Tuesday, March 30, 2010
The first book of the trilogy, The Way of Shadows, was extremely good; a well-constructed novel that left me breathless with anticipation for the next two books. I think what I like about it was the way the protagonist began as just a young boy in the worst of circumstances and through a series of circumstances, luck, and plain hard work, rose to become a master of his profession (assassination). Along the way he grew as a character, coming to question the very morality of what he was doing, even though his targets ("deaders") deserved it. The second book continued and he grew in strength and power until now we reach the third book...and it seemed like the author needed to re-invent where he was going with the trilogy. The crux of the problem, I think, is that his protagonist has grown too powerful and has few vulnerabilities left. How can you raise suspense with the reader when the hero can fight better than anybody, has powers like invisibility, fast healing, and, oh yes, he's immortal. Every time he dies he is resurrected.
So here we are in the third book with an un-killable protagonist. He does discover that there are dire consequences to his resurrections...every time he comes back, somebody else, an innocent, dies. And usually its somebody he knows. OK, that's a problem so now he has to be careful. Most of the novel takes place at a larger scale than the first two books; i.e. we now learn far more about the world, itself, the major powers, and the ever-present power struggle itself. The battles are no longer one-on-one (or one against 100) but rather on a more epic scale of armies battling one another. Some of the minor characters from book 2 are fleshed out more now but I didn't really care about them as they seemed extraneous somehow. I wanted to see what was happening with the major characters. And several times the pacing of the action was interrupted with lengthy descriptive passages that just served to ruin the flow. I'm being hard on Mr Weeks here because the first book really showed what awesome talent he has. In fact, I suspect the pacing issues may have arisen from editor/publisher requirements on length. This volume is long as it is at almost 700 pages but I suspect if given free rein, the author would have given us a more complete experience. Still, having said all that, I still look forward to more of this author's work.
The next short story in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century was "I'm Scared," by Jack Finney, best known probably for writing the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" story. As with much speculative fiction of the 1950's, the emphasis is not so much on technological explanations or scientific theories but rather on mood and setting. The story is told in the first person POV, as the protagonist tells how he has come across a theory that as time goes on, there are more and more instances of time anomolies occurring. He gives several examples such as a lady who is visited by a stray dog for several days and then two years later becomes the owner of that same dog as a pup. Another example involves a man from the turn of the century (~1900) that appears in the middle of a busy street in the present day and, bewildered, gets run over by a cab. His conclusion is interesting: as time goes on we are more and more interested in escaping our current lives (yearning for the good ol days, back when life was worth living, etc) that the result is more and more disruption in the flow of time. Where this leads is speculation at best but I wonder what Mr Finney would think about that same concept now in 2010, when even more of us wish for a simpler time...
Next up, On The Grid, by Scott Huler.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Mr Ambrose is known as one of the great US historians, having written some 20 books, several of which have become quite well known. Among them is a comprehensive 2-volume work on Eisenhower as well as this one which is a consolidation of those two volumes. In my view Mr Ambrose does a good job of presenting Eisenhower's faults along with his positive traits, his failures as well as his triumphs. Undoubtedly Eisenhower was a great general and as the primary architect of Operation Overlord (D-Day invasion), he deserves the accolades of his military accomplishments. But what I really like about a well-done biography is to see the early years, the childhood influences which led to the way the subject reacts to experiences in adult life. Mr Ambrose provides that for us here, taking the little boy from Abilene Kansas all the way to the Presidency. Unfortunately, my hopes for the tie-in to MacArthur's Phillipine experiences were dashed as that realtionship was glossed over almost completely. I suppose a biographer needs to keep to his subject and not let other notable figures of the time take over.
Most of the book deals with the Eisenhower presidency, a time in the 50's that most knowledgeable people refer to as the age of missed opportunities and Eisenhower himself as the "do-nothing president." While Mr Ambrose does point out Eisenhower's penchant for stearing down the middle of the road, pushing off any responsibility in dealing with the racial divides of the country, and unwilling to deal with McCarthyism in any definitive way, he also spends time on the positive things such as keeping the budget in balance, establishing the Interstate Highway System, and keeping the peace for his entire 8 years as president.
Along the way we do get to witness some great moments in history and meet the towering figures of the time such as Montgomery, Churchill, DeGaul, Stalin, Truman, Nixon, McCarthy, and his own family of Maime and son David. I came away from this book with a much greater appreciation for the era of the 50's (I've never studied much from that decade) as well as a better understanding of how all of that led us to the 60's. Mr Ambrose, I know, came under fire several years ago for plagarism (something about quotes not used correctly) but this book does not seem to ever be mentioned as a case of that. This biography still is known as the definitive Eisenhower biography and I, for one, appreciate it. I certainly have a much better understanding and "feel" for one of my nations true heroes while at the same time appreciate one of our more under-rated presidents.
