Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Raiders

We had an early snow/wind storm this morning so I was allowed a two hour delay in coming in to work. That allowed me to finish up The Raiders by Harold Robbins. This is the sequel to the The Carpetbaggers, one of the most successful bestsellers of all time. However, this one was written 34 years after the first one and I can tell you it is not nearly as good.
It is now 1951 and the main character, Jonas Cord ( a Howard Hughes type of tycoon) is under subpoena to appear before a Senate committee about his business practices. So he flees to Mexico where he discovers that he has an illegitimate son by an old girlfriend. The novel becomes as much about the son as it does about the father, especially how the son is becoming just like his father. Along the way, the Cords move into the Las Vegas scene, building hotels and casinos, nudging in on mafia territory. At the same time their Hollywood production studios turns to television production. I wish the story focused on that as well as the father-son relationship but unfortunately, it gets bogged down with numerous lesser characters including their extensive back stories. I did enjoy the cameo appearances by prominant people of the times such as Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Hoffa, Che Guevera, Jack Benny, as well as several mobsters that I'm not sure are historical or fictional. But the story really suffers from cardboard Hollywood starlets, cliche'd mobster types, and the never ending sexual escapades of both father and son. Harold Robbins is known for that kind of thing but since The Carpetbaggers contained several well-developed characters, and a good plot, I had hoped for the same thing here.

The only satisfaction I got from the novel is to see what happened to the various characters from the first novel. There was some closure on that and there was a fairly happy ending. All the same, I'm glad this one is behind me.
I was also able to read the last of Harlan Ellison's short stories in the current section of The Essential Ellison. "Strange Wine" was a quick read and concerned a space alien that had been living on Earth as a human. He's had many bad experiences here on Earth, including the death of his daughter, estranged wife, bad that he commits suicide. But then he wakes up back on his native planet and is reminded of the horrible lives they all lived there. The moral of the story seems to be that if we really think about it, life is good. It was an odd story to me and seemed to be missing something. This isn't the first time that Mr Ellison has made me feel I am not intelligent enough to fully appreciate his writing :) Since this section of this large volume of stories is now complete, I'll turn to a different collection of short stories next.

Next up for novels: I've been feeling the need for some old fashioned fantasy fiction, not necessarily high brow stuff, so I think I will turn to the first of "The Harpers" series, The Parched Sea, by Troy Denning.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Castles on the Rhine

Today, I completed the latest book in my morning reading program. For new readers of this blog, these are the books I read in the 30-40 minutes before driving to work each day. Since I had recently completed the gigantic biography of Douglas MacArthur, I chose a relatively then book this time, Castles on the Rhine. This is a thin volume that I bought years ago when I lived in Germany the first time. I often pick up books that will later remind me of the times I spent in certain parts of the world. I'll often save them to read until years later when they really serve their purpose in bringing back the fond memories. This one was no exception.

The book is actually volume 2 of the "Rheinisches Land" Collection. I do not have the first volume and am not aware of it's subject matter. This volume was prepared by Dr. Walther Ottendorff-Simrock and does a good job of detailing most (if not all) of the numerous castles along the Rhein River in Germany, between the cities of Mainz and Cologne (Koln). There are a lot of castles through this stretch and I have seen many of them from boat as well as car as we drove along this fantastically scenic part of the world. I've been in about 6 of them but there is so much history surrounding this area that I was happy to dive back into it via this book. I will say that it did serve the purpose but I was a little disappointed in the format of the book. There are lots of great photographs of the castles but generally only of the exteriors. This works for the castles that are mostly ruins but the others often have fantastic interiors which would be of interest. The author presented the history of each castle, what its primary purpose was (defense, river toll collecting, etc.) and added in some info for tourists such as if the castle is open to the public or a private residence, operating hours, etc. The second problem I encountered was that most of the castle descriptions were many pages away from their photos. That required lots of paging back and forth in order to see what I was reading about. I didn't see a need for that; it's not as if all the pictures were collected together in plates. Pretty much each page had a photo on it as well as description...just not matching. I had to count on the "picture on page xx" instructions and when we're talking about 45-50 castles, that's a lot of paging back and forth.

