed to return to the office.

Life goes on. I was very much looking forward to reading this book. After all, Absolute Power won my "best of the year" award for 2007. (I know it was published years earlier but I read it in 2007 and that's all that counts). That was my first and only Baldacci novel to date and I was anxious to see if the quality would continue to all of his other novels. Since it was also the first novel he had written, I was a bit wary because it seems often a new author spends years getting it just right only to be very successful and then be under the gun (or contract) to get another one out every year or so.

This particular book was a good read. It started out very well indeed and I know why Mr Baldacci has been on the best seller list all this time. His first book was no fluke afterall. This book starts a series involving the same two protagonists: Sean King, ex-secret service agent and Michelle Maxwell, current secret service agent, but just having screwed up an assignment. It is an intriguing situation because both characters are very competent people and very likable. There is a fair share of thriller action in this book which keeps the pages turning however, it tends to be more mystery than Mr Baldacci's novels usually contain...or so I've heard. That mystery part of the plot is fairly complex and involves quite a number of smaller characters. The wrap up at the end seems a bit hokey to me but I might just be holding this book to such high expectations that I couldn't help but be let down just a little. Don't get me wrong, it did nothing to disuade me from reading future novels from this author, in fact I very much look forward to them. But when I checked on Amazon to see what other people thought it seems this book is among the least favorites of all of his work. If that is the case then future Baldacci reading will be great!

So it's short story time now and the first up in Skeleton Crew is actually the novella, "The Mist" which is long enough, and reportedly fantastic enough to deserve its own blog entry. See you then.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Mythology of Native North America

Last night I completed reading The Mythology of Native North America, by David Leeming and Jake Page. Followers of this blog will remember that I like to intersperse my novel reading with short stories, breaking up the longer works as well as allowing me to actually read some of my short story collections. For some reason I have never enjoyed reading many short stories one after the other so this process works for me.

I had hoped this book on mythology would work in the same way. After all a myth is usually written as a short story and I could simply read one or two of them between novels. However, this particular book is more of a text book, in some ways, about Native American Mythology. It certainly relayed many myths from widespread native American tribes and I enjoyed most of them pretty well. But there was also a lot of good explanation about the origins of the myths, how similar they were to many other world religions, and other pertanent facts. The book was a very good introduction for those that know little about this sort of mythology even if it wasn't what I had hoped for as far as serving my short story purpose.

The book is written almost like it was a master's thesis--lots of references to other works, citing source material etc. Definitely a necessity for the acedemic environment for which I believe it was intended. The authors divide the myths into major themes such as creation, flood, the afterlife, etc. I was truly surprised to see the similarities to other world mythology including Greek/Roman, Norse, Hebrew, Egyptian, etc. Most of the actual stories involving the myths were fairly plain and simple but the last section that dealt with the heroes and monster killing was probably my favorite. I suppose I am always a sucker for action and adventure no matter what form it takes. Since the book didn't break down into just a bunch of stories like I was expecting, I found myself reading quite a bit of it in between novels. I now have a taste for what these myths are and where they came from and can appreciate the themes that are there. I'm glad to have read this book but I think overall I still prefer the more common, familiar mythology such as the Greek pantheon, perhaps because it is so familiar.

So my next short story collection will be a return to the more normal format: Stephen King's Skeleton Crew. I'll share my thoughts on each entry as I finish it, tacking it on to the novel blog entry just as before.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Guns of Valverde

As expected I didn't get quite as much reading done this last week as I normally do. Lots going on in our household, mostly because it is May, the end of the school year. It wasn't until today at lunchtime that I finished reading the final few pages of P.G. Nagle's The Guns of Valverde. Normally I would have expected to have completed this one on or about Saturday but just too much going on.

