Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Annual Awards

As I stated last year, picking winners is very difficult for me because I tend to like most of what I read and its hard to pick my favorites. I've found that as I get older I am starting to get pickier about what I read, often going with familiar authors that I can pretty much count on.  Even when they deteriorate I'll tend to stick with them.  However, I still do force myself to read new stuff with the inevitable result that I find new authors that soon become old favorites.

As a reminder, I pick my winners based on how much I enjoyed the overall reading experience, not based on how well written it may be or how other critics, friends or the overall blogosphere may feel about a particular entry.

So without further ado, here are the winners for 2010:

                                                                  Best Nonfiction:
                                            Eisenhower, Soldier and President
                                                           by Stephen E. Ambrose

                                                               Best Classic Fiction:
                                             The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
                                                                 by C.S. Lewis

                                                             Best Historical Fiction:
                                                            Speaks the Nightbird
                                                           by Robert McCammon

                                                                   Best Mystery:
                                                              The Last Templar
                                                                by Michael Jecks

                                                                 Best Adventure:
                                                                  The Sculpter
                                                              by Gregory Funaro

                                                             Best Western Fiction:
                                                               by Louis L'Amour

                                                             Best General Fiction:
                                                The Book of Air and Shadows
                                                              by Michael Gruber

                                                         Best Young Adult Novel:
                                                        The Little White Horse
                                                            by Elizabeth Goudge

                                                                   Best Horror:
                                         The Haunted Air (Repairman Jack #6)
                                                             by F. Paul Wilson

                                                             Best Science Fiction:
                                      On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1)
                                                             by David Weber

                                                                 Best Fantasy:
                                                The Authurian Saga (4 books)
                                                              by Mary Stewart

                                                             Best Short Story:
                                                  The Wisdom of Solomon
                                                           by Jeffrey Archer

                                          Sleeper Award: (Unexpected Success)
                                                           Power Down
                                                             by Ben Coes

                                     Grand Award Winner:
                                            Speaks the Nightbird
                                                     by Robert McCammon
                                                             Runner up:
                                                     New York, A Novel
                                                    by Edward Rutherford
A few notes on my reading year: I read 109 books this year, and listened to 2 audio books. That equals over 39,000 pages (not counting audio books of course).

Happy New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory is the fourth in the "Temeraire" series of fantasy books by Naomi Novik. This series explores an alternate Earth during the Napoleonic era where dragons exist and, indeed, fight in the war, serving as mounts for soldiers sort of like an Air Force. This is a vastly intriguing concept for me and I have had such high hopes for this series that I bought all five books (so far) at one time. But it is telling that while I read the first three books in short order, it has been nearly two years since that time and my deciding to give book 4 a try.

I enjoyed the first book quite a bit but, unfortunately, each one since then has gone downhill. Perhaps it is because the concept was new and interesting in the beginning with a lot to explore, most especially the relationships between humans and dragons. But in subsequent novels the dragons have become characters so anthropomorphic that their dragon nature becomes somewhat secondary. We are left with an historical novel in the Napoleonic era that is much less fantastical and much more historical and so therefore must rise to that paradigm. The author seems more concerned with examining the plight of dragon's rights (think "human rights" for dragons) than in the more fantasy elements that this series is crying out for.

I must say that the historical aspects of these novels are obviously very well researched. The books are also well written in that they read like something Jane Austin would have written. In this volume, a deadly disease of some kind is wiping out the dragons and so Temeraire and Lawrence travel to South Africa to find a cure. Having recently been to South Africa I found these parts intriguing and I think Ms Novik captured the ambience there very well. But for me, my measure of interest in any novel can be measured by how much I'm glued to the page vs. how much time I catch my mind wandering off thinking about other things. My mind wandered off a lot during this one. So much so that if it were not for the cliffhanger ending I doubt I would ever pick up the fifth book. Even so, that might be difficult for me.

