Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Annual Awards

As I stated last year, picking winners is very difficult for me because I tend to like most of what I read and its hard to pick my favorites. I've found that as I get older I am starting to get pickier about what I read, often going with familiar authors that I can pretty much count on.  Even when they deteriorate I'll tend to stick with them.  However, I still do force myself to read new stuff with the inevitable result that I find new authors that soon become old favorites.

As a reminder, I pick my winners based on how much I enjoyed the overall reading experience, not based on how well written it may be or how other critics, friends or the overall blogosphere may feel about a particular entry.

So without further ado, here are the winners for 2010:

                                                                  Best Nonfiction:
                                            Eisenhower, Soldier and President
                                                           by Stephen E. Ambrose

                                                               Best Classic Fiction:
                                             The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
                                                                 by C.S. Lewis

                                                             Best Historical Fiction:
                                                            Speaks the Nightbird
                                                           by Robert McCammon

                                                                   Best Mystery:
                                                              The Last Templar
                                                                by Michael Jecks

                                                                 Best Adventure:
                                                                  The Sculpter
                                                              by Gregory Funaro

                                                             Best Western Fiction:
                                                               by Louis L'Amour

                                                             Best General Fiction:
                                                The Book of Air and Shadows
                                                              by Michael Gruber

                                                         Best Young Adult Novel:
                                                        The Little White Horse
                                                            by Elizabeth Goudge

                                                                   Best Horror:
                                         The Haunted Air (Repairman Jack #6)
                                                             by F. Paul Wilson

                                                             Best Science Fiction:
                                      On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1)
                                                             by David Weber

                                                                 Best Fantasy:
                                                The Authurian Saga (4 books)
                                                              by Mary Stewart

                                                             Best Short Story:
                                                  The Wisdom of Solomon
                                                           by Jeffrey Archer

                                          Sleeper Award: (Unexpected Success)
                                                           Power Down
                                                             by Ben Coes

                                     Grand Award Winner:
                                            Speaks the Nightbird
                                                     by Robert McCammon
                                                             Runner up:
                                                     New York, A Novel
                                                    by Edward Rutherford
A few notes on my reading year: I read 109 books this year, and listened to 2 audio books. That equals over 39,000 pages (not counting audio books of course).

Happy New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory is the fourth in the "Temeraire" series of fantasy books by Naomi Novik. This series explores an alternate Earth during the Napoleonic era where dragons exist and, indeed, fight in the war, serving as mounts for soldiers sort of like an Air Force. This is a vastly intriguing concept for me and I have had such high hopes for this series that I bought all five books (so far) at one time. But it is telling that while I read the first three books in short order, it has been nearly two years since that time and my deciding to give book 4 a try.

I enjoyed the first book quite a bit but, unfortunately, each one since then has gone downhill. Perhaps it is because the concept was new and interesting in the beginning with a lot to explore, most especially the relationships between humans and dragons. But in subsequent novels the dragons have become characters so anthropomorphic that their dragon nature becomes somewhat secondary. We are left with an historical novel in the Napoleonic era that is much less fantastical and much more historical and so therefore must rise to that paradigm. The author seems more concerned with examining the plight of dragon's rights (think "human rights" for dragons) than in the more fantasy elements that this series is crying out for.

I must say that the historical aspects of these novels are obviously very well researched. The books are also well written in that they read like something Jane Austin would have written. In this volume, a deadly disease of some kind is wiping out the dragons and so Temeraire and Lawrence travel to South Africa to find a cure. Having recently been to South Africa I found these parts intriguing and I think Ms Novik captured the ambience there very well. But for me, my measure of interest in any novel can be measured by how much I'm glued to the page vs. how much time I catch my mind wandering off thinking about other things. My mind wandered off a lot during this one. So much so that if it were not for the cliffhanger ending I doubt I would ever pick up the fifth book. Even so, that might be difficult for me.

Fans of literary fantasy or fans of Napoleonic history may do better with this series than I have. Just don't expect a Patrick O'Brian meets "Dragonriders of Pern" novel.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Vandemark Mummy

How's this for an excuse for falling behind on my blog entries? My dog ate my internet cable. It's true. On Christmas Eve our whole family was curled up in front of the TV watching a video ("The Muppet Christmas Carol" if you must know). We had let our dog outside and kinda forgot about her so she seized the opportunity to do some digging, discovering our buried internet cable and its delectable plastic coating. The result was no internet service or cable TV until today, four days later. It's not good to have your cable service go out during the Christmas holiday as the appointments for repair are pretty far out.

So anyway, I actually completed reading The Vandemark Mummy by Cynthia Voigt several days ago but couldn't post this until today. This is a book recommended for ages 10-14 and is yet another one my kids read during their home schooling years. The writing is well done; the author has won a Newbery medal and a Newbery Honors award for other works. The plot concerns a father and his two children who have just moved to Maine from the west coast in order for the father to take up duties as curator of the museum at Vandemark College. The mother had an excellent job back home so, apparently, had decided to remain behind. Obviously this issue crops up from time to time as we go through the story and we get the kid's perspectives on a possible divorce in the future.

The main storyline concerns a mummy which disappears after having been bequeathed to the college. Since the father in the story is curator for the museum, guess who is on the hook to get it back? But since this is a book for youngsters, it is indeed the youngsters who solve the case, putting the grownups and police to shame and maneuvering through some dangerous thrills along the way. Lots of time is spent examining the kids' outlook on life in this new place, making friends (or not), and what will happen to their parent's marriage. There is some good history here, bringing to light that not all mummies were ancient Egyptian mummies. There is also some good, thought-provoking, coming of age stuff that makes this a bit meatier than many books for similar aged readers. I was disappointed that the ending did not contain a resolution to the parent's situation but perhaps it is more indicative of real life this way.

Another blog tomorrow and never fear, the much anticipated annual awards reveal is coming very soon as well. Cheers.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cripple Creek

Cripple Creek by Douglas Hirt is billed as a "Western" but now that I've read it I tend to see it more as an historical novel. I suppose all westerns are, in essence, historical novels but in my mind they tend to be more or less confined to the years immediately after the Civil War and on up to the end of the 1880s or so. And they tend to be about cattle drives, the Indian wars, frontier justice and the like, usually with one main hero. Cripple Creek is not really about any of those things but rather about the birth and first six years of the boomtown of Cripple Creek, Colorado.

My family has lived in Colorado Springs off and on for about 17 years, depending on where my military assignments have led us and we've decided to make it our home now that I've retired from my military career. I've known the town of Cripple Creek, nestled up in the mountains to the west, as one of several historic towns in Colorado to be allowed limited gambling. I've always known it had begun as a silver mining town but didn't know the real history of the place. So when I saw this book at the used bookstore I just had to grab it.

