Books (Reviews)

The Book Stack #10

jumbled books

Eleven more books for your reading stack!

My Year of Meats: A Novel by Ruth Ozeki (1999)

An amusingly comic look at a weird combination of the world of meat production, Japanese television culture, and family life. I’m not even sure how to go beyond that in describing it, other than to say that it touches on so many cultural tropes, so brilliantly, that I had trouble putting the book down. We have traditional Japanese men and women, we have modern Japanese-American men and women, we have non-Japanese, “wholesome, middle American” men and women, and they all combine into a ground together amazing whole.

Fair warning, you may come out of the book never wanting to eat meat again – after all, to paraphrase a dictum, you don’t really want to watch sausage being made. ☆☆☆☆☆

Malevolent (Cases of Lieutenant Kane Series Book 1)
Requite (Cases of Lieutenant Kane Series Book 2)
by E.H. Reinhard (2014, 2016)

I thought it was really well written, engaging. It’s very dark. In fact, numerous people seem to have given it negative ratings because it gets a bit graphic in the details of how the serial killer does stuff, but I’m not all that squeamish about medical/anatomical stuff, so I didn’t find it off-putting. In fact, it made it more real, rather than glossing over it. I also thought that the police side of things was well handled and felt more realistic, with a mix of plodding detective work, noticing small clues, a lucky break or two, etc. Looking forward to heading into the next books in the series. ☆☆☆☆

Like the first, I thought the second book was really well written and completely engrossing. I read through it in about two hours. Basically, the same review as the first book. ☆☆☆☆

The 56th Man (An Ari Ciminon Novel Book 1)
The Godless One (An Ari Ciminon Novel Book 2)
by J. Clayton Rogers (2009, 2013)

I’m intrigued, plain and simple. I love detective and mystery and police procedural novels, they’re among my favorites. And I’ve read many a foreign version, which are often particularly interesting simply because of the cultural differences and getting a sense of those through the eyes of a protagonist operating in the midst of their own culture, and one I don’t know from personal experience. Here, we get that viewpoint, in this case of a former Iraqi military and police officer, now working for the U.S. governemnt, and plunked down in the middle of a world that I’m already familiar with. It adds the dimension of our sleuth not just having to solve a crime, but do it within an environment that’s as foreign to him as he is to us. Looking forward to the next volume. ☆☆☆☆

Following on really liking the first volume of this series I was looking forward to another mystery/police procedural in the same vein as I headed into the second book. While the characters remain, instead this volume heads into the world of Middle Eastern politics and personal revenge on the part of the protagonist. And, while still well written and compelling, it’s a story that comes across as a bit unbelievable. ☆☆☆☆

vN: The First Machine Dynasty
iD: The Second Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (2012, 2013)

The idea of artificial life forms, be they machine intelligence, androids, robots, petri dish grown clones, or what-have-you, often makes for an interesting sci-fi premise and story. At the same time, usually with other than brief glimpses into the thoughts or subroutines of the entity in question, the stories are almost always told from the perspective of a third person, usually human. I imagine that’s because it’s easier to approach the genre from there – how do we, humans, deal with, interact with, etc., etc. This book flips that around and approaches the entire story from the point of view of one “vN”, as she comes to grips with, in essence, her “coming of age” in a still dominantly human society. It’s well done, intriguing, and in the opposite of what I normally find with these sorts of stories where it occurs to me to wonder “what’s this look like from the android’s view?”, I found myself thinking, “oh wow, we’d never have come to that conclusion…”. ☆☆☆☆

Following on how much I liked book one, I was really looking forward to book two, and it didn’t disappoint. Picking up within moments of the finale of the first book, this one launches full tilt into the conflict between humans and vN, the “androids” who are essentially the other dominant species on the planet by this point. And things escalate from there, coming to yet another finale that leaves things open for another volume – which has been added to my wishlist for when it becomes available on Kindle. ☆☆☆☆

Debt of Bones (Sword of Truth Prequel)
Wizard’s First Rule (Sword of Truth Book 1)
by Terry Goodkind (1994)

I started this series as part of working my way through a list that was published on Buzzfeed of the best series of fantasy novels out there. I’ve sort of made it my audiobook listening for while I’m working in the kitchen when I’m not overly involved in what I have to pay attention to. As such, I’ll admit, I miss some stuff here and there – and it’s an extremely long book (4 hours of audio for the prequel and 34 hours for volume one), so it took awhile to get through it. ☆☆☆☆

I really enjoy the world that Goodkind has designed here, and the interaction of the various factions. I also like that while the book is a part of a series, and I’m looking forward to the rest, it’s a self contained story arc. At the least, while there are things left open to develop in the future, the main thrust of volume 1, the battle between our protagonist, a “Seeker”, Richard Cypher, and the antagonist, a sort of dark lord, Darken Rahl, actually comes to a quite satisfying conclusion. And in the prequel, we are introduced to some of the key characters and the events which start them down the path that begins in book one. ☆☆☆☆

