Thursday, September 30, 2010

The King of Torts

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Last Enchantment

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

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

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

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stars & Stripes Triumphant

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

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

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

Friday, September 17, 2010


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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Frankenstein's Monster

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Running the Books

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 5, 2010

An Age of Extremes 1880-1917

Book 8 of Joy Hakim's "A History of US", An Age of Extremes is another fine entry in the 10-volume young adult US history set. Even though I like to consider myself quite knowledgeable about history in general and US history in particular, I always uncover new facts when I read these books. Moreover, I gain greater insight on the happenings of the era because of the excellent presentation. I love all of the interesting sidebars, pictures, and diagrams that are included.

This volume covers numerous topics from 1880 to the beginnings of World War I such as the rise of industry, the politics of business vs. government, and inventions galore. We get nice summaries of the major players of the day: tycoons such as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, or JP Morgan; Presidents like Grant, Hayes, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson; and other prominent people who impacted US history like John Roebling, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Muir, William Jennings Bryan, and the Wright Brothers. Of special interest to me, because I like reading about the history of books, were nice summary biographies of L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz books, as well as the Muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, not to mention Sam McClure and his stable of writers: Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Crane, and Willa Cather. We bought this set of books for use in our kids' homeschooling effort and they are perfect for that purpose as they bring the history to life. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Grave Surprise

Grave Surprise is the second in a series by Charlaine Harris, best known for the Sookie Stackhouse books which are the source material for the HBO TV series "True Blood". Earlier this year I read Grave Sight and while that book was OK, it did not make me rush to read the next in the series. But since I had it on my shelf anyway, (a freebie from the Alaska cruise ship a couple of years ago), I went ahead and gave the series another shot.

This second book was far more enjoyable than the first for some reason. I suspect it is because the major characters have already been established and the author could get on with a more complex plot. These books are about Harper Connelly, a young lady who, after having been struck by lightning at the age of 15, can now use psychic abilities to find dead bodies. If she gets close, she can identify the remains and often tell how they died, even if the body is still underground, like in a graveyard. She is financially compensated for this service, a fact Harper makes no apologies for as it's her way of making a living. This concept makes for an interesting setting for a good mystery and this second book provides just that. I enjoyed the main characters being fleshed out a little more and was especially interested in what is sure to become a multi-novel story arc involving the relationship between Harper and her stepbrother Tolliver who acts as her manager. Before I read this one, I had not planned to read any more of the series but now I am just interested enough to keep on going.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Blog Improvements

Some of you may have noticed the new look to this blog.  (Not just the oragami Yoda to the left).  I've tried to spruce it up some with a new background and style.

I've also finally found the time to add a couple of indexes that I've long wanted to do.  So now over on the right hand side of the screen you'll find a listing of direct links to my entries based on genre and type.  These are ordered by frequency so "fantasy" and "historical fiction" lead the list.  Then below that is a list that provides a direct link to all of the authors that I have blogged about.  These links should take you right to whatever you may be interested in, making it much easier to search the site.

Thanks for the ongoing support as I improve the blog.

May your reading journeys be pleasant.

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