Saturday, January 30, 2010


I've made it back from my TDY to Washington DC and if the success of the trip was judged by reading time, then it was quite successful.  Any other standard used would equate to a waste of time.  I found time to read two and a half books in just five days though so I'm happy.  I even had to buy an extra one at the airport due to a weather divert to St Louis, giving me even more time to read.

Dragon sounds like a fantasy novel of some kind or perhaps a documentary if you're a believer like I am.  However, this one refers to the ninth book in Mr Cussler's Dirk Pitt series.  I've read about six of these books now and it seems I've discovered a pattern.  The very early ones are a bit dry and then they get more and more fun to read, even if more and more improbable.  This one's main premise is that back near the end of WWII, a third aircraft was on its way to drop another atomic bomb on Japan but crashed in the sea short of its target.  The bomb remains intact through all these years until it becomes a handy plot device for Dirk Pitt and company. 

The novel is a bit dated, having been written back in 1990 when there was some concern over Japan's financial investments in the US, especially the many real estate aquisitions.  Several Japanese bad guys have a plan to smuggle nukes in to the US and use them to blackmail the president.  Just how they do that and what they plan to accomplish is where the improbable part comes in.  Add to that the author's approach to adventure writing (through a little of everything in there) and you have a fun novel to read as long as you can tolerate the ridculous nature of what's happening.  I mean, we have an underground discovery of stolen Nazi art, a human-hunting-human scenario, an undersea science base destroyed, two undersea rescues, an army of robots, and a host of other action-oriented events, many of them not really related to the others.  Mr Cussler even inserts himself in the story in a cameo role akin to Alfred Hitchcock in a scene depicting a classic automobile race.  It's a bit like watching a combination James Bond/Indiana Jones many over-the-top impossible scenes that there is no doubt that the hero can do absolutely anything and will survive yet again.  There is quite a bit of Japan bashing in here, I must say, but it's targeted at the more extreme elements who want to keep their culture "pure", unlike the melting pot of the US.

I still have four more Dirk Pitt novels on my shelf to read, (I picked them all up at a garage sale for a quarter each so figured I couldn't go wrong).  I've been avoiding them for the past couple of years, not really sure why but now I remember their nature and so when I'm in the mood for a good ol' never-ending action-oriented adventure story, I'll pick up another.

"The Red King" is the latest short story I read, once again in Jeffrey Archer's Cat O'Nine Tales collection.  This time Mr Archer tells the tale of a thief who got arrested and tried for the wrong crime, even though he deserved the jail time just the same.  This one is a complicated story of the theft of a chess piece, the Red King, in a particularly rare chess set.  Just how the caper plays out has many twists and turns and connecting the dots of the plot requires the reader's full and careful attention.  If you can stick with it, it's worth it in the end but that very thing marks this entry down one notch as compared to the other stories so far.

In a couple of days I'll write about the second book I completed on my trip, The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Among the Gently Mad

The full name of this book is Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the 21st Century.  I read this one for my morning reading program, where I read a book every workday morning for about 20-30 minutes before I drive to work.  These usually tend to be non-fiction as it's easier to read those in little doses without losing  the thread of a plot line or character motivation, etc.  This book, by Nicholas Basbanes is a sort of follow-up to his lengthy but amazing 1999 book, A Gentle Madness, where he goes through the history of bibliofilia and provides numerous examples of book collectors throughout history. 

This time, the book is much shorter but no less interesting as Mr Basbanes focuses a bit more on how to collect books, emphasizing that book collecting is not just about finding and collecting rare and valuable books but also about accumulating that which interests any particular collector.  In other words, for every book afficianado out there that is looking for a quality first edition of Catcher in the Rye there is also a collector of pop-up children's books through history or a collector of all books with the name "Billy" in the title.  He sprinkles numerous anecdotes about the collectors themselves, many of whom he had interviewed for the first book and also offers lots of tips for how to go about starting a collection of your own.  He examines book fairs, auctions, catalogues, etc. and also provides a thorough discussion on the pros and cons of the impact of the internet on modern book collecting.

