Books (Reviews)

The Book Stack #8

jumbled books

Let’s jump right in from where we left off….

The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb

Ship of Magic (1998), The Mad Ship (1999), and Ship of Destiny (2000).

There’s a certain sort of morality play that runs through this trio of books, as the various members of the spotlighted Vestrit family explore and interact with the world, some by choice, some by force, and come to grips with what may be one of the most important moral questions – Myself, or Others? While not preachy about the choices that each of the main characters make, it becomes clear that the author has a preference in the answer to which one leads to a life better lived.

Set in a world with semi-sentient, and often highly emotional, ships made from a mysterious substance referred to as wizardwood, the Vestrits are a seafaring family who “own” their own liveship. It’s a world of conquest, with precious substances to be found, to be traded, to be plundered. There are pirates. There’s a despotic monarch and his retinue. There are strange, “other” sorts of humans who generally keep to themselves, but are integral to the rest of the world’s functioning. There are even sea monsters, of a sort.

Well written, enjoyable, engaging, and… long. ☆☆☆☆


Inspector Erlendur Novels (8 Book Series) by Arnaldur Indridason

I don’t usually review a series until I finish it, but the truth is, I don’t know that I will. I appreciate that this series of police detective novels has won awards all over the place, but I’m not sure that I know why. Maybe it’s just the translation from Icelandic to English, but I found them to be stilted and strangely paced. I read the first two Jar City (2000, also called Tainted Blood in some translations) and Silence of the Grave (2001), and then I just sort of put the rest of the series on hold.

None of the protagonist, Inspector Erlendur, nor his two detective companions, are particularly likable, in fact, at moments, they’re kind of detestable. In their own ways, they’re all bigots, either ageist, sexist, racist, or some sort of ist. They have a bleak view of humanity that they make little effort to hide. They all have their various secret problems, ofttimes as troubling as those of the criminals they’re tracking down. Some might claim it makes them more human, or ordinary, but do we really want to read about those sorts of detectives?

But more to the point as a reader, mostly, they just plod along, and we have to plod with them, until they happen across a clue in that leads to another, and another, and eventually to solving the crime. It’s perhaps a little too “real time” of a pace for going through a mystery novel, giving full meaning to the term “police procedural”, because we’re right there for every little procedure, relevant or not. ☆☆☆


IQ by Joe Ide

Fast paced, gritty, and gripping. Everything the two books in the review above weren’t. A wise-cracking, street-wise detective from southern California takes on the world of rappers, gangsters, cops, robbers, murders, hit and runs, and more, all from a little home office. Now, one could argue that a private eye who has no real credentials to speak of that gets into all of that is far less believable than a plodding police detective, and I couldn’t argue with you there. But I will assert it’s a far more interesting and riveting read.

Isaiah Quintabe is driven by ghosts of his parents and older brother, mostly the latter, who was killed in a hit and run when he was young. IQ, as he’s styled, basically raises himself from that point on, treating his brother’s apartment as his own, and somehow managing to cobble together enough money to live on, pay the rent and bills, and maintain the fiction that he’s still under adult supervision. Somewhere along the way he discovers a talent for noticing when things just aren’t right, and putting together the logic of what’s gone wrong – and builds it into a sort of casual detective service.

In this volume, he takes on solving a murder yet to happen – as he’s engaged by a reclusive rapper who’s convinced that someone is out to kill him. Some of those around him think it’s for real, others think it’s a delusional fantasy, and IQ has to sort his way through the lot. Somehow or other, it all works, and it’s well worth a read, and well deserving of the accolades the book has gotten. ☆☆☆☆


The Vegetarian by Han Kang

There’s a difference between curling up with a good book to just read and enjoy, and sitting down to read a piece of literature. This is the latter. A translation of a South Korean novel that’s taken the literary world there by storm, and had praise heaped upon it internationally, this isn’t the sort of book to meander through with a mug of hot cocoa at your side. I think it best if you slam back a couple of shots of whiskey first, and maybe take the time for another couple between sections.

No question it’s a creepy, and creeping story that will pull you in quickly. It’s basically a first person novella – but from three different first persons, though not all at once. Instead, it’s the same story, that of a woman who decides to become vegetarian after awakening from a terrifying, blood-soaked nightmare, first from her husband’s perspective, then the story picks up from the point of view of her brother-in-law, and finally culminates from the perspective of her oldest sister. The object of the story, Yeong-Hye, is mostly just presented from the outside, though here and there we get a glimpse of her thoughts thrown in as italicized tangents.

Is the book worth a read? Yes. Is it one you’ll come out the other side of having enjoyed? Unlikely. ☆☆☆


Chop Suey by Barry Kalb

I guess I was on a bit of a kick of reading foreign mystery novels. There must have been an article or list somewhere that I read that intrigued me, and I launched into it without making a note of where I saw it. This one comes to us from Hong Kong, where the author was a longtime lecturer (some 35 years) at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre. It’s often interesting when a journalist, or at least someone steeped in that writing tradition, turns their hand towards fiction. I can think of numerous books that came across as reportage rather than novels, and lack the appeal of the latter.

That’s not the case here, with a well written story that takes us from the discovery of a body washed up on the shores of Hong Kong through the intricate world of Chinese art and antiquities, and those who pursue it with a passion, and bring in the politics and maneuverings of both the local and mainland Chinese bureaucracy, neither of whom really want the answers sought by our erstwhile detective. In this case, the latter isn’t one by trade, but simply by circumstance, in reality, he’s a reporter who finds himself embroiled in the situation because the aforementioned corpse was one of his best friends.

What? In this day and age, a reporter, a journalist, who actually investigates? It’s nice to know they still exist, even if only in fiction. Well worth a read! ☆☆☆☆


Five books, or at least five reviews, seems to be a good stopping point in a single post. More to come.