Fans of literary fantasy or fans of Napoleonic history may do better with this series than I have. Just don't expect a Patrick O'Brian meets "Dragonriders of Pern" novel.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Vandemark Mummy

How's this for an excuse for falling behind on my blog entries? My dog ate my internet cable. It's true. On Christmas Eve our whole family was curled up in front of the TV watching a video ("The Muppet Christmas Carol" if you must know). We had let our dog outside and kinda forgot about her so she seized the opportunity to do some digging, discovering our buried internet cable and its delectable plastic coating. The result was no internet service or cable TV until today, four days later. It's not good to have your cable service go out during the Christmas holiday as the appointments for repair are pretty far out.

So anyway, I actually completed reading The Vandemark Mummy by Cynthia Voigt several days ago but couldn't post this until today. This is a book recommended for ages 10-14 and is yet another one my kids read during their home schooling years. The writing is well done; the author has won a Newbery medal and a Newbery Honors award for other works. The plot concerns a father and his two children who have just moved to Maine from the west coast in order for the father to take up duties as curator of the museum at Vandemark College. The mother had an excellent job back home so, apparently, had decided to remain behind. Obviously this issue crops up from time to time as we go through the story and we get the kid's perspectives on a possible divorce in the future.

The main storyline concerns a mummy which disappears after having been bequeathed to the college. Since the father in the story is curator for the museum, guess who is on the hook to get it back? But since this is a book for youngsters, it is indeed the youngsters who solve the case, putting the grownups and police to shame and maneuvering through some dangerous thrills along the way. Lots of time is spent examining the kids' outlook on life in this new place, making friends (or not), and what will happen to their parent's marriage. There is some good history here, bringing to light that not all mummies were ancient Egyptian mummies. There is also some good, thought-provoking, coming of age stuff that makes this a bit meatier than many books for similar aged readers. I was disappointed that the ending did not contain a resolution to the parent's situation but perhaps it is more indicative of real life this way.

Another blog tomorrow and never fear, the much anticipated annual awards reveal is coming very soon as well. Cheers.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cripple Creek

Cripple Creek by Douglas Hirt is billed as a "Western" but now that I've read it I tend to see it more as an historical novel. I suppose all westerns are, in essence, historical novels but in my mind they tend to be more or less confined to the years immediately after the Civil War and on up to the end of the 1880s or so. And they tend to be about cattle drives, the Indian wars, frontier justice and the like, usually with one main hero. Cripple Creek is not really about any of those things but rather about the birth and first six years of the boomtown of Cripple Creek, Colorado.

My family has lived in Colorado Springs off and on for about 17 years, depending on where my military assignments have led us and we've decided to make it our home now that I've retired from my military career. I've known the town of Cripple Creek, nestled up in the mountains to the west, as one of several historic towns in Colorado to be allowed limited gambling. I've always known it had begun as a silver mining town but didn't know the real history of the place. So when I saw this book at the used bookstore I just had to grab it.

The novel itself is an easy read but is a very good novelization of the area in the early 1890s. There are several main characters but chief among them is Casey Daniels, a mining engineer who runs afoul of one of the prominent mine owners of the region. There are quite a few story lines that interact among the many characters, lending a bit of a soap opera feel to the story but what I enjoyed the most was the large numbers of real historical figures. Some play major roles in the novel, including Winfield Scott Stratton, the "Three Jims", and of course, Bob Womack, the first man to discover the riches underneath the mountain. Many historical novels would stop there but in this one every major mine owner, hotel operator, saloon proprietor and whore house madam that plays a role in the story is a genuine historical figure. It was fun to see their names as well as the landmarks and relate them to some of the prominent street names and public buildings that exist today in Colorado Springs.

It occurs to me that while all of these familiar character names makes this a fun novel for me to read, it may have the opposite effect on those who do not live here or know the surrounding area. I noticed several times where we meet people for very brief moments and who have very little impact on the story, almost as if the author just wanted to make sure they made an appearance. That could be a problem for some. But overall I thought it was a nice story, albeit somewhat predictable. The characters were also a bit two dimensional and seemed to come straight out of central casting but something about this novel drew me to it and I definitely wanted to keep on reading, even past my bedtime.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


This is another of my "December reads," that is, books that have been sitting around on my shelves for years, just waiting for a chance to be read. Michael Crichton is one of those authors that, for me, always has a good premise for a plot but sometimes falls short in the execution. Sphere definitely falls within those parameters.

