Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ironhorse, by Robert Knott

Robert B. Parker's Ironhorse, by Robert Knott

The trend of writers continuing other author's work after their death is becoming more and more common. Here, Robert B. Parker's Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are given new life. I haven't actually read any of these books, so oddly my first introduction to Parker's characters is in a book not actually written by Parker.

The story is solid but not exceptional; two lawmen in the old west find themselves in the middle of a train hijacking and of course deliver their own brand of justice. The action is constant and driving, with Cole and Hitch coming off like John McClane and Casey Ryback, victorious in the face of long odds. Heavy dialog (including gems like, "Luck is most often accompanied with knowing what you are doing") and sparse descriptions make this feel more like a movie script rather than a novel; fitting in that the author is also an actor and screenwriter, in fact writing the movie adaption of the first Cole and Hitch novel, Appaloosa. Entertaining but not deep, this is a fun read and a good escape for a couple of hours.

First Sentence:
Virgil was sullen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

See How Small, by Scott Blackwood

See How Small, by Scott Blackwood

This novel is loosely based on the 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders here in Austin. It is very difficult to read, raw and emotional throughout. The rape and murder of three teenagers is graphically described, and truly horrifying. Each chapter is told from the point of view from different people affected by the crime, including the family of the victims, the driver of the getaway car, the addled homeless witness, the firefighter that discovered the bodies, and the ghosts of the girls themselves. Nobody has a happy ending, and there isn't a firm conclusion—paralleling fact the actual murders have remained unsolved. The prose is haunting and powerful, but depressing and uncomfortable at the same time. Not what I'd call a beach read, but well worth your time.

First Sentence:
We have always lived here, though we pretend we've just arrived.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The System, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

I love college football. My wife and I have had season tickets for the Longhorns for over 20 years (although with the introduction of the poorly named Loyalty Program that may not last much longer) and I don't remember the last fall Saturday that wasn't spent watching the battle of the gridiron. The System is about the parts of the game not covered by the box scores, though: the boosters, the politics, the crime, and of course, the money.

Benedict and Keteyian don't have a single narrative, but instead structured the book like a series of essays. The exception to this is the tale of Mike Leach, from his decision to ignore his law degree in order to pursue football, to being the head coach of Texas Tech, to the idiocy of Craig James and his son causing Leach to lose that position, to his resurfacing as the leader of Washington State. (I always liked Leach and thought he was a great addition to the Big XII, even if his Red Raiders did stop the Longhorns from going to the National Championship in 2008.) Other chapters covered Don King, who ran the Yellow Rose strip club in Austin and offered VIP service to athletes (saying "I've done more for recruiting at UT than Mack Brown"), 17 year old Jane Brown at BYU who was raped by freshman football players (who were so new to campus they actually hadn't yet played in a game), the NCAA itself and its epic bungling of the Miami booster case, and essays titled "Crime and Punishment" (subtitled "SEC leads the nation") and "Gameday" ("The genius of ESPN").

The System provides a look at a variety of issues in college football, but doesn't attempt to provide any solutions. Challenges to the status quo like the Kessler antitrust suit, unionization, player stipends, and students rights to their own image aren't mentioned at all. This lack of detail and analysis keeps this book from being a true exposé, but it is still a great primer for the aspects of the sport not seen on College Gameday.

First Sentence:
On Saturday afternoons in the fall of 1981 the roar of the crowd would echo across campus every time BYU scored a touchdown.

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.

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