What a book!

June 20, 2010

A Father’s Day story without a ball or tank in it

OK, so I’ve never really been into sports. I like watching sports (live, rarely TV), I play golf, but really, the only time I imagereally enjoy playing sports is when there’s an “EA” or “Wii” in front of it (and still, that doesn’t happen often).

So what happens every Father’s Day? People trot out “Shoeless Joe” (a k a “Field of Dreams”) or something like that.  Sometimes it has nothing to do with Father’s Day, it just has to have a ball in it (hey, you know what says “Dad” to me, let’s show psycho Barbara Hershey shoot Robert Redford and throw herself out a window!).

And just as bad, there’s always some literary brick full of sturm and drang and meth and self-mutilation, often taking place in Manhattan, that just makes you so miserable for no good reason. And did I mention it’s a brick? Suddenly, you need to read this on Father’s Day. Are you really going to? Cuz by Tuesday you’ll have forgotten all about it.

And don’t even get me started on all the books with a tank or a jet or a red star on the covers.

And there’s not a whole heck of a lot wrong with either of those. If you like them, great. But it just a kind of lazy, fall-back marketing. Even sports head or literary or sports-head-literary dads are into other imagethings.

So what I offer is neither of those. No playing catch, no matchup zone, no I formations, no meth. And you can read it  right now, right here (page 16). I give you “The Rocket” by Ray Bradbury, which pretty much sums up the manic, angst-ridden, joyful, needy, hare-brained and moronic minds that fathers have that delights children but confounds and befuddles mothers while totally making them look awesome to all of mom’s hot friends.

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June 8, 2010

A book that should not have taken me 25 years to read, ‘Shadowline’ by Glen Cook

I first bought Glen Cook’s “Shadowline” back in high school in the ‘80s at my local bookstore and it sat on my bookshelves from Vermont to Boston to four cities in Indiana.

Back then I was buying (and reading) a book every few days during downtime in class, during slow shifts at work, at night, on weekends, on trips and I bought book after book after book.

imageSo of course, not everything I bought was necessarily good, but if I thought a book looked cool, then I bought it. Such was half the case with “Shadowline,” book one of a trilogy (of course) called The Starfishers Trilogy. Half the case as in it looked cool.

Flashforward 25 years or so. I finally picked it up to read after seeing this interesting post about the failings of most “military science fiction.” The post mentions “Shadowline” a being one of the better examples of a writer showing how combat might realistically evolve into the time period of the story instead of being stuck on World War II tactics. So I immediately headed downstairs to the giant bookshelf and grabbed this, as, I found after a brief Twitter exchange with the author of the post, the Starfishers Trilogy is being distributed again (which is good, because I only just recently found only a copy of Vol. 3 at Von’s at Purdue despite looking for them all these years).

Wow, what a great book and one I wish I’d read before. Interesting characters, almost none of whom you’ll really like, but you won’t really dislike. They are products of their time and environment and station in life. In fact, it’s amazing that some of them have even succeeded in their lives at all.

The main action of the plot takes place in 3031, with flashbacks, and an occasional flashforward, to different points in the main characters’ lives, slowly filling out the developments in the main story.

After a series of wars between humans and human-like alien races, corporations and private mercenary armies pretty much run the galaxy, with a distant federated government keeping a distance, only getting involved, and devastatingly so, when it can no longer ignore a problem or conflict. The focal planet is Blackworld, a planet where one side is in permanent darkness (which is the habitable side) and blazing deadly starlight (which is where a lot of the valuable minerals are). Mining interests jockey back and forth for profitable dominance of Blackworld. Into the mix comes the Storm family and all its dysfunctional, harsh, violent, cold members. It’s their saga the book mostly follows, as well as an alien, named Deeth, who has for some reason sworn vengeance on humans, the Storms in particular.

Occasionally in this story we see the Starfishers, who just seem to be these mysterious badasses that everybody fears, although we’re not shown why. That is one of the particular shortcomings of this book: There is a lot of backstory that you want to know that you aren’t shown. I’m sure more will be revealed in subsequent books, but there is much I fear may not be, although I could be wrong. Cook mixes actual Earth historical and cultural references — planets have names like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and fictional future wars are named right alongside actual historical Earth conflicts – that hint at a richer story than is included here.

Still and all, this is a great book and one that doesn’t deserve to be overlooked in the sci-fi reader’s library for 25 years.

If you like: Military science fiction, military fantasy or flawed character stories (a la George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire although not nearly as complex), you’ll like this.

May 7, 2010

Give me the brain … and the tea and crumpets

Filed under: Authors,Horror,Jane Austen,Zombies — mike @ 7:07 pm
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I tend to agree with the movie critic Richard Roeper about zombies: They just aren’t interesting villains because they “just zombie ahead.” But I will make an exception if there are other elements that are image interesting. Examples: “Night of the Living Dead” was a lot like “Fort Apache” and about the people involved, than zombies. And despite the gimmicky take on zombies in “28 Days Later,” I’m always interested in what Danny Boyle is going to do with a genre. And my wife actually liked “Resident Evil,” so I was all WTF about that one.