But still, it really brought me back to that time and place, both the times when the castles were active as well as back to the time I lived nearby. Fond memories indeed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


It was very cold out today but I persevered and spent my lunch break in my car anyway amidst swirling snow flakes and a bitterly cold wind. That's so I could complete Galveston, by P.G. Nagle. My fingers were cold and my hands were shaking and I even had to start the car's motor just to keep the heat up to a reasonable level. But I had to do it because I really wanted to finish this book.

This is the third book of a four book series about the Civil War in the Far West. I enjoyed the first book, Glorieta Pass quite a bit but I did see flaws in it. The second book, The Guns of Valverde was much less enjoyable although still not a bad book. I've been delaying reading this third book because of that, worried that the series was deteriorating. However, I was way off base. This novel was thoroughly enjoyable and I'm now really looking forward to the last book of the series, Red River, which has just been published in paperback.

This is not a civil war book that is filled with battle scenes. Quite the contrary. We follow three main characters through the story. Jaime is a confederate soldier, formerly of the Quartermaster corps but he now commands an artillery battery. He's been with us since the first book. We also follow his sister, Emma, as well as a Union naval ship master, Quincy. Galveston, Texas is the scene as union ships set up a naval blockade and invade the town while Confederate forces fight back. There is really only one major battle scene in the book, at the climax near the end, but the mounting tension throughout the novel makes for a great story. The story builds for the first half of the book as the players move into place and we get to see elements of the society of the times. That's what I like about historical fiction, a chance to "live" in the times represented. There is lots of good characterization here as we experience day-to-day living with these characters, see their ups and downs, fret over relationships and hope for better times. Ms Nagle seems to have grown as a story teller with this entry and I plan to move the last book of the series up on my reading list. Interestingly, I recently wrote the author to see if she would be writing any more in this series or any historical fiction for that matter. She replied very graciously to say that she has recently published a "romantic fantasy" novel under the name "Pati Nagle" and that she had no further plans for this series...but you never know.

I also completed one more essay/story from Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison. This one was called "Gopher in the Gilly" and concerns a time when the author was 13 years old and ran away to the circus. He lives and works with them for three months before being arrested and spending 3 days in jail with a "geek," a psycho drunkard that found employment with the circuses in those days because they were willing to do anything, and I mean anything, for the job. The circus experience was not at all what the author, the "gopher" was expecting, and was a truly horrible time. The piece is a short and somewhat bitter commentary on the society of the day, and how a child's dreams can be dashed with hard core reality.

Next up, The Raiders, by Harold Robbins, the sequel to The Carpetbaggers.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The House of Thunder

I've completed my latest audio book. This time it was The House of Thunder, by Dean Koontz. It seems like I am reading a bunch of horror novels lately (not to mention haunted house stories) but that's just the way its worked out. I chose this particular book almost be default. I've been trying a new library that is closer to my work place, making it easier to pick up and drop off but turns out there are very few audio books there that aren't abridged. This was just about the only one I found that was unabridged, and since I've read quite a few Koontz novels before I felt pretty safe in my pick.

Having said that, Dean Koontz can be hit or miss for me. Happily, this one was one of the better Koontz novels I've experienced. I've read enough Koontz to realize that I tend to like his earlier stuff better so perhaps that is why I liked this one. Apparently this was first published in the early 1980's under one of Koontz' pseudonyms. And it's not a haunted house novel in the usual sense at all...more of a haunted hosipital. It has a cool premise and setup for a horror situation. The protagonist, Susan Thornton, wakes up from a coma (from an auto accident) with amnesia. At first her recovery experiences are pretty normal but soon she starts to hallucinate about hospital staff members being bad guys from a murder she witnessed 13 years ago, a murder that resulted in the death of her fiance. That progresses into even more strange happenings, some of a truly horrifying nature and Susan begins to question her own sanity. It's a cool setup for a horror novel because we, the readers, aren't any more sure of what's going on than Susan herself. We can really get into her position and suffer along with her as she tries to sort out fiction from reality. Is she really hallucinating? Is she crazy? Or is something more sinister going on. And because it's a Koontz novel, we can never discount the possibility that supernatural forces are at work here.