Sure wish we had him now.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Nevertheless, I managed to find time to complete Covenant by John Everson, a horror novel and the debut novel from this author. The cover trumpets this book as a winner of the Bram Stoker Award and after reading it I can see why. This is a nice taught story, well told, and briskly paced. It's the story about a young 20-something reporter named Joe Kiernan who has moved from Chicago to the small coastal town of Terrel. It's not long before he discovers the deep dark secret that is haunting the town: for some reason people are dying (usually leaping to their deaths from the cliffs of Terrel's Peak) once each year on the exact same day. Joe gladly puts on his investigative reporter persona to escape his usual small town assignments and soon gets in over his head. He is a pragmatist, certain that there is some sort of serial killer on the loose but eventually he has to embrace the idea of a supernatural nature to the tragedies.
This book, I must say, is not for the squeamish. Particularly, in the second half of the book, as the supernatural stuff comes more and more into focus, there is lots of blood and gore and sex, sometimes all together. Everything is on stage and leaves very little to the imagination. You've been warned. I compare this book to the works of Richard Laymon although Laymon's plots tend to be more teenage sexual fantasy whereas this is hard core horror. There is a sequel out called, Sacrifice and I'll probably read that as well if it comes across my radar.
I also read another story in The Best Time Travel Short Stories of the 20th Century. "Time's Arrow" by the great Arthur C. Clark was a good solid entry in this collection, and is a story about some palentologists who are conducting a dig near some dinosaur tracks. Simultaneously, a team of physicists are at the cusp of discovering a way to look back in time and actually see what transpired at the scene rather than have to judge it by the fossil record. A great ending on this one...but I won't spoil it for you. I really like Clark as an author because he brings such solid credentials to his science fiction (degrees in physics and mathematics) allowing convincing science in his stories but not so convoluted that the reader gets lost.
Next up: Beyond the Shadows but Brent Weeks
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
While waiting for the dentist, I completed Mistress of Rome by newcomer, Kate Quinn. This one is scheduled to be on store shelves in April and I'm thinking with the right marketing and sales support, it might do pretty well. As a novel-reading experience it was a pretty fun ride. It's an historical novel, taking place during the reign of Emporer Domitian, the last of the Flavian dynasty in Rome. There are several major characters who all act as POV characters at different times but the main one is Thea, a Jewish slave girl who rises to the very heights of Roman society as the Emporer's mistress. Other major characters include a gladiator barbarian, and a spiteful heiress named Lepida Pollia. There is a good mix of fictional characters intermingled with historical persons but you'll have to look in the appendix to know which is which unless you're a Roman scholar.
Basically, the novel is a well-plotted soap opera of intrigue. There is plenty of blood spilled (not all in the gladiator arena), lust, conniving, backstabbing betrayals, assassination attempts, jealousy and old fashioned romance. The story itself really grabbed me and kept me turning the pages, wanting to find out what happened next and I found the characters to be multi-dimensional for the most part. I did have a bit of a problem with the constant switching back and forth among the POV characters as it wasn't always perfectly clear when the change happened. It can really throw the reader off kilter when they go from one first person POV paragraph to another, also in first person, but from a different character's persepective. Still, I really enjoyed this one and even though this novel is a complete stand-alone book, the "Historical Note" at the end hinted at a sequel to come. I'll be in line to read that if and when it happens.
I also managed to read the second short story in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, called "Time Locker" by Henry Kuttner. This one was from back in the so-called golden age of Science Fiction, copyright 1943. This is an era that is hard for me to appreciate because it's just so far back that the science is, from today's perspective, of the middle school variety. I can get past that though if the story is good but in reading this one, I just didn't get into it much. The idea is a "what-if" scenario. What if you could contain a time warp field inside an object, in this case an airport locker. Most of the story is a crime caper told in the fashion of the 1940's. I could just see somebody like Humphrey Bogart playing the lead role. The ending was a cute twist based on flawed science as we know it today and it coaxed a chuckle out of me but overall I was disappointed in this entry.
Next up: back to the horror genre with Covenent by John Everson.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Never having even opened a book written by Ted Dekker, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew he had roots as a "Christian thriller" writer but I understand he has for several years now branched out into both fantasy and mainstream thrillers, the later usually featuring serial killer plots. This book is a taut, well written novel that really leads the reader along the plotline but also reaches into the very nature of good and evil. The main protagonist is FBI special agent Brad Raines who is faced with a serial killer situation. Somebody is kidnapping beautiful young women, draining their bodies of the blood, and hanging them on walls of abandoned barns and other places, with nothing but a bridal veil to wear. The reader is introduced early on to the killer, himself, allowing us inside his mind and motivations. Seems he is fulfilling God's plan for him by offering seven brides, culminating in the perfect bride for God.