Pandora by Anne Rice (2010)

I read the book that started this whole enterprise (and pretty much the whole genre of vampire stories in its modern incarnation), Interview with a Vampire, so many years ago I barely remember it. This one just popped across my reading stack as a last minute something that someone had left a paperback in a hotel room and I picked it up and started in on it. Not my favorite genre of reading, but an enjoyable and relatively quick read, so thumbs up, but not enough to grab me to run back to more of the books. ☆☆☆

The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill (1892)

Generally considered the first ever “locked room mystery”, the book is less about the mystery than it is about the characters involved in the investigation. Extremely well written prose. As the readers, we’re afforded little in the way of detail – we’re not party to the investigation itself, we don’t get to see any clues, we aren’t privy to any interviews or depositions, such as they may have been at the time (this book was published in 1892, London). Instead, we get to listen in to the thoughts and occasionally the conversations, of the various witnesses and one of the principal investigators, who is outside the police force. As such, most of the enjoyment of the book comes from the intricacies of their observations and musings. The end result may or may not be a surprise, it depends on how close attention you’re paying to those various inner monologues, but it’s not the result that matters in the last pages anyway. ☆☆☆☆


The Book Stack #9

jumbled books

Forbidden Thoughts, editor Jason Rennie (2017).

This book got a lot of play in the last year or so as “Milo” rose to (in)fame with his various political antics. And antics they are, watching him speak or reading his rants, it’s pretty clear that regardless of whether he believes what says or not, he’s not actually interested in anything but self aggrandizement. Mostly his positions are pretty poorly formed and rely on the misdirection of using non-PC language and/or personal attacks, taking everyone’s attention off of the lack of substance to anything he’s saying. Yet somehow, the editor and publisher of this collection of short stories, decided that his name on the cover would be an attraction. It worked. But then, for those seeking to read more of his work, the disappointment of finding that all he did was write a foreword note at the beginning of the book that has little if anything to do with the content. He asserts that there’s never been a collection of such revolutionary non-PC science fiction in all of history. Obviously he’s clueless to the Libertarian origins of much of modern Sci-Fi, or even the genre as a whole. But let’s set all that aside and get on to the meat of the book itself.

There are some great stories in here that save the book from being worthy of nothing more than the scrap heap. The problem is, there are also a bunch, probably more than half, of the stories, that do little more than attempt to incense the reader by being as non-PC as they possibly can, throwing in words and thoughts and actions that are guaranteed to horrify anyone with leanings to the left. But they go way too far, and I don’t mean that because I’m incensed by them, but because they’re little more than the same as I accuse Milo of above. They’re distractions, they’re glaring baubles, designed to do nothing more than distract the reader from the fact that the stories have no substance. They’re just ranting and exaggeration designed for effect and show the authors’ complete lack of story telling ability.

In the end, there’s just not enough to recommend the book. There’s far better, shall we say, non-leftist, non-PC science fiction out there than anything in this book. ☆☆

Infomocracy by Malka Older (2016).

It’s an interesting read, relatively fast paced, and I enjoyed it. On the other hand, it was a little like going to an all you can eat buffet, where you take some of everything, get back to your table, and it’s both too much food to eat, and not all of it quite goes together on the same plate.

Taking the level of suspension of disbelief into the political and information realm, it requires that you believe that countries that currently exist still kinda sorta do, but not exactly, and are instead now connected not by cultural or racial heritage, but by a mosaic of political viewpoints, scattered across the globe. Often they’re completely disparate to their neighbors, and even within individual countries, broken up into a mess of political parties, some run by corporations, some by de facto governments, some by grassroots organizations.

And somehow, within all of this, we’re expected to buy into that all of these same factionalized and fractionalized groups of people and political organizations have agreed to have everything coordinated by one single entity that provides them with filtered information so they can make a decision where they want to live and work at any given moment. Throw in a gratuitous romance with two high powered individuals, who somehow decide, in the midst of all this Information overload, to not bother to check each other out but just go on gut feeling, and then proceed to violate the principles of their careers just because each other was good in bed.

It doesn’t make it a less fun read, but it does make it a little hard to swallow. ☆☆☆☆

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2014).

This one was a slow slog to get started on, and several times during probably the first half of it I was tempted to just give up and set it aside. Much of that, I think, is that it felt like a slightly stilted translation – as if the translator was searching for a way to express concepts that he didn’t quite know how to put into English fluidly. I’m glad I stuck through it, as in the end, I liked the way it developed and will probably go on to read the rest of the trilogy. I wasn’t wowed, but I was intrigued.

