Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Haunted Air

I always know I'm in for a good read when I pick up a "Repairman Jack" novel. The Haunted Air by F. Paul Wilson is the 6th in the series about a guy who lives in present day New York City and specializes in fixing things for people, especially things that no one else can fix. Just about any job is doable if approached the right way. Jack lives off the grid: no Social Security Number, no bank accounts, no tax returns, numerous aliases and a great sense of handing out his own brand of justice.

One of the things I love about this series is that it combines several of my favorite genres. These novels are sort of mystery/thriller novels with a good dose of detective sleuthing thrown in and as we go along, more and more horror as well. Each book in the series has a stand-alone situation (or situations) for Jack to help with but there is also an overall arc that ties them all together. The author combines these Repairman Jack novels (of which he has stated there will be 15 in all) with his other works in the "Adversary Cycle" to form an overall "hidden history of the world." Readers certainly need not read all of his works to appreciate each individual novel and, in fact, according to the author's website, even if you did read every word of his numerous works, they have just barely scratched the surface of this hidden history.

This novel continues that bigger story arc in fine style as we really start getting into the back story of "The Otherness". This is the science-fiction/horror aspect of what is happening in the background and is just absolutely fascinating to me. Jack has been told that nothing in his life is coincidence and we really see that played out in this novel. Seemingly unrelated jobs of helping a couple of brothers who run a fake psychic/spiritualist operation to watching another client's brother for three evenings in a row to keep him from harm are, in fact, intimately connected. This novel has everything packed in, from fake spiritualists to real ghosts, from fisticuffs to gunplay, from ritual sacrifices to Jack's girlfriend really getting into the action. And oh yes, she may be pregnant which plays with Jack's conscience...will he be able to continue living off the grid if he is to become a father?

Great characters, great plotting, great mysteries and intrigue, and a killer "universe" make Repairman Jack one of the greatest series I've ever read, especially the further along I travel on this road.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Last Templar

For some time now, I've been looking for a new mystery series to begin. I've often seen Michael Jecks' medieval series on the bookstore shelves but I never saw the first one so I kept putting it off. But then a couple of weeks ago I saw The Last Templar at the store and so I used my free coupon and snatched it up.

Right up front I will say I enjoyed reading this book, despite some "first book" flaws. I wish it had had a better editor but I will be reading additional books in the series as I understand they get better and better and there are at least 20 books in the series now. I also like the fact that the author himself has earned a reputation for helping new authors to get published, perhaps having learned some lessons himself along the way.

Among the positive aspects of the novel was the writing style, an easy flowing narrative that captured the era of the 11th century without forcing the reader through a bunch of "thees' and "thous" (if that is even the appropriate verbiage for that time.) I liked the main two characters although much of this volume seemed to be setting up the rest of the series so consequently they both need to be filled out better. Among the not-so-good aspects was the author's inconsistent use of point-of-view. The novel is all third person and about 90% is from one of the two main character's viewpoint. But occasionally we jump to omniscient POV and get the thoughts from other characters. The mystery aspects itself was fine, nothing elaborate, but since the sleuths in this story do not have modern forensic tools, etc., they are forced to rely on what their eyes tell them and use their brains to logically make conclusions...a rather refreshing change of pace.

So I'm glad I finally began this series and am looking forward to the next entry.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Scarlet Letter

What can I say about this one?  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is often held up as one of the finest examples of classic American literature ever.  It's also probably one of the most hated pieces of literature of all time as well due to the fact that it is so often assigned to American High School students, who mostly are not in the mood for such reading material.  I seem to have had a somewhat different High School English experience and was never assigned this book to read.  And so, once again, when my children were assigned the book to read, we got our own copy and now I, too, have completed it.

I think when one reads a "classic" novel at age 16 or 17 it is quite naturally a different experience than when reading it at 48.  Still, when I read a novel, whether or not it is classic or just published last week, I read them the same way and look for the same sorts of things to satisfy my reading tastes.  That is not to say that I expect them to read the same.  Of course not.  I value the era in which the novel was written.  Thus I don't flinch at the use of the "n" word in Huckleberry Finn. 

So overall, for me, this was a rather mediocre reading experience.  I can appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne's command of the language but it seems to me that he shows off when he writes.  I thought much the same when I read The House of Seven Gables.  The prose does describe a scene very well but its overabundance gets in the way of the story.  The story itself is pretty straight forward by today's standards and yet still retains a hint of mystery and intrigue.  So I'm glad I finally read this one but I'm looking forward to a bit more modern story telling in my next few choices.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Metagame by first time author, Sam Landstrom is a cyber-punk style of science-fiction novel that is utterly original in style and scope. Essentially, it is about a futuristic society where life itself is one humongous game. Points earned equate to currency so the better player you are, the richer and more powerful you are. Top scorers are eligible for immortality.