Just as when I read the first book, I found myself wondering if I am a book collector at all.  I am first and foremost a book reader and consequently I tend to accumulate lots of books but I can't say I've ever searched for a book based on its monetary value and I probably never will.  It would be fun to do so, especially for some area I really like, perhaps the early pulp fiction era, but I suspect I'm too frugal to spend the kind of money I would need to do so.  I certainly don't mind if others choose to collect books that they have no intention of reading but that's just not me.  After I read a particular book, I do tend to cherish it and I love looking at my book shelves, reminiscing about the memories.  I suppose I could categorize myself as a collector of "books I like to read" but that seems rather silly, even though I own and catalog over 7,000 books in my house. (Yes, I fit the description of a "gently mad" person).  I think it's pretty good that I only have ~300 still unread although I can't seem to get that number much lower.

Anyway, I very much enjoy Mr Basbanes' books; they leave me with a deep sense of satisfaction and I always love books about books or book people.  He has more published so I hope to add them to my "collection" one day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Steps Up the Chimney

I'm certainly no expert on young adult novels.  I read several each year largely because my children have read them and talk about them and so I get interested in them.  I've also played with the idea of trying to write one some day and therefore ought to read them.  And, I will say, that I keep reading them because I flat out enjoy them.  But while reading The Steps Up the Chimney by William Corlett I began to ponder just what makes a novel a "young adult" novel.  It's not that they're simplified for a less sophisticated audience (at least they shouldn't be and I don't think the better ones are).  The main characters are usually young people and perhaps that is the only criteria.  I suppose they should have a "PG" type rating, not "R" but is that the only criteria?

Anyway, I enjoyed this book pretty well.  It's the first of a four part series revolving around the adventures of three siblings, ages 7-12, who are staying with their Uncle and his girlfriend (who's pregnant).  Their house is in the rural English countryside and is intriguing in a mysterious sort of way, with secret staircases, a secret room, and a magician.  The children find they can inhabit the bodies of various animals around the house, able to run with a fox or see through the eyes of an owl, etc.  There is adventure, mystery, and fantasy as well as some frightening situations.  I felt the plot was well thought out and executed but I did have an issue with the way the children simply accepted the fantasy elements with very little question.  For example, when the kids first meet the magician they take him at his word and simply believe he can perform magical acts.  I would think there should have been more of a "prove it to me" attitude.  They are children so may be a tad more accepting than a jaded adult but not quite that much.  As a reader, I can easily overlook that problem though and I do look forward to the rest of the series.  The author has won quite a few writing awards and not all for young adult literature so I should be able to learn from him.

During my lunch break (way too short today I must add; maybe I should be glad I get to take one at all), I completed the next short story in the Jeffrey Archer collection, Cat O'Nine Tales.  "Is it October Already?" is another cute story but this time is written in a more tradtional mode than the previous entries; i.e. like most published fiction with dialogue, etc.  It's about a rather simple-minded fellow in London who each October finds a way to break the law so that he can be sentenced to 6 months in jail.  This keeps him in a warm place with food and shelter during the cold winter months.  Each October he does it again and if he only gets sentenced to 3 months he either aggravates the judge and thereby gets more or else he commits some minor infraction in jail to get his sentence lengthened.  This is a true story as told to the author, who was his cell mate briefly, and is a fine example of "you couldn't make this stuff up."

I'll be going TDY to Washinton DC next week so I'll take a couple of books with me including my next read: Dragon by Clive Cussler.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Savannah: or A Gift for Mr Lincoln

John Jakes is another one of "my" authors, or an author that I will pretty much purchase and read anything they publish.  Over the years, these authors have changed somewhat, particularly if there is a downard trend in quality.  Savannah: or A Gift for Mr Lincoln ranks on the lower end of Mr Jakes' work but still there is enough enjoyment here to keep him on my list.  His last three books have suffered some so he's pushing it a little but his age would dictate there aren't too many novels left in him anyway.

This particular novel is one of his shorter ones and is a fairly light read.  He takes a tiny part of General Sherman's famous "March to the Sea" campaign near the end of the Civil War, namely that of the days and weeks surrounding the taking of Savannah during late December 1864.  Sherman, to this day, is often a hated man in the South due to this campaign which they see as unneccesarily harsh to the farmers and other non-combatants of the region.  But Sherman intended to break the back of the South and make them plea for peace and end the war sooner.  Not all that unlike another controversial decision almost a century later with the dropping of atom bombs on Japan.

