What a book!

September 27, 2010

Bill Bryson: “At Home”

Filed under: Authors,Bill Bryson,Non-fiction — ukmelia @ 4:02 pm
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Intrepid explorer and magnificent wordsmith, Bill Bryson takes us on a journey through his home this time.

That’s a little bit misleading really… I should say he takes us through the history of home life using his own pile of bricks as a sort of jumping off place.

Now, I am a Bryson devotee. I have yet to read a book of his I didn’t love and cherish. But even for me, the subject matter sounded, well, a little bit dull. And this is no small tome either. I wondered how he would go on and on about the rooms of a house for hundreds of pages and keep my interest. To me, it seemed like a bit of a risk for Bryson.

I should never have doubted him. Bryson weaves history, astonishing facts (Thomas Jefferson invented the french fry. Who knew?!), current information, and authoritative references brilliantly and with his usual gentle humour.

Bryson’s old rectory in Norfolk, England forms the basis of the book as we explore his hall, kitchen, parlours, servants’ stairs, bedrooms, and even the fuse box. What fascinates me is that the chapter about the fuse box is filled with the sorts of things you just never think about or take for granted. Things like how dangerous it was to wander about after dark before electricity became widespread. How taking a midnight stroll meant you took your life in your hands and subjected yourself to thieves and murderers because the streets were so dark. Or how Britain was forced into total blackness in 1939 by order of the government for fear of the Luftwaffe. One could be fined for lighting so much as a cigarette on a street corner.

You see? It’s more than just, “And now we enter the hallway which contains some end tables and a lovely rug.” It’s more like, “The hallway of a home used to be THE place for congregating  and indeed the inclusion of separate rooms in medieval times was considered an odd notion.”

It’s rich, exciting, fascinating glimpse into the past that I guarantee will make you look at your own home a bit differently when you’re through.

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September 15, 2010

Love on the Docks

Filed under: Fiction,Hard-Boiled — WB Kelso @ 11:58 pm
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It was by pure accident that I found myself reading John D. MacDonald’s The Beach Girls. Inadvertently finding itself into a basket at the local broken spine while a certain non-observant buyer was picking out some Ross MacDonald mysteries off the shelves — because who doesn’t love Lew Archer, am I right?,  I didn’t discover it until long after it was paid for and tossed into the massive to read pile. This accident proved fortuitous, however, and I can now add another author to the must read list.

Despite the salacious cover — standard fare on these old Gold Medal pulps — the grist of this story is a sociological and anthropological study of the hard-drinking and hard-fighting denizens of a a rundown harbor in South Florida; the charter captains, the deck hands, and the women they leave behind, and what all these people do when the sun goes down, the moon comes out and the tide dictates who shacks up with who on a nightly basis. There’s some added intrigue when one of the less popular tenant’s shady past, involving bilking money from many a jilted lover … some alive, some dead, finally catches up to him in the form of one of his victim’s estranged husbands, whose come gunning for him, and outside economic forces are forcing the owner of the harbor to sell out to the mob who want to build a resort on the land.

But, frankly, none of that really matters as MacDonald’s strength is his well defined and drawn out characters; and there’s a lot of them, but each is given a chapter to introduce themselves and advance the plot from their own perspective. I found this approach to be a unique and a refreshing change of pace, and even though the ending wraps up a little too neatly for all involved, I found myself having enjoyed the ride so much I really didn’t care.

August 27, 2010

Review: Pushing Ice

Pushing IcePushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll be honest, I was sucked in by the cover. This just looked cool.

How refreshing to find it was hard SF too, which I have been neglecting of late. So what happens is this ship full of comet miners is sent to intercept Saturn’s moon Janus, which has suddenly left its orbit and is flying through space, directly for the star Spica, shedding ice as it goes to reveal a metallic surface. What is it? Who made it? The crew of the Rockhopper are sent to find out. But things go wrong, as they always do in novels, and this first-contact story takes some twists that you don’t always see.

The story, to me, was more about two strong people, who suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of an issue and what happens as a result. This novel could have easily been set in frontier America, Victorian England, modern Texas, anywhere really. But it’s the freeing from present-day restraints that science fiction allows that really makes a story like this engaging (see ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ by Robert A. Heinlein) as it explores its ideas.

About the hard SF part: Reynolds is an astrophysicist, which keeps the science and even the geopolitical parts of the story fairly well grounded in some kind of plausibility. Character-wise, well, I would have liked to have seen a little bit more from some of the characters, but I will say there is no confusing characters in this book. Each is distinctive.

Some people may find the fact that some basic questions a reader might ask aren’t answered. But I think that’s part of the point. The Earthlings who are finding their way in this book don’t have all the answers, and they find them, some of them anyway, at the same speed as the rest of us.

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Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Filed under: Fiction,Mystery,Uncategorized — mike @ 5:52 pm
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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll admit, I read (well, listened) to this book because of hype and peer pressure. I generally don’t like too many mysteries, but I am glad I at least read this one.

It starts out way boring enough though. The however many pages about a libel case and the background story about how it came about is just numbing. Which is weird, because Larsson was a journalist; he should have known his lede needed to be trimmed.