This is an alien contact novel; at least it would appear so at the beginning. A major discovery has been found in the South Pacific, about 1000 feet below the surface of the ocean. It appears to be an alien artifact, perhaps even a spaceship of some kind. Since the author was a doctor himself he often uses scientific protagonists and this time it is a psychologist. As such we do get a little different perspective on the other characters as he examines their motivations along with their actions. Refreshing, really. The plot is written in typical Crichton style, a scientific scenario that deteriorates into horror, much like Jurassic Park. The main problem I had with this one was the lack of resolution to the Sphere itself. We get a lot of speculation and theory on its origins and we certainly get the impact of it being disturbed by the investigators (thus the horror aspects of the novel) but we get no resolution on where it really came from or what it truly is.

All in all I enjoyed reading this book and will continue to read the remaining Crichton books on my shelf although it’s quite possible they will wait until next December.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Writing the Blockbuster Novel

About 20 years ago, I began to work more seriously toward a lifelong goal: to write and publish a novel. I invested in subscriptions to "Writer's Digest" and bought quite a few books on how to write novels, how to publish them, etc. I read many of them in those first few months, enough to get a good grasp on the ins and outs, but always realizing that this would be a continuous learning experience. Now, 20 years later, I've read the last book that I bought from those days. Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman is not for the absolute beginner but rather for those that have a fairly good grasp of how to write and how to publish.

Al Zuckerman is a very successful literary agent who has worked with some of the biggest name authors extant. He uses five major works as examples in this book: The Godfather (Mario Puzo), The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough), Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell), The Man from St Petersburg (Ken Follett), and Garden of Lies (Eileen Goudge). I have read three of these books and so found the material easily relevant. Much of the book is written as a sort of textbook and I do recommend reading these five books first in order to get the most out of this one, especially the Ken Follett book. Of special interest to me was seeing how The Man From St Petersburg changed from first draft to subsequent drafts. I certainly know how writing a novel can be lots and lots of downright hard work but this really brings that point home.

Obviously, this book is not for every writer. If you are interested in writing short stories, or aspire to the smaller, more intimate books, children's books, etc, then this one can still be read just for expanding your knowledge and insight of publishing, marketing, or even some of the basic chores of writing like outlining or re-writing. However, if you are looking for the big commercial success, then this one is ideal. Zuckerman lays out his value criteria: "high stakes; larger-than-life characters; a strong dramatic question; a high concept; a farfetched plot premise; intense emotional involvement between several point-of-view characters; and an exotic and interesting setting."

Overall, I thought the book was well done even though I no longer see myself as writing hugely commercially successful fiction. In fact, this book helped me to focus my own writing efforts; just what I had hoped for when I first opened it up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Little White Horse

Continuing my December policy of reading books that have been on my TBR shelves forever, I picked up The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. This one was one of my wife's books that she brought to the marriage 25 years ago and judging by the cover would be a young adult fantasy novel that would appeal to girls. But it was on the I had to read it sometime...

Once again, I'm glad I did. My impressions were correct in that I think it would appeal to young teenage girls, mostly due to the protagonist being a 13 year old inquisitive orphan girl who moves from London to a beautiful castle in England's West Country of a century ago. But it has appeal for cantankerous middle-aged men as well if my experience is any indication. There are wonders of all kinds in this little novel, marvelously described scenery and creative characters with mysteries of all sorts. There is a history in this new place and the residents of the castle and nearby village all seem to have secrets that need sorting out in order to put right the mistakes of the past. This is, in essence, a fairy tale and a well-told tale it is. It is, in fact, a classic story first published in 1946 and has been a favorite for many young people through the years. J.K. Rowling has stated that this book was her favorite as a child, and it's easy to see why.  Seldom will you see a book with so many 5-star reviews on Amazon or other review sites.
If you're looking for a nice little book with a happily-ever-after feel, this is a great choice.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Follow the River

