Thursday, July 29, 2010

Guardians of the Lost

No, I'm not referring to my role as parent to two college students.  Rather, the title of this entry, Guardians of the Lost, is the second novel in a fantasy trilogy, the "Soverign Stone Trilogy" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.  These authors will probably forever be known for their authorship of the original "Dragonlance" novels set in the D&D universe and while those books are the best of any other Dragonlance novels I've read, it's a shame that most readers won't look beyond that.  Most will assume this team only writes one way and may, in fact, put them in the dreaded formula writers category.

But not so fast.  The "Soverign Stone trilogy" is at least the fourth set of novels that they've written outside the Dragonlance setting, mostly very well received, and I have to say, this trilogy is darned good.  This second novel in the set takes place 200 years after the first one ended and thus there are many changes.  But of course this is fantasy and so several of the characters in the first novel show up here as well, particularly the bad guys.  Second novels in trilogies tend to suffer in my opinion, from having to bridge the two "real" stories that actually happen in most trilogies.  Of course there are exceptions (Godfather II, and The Empire Strikes Back) but generally, I tend to want to get through the second book just so I can read the third.  But this time was different, as the book served to flesh out the entire world that we encountered in the first.  I also noticed that the authors threw in a lot of characters this time, sprinkling in new ones all along the way.  But it's not confusing at all since we get to spend a little time with the new ones as we go along.  This is well done and I am totally intrigued to see what happens next.  Which of these characters will have major roles in the conclusion?  Well done!  This moves the third book further forward on my To-Be-Read list.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Screwtape Letters

This is another one of those books that we used for homeschooling our children.  I'm not sure they ever read it but it was in my house...and I have this thing about a book in my house that I haven't I read it. 

The Screwtape Letters was written by C.S. Lewis and therefore of immediate interest to me.  I've always enjoyed his Narnia books so even though I knew this one wasn't a "fantasy" per se, I knew his writing ability would be well able to hold my attention.  This book is a series of letters from Screwtape, a devil of some repute, to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of securing the damnation of a normal young man.  These letters are among the very best satire I have ever read.  By having Screwtape advise his nephew on how to be a better demon, CS Lewis is actually pointing out the shortfalls of our own society.  I think perhaps his comments are even more apropos to our society today than when he wrote them in the early 1940s.  For example, when commenting on the educational system, the demons push for a dumbed down system in order to avoid any children being left behind.  Of course that leads to mediocre results for everybody, a truly "dumbed down" system.  Sound familiar?

Anyway, there are no sword fights or daring escapes, or other assorted thrills so if that's what you are looking for in a good read then best to skip this one.  However, if you want a fairly short book to read that gives you a lot to think about and yet be entertaining at the same time, you could certainly do worse than this one.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Stars and Stripes in Peril

I've enjoyed quite a few alternate history novels, including some by Harry Turtledove as well as S.M. Stirling.  But many times I've been disappointed as well, because, no matter how interesting the hook is, no matter what tiny thing may happen to change history and launch a cool plot, it still comes down to good writing.  A good novel still has to be a good story with well developed characters, etc.

This novel, Stars & Stripes in Peril is the second in the "Stars and Stripes" trilogy by Harry Harrison.  This is an alternate history novel set in the Civil War era, with all the major US and Confederate historical figures interacting.  In the first book, the "hook" was that Queen Victoria's husband did not live long enough to convince her not to enter the American Civil War on the Southern the British did indeed enter the conflict.  However, they attacked the wrong target, hitting Biloxi instead of New Orleans to stop Grant, and so the South teamed up with the North to fight a common foe.  Now in this second book, the war with Britain is over but Queen Victoria isn't finished.  The US forces take the war to Great Britain, fighting for the freedom of Ireland this time.

I enjoyed reading this one, mostly because it was fairly simple and straight forward.  The plot was interesting and the author has thrown in lots of historical tidbits.  I like seeing people like Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman, working alongside Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others in cooperation.  That part was cool but, the overall characterization was lacking.  I found them to be pretty flat, and one dimensional.  The major historical characters always seemed to think the same and even used the same phrases.  The non-historical characters came off a little better.  But that was OK.  I did appreciate the American's use of technology here, particularly the next generation of ironclads as well as an improved version of the Gatling gun.  I have one more to read in this trilogy and I will definitely do so.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Book of Air and Shadows

I confess.  I'm not a big fan of "literary" fiction.  I often find it pretentious, the author trying to sound smart, or conversely, trying to make the reader feel stupid or at least uneducated.  Either goal, of course, makes for a poor author but I'm convinced they're out there and they're supported by similarly pretentious editors and publishers.

Nevertheless, I keep trying them in an effort to prove myself wrong.  Surely there are authors that write masterfully in the English language while at the same time, can tell a darn fine story.  Well, I've found one in Michael Gruber.  The Book of Air and Shadows is a fantastic fictional story, a thriller of sorts involving the discovery of a long lost unknown Shakespeare play.  The book has all of the elements I love including a fascinating plot, intrigue galore, cool settings, and complete characterization.  But, this is truely a "literary" novel in that Mr Gruber has produced a genuine work of art.  He does not stoop to the devices of lesser (although perhaps best selling) literary authors such as I refered to in the first paragraph.  He does not use a large word where a smaller one will do just fine, merely for the sake of using a larger word.  He doesn't lose the reader in a maze of prose, forcing them to re-read sections to try and figure out what the author is trying to say.  This book is not boring in any sense but rather vibrant.  It's like the difference between a black and white photograph and full color.

This novel is one of the best I've read all year.  I checked out Mr Gruber's website and paid special attention to one of his essays, "Writing Life: A Short Guide".  I often look up authors of books I enjoy, attempting to glean tips on how to improve my own writing and Mr Gruber summarizes much of what I've read elsewhere.  For example, most authors say a good writer is first, a good reader.  Mr Gruber puts it this way: "Read both stuff you like and difficult stuff that people you respect have told you is great."  That's what I try to do and the main reason I read what are considered to be the great classics as well as those books that are classified as "literary" novels.  Thank-you Michael Gruber for a great book, and the will to keep trying those other "literary" books.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Monster Hunter International

Boy, if you've ever wanted to read an all-out action book, I've found one for you.  Monster Hunter International is about an ordinary guy, an accountant no less, who finds himself having to fight a werewolf on the very first page.  The fact that the werewolf is his condescending boss makes it all the sweeter when he finally defeats him after a bloody battle.  As a result, MHI (Monster Hunter Int'l) recruits our ordinary guy and trains him to go after vampires, ghouls, wights, gargoyles and assorted demons.  There are lots of lengthy, bloody battles here, lots and lots of gunplay, more battles, more guns, and...well, you get the idea.  I found reading this book to be akin to playing a video game or watching a Robert Romero zombie movie.  Pretty cool stuff.  And, believe it or not, the characters were pretty well fleshed out as well.

The only negative thing I have to say about the book is that there a few plot contrivances.  In other words, it almost seemed the author wrote himself into a corner, an impossible situation, and had to resort to a trick to get out of it.  I won't spell it out any more for fear of spoilers but...does anybody remember the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeves?

And, like a video game, the horrific nature of the monsters made them seem impossible to kill...and yet it happened...and then the next monster was even worse...and yet the MHI teams triumphed...etc.  Our hero gets mauled and mangled so badly he couldn't have been much more than a walking road rash and yet there he is fighting hard in the next scene. Good escapist summer reading.  Nothing wrong with that.  The end sets up a sequel or three and I suspect Hollywood and/or computer game design companies are on the move.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blood and Thunder

I've completed another of my "morning reads".  For the uninitiated, these are books that I used to read during the half hour or so before leaving for work in the morning, usually taking a month or more to complete.  However, now that I am unemployed, I still use the early morning hours (when it's nice and quiet) to work on these books.

Blood and Thunder, subtitled, "The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West", was written by Hampton Sides and was an important book for me.  You see, I grew up in the Southwestern US, namely New Mexico, and have since lived all over the western US including California, Utah, and Colorado, also spending lots of time in Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.  And yet, I have long felt my historical education of the region has been aquired in bits and pieces only with no real handle on how it all fit together.  I was first attracted to this book by the great cover art and the subject of Kit Carson since I had always wanted to read about his life.  But this book turned out to be about quite a bit more than just Kit Carson's life.

Don't get me wrong, Kit Carson's life and deeds are incredible.  He seems to have been everywhere in the West, at most of the important events, often effecting them in astounding ways.  We read of John Charles Fremont and his Pathfinder expeditions, with Kit Carson as his guide.  We follow the Civil War events in New Mexico (a good followup to the set of four novels I read last year by P.G. Nagle), as well as learn about General Stephen Watts Kearny, the conquerer of the West.  And through it all is the plight of the Navajo Indians, and their leaders.  These events and characters just scratch the surface of what this book covers.  I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in a good all-around discussion of the history of the American South West.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The High Graders

It's been a while since I read my last western novel so I chose The High Graders by Louis L'Amour, my 64th book by this author.  In fact, with the completion of this book, I have now read more Louis L'Amour books than books by any other author.  Number 2 only has 63...

A "High Grader" for those that are not aware, is somebody who steals the high quality, rich ore from a mine.  This book is quite a bit different from the usual L'Amour novel in that it features quite a few major characters as well as a rather complicated plot.  I felt a bit like I was watching a chess match as the various players jockeyed about the pages.  Even though this is a typically short western novel (184 paperback pages in my copy) there were times when it seemed to drag.  Probably because there were too many characters to get to really know any of them, I rank this one in the bottom half of L'Amour's work.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dark Life

I continue as a member of's "Vine" program whereby, due to the extremely high quality of my reviews (or perhaps just a random drawing), I am granted the opportunity to get a couple of free books every month, usually ARCs, or Advanced Reading Copies, in exchange for a review.  Sometimes I get other products besides books, even electronics (I keep hoping for an Apple iPad or something really cool) but I do it mostly because I like getting free stuff.

But usually I get books and often I am pleasantly surprised but what turns out to be a good read.  This time I thought I'd go for a young adult one and so took a chance on new author, Kat Falls.  Very glad I did because "Dark Life" was a very enjoyable reading experience.  Those who want to read my review can click here: Dark Life.  Don't forget to vote that it was helpful :)

This one was such a nice experience that I will likely choose more YA titles in the future.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Hollow Hills

I had been reading The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart, the second book in her acclaimed Arthurian saga so I decided I would take it along on my trip to my son's 2-day college orientation.  It was a good choice as it certainly gave me something to do during the down times in the evening.  I had hoped to have more down time between lectures to read on it but there wasn't too much time.  Instead I skipped a couple of whole sessions on such intriguing subjects as how to handle the stress of your child leaving for college.  I think my wife and I have that under control...thus a bit more reading time.

The only bad thing about bringing this book along on the trip was that it's a great looking trade paperback and I had hoped to keep it looking nice for my bookshelf.  I almost made it...except for a leaky water bottle on the very last session.  Not too bad though, only a small section at the bottom of the last 20 pages or so now has that water/wrinkle look.

The book itself was mostly very good.  A few sections dragged a bit.  I've read quite a few versions of the Arthurian legend including those by TH White, Bernard Cornwell, and Stephen R. Lawhead.  Still on my shelf is Jack Whyte's huge 8 volume set which probably won't get read for at least 5 more years.  I like Ms Stewart's take on it though, fairly straight-forward story with lots of political intrigue.  Merlin is her narrator which is as it should be in my opinion.  Who else really knows everything that is going on here?  Looking forward to number three in the series, later this year.

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