Monday, April 26, 2010


Well, dear readers, I've decided to give this blog a rest, at least for a while.  I've very much enjoyed the experience, getting it launched, planning projects for it, and learning from it.  I've especially enjoyed your kind comments.  However, for the past two months, my life has undergone some major changes and I find the demands on my time seem only to grow.  As most of you know I've launched an on-line book store which is working out pretty well but I also want to spend more time concentrating on my writing.  I'm not getting any younger so somewhere, somehow, I need to prioritize my activities.  As much as I enjoy sharing information with you about what I'm reading, I think I've reached the limits of that endeavor so I will take some time away from it.

Of course, I'll still be reading...that will never end for me.  I just won't be blogging about it.  So for those who faithfully follow this blog and provide the occassional comment I am deeply appreciative.  I will continue to peruse those blogs I've been following so will no doubt connect with you there.  And who knows?  I may return sooner rather then later.

So long, and take care.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Glory in the Name

James L. Nelson is one of "my" authors.  By that I mean I'll read anything and everything he writes as it's sure to be a great read.  I can't honestly say that about all of the authors on the "my authors" list at the side of my blog page but with James L. Nelson, I've now read 9 of his books and they have all been fantastic experiences; he's never let me down.  I even read his web page and get fascinated by his maritime expertise and how he translates that into fiction and nonfiction alike.  I have yet to try any of his nonfiction works but have no doubt that I will in due course.  As a long-time lover of nautical fiction, I tend to compare everything to the Horatio Hornblower series.  While that is certainly good, entertaining nautical fiction, and has transcended to the rank of "classic" literature, I enjoy Mr Nelson's novels more.

Glory in the Name is the first of Mr Nelson's "Bowater" series.  This is the story of Lieutenant Samuel Bowater, US Navy, at the outbreak of the US Civil War.  He reluctantly resigns his commission in order to fight on the side of the Confederacy.  Unfortunately, the Southern cause is long on heart and desire but short on resources, and the Confederate Navy is a perfect example with very few ships and fewer naval officers.  Bowater gains his first command of a modified tugboat, which he proceeds to mount guns upon, turning it into a sort of gunboat.  This is an exciting time in naval warfare as the switch from sail to steam and to ironclads is happening fast.  The resulting sea battles are strange events indeed.  Bowater has several adventures, culminating in the Battle of New Orleans.

The story is a good one, with fleshed out characters, interesting personalities, and complicated relationships. The realtionship between Bowater and his chief engineer, for example, is a wonderful mix of two people who dislike, even despise each other, and yet have a profound respect for each other.  The build up from a crew of strangers to one of comrades in arms is natural and fun to read.  The action/battle sequences are fascinating in their historical accuracy but also really intense.  It takes a great writer to write scenes from history where you already know the outcome, and yet as you're reading it, the result does not seem inevitable.  I have read a lot about the Civil War, both fiction and nonfiction, and yet the naval parts are mostly reduced to the USS Monitor/CSS Virginia (ne Merrimack) battle and the Battle of New Orleans (from Farragut's point of view).  But this novel really brought home the scale of such Civil War naval battles as well as the almost hopeless situation of the CS Navy, such as it was.  This novel is a great example of how to place a really good human story against an historically accurate backdrop.  We learn from the history without feeling lectured and we live the lives of the characters as they face great hardship and unbearable pain of tragic loss.

This is the first of a series, with Thieves of Mercy being the second, published in 2005.  Since then Mr Nelson seems to have concentrated more on his nonfiction work and I wonder how long it might be before he returns to his fiction.  Hopefully, not long.  Meanwhile I will be looking to purchase more of his stuff.

Larry Niven wrote "Leviathan", the next story in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century.  I've read several of his science fiction novels, including the "Ringworld" series but he's not one of my favorites.  I really like his ideas and settings but his story telling just doesn't jive with me for some reason.  This story is no exception.  It's about answering the "what if" question of what if when you go back in time, you not only travel through time but you also travel to a different time path.  Here the protagonist (in our future) goes hunting for a Leviathan or extinct sperm whale as the largest creature ever on earth.  Not worth the time to read even though this was a short one.

Next up: William Corlett's The Tunnel Behind the Waterfall, the third book of the "Magician's House Quartet"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Sculptor

I've been holding off reading The Sculptor by Gregory Funaro for over a month now but felt compelled to give it a go, mainly because the author sent me a free autographed copy in return for a review on  So I owed it to him for one thing.  But that's not why I was avoiding it.  You see, I knew it was about a serial killer and I just didn't want to get bogged down in a novel that was, well, a downer.  I enjoyed the last book I read so much that I wanted to keep the roll going.

