Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hanging Woman Creek

No Matter how many times I read a Louis L'Amour book from my "to be read" pile (or shelves in my case) I seem to still have about 5 left to read.  I'm beginning to think they are breeding.  Nevertheless, I always seem to enjoy them and really tend to use them as breaks between larger novels.  With over a hundred novels and short story collections published I am constantly amazed when I read one of his books and discover a whole new actual story and not just a repetition of something he's done before.

Hanging Woman Creek, is yet again an original western story.  This is one of his shorter ones, coming in at exactly 150 pages in my copy.  It's the story of Baranbus "Pronto" Pike who, for a change, is no gun fighter and not really much of a fist fighter either although he has found himself in many such scraps over the years.  He meets up with Edie, a boxer, who also happens to be black, and together they look to survive a rugged Montana winter while making plans to start their own horse/cattle ranch.  Edie teaches Pike the finer arts of boxing which come in handy at the end of the story.  But they come across an old friend of Pike's who apparently, has gotten mixed up with the bad side of the law and before you know it, Pike and Edie are in the fight of their lives.  As always with a L'Amour book, good triumphs over evil and there is a happy ending.

Pike is an unusual protagonist for L'Amour in that he is not the quiet, reserved gunfighter that we often see.  The story is told from the first person perspective and it becomes obvious very soon in the story that Pike is not cut from the normal hero mold of so many westerns.  That's probably what I like most about this book.  The way in which the author weaves historical elements of life between the Little Big Horn and the Powder Rivers in 1885 with the action of cattle rustling, bar fights and, of course, a blossoming romance, makes for a great western read.

And I still have 5 more L'Amour titles to read...

"A Greek Tragedy" was the next title in Jeffrey Archer's short story collection, Cat O' Nine Tales.  This one was very different, not a jail-related story at all but rather a true tragedy whereby a wonderful, much loved elderly man is in the wrong place at the wrong time and unknowingly sacrifices himself, saving several other lives.  It is difficult to describe without giving away spoilers so I won't attempt it.  Suffice it to say it was an enjoyable story but with a sad ending.

Next up:  William Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shadow's Edge

It's seems to have taken me longer than normal to complete the reading of Shadow's Edge by Brent Weeks.  I actually began reading this second book in the "Night Angel" trilogy last week on Saturday as I drove to a neighboring state to visit my parents for the weekend.  That may have lessened my reading time somewhat but mostly I blame the Winter Olympics.  We're big Olympics viewers, especially the winter games, and this past week has seen the whole family gathered in the TV room for hours on end witnessing some of the best sports drama I've seen in quite a while.  So, yes, my reading time suffered.  This book is almost 650 pages long though so I don't really feel too bad.

The plot picks up right after the first book ended, with our hero, Kylar, now having decided to give up the "wetboy" (assassin) life in order to preserve his sanity and pursue a more normal life with his childhood sweetheart.  But, of course, that won't be so simple, as another friend from his young days shows up and informs Kylar that Logan, the heir to the thrown is alive after all and imprisoned in a horrible place.  Only a wetboy of Kylar's skills can get him out.  Throw in to the mix the arch enemy and father of Kylar's major nemesis in book one, the "Godking" that is bent on conquering neighboring lands and we have the making of a great fantasy story.  But that's not all as several intriguing subplots flesh out the story including that of Vi, a female wetboy of great talent but questionable loyalty.

I admit to being a bit scared to start reading this one.  The first book in the trilogy, The Way of Shadows, was among my all time favorite fantasy novels and I dreaded what so often happens...a major let down where the second book serves merely as a bridge to get to the third and final climactic book.  Not so this time.  There were a few points where I thought the plot dragged or where one of the characters in a subplot wasn't properly fleshed out, but overall, this was a very good read.  And I think the book can largely stand alone; i.e. it has its own beginning, middle, and end (as long as you ignore the last paragraph which serves to setup an intriguing third book).  I'll get to that third book pretty soon, but after the Olympics are complete.

"The Alibi" was the next entry in Jeffrey Archer's Cat O'Nine Tales collection of short stories.  This one was a letdown from previous stories.  Just not much to it other than the criminal using conjugal visits to set-up his alibi for additional petty crimes.  It was interesting the way it worked but perhaps I am getting too many of these stories to make them stand out anymore.  Only a few left though so we'll see how it goes.