The narration was well done on the audio book which always leads to a better experience. They used two people, a male and a female to do the different parts so that helped suspend the disbelief. The resolution was a slight let-down for me as the novel itself changed from a horror novel to more of a spy/thriller story and Koontz does the former better than the later. But the plot was still smooth and the ending was comfortable. All in all an enjoyable "read".

F my next audio book: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. No, I've never read it so I figured an audio format might be the only way I ever get this one done. And no, it's not abridged (went back to my old library) so I should get the full impact of one of the great classics.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

House of Reckoning

Today I completed the latest Amazon "Vine" program book, House of Reckoning, by John Saul. This is the first John Saul book I have ever read although I had listened to one in audio book format. That one had a great premise but seemed somewhat clumsy in its execution and even boring. The boring nature of it could have been a by-product of the audio book production as that does sometimes happen. So in my never ending search for good horror writing, I thought I'd give him another chance.

House of Reckoning has a fairly standard premise for a horror tale. A 14-year old girl named Sarah is hit by a drunk driver (who happens to be her father) and since her mother has already passed away, she is put into a foster home while her father has to go to jail. Sarah now has a disability and walks with a limp. We learn of her amazing artistic ability and we meet a fellow student of hers, named Nick who hears voices. Then there is Sarah's art teacher who lives alone in an old house that used to be an insane asylum. Of course all of this intertwines and we experience a pretty typical haunted house sort of story. These three characters must come together because everybody else in the town is a one dimensional, sterotypical character who delights in teasing a 14 year old girl with a limp and proclaiming the art teacher who lives in the old house, a "witch".

The story reads easily and the plot is easy to follow. Definitely a quick read. Unfortunately, the novel abounds with problems. Chief among them is the way the characters behave, especially the "bad" characters. Sarah's foster family makes Cinderella's step family look like angels. They treat Sarah like a slave, demanding total obedience in all things while they kick back with their feet up. They proclaim their Christianity and blame Sarah and the devil inside her for everything that goes wrong. How stereotypical can you get? The rest of the town includes the power hungry sheriff, his son who happens to be the school bully, etc. all of which make fun of Sarah the gimp. The concept of the haunted house itself, had potential as a great character in its own right and it does take matters into its own hands, so to speak. I won't provide spoilers but suffice it to say that the great concept that the author begins with never really pans out. When it comes time for the horror to shine through, it's rather dull. Events are wrapped up in a tidy manner, just so conveniently that one wonders if the word count was approaching the limit.

Despite having pointed out all of these negative things, I actually enjoyed reading the novel. I did want to see what happens next, so obviously it wasn't all bad. This is John Saul's 36th novel to date. He sells a lot of books and obviously, prolific authors have hits and misses. My search for good horror writing goes on but I haven't entirely given up on John Saul.

In contrast to this novel, I completed the marvelous short story in Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison, "Tired Old Man". This, reportedly, is one of Ellison's favorite among the numerous stories he has written. It's a first person account of a successful writer of mysteries who reluctantly spends time at a boring writer's forum but happily encounters an old man with whom he has a delightful conversation. The old man sees through the front that the protagonist puts up and gets him to see himself in a new light. The plot is simple but the essence of the story and how it conveys that essence to the reader is truly fantastic. It is based on an encounter that Ellison, himself, once had with an old man who he did not know at the time but later discovered was his favorite writer, Cornell Woolrich. I see why Ellison likes this story so much and, no doubt, this story will stay with me as well for a long time to come.

Next up: Galveston, by P.G. Nagle, the third book in the "Civil War in the West" series.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shield of Lies

Last night I finished the second book in the Star Wars "Black Fleet Crisis" trilogy, Shield of Lies, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell. I had read the first one back in mid-July and it just wasn't good enough to make me want to rush out and read the next one. But since I am a completest and I want to finish the trilogy by the end of the year I decided it was time to get moving on the second one.