Well, let me tell you, this did the trick.  I very much enjoyed this novel, and not because the author gave me a free autographed copy.  In fact, I'm usually tougher on those than others.  This novel, did indeed revolve around a serial killer, but what a great character he turned out to be.  As I've said many times on this blog, I like my bad guys to be great characters.  The Sculptor, who uses his victims to re-create Michelangelo's greatest statues, is not only evil, twisted, etc. but he is also a fully formed character.  As the plot of the novel unfolds we get bits and pieces of his history that makes his complete story a compelling one and even a bit sympathetic.  The protagonists of the story, Dr Cathy Hildebrant and Special Agent Sam Markham of the FBI are also fully developed charcters but I think they end up taking a back seat to the Sculptor himself.

The plot moved along nicely, the pacing was spot on, and the settings were realistic.  I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the next development.  I also enjoyed learning about Michelangelo without feeling like I was being lectured.  My only criticism is a minor one...about the romantic subplot between the two protagonists.  This seemed quite predictable, right from the beginning, but I suppose we readers needed it to counter balance the action/suspense portions.  Frankly, it is hard to believe this is Mr Funaro's first published novel.  It reads as good as or better than many of the top mystery/thriller writers today.  I understand there is more coming from this author and I will look for them in the future.

"Rainbird" is a very cool time travel story, written by R.A. Lafferty, early in his career and published again in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century.  He has a rather uniqie style which often ignores the typical "rules" of writing.  This story starts in the past, 1785 to be precise, and we get to watch the life of Higgston Rainbird, a small time inventor who, near the end of his life invents a "retrogressor."  He is chagrined to realize he has run out of time in his life before he could get to invent all the things he really wanted to get around to.  So he goes back in time, meets himself at a young age and gives himself all kinds of shortcuts for how to get more done during his life time.  No worries about time paradox here!  So now he lives a full life of amazing inventions including most everything we have today, even space travel to the Moon and Mars...all prior to 1850.  But once again, he goes back to speak to his younger self and tries to improve even more...only this time he doesn't listen to himself.  The result: he is now just a small time inventor once again...and no retrogressor.  Cool story.

Next up, James Nelson's Glory in the Name.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Alchemist

Most of the time I already know what the next 4 or 5 books I'll be reading are. I just sort of plan things that way. But this time I decided to just see what popped off my shelves. Interestingly, it was The Alchemist, by Donna Boyd. I had purchased this book several years ago when I needed just one more book to hit the Amazon free shipping threshold. It looked good on the web page and it looked good on my shelf but my fantasy fiction tends towards series and thus a stand-alone book such as this one often gets forgotten. So this was my opportunity.

And it was a fabulous read! The premise is that a charismatic man enters a therapist's office in New York City after having committed one of the most hi-vis murders in history. But he claims he is not of our modern era, instead he is an immortal, born into ancient Egypt and going by the name "Han". He proceeds to tell her the story of his long life, and indeed, this is the vast majority of the novel. Han was a student of the House of Ra, where the secrets of magic and science, alchemy and engineering are learned. Along with his two best friends and co-students, Akan (a boy) and Nefar (a girl), they discover that the power than can jointly wield has unsurpassed potential. They discover the secrets of immortality and though they know they have the power to be gods, they desire to use their power to bring about a better world. But of course when you have three such great friends, that tends to be one too many, particularly when one is of the opposite sex. Their ideal world never comes to be because of their inability to resist their own power, jealousies, rivalries, and thick-headed stubbornness.

The plot was filled with intrigue and open-ended possibilities. I had no clue as to how it would turn out; I just knew I wanted to know what happened next. That for me is the mark of a great read. Ms Boyd used a style in her story telling which is very picturesque, almost poetic even, that was very refreshing. That sort of thing has turned me off before but this time it was absolutely the right way to go. It made Han’s story even more believable because it was like this man really had lived through several centuries, really had been near the seat of power in different cultures, etc. Han has a “voice” here like few other novels I’ve read. Interestingly, Ms Boyd writes under several different pseudonyms, presumably for different genres or sub genres, including romance and I can see that influence here in this work. If there is one thing I wished for in this book it would be for more of the historical eras to be fleshed out. Instead of skipping 2,000 years, I would have loved to read about Han’s adventures during that time…but then I suppose the real story would have gotten lost in the sheer size of such a novel (or series). Anyway, this book was a very pleasant surprise; perhaps I should consider more random acts of reading in the future.