Next up: time for another Louis L'Amour western: Hanging Woman Creek.  Shouldn't take me a whole week this time.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Grave Sight

Grave Sight, by Charlaine Harris, is one of my "Dam" books.  That sounds pretty strange so a bit of explanation is in order.  The summer before last found me on a fantastic vacation trip to Alaska, my family the guests of my parents as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  About half the trip was an overland scenic vacation by bus and train but the other half was a beautiful cruise to see the glaciers, whales, etc.  While on the boat, we each had some extra "cruise $$" to spend as part of the overall cruise package.  It was pretty cool to have "free" money to spend, even though we knew we had really already paid for the opportunity to spend that money.  The only stipulation was that we had to spend it aboard ship.  Well...I'm not all that big on most of the stuff they were selling on board but I did find one tiny rack of books in a small shop so I spent my $$ on buying one copy of just about everything they had, whether it looked interesting or not.  Now as I think back, I can never remember the name of that cruise ship but it was something like "Rotterdam" or "Cramerdam" or "Ashtondam."  I have to get out my free t-shirt to get the exact name.  Usually, the only part I'm sure of is the "dam" part so ever since then I call these particular books my "dam" books.

So when I was looking for a mystery to read this week, I chose Grave Sight, one of the more interesting-looking "dam" books.  Charlaine Harris is a prolific writer and seems to be coming out with a new novel every 3-4 months.  She is most famous for her "Southern Vampire" series featuring Sookie Stackhouse.  Unlike most readers of Grave Sight, I had never read a Sookie book so didn't have any preconceived notions of the author's style.  Apparently many readers compare Harper Connelly, the heroine of the "Grave" books to Sookie.  From my understanding, they are quite different characters and such comparisons should be avoided.

This is the first book of the series and as such serves primarily to introduce the reader to Harper as well as her step brother, Tolliver.  Harper has a special ability that she acquired as a girl when she was struck by lightning: she can find dead people, sort of by honing in on them as if using a geiger counter.  Not only can she find them but she can "see" how they died.  Sounds like a cool way for a writer to develop a series of books, just as Ms Harris has done.  In the main story, Harper and Tolliver travel to a small town in Arkansas to find a missing teenage girl.  She does so but that only leads to further complications from the local townsfolk.  The plot becomes a more traditional murder mystery as Harper and Tolliver delve into just what happened in that town.

The author seems to have a real knack for writing characters with troublesome backgrounds.  In Harper's case, the lightning incident caused emotional trauma; she has an understandable phobia of thunderstorms and when added to her parents' irresponsibility (alcohol and drug abuse and sexual deviancy) she must now cope with a number of emotional challenges as she lives her day-to-day life.  She disguises her emotional instability with a tough/self-confidant outer shell but when that breaks down she relies heavily on her step brother for support.  When taken as a whole, this is an interesting pair of characters and I suspect the popularity of these books will continue to grow.  Having said that, I found the overall novel to be enjoyable but not really awesome.  The actual mystery seemed uninspired and the ultimate solution predictable.  I do have the second book in this series as well (also a "Dam" book) so I will read that one before I determine if I will continue the series.

Another novel read, so that means another short story complete as well.  "Charity Begins at Home" is my latest read in Jeffrey Archer's Cat O'Nine Tales collection and is another good one.  This time the criminal is an intelligent, reserved man, who has lived an honest life for more than 50 years.  But when presented with an opportunity to skim money from charitable donations, and launder the money through gambling, he can't resist the easy pickins.  He even strategically gets caught and does 18 months in prison in order to throw off suspician of the greater crime.  A delightful story to read as long as you are OK with an ending where the criminal gets away with it.

Next up: Shadow's Edge, the second novel in the "Night Angel" trilogy by Brent Weeks.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Trade

The Trade, by Fred Stenson, is the first novel I've read in Amazon's Vine program (ARCs) that has already been published before.  My research indicates it was first published in the year 2000 in Canada and will now be available in a newly published version on April 1st, 2010.  It was a finalist in 2000 for Canada's "Giller" prize, a literary prize awarded to Canadian authors for novels or short story collections published the previous year.