It’s interesting, given the political climate in which we’re living these days, in various parts of the world, how the premise of first contact is handled. The idea that humans basically divide into two camps (three in the book, but still more or less fall into two ideals) – those who see contact as a threat (in this case an explicit one) and do all in their power to resist, and those who see it as an inevitability with which they collaborate. Kind of reminds me of the current sci-fi television show Colony.

I also liked the undercurrent of the conflict between science and religion, though I think it’s perhaps drawn as too starkly a black and white issue, one or the other. That probably fits more the Chinese cultural model of what science and religion are all about (though I’m no expert on Chinese culture), at least from what I’ve gleaned over the years. ☆☆☆

The Gourmet Detective mystery series (8 volumes), by Peter King (1996-2003).

Okay, hmm… I’ve read the whole series now. I’m not going to do individual book reviews, some of them are better than others, but they’re all enjoyable, quick reads. Then again, throw gourmet food and wine into anything and I’m likely to add some points to it in my mind. Bizarrely, though, given that I gave all the books three stars, I don’t know that I recommend them. Had they been written fifty years ago, I’d give them some more slack, but here are my issues with, well, all of them:

The gourmet detective himself, our protagonist, is an unlikable twit. He’s a middle aged, pretentious white man, with delusions of self importance. He fancies himself a ladies man and, of course, manages to get one or another into bed (trailed off, never portrayed, just make sure we know it happened, wink, wink) in all or almost all the books. He’s misogynistic, racist, and classist. He fancies himself a connoisseur of all things food and wine, and throws about names and terms, most of which the average reader will not have heard of, and will probably just move past without much thought. The problem is, he’s pretty much clueless and the mistakes in his descriptions of various ingredients, dishes, and bottles of fermented grape juice are legion.

In short, and yes, I realize I’m generalizing and could be accused of bias myself, he’s the sort of detective that a 70+ year old retired upper middle class British metallurgical engineer (who apparently at some point went to the Cordon Bleu cooking school to be trained as a chef, though my bet is he just took a few cooking classes for home cooks, then again, who knows, but it seems he did it after retiring at some point in his 70s) would reimagine himself to be if he were to become a food detective. In short, a sort of Walter Mitty alter ego. ☆☆☆

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016).

You know the running joke where people start comparing how hard they had it growing up… it starts with something like “we had to walk 5 miles to school every day…” and ends up with things like “uphill both ways” “cardboard boxes for shoes”, etc., etc.? This book is that done in long form. It’s an ostensible memoir from someone who grew up in a disadvantaged, poor community (except he really didn’t, he grew up skirting around it, because he actually spent most of his childhood living with or near relatives or step-relatives who were fairly well off and encouraged him to stay away from that community) who spends nearly 300 pages trying to convince us that his particular disadvantaged, poor community has it worse than any other one. And he also ricochets between being pretentious about his own life and condescending about his roots and the people who still live there, and trying to hold them up as somehow better by virtue of being in worse straits than how he imagines (with no evidence that he has any experience of) other disadvantaged, poor communities to be. Basically it’s a barely veiled tome touting “Hillbilly (i.e., poor white) Lives Matter More” and as such is just as egregious as much of the BLM movement comes across at times. ☆☆

Daimyo by S. Lee Lyndon (2014-2015).

Really enjoyed this entire trilogy. It was an interesting glimpse into a culture and period that I’m not overly familiar with, other than just peripherally from being into the martial arts world. It would be a complete spoiler to tell you what the overall arc of the story is, so let’s just say it covers the adventures of a young Japanese fisherman as he matures in life. In the end, while a totally logical step by step, the overall arc of the three books is a bit far-fetched, but fun to follow along. It’s a sort of novel form of the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics, or adaptation, sometimes called Lamarckism, i.e., that somehow or other non-biological accomplishments and internalized histories can be passed down genetically to the next generations (pretty much a dismissed idea in the genetic world). Still, a very enjoyable read. ☆☆☆☆

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016).

This one was as difficult to read as it probably was to write. An outsider attempts as close as possible, an insider view of a particular culture, in this case, far right wing, for the most part fundamentalist Christian, Tea Party voters, from an industrial area in Louisiana. She ingratiates herself into their world and admirably does her best to tell their stories, particularly what has led to their political alignment and voting (what’s often talked about in left wing media as “why do these people vote against their best interests?”). She succeeds in making it interesting, and even in giving a decent view into the logic and thought that these folk use. At the same time, if it was at any point her intention to make them look actually logical or sensible, she fails, because bluntly, they come across looking more moronic than the so-called “liberal media” has ever portrayed them. Maybe that was her real, behind the scenes intention from the start. ☆☆☆

Sixteen books seems enough to give you some reading material for now…. Enjoy!


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.


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.


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. ☆☆


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. ☆☆☆☆


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.


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. ☆☆☆☆