This book is the second of Ms Nagle's "Civil War in the West" series. I read the first one, Glorietta Pass earlier this year and while I enjoyed it mostly, I felt it didn't quite live up to its potential. And it had a cop-out surprise at the end that rubbed me the wrong way. So it was with some small trepidation that I began to read this second volume of the series. But as I read this book, I was gratified to revisit most of the same characters from the first book, be reminded of their motivations, and watch them grow. I was happy to follow the plot as well because it involves more of New Mexico, my home state (although I haven't lived there for many years). There were some spots that dragged just a bit but the last 50 pages or so were spot-on driving towards a satisfying conclusion. No egghead suprises this time. From the author's note at the end of the book, it is evident that she has done a lot of research and I have no doubt that the history is correct (other than the fictional characters of course), but more importantly she tells a good story. It seems that the author has grown in ability some since the first book and now I'm really looking forward to the next in the series, Galveston which should take the characters further in their adventures. There is a fourth book as well coming out in paperback this year although it has been published in hardback back in 2003. I haven't heard of any more in the series and I am a little afraid that Ms Nagle has retired from writing or gone on to other things. Hopefully she is just busy researching some other historical arena that I will find fascinating to read about in novel format.

Next up is only my second David Baldacci novel: Split Second.

And just to update my Swedish empire (Empire: Total War computer game) progress, well, that scenario is over. There were some aspects of the game that I hadn't realized before and I overextended myself. I had built up so many armies and they were effectively taking over the world, but my treasury couldn't keep up with the demands. I also had progressed so far in my knowledge tree that the citizens were demanding reform and there is no mechanism in the game for me to change from absolute monarchy to any other form of government. So when the citizens wanted a Republic, I couldn't give it to them and so they just rebelled all over the place. So next time I will keep them unenlightened like any good monarchy should. And to test this theory out I have begun a new campaign in the subcontinent of India, playing the Maratha Confederacy. I'll keep you posted on this as well...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I've been a bit under the weather for the past few days so I've been a little behind on my posts. I actually finished Drinkwater: A Sobering Tale About a Medieval Knight, by Otto Scamfer last Saturday morning. But then on Sunday I got this bad cold that just has me floored. I was off work for two days which is a lot for me, and even today I'm trying to take it easy.

This is a book that was given to me by the author in return for an Amazon review. I'll write this blog entry first before I decide if I will actually post a review on Amazon or not. You see, this book has something going for it but it falls short in so many ways. The basic story, about a medieval knight-in-training who has been a drunkard most of his life, is cute. It's basic and it is written to formula. There are three distinct acts, the action is plotted over those three acts like clockwork, and we have all of the elements of textbook story-telling. So much so that I kept hoping for something to shake up the predictable plot. But to no avail. Of course the hero will overcome his destructive drinking habits and become a "drinkwater." Of course he will be bested by a bully in the first few pages and spend the rest of the book fulfilling his thirst for revenge. Of course he will fall in love with a low-born peasant girl and despite his own high birth, win her just before she marries the bully from scene one. And of course he will gain such fabulous combat skills with sword and lance (from an Obi-Wan type mentor that is killed at the end of act one) that he can defeat the evil "dark lord" who has been the reigning champion for years and years (and who has no relevance to the plot otherwise). Have we seen this before?

The title would suggest that overcoming his drinking problem would be the protagonist's central battle. But this is largely resolved in the first 30 pages or so. He only falls off the wagon once during the rest of the book but even that is still in Act one and so the suspense is over for that particular plot thread. Then it becomes a revenge/take my rightful place story. It's too bad. I think the author has potential to write well. The book did read evenly and easily; it was clear and easy to understand. I would promote it to the young adult market if it were my book although I first came across it as an "adventure" story in the Amazon forums. There are some scenes that depict the bloody results of a sword fight, etc. but otherwise it is pretty innocent. It's published by what looks to be a small press but it could be self-published. There were several glaring grammatical errors but I understand most small press publishers don't do much, if any, editing, forcing the author to do all of it.

So, you can see my dilemma. If I write a review for Amazon I will be forced to give it a low grade and thus potentially hurt the author's sales. I feel sure he would rather have no review than a negative one, especially considering the other current reviews which are all positive. I'm sure there is a scientific correlation between giving books away for free and positive reviews. I wish to encourage the author, not burst his bubble so I'm leaning towards no review for Amazon. I do hope the author continues to write as I suspect he has learned much from writing this one and future novels will be better and better. Otto, if you're reading this just let me know. And for your next novel, throw away all of the textbook stuff and go with your creative element. Be original and have fun at the same time.