Agent Raines, based on the psychotic nature of the killer, searches for clues in several Mental Health Facilities in the area and is drawn to one particular group of patients which includes a young woman by the name of "Paradise". Through her and her friends' eyes, we actually learn quite a bit about the nature of mental health care as we work our way through the novel. With Paradise's assistance, and some good old fashioned police work, Agent Raines is able to close in on the killer's identity. I won't go into further detail for fear of spoilers but I can honestly say it was a thrill ride. The pace of the novel is just right, building up the level of suspense as we near the climax and not letting go until the very end. Mr Dekker is not afraid to take the predictableness out of the plot and make this one an original idea. He also isn't afraid to to throw in emotional matters of life and faith and relationships, ultimately tying it all together in a very neat package. This will not be the last book I read by Mr Dekker!
The novel will be on store shelves in April.
I've also begun the next short story collection, "The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century", edited by Harry Turtledove and martin H. Greenberg. The first story, "Yesterday was Monday" was written by the late great science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon and is a delightful story about a regular guy named Harry who somehow goes to sleep on Monday night and wakes up in Wednesday. I say "in" Wednesday because he has somehow gotten off the track of normal time where all of us actors live our lives and stepped into the behind-the-scenes set-building that is going on for Wednesday. The characters there are trying to put the finishing touches on the scenery before the actors (that are still in Tuesday) arrive. Harry, trying to get back into the normal time flow makes a quick side-trip to "yesterday" which is Monday. and sees all of the workers there that are breaking down the old, used set. It's a pretty nice little story; I hope the others in this collection will be as interesting.
Next up, another Advanced Reading Copy, a historical novel by Kate Quinn called, Mistress of Rome.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Monday, March 8, 2010
I won't go into details of the stories in this collection because I've blurbed about them as I've completed them. Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to read one short story between each novel. This particular collection is by Jeffrey Archer, an author that is almost always a big hit for me and only occasionally misses, although it seems like his later works are suffering somewhat. He is an interesting character in his own right, having been elected to English Parliament at the young age of 29. He lost his first fortune as a victim of a fradulent investment scheme, and for a time was the owner of an art gallery. In 1999 he ran for mayor of London but ultimately withdrew when it came to light that he was facing a charge of perjury from a case in 1987. He was sentenced to four years in prison and it was from this time that he developed this book of short stories. All of the stories pertain to real people who got into trouble with the law (or managed to avoid it) in one form or another. Nine of the twelve stories were actually told to him by fellow prisoners while he was incarcerated and although Mr Archer clearly states that he embellished most of them somewhat, they are substantially true circumstances.
Mr Archer can flat-out tell a story. He obviously uses events in his own rather colorful life to come up with ideas; he has written many stories concerning political intrigue, art collecting, etc. A major theme of his, captured best in one of my favorite novels by any author, Kane and Able, deals with two people growing up in opposite worlds (rich-poor, famous-forgotten, etc) and how they come to interact. Many times it's about how ordinary people rise to extraordinary positions, many times only to fall again. Very often, his characters build elaborate schemes to foil the authorities. It's fascinating to me to read stories written by Mr Archer even before the very same thing happened to him. While he may haven fallen from grace in political circles, he continues to write extraordinary fiction, and always in a pleasant story-telling manner. He is one of the few authors I've read who can consistently pull off a twist ending without making the reader feel like a fool. I highly recommend you try his novels, especially Kane and Able, The President's Daughter, and As the Crow Flies. And, of course, any of his short story collections are wonderful.
Friday, March 5, 2010
I found this book to be a step up from the first one. The children this time are much more tolerable, less whiney, and frankly, a bit smarter with how they deal with the unexplained. They meet an old woman who lives in the forest, Meg, who is a self-appointed guardian of nature. The major plot line involves her badger friends' plight at the hands of "badger baiters", a group of men who operate a nasty dog fighting ring where the viscious dogs fight the badgers. As in the first book, the children, after putting aside their propensity to disbelieve, are able to inhabit the bodies of certain animals of the forest, allowing them to further their adventures.
I thought the story itself was more compelling than the first volume in the series, especially the build up of the suspense, the mystery of the origins of the magician, and the central messages and themes the author brought out in the novel. There were still a few jarring scenes which seemed odd to be included; i.e. I'm not sure what the point was of the scene where Phoebe, Uncle Jack's girlfriend, breast feeds her baby in full view, an act that completely offends the children. There is no follow-on nor any sort of enlightenment or character growth there. But to his credit, the author does do a good job at dealing with anger and loss of temper among the characters. This seems to be an on-going theme of the series and should be helpful to parents who have to deal with that issue. He also delves into the idea that you can't rely on magic (or grownups) to solve your problems but must find courage within yourself to tackle life's difficult choices. He manages to involve these issues in the narrative without sounding preachy or talking down in any way to his target audience, the young readers.