Despite all of the negative reviews on Amazon, I actually like this one a lot more than the first. It suffers from the age old problem of being the middle book of a trilogy and Mr Kube-McDowell apparently chose to tackle that in a slightly different way. Part of the problem I had with the first book was its tendancy to quickly jump around from one group of people to another, with a different point-of-view character all the time. It tried to be about too many things. This time, the author chose to boil it all down to three main threads each of which gets its own section. Thus there is a section, about 100 pages long, about what Lando is doing and then we move to another 100 page section on what Luke is doing and finally we end up with the rest of the book about what Leia is doing (and how Han is trying to support her). So in a way it reads like three novellas; each section has very little to do with the others except that they are occurring at the same time.

For me that was easier to read. I could keep track of what was happening much better and I had a chance to get to know the lesser characters before jumping off to another part of the galaxy. The book still has some areas that were difficult for me to follow because they dealt with minor characters I had never heard of before, usually aliens of some kind and I wasn't sure how they related to the greater plot. Perhaps the very knowledgeable Star Wars fan would be better off than I, but it can be tough to read about a character named Fr'zu'lk who happens to be of the Mazzanik race and have the scene start off as if you already know who they are and what they look like. I'm making up that name and race because I don't have the book in front of me now but they might as well be the real names used in the book because I never did learn anything about Fr'zu'lk during his two paragraphs and we never return to him. I wonder if the author was just trying to add "realism" to the Star Wars universe or perhaps please the super fans but he failed on that score with readers like me.

Having said that, there are some intriguing plot points developing in this trilogy and the author does succeed at building a good setup for the final book. Luke, Leia, Han, and Lando are all deeply involved with their individual story arcs and I really expect they will all come together in the final novel. I won't wait as long to read that one either because I do want to know what happens next.

I also read the next essay entry in The Essential Ellison, a huge collection of Harlan Ellison's works. Following the essay on his father and how little he really knew him, Ellison presents "My Mother," originally a newspaper column entry. He reveals more about his childhood and how he was sort of the black sheep of the family. He includes the eulogy he gave at her funeral and the reaction he got from family members. There is no doubt about his writing ability; his essays are intresting indeed but I look forward to a return to his short stories.

Next up is a Vine program entry: House of Reckoning by John Saul

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

American Caesar

This morning I completed the latest book in my morning reading program, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964 by William Manchester. Wow, what a read! This is a long biography, coming in at over 700 pages (not counting the lengthy bibliography and source material references). I bought this book back at the beginning of the year when I was on a trip to San Diego for work. I always pick up a book of some kind, usually nonfiction to help build my library and usually, I take years to get around to reading it. But this one seemed to fit my needs when I was ready and so I was very happy to tackle it.

This is, I believe, the best historical biography I have ever read...and I've read some great ones. Part of that may be due to the subject at hand, Douglas MacArthur, one of the more complicated personalities of history out there. A brilliant man, but flawed in several respects, he was such a major figure of American history and, indeed, world history. He was at once, a genius, a great leader of men, a supreme strategist, as well as an incredible egoist capable of monumental mistakes in judgement. I have heard numerous anecdotes throughout my life about this man but had never developed a complete picture of him or his life. William Manchester certainly satisfied that for me.

The book itself is delightful to read, packed not only with the facts of MacArthur's life and times, but also making a compelling case for MacArthur being one of history's greatest generals. We get a close-up look at his development of brilliant warfare strategies and how they came about. We see his tactics in war and we see how he reacts to his superiors and subordinates. We see his entire life, starting, actually before his birth with a good look at his father, a great general in his own right and we progress through his childhood and then his amazing career at West Point. We see his success in WWI and then spend a lot of time with him in the Pacific during WWII, and his ultimate shining moments as the near-emporer of Japan after the surrender. MacArthur seems to be mostly remembered for his time in the Korean War and his ultimate firing by Truman and that is truly unfortunate given his numerous remarkable accomplishments for so many decades prior.