I've already begun reading (and am half way through) my next novel, the second in the "Civil War in the Far West" series by P.G. Nagle, The Guns of Valverde. It's a busy rest of the week and weekend though so who knows when I will actually finish it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity

Wow, that title sounds like I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning doesn't it? Actually, it's the title of the morning book I've been reading for the past week and a half or so. It's by John Stossel, the co-anchor of ABC News' 20/20 fame, and the full title of the book is Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel - Why Everything You Know is Wrong. It's an interesting title and how I came to read this book is interesting in itself. You see, my college-enrolled daughter got the list of books required for last year's Fall semester and she and my wife decided to try and buy them on-line which is usually a much cheaper route for buying text books. (Just make sure you get the correct edition and not last year's version). Now the fact that my daughter is majoring in archeology and the required reading would include a book by a major league consumer reporter on TV didn't lead them to question the choice because as we all know a "well-rounded" college education includes all sorts of required course work that might be outside the main subject matter.

Well, turns out the list was wrong after all; they had listed the wrong book for the course. But by then we already had it and I, for one, was happy to see this book arrive in the mail. It would be perfect for my morning reading program! (The 20-30 minutes prior to driving to work each morning). Now, I don't watch a lot of TV when it actually aires, mostly confining myself to DVDs so I can watch entire seasons without interruption or commercials and I particularly don't care for shows like 60 Minutes or 20/20. But over the years I have seen John Stossel a time or two and I've seen him as a guest on other shows. I have admired his history in overcoming a stuttering problem and I knew that he has become a voice for Libertarians, something rarely found in the main stream media. And he isn't an ambush know those kind that ambush people, stick a microphone in their face and expect them to come up with coherent answers to provocative questions. John Stossel gets their permission before putting them on camera. But besides all that there is just something about John Stossel that I like.

The book itself is a series of ideas that the vast majority of Americans (and citizens around the world) hold to be truths, but in this book Mr Stossel holds them up to the light of evidence and exposes them as merely myths. They are grouped in all sorts of major categories such as "Clueless Media", "Bashing Businesss", "Monster Government", "The Lawsuit Racket", "Consumer Cons", etc. He does an excellent job I think at debunking most of the myths he presents although there are a few that could have used more substance to back up his view. He is strongest in the chapters on business, big government, and America's public schools. I've heard some of the consumer myths before such as the one about the use of cell phones causing explosions at the gas pump. I actually saw that one debunked on the TV show "Mythbusters". But his greater point is that even though we know that to be a myth, we still require gas stations to put those stupid stickers on every gas pump in America. Once an "improvement" has been made, it stays around forever, even if the unintended consequences are worse than the original problem.

And this leads to his larger arguement which is to support the concepts of Libertarianism. In fact, the final chapter in the book, a short wrap up of his philosophy, summarizes why he considers himself a Libertarian. Bigger and bigger government, despite the best of intentions, (hopefully) often leads to less freedoms for all of us. It's interesting to note the Amazon reviews of this book. While some like it for what it is, many throw it away in disgust because he has a different political viewpoint from them. Where has the concept of open-mindedness gone in this country? Are we so partisan that the other side is 100% wrong on everything they do? Is there no room for a third point of view? or 4th or 5th? This book is a fairly easy and quick read and while it may not change your particular political philosophy it does have quite a few eye-opening points and I think if you let yourself be open to it, it will at least make you think. In fact I've noticed a change in my own behavior in the last week or so as I've begun to question what everybody in the office just accepts as fact. I'll ask questions like "How do we know such and such is really the case?" It might be just a long-held belief in how a process works when in fact the process isn't working at all. Now that's the kind of book that can change things for the better!
Strange...this post didn't take when I tried to post it last week. Some kind of problem they were having with Blogger I guess. Anyway, my apologies for any confusion from the odd posting that has been up since last Friday.

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