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The Book Stack #7

jumbled books
It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?! Let’s take a peak at a little of what’s come and gone on the reading pile.

The Sam Reilly Collection, Christopher Cartwright

A trio of books that follow a sort of vague, Indiana Jones-ish theme, if Indiana were a spoiled rich kid with a covert ops military background, a daddy with more money than the IMF, and an inexplicable talent for stumbling across the trails of mythical artifacts that are less the provenance of history than they are conspiracy theories on the deep web. Sam Reilly is ostensibly a marine biologist, though the topic of marine biology plays, at best, a sort of triggering event and then retreats into the background. Instead, it provides a tacit reason for placing his Batcave on the deck of an oceanographic research vessel. As I found in the book by Cartwright that I reviewed in my last round, Reilly and one or two other characters are such the focus of the writing that no one else really ever steps out of the shadows for more than a cameo appearance, and are immediately forgettable. The books are a quick, and fun read, sort of rollicking adventures following Reilly as he tracks down a long missing Nazi blimp in The Last Airship and discovers its true, deep, dark secrets, a mysterious ancient shipwreck that has become tied to a marine life destroying mining operation in The Mahogany Ship, and finally, the search for Atlantis in, well, Atlantis Stolen. Much of each volume is taken up with battles between the forces Reilly is able to muster using daddy’s money and those of daddy’s business rivals, making this feel at times like a bitch slap fest between Bill Gates’ and Carlos Slim’s children at a debutante ball. With guns. ☆☆☆

Haven Series, Carmen Webster Buxton

I’m not sure if two books constitutes a series, but so be it. Perhaps there are more to come. Two really well written books, The Sixth Discipline and No Safe Haven, that start from the premise that humans have “seeded” another world, and that the original settlers divided into factions, who’ve take different approaches to life. It comes down to a culture clash between those who’ve chosen a life close to and in tune with nature, including a separate faction of extremists, and those who’ve gone the citified and technological route. Both books are focused around the misadventures of Ran-Del Jahanpur, one of the nature folk, who is captured for purposes I won’t reveal here by one of the corporate titans of the techno folk, as he finds himself forced to adapt to the latter. Much of the storyline is spent on the struggle between the two cultures, and it’s an artfully drawn one, that ends up ensnaring people on both sides into its web. I enjoyed both books thoroughly, and hopefully the series continues! ☆☆☆☆

Forty Days at Kamas, Preston Fleming, May 11, 2015

What is our fascination with dystopian futures? I should probably just stop there and leave us all pondering. Now, when I read this, on someone’s recommendation, I didn’t know that it was intended to be the first of a trilogy. I’m going to say upfront that I have no intention, no interest, in reading the books that follow. It’s not that it wasn’t well written, it was. It’s not that it doesn’t have interesting characters, it does. It’s not that it doesn’t have a reasonably engaging storyline, it does. But you know what? It’s a downer. I suppose that’s part of the point of dystopian novels. The problem with this one is that, despite its moments of hope and triumph in a world where America has gone the route of totalitarian rule with labor camps and no room for political dissent (this was written well before our last election and its consequences, and I don’t think there was anything prescient about it), there’s nothing upbeat, even in those moments. There also doesn’t seem to be much in the way of the rest of the world – a few moments where things outside of the country are referred to, but really, it’s almost as if the globe outside of the USA has ceased to exist. It’s just a depressing, bleak future with no rays of sunshine. It reminds me in many ways of the TV series Colony, without the humanity, light, or humorous bits. ☆☆☆

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F. McHugh, March 1992

I remember McHugh’s short stories from my avid reading of science fiction throughout the time she was writing. This was her first novel, of four, she was better known for her short stories. Mostly she wrote starting at the end of the 80s, on through the mid-90s, and then one novel and a few stories at the beginning of the 00s. As far as I know, she hasn’t written anything since 2003. And that’s a shame, because she’s a great writer. And, in fact, this was one of my favorite reads of 2016. In a sense, it’s the complete opposite of the previous book in this post, positing a future that, while not utopian, at the very least approaches our future with positivity. It’s a world where not only is there international interaction and cooperation, but that technology and humanity have moved forward, to bring out the best in people rather than the worst, both on Earth and Mars, where we’ve established a colony. The book follows the personal and work life of a young man on a voyage of self-discovery in a postrevolution world where the revolution made things better, not worse, for humanity. ☆☆☆☆☆

And that seems a good place to stop for the moment. There are more to come, and hopefully I’ll manage to keep this coming more regularly.

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The Book Stack #6

jumbled books
Continuing with some more fantasy, and a bit of other….

My Tender Matador / Tengo Miedo Torero, Pedro Lemebel, September 2002, Translator: Katherine Silver

Let’s start outside the realm of fantasy. I actually don’t remember how this one came to my attention – it’s the story, basically, of the end of the days of Augustin Pinochet’s rule over Chile, focused on the events leading up to an attempted assassination. The book goes back and forth between Pinochet’s viewpoint, and that of an aging drag queen, the latter of whom has befriended a young, handsome man who turns out to be involved in the assassination attempt. It’s extremely well written, and the characters are well defined. It was a little slow reading for me as I initially started reading this in the original Spanish version, but the constant use of colloquial terms and street slang made it near impossible, and what I ended up doing was reading the two versions more or less side by side (learned a lot of Chilean street slang!). ☆☆☆

Code of Conduct, Brad Thor, July 2015

Over time I’ve read through the entire previous series (15 previous books) of the “Scot Horvath” novels. These are sort of Jack Bauer/24 on steroids if you can imagine that. They’re thrillers. They’re fast paced, they require some level of suspension of disbelief – they’re not totally out of left field, they’re basically, “what if?” scenarios that any of us could imagine given the state of the world right now, even if highly unlikely. And Thor makes them completely believable as potential scenarios. For me, given that I like thrillers of this sort, they’re entertaining as well as thought provoking. Fast reads. And, this one fits right in with all of that. There’s now a 17th novel out, Foreign Agent, and it’s on my reading stack! ☆☆☆☆