But on the page, zombies are even worse for me. They just bore me; I don’t care about the allegory that people insist zombies effect, they just bore.

Jane Austen has always left me cold, too, until recently. But I have to admit, when all the buzz started about “Pride and Prejudice and image Zombies”, which features a mix of the original Austen text and new text by Seth Grahame-Smith, I wanted to read it. But much like when I made sure to watch “Bad Boys II” and “28 Days Later” before I watched “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead”, I listened to “Pride and Prejudice” before listening to the zombie mashup.

I have to admit, I got into “Pride and Prejudice” and, like so many others, came to be annoyed and frustrated by Mrs. Bennet, root for Lizzy and generally think Mr. Darcy really wasn’t as bad as the modern romantic comedy makes him out to be.

Because Austen’s original text is included here, for long stretches even, the overarching story still guides the plot. The added text dealing with zombies (sometimes just a word changed and no more) is mostly there for laughs. The story remains about characters and doesn’t revolve solely around brains and gore and cannibalism (although there is lots of that, but not too graphically so).

One particular passage had me laughing out loud. A very pompous noblewoman, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, scolds Lizzy in the original about how common she is because Lizzy’s parents raised five girls with no governess. What follows is a tirade with the constant repetition of the word “governess.” In the mashup. Lady Catherine is one of the most feared zombie killers in all the land and the same rant is repeated, except where it originally said “governess”, the text substitutes “ninjas.” Believe me, in the context of the story, this is very funny.

So give this tandem a try. You’ll get a classic under your belt, at the very least, and you may have a little fun along the way. The audio versions had narrators with a good grasp of proper English speech, which only added to the fun.

You may like this if: You like zombie books (because you’ve already got a twisted sense of humor); you’re an Austen devotee who happens to have been born with a sense of humor.

March 14, 2010

Impact by Douglas Preston

All right, last Douglas Preston book (since it’s his latest and I’m now caught up).

Remember what I said about thrillers being silly? This one can be silly. Once again, just shut up, read and enjoy the ride.

That ride started out a little slowly for my taste. In fact, the image book, which once again features former CIA operative/monk Wyman Ford, is divided in two parts, and the setup part, Part I, seemed to go a little slow, even introducing some characters that I didn’t see too much point for having, while not developing other characters who eventually figured prominently in Part II.

Speaking of Part II, the book picks up considerably, with the last 150 pages or so written so you’ll be pushing lights out at night, repeating “Just one more chapter, just one more chapter.”

As usual, Preston mixes action with science and even ventures into sci-fi territory. But like I said, just relax and enjoy the ride.

I’m still not sold on Wyman Ford as a main character yet. He still seems kind of thinly drawn after three novels, two of which belong to him. Perhaps that’s the intention, as he’s a CIA guy, designed to blend in and play any role.

Also in this book, the final reveal of who the actual villain seemed a little too last minute and tidy, kind of a villanus ex machina, I guess.

But that said, this is still a fun read. Also interesting is the story of a trip he took to Cambodia for National Geographic that helped inspire this story.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s website.

February 13, 2010

Swords and smithcraft, with some moral ambiguity thrown in

Filed under: Fantasy,K.J. Parker — mike @ 4:26 pm
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Boy, this book took me forever to read, although it is not necessarily the fault of the book. Just had other things to do.

Interesting fantasy world K.J. Parker has set up here in “Colours In The Steel,” book one of The Fencer Trilogy. An apparently impregnable, prosperous city, center of the empire. Matters of law are settled by fencers, who are lawyers, but they don’t fence with words, they literally fence, with the case decided by which lawyer (fencer) lives and which one dies. Magic in this world, like so many other things, are a bit of a fraud, although that it exists is understood fully by the ones thought to practice it.

There is humor, but it is dark. And while there are some people you’d classify as “good,” they aren’t exactly saving the day. And while plenty of the people here do bad things, or have done bad things, they aren’t really “bad” people.

Anyway, the characters here are interesting takes on the grizzled old soldier, the young assistant, the vengeful young warrior, etc.

Some of the “magical” coincidences seemed a little to coincidental for my taste, but they still make sense in the logic the story presents. A rich fantasy world well-written, if a bit slow at times.

If you like military fantasy or are into technical details, plenty of that here. The siege and battles in the book are quite well-detailed and the minutiae of siege engine construction and weapons forging are interesting and concise, although you won’t (thankfully) get descriptions of Tom Clancy-esque proportions.

One big misstep though was there was no map. A fantasy book should always, always, always have a map, although there is very little traveling in this book, so maybe one was deemed unnecessary or if it’s just the edition I had. Yes, I have an imagination, and it was fun to build the city and surrounding lands in my mind, but I still like maps. Perhaps subsequent books in the trilogy have it.

If you like sharp, intelligent, darkish fantasy with a minimum of magic, little people and fanciful characters, then you’d like this book.

