Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets, edited by David Thomas Moore

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space, edited by David Thomas Moore

Yes, another Sherlock Holmes anthology. This one is really good, with the authors depicting Holmes and Watson in wildly new ways; alternative history for fictional characters.

Only one story out of fourteen didn't resonate with me: "Half There/All There," by Glen Mehn. It was set in Andy Warhol's Factory; the Bohemian nature was off-putting but I did like the reference to Irene Adler planning RFK's assassination. For the one dud, though, there are five others that are truly excellent. "The Final Conjuration," by Adrian Tchaikovsky is probably my favorite. It is a pure fantasy complete with magic and wizards, where the Elizabethan Holmes is summoned as a demon. The ending here was awesome, being an explanation of how Holmes survived Reichenbach Falls. Two others are hard science fiction: "A Woman's Place," by Emma Newman and "The Small World of 221B," by Ian Edginton. Newman has Mrs. Hudson take center stage as she is revealed to be the genetic mastermind responsible for both Holmes and Moriarty, and Edginton crafts a story strongly reminiscent of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Elementary, Dear Data." "A Study in Scarborough," by Guy Adams was a bit more traditional—Holmes and Watson are depicted as world-famous radio stars—but with a great twist at the conclusion. The final entry in this volume was very meta: "Parallels," by Jenni Hill creates a story the main character is an author that writes Holmesian fan fiction!

In total, I found this to be an above average collection with a diverse group of settings. Thoroughly enjoyable.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
Sherlock Holmes owes a lot to the revisionists.

Monday, March 09, 2015

As You Wish, by Cary Elwes

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes

Who doesn't like The Princess Bride? Both the book and the movie are top notch, classics that can be enjoyed generation after generation. The movie starred (among others) Cary Elwes, one of my favorite actors&mdahs;right up there with Nathan Fillion, Bruce Campbell, and Cary Grant. Now Elwes has written a memoir of the making of the movie, and it is a truly fun read.

When The Princess Bride was being filmed, Elwes was just starting his acting career and was unbelievably nervous at being cast by Rob Reiner and expected to share the screen with such luminaries as Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Christopher Guest, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, and a host of others. One of the great things about this book is that these actors all contribute anecdotes to Elwes memories, making for a very well-rounded story. For instance, as inconceivable as it sounds, Wallace Shawn made the entire movie convinced he was about to be fired. His agent told him Danny DeVito was the first choice for the role and felt he never could measure up!

After reading this I felt compelled to rewatch the movie, and found it as enjoyable as ever. If anything, reading As You Wish made it even more so! Great book.

First Sentence:
The note simply read: IMPORTANT.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Halting State, by Charles Stross

Halting State, by Charles Stross

While not exactly 1984, Halting State is set in a near future where the public is under constant surveillance. Cameras are ubiquitous in society: every corner of every street, on all forms of public transit, and between cell phones, smart glasses and wearable cameras, on virtually every person as well. Massively multiplayer online games are as much a staple of life as television is today and allows scrutiny of online behavior, and the role of the police has largely been reduced to reviewing video surveillance to enforce the law. People not only accept this level of vigilance as a matter of course, but have become utterly dependent on it. Sounds like an ACLU nightmare, but an entirely believable future nonetheless.

The mystery is around a supposedly impossible crime: a bank in cyberspace has been robbed. During the investigation a larger conspiracy is uncovered that revolves around international espionage and a next-level breakthrough in cryptography. A fairly pedestrian story, but set in this pseudo-dystopian future it becomes fascinating—a can't-put-down novel.

First Sentence:
It's a grade four, dammit.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

I'm a huge fan of the movie The Right Stuffbut admit I've never actually read the book before now. As expected, the two have a lot in common, although Wolfe spends a lot more time describing the one-sided antagonism between the astronauts and classic pilots than the film does. A common theme was how the press made it sound like the Mercury astronauts were the first people to ever ride a rocket, but "Yeager had done precisely that more than forty times. Fifteen other pilots had done it also, and they had reached speeds greater than three times the speed of sound and an altitude of 126,000 feet." The jet test pilots believed they belonged at the top of the aircraft food chain, because after all the astronauts were intended to be mere passengers. "There was very little action that an astronaut could take in a Mercury capsule, other than to abort the flight and save his own life. So he was not being trained to fly the capsule. He was being trained to ride in it." The public disagreed, however, and the first group of astronauts were instant heroes long before ever getting near a rocket. "All seven, collectively, emerged in a golden haze as the seven finest pilots and bravest men in the United States. A blazing aura was upon them all." Ironically, Tom Wolfe wrote about the self-aggrandizement of both the pilots and astronauts, but the only picture in the book is of the author and Wolfe's name on the cover is three times as large as the title.