“The Man Who Came Early,” was the next entry in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century. Written by Poul Anderson, another of the great science fiction writers of the “Golden Age” I was a little worried about this one. I had struggled through a novel of his many years ago when I was too young to grasp it’s concepts and thus I found it simply boring. I’m glad I’ve had an opportunity to revise my opinion of him now because this story is probably the best of the batch so far. This time the story begins in the past, in Iceland, and a time traveler from present day, who happens to be a US Army soldier/engineer assigned to Reykjavik base in Iceland appears, having been struck by lightning in his time. No other explanation of time travel is attempted which lets the story happen. Despite the soldier’s assumption that his knowledge and experience would lead him to greatly contribute to the local society of the past, he soon discovers that he is almost helpless. The story is at once comical, intriguing, educational (Mr Anderson certainly did his homework on that era in Iceland), and sad. This one’s a keeper.

Next up: The Sculpter by newcomer, Gregory Funaro.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Grays

The Grays, by Whitley Strieber, is another one of the books that I picked up for "free" during my Alaska cruise last year, purhcased with my free cruise ship allowance.  I bought 6 or 8 books that way and this one was the last one I picked up, not certain I would really be interested in it.  According to the cover blurbs, it would be about aliens that are already here living among us, a subject that just doesn't normally get me excited.

Perhaps that is the main cause of my mediocre reaction to the novel.  The story itself involves a husband and wife who were abducted early in their lives and prepared to reproduce, creating a super-gifted child who would then become the lynchpin between the humans and the aliens.  Meanwhile a young female Air Force officer is plucked from her job in procurement and, due to her amazing ESP powers, is placed with the sole alien that is still alive in captivity.  Yes, the government knows all about the "Grays" as the aliens are called, going back to President Truman, the first president to meet one.  The novel is mostly a science fiction tale but there are large elements of horror in it, as well as some thriller-like adventure especially at the end during the climactic scenes between the aliens and the different factions of humans.

The novel was OK, even pretty interesting for the first half, the half that is more devoted to developing the ideas and the characters of the story.  But then the action-thriller stuff picked up and I found myself hoping the end would arrive sooner.  Parts of the book downright offended me, especially the conspiracy theory parts with the government (actually surprising because I like a good conspiracy story) because it just made the other people look foolish.  And it is obvious that Mr Strieber knows very little about how the US Air Force works.  He throws in a few terms here and there to make it sound good but, really, it sounds like he's picked it up from TV.  His Air Force characters are either corrupted by power or just plain fools.

As usual I did some research on the author after I had completed the book.  He has an interesting past, including what he claims was his own close encounter/abduction with aliens.  He used that material to write his most successful book to date: Communion.  Prior to that he had written horror novels.  Reportedly, The Grays ties in greatly with that abduction work.  Regardless, if alien abduction stories are your bag then you may want to check this out, otherwise I'd look elsewhere.

"A Gun for Dinosaur" was the next story in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century.  Following on the heals of another dinosaur hunting yarn, this one, written by the much loved L. Sprague De Camp, spends very little time and words on the actual mechanisms and theory of time travel but instead concentrates on the story itself.  Once again we have a company that specializes in taking hunting expeditions back to the age of dinosaurs but this time we get the story from the guide himself and it's a nice style.  The author uses just one storyteller's words, not the preson who he's telling it to.  Sort of like hearing one side of a telephone conversation but you can still get the gist of the entire thing.  Anyway, I really liked this one even though it didn't turn out quite like I expected.

Next up: I'm not really sure this time.  I usually have these things planned but this time I will let my eye travel over the shelves of still-to-be-read books and see what pops.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Cat Who Saw Stars

The Cat Who Saw Stars, by Lilian Jackson Braun is the 18th of the series I have read to date.  It's numbered 21 in the series but, generally, this isn't the sort of series where you have to read them in order and I'm not letting the fact that I'm missing a few titles keep me from getting on with it.  The first few, yes, where the general timeline of what is going on is important to understand but by this point they are pretty much stand-alone stories with just a few references to what might have happened in the past.  And to tell the truth, every time I run across such a reference, I can't remember if that was one I read about or not.