The Ronin Trilogy, Travis Heermann

Another trilogy, this one consisting of Heart of the Ronin (2010), Sword of the Ronin (2013), Spirit of the Ronin (2015). I stumbled across this one when I was looking for some martial arts books for study, and it looked interesting. Since the first volume was available for free on my Kindle Unlimited account, I gave it a spin, and rapidly went on to the sequels. Although set in feudal Japan, and following the story of a ronin, a masterless samurai, the writing style is very “western” in its approach, which gave them an interesting flavor – sort of like watching a completely foreign culture and concept develop from an outside observer’s eye. The author has a nice little quip on his site, “Writing fiction set in a far different time and place is challenging. The key is cram as much background information into your brain, let it percolate for a while, and see what bubbles out.”. And, no question, that’s what he’s done – creating a real image of a very different world than I’m familiar with, and at the same time, letting it develop in a way that I could actually visualize it, without feeling lost. I loved it. ☆☆☆☆

The Inheritance Trilogy, N.K. Jemisin

And, yet another trilogy! The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), The Broken Kingdoms (2010), The Kingdom of Gods (2011). This one took me a little bit to get into. I can’t even tell you exactly what it was about it – it’s certainly well written, and an interesting concept. I think that it was that the protagonist in the first volume just didn’t resonate with me, and I initially found her viewpoint to be sort of a bore, or maybe it was just that the development of the story started out too slowly for me. But, the book picked up, and I ended up enjoying it enough to go on to the other two volumes, which take place from the viewpoints of other characters, and I liked both of those volumes much more. I mean, what’s not to like about a world where humans, gods, godlings, and demons, all live together and interact on a daily basis? In the end, highly recommendable. And, a nice perk that you can buy the entire trilogy in one volume. ☆☆☆☆

The Price of Retribution, Christopher Cartwright, March 2015

For such a small book (okay, 370 pages), it’s a pretty sweeping epic story, that starts with a jewel heist in long ago London and then jumps across the oceans to Australia, and back again. Another sort of “gentleman thief” – I guess those sort just attract me – it’s a great story, with romance, revenge, and a bit of rampaging. I found the writing to be quite good – at times it wandered a little, and I felt like for a moment that I, or the author, was losing the plot, but then it came back on track. The characters are interesting, though I felt that while the central ones are really well developed, that those who were not directly a part of the main storyline were a little greyed out by comparison, as if they didn’t really matter that much. ☆☆☆

The Book of Strange New things, Michel Faber, June 2015

The writing itself was fine, the author is excellent at drawing out characterization and visuals that many would find difficult to imagine. And the overall arc of the story is interesting and was enough to keep me going through to the end. However, the protagonist, and his wife, who we basically don’t meet other than briefly at the beginning and then through a series of letters, are some of the most unpleasant, unsympathetic “good guys” that one could care to encounter. Misogynistic, racist, religiously intolerant, judgmental, and constantly spouting stereotypes about everyone and everything around them – it was just plain unpleasant to read. (Honestly, given the time period I was reading this in, it was like trying to listen to Donald Trump talk about anyone who isn’t American, White, Male, and Christian.) And it was made worse because it was cloaked in a sort of pious righteousness. ☆☆

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The Book Stack #5

jumbled books
Okay, I’ve gotten way behind on this. I’m going to start with the last few rounds of fantasy series. I’m still working my way through this buzzfeed list.

Peter V. Brett, The Demon Cycle

Currently a four volume series including The Painted Man (2008), The Desert Spear (2010), The Daylight War (2013), and The Skull Throne (2015), with a fifth and final volume due out some time in 2017. I’ve read the first three, with the fourth on deck, and I’ll review that down the line.

This one took me a little bit to get into to. When I first started it, the concept of some sort of demons rising from the ground at night with the intent to destroy humanity, and being able to ward them off with simple signs drawn or painted, seemed, well, stupid. But at some point I got into the whole magic and sweep of it, as I pushed further through (I’m trying to be relatively faithful to the list I have of recommended fantasy series). I still find myself a little mystified by the existence of the demons – apparently their existence being “our” fault, after some sort of nuclear holocaust, there’s just no real connection as to why they came to be, or why there are so many different types. But I like the battle of good and evil, and that it’s not all one-sided, the battle also rages between factions of remaining humans. The not so loosely veiled Christianity vs Islam approach to both demon fighting and each other is clearly drawn from the political and religious battles of our own modern world, and at first I thought I was going to find that a bit off-putting, because it seemed a bit “Christian good, Muslim bad”, and overall, there is that bent, but at least the author takes the time to explore the motivations and drive of the other side, and why its approach is so different. Still, the series mostly stays with three primary characters, starting from their adolescence and working forward, and although sections are shown from the viewpoint of others, particularly on the “Islam side”, these three are all on the “Christian side”. ☆☆☆☆

Patricia A. McKillip, The Riddle Master

Trilogy includes The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979).

I have to admit, this wasn’t one of my favorites as I’ve been reading through these various series. It’s well written and engaging, no question. And there’s the whole magic, and a grand quest, and romance, and even a bit of battling. But when it came down to it, I didn’t like any of the principal characters. Their reasons for jumping into their individual quests and the grand one were superficial, and mostly seemed spur of the moment, impulsive, emotional decisions, with little thought. To a tee, each of the protagonists was basically selfish, barely giving a moment’s thought to their families and friends, because “I wanna do this”, and not seeming to care if others were hurt in the process. They hold stupid grudges, they’re not interested in each other’s points of view, and there just seems to be a missing logic to a lot of what they do. At the end of the trilogy, with the big wind-up, I just really didn’t care who came out “on top”, and I was just ready move on to another series and hopefully some more likable people. ☆☆

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn

Trilogy of The Final Empire (2006), The Well of Ascension (2007), and The Hero of Ages (2008).