But this book is far more than historical facts. The author gets behind the public personna and shows us the man himself. While reading the book, I felt like I knew MacArthur personally and was able to understand how and why he reacted to the great and tragic events of the 20th century. The book's title says it all...MacArthur was, indeed, the American Caesar. The author does a superb job of showing us all aspects of his character, making the reading of this book a truly great experience.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Crucible

I've completed another of my infamous "WOE" readings ("While Otherwise Engaged"...i.e. bathroom reading). This time it was The Crucible, the classic play by Arthur Miller. I chose this one because my high school son had performed the role of Thomas Putnam in the school play last year and the story was intriguing enough for me to pursue reading the actual source material. He also had to read it for school and since I like to read the great classics for WOE reading, it seemed the perfect option.

This, I believe, is the first play I've read since my own high school years. I think I prefer normal prose. I don't especially care for reading the character name in front of who is saying what all the messes up the illusion of what the characters are saying. Plays also tend to be almost entirely dialogue (duh) with only some minimal stage direction so anything that is not said aloud is left to the imagination. I don't "see" where the characters are standing or moving in relationship with each other, etc. and my mind tends to picture a stage instead of a room, or village, or gallows, etc. It therefore introduces an artificiality that wouldn't be present in a normal story. And finally, I had just seen the play itself so I was picturing those actors (all high school students) in the major roles. Once again this makes it more difficult to suspend disbelief.

So, I have determined that when reading a play one should not compare it to the experience of reading a novel or short story. One should appreciate it for the medium that it is. The story itself, for those who don't know, concerns the era of the Salem Witch Trials, and it exposes the hipocracy and downright absurdity of such a thing. Mr. Miller wrote this play in the early 1950's as a response to McCarthyism, and the parallels are intriguing. In fact, Mr Miller, himself, was to be questioned by the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities and was actually found in contempt of Congress for failing to identify others at meetings he attended. Such is the central theme of this play as well. It isn't enough that the character of John Proctor bows to the pressure and confesses to his own involvement with "witches" but stops short of confessing for others.

I found the play a fairly quick read but absorbing none-the-less. (No Charmin jokes here please). It has taken me quite some time to complete, however, due to my 3-week trip to Africa as well as a slew of Reader's Digests and my new subscription to "The Smithsonian" Magazine. Alas, my WOE reading productivity may will suffer in future months.
What's next for WOE? If history is a guide then it will be Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing because my son has the lead role in that this fall. However, since I've already read the complete works of William Shakespeare (yes, WOE), it will have to be something else.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Stout-Hearted Seven

Today I completed a young-adult story, Stout-Hearted Seven, by Neta Lohnes Frazier. This is the true-story of the Sager Children who were orphaned during their trek along the Oregon Trail in 1844. It is written for 5th-6th graders I would suspect but older students (and even adults like me) will enjoy it as well.

The story is truly a tragic one. It begins as the family is preparing for their westward journey along the Oregon Trail and we come to know both parents as well as their six children, (a seventh would be born along the route). The story is told in third person, but mostly from the point of view of Catherine, the oldest girl at 13, and the third oldest child. This is primarily because in later years Catherine is the one who wrote of their ordeal in great detail, an account that today is considered one of the best historical references of the time period. As the family proceeds along their journey we get to enjoy the fun times, but more often, experience the truly difficult moments and day-to-day struggles to maintain their time goals and stay somewhat healthy. However, both parents die along the route, and the children are taken in by other members of the wagon teams. Eventually, the children are taken to and adopted by the Whitmans, missionaries that are trying to work with Indians. After only about three years there, the Indians massacre the Whitmans as well as several of the children. As I said, truly a tragic story. Eventually the surviving children make it to Oregon, and fulfill their father's dream.

The story is written for children and I congratulate the author for be historically accurate. The tragic parts are not glossed over but neither are they dwelled upon. All in all, this is an accurate account and is a great method for teaching children about life on the Oregon Trail.

I also completed the next entry in Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison. It was an essay this time, simply titled "My Father" and is a poignant look at the author's relationship with his father, who had died decades before. It was good to read, and timely, as this morning I had read Piers Anthony's newsletter/blog about the death of his daughter on September 3. That was truly heartbreaking and so Ellison's piece was a good balance.

Next up is the second Star Wars book in the "Black Fleet Crisis" trilogy.

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