The novel itself is an easy read but is a very good novelization of the area in the early 1890s. There are several main characters but chief among them is Casey Daniels, a mining engineer who runs afoul of one of the prominent mine owners of the region. There are quite a few story lines that interact among the many characters, lending a bit of a soap opera feel to the story but what I enjoyed the most was the large numbers of real historical figures. Some play major roles in the novel, including Winfield Scott Stratton, the "Three Jims", and of course, Bob Womack, the first man to discover the riches underneath the mountain. Many historical novels would stop there but in this one every major mine owner, hotel operator, saloon proprietor and whore house madam that plays a role in the story is a genuine historical figure. It was fun to see their names as well as the landmarks and relate them to some of the prominent street names and public buildings that exist today in Colorado Springs.

It occurs to me that while all of these familiar character names makes this a fun novel for me to read, it may have the opposite effect on those who do not live here or know the surrounding area. I noticed several times where we meet people for very brief moments and who have very little impact on the story, almost as if the author just wanted to make sure they made an appearance. That could be a problem for some. But overall I thought it was a nice story, albeit somewhat predictable. The characters were also a bit two dimensional and seemed to come straight out of central casting but something about this novel drew me to it and I definitely wanted to keep on reading, even past my bedtime.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


This is another of my "December reads," that is, books that have been sitting around on my shelves for years, just waiting for a chance to be read. Michael Crichton is one of those authors that, for me, always has a good premise for a plot but sometimes falls short in the execution. Sphere definitely falls within those parameters.

This is an alien contact novel; at least it would appear so at the beginning. A major discovery has been found in the South Pacific, about 1000 feet below the surface of the ocean. It appears to be an alien artifact, perhaps even a spaceship of some kind. Since the author was a doctor himself he often uses scientific protagonists and this time it is a psychologist. As such we do get a little different perspective on the other characters as he examines their motivations along with their actions. Refreshing, really. The plot is written in typical Crichton style, a scientific scenario that deteriorates into horror, much like Jurassic Park. The main problem I had with this one was the lack of resolution to the Sphere itself. We get a lot of speculation and theory on its origins and we certainly get the impact of it being disturbed by the investigators (thus the horror aspects of the novel) but we get no resolution on where it really came from or what it truly is.

All in all I enjoyed reading this book and will continue to read the remaining Crichton books on my shelf although it’s quite possible they will wait until next December.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Writing the Blockbuster Novel

About 20 years ago, I began to work more seriously toward a lifelong goal: to write and publish a novel. I invested in subscriptions to "Writer's Digest" and bought quite a few books on how to write novels, how to publish them, etc. I read many of them in those first few months, enough to get a good grasp on the ins and outs, but always realizing that this would be a continuous learning experience. Now, 20 years later, I've read the last book that I bought from those days. Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman is not for the absolute beginner but rather for those that have a fairly good grasp of how to write and how to publish.

Al Zuckerman is a very successful literary agent who has worked with some of the biggest name authors extant. He uses five major works as examples in this book: The Godfather (Mario Puzo), The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough), Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell), The Man from St Petersburg (Ken Follett), and Garden of Lies (Eileen Goudge). I have read three of these books and so found the material easily relevant. Much of the book is written as a sort of textbook and I do recommend reading these five books first in order to get the most out of this one, especially the Ken Follett book. Of special interest to me was seeing how The Man From St Petersburg changed from first draft to subsequent drafts. I certainly know how writing a novel can be lots and lots of downright hard work but this really brings that point home.

Obviously, this book is not for every writer. If you are interested in writing short stories, or aspire to the smaller, more intimate books, children's books, etc, then this one can still be read just for expanding your knowledge and insight of publishing, marketing, or even some of the basic chores of writing like outlining or re-writing. However, if you are looking for the big commercial success, then this one is ideal. Zuckerman lays out his value criteria: "high stakes; larger-than-life characters; a strong dramatic question; a high concept; a farfetched plot premise; intense emotional involvement between several point-of-view characters; and an exotic and interesting setting."

Overall, I thought the book was well done even though I no longer see myself as writing hugely commercially successful fiction. In fact, this book helped me to focus my own writing efforts; just what I had hoped for when I first opened it up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Little White Horse

Continuing my December policy of reading books that have been on my TBR shelves forever, I picked up The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. This one was one of my wife's books that she brought to the marriage 25 years ago and judging by the cover would be a young adult fantasy novel that would appeal to girls. But it was on the I had to read it sometime...

Once again, I'm glad I did. My impressions were correct in that I think it would appeal to young teenage girls, mostly due to the protagonist being a 13 year old inquisitive orphan girl who moves from London to a beautiful castle in England's West Country of a century ago. But it has appeal for cantankerous middle-aged men as well if my experience is any indication. There are wonders of all kinds in this little novel, marvelously described scenery and creative characters with mysteries of all sorts. There is a history in this new place and the residents of the castle and nearby village all seem to have secrets that need sorting out in order to put right the mistakes of the past. This is, in essence, a fairy tale and a well-told tale it is. It is, in fact, a classic story first published in 1946 and has been a favorite for many young people through the years. J.K. Rowling has stated that this book was her favorite as a child, and it's easy to see why.  Seldom will you see a book with so many 5-star reviews on Amazon or other review sites.
If you're looking for a nice little book with a happily-ever-after feel, this is a great choice.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Follow the River

Do you ever experience times when it's just hard to get into beginning your next read? I usually never have that problem but rather the opposite: difficult to choose what to read because I really want to start a bunch of different books. Anyway, I had difficulties after completing the last novel. Perhaps I was just very emotionally engaged with it but whatever the reason, I just wasn't looking forward to making a selection. This also probably has to do with my "December policy." I try to use the month of December every year to read some of those books that have been on my shelves forever but I just haven't gotten around to actually reading them. Of course there is usually a reason why they are on the December list, usually because I've read others buy that author with mediocre results. This time I actually started a fantasy novel (which will remain nameless) which was the 8th in a series...and I realized I just didn't want to invest the time in it. The other books in that series were OK but as I get older I'm really not looking for just "OK" anymore.

So I turned to Follow the River by James Alexander Thom. This one had been on my TBR shelves for over 10 years. I had never read this author before and the only reason it sat there was because I just always had higher priorities for my historical fiction reading. But, boy am I glad I finally picked it up! This is the novelization of the true story of the Mary Ingles, and young frontier wife in 1755 who was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians in Virginia. After several months of captivity she escaped and made her way back home (over 1000 miles) by following the Ohio River. The first part of the novel was fine but not extraordinary. It wasn't until Mary had escaped and together with her co-escapee, an older German woman named Gretel, began to experience the true hardships of survival that the novel really shines. The author really gets into the realities of what survival would be like with only a tomahawk and a couple of blankets. As they make their way further down the river and face utter starvation, I became fascinated with the story. Such an incredible journey and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.  Even though I knew Mary would somehow make it home (it is a matter of actual history after all) I did not know if Gretel would survive or if Mary's husband would be there when she finally made it.  And just how Mary, herself, survived was simply fascinating.