I loved this one, from minute one, to the end. I’d already encountered Sanderson’s fantasy writing in the first two volumes of the (eventually) ten volume The Stormlight Archive, and really liked his writing there (it was before I started doing these reviews, so I haven’t written it up, maybe when another volume or two is published). The whole concept of using something ordinary, in this case, metals, as essentially magical essences, fascinated me, especially the interplay between the different types of magic, or power, engendered by each. The sweep of the different factions, the exploration, the delving into the history of how it all came to pass, some of which might, in other hands, seem like pedantic tangents, was treated in a way that was just as intriguing as the action sequences. I like that both protagonists and antagonists have their flaws and aren’t “black and white” as to where they fall, and, I really appreciated that the character development as the storyline continued, allowed for some real twists and turns. The world setting (at least up until the way the series wraps up) would make a fascinating MMORPG… just sayin’. ☆☆☆☆☆

Brandon Sanderson, The Alloy of Law (2011)

Okay, after that glowing praise, I’m going to have to damn this one with the faint stuff. After a several year stint off on other fantasy writing, Sanderson returned to the Mistborn world with another trilogy, referred to cutely as the “Wax and Wayne” trilogy. It’s set in the same world, but 300 years in the future. And I have to admit, I didn’t really like it. The combination of the whole Wild West scenario with the deep magic, stone castle feel of the original trilogy, just didn’t jive for me (there’s no seeming logical reason for the shift in such a short span of time). I realize that it’s supposed to be the start of a completely different series, and that Sanderson originally wrote it just as a creative writing exercise in a new genre “to clear his head”, and then later decided to publish it, but given the ties to the original, it’s hard to separate the two, one being a rich, explorative series, and the other being a sort of perfunctory shoot-em-up series that just makes use of pieces of the original. It also felt a bit as if it had just been scribbled off, and while when I read it I didn’t know about the reason it had been written, in retrospect it makes sense, it didn’t feel like it was written with any commitment to tell a story, it was more just a lot of character sketch development. I ended this one with no real interest in reading the other two in the W&W series. ☆☆

Scott Lynch, Gentleman Bastards

Trilogy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves, with four more planned novels in the series yet to come.

I find, often, that I really enjoy books that take on the world from “the other side”. In this series, the protagonists are a band of thieves, con men, and even at times, worse. And yet, for the most part, they’re the most sympathetic characters in the series – of course it was written that way, but it all feels very logical. Of course we should root for these guys to come out on top. And no, it shouldn’t be easy for them, they should have to take their hard knocks, but they should get back up and keep going, and bit by bit, time and again, come out on top. It’s the same reason I love movies like Cary Grant’s John Robie in To Catch a Thief or it’s later incarnations as Robert Wagner’s Alexander Mundy in It Takes a Thief or even the modern version of Matt Bomer’s Neal Caffrey in White Collar (though admittedly that might be partly just the eye-candy). This series follows, particularly, one Locke Lamora, from his introduction to the band of the Gentleman Bastards as he develops from an impulsive, willful, and a bit dangerous young child, to a more considered, but still impulsive, willful, and a bit dangerous young adult. The writing is tight, the character development is brilliant, and the storyline makes complete sense, even when it seems to jump around. It doesn’t hurt, from my personal perspective, that there’s lots of good food and drink, with intricate descriptions, thrown in – someone likes their food. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the series. ☆☆☆☆

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The Book Stack #4

jumbled books
The brunt of my reading over the last many weeks since my last post (and it actually started before that last post) was binge reading through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (April 1, 2000 – May 27, 2014) novels.
dresden files
It’s going to seem short shrift to place them all into one small review, but I’m not going to go through and review each individual one of the fifteen. I found them to be fun, irreverent, easy reads, the basic premise, the exploits of an openly proclaimed wizard in Chicago, as he fights demons, ghouls, and more, alongside the local police department’s division for handling stuff that no one can explain, no one wants to handle, and no one wants to talk about. Harry Dresden is a wisecracking magically endowed private investigator who loves nothing more than bringing in cult movie and television references, more or less just to see if anyone around him is paying attention. I found the series to get a bit off the rails in books 13 and 14, where it seemed like Butcher was taking it in a totally new direction, and the writing seemed a bit lost, but it all came back on track in the current last novel. Overall, a great series to get started on if you like the world of magic, the paranormal, crime, and punishment! The series was turned into a not short-lived enough, and truly, appallingly, bad television show that shouldn’t have lasted through the first season that it did. ☆☆☆☆

Several years ago someone recommended Robert Harris’ historical novel Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (September 19, 2006) to me. Given my love of things Italian, history, and fiction, it was a match made in heaven. It’s basically a fictional account of the life of Marcus Cicero, the famed orator of the Roman senate, as he first came to power. The book is written as an eyewitness account from his personal slave and secretary, Tiro. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and this was completely engaging, and more or less a “couldn’t put it down” kind of read. My recollection is I read through it in a matter of a couple of days. And, obviously, I loved it. As to why I didn’t jump right into the next book in the series, I truly can’t tell you. But, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t, and I rectified that with a plunge into Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome (March 30, 2010) right after finishing the Dresden Files. Equally as good, the story continues with Cicero’s political career as he encounters some of the best known figures of that time, including Julius Caesar. Political machinations are the core of the second novel, and it’s surprising in many ways how little the world of political intrigue has changed in the millenia since (then again, the novels are written by someone living in today’s world, so it may be that Harris simply borrows from that which is familiar to a modern audience). In the world of “court politics” or “palace intrigue” this easily rivals the intricacy of well known pop culture references like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Scandal. Looking forward to the next novel! ☆☆☆☆

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves, (May 19, 2015)

One of the things that’s count-on-able with Stephenson’s longer novels is that they follow a predictable pattern. If you assume roughly 900 pages or thereabouts for most of them, there will be an initiating event, something that starts the entire story in motion, something to grab your attention, and it will take up the first 150-200 pages. Then there will be roughly 400-500 pages of character development, lots of explication, lots of looking at how motivations develop, lots of “here, let me explain why the story, when we get to it, is going to go the way it goes”. And then it’s finished off with what amounts to the “real” novel, about 250-300 pages where all the action that was set in motion, and influenced by all the motivations developed during the entire middle section, happens. I hear time and again how people launched into one of his books with fascination at the premise, and then gave up 100 or so pages further on when it just got too tedious to continue. And they miss out on all the good part when the story takes off again.