The story here though is not about warfare or tactics or political decisions.  Rather, it brings it all down to the personal level, as we follow the story of how ordinary people in Savannah deal with what is happening around them.  It's a fairly basic story and the characters represent a cross section of society at that time.  One of the main characters is a twelve year old girl and as a result, the novel almost reads as a young adult novel.  Certainly there is no swearing or sex in this book.  General Sherman does put in a couple of appearances and comes across more as an understanding grandfather than the root of all evil.  This, ultimately, is a book about Christmas and the spirit of that time of the year so understanding the other person's point of view is easier, or at least people do tend to work harder at it.  I will say that I continue to be inspired by the historical accuracy of Mr Jakes' work.  He always manages to sprinkle in quite a few historical tidbits and that makes his books fun to read.

The third story in Jeffrey Archer's collection, Cat O'Nine Tales was awesome.  "Don't Drink the Water" is told in his same style of campfire storytelling; i.e. not much dialogue, just here's what happened.  The story tells of a man in Russia who got away with murder.  He does it by getting his wife to unknowingly drink the tap water at a hotel instead of the bottled water.  Apparently 50 some years ago the water there was downright dangerous.  Sure enough his wife gets a disease and dies.  Unfortunately for the protagonist, justice is ultimately served to him though, just not by the legal system.  The twist right at the end was a complete surprise and had me laughing out loud.

Next up: a young adult fantasy novel, The Steps Up the Chimney, the first in a series of four called "The Magician's House Quartet" by William Corlett.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Under the Dome

I read my first Stephen King book almost 20 years ago when I was going to tech school for the Air Force.  I had avoided him up until then because I was afraid that if I liked him I would have to read about 25 more books that he already had published at that time (I tend to do that for authors I like).  But I took the plunge largely because of my sister in law who is an avid fan and just couldn't understand why I hadn't read him yet.

That was 20 years ago and now, Under the Dome is my 41st Stephen King novel.  Guess you can say that I liked that first one back then.  Some of them have been masterpieces (The Stand, The Green Mile, etc) while others have been downright stinkeroos (The Tommyknockers). I am happy to report that Under the Dome is far closer to the top end than the bottom and in fact I would go so far as to say it is in the top 5 Stephen King novels so far.  He reportedly began writing this novel more than 30 years ago but gave it up due to its complexity and shear scope.  In 2007 he took it up again and charged ahead to completion, resulting in another very successful novel.

The idea is fairly simple: a transparent and completely indestructable dome has appeared over a small town in Maine, allowing nothing to get through either way.  The people inside are trapped while those outside are helpless to provide assistance.  About a week goes by over the course of the novel.  Part of the resulting story deals with the mystery of just what this dome is and how did it get to be there but the far larger aspects of the story deal with how people react when faced with this situation.  I read an interview once where Mr King was asked about his favorite authors and influences and which novel would he have most liked to have written.  He replied, Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  This book, I think, is Stephen King's version of Lord of the Flies.

 Stephen King is at his best with his interacting characters, whether they be smart, religious, rich, poor, or fools.  He has long recognized that the most real horror is the kind of horror that real people inflict upon one another when they are desperate.  There are no monsters or demons in this book except those of the very real human being variety.  As the novel unfolds, the situation gets more and more desperate and the members of the town have to choose sides.  One of the best bad guys Stephen King has ever produced, "Big Jim" Renny, makes his debut here.  He is ultimately just a bully, but he is a smart, far thinking, master manipulator as well.  I just love an intelligent, well written bad guy.

This is a long book though and I will admit to times when I was wishing it was a tad shorter.  Mr King includes a huge cast of characters which can become burdensome if left in less capable hands.  But to his credit, once I had completed the book  I was able to look back at the long list of characters provided at the beginning and know every single one of them.  Even though the point of view character keeps switching all over the place, (including to a family dog!), Mr King has a way of reminding us just who the person is, very subtely, but enough to keep the reader on track.  I also enjoyed they very handy map of the town which really helped keep track of what was going on as the week under the dome unfolded. Marvelous job!