This is the story of the Canadian fur trade between the years 1822 and 1848.  The Hudson Bay Company has merged with it's rival, The North West Company, and since the best fur trapping in eastern Canada has mostly tapped out, they are forced to look to the West, a largely unmapped region of Canada, mostly in present day Saskatchewan.  The Company sends out contingents of fur traders to the indigenous tribes of the area.  The story itself is told through the eyes of several people including John Rowand, a bitter Company man who was not chosen to lead an expedition, Ted Harriot, a clerk in the company, and Jimmy Jock Bird, who has made his life as a sort of middleman between the traders and the tribes.  The characters, particularly Harriot, has to live through some severe hardships, some dealing with the nature of the Company business such as long treks through bitter snow and ice but also in his personal life. 

But the real story here is about the evolutionary changes upon the land and among the various interacting societies.  The book is told in just a few long chapters, each dealing with a different theme.  For example, one chapter, called "The Missionary" deals with the issue of a Methodist missionary coming to teach the native population about his religion.  He is successful to some extent but not in the way he hopes.  I found the novel to be educational from many perspectives; afterall when I think fur trade and mountain men, I think western America.  The writing was well done and very much in the "literary" mold.  The characters were OK but to me they were a bit flat.  I understand they are true historical characters so perhaps the author wasn't as free to manuever them the way he might have liked to.  The result, though, was a definite feeling of realness, and not some contrived plot built for pure entertainment.

I've also completed the next short story in Jeffrey Archer's Cat O' Nine Tales collection.  "Know What I Mean" was very similar to others in the collection in that it is the story of a habitual criminal who tells his story to the author while in jail.  Only this time the criminal, a cigarette smuggler, doesn't get away with it.  In fact, in spite of some rather ingenious attempts, a sharp patrolman snags him three times in a row, resulting in a longer jail sentence each time.  But the silver lining is that during all of that jail time, his wife adapts and builds a legitimate company, allowing both to live a happy retirement. 

Next up: Grave Sight, by Charlene Harris.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Prior Bad Acts

I've completed another audio book, Prior Bad Acts by Tami Hoag.  As usual, I selected this one from the library because it was by an author whose name I had seen time and again and yet had never read.  My research indicates Tami Hoag got her start in romance novels but later turned to thriller novels and has since had 13 best sellers.  Thriller novels are usually a good choice for my audio book habit because their very nature makes the plot easy to get back into each and every time I start it up again.  Since I only listen to these when I travel to and from work, that's a key element.

The plot surrounds a Minneapolis judge, Carey Moore, who hands down a decision that prohibits the introduction of evidence about a murder committed by an accused serial killer with numerous prior crimes.  She feels the suspect's prior bad acts are not relevant to the murder of the moment.  But then the accused escapes from custody and shortly thereafter the judge is assaulted and then later, kidnapped.  All evidence points to the escaped serial killer but of course that would be too simple and thus the real mystery of whodunnit.  The novel is a "police procedural" style mystery with lots of methodical detective work by the main character, detective Sam Kovac.  There are also several subplots which serve to drive the story forward.

Unfortunately, I have a tendancy to pick audio books that are part of a series and I hate not starting at the beginning.  I wish the audio book makers would disclose such information on the outside cover; it would sure come in handy.  This one turns out to be the third featuring the two main characters and it was evident throughout the story that I had missed out on some important backstory.  As a result the novel fell a little flat for me, especially in the beginning when I was trying to get a handle on who was who.  The characters just didn't come fully to life the way I prefer.  I don't blame the author for that so much as the audio book people.  As such I don't really consider this a fair test of Tami Hoag novels so will probably have to try another in the future.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Road

So there I was, flying back from Washington DC last Thursday evening, and all set with my well-planned reading agenda.  I actually like to fly because I get a lot of time to read while waiting around in airports and on the plane itself.   But lo and behold mother nature stepped in and decided to storm over Dallas, causing our airplane to have to divert to St Louis to avoid running out of fuel.  My first reaction was, "Oh crap!  What if I miss my connecting flight home?"  But my immediate second thought was, "Cool!  I'll no doubt finish my book ahead of schedule and will be forced to buy another one in St Louis!"  Yes, I am one of the "gently mad".

So we spent an extra hour on the ground in St Louis plus travel time to Dallas but fortunately, my connecting flight was also delayed allowing me about 15 minutes to browse the airport bookstore.  I didn't need that long though because I've promised several people that I would read The Road by Cormac McCarthy just as soon as I could get my hands on a copy.  And, of course there were stacks of them (with the movie tie-in cover) right up front.  So it would be a happy homecoming afterall.