But once Lisbeth Salander is introduced, the story picks up and she certainly lives up to all the hype. She’s one of the more refreshing characters (heroine? anti-heroine?) in mysteries because she’s not as cliche as so many seem to be.

The violence toward women in this book can be a little repellent, but the point is, well, I hope the point is, that it is a serious problem anywhere, even places that are held up as perfect in the U.S. (eg, Sweden, France, wherever).

I guess if I knew more about Swedish society and current issues, some of this book would have made more sense to me, as I have read that Larsson’s whole Millennium trilogy is meant to be a criticism of Swedish society. But once you see who has what skeletons in their closets, you kind of figure out who Larsson’s targets are. They aren’t much different than those in U.S. novels and movies.

A note on the audio edition: The excellent Simon Vance is the narrator and rather than fight, and lose, with bad Swedish accents, he simply uses different British accents for his characters. That works fine, although I have recently listened to his narrations of the Dune and James Bond novels. So for a disc or two, Mikhael Blomkvist sounded like Duncan Idaho and Henrik Vanger sounded like M. But that’s not a complaint, it’s just funny.

The upshot: Read this before the movie comes out, so you won’t look like you’re behind the bandwagon, but you can still chat about it around the watercooler.

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Review: Blockade Billy

Blockade BillyBlockade Billy by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable non-horror-ish novella from Stephen King.

King is a baseball nut, but he doesn’t bog down the story in too much baseball detail. If you aren’t into the sport, you might feel a little disinterested, but, as usual, King drops enough juicy tidbits to keep you reading. And, as usual, King drops enough vulgar colloquialisms to keep you laughing throughout. You feel like you’re really listening to an old baseball codger in a rest home eager to talk to somebody about something, anything, as long as he doesn’t have to join the virtual bowling group.

I listened to this as an in-between-books book. It was short, light and fun. Craig Wasson is a great reader, although I felt his voice sounded a little too young for the character who was narrating. But it’s a minor quibble. He does a terrific job otherwise.

I did not listen to the other story in this edition, ‘Morality’, as I had read it when it was originally published in Esquire. I didn’t like it as much then and so was ready to move on to my next audio book.

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August 13, 2010

Many reads, King’s Reacher, Loving Nook

Filed under: Authors,Fiction,Nook — jacksheard @ 7:58 am
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I’ve been floored, but I haven’t stopped reading.

So many books by my favorites, and I seem to just bounce from one to the next.

I finished off a few old Michael Palmers, as well as his newest, “The Last Surgeon”.

I hit a cold spell, with  a few fantastic books:

“Storm Prey” by John Sandford; “Ice Cold” by Tess Gerritson; and “61 Hours” by Lee Child.

I’m missing something else I read in there, too, I’m sure.

Now I’m flying through the 1,000-page epic “Under the Dome” by Stephen King. Wow, it is awesome! I don’t like to talk much about a book I’m only a third the way through, but Barbie seems a lot like Jack Reacher, from the aformentioned Lee Child. Which, of course, is awesome.

Reviews to come. I’ll even try to get my son to review “Tom Sawyer”, the latest classic he tackled.

A question, though: How did I fall in love so quickly with a Nook? I didn’t expect to like it. Now I don’t know if I can hold a hard cover book again, without longing for my light, thin and lovely little Nook.

July 26, 2010

Review: Blood Oath

Blood Oath (The President's Vampire, #1)Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know there’s a lot of vampire fiction out there, so despite not wanting to take one of those books on, I read this one anyway. Boy, am I glad I did.

I liked the idea of President Andrew Johnson actually having done something other than come up for impeachment, and enlisting a vampire in the service of the United States sounded like fun. And it was. Farnsworth starts the book off with the old set piece that reveals our hero/anti-hero without being connected to the story, a la James Bond, in Kosovo with the U.S. military, and then takes the story from there, incorporating terrorism, the war in the Middle East and plenty of trotting around the U.S.

Also refreshing, not too many gouts of blood and gore, but nary a pale face or loads of hair product in sight for this vampire. Nathaniel Cade is badass, a little funny and has his own flaws and quirks (like despising blasphemy for some reason, which I have never seen in a vampire). Yes, there’s angst, but not the annoying kind.

I should also mention that by Page 19, you’ve not only had as much action as a Bond film, but you’ve also had references to such diverse fantasy literature as H.P. Lovecraft, Edward S. Ellis, Frank Aubrey, Edgar Allan Poe and W.W. Jacobs. If that’s not enough, a page later you get a Batman reference.

The villain is a bit disturbing, but he is a villain after all. The characters that get introduced weren’t quite as fully developed as I’d like, but it’s clearly the first book in a series, so there’ll be time for that.

If you like: Secret agent thrillers, spy thrillers and books about Washington intrigue, particularly ones by Brad Meltzer with weenie little 20-something protagonists who do a lot of growing up fast, you might like this. Also, vampire books about real vampires.