This is why I like my December policy. I uncover gems that have been waiting there patiently all along. I plan on investigating Mr. Thom's other historical novels now but I doubt they will remain on my TBR shelves for so long.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Impaler

The Impaler is the second book by Gregory Funaro and is a prequel of sorts to The Sculptor, which I was privileged to read and review earlier this year. I say, "prequel" merely because it takes place about three years prior to the events of The Sculptor and features FBI agent Sam Markham. But otherwise this is very much a stand-alone book and the reader does not need to read one to appreciate the other.

Wow, what a novel! I've read thrillers of all sorts for over 10 years and have learned to spot the winners from the also-rans. Gregory Funaro writes winners and this one is truly a gem in this crowded field. The plot concerns the above mentioned FBI agent and his journey to catch a serial killer. Sounds like a million other plots out there but that is just about all that is "normal" about this novel. It's not your typical thriller plot of "killer commits crime; sleuth spends two thirds of novel finding clues; sleuth closes in on killer; sleuth catches/kills killer after nearly blowing it." Instead this is a very intricate plot with multiple layers to the main characters and is not at all predictable.

And it's an absolute page turner. I finished the last 200 pages in one sitting because I just had to keep going.

I think what truly sets this novel apart is the depth of characterization the author brings to the bad guy. In his first novel, The Sculptor, Mr. Funaro does an incredible job with developing the bad guy character but in this one, he truly goes above and beyond. We get to experience the Impaler's very life from childhood to present day from his point of view and, indeed, he almost becomes a protagonist himself. And this is one baaad dude. For a reader to feel like they understand him and his motivations, despite his nature, (like I did) is a great feat for a writer to pull off.

I will say that this novel is not for the faint of heart. There are lots of bloody, violent scenes, horrifying even in their detail but it is absolutely necessary to portray the events realistically. The pacing of the book is awesome; a lot happens but the furious pace is interspersed with excellent back-story building and scene setting. Much as I thought his first novel was fantastic for a new author, this one proves Gregory Funaro deserves to stand with the great writers of the genre.  This book is due to be published in the US in February 2011.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Haunted Air

I always know I'm in for a good read when I pick up a "Repairman Jack" novel. The Haunted Air by F. Paul Wilson is the 6th in the series about a guy who lives in present day New York City and specializes in fixing things for people, especially things that no one else can fix. Just about any job is doable if approached the right way. Jack lives off the grid: no Social Security Number, no bank accounts, no tax returns, numerous aliases and a great sense of handing out his own brand of justice.

One of the things I love about this series is that it combines several of my favorite genres. These novels are sort of mystery/thriller novels with a good dose of detective sleuthing thrown in and as we go along, more and more horror as well. Each book in the series has a stand-alone situation (or situations) for Jack to help with but there is also an overall arc that ties them all together. The author combines these Repairman Jack novels (of which he has stated there will be 15 in all) with his other works in the "Adversary Cycle" to form an overall "hidden history of the world." Readers certainly need not read all of his works to appreciate each individual novel and, in fact, according to the author's website, even if you did read every word of his numerous works, they have just barely scratched the surface of this hidden history.

This novel continues that bigger story arc in fine style as we really start getting into the back story of "The Otherness". This is the science-fiction/horror aspect of what is happening in the background and is just absolutely fascinating to me. Jack has been told that nothing in his life is coincidence and we really see that played out in this novel. Seemingly unrelated jobs of helping a couple of brothers who run a fake psychic/spiritualist operation to watching another client's brother for three evenings in a row to keep him from harm are, in fact, intimately connected. This novel has everything packed in, from fake spiritualists to real ghosts, from fisticuffs to gunplay, from ritual sacrifices to Jack's girlfriend really getting into the action. And oh yes, she may be pregnant which plays with Jack's conscience...will he be able to continue living off the grid if he is to become a father?

Great characters, great plotting, great mysteries and intrigue, and a killer "universe" make Repairman Jack one of the greatest series I've ever read, especially the further along I travel on this road.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Last Templar

For some time now, I've been looking for a new mystery series to begin. I've often seen Michael Jecks' medieval series on the bookstore shelves but I never saw the first one so I kept putting it off. But then a couple of weeks ago I saw The Last Templar at the store and so I used my free coupon and snatched it up.

Right up front I will say I enjoyed reading this book, despite some "first book" flaws. I wish it had had a better editor but I will be reading additional books in the series as I understand they get better and better and there are at least 20 books in the series now. I also like the fact that the author himself has earned a reputation for helping new authors to get published, perhaps having learned some lessons himself along the way.

Among the positive aspects of the novel was the writing style, an easy flowing narrative that captured the era of the 11th century without forcing the reader through a bunch of "thees' and "thous" (if that is even the appropriate verbiage for that time.) I liked the main two characters although much of this volume seemed to be setting up the rest of the series so consequently they both need to be filled out better. Among the not-so-good aspects was the author's inconsistent use of point-of-view. The novel is all third person and about 90% is from one of the two main character's viewpoint. But occasionally we jump to omniscient POV and get the thoughts from other characters. The mystery aspects itself was fine, nothing elaborate, but since the sleuths in this story do not have modern forensic tools, etc., they are forced to rely on what their eyes tell them and use their brains to logically make conclusions...a rather refreshing change of pace.

So I'm glad I finally began this series and am looking forward to the next entry.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Scarlet Letter

What can I say about this one?  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is often held up as one of the finest examples of classic American literature ever.  It's also probably one of the most hated pieces of literature of all time as well due to the fact that it is so often assigned to American High School students, who mostly are not in the mood for such reading material.  I seem to have had a somewhat different High School English experience and was never assigned this book to read.  And so, once again, when my children were assigned the book to read, we got our own copy and now I, too, have completed it.

I think when one reads a "classic" novel at age 16 or 17 it is quite naturally a different experience than when reading it at 48.  Still, when I read a novel, whether or not it is classic or just published last week, I read them the same way and look for the same sorts of things to satisfy my reading tastes.  That is not to say that I expect them to read the same.  Of course not.  I value the era in which the novel was written.  Thus I don't flinch at the use of the "n" word in Huckleberry Finn. 