Kudos to Mr. Landstrom for creating this world. He has obviously spent a lot of time and energy extrapolating mankind's current trends and motives into a possible future. This is a world that seems entirely plausible as well as disturbing. It is a very different world than we have now and so to bring the reader into it is a daunting task. We jump right into it and, at first, it's a bit of a shock. Lots of new words and slang terms and lifestyles to get used to very quickly. It was almost information overload for me but I stuck with it and soon became a part of it. The best way for me to describe this world and its style is to imagine a cross between the weird science/religion of the Matrix movies and almost any movie by Tim Burton with Johnny Depp in it. It's a strange journey to take but certainly an interesting one.

The problem I had is that the author is forced to spend so much of the book on building this new world for us that he has a lot less room to craft the actual story and build satisfying characters. He still manages to do a fairly good job at that but I felt the plot itself suffered the most. The vast majority of the book is about playing the game...sort of the normal mode for these characters but it isn't until the last 40 pages or so that the stakes become high enough to make a difference and I found I actually cared about what would happen next.

Sam Landstrom has certainly demonstrated some nice raw talent here for world building and setting the scenery; I feel confident he will only get better at the story telling aspect.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The System of the World

After nearly three long years of reading these books by Neal Stephenson I have finally completed the final volume. The System of the World contains the final three novels in his huge Baroque Cycle a “project” read that I began back in 2008. This volume contains these three novels: Solomon's Gold, Currency, and The System of the World. All told there are nearly 3000 pages of historical fiction, historical fact, irreverent humor, and a bit of science fiction thrown in.

I don't have too much to say about the story itself as there is just so much here. Lots of main characters and hundreds of lesser characters, combined with a verbose hi-brow style of writing make these books a viable read only for those who really want to tackle a challenge. Neal Stephenson is one incredibly intelligent human being and he allows his intellect to permeate his prose to such an extent that large parts of these books are almost unreadable. I plowed through them as a "project." That is, I work on them in between other reading with the ultimate goal of just getting through them. I am also a completist and so refused to give up on these books even though I see by reviews that many others did indeed given up on them. I didn't start out planning these as a project but after I got through about 100 pages of the first one, I decided I just couldn't read them in the normal fashion. I would have dumped them. I must say I'm happy that I made it through them but, at the same time, I won't be taking them with me to that proverbial deserted island.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Wicked Day

The Wicked Day is the fourth and final book in Mary Stewart's "Arthurian Saga". It's sort of interesting that the first three books are referred to as "The Merlin Trilogy" but when the fourth book is added it becomes "The Arthurian Saga". This time, Ms Stewart applies her considerable talents to the story of Mordred, telling the entire story from his birth, through his growing up, and to its inevitable conclusion.

This has to be one of the most difficult things to do in fiction writing. Take a well established character in one of the most well-known and oft-written epic stories in history, forever acknowledged as the villain of the piece, and craft a story with him as the protagonist. Marion Zimmer Bradley did something very similar in The Mists of Avalon but even then, the character of Morgan isn't, I believe, as universally hated as is Mordred. But I must say, Ms Stewart pulls it off in fine style.

As the protagonist, Mordred's story is told from his point of view and is thus sympathetic towards that point of view. He comes across as a very sympathetic character; I kept pulling for him even as I knew what the ending had to be. In fact, Mordred is well liked, even loved by most of the other characters, and it isn't until near the end that his point of view starts to diverge from Arthur's. There is no "evil" nature to this man; what might be construed as ambition seems very naturally to have arisen from his mother, Morgause, Arthur's half sister and most definitely the real villain in Mary Stewart's saga. And even in the end, it is a mistake, a misunderstanding of what is really happening that leads to Mordred's and Arthur's final battle. I found it very interesting to read the appendix and the Author's note at the end of the book where the "real" legend is briefly retold from the actual text of both Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the King's of England and Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Apparently, Mordred was not originally presented as a villainous person; that arose later as countless retellings diffused the original versions.

I am very pleased to have read this set of four books. I had always heard that they were among the very best of the modern versions of the Arthurian/Merlin tales and am happy to add my agreement.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Call Me Puke

What a title! For a blog post or a book, that's gotta be one that grabs your attention. Call Me Puke, A Life on the Dirt Circuit is an autobiography by Mark Sieve, better known as "Puke" of the "Puke & Snot" comedy duo seen nationwide, mostly at Renaissance festivals. My family and I love to go the Ren Faires and have been to several in the US, Germany and England. But it wasn't until a couple of years ago, in 2008, when we visited the Colorado Renaissance festival near Larkspur for about the fourth time that we actually saw the Puke & Snot show. Unfortunately, later that year, Joe Kudla, who played "Snot" passed away, only a couple of weeks after we had seen the show. This year, my wife and kids went back to the festival and saw Puke & Snot once again, with a new "Snot" in play. They were lucky to have been a bit early to the show and lo and behold, Mark "Puke" Sieve sat down next to them and starting shooting the breeze. As a souvenir, because I couldn't attend, they brought home this book as a gift for me, autographed by the author. Cool!