First Sentence:
Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that, three of the others had called her on the telephone to ask her if she had heard that something had happened out there.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bodyguards in Bed, by Lucy Monroe, Jamie Denton, and Elisabeth Naughton

Bodyguards in Bed, by Lucy Monroe, Jamie Denton, and Elisabeth Naughton

I'm not exactly sure how this erotic anthology found its way onto my shelf. Three stories are included, and as the title indicates all dealing with a bodyguard that falls into bed with their protection assignment. Who's Been Sleeping in My Brother's Bed? by Lucy Monroe does an admirable job of trying to capture the will-they-won't-they vibe, but simple inclusion in this volume makes the answer inevitable. Acapulco Heat by Elisabeth Naughton is a straightforward thriller, with an ex-Army Ranger trying to save a supermodel mixed up with a Mexican cartel. The third entry, Hot Mess by Jamie Denton, is easily the best of the three, with the role of guardian being played by both sides of the couple at various points.

All three short stories are interesting but I felt each needed to be either shorter or longer. Monroe and Denton both craft characters that could carry a longer story; Monroe's tale in particular had more depth than most John Grisham novels. Naughton's entry dragged a bit and could easily be shortened—seven of the eight chapters were basically an extended chase scene. Overall this is a quick read, but felt more aimed at the chick lit crowd than my normal fare.

First Sentence (from Who's Been Sleeping in My Brother's Bed?):
Danusia wiggled the key in the lock on her brother's apartment door.
First Sentence (from Hot Mess):
Alyssa Cardellini considered herself a work-in-progress.
First Sentence (from Acapulco Heat):
His luck was in the crapper.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Life, by Keith Richards

Life, by Keith Richards

The song "She Likes the Beatles, I Like the Stones" could have been written about my wife and me, and the title certainly holds true: I do like the Rolling Stones. I picked up Keith Richards' autobiography hoping to learn more about the group, and 500+ pages later I can certainly say I did. The book covers Richards' life from birth to ~2010 and a hell of a lot of band history along the way. The narrative is very scattershot; loosely chronological but bouncing from anecdote to anecdote in a drunken fashion—fitting for the hard-partying rock-and-roll star!

The Stones were named after the Muddy Waters song "Rollin' Stone" and started as a blues band. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the Stones have such a strong blues and country influence as "Honky Tonk Women" is my favorite tune and many other of my preferred songs clearly have that sound. Some of the more interesting parts are when Richards goes into the stories behind many of the songs: how the lyrics came about, who wrote what, and what the meanings are. For instance, while it seems obvious now, I had no idea that "You Don't Move Me" off of Keith's first solo album Talk Is Cheap was about the feud between Richards and Jagger. In fact, I was unaware just how close the Stones came to disbanding entirely in the late 1980's; I'm sure glad they didn't because the tour for Steel Wheels was the first time I got to see them perform live, in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. I saw them again in Austin about 25 years later, and would go again in a heartbeat if they make it back this way. Great band, great stage presence, great everything!

A lot of the personal anecdotes I found much more compelling than I expected. Many (if not most) revolve around drugs and alcohol, and in the later years a sad number of attempts to sober up—thankfully eventually successfully. One bit that stuck with me was his approach to religion; his definition of heaven and hell is truly frightening: "[Heaven and hell are] the same place, but heaven is when you get everything you want and you meet Mummy and Daddy and your best friends and you all have a hug and a kiss and you play your harps. Keith and Bert Richards Hell is the same place—no fire and brimstone—but they all just pass by and don't see you. There's nothing, no recognition." I think I prefer the fire and brimstone interpretation! And finally, as you can see from the picture on the right, clearly there is a reason I like Richards—his natural father has great taste in colleges!

First Sentence:
Why did we stop at the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce, Arkansas, for lunch on Independence Day weekend?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kelly, by Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson with Maggie Smith

Kelly: More than My Share of It All, by Clarence L.

Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was one of the key aircraft designers at Lockheed, involved with such successes as the P-38 Lightning, the U-2, and my favorite, the SR-71 Blackbird. Kelly is the autobiography of this engineer, and a great deal of history about the Lockheed Corporation, now Lockheed Martin. The look Kelly gives into how aircraft were developed in the early part of the aviation era is fascinating, with wind tunnels and advanced metallurgy in their infancy. The mortality rate for test pilots was high, and at times Kelly came across as quite cold discussing this. "...the plane exploded on impact. The design result was an improved spline and pump and installation of an emergency fuel system."

The famous Skunk Works program was also founded by Kelly. The software industry has co-opted the term: at a good company it is used to describe small teams that foster innovation, and at a bad one it is used to ask people to do extra work under the guise of innovation. (Sadly, the latter is more common.) It was interesting reading about the formation and goals behind the original; one quote that stuck with me is one I'll use in my own career: "it is much better to lead people, not to drive them." That is a very eloquent way of phrasing a difficult concept—which probably is why it still resonates today despite being originally said in the 1930's.

Kelly wrote the book in 1985 and died in 1990. The conclusion was exactly what you'd expect from an engineer that was born when heavier-than-air craft were looked at with skepticism and retired after man walked on the moon. "By the year 2000, the 'death rays' of the comic strips and and science fiction will be a reality." The Star Wars SDI program never did materialize, but the LaWS laser system is about to be put into active service. Still a long way from phasers or blasters, but then we don't have our flying cars yet either. Ending aside, this book is a great look at a glamorous time in aviation history, and a peek into the life of a very interesting man.

First Sentence:
Northern Michigan in mid-winter is harsh, cold country to a young immigrant seeking to carve out a new life.

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