So overall, for me, this was a rather mediocre reading experience.  I can appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne's command of the language but it seems to me that he shows off when he writes.  I thought much the same when I read The House of Seven Gables.  The prose does describe a scene very well but its overabundance gets in the way of the story.  The story itself is pretty straight forward by today's standards and yet still retains a hint of mystery and intrigue.  So I'm glad I finally read this one but I'm looking forward to a bit more modern story telling in my next few choices.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Metagame by first time author, Sam Landstrom is a cyber-punk style of science-fiction novel that is utterly original in style and scope. Essentially, it is about a futuristic society where life itself is one humongous game. Points earned equate to currency so the better player you are, the richer and more powerful you are. Top scorers are eligible for immortality.

Kudos to Mr. Landstrom for creating this world. He has obviously spent a lot of time and energy extrapolating mankind's current trends and motives into a possible future. This is a world that seems entirely plausible as well as disturbing. It is a very different world than we have now and so to bring the reader into it is a daunting task. We jump right into it and, at first, it's a bit of a shock. Lots of new words and slang terms and lifestyles to get used to very quickly. It was almost information overload for me but I stuck with it and soon became a part of it. The best way for me to describe this world and its style is to imagine a cross between the weird science/religion of the Matrix movies and almost any movie by Tim Burton with Johnny Depp in it. It's a strange journey to take but certainly an interesting one.

The problem I had is that the author is forced to spend so much of the book on building this new world for us that he has a lot less room to craft the actual story and build satisfying characters. He still manages to do a fairly good job at that but I felt the plot itself suffered the most. The vast majority of the book is about playing the game...sort of the normal mode for these characters but it isn't until the last 40 pages or so that the stakes become high enough to make a difference and I found I actually cared about what would happen next.

Sam Landstrom has certainly demonstrated some nice raw talent here for world building and setting the scenery; I feel confident he will only get better at the story telling aspect.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The System of the World

After nearly three long years of reading these books by Neal Stephenson I have finally completed the final volume. The System of the World contains the final three novels in his huge Baroque Cycle a “project” read that I began back in 2008. This volume contains these three novels: Solomon's Gold, Currency, and The System of the World. All told there are nearly 3000 pages of historical fiction, historical fact, irreverent humor, and a bit of science fiction thrown in.

I don't have too much to say about the story itself as there is just so much here. Lots of main characters and hundreds of lesser characters, combined with a verbose hi-brow style of writing make these books a viable read only for those who really want to tackle a challenge. Neal Stephenson is one incredibly intelligent human being and he allows his intellect to permeate his prose to such an extent that large parts of these books are almost unreadable. I plowed through them as a "project." That is, I work on them in between other reading with the ultimate goal of just getting through them. I am also a completist and so refused to give up on these books even though I see by reviews that many others did indeed given up on them. I didn't start out planning these as a project but after I got through about 100 pages of the first one, I decided I just couldn't read them in the normal fashion. I would have dumped them. I must say I'm happy that I made it through them but, at the same time, I won't be taking them with me to that proverbial deserted island.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Wicked Day

The Wicked Day is the fourth and final book in Mary Stewart's "Arthurian Saga". It's sort of interesting that the first three books are referred to as "The Merlin Trilogy" but when the fourth book is added it becomes "The Arthurian Saga". This time, Ms Stewart applies her considerable talents to the story of Mordred, telling the entire story from his birth, through his growing up, and to its inevitable conclusion.

This has to be one of the most difficult things to do in fiction writing. Take a well established character in one of the most well-known and oft-written epic stories in history, forever acknowledged as the villain of the piece, and craft a story with him as the protagonist. Marion Zimmer Bradley did something very similar in The Mists of Avalon but even then, the character of Morgan isn't, I believe, as universally hated as is Mordred. But I must say, Ms Stewart pulls it off in fine style.

As the protagonist, Mordred's story is told from his point of view and is thus sympathetic towards that point of view. He comes across as a very sympathetic character; I kept pulling for him even as I knew what the ending had to be. In fact, Mordred is well liked, even loved by most of the other characters, and it isn't until near the end that his point of view starts to diverge from Arthur's. There is no "evil" nature to this man; what might be construed as ambition seems very naturally to have arisen from his mother, Morgause, Arthur's half sister and most definitely the real villain in Mary Stewart's saga. And even in the end, it is a mistake, a misunderstanding of what is really happening that leads to Mordred's and Arthur's final battle. I found it very interesting to read the appendix and the Author's note at the end of the book where the "real" legend is briefly retold from the actual text of both Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the King's of England and Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Apparently, Mordred was not originally presented as a villainous person; that arose later as countless retellings diffused the original versions.

I am very pleased to have read this set of four books. I had always heard that they were among the very best of the modern versions of the Arthurian/Merlin tales and am happy to add my agreement.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Call Me Puke

What a title! For a blog post or a book, that's gotta be one that grabs your attention. Call Me Puke, A Life on the Dirt Circuit is an autobiography by Mark Sieve, better known as "Puke" of the "Puke & Snot" comedy duo seen nationwide, mostly at Renaissance festivals. My family and I love to go the Ren Faires and have been to several in the US, Germany and England. But it wasn't until a couple of years ago, in 2008, when we visited the Colorado Renaissance festival near Larkspur for about the fourth time that we actually saw the Puke & Snot show. Unfortunately, later that year, Joe Kudla, who played "Snot" passed away, only a couple of weeks after we had seen the show. This year, my wife and kids went back to the festival and saw Puke & Snot once again, with a new "Snot" in play. They were lucky to have been a bit early to the show and lo and behold, Mark "Puke" Sieve sat down next to them and starting shooting the breeze. As a souvenir, because I couldn't attend, they brought home this book as a gift for me, autographed by the author. Cool!

This is a great little autobiography and, not surprisingly, won the Midwest Book Award. Mr. Sieve does not tell his life story in direct chronological order but rather mixes it with other, themed vignettes. He does a great job of being humble (but not overly so like some autobiographies that just make you want to...well, puke). We get to experience his life, from his early days working in his parents’ cinema, to his potential major league baseball career, and through his early days as a public school teacher. But always there was his love for performing comedy and getting the audience to laugh. Together with his partner, Joe, they carried the Puke & Snot show for about 35 years, usually on the "Dirt Circuit" as he calls it but elsewhere too...even Disney. Along the way they've met and worked with some memorable characters including some you've heard of like Penn & Teller who got their start in similar circumstances.  Mr. Sieve writes from a very personal point of view and it's never more heartbreaking than when he serves tribute to his long time partner.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Djibouti is Elmore Leonard's most recent published novel. I've read four previous books by Mr. Leonard but all of them were from his early days when he wrote Westerns. I also listened to an audio book last year which was more of a crime thriller set in the 1930s. This book is the first I've read of his that is set in the present day even though that is what he is primarily known for. In point of fact, I have a long way to go if I want to read all of this author's output, this being the 44th book he has written and published.