February 11, 2010

When you are engulfed in belly laughs

Filed under: David Sedaris — mike @ 12:39 pm
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David Sedaris will be appearing in South Bend in a couple months, so I need to reread/catch up on some of his books . I had read parts of “When You Are Engulfed In Flames” before but I listened to it because I like when authors read their own stuff.

He says in the book that he reads out loud for a living. It shows in the audio version of this book, which was funny enough in print, but even funnier when the author himself reads it. I’m a fan of fish-out-of-water stories, and this one has plenty. Another favorite essay here is “Town And Country,” which was so crude and crass that you can’t help but laugh. Other favorites: “The Monster Mash” where Sedaris spends time in a morgue; “In The Waiting Room,” highlighting the trouble you can get into if you are a little sketchy on language;  and “The Smoking Section,” one of the aforementioned fish-out-of-water stories. I also found the perspective on relationships in “Keeping Up.”

February 9, 2010

From words to pictures

Here’s a quickie from the New York Times about how more and more prose authors are having graphic novel versions of their works published. This isn’t necessarily new, as fantasy and sci-fi authors have been doing it for a while and we all remember Classics Illustrated and the modern incarnations of those (which publish works by Lovecraft, Poe, Bradbury, etc.). I’ll be honest, I often have trouble reading the graphic novel adaptation of a book I have read in print. Occasionally, I find one that’s interesting. And I am curious to read the trade comic editions of “The Eye of the World” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” come out. What do you all think?

January 31, 2010

RIP Kage Baker

Filed under: Authors,Steampunk — mike @ 9:09 pm
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I just read about the death of Kage Baker due to cancer.

If you aren’t familiar with Baker’s work, she is best known for her novels of The Company, which employed immortal cyborgs who traveled through time, adjusting problems with the historical record all while moving closer to a date when the timeline of history just … stops.

I came to read these books and short stories late but immediately began reading one after another since finding the first the in the series: “In The Garden of Iden.” They combined history and science fiction with witty writing and a strong story arc throughout each story, no matter which character she was focusing on. Her new book, “Not Less Than Gods” is due to be released in the next month or so.

I am sorry that she had to struggle against such a terrible disease. The sci-fi universe has lost a truly gifted writer.

January 29, 2010

Movie schmovie

Filed under: Uncategorized — mike @ 7:00 am
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I am curious if anyone has a rule about whether they see a movie based on a book before reading the book first. We had that rule for our kids, although the weight of school populism kind of forces it to bend at times. If you have kids, do you enforce that rule? Whether you have kids or not, do you have that rule for yourself? What if it’s a play based on a book? Is that more legit to see before reading?

January 27, 2010

What Mike likes

Filed under: Welcome — mike @ 8:50 pm
Tags: ,

Hi, I’m Mike, a former colleague of Jack’s at the South Bend, Ind., Tribune. I am still there, where I am the Food, Home, Family and Faith editor. When I was little, I told my parents that I wanted a job where I got to read all day. Well, I now get to read all day. Some things I would not read unless someone was paying me, but for the most part, I like what I’m doing.

So, what do I like? Well, I’m kind of all over the place, but my first love is fantasy and science fiction. All the important authors are there, of course (Tolkien, Heinlein, Asimov, Dick, Terry Brooks, etc., etc.) but I also love more recent writers too, such as Naomi Novik, John Scalzi, Susannah Clarke and Neil Gaiman. I also have a special regard for the works of Robert Holdstock (may he rest in peace), Greg Bear and Jack McDevitt.

I also like Victorian adventure stories. I like some popular and literary fiction but I don’t read a lot of it. Michael Chabon bridges both of those genres and I will read anything by him. I also quite enjoyed “Big If” by Mark Costello.

I like a lot of non-fiction, especially history, as that is what my degree is in, and food writing, as that is a professional and personal interest. One of my favorite writers who, again, spans both these is Mark Kurlansky, author of “Salt: A World History” and “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed The World.” I also like the work of Charles C. Mann (“1491”).

I have children, so I read a lot of children’s books. In addition to some wonderful new books, I am getting the chance to discover books that I missed when I was younger.

Also, comic books count as books. I agree with the owner of my local comic book store: People who turn their nose up at comics, especially modern comics, are not smart enough to have learned to decipher pictures. Anyone who has read The Nightly News, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Ghost World, Persepolis or Maus and still thinks comics can’t have depth just isn’t being open-minded about it. That said, the one comic I read month-to-month is Conan The Barbarian (which reminds me: Pulps, I really like pulps).

I don’t really like mysteries, but make an exception for Tony Hillerman (may he also rest in peace), the Inspector Chen mysteries of Qiu Xiaolong and the Inspector O novels (“A Corpse in the Koryo”, etc.) by James Church.

I am also a big listener of audio books.

Finally, one rule I have (which I may have to modify on the Internet): I never turn down a book that someone recommends to me, even if it doesn’t sound all that exciting to me. I have read some really great books that I normally would not have considered that way (most recently “Robert Kennedy: His Life” by Evan Thomas).

Also, if anyone knows any good books about giraffes, Louis Brandeis or the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, shoot them my way.

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