This book is no different. I read through section 1 in under two hours, a complete page turner. Then it took me a month to get through to “section 3” (pages 567-861), because I found I couldn’t read more than a few pages of section 2 (pages 227-567) at a time without drifting off. And then I read through section 3 without pausing in roughly two hours.

Loved sections one and three. I appreciate the info in section two, but my god there’s got to be a way to do that midsection of all of his books in half or fewer of the pages. ☆☆☆☆

Lucy Burdette, Killer Takeout, (April 5, 2016)

Last year I whizzed my way through the six novels of the “Key West Food Critic Mysteries”. Basically, I’d refer you to that review, particularly the last couple of paragraphs where I summed up the series. Much the same holds true for this seventh novel, a fun read, but showing a decided lack of knowledge in the food world.

Although I’ve liked this series a fair amount, something about this latest volume just felt a little thrown together, as if it wasn’t thought through as well as the others, and that’s saying something given my thoughts about the series. I still enjoyed it, just not as much as the rest.

I hadn’t done any research into the author, and “Lucy Burdette” turns out to be a pen-name for Roberta Isleib, a clinical psychologist, also known for writing a series of golf-mystery novels, and who writes an advice column under the title “Ask Dr. Aster”. A psychologist with three different identities… just something to muse upon.

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The Book Stack #3

jumbled books

A selection of what I’ve been reading (minus, in general, food and cooking related books, which I tend to review separately, and over on my SaltShaker blog).

Bacigalupi, Paolo (May 26, 2015) The Water Knife

This book was recommended on io9’s list of the 2015’s best new sci-fi, and so the whole list went into my reading pile along with all the other various lists I’m working through.

This is a gritty, bloody novel set in a dystopian future North America where basically, our water is all disappearing, or at least from the area that is covered in the story, mostly the classic American “West”. The characters are well drawn, the book is well written and fast paced. At times, despite that I enjoyed the story completely, it feels a little like an advertisement for the book Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, a more journalistic look at the problem of disappearing water in that part of the country. The book is mentioned multiple times, and held up as a beacon of “this is where we’re headed” (post-fact, since this is set in the future), and in the end, serves as a key to the climactic scene in The Water Knife. ☆☆☆☆

Corey, James S.A. (June 15, 2011) Leviathan Wakes

I got curious about this book, as it’s a) the basis for the SyFy channel series The Expanse, and b) the author doesn’t actually exist. Well, it’s a pen name for two collaborating writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the former of which wrote a book series that I very much enjoyed called The Long Price Quartet, and he has also been a co-writer with George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame.

Roughly a chapter into the book it was clear that overall, the book and the show were diverging rapidly. In general, the theme remains similar, with some events lining up, but others not, and it quickly seems that the very premise of the book was dropped as, probably, a bit too icky for a television audience, so they looked elsewhere for motivations. The book itself is pretty graphic and I like that it doesn’t portray space, space travel, etc., in the sort of antiseptic conditions that so many sci-fi books seem to take as a given, that for some reason, if we live in space or on other planets, we’ll take better care of those locations than we do of earth. It’s well written and fast paced – despite being nearly 600 pages, I finished it off with casual reading over the course of just a couple of days. At the same time, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t find myself jumping to move on to the next book in the series. ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) Before They Are Hanged

In my last round-up of books I’d started in on The First Law trilogy, and enjoyed the opening volume enough to continue on with the series, and not just because I’ve made a commitment to myself to work my way through the reading list referenced there. Not surprisingly, this book picks up pretty much where the first book left off – maybe a few months later, and continues the various story lines, and at the same time introduces new ones. There does seem to be a bit more of an interweaving of the stories starting to happen, which is what I’d mentioned that some reviewers had said, so I’m glad to see that, and I enjoyed this one even a bit more than the first. On to the third! ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) The Last Argument of Kings

Which, what the heck, let’s just go straight to, even though it wasn’t the next thing up on my in my reading – in fact it got interrupted by reading through a bunch of travel guides for Mexico City and Guadalajara, where I was getting ready to head, and then did, in early March, and which I’m not going to bother to review. Back to this book, and a really great wind-up to the story. Indeed, as foretold by some, the varied and sundry threads all come together. It’s not pretty, it’s not a well woven tapestry of a story at this point. It’s more of an explosive, violent, mashup as the characters from each storyline come running hell-bent for the finish line and all kind of collide there, jostling and stumbling about to get their last moment in the series. What I think I liked most about it, and the series overall, is that it wasn’t predictable, and where things end is not at all where I’d have guessed had you asked me earlier on in the reading. ☆☆☆☆

Lovejoy, Ben (January 27, 2015) 11/9

Described as an un-put-down-able techno-thriller, and obviously with a non-veiled reference to 9/11 thrown in there (though an unrelated story), I was psyched for something gripping and engaging, and, well, techie. It is, no question, a quite good read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’m also interested in science and engineering and similar topics, and there’s a lot of time in the book spent delving into those arenas where the pace of the book lags. It wasn’t surprising to find out that the author is a technical writer by trade, as the book careens between white knuckled flipping of pages while the characters are engaged in a life and death moment, and then almost like breaking the infamous theater fourth wall, a different character would be doing something that felt like wading through a technical manual to explicate what was going on in the previous, or an upcoming, scene. Great story and indeed gripping and engaging, but by turns, quite put-down-able, at what more or less are, for a techno-thriller, the commercial breaks. ☆☆☆☆

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The Book Stack #2

jumbled books
What have we this time around?