Elmore Leonard is a master of dialog. He has said that if a piece of dialog sounds like writing, then he re-writes it. It naturally follows that his characters are incredibly real as well. They really do leap off the page, much like you are watching a movie instead of reading a book. This is all true in Djibouti, as well, with the main character, Dara Barr, a young but successful documentary film maker, becoming interested in all of the news reports a couple of years ago about the pirates off the coast of Somalia preying on merchant ships. Together with her 72-year old camera man, they set off to Djibouti to document the activities of the pirates. It isn't long, however, until they get mixed up with al-Qaeda terrorists.

Mr. Leonard reportedly writes his novels from the characters' point-of-view...but he makes up the plot as he goes along. That usually works just fine but in this case, unfortunately, it doesn't. The story meanders all over the place, albeit with great characters. The thriller aspect of the plot is diminished considerably because many of the scenes are of the two lead characters reviewing footage of film they shot earlier. So we lose the danger factor...they obviously survived in order to be viewing the tape. I also thought their reactions to be too subtle to be real. Several instances where they've just witnessed a man shot to death (in one case five men shot and killed) are greeted with nonchalance. They are cool customers but they seemed a little too cool.

Still, I do tend to be hard on writers that I think are very good writers so please take my comments with a grain of salt. Elmore Leonard's style is right up there with the great ones and it's hard to go wrong with one of his novels.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown should I explain this. Perhaps if I start at the beginning of my Dan Brown experiences. I was mostly a Sci-Fi/fantasy reader growing up and then got hooked on historical fiction at about the same time I entered college. I added other genres like mysteries, horror, etc. as I went along but never really got around to thrillers for a long time. I ignored The DaVinci Code when it first became a huge success, mostly for the same reason I had avoided thrillers (and straight fiction). You see I had read mostly for escapism (or studying textbooks and such) and the last thing I wanted was to read about people living in today's times and in today's world.

But finally my mother (who mostly likes mysteries and semi-romances by authors like JD Robb and Danielle Steele) convinced me to read The DaVinci Code. I finally cracked under the strain and guess what? I ate it up. I don't recall ever reading such a page-turner before. I liked the puzzles, I liked the action sequences, and I liked the conspiracy stuff. I'm also not Catholic so I wasn't offended. Right away I turned to Angels and Demons and loved that too. These were my first "thriller" novels I had ever read and they even won my best-of-the-year awards. Later on I read the other two previous books by Dan Brown and also read several novels by my mom's other favorite, James Patterson. (These were the earlier Cross books and before he started "writing" 13 books per year). A funny thing started to happen. Both the Dan Brown books and the James Patterson books became less and less enjoyable, the more I read. Of course I was reading the Dan Brown books backwards from the way they were published so perhaps that explained it. In the years since then I have started to read many a thriller, from a wide variety of authors and I've learned far more about the genre.

Enter Dan Brown's latest novel, The Lost Symbol. I was a little worried right from the beginning because the title seemed rather uninspired. Couldn't they have come up with something better than "The Lost Symbol?" I waited until the paperback because A) I don't have room in my house for hardbacks and B) I'm a cheapskate. I’m also patient and not one to rush out and read it from the library if there's a good chance I'll be adding it to my own library in the future.

To sum up my feelings on this novel in one word: disappointing. It wasn't crap, or slush, or a total waste of time. It wasn't really amateurish in the truest sense of that word.  But I did feel the plot was waaay too contrived. And clumsy. Most of the narrative seemed to be an excuse to stick in more trivia of the kind made famous by his previous two works. The characters were flat and even the hero, Robert Langdon spent most of the book being the victim of the action and not driving it at all. And the book was too long. I don't mind lengthy reads but this one could have been at least a third shorter with no real loss to the actual story.

Despite all of that, it had some good moments. I did keep turning the pages to see what would happen next even though I frequently winced at the end of many chapters when the POV character gasped at some huge new revelation, only to have to wait for three more chapters from other POV characters to see what had been discovered. The treadmill of discovery was everlasting.

So will I read Dan Brown's next book? Yep. There's still something about them, perhaps a nostalgia that takes me back to my first thriller that did, after all, launch my interest in an entire genre.  It's easy to be a critic, especially with an author that is phenomenally successful.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Radigan is the 66th Louis L'Amour book I've read, my number one author if you count by number of books read but only number 6 if you count by the number of pages read. This is another fairly average length L'Amour paperback novel, coming in at 154 pages. Obviously, you can tell I like this author and I read his novels periodically but this time I chose to read one because they serve as great "comfort" reads for me. I received some bad news yesterday and was feeling pretty low. I didn't want to do any of my normal hobbies and I didn't even want to read. That's certainly a rare occurrence for me. But I had to do something to fill the hours so I gave reading a try and L'Amour was just the ticket.

I've remarked before about how I read these novels for the fun of them. Not for any great literary accomplishments or for what anybody else may think of them. There's a certain honesty about them and it sure beats listening to the radio which is constantly playing campaign ads right now.

Tom Radigan is a former ranger and now owns a small cattle ranch in northern New Mexico territory. Along comes Angelina Foley with an outfit of gunfighters, 3000 head of cattle and what she claims is a deed to Radigan's land. Radigan knows the deed is phony but despite his attempts to tell her so, a full-on range war begins. Now you might expect some sort of boiler-plate western plot to take over with Radigan falling for the girl and living happily ever after but that is just not the case. I won't spoil it for you but this is a fine western story with gunfights, fist fights, wilderness survival (in deep winter snows), and more. The ending came abruptly and I would have liked to have a little more filled out with the final moments of the plot but overall, this was a great one.

And yes, I do feel better now, thanks for asking.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Night Chills

Night Chills by Dean Koontz, was one of the books given to me by a co-worker who knew I "liked to read". As I've mentioned before on this blog, Dean Koontz is mostly a hit-or-miss author for me but I tend to like his earlier works better, probably because they are usually more of a straight forward horror story than his later work.

This novel is a bit dated, having been written in the 1970s and concerns the phenomenon of subliminal advertising, taken to the extreme where it can actually be used for mind control. Three people of varying backgrounds and motivations get together to coordinate an experiment on an isolated "company town" where the small, controlled population is subjected to the experimental technique. If the experiment works, the three stand to become all powerful (and all rich). The title of the book comes from the side effect that the experimentees get: night chills similar to flu-like symptoms.

The book was a quick read, and a page-turner. The bad guys, particularly the main inventor of the mind control technique, were far more developed than the good guys who fight back, making it a bit difficult to root for them. And, I must say, there is some pretty extreme graphic sexual scenes in this novel, mostly having to do with the main inventor abusing his new found power to get back at women for all of the grief he suffered in his youth.