Do you ever experience times when it's just hard to get into beginning your next read? I usually never have that problem but rather the opposite: difficult to choose what to read because I really want to start a bunch of different books. Anyway, I had difficulties after completing the last novel. Perhaps I was just very emotionally engaged with it but whatever the reason, I just wasn't looking forward to making a selection. This also probably has to do with my "December policy." I try to use the month of December every year to read some of those books that have been on my shelves forever but I just haven't gotten around to actually reading them. Of course there is usually a reason why they are on the December list, usually because I've read others buy that author with mediocre results. This time I actually started a fantasy novel (which will remain nameless) which was the 8th in a series...and I realized I just didn't want to invest the time in it. The other books in that series were OK but as I get older I'm really not looking for just "OK" anymore.

So I turned to Follow the River by James Alexander Thom. This one had been on my TBR shelves for over 10 years. I had never read this author before and the only reason it sat there was because I just always had higher priorities for my historical fiction reading. But, boy am I glad I finally picked it up! This is the novelization of the true story of the Mary Ingles, and young frontier wife in 1755 who was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians in Virginia. After several months of captivity she escaped and made her way back home (over 1000 miles) by following the Ohio River. The first part of the novel was fine but not extraordinary. It wasn't until Mary had escaped and together with her co-escapee, an older German woman named Gretel, began to experience the true hardships of survival that the novel really shines. The author really gets into the realities of what survival would be like with only a tomahawk and a couple of blankets. As they make their way further down the river and face utter starvation, I became fascinated with the story. Such an incredible journey and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.  Even though I knew Mary would somehow make it home (it is a matter of actual history after all) I did not know if Gretel would survive or if Mary's husband would be there when she finally made it.  And just how Mary, herself, survived was simply fascinating.

This is why I like my December policy. I uncover gems that have been waiting there patiently all along. I plan on investigating Mr. Thom's other historical novels now but I doubt they will remain on my TBR shelves for so long.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Impaler

The Impaler is the second book by Gregory Funaro and is a prequel of sorts to The Sculptor, which I was privileged to read and review earlier this year. I say, "prequel" merely because it takes place about three years prior to the events of The Sculptor and features FBI agent Sam Markham. But otherwise this is very much a stand-alone book and the reader does not need to read one to appreciate the other.

Wow, what a novel! I've read thrillers of all sorts for over 10 years and have learned to spot the winners from the also-rans. Gregory Funaro writes winners and this one is truly a gem in this crowded field. The plot concerns the above mentioned FBI agent and his journey to catch a serial killer. Sounds like a million other plots out there but that is just about all that is "normal" about this novel. It's not your typical thriller plot of "killer commits crime; sleuth spends two thirds of novel finding clues; sleuth closes in on killer; sleuth catches/kills killer after nearly blowing it." Instead this is a very intricate plot with multiple layers to the main characters and is not at all predictable.

And it's an absolute page turner. I finished the last 200 pages in one sitting because I just had to keep going.

I think what truly sets this novel apart is the depth of characterization the author brings to the bad guy. In his first novel, The Sculptor, Mr. Funaro does an incredible job with developing the bad guy character but in this one, he truly goes above and beyond. We get to experience the Impaler's very life from childhood to present day from his point of view and, indeed, he almost becomes a protagonist himself. And this is one baaad dude. For a reader to feel like they understand him and his motivations, despite his nature, (like I did) is a great feat for a writer to pull off.

I will say that this novel is not for the faint of heart. There are lots of bloody, violent scenes, horrifying even in their detail but it is absolutely necessary to portray the events realistically. The pacing of the book is awesome; a lot happens but the furious pace is interspersed with excellent back-story building and scene setting. Much as I thought his first novel was fantastic for a new author, this one proves Gregory Funaro deserves to stand with the great writers of the genre.  This book is due to be published in the US in February 2011.

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