You look at the title, Bread Wine Chocolate, and you’re already engaged. I mean, what’s not to like? Clearly three items selected from the book to grab our attention, since in reality, the book is, in order, Wine Chocolate Coffee Beer Bread Octopus. The book came highly anticipated, with suggestions being bandied about that this would be the next big, amazing food book. I clicked a link, put in my Kindle cue to be purchased when it was released, and more or less forgot about it until it showed up one day. I might have left my cursor hovering over the button rather than clicking, had I taken a moment to check out the author, Simran Sethi, a former MTV producer turned news anchor for, oh, MTV, who has gone on to continue work in the media world for various… how can I put this politely… touchie feelie outlets like Mother Earth News and TreeHugger. I’m not, at all, against the environment, sustainability, or anything else of the sort, don’t get me wrong, but it might have had me wondering about her bias in advance, rather than after the fact.

Though in truth, it’s not her bias that ruins this book for me. It’s her writing. I really wanted to like the book. There’s some great, well researched information in it. The problem is, it’s presented in a manner that ping-pongs back and forth between journalistic factual reporting and breathless golly gee whiz wow teen girl gossip style at a pace that would make the cut editors of Reality Bites envious. She also comes across as really, really, self absorbed, self indulgent, and self anything else you might care to insert, as she wings her way across the world with hand-grinder for coffee beans in one hand and an Aeropress brewer in the other, ruing that she isn’t back home with her Keurig machine (oh yeah, all those K-cups are just great for the environment) and her $13 designer chocolate bars. She spends the first couple of chapters of the book outlining what she’s going to cover and why she’s the one to do so, and how much we’re going to appreciate her having done so. Yes, yes, she got down and dirty with the folk who produce these various products, and sampled and tasted and learned to appreciate things at their source. And then promptly trundled back to her hotel to soak in the tub and anxiously write her next words on the balcony at sunset and then jet off to another exotic locale. If you like to hug trees, you’ll probably like this book.

I mentioned in the last book round-up that I had started working my way through a proposed list of the 51 Best Fantasy series. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, that if they’re rated from best, #1, to least best, #51, that progressively, I might like these series less, and less. I’m not sure that will hold true completely – after all, as I mentioned then as well, the Discworld canon wouldn’t even make it onto my list of good, let alone 7th Best. But there does seem to be a slight decline each round. I’ve started in on Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, beginning with The Blade Itself. It’s a relatively easy read.

There are things about it I really like – it’s written in a light-hearted tone, with a bit of humor. The series is often compared to Song of Fire and Ice, the Game of Thrones inspiring stack of books, and in some ways, I can see that – the action sequences, the bloody, grisly, details. But in other ways, not so much – the political manipulations and intrigue are there, but more or less ho-hum, there doesn’t seem to be any big, sweeping vista – within the first few chapters it’s obvious that all the lead characters’ lives are going to quite quickly intersect, in a pretty predictable way. Some reviewers have said that that gets turned on its head as the trilogy progresses, and by the end of the third book, nothing will be as anticipated. I can only hope so. It’s interesting enough to continue forward.

One of the finest books from one of the early crafters of modern science fiction, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a long time favorite that I hadn’t read in quite some time. Another list of “bests”, this time from io9, The Essential Cyberpunk Reading List starts off with this one.

Filled with Evil Corporations, interplanetary intrigue, bio-engineering, power, greed, revenge, and the obligatory Sub-Culture, this has all the elements that make for a great cyberpunk read. Given when this was written, in the early 1950s, it’s a brilliant precursor to that movement at a time when “cyber” didn’t yet mean anything and “punk” meant something completely different. Gripping story, fast paced action, and even it’s own “street” language that fits the genre perfectly. It’s a relatively short book (or at least in comparison to some of those I’ve been reading recently), and with its pace, it’s the sort you can sit down and read through on a rainy afternoon.

A couple of years ago I read the book Of Dice and Men, a look back at the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, and, those of us nerds who played it. I was an avid player of the game back in the mid to late 70s, and have continued a fascination with the world(s) created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the original duo behind the game. I’ve gone on to play computer based games, both early ones that were limited to being installed on your computer and played by one or a couple of people, and on, to MMORPGs, the massive universes created online like Everquest and Worlds of Warcraft.

The earlier book I mentioned was mostly focused on the game itself, and the gamers who took it and ran with it. There was plenty of biographical information about the creators, but you couldn’t call it biography. Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination takes another run at it. As he says in the introduction, he couldn’t believe when he started researching the book that no one had ever written a biography of Gary Gygax, who, while not a household name except to those of us in the gaming world, created something that went on to be the foundation for things we take for granted in modern day life, everything from the use of computers for games, to the advent of social media. As he also points out, it’s telling, that in an episode of the pop-culture show Futurama, Gygax’s character is paired up with Lieutenant Uhura, Al Gore, and Steven Hawking – taking on the universe. The book is well written, completely engaging, and for anyone with an interest in the topic, a must read.

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The Book Stack #1

jumbled books
A selection out of what I’ve been reading recently. They don’t really need an introduction.

I like Charles Pierce’s writing, and he often hits the nail on the head. This book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is no exception. For the most part, he just lays it out there and shows just how idiotic many things in our country have become. Do I always agree with him? No. But it’s always thought provoking. Does he always make his case? No. He does against the “easy” targets, where he can just point out flaws that probably any thinking person would immediately see. But when it comes to making fun of, which is really what the book is, targets where there are philosophical, moral, ethical, even intellectual debate (particularly with arenas that broach into the world of religious faith), he points, but doesn’t provide the backup evidence, making the assumption that anyone reading his book is of like mind with him, and will simply agree that whatever he’s pointed to is worthy of mockery. For those of us who struggle at times with reconciling science, logic, and faith into a composite whole, those chapters come across a bit smarmy. Still, a recommended read, just to get the mental cogs turning.