In summary, not a bad Koontz novel, but not ranking at the top either.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

England, The Autobiography

This is a book that my wife picked up for me several years ago during her first visit to England. I was still active duty Air Force and stationed in Germany and was unable to get away for that trip although was fortunate enough to be able to go the next year.

This book, England, The Autobiography, edited by John Lewis-Stemple, is a collection of first-hand accounts of English history written by English men and women from all walks of life, some famous and some not. As such, most of the accounts are quite interesting, while others are less so. They are presented chronologically, beginning at 55 BC with an account written by Julius Caesar of his invasion and traversing history all the way to its publication date in 2005 with an account of "England Wins Ashes, the Oval, London." In between there are a hundred or so sketches summarizing 2000 years of English history, from those that were there.

I found most of these sketches to be very interesting, whether it's from the point of view of a Saxon warrior at the Battle of Maldon in 991, or about the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, or a piece by Winston Churchill during WWII, or The Beatles in Performance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1961 by none other than Brian Epstein. Taken all together, these sketches provide a nice overview of English history for somebody who is already at least partially familiar with that history. If this is the first book ever picked up on the subject I don't think it would go very far in educating somebody about's just too little detail about too many events, and each event is only addressed once, often by somebody who has a strong bias one way or the other. But as a companion book to a library of history, this is a fascinating read and makes me want to search out other such books for other countries/cultures.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Eternal Savage

No, this is not about my son, who has come home from college for the weekend. Rather it is the name of a stand-alone book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, most famous for his pulp-era science fiction series such as John Carter of Mars, Pelucidar, the Venus series, and, of course Tarzan. My database reveals that this is the 32nd book I've read by this author, making him my 5th most read author. Of course, most of those books (all of them?) are fairly thin paperbacks at around 175-225 pages each. I read most of these books when I was a teenager, helping to launch my interest in Science Fiction, even though there really is very little "science" in them.

I acquired this book recently, spotting it at the used book store in the library where I frequently find older novels from "my" authors. It's been years since I've read an ERB and I was hoping it would stand the test of time, as in my own maturity. I've been afraid to re-read any of these books for fear they would fail that test. I'm sorry to report that The Eternal Savage didn't exactly relieve those fears for me. It had a hokey plot, in my opinion, about a caveman-era fellow named Nu, Son of Nu. He is in love and trying his darndest to win the hand of Nat-Ul as his mate. While hunting the most ferocious beast of the age, an earthquake strikes, causing a cave-in, trapping Nu inside. Cut to "present" day where an American girl, Victoria Custer, has gone to Africa to visit the Greystoke ranch (Tarzan, for the uninformed). It turns out that Nu has awoken in these modern times and spies Victoria, and thinking her to be his very own love, Nat-Ul. Another earthquake sends those two back to the Stone Age where Victoria turns out to be that same Nat-Ul. All of that just serves to set the stage for most of the book that follows. Much perilous adventure insues finally culminating in one final unexplained time-travel scene.

Of course, I don't expect great literature from these books but rather I expect pulp fiction which is what I got. It did remind me of lots of what I read in those teenage years but it didn't serve to keep me turning page after page. Rather it felt like a chore to plow through the predictable action sequences and jaw-dropping incredulity at the time-travel plot machinations. But still...there's enough nostalgia-related story telling here to make me plunk down my 75 cents if I see another ERB at the library book store.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Speaks the Nightbird

I am new to the author, Robert McCammon, but he came highly recommended from another blog I follow so I thought it worthwhile to give him a shot.  The results?  Speaks the Nightbird will be a very strong competitor for my best-of-the-year list and now that I think about it, will probably make my best-of-all time reading list.

Yes, it's that good.

This is an historical novel set in the Carolina territory in 1699.  Mathew Corbett is a clerk to a magistrate (judge) based in Charles Town and together they travel to the village of Fount Royal where the magistrate must have a trial for a reputed witch.  Of course, the townspeople all firmly believe the witch is guilty and there is no need for a trial, and indeed, the evidence is damning.  In fact there are even eye witnesses to her devilish acts.  What follows is a rather complicated and intriguing mystery in which we watch our protagonist uncover the truth of the matter, using his keen powers of observation and deductive reasoning much like Sherlock Holmes would do.  But there is far more to this novel than the mystery for this author has mastered the arts of setting, pacing, characterization, and plot.  The book is a rather large one, coming in at 792 over-sized paperback pages, and yet it did not seem like a "long" book.  I kept wanting to read and then read some more, cutting short some of my other well-loved hobbies (and sleep) just to get more reading time in.  And thankfully, there are two more novels featuring Mathew Corbett following this one.  Delightful!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said"

I'm not really sure which is the title and which is the subtitle of The Yogi Book by Yogi Berra. But that really doesn't matter in the big scheme of things. This is a little book that takes about 10 minutes to read, one of those you might find near the checkout counter of a large book store chain. But it is filled with the delightful sayings of Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame catcher with the NY Yankees, Manager, and coach. Yogi goes through each one of his famous one-liners and cites the origin and the circumstances in which it "just came out." The sayings and explanations are accompanied by photographs of Yogi with some of the best know baseball players of his era, as well as friends, family members, childhood playmates, etc., many of them from his family's personal collection.

Who could forget great lines like these: "It ain't over 'till it's over"; "I wish I had an answer to that because I'm tired of answering that question"; "If I didn't wake up I'd still be sleeping"; "90% of the game is half mental"; or my favorite, when asked for directions, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Contrary to the subtitle, "I really didn't say everything I said," these are all legitimate quotes by Mr. Berra himself. Every one has an origin although a couple of them he doesn't remember saying but admits that he probably did.

A fun book for all, but as Yogi would say (and did) "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I chose to read Elfshadow, the second in a long "open-universe" series about the secret organization for good known as "The Harpers" in the "Forgotten Realms" fantasy setting, because I was looking for a good old fashioned, easy-to-read, but not dumbed down fantasy novel. This one really fit the bill and I'm pleased to say it's been one of my favorite reads of the year so far.  It is also noteworthy that this book is not just a part of the Harpers series but is also the first book in a stand-alone trilogy called, "Songs and Swords."  Methinks the three books' popularity as Harper's books spawned a re-publish as the trilogy.