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July 20, 2010

Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneThe Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m from New England and I majored in history, so this book seemed right up my alley. My worry with these type of ‘Mystery of History’ books is that ever since The Da Vinci Code hit it really big, a slew of books, some good, some not so good, dealing with long forgotten tomes and mysterious past occurrences have been published (Codex, The Geographer’s Library, The Rule of Four, etc.). I am glad to see these books getting published, as the best-written ones can be very exciting without a submarine or secret decoder ring in sight. Plus I’m a sucker for historical details.

That said, ‘Deliverance Dane’ is OK. It moves a little slow at first, with a little too much description of minor, or unneeded, details. The life of a grad student, I would think, makes for a bit of a dull novel, but understanding some of the academia detailed, I was able to stay with the story. The narration was good, although some of the narrator’s New England accents were a little distracting, but so are New England accents if you didn’t grow up with them, or at least live with them for a while.

The book was interspersed with ‘Interludes’, that flash back to the Salem Witch trials and the toils of the title character and her offspring. I always liked this storytelling device because it allows the author to sneak in some suspense by leaving off the main narrative and freshens things up some. I liked them in this book.

Spoiler coming.

It’s when the book reaches part two that I found it a little more interesting, but I recognize that some readers may not be able to handle the break with the first part. I didn’t think part one did enough to build up the possibility of magic being real for the reader so that when suddenly — Magic! — pops up, that the casual reader wouldn’t just say “What the heck?” and put the book down.

I liked the characters well enough, although when the villain was finally revealed (you kind of know who it will be all along, so waiting to see what Connie, the main character does, is the real suspense), the villain’s villainy didn’t seem all that villainous. But, again, there were no submarines, no tanks, no spycraft.

What I thought was really cool was the author’s postscript, where she talks in more depth about the Salem Witch Trials and brings up the point, as does one of the characters, that the people in 17th century New England believed that witchcraft was being practiced and it was real, as real to them as car theft or murder or reckless driving is to you and me. And she asked herself the question, what if the New Englanders were 100 percent right? What if people were not only practicing witchcraft, but some people actually had the hang of it? And that idea alone made this worth a read (or a listen, in my case).

If you liked: the aforementioned Codex, The Geographer’s Library, The Rule of Four or perhaps The Historian, you might give this a try.

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July 16, 2010

The Unreality of Reality: When Cyber-Punk Goes Noir

Hey all. Long time, no read.

With Christopher Nolan’s Inception opening this weekend at a theater near you, it brought to mind a fantastic novel I’d read many moons ago that mined the same, lucid shared dream vein called The Night Mayor.

In the not to distant future, since movies and TV are a thing of the past, people look to virtual reality, where a person can be projected into their own movie inside their own head, for their entertainment. Things go a bit awry when master criminal Truro Daine tries to make this unreality a reality, with himself in control of everything, and its up to two cyber-sleuths to tune-in to his wavelength and put the kibosh on his nefarious schemes…

Author Kim Newman is a huge film buff and has written several reference books on said subject. The Night Mayor is his fictional debut and it’s a real treat for his fellow film fanatics. See, Newman’s master-criminal bases his cyber-kingdom on the shadowy, rain-soaked streets and neon-lights of vintage hard-boiled Hollywood noir movies, and it’s populated with several familiar characters, scenarios, actors and femme fatales of the same era — Bogart, Powell, and Tierney — one of them being Daine in disguise. Which is why the authorities bring in an outside expert on the genre (– a surrogate for Newman, perhaps?) to help the lead detective smoke him out. And with this being based in virtual reality anything goes, right?  And when our heroes start tweaking things a bit, movie-genres start to get cross-pollinated — and if you think Lon Chaney Jr. showing up and sprouting whiskers in the middle of all this is wild, just wait until you see what comes stomping out of the harbor.

Of course knowledge of vintage films will help your enjoyment of this book but even a cursory film fan will recognize most of the cameos, winks and nods in Newman’s book. The science part of the equation takes a bit to slog through but it’s well worth it to get the fiction.

Highly recommended.

July 13, 2010

Review: Fever Dream

Fever Dream (Pendergast, #10)Fever Dream by Douglas Preston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave this an extra star because I thought Agent Pendergast had about run his course in the Diogenes trilogy of this series of books and even in the last one, ‘Cemetery Dance.’

However, even in those books of theirs where my interest wanes, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child write stories that you can’t help but keep turning the page, reading just one more chapter. Any of these books are just plain fun to read, and people tend to forget that sometimes, reading just needs to be fun.

So, on to this book. Like I said, I thought Pendergast had run his course, when Preston/Child bring out … his wife! His late wife, to be exact, killed on a safari 12 years ago. But it turns out, it was actually murder most foul. And complicated. Like cheesy Bond villain/Dr. Evil needlessly complicated (although it’s a lion, not ill-tempered sharks with frickin’ lasers).

So Pendergast enlists Vincent D’Agosta (of course) at the drop of a hat to help him solve his wife’s murder. (Mild spoiler coming) And when D’Agosta can no longer, um, assist in the case, D’Agosta’s girlfriend, NYPD Capt. Laura Hayward. is drafted to help.

Like I said, this book is full of all kinds of ridiculousness, not the least of which is Pendergast’s bad-assery coupled with how trouble seems to blow away with a couple sentences or fight moves. But again, these books are just plain fun. Do yourself a favor and read them all.

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