Secretly, I grew up kind of wanting to be Alexander Mundy. He was the cat burglar turned spy-thief for the Secret Intelligence Agency of the US government in the late 60s television series It Takes a Thief. The show was inspired by the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief (1955) starring Cary Grant, and on the flipside, while not acknowledged, is probably in the background of things like the late 2000s show White Collar, and certainly has some influences from the life of Frank Abagnale, whose life then went on to inspire the Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. All that aside, I had visions of being a cat burglar, when I wasn’t entertaining visions of being a forest ranger or FBI agent. How things change as we grow up. I’ve always maintained a fascination with the news of jewel and art thieves, and while now there’s simply no likelihood of taking either up as a profession, I enjoy reading about the heists. Still one of, if not the largest, diamond theft in history, the story in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History is a reasonably in-depth analysis of the most likely scenario for how the theft went down. Some of it is clearly speculative, especially attributions of motivations and thought processes lent to the main actor, Leonardo Notarbartolo (after whom I’ve named a Pandaren rogue in World of Warcraft, for those into that sort of thing). And some of it is pieced together from what evidence and testimony was available to the authors, Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell. It’s clearly well researched and very well written. If I have any quibble with the book is that the ending is an awfully quick wrap-up – akin to the sort of thing one sees at the end of a competition show, where the eliminated contestant’s picture is shown for a moment along with a caption of “John Smith is happy back with his family and thinking about what to do next.” One wants to know, “Where are they now? What are they up to?” Well worth a read.

A few months back, Buzzfeed published a list of what they considered the 51 Best Fantasy Series ever written. Now, there’s nothing that says that anyone at Buzzfeed is an expert on the topic, nor that the choice of 51 (why 51?) series was a good one, but I was casting about for somethings interesting to read and thought I’d start in on the list. I quickly read through the first couple of series, I’m not going to go back and review them now as my memory is already getting hazy on them, but I highly recommend all of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, and Brent Weeks’ The Lightbringer series, particularly the first, which was one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, though the next two series are almost as good. All captured my attention and engaged me, and I was glad to have discovered them via the list. I skipped over A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (the books behind Game of Thrones) and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, simply because I’ve read them in the past. And I’m going to skip the 41 novels of the Discworld saga from Pratchett, because I’ve given them a try, and after 1½ of them, read a year or two ago, I just gave up on them as simply not my cup of weak tea.

Now, to this series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, including three novels, The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It feels a bit more like a teen read than an adult fantasy read. Some of that is simply the characters, the primary ones being children in their early teens. But more of it is that it’s written in a borderline puerile style. I found that although I enjoyed them, I wasn’t particularly engaged by them. There’s a lot of railing against what is an awfully thinly veiled Catholic church, and of a government influenced by religious leaders, clearly the author isn’t a fan of either. There’s a lot of moralizing, but it’s very superficial. And in the end, the ostensible resolution is pretty insipid. The first volume has been turned into a movie of the same name, and albeit also pretty kid-oriented and “Hollywood”, is actually better than the book, a rarity in my experience. While not bad reads, there are certainly other books in the genre more worth putting your time into, as noted above.

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Six “Cozies”

There’s a whole genre of “literature” that is referred to as “cozies”. Wikipedia defines it as: “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The term was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” Most “gourmet” or “chef” mysteries fall into the category.

I enjoy them in general; they’re light, easy reading, perfect for, say, a vacation. I’d say they usually fall into one of two styles – either where the detective him or herself (almost always him, but that may just be reflective of the odds in the profession) is the gourmet, and food is an integral part of their existence – oft-times it plays into the solving of whatever mystery (almost always a murder) is at hand. The other style is chef oriented, and usually involves a chef in a small cafe of some sort, a caterer, or a food writer, who steps outside their daily tasks and gets heavily involved in the solving the crime (again, almost always a murder) – it’s a bet that at some point a) they (almost always a woman) will be regarded as a suspect by the big, bad detective (still almost always a him), usually because they either discover the body or were the last person to see the victim alive (think Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?); b) will get themselves into deep trouble and have to be rescued by same detective; and c) will end up in some sort of personal relationship with same detective.

Pure serendipity, I ran across a sextet (with a seventh on the way) of these that have made for good vacation reading fare. By Lucy Burdette, they’re set in Key West, and the protagonist is a budding restaurant critic.

appetite for murderFun, enjoyable, swift paced read. Pretty much follows my outline above to a “T”. Wannabe restaurant critic becomes the suspect in the poisoning murder of the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Much brouhaha and back and forth. Supportive friends who bizarrely encourage her to investigate the murder on her own because… mean detective. Someone tries to kill her. No one seems to really believe her, including her friends who now aren’t so sure that she isn’t making it all up and maybe she shouldn’t be investigating on her own (you guys talked her into it!). Lots of food descriptions, even some recipes. Gets herself into hot water with the actual murderer as she closes in on the solution. All the pieces fall into place. Resolution. Happy, happy. I know I’m making it sound trite, and on some level it is, but it’s not supposed to be anything more than a fun, easy read, and it fulfills on that.

I’m not going to review each individual book in the series, although the details change, there’s a certain sameness to each one. I’d like to say that over the course of the six books (seventh being released soon), our protagonist developed from an intrepid to an experienced food critic, and while lip-service is paid to that idea, if you pay attention, there’s really no evolution of her abilities, food knowledge, or much of anything. She repeats the same mistakes, over and over – on a personal level, constantly going for supporting the suspect (who, of course, in the end, turns out not to be the murderer, vindicating her gut feelings), over the counsel of family, friends, and most importantly, whichever gentleman is her current love interest – leading to romantic dissolution, repeatedly.