These books were published almost 20 years ago, back in the big TSR days of tie-in novels to the D&D game system. These sorts of books launched the careers of several well-known fantasy authors today, including RA Salvatore, Troy Denning, and Elaine Cunningham, the author of this book. The story surrounds Arilyn Moonblade, a half-elf "assassin" who works as a Harper agent. She is suspected of assassinating several members of the Harper association, mostly because of her proximity to all of their murders. She is accompanied by a fledgling-wizard and bard named Danilo Thann who plays the part of a dandy but in reality is an accomplished mage and is trying to determine Arilyn's guilt or innocence. What follows is largely a mystery story interspersed with dangerous moments and good action sequences. There are lots of characters introduced as the pair makes their journey in and around Waterdeep, but you don't have to be a "Forgotten Realms" aficionado to understand what's going on. And if you’ve ever played the computer game, “Baldur’s Gate”, you’ll really appreciate the area. The plot is pretty well thought out and definitely kept my attention. It's really hard to believe that this is the author's first novel. She has acknowledged mistakes with it but I can't point to any myself and she has gone on to write a couple of sequels. I will definitely read them because I really like these characters.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gallow's Thief

Gallows Thief is the 13th book I've read by Bernard Cornwell and, surprisingly, I've never read one from the Sharpe series for which he is most well known. I rank his "Winter King" trilogy among the best of Arthurian literature and I am rarely disappointed with his work.

This book was a bit of a genre mix. I picked it up thinking historical novel and indeed it is, taking place in 1817, shortly after the events of Waterloo. In fact, the protagonist, Rider Sandman, was an officer in that battle but now finds himself in London, unemployed and in need of some coin. He is contracted by the Home Secretary and former Prime Minister, Henry Addington to investigate the accuracy of a guilty murder verdict for one Charles Corday, an apprentice painter now locked up in Newgate prison awaiting the hangman's noose. It seems the Queen herself is interested in the matter and has doubts that Mr. Corday is the actual murderer. So yes, the novel is set in 1817 London but it is largely a detective/mystery novel. And a fine one it is. Sandman's investigation is conducted over a seven day stretch and, as the book cover says, "takes him from the bowels of Newgate to the scented drawing rooms of the ruthless and powerful, and into the darkest shadows of the filthy, bustling city." A very nice read.

Someday, I'm going to have to get around to those Sharpe novels...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Peter and the Secret of Rundoon

I just love going back to this Peter Pan series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Peter and the Secret of Rundoon is the third book in what I think is a 4-book series that is a prequel to the events in the classic Peter Pan story by J.M. Barrie. As popular as these books are, however, I can see there being more of them still to come.

Essentially, this series describes Peter's back story. Things like how he is able to fly, how he meets the people who will become Wendy's parents, how he develops relationships with the Indians of Mollusk Island, and the mermaids there, etc. We also learn about the back stories of other major characters such as Captain Hook, as well as how shadows work, and most importantly, what is the origin of "Starstuff", that strange substance that makes things fly.

But what's really great about these books, is that they are clearly in the YA market but they certainly do not simplify or otherwise dumb down the plot. This is fast paced, exciting adventure story telling with lots of edge-of-your-seat thrills but also with a good dose of characterization. The language style is pleasant to read and the plot is full of imagination. Just what a good book needs!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The King of Torts

The King of Torts is the 10th book I've read by John Grisham. I suppose that makes him one of "my" authors although he has his share of let downs. Ever since I read The Firm years ago, I've looked for that magic once more but so far they've always seemed to fall a tad short.

I'm still not exactly what to make of this one. It is one of the better ones of Mr. Grisham's works that I've read, despite the nit picking that I'm about to do. It's a page turner for sure and I kept reading way past my bed time. That has to be a good sign right? Mr. Grisham does have a way of writing page turners; his language is for the common man, his chapters are fairly short so it's easy to think, "just one more chapter." * * SPOILER ALERT ** Sorry about this spoiler but its difficult to discuss this work without it. This novel could easily be classified as a tragedy in that we watch young attorney Clay Carter rise from a humble life in the Public Defender’s Office in Washington DC to become the newest "King of Torts", suing huge drug companies and others on behalf of wronged victims...only to have his empire crash and burn around him at the end. * * END SPOILER * *

As I said, it's a page turner but I do have some issues with the novel. The characters (particularly the protagonist) didn't always respond and behave the way I expected based on the first third of the book. In other words, I had come to know him pretty well through the various scenes and see how he reacts to events. But occasionally he does things completely out of character, yanking me right out of the narrative. Coupled with that, a couple of times I felt like the author was not treating me, the reader, with respect. I'm not a lawyer but in the course of the novel, we get a good dose of what tort litigation is all about and how it works, at least for a layman's perspective. But when a technique served well in the first part of the book, and the protagonist was well satisfied with the results, he tried it again and for no apparent reason it didn't fly the next time. It's as if the author ignored the investment the readers would make with the characters in order to make sure the plot worked as he wanted. As an example, there is one crucial court drama happening in the background during the final third of the book. * * SPOILER ALERT ** It's crucial to the plot and to what happens to our protagonist. We, the reader, along with the protagonist are led down the path of just how great it's going for our side, how amazingly the lawyer is skewering the opponent’s expert witnesses, how the jury is eating it up, and when the jury comes back with the verdict...we lose. That's it. No explanation. I know you can just never really tell with a jury but it seemed contrived by the author to disrespect the reader in order to get the ending he wanted.  * * END SPOILER * *

Yes, I am being hard on Mr. Grisham. But I'm sure his bestselling book sales will withstand my criticism just fine. And I expect a lot from him. The book was still fun to read and I'll keep reading him (I have at least 3 more on my shelves). But I'm still hoping for that great one.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Last Enchantment

This third book of Mary Stewart's "Merlin Trilogy", The Last Enchantment has proven to be my favorite of the set. I tend to judge the books I read by the style of book it is and how well it meets my expectations for the genre. For example, a really good adventure/thriller novel makes me want to keep reading faster and faster to get to the, hopefully, satisfying conclusion. A good mystery may make me read a bit slower to make sure I'm not missing some vital clue along the way. The Last Enchantment was one of those fantasy novels that made me want to really take my time, just to savor the story itself, relishing not only in the classic Arthurian mythos that I love but also in the writing style of Mary Stewart. And I did take my time, nearly a whole week for just one novel!

I enjoyed the first two books in this trilogy quite a bit but this one was one notch better still. Both of the preceding novels were fine on their own but, I think, served largely to set the stage for this third volume. We start with Arthur just having been proclaimed King after Uther's death, and get to watch him through Merlin's eyes as he grows into his role. All of the pageantry of the Arthurian legends comes to the fold here but not always as we are used to seeing it. The author's note at the end explains how she used many historical texts as well as the original Arthurian works by Mallory (Morte d'Arthur) to keep to the more authentic legend. Merlin, of course, takes center stage in these novels, telling the story from his first person POV. Ms Stewart does a masterful job of keeping him honest, showing his foibles along with his genius. Not much in the way of description of battles is to be found here; Arthur is often away leading one battle or another but that is all done off stage. Rather the book concentrates more on the relationships of those around Merlin himself such as Nimue, his student/lover/wife and ultimate successor. Other prominent characters such as Morgan, Morgause, Lot, Bedwyn and a host of allied kings and queens all make their appearance.