This morning, I completed the second short story in Jeffrey Archer's collection, Cat O'Nine Tales, "Maestro".  This was a straight forward story about an Italian restauranteur who had to serve time in jail for failing to pay all of his taxes.  Once again this was another story based in truth and told to Mr Archer while he, himself, was incarcerated.  The nice twist in this one was the revelation that the protagonist was able to find a new, sneaky way of hiding his income which is still in practice today.  Mr Archer is a story teller first and foremost.  His prose is heavy on the "telling" not the "showing" or the dialogue, thus his short stories tend to be like sitting around a campfire and listening to a story...very enjoyable.

Next up: John Jakes' Savannah: Or a Gift for Mr Lincoln.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

On Basilisk Station

It seems like I am often picking books to read because A) I really should read that book, B) I'm due to read a mystery (or fill in any particular genre) next, or C) boy, that book has sure been in my to-be-read stack a long time.  But for my first book to read of 2010, I selected one that I just plain wanted to read now.  The Honor Harrington novels by David Weber have been on my radar for several years and I understand they have almost a cult following these days.  Even though they are science fiction/space opera stories, all 11 novels in the series enjoy great reputations among readers and critics alike.  There are even other tie-in novels and stories written in the "Honorverse," as it is belovedly termed.

So I had the first book of the series, On Basilisk Station, sitting on my shelf and, coincidentally, my son had given me a computer game called "Mass Effect" for Christmas.  It is a science fiction story-oriented game and I spent far too much time playing it during my time off over the holidays.  It really got my science fiction juices flowing and so I jumped at the opportunity to read this book as soon as I could.

In short, this is a great novel.  The protagonist, Commander Honor Harrington is an officer in the Royal Manticore Navy, a space-going force much like you might find in Star Wars or Star Trek.  But the author, David Weber is an amature historian, especially of military history, and has crafted this novel and characters based on real world history.  He is also a huge fan of the Horatio Hornblower novels by EM Forester, as am I, having read them all in the past 3 years or so.  Honor Harrington, herself, is sort of a cross between Hornblower and the real Lord Nelson, whose biography I also read just this past year.  Is it any wonder I liked this book?

The novel itself is a great story, first and foremost.  Commander Harrington is fully fleshed out and as she meets her crew for her first command, we agonize right along with her on how these people will perform under fire.  She and her ship, the Fearless are placed in an extremely untenable position due to heavy handed politics occuring in that region of colonized space.  The book is full of space-based militery action, and we see how Commander Harrington is a no-nonsense, can-do leader and when faced with impossible tasks, finds a way to get them done.  The book also examines the political realities taking place as well as the societal forces at work.  In essence it's a slice of "real" life in that environment but at the same time is delightful, escapist entertainment.  I have served as an active duty US Air Force officer for 19 1/2 years so far and I can tell you, Mr Weber absolutely nails the military life.  I had to check his bio to see where he had served because his accuracy in how his military people act, how they juggle their responsibilities, how they repond to "Higher Headquarters,"etc. is just uncanny.  But apparently he has not been in the military at all and just does a lot of research.  I am really looking forward to reading more novels in this series!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I also read a short story between every novel.  I've started a collection by Jeffrey Archer called Cat O'Nine Tales.  Nine of the twelve stories therein are stories that were told to him by inmates while he, himself was incarcerated recently.  He has embelished them somewhat, apparently, but they are, in essence, "true" stories.  The first story, "The Man Who Robbed his Own Post Office" is a typically enthralling story by Mr Archer about a hard working couple in England who has worked hard to build a business (first a Fish and Chip shop and then a post office) only to have the government change the status of the post office thereby making it almost worthless.  They hatch a plan to recover their own money back but in the end can't go through with it and have to suffer jail time.  Mr Archer is a marvelous story-teller (I count Kane and Able among my all-time favorite novels) and he doesn't disappoint here.  I also tend to like stories that highlight government interference and it's unintended consequences.

Next up:  the new Stephen King novel, Under the Dome.  Yes, I actually bought this one in hardback because it looks like it'll be a great King novel.  It clocks in at over 1000 pages so you might not see me for a while :)

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