Lots has been written about this book and, of course, it won the Pulitzer Prize, an achievement which many people seem to value.  For me, I chose it due to opinions of people I respect and trust.  The novel is billed as a post-apocalyptic novel and I suppose it is; at least the setting would concur with that assessment.  But it's really so much more than that.  On the surface it's about a man and his son, travelling along a road to get to somewhere that they hope is better.  There are quite a few encounters along the way that serve to drive the plot to its conclusion.  But where this novel succeeds is through its multiple layers.  Depending on how far the reader peels back that onion, he or she is likely to have a different reading experience.  The author is conservative in his word count but depicts so much with his word choice.  You get the flavor of the setting with very few descriptions but this bleak landscape is vibrant because of his writing skills.  And the relationship between the man and his son was written beutifully.  I got their personalities and outlook on life right away through there limited dialogue. 

I've not read any other books by Cormac McCarthy but I suspect I will now.  In this book, he doesn't use quotation marks or apostrophes but it didn't bother me at all.  In such a world, how could such trivial things matter?  We are never told the name of the main character, the "man" or his son, and we never come to understand just what happened to destroy the world prior to the beginning of the book.  But so what?  It isn't about that.  It's about this relationship between two people and just how far a father's love can go to protect his son.  This is not a cherry, happy read but nevertheless gives the reader a deep sense of purpose and certainly gives us pause to think.  I can tell you it made me happy to be back home with my family.  Thanks to all of you who recommended this to me.

Next up: an ARC called, The Trade by Fred Stenson.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Way of Shadows

The second novel I completed during my trip last week was Brent Week's The Way of Shadows.  I'd been looking forward to this one for almost a year having read many good things about it and the entire "Night Angels" trilogy.  If I had simply seen this one in the book store I might only have picked it up for my teenage son based on the cover art; it looks like one step away from a comic book cover and very similar to the myriads of teen vampire romancy things that have taken over the book stores lately (not that I'm judging; I dislike those who pass judgement on something they haven't read).  But this trilogy, the first to be published by Mr Weeks, is often mentioned among the top of lists shared by people whose tastes best match mine.  He has earned a reputation among the best of the "new" fantasy writers and I will do nothing here to alter that prestigious notoriety.

The story begins with some very dark scenes concerning street urchins and the horrible conditions in which they live in this fantasy world.  The main character, Azoth, only a child at this point, witnesses brutal muggings, rape, sodomy, etc. and is forced to follow the law of the local bully, named "Rat".  But our hero is made of stern stuff and consciously decides he won't stand for such a life; he needs to be in control and never let such bullies dominate him again.  So he apprentices himself to the one man he regards as the most in-control person he has ever known, a master assassin, known as a "wetboy" in this universe.  The rest of the novel depicts his training and beyond, examining how his background leads him to his fateful decisions.  Just as Azoth's training progresses and he transforms into Kylar Stern so does our understanding of just what is really happening here. 

So far, reading what I've described, you would probably conclude this is a rather typical formula-driven fantasy novel.  But the way the intrigue unfolds here is utterly amazing.  Nobody seems to be who you think they are; I found this story to be completely unpredictable and yet very well constructed.  Loyalties are interchangeable and questions of good and evil are plentiful.  It's no small task for a writer to develop his main character as an assassin, have innocents perish, and yet expect the reader to maintain a positive attitude towards him.  But Mr Weeks pulls it off brilliantly.  It doesn't hurt that Mr Weeks is one of the best writers of fight scenes out there, well choreographed and exciting and yet not overdone.  All of the writing for that matter was crisp and clean and served to drive the story forward at a healthy pace.  Truly an outstanding result for a first novel, the best fantasy I've read in a year since Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, my all time favorite.

As always between novels, I've completed another short story, the next in Jeffrey Archer's Cat O'Nine Tales collection.  "The Wisdom of Solomon" is another good one, and one of the best twist endings I've read in a long time by any author.  It concerns a young man who marries a woman who has had three previous marriages (and divorces).  Predictably, after a year she wants her fourth divorce and through good lawyers, a sympathetic judge, and an incredible display of how to wear down your opponant, is poised to gain virtually all of her soon-to-be ex-husband's wealth.  It is hard not to divulge the twist at the end but I will say she gets what she deserves.  This is one of the three tales in the collection that was not told to the author during his incarceration but rather after his release.  Doesn't matter though, it's still done in an "as told to" style.

Next up, the novel I bought at the airport when I had run out of reading material on my trip: Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

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