This trilogy is among the best fantasy I've read and will take an honored place on my shelves. There is another follow-on book still to go, The Wicked Day, which details the events surrounding Arthur and Mordred and while technically is part of this "Arthurian Saga" by Stewart, it is not part of the Merlin trilogy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stars & Stripes Triumphant

This is the third and final entry in Harry Harrison's alternate history trilogy set during the 1860's. The first book, of course, set up the notion of the American Civil War being interrupted by a British attack on New Orleans, leading to the Americans re-uniting against a new common foe. Having successfully defended itself, the US follows up in the second book by diverting another British attack through Mexico, aimed at the American's soft underbelly by assisting the Irish to gain their independence. With a threat so close to her own homeland, the British have to pull back their resources from Mexico to defend its own shores. Now comes the third book.

This time around it very much seemed as if the author had a bone to pick with the British. He writes his British characters with, at best, unenlightened military minds, and at worst, as absolute buffoons. The Americans can do no wrong, militarily or politically. They use advancements in technology to great advantage and every battle in the entire book goes exactly as planned, leaving the British generals, admirals, and political leaders, (and especially Queen Victoria), to blunder about, dithering about how dare the British Empire be subjected to this. General Sherman takes center stage in this third book, leaving Abraham Lincoln to be just a kindly old uncle figure. Generals Grant and Lee and Admiral Farragut all participate in the invasion of England but they remain mostly offstage. Invasion of England? That's right. In response to the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston's inexplicable decision to plunder American cargo ships, Lincoln decides to put an end to this once and for all. I won't provide spoilers but let's just say that I can't imagine any British citizen today reading this and enjoying it. General Sherman's battle strategy is well laid out and makes lots of sense but it does rely on his enemies to do everything exactly as he suspects...which they do, of course. There is never any real doubt as to how it will all end, especially given the title of the book.

Having said all that, the book is an easy read...

Friday, September 17, 2010


Sandstorm is the fifth book I've read by James Rollins. It's a stand-alone adventure novel although it does set up the "Sigma Force" novels featuring the recurring character Commander Gray Pierce. James Rollins writes in a page-turning style, mixing action sequences with exotic locations and cutting-edge technology. Sandstorm is no exception as we follow a good mix of characters, including Painter Crowe, the future director of Sigma Force, traveling from London to the Arabian Peninsula in search of the lost city of Ubar. Along the way we get to experience the British Museum in London and several archeological sites such as the Crypt of Nabi Imran, the Tomb of Ayoub (Job from the Bible), and the town of Shisur. We also get to learn more about anti-matter, buckyballs (having to do with ball lightning), molten glass, and one hellacious sandstorm.

I find reading James Rollins books to be the closest thing to an Indiana Jones movie I've yet to experience. In fact, he was even selected to adapt the screenplay from the last movie into book form. I found this book to be an interesting read although at over 550 pages, it did seem about 75 pages too long. The author is adept at bringing his characters to the edge of a cliff and then finding creative ways to push them off but it seemed to happen a bit too much in this one. The bad guy character, a female, was competent, which I like in a bad guy, and displayed some truly evil aspects, but somehow was not all she could be. Pretty good characterization for this kind of book, and a sort of love triangle aspect that worked nicely.

Onr other note: my copy is a limited edition mass market paperback and came with a hard "lenticular" front cover, giving it a 3D effect.  I suppose that looks nice in a book store and might well entice a customer to pick it up, but it makes for difficult reading/handling, especially in the first few chapters.  Maybe I'm old fashioned but I prefer to stick to the regular paper covers.

So, a good novel overall with just some minor annoyances. Definitely a worthwhile read and will keep me reading James Rollins in the future.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Frankenstein's Monster

Imagine if you were given the task of writing the sequel to Frankenstein, one of the all-time great classics. You'd want to do several things to make sure and get it right: 1) you would need to develop a great plot that is loyal to the original and is "necessary" in order for the book to have any value to the reader, 2) you would need to provide the right style of writing, the right "voice" so that it would meld well with the original, sounding much like Mary Shelley's voice, and 3) not have the whole thing sound too classic because you don't want today's readers to be would still need a fairly quick pace to keep the reader interested. On top of all of that you would still need to do all of the things that make for a good novel; i.e. great multi-dimensional characterization, interesting settings, involved plot, etc etc.

Sound impossible? Perhaps, but Susan Heyboer O'Keefe has done remarkably well in writing Frankenstein's Monster. Especially when one considers this is her first effort for the adult market, having only published children's books before. I took a look at her website and found her to be a real hoot; I suppose you'd have to be in order to tackle this particular novel. Most of the book is told as diary entries from the monster himself. It takes place ten years after the end of the first novel but we learn everything about what happened after the first one ends. There is more than just plot and action here as the monster struggles with his very nature, trying to find his place in the world. He takes quite a journey as he is pursued by Walton who has vowed to his friend Victor Frankenstein to finish off the monster. Along the way he encounters several intriguing new characters and plenty of horrifying and desperate moments.

I felt like I was taking a chance when I began reading this one but feel very happy with the results. Highly recommended.

This novel will be published in the US in October 2010.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Running the Books

Running the Books, by Avi Steinberg is subtitled, "The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian". On the surface, it's an interesting look at how the author spent two years as a librarian in one of Boston's prisons. Avi Steinberg was an obituary writer and had no previous training or experience as a librarian. He answered a want ad and the next thing he knew he had landed an interview.

But this book is about far more than that. It is a poignant examination of people. Not just any people, but the sort of people that are in prison as well as the guards, the prison staff, and the author himself.

I was attracted to this book for two main reasons: 1) I like books and anything to do with them, and 2) I am always up for learning about aspects of life that I've never personally encountered. Prison life has long been an enigma for me and although I enjoyed watching "Prison Break" on TV I assumed that wasn't normal prison life. Parts of this book are humorous, parts sad, and parts downright disturbing but I think the author really gets down to the nitty gritty of how the people interact, especially with him. We see the ugliness of prison politics, how the author himself tries to do the right thing only to get caught up in it himself. We see a wide variety of inmate personalities, and dive in deep to see a handful of them up close. I won't go into details so as not to provide spoilers but rest assured many of the inmates’ stories are tragic. Along the way, we learn about the author's own life experiences both inside the prison library and outside. One can't help but to wonder how we, the readers, would handle some of the situations he encounters and how they would affect us and our outlook on life.

This one will be on sale in the US in October 2010.

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