I look forward to the final two volumes of this series as I hope to discover the secrets of the history behind the Golden House, the full nature of the magician, as well as the other animal friends that we've come to know.
Next up: Steve Weber's The Home-Based Bookstore, which I hope will be useful as I make a decision about doing just that in the near future.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
This book is the fourth book in the series and possibly the last. Mr Gillette has now been a powerful man of finance for many years now and in his mid 50's. He has successfully raised absurd amounts of money for his clients and shared the vast wealth with his partners. He has now been tapped by the US President to go to Cuba and, due to rumors of Fidel Castro's death, secure the future of American interests as Cuba joins the global marketplace. I found the plot to be disjointed, however, and I believe Mr Frey missed the mark this time.
The business aspects of this one were mostly non-existent, with the protagonist having turned over most of the responsibilities of running the firm to Ms Allison Wallace. Its very obvious from early on that Allison would become the "successor" as well as his love interest but it seemed Mr Gillette was the last one to figure it out. The thriller aspects of the novel were left to the very end, added, it almost seems, as an afterthought. The major meat of the novel instead focuses on Mr Gillete's mid-life crisis and his falling for a young 22-year old, who we readers figure out at the beginning is an actress, introduced in the very first scene. When the author discloses that "ah-ha" moment of who this 22-year old really is, I couldn't believe he expected me to not have figured that out long before.
I think the author had a trap to climb out of: he had a protagonist who, in the first three books had risen to such powerful heights that he had no more room for growth. I think he tried to refocus his goals and take him in a different direction but instead he ended up thrusting him into an improbable scenario and then didn't follow through with a believable plot. I am hopeful Mr Frey will put this series to rest and begin anew.
I won't be doing any more audio books for a while. I have reached the end of my Air Force career and will be retiring after 20 years of service. In fact, at this point I have only 8 more days of actual work and thus, not enough time to get an entire audio book completed during my commutes. While I have an ideal future planned that involves staying at home and working on my hobbies (reading, writing, watching movies, and playing computer games) my budget requires me to secure an actual income-producing job. If I manage to land one in this economy and still have a reasonable length of drive to and from work I will re-enter the audio book realm. Until that happens, I will miss them.
Wish me luck.
Monday, March 1, 2010
William Gibson, for those that don't know, is the patron saint of "cyperpunk" literature. Cyberpunk can be loosly defined as a combination of cybernetics and punk and has been described as "high tech meets low life". Usually his books are futuristic and definitely science fiction but this particular novel takes place in the present day (published in 2005). The protagonist is Cayce Pollard, an internet fanatic who works for various corporate clients who hire her to evaluate potential corporate logos due to her uncanny ability to discern their mass appeal. Her hobby is to find meaning and patterns in a mysterious collection of videos that are being broadcast on the net called "the footage". But her hobby and her work overlap when she is hired to find the source of the footage which leads her on a quest around the world.
I find this novel very hard to describe...almost as hard as it was to read it. I really worked hard to follow the plot and while I was impressed by the author's use of dialogue to convey his characters' inner thoughts, I just found it difficult to follow. The subject certainly ties in to today's young people (18-25) who seem to practically live on the internet and he captures their attitudes perfectly. But that alone does not make for a good story. They say Gibson writes for the intelligent reader; of this I have no doubt. But I tend to think of myself as pretty intelligent, and I certainly read a lot, but I just found myself wishing the book would hurry up and end. If I were less of a completist, I probably would have just tossed it aside. But I stuck with it and actually enjoyed the final 50 pages or so when the action/thriller elements took over. But unfortunately, by then, I really didn't care what happened to the characters. Not a good sign.
So will I read more books by this author? Doubtful. Am I glad I read this one? Yes because now I know his style and can more easily pass up his other works when I'm browsing the book store shelves. The only possibility that I can see right now is to try Neuromancer because it is such a definitive work in the science fiction genre. But still that's doubtful...
But by way of contrast, I followed that book with Jeffrey Archer's second-to-last entry in his Cat O'Nine Tales collection, called "The Commishioner". This story was a delightful entry, telling the story of a repentent ex-con who tries to pull one last scam and take advantage of a retiring police commishioner. He does not succeed but how the scam comes to light falls into the "truth is stranger than fiction" category.
Next up, the second in the Magician's House Quartet, "The Door in the Tree", a young adult novel by William Corlett.
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