It’s in the food area that things fall most short – she’s got a palate that’s straight out of Lady’s Home Journal cerca 1968, and presents recipes that likely found their way into the typical church social group annual recipe books of the same era (pimiento cheese dip is apparently the pinnacle of sophistication). She rolls her eyes and makes snide remarks about “those wine people”, apparently not familiar with the term sommelier, or the possibility that knowing something about wine might be part of her job as a restaurant critic. She sneers, well, the word choice is “snickers” (more times than I care to count, really, this woman just walks around snickering all the time) at the use of any unusual ingredient or technique (apparently no one but a few pretentious chefs has any interest whatsoever in the world of modernist cooking, no diner would actually eat that food), opining that no normal person would be interested in eating, tasting, or knowing about anything other than the safe choices of everyday fare.

I’d say that this comes down to one of two situations – either the author wants her principal character to come across as a rube – unthinking and uninterested in learning – basically presenting her as a brand new, wet behind the ears, budding food critic who has absolutely zero interest in becoming better at her job, expanding her knowledge base, or, really, anything but dispensing opinions on topics which she a) freely admits she knows nothing about and b) is completely confident that despite her lack of so much as a shred of expertise, is right about; or, and more likely, it’s a reflection of the attitudes and grasp of the author.

Does that make them less fun to read? No. Though for someone who is intimately involved in the food and beverage world, it’s moderately annoying at various moments.

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Friendly Books

A little interlude in the stream of vacation consciousness. I’m sitting here on the 16th floor of a high-rise in Medellin, Colombia, looking out over the El Poblado neighborhood. It’s early, really early, and I thought it’s about time I finish this post which I’ve been poking away at on and off for a bit. I have friends who like to write. There, I said it. And some of them have actually published books. Usually, not always, I end up getting a copy, though I tend not to review them, because, is it really fair to review the book of a friend? I can’t be 100% objective. But hey, they tell people good things about Casa SaltShaker and recommend they eat here, right? (You guys do, right?)

So, here, a little shilling for a trio of books by folk I know and like.

First up, two books by FJ Rocca, whom you’ve met on these “pages” as Frank, in the guise of posts about some of the dinners I used to do in New York, visiting when I’m back in the States – earlier on in NYC and more recently in Baltimore, and, he’s the talented cartoonist who drew the covers for both editions of my dictionary. Over the last two years he’s published two novels that he’s been working on for some time – one of them I actually read an early draft of years ago, so it was nice to see how it shaped up in final form.

masterwednesdayNot the sort of book I’d typically pick up to read, my tastes, without an outside reason to select a book, tend towards food related, obviously, though in the world of literature I tend towards occasionally getting around to a classic that for some reason I’d never read (you know, those lists of “the 100 books that such and such authority says you should read before you die”), science fiction, historical fiction, and humorous sorts of things. Master of Wednesday Night is none of those things – it’s an intricate psychological drama that focuses on the rivalry between a young, up and coming, ambitious (both positively and negatively) symphony conductor, and the older, nearing retirement conductor who’s hovering somewhere between “still got it” and irrelevant. The characters are well drawn, the plot moves along at a good clip, and one of the things I like about it the most is that Frank (see, I’m going to use first names, rather than last names as is typical in a review) doesn’t dumb down his prose. Some folk may need to resort to a dictionary now and again, which admittedly may interrupt the flow, but hey, it’ll be worth it. I found the book engaging enough that I read through the nearly 500 pages in two sittings.

becarefulkillHaving worked with Frank for a short while when I was doing night-time word processing at a law firm while attending cooking school during the day (I’m trying to remember when it was that I actually slept), the setting and characters of Be Careful Who Kills You! ring familiar. We knew people like the four folk who dominate the story. What I particularly enjoyed in this little thriller is that none of the characters is purely antagonist or protagonist, they’re all well rounded and have elements of both. By turn, each was someone to admire or despise, to root for or against. There are moments in the plot line where the story edges into being momentarily preachy about right and wrong, good and evil, and I can hear Frank admonishing one or another of his daughters in the ways of the world, but he pulls back from the brink and continues apace. The story definitely doesn’t end up anywhere predictable, and what more can you ask for from a combination romance and thriller?

drivinghungryNow, Layne Mosler is not someone I know nearly as well as Frank. We were more social acquaintances during the time she lived in Buenos Aires, met up once in New York (hey Layne, I notice I didn’t get an acknowledgement for my “ride along” in the book credits – just sayin’), and have kept in reasonably regular touch over the years since she left. She was one of the early English language food bloggers in BA, starting up not long after I did, and her reviews often sent me off to check out one place or another. But, despite the ostensible food focus of Driving Hungry, a memoir that at first blush seems to follow her blog Taxi Gourmet as she heads off to eat wherever the whims of cabbies take her, this isn’t a book about food. It’s a book of self-discovery, mostly as Layne moves from her 20s into her 30s, about life, love, and relationships. Food, and tango, form the backdrop against which her story develops. Now, I have to admit, I approached the book with a certain amount of trepidation – after all, does someone in their 30s really have enough life experience to be writing her “memoirs”? I think of memoirs as something someone writes as they head into their “golden years”. But setting aside that moniker, the book is an engaging tale that traces her story from Buenos Aires to New York to Berlin. One of the more interesting things about the structure, and I don’t know if it was intentional, or based on the timing of when the three sections were written, or simply based on her feelings about those three periods in her life, but each is written in a disparate tone of voice. You could almost come away with thinking that the events, as they unfold, were narrated by different people, viewing Layne’s life from a different perspective. Regardless of intention, I found that that added to my enjoyment of the book, as it felt like Layne, the author, was developing alongside Layne, the character.

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