Regardless, these books are hardly the height of literary mystery and regular readers of this blog will know I read them more for the setting and the characters than for the riddle of the mystery itself.  The town of Pickax in the county of Mooseville has such a rich texture of interesting characters that it's always fun to go back and visit.  This novel find the protagonist Jim Qwilleran, move to his beach house in Mooseville, on the shores of a huge lake (although it is never stated exactly where these novels take place, it is generally thought to be in Northern Michigan and now we find ourselves on the shores of Lake Superior).  Mr "Q" plans for a 4 week vacation there but a series of circumstances leads him to cut it short after only two.  As usual, Mr Q visits friends, gathers stories for his twice-weekly column in the Pickax newspaper, performs community functions, and pays attention to his cat's odd behavior which is always a predictor of criminal activities somewhere.  This time the cat (Koko) finds a missing backpacker's body buried in the sand along the beach and he manages to push postcards off a shelf which contain important clues pertaining to a boat "accident" that the locals have chalked up to alien abduction.  Sounds quirky eh?

It is and it isn't.  I was disappointed in this one as are many other fans of the series.  Ms Braun's age is not listed anywhere but she has to be getting on in years and many have speculated that this one was written by a ghost writer.  Indeed, much of the phrasing seems off and the plot felt flat to me.  The mystery elements seemed almost unrelated to the real story and Koko's clues were just plain uninteresting.  I really didn't care who dunnit and I wasn't even sure there had been a crime committed until the end.  And even then, Mr Q and his cats didn't solve it but rather were told what happened by a bit character within which the criminal had confided.  Odd.  But I'll keep at these novels because, at this moment I still have 6 more on my shelf still to be read (hopefully not written by ghost writers).

"Death Ship," by Richard Matheson was the next short story in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century.  I know Mr Matheson more as a horror/science fiction author ("I am Legend") than pure sci-fi and, indeed, this story demonstrates that very nicely.  Here we have a space capsule sometime in our future carrying three astronauts who are researching planets suitable for human habitation when they come across a crashed capsule just like theirs and containing the dead bodies of...themselves.  How they deal with this and speculate on possibly having traveled through time to see their own futures and, most particularly, how they try and prevent what might be their fates, is nice subtle horror writing.

Next up: The Grays by Whitley Strieber.

Friday, April 2, 2010

On the Grid

This morning I woke up early to get some quality time on the internet as well as check out how many books I sold last night from my on-line bookstore, only to find out it wasn't working (the internet, that is).  That seems to be happening more and more to us in our household, requiring us to re-boot our LAN/router doo-hickey and hope it starts working again.  But while I waited, I went ahead and finished up the reading of Scott Huler's On the Grid.  The subtitle of this book (due to be published/available in May 2010), is "A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work."

I think of myself as a pretty average suburban home owner who takes the city's infrastructure for granted.  I assume that when I turn on the water faucet, fresh, clean water will come out, and I assume that when I put something down the garbage disposal, it will get chopped up into tiny pieces and go whereever it is that it goes and all will be well in the world.  I don't really understand how these systems work, but, unlike most folks, perhaps, I have at least been curious.  So when I got the chance to review this book, I was only too happy to give it a crack.

Mr Huler lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and uses his house and city as launching pads to discover how our central infrastructure systems really work.  He takes us through such systems as storm water drains, sewage systems, the power grids, transportation systems, and communications systems (including the internet).  He follows one element of the infrastructure back to its source or destination.  Along the way he talks with experts in that system such as engineers, sanitation experts, gas company employees, etc.  If nothing else, this book certainly shines the light on the critical roles these people play in all of our lives.  But he doesn't stop there.  Each chapter also goes into detail on the history of each of the systems, beginning at its source whether it was ancient Rome, prehistoric man, or Benjamin Franklin.  The author does a good job at tying it all together and I did come away from this book with a greater understanding of what all of those poles, iron plates, and utility boxes in my neighborhood are really for.  But really, the book just scratches the surface.  It does demonstrate just how massively complex our infrastructure is and there is no way somebody can get a thorough understanding of these systems from just one book. My only negative comment is that the cover states the book is "mesmerizing and often hilarious."  It was interesting, but hardly "mesmerizing" and I found very little of it to be mildly humorous, much less "hilarious."  This is more of a straight informational book, not a Dave Barry collection of essays.

And I still don't understand how my internet/router doo-hickey system really works.

I also read a classic short story, the next in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury.  This was one of the first stories ever written to extrapolate an event changed in the past to its corresponding resulted change in the present day...sort of a butterfly effect.  In this story which starts in the year 2055, a hunter/tourist pays a time travel company to go back in time to hunt a T-Rex.  The hunter panics at the sight of the T-Rex, strays off the "path", accidentally steps on a butterfly, and when he returns to the present day, sees the vast, far-reaching results.  This is a pretty typical time-travel story but was quite original back when it was first published.

Next up: The Cat Who Saw Stars, by Lilian Jackson Braun.

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