This is a great little autobiography and, not surprisingly, won the Midwest Book Award. Mr. Sieve does not tell his life story in direct chronological order but rather mixes it with other, themed vignettes. He does a great job of being humble (but not overly so like some autobiographies that just make you want to...well, puke). We get to experience his life, from his early days working in his parents’ cinema, to his potential major league baseball career, and through his early days as a public school teacher. But always there was his love for performing comedy and getting the audience to laugh. Together with his partner, Joe, they carried the Puke & Snot show for about 35 years, usually on the "Dirt Circuit" as he calls it but elsewhere too...even Disney. Along the way they've met and worked with some memorable characters including some you've heard of like Penn & Teller who got their start in similar circumstances.  Mr. Sieve writes from a very personal point of view and it's never more heartbreaking than when he serves tribute to his long time partner.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Djibouti is Elmore Leonard's most recent published novel. I've read four previous books by Mr. Leonard but all of them were from his early days when he wrote Westerns. I also listened to an audio book last year which was more of a crime thriller set in the 1930s. This book is the first I've read of his that is set in the present day even though that is what he is primarily known for. In point of fact, I have a long way to go if I want to read all of this author's output, this being the 44th book he has written and published.

Elmore Leonard is a master of dialog. He has said that if a piece of dialog sounds like writing, then he re-writes it. It naturally follows that his characters are incredibly real as well. They really do leap off the page, much like you are watching a movie instead of reading a book. This is all true in Djibouti, as well, with the main character, Dara Barr, a young but successful documentary film maker, becoming interested in all of the news reports a couple of years ago about the pirates off the coast of Somalia preying on merchant ships. Together with her 72-year old camera man, they set off to Djibouti to document the activities of the pirates. It isn't long, however, until they get mixed up with al-Qaeda terrorists.

Mr. Leonard reportedly writes his novels from the characters' point-of-view...but he makes up the plot as he goes along. That usually works just fine but in this case, unfortunately, it doesn't. The story meanders all over the place, albeit with great characters. The thriller aspect of the plot is diminished considerably because many of the scenes are of the two lead characters reviewing footage of film they shot earlier. So we lose the danger factor...they obviously survived in order to be viewing the tape. I also thought their reactions to be too subtle to be real. Several instances where they've just witnessed a man shot to death (in one case five men shot and killed) are greeted with nonchalance. They are cool customers but they seemed a little too cool.

Still, I do tend to be hard on writers that I think are very good writers so please take my comments with a grain of salt. Elmore Leonard's style is right up there with the great ones and it's hard to go wrong with one of his novels.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown should I explain this. Perhaps if I start at the beginning of my Dan Brown experiences. I was mostly a Sci-Fi/fantasy reader growing up and then got hooked on historical fiction at about the same time I entered college. I added other genres like mysteries, horror, etc. as I went along but never really got around to thrillers for a long time. I ignored The DaVinci Code when it first became a huge success, mostly for the same reason I had avoided thrillers (and straight fiction). You see I had read mostly for escapism (or studying textbooks and such) and the last thing I wanted was to read about people living in today's times and in today's world.

But finally my mother (who mostly likes mysteries and semi-romances by authors like JD Robb and Danielle Steele) convinced me to read The DaVinci Code. I finally cracked under the strain and guess what? I ate it up. I don't recall ever reading such a page-turner before. I liked the puzzles, I liked the action sequences, and I liked the conspiracy stuff. I'm also not Catholic so I wasn't offended. Right away I turned to Angels and Demons and loved that too. These were my first "thriller" novels I had ever read and they even won my best-of-the-year awards. Later on I read the other two previous books by Dan Brown and also read several novels by my mom's other favorite, James Patterson. (These were the earlier Cross books and before he started "writing" 13 books per year). A funny thing started to happen. Both the Dan Brown books and the James Patterson books became less and less enjoyable, the more I read. Of course I was reading the Dan Brown books backwards from the way they were published so perhaps that explained it. In the years since then I have started to read many a thriller, from a wide variety of authors and I've learned far more about the genre.

Enter Dan Brown's latest novel, The Lost Symbol. I was a little worried right from the beginning because the title seemed rather uninspired. Couldn't they have come up with something better than "The Lost Symbol?" I waited until the paperback because A) I don't have room in my house for hardbacks and B) I'm a cheapskate. I’m also patient and not one to rush out and read it from the library if there's a good chance I'll be adding it to my own library in the future.

To sum up my feelings on this novel in one word: disappointing. It wasn't crap, or slush, or a total waste of time. It wasn't really amateurish in the truest sense of that word.  But I did feel the plot was waaay too contrived. And clumsy. Most of the narrative seemed to be an excuse to stick in more trivia of the kind made famous by his previous two works. The characters were flat and even the hero, Robert Langdon spent most of the book being the victim of the action and not driving it at all. And the book was too long. I don't mind lengthy reads but this one could have been at least a third shorter with no real loss to the actual story.

Despite all of that, it had some good moments. I did keep turning the pages to see what would happen next even though I frequently winced at the end of many chapters when the POV character gasped at some huge new revelation, only to have to wait for three more chapters from other POV characters to see what had been discovered. The treadmill of discovery was everlasting.

So will I read Dan Brown's next book? Yep. There's still something about them, perhaps a nostalgia that takes me back to my first thriller that did, after all, launch my interest in an entire genre.  It's easy to be a critic, especially with an